Jesus seems to be someone on whom people have to take a view. Christians are obviously his followers, but Muslims claim him as a prophet. Jews are more critical, but people of other faiths also take a view on him. We hear of Christian Wicca, and there are Hindus who see him as an incarnation of a deity. Generally pagans are respectful of him. Others try to conscript him to their political cause: he was, they claim, a socialist or a pacifist. Mrs Thatcher once argued that the parable of the Good Samaritan was a sign of his support for free enterprise capitalism, as the Samaritan took the injured man to a hotel [privately owned!] Liberal Christians try to recast him as a liberal intellectual teacher of wisdom. We can take Jesus on his terms, or we can try to take him on ours.Only the first of these courses is a path to wisdom.
Who was Jesus
To understand Jesus you must realize that he was a mystery that theology tries to explain with varying degrees of success.
The Mystery of Jesus.
Jesus taught no Theology. In fact, he never seems to have done any Theology at all. He erupts into history sometime in his early thirties. Before that age we have only speculation, and he lasted for a few years, exercising a brief, high impact ministry, before his cruel murder and the strange events that followed. Christians believe that in him we find the only man who has passed through death and come out on the other side, resurrected into new life, not through his own power, but through the power of God on whom his life was centred.
What we can see of Jesus indicates that rather than teach theology he walked among humans, challenging evil in all its forms. He healed the sick and expelled evil spirits. He encouraged people to forgive and restore relationships. His teaching did not challenge the law, but reveal its true interpretation as the expression of love for God and others, and barriers and impediments to love, such as excessive wealth, hypocrisy and love of status he tried to throw down. He had a powerful vision of a new world order in which people loved God and each other, free of attachment to material possessions. To express this new vision he began gathering a community of followers round him, about a hundred and twenty strong in his life. But the authorities were not impressed by the challenge that he posed to power, wealth and status, and the inevitable result followed. What happened then was that his followers encountered him after his death. They were aware of his ongoing presence among them, and so the Jesus movement continued
Of critical importance is the realization that for those who encountered him Jesus was a mystery. He was strange and challenging, he evoked questions that demanded answers but which did not come easily. But the mystery is inseparable from his powerful, charismