Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jesus, we hardly knew ye

One of the more ironic stories of the Bible (and the Bible has lots of irony) was in this past Sunday’s lectionary reading from Mark. In it Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” It seems like such a modern question, echoing our constant concern for appearance and others’ opinion of us.

After hearing various responses, Jesus then puts the question directly to his disciples and Peter makes his famous declaration, “You are the messiah.” The story is oddly ambiguous, however. In Mark’s version (the earliest of the gospels), Jesus responds by telling the disciples to say nothing about this. (He does not, actually, even affirm Peter’s verdict.) Luke pretty much copies Mark. Matthew, however, puts a ringing endorsement of Peter on Jesus’ lips, saying that Peter did not figure this out on his own but it was a revelation from God himself.

Who was/is Jesus? The confusion is present right from the start, as the gospel writers clearly realized. This truth is now readily acknowledged by biblical scholars and church historians. Officially, at least, churches try to maintain that Jesus has an essentially singular and consistent identity but it’s a tough stance to defend. It doesn’t take much effort to see that the New Testament is largely a collection of polemical writings arguing with each other, or with opponents off stage, about the nature and meaning of Jesus. It’s hard to imagine how the Jesus of the synoptic gospels and the Jesus of John were inspired by a single person. And the Jesus(es) of the gospels seems virtually unknown to the New Testament’s earliest writer, Paul.

Moving from the biblical period into the first centuries of the church, the divisions became deeper and more numerous. When the empire decided Christianity would be the new glue to hold itself together, it demanded that the church acquire a more unified doctrine and self-understanding. The result was a series of majority-vote decisions by assembled bishops. Many of the meetings were highly contentious and sizable dissenting minorities left unpersuaded that their viewpoints were in error. They tended to be concentrated in the Near East and North Africa, and subsequent persecutions and heavy-handed attempts at enforcing doctrinal unity left them demoralized and ripe for the Islamic tidal wave that swept in a short time later.


The official Jesus promoted by the church is Jesus the Savior, Lord of Heaven and Earth. This Jesus arrives like Superman from a world beyond to fight the forces of evil and rescue humans of good will. The comparisons were hardly hidden in the movies starring the late Christopher Reeve. The story line included his mysterious arrival as an infant, a god-like father (played by Marlon Brando who keeps speaking to him sotto voce), adoptive human parents, battles with evil, frequent experiences of being misunderstood and rejected, and even death and resurrection with a return to his heavenly home planet in between.

The movies demonstrate what Jesus as Savior has become: a cartoon figure or matinee hero. Jesus has even been turned into a toy action figure, alongside G.I. Joe. And for adults, heilsgeschichte, the church’s dramatic story of salvation, has become farce. For this is the only thing you can do with a character and a story that have become irrelevant or, to say the same thing, boring.

Who was Jesus? That, of course, is the modern question, for it asks not about an object of faith but a person of history. After two centuries of study and analysis, the main thing to say is that we know a whole lot less about him than we thought we did. There is simply not much evidence to draw from. It is now doubted that any of the New Testament writers ever actually knew him. Jesus himself left no written record. And being the obscure Galilean the gospels admit him to be, it’s totally unsurprising that there is no contemporary corroboration of his existence. Nor is it surprising, then, that some scholars now argue that Jesus, in fact, did not actually exist. Or that others say he is a composite of ancient characters, real and mythical. Or that there are those who, while not convinced of this, nonetheless concede the possibility.

Who is Jesus in the biblical record? Here the problem is not lack of material but, as biblical scholar Robert Price demonstrates in Deconstructing Jesus, an embarrassment of riches. We have too many Jesuses, Price says. As a result, the church and its theologians have been able to spin out new Jesuses like car makers design new models. For most of the church’s life these were Jesuses of proclamation but in the modern era scholars began creating “biographies” of Jesus in trying to create the Jesus of history.

Albert Schweitzer is the one who exposed this charade when he published The Quest of the Historical Jesus in 1906. Why, he asked, did each theologian’s Jesus look so much like, well, that theologian? The answer was that the abundance of Jesus material allowed each of them to pick what they liked and produce a character that said and did the things they approved of. The irony is that in his conclusion, Schweitzer confirms his own theory by constructing a Jesus he likes. Not long after, though, he dropped theology to become a doctor and headed off to Africa. In the century since Schweitzer’s book, biblical scholars and theologians have continued trying to assemble a definitive Jesus figure but each time end up only reconfirming Schweitzer’s judgment.

Who was Jesus? Without some dramatic Dead Sea Scrolls type discovery, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we simply will never know. Who was the Jesus of the early church’s proclamation? Studying the New Testament harder will never bring all of its Jesus figures into focus. The ongoing extra-biblical research into the early church and the religious life of the ancient world is making Jesus only murkier. Or, more positively, it is revealing a far greater diversity of understandings of Jesus than had ever been imagined.

Rather than seeing all this as a problem, however, there is actually a great opportunity here. Unfortunately, Jesus as savior is rapidly becoming the only Jesus many know. It is, of course, the Jesus promoted by evangelicalism but it is also still clung to by virtually all of the more moderate churches, as well. However much these churches might deny it, they still see Jesus as their meal ticket. He and the salvation he has to give are the candy to get people into their pews. Even as the diminished power of such an image becomes obvious, churches are reluctant to let it go since it’s all they’ve known.

Yet that is what they need to do. The obvious question for Jesus the savior has become unanswerable for modern people: Saved from what, for what? The stick of hell is no longer taken seriously and the carrot of heaven has become a distant blur. As modern study has demonstrated, however, Jesus is a much richer and more complex figure than this. Yet Jesus the savior crowds all this out and takes over any room he enters.

So, as the late Robert Funk says in Honest to Jesus,it’s time to give Jesus a demotion. “He deserves it.” It’s time to get Jesus out of heaven and off his throne. The universe doesn’t need a lord, king or savior. As his earthly representative and embassy, the church may feel suddenly irrelevant. Too bad. If it has a role, it can only be to tell the story of the Jesus who had no place to lay his head, who travelled not on angels’ wings but by foot or on a donkey, who sought no political power but died like a criminal, a victim of injustice.

In short, Jesus needs to be rediscovered as the compassionate, inspiring, challenging, and infuriating character the gospels present him to be. A human Jesus still has something to say to our now distant world. A Jesus reigning in heaven is only of interest to religious and art historians. Only by keeping Jesus in the past can he be of any value to us in the present.

6 comments:

Carl said...

It is amazing how you try to construct such ambiguity on such an obvious question as who Jesus is as portrayed in the synoptic gospels and who authored them and their relation to the Jesus of Paul's epistles.

Your account of Peter's confession in Mark's gospel is particularly disingenuous, if not right out dishonest. Jesus' instruction to his disciples not to tell anyone, which you mentioned, is immediately followed by a prophecy of his passion week and his resurrection (8:31ff), and Jesus' blatant self-identification as the "Son of Man" in verses 31, 38, and 9:12(an obvious reference to Daniel 7:13 of the 'Son of man').
32) One might also add that this is followed by Mark's account of the transfiguration in which a voice "came out of a cloud" saying "This is My beloved Son, listen to Him". One might furthermore add that when questioned by the high priest, Jesus himself confessed to being "the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One." (14:61-62) It is patently evident, even to school children that there is no ambiguity as to Jesus' identity in Mark.

Doug said...

Thanks for commenting Carl. Sorry if I hit a nerve but I do think you misunderstood me, at least a little. I don't dispute that the author of Mark believed Jesus to be the messiah. I don't think, however, that "messiah" was an unambigous term, even among Christians. It is certainly used in a variety of ways in the Old Testament (the Persian king Cyrus the Great is called Israel's messiah) and that continued to be true among Jews to the present day.

In any case, I do think Mark is responding to differences of opinion within the church of his time about Jesus' nature and identity and, of course, he had his own beliefs about that. Mark calls Jesus the son of God literally in the book's first verse (probably intended to be its title) and he's called that by the centurian at the end.

But like messiah, neither son of God (a term also used by gentiles) or son of man were titles with fixed meanings. Israel's kings were called sons of God, as were Rome's emperors. Son of man has apocalyptic overtones in Daniel but also was used to emphasize one's humanity (in a kind of mixing of first and third persons).

Finally, I would say that the "hidden messiah" motif of the synoptic gospels is nearly universally recognized by NT scholars, though its meaning is subject to much debate. (In John, of course, Jesus is much more forthright.) Throughout these gospels Jesus seems reluctant to have his identity or mission pinned down. I think this accurately reflects the divisions within the church as to Jesus' identity, a situation each of the gospels is trying to clarify in their own way.

Carl said...

I hope that I have misunderstood you, Doug. But I suspect not:

1. To the Jews of the Old Testament, the messiah of course had different connotations to them (e.g. a political or military deliverer), which is certainly one of the reasons that Jesus was betrayed and handed over to the Romans (See end of John 12). But as Jesus says in all the synoptics, God had hardened their hearts and blinded their eyes (Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8). Their opinion on what the true connotations of messiah are irrelevant.

2. Of course to be the anointed had the connotation of being King and even a high priest (both of which are a part of Jesus' identity, that he embraced and proclaimed in the gospel accounts.) Likewise for Son of God.

3. As for Son of Man, any doubt about the usage of that term should be dispelled after his confession to the high priest that He is "the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One." Indeed, immediately following, in verse 62, he quotes Daniel 7:13, saying "and you shall see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER, and COMING WITH THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN." Any reference to his humanity is also appropriate, since he is also fully human in the gospel accounts.

4. You are right that Jesus was careful about to whom he proclaimed his identity and his mission, but they are clear in all of the synoptics and John certainly illuminates why that was the case (his hour had not yet come, an hour which he predicted in all three synoptics on multiple occasions?). Any ambiguity in the synoptics actually reflects the fact that even though Jesus had been blunt with them, they lacked understanding until they had received the Holy Spirit. Any divisions in the Church would be better explained by the fact that they have subjected the gospels, and the rest of scripture to their own interpretations, rather than the converse.

