In anticipation of Christmas, Life magazine's December issue asks "Who Was Jesus?" and in reply offers the views of scholars, clergy and skeptics, some of which are reprinted below.
Because children traditionally are central to the holiday, this column also includes the thoughts of four residents of Chicago's Mercy Home for Boys & Girls - Justin Roa, 12; Brian Ultsch, 13; Sean Davis, 14; and Luis Chavez, 15.The Rev. Michael Horton, evangelical minister: "The whole Christian faith rests on a scheme of redemption. It's not about men and women climbing up to God, it's about God descending to save a rebel race. God appeared in the flesh, coming down to us, because we had proved we couldn't save ourselves."
Luis Chavez: "Because of the way my life used to be, I'm happy I made another Christmas. I lived a messed-up life. Like, in gangs and everything. A lot of times I thought I wasn't going to make it, and I'd pray, `Get me out of this. Help me.' And, like, `If I don't make it, just make sure that my friends, family or whoever you love will be safe and everything.' Once I was beat up by 10 guys. My arm was broken. I'ved been shot at, but luckily not hit. So, I mean, I'm thankful to be alive."
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies, George Washington University: "Muslims see him as the greatest prophet before the prophet of Islam. He is the prophet of inward spiritual life."
Brian Ultsch: "Jesus is a leader. We pray to make our wishes come true, to ask him to help us."
Kevin R. O'Neil, Buddhist monk: "The value, for a Buddhist, comes not from proving whether he did exist. His significance lies in the lessons of the Jesus story. The scholar in me keeps going back to wondering if he existed, but as a Buddhist, I say: Values are more important than flesh-and-blood facts. If people say he existed, then he existed, because the lessons of the life that we are told about are important indeed."
Sean Davis: "One story I remember about Jesus is a couple of guys went, like, fishing. They couldn't catch no fish. Then he came, and he said put your nets into the water here, and they started saying we still ain't going to catch no fish. And he was just, like, `Put'em in the water,' and all of a sudden - fish! Enough to fill up everybody in the town, and fish left over. It's like he has the answers to everything."
John Dominic Crossan, professor of biblical studies, De Paul University: "Suppose a minister decided to leave his parish and live on the street with the homeless. Even though he's obviously going to be very sore, hungry and cold, he's not doing it out of asceticism. It's being done out of what I would call ethical radicalism. He's making a statement that to live in a society that creates such homelessness is evil. He opts to be with the innocent, as a witness against society. In an unjust society only the oppressed are innocent."
Luis Chavez: "If Jesus was around today, he'd probably say this world was messed up. He'd probably try to change everything, to make the world better."
Jaroslav Pelikan, professor of history, Yale University: "There was a great teacher, and gathered around him was a small group of faithful followers. They listened to his message and were transformed by it. But the message alienated the power structure of his time, which finally put him to death but did not succeed in eradicating his message, which is stronger now than ever. That description could apply equally to Jesus and Socrates. But nobody's ever built a cathedral in honor of Socrates. Socrates called upon people to think straight, but with Jesus there's more than just `teaching,' there's a transcendent dimension, beyond the here and now, as a source of hope and meaning."
Justin Roa: "There was one lady. She was, like, a prostitue. They all wanted to kill her. And he just said the one of you who didn't sin, you can throw the first stone. They wanted to beat her with stones or something. Nobody threw any stones. The message is nobody's perfect."
Susan Haskins, author of "Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor": "He was a feminist. He cured ill women, allowed them to become people who related his truths, forgave a repentant prostitute, allowed her to touch him. Women gave their money to support him. Mary Magdalen was the first witness to the Resurrection - what's more important than that, in Christianity? She was apostle to the apostles, told by Christ to go tell them he had risen. There should be a role for women to preach and teach today - a role too often denied."