Doug said...

Any divisions in the Church would be better explained by the fact that they have subjected the gospels, and the rest of scripture to their own interpretations, rather than the converse.

This, I suspect, is the crux of our difference. The gospels are products of the church and reflect the various beliefs that existed in the places and at the times they each were written. More viewpoints can be seen in the noncanonical gospels and a host of other writings from the early church period. The church created the gospels and rest of the NT so it can continue to judge and interpret them.

In my view (as I wrote) this isn't a problem but has been Christianity's strength. We need to recognize that, regardless of whatever decisions were made in the 4th c., there were different understandings of Jesus before orthodoxy was established and there have continued to be since. Orthodoxy's attempt to mandate an "official" Jesus (backed up by Constantine) was a disaster then (resulting in a loss of 1/3 of Christianity to Islam) and has plagued the church ever since. Doctrinal rigidity is great for those in power but it saps the life and energy out of everyone else. The church's understanding of Jesus was fluid from the start and needs to continue to be so today if its going to have any relevance for the lives of real people.

Carl said...

This, I suspect, is the crux of our difference. The gospels are products of the church and reflect the various beliefs that existed in the places and at the times they each were written. More viewpoints can be seen in the noncanonical gospels and a host of other writings from the early church period. The church created the gospels and rest of the NT so it can continue to judge and interpret them.

That the gospel accounts are "the products of the church" surely has been your thesis, but the crux of our difference here is that you appear to be taking the gospel accounts out of context to give your thesis a ring of credibility.

Contrary to your arguments, there is no evidence for that proposition and the Church has never been the authority over the canon of scripture. Nor did such decisions take place in the 4 c.. But if the New Testament is inspired by God, which you deny of course, the Church would only be able to recognize scripture. There is actually evidence, that you fail to mention, that a cannon had been firmly settled on quite early, in the second century, a canon which even many Gnostic heretics themselves did not dispute, although they may have certainly added to it.

Doctrinal rigidity is great for those in power but it saps the life and energy out of everyone else. The church's understanding of Jesus was fluid from the start and needs to continue to be so today if its going to have any relevance for the lives of real people.

On the contrary, if one reads Acts, whose historicity btw is unassailable even amongst scholars and is thought to at one time to have been directly attached to Luke, one gains the impression that the "Church's" understanding of Jesus was fairly clear cut. They knew his identity, his mission and his instructions to his disciples were clear. Making Jesus more 'fluid' is not going to make Jesus more relevant to people. On the contrary, the only thing that is going to be more relevant is the idols they are constructing; the real Jesus will become even more irrelevant.

Doug said...

Well, Carl, I think we've probably reached the end of a productive exchange. These things can go on forever but generally start to generate more heat than light. We've both pretty well staked out our positions and I doubt either of us is going to persuade the other.

A couple last points as response. The gospels really don't have an obvious context, which is what has made interpreting them so difficult. Scholars have made some significant progress in that area but we will probably always be in a fog as to what was really going on in the 1st and early 2nd centuries when they were written.

I don't know why you react so negatively to the idea of the church having "authority over the canon." Where else could the canon have come from? It's true there were book lists very similar to our NT as early as the 2nd c. but the issue was not just what was to be included but also what was excluded. Athanasius' letter of 367 setting out the final orthodox NT canon is probably what resulted in the Egyptian church burying for safe keeping what we now know as the Nag Hammadi library, discovered in 1945. It is a VERY diverse collection and shows that a lot of non-canonical texts were still in use and, we now know, continued to be used in many places. The canon may have been "firmly settled" in the minds of some but cetainly not all. So, yes, the gnostics did add to it, as did others.

As to the historicity of Acts, it certainly is disputed and has been for some time. The most recent example I know of is The Mystery of Acts (2008) by Richard Pervo. His conclusion: "Acts is a beautiful house that readers may happily admire, but it is not a home in which the historian can responsibly live." You are right about the impression Luke wants to give of the church's unitary mission and message. That doesn't mean it was actually the case, however. Indeed, whenever someone is telling you emphatically that something is true you can be pretty sure there is another side to the story. In any case, I doubt Luke knew any of the people in his story. That doesn't mean it's not a good story, though (as Pervo says above).

Finally, the identity of the "real Jesus" is what my post was all about. To repeat, I doubt we will ever know who that was or if the notion even has any meaning. All we have ever had is the Jesus of the church's proclamation, a figure presented in a variety of ways right from the start. Some of those can be found in the canonical NT (and there is quite a variety even there as has been recognized for a couple centuries, at least) and some are found in other writings. Rather than try to pin one figure down as the official Jesus, as the church tried to do with only mixed success, we should continue to mine the ancient sources to present a Jesus that speaks to our world and our needs, adjusting however and whenever necessary. From what we have learned of early church history, we know that it's worked before.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts Carl. Blessings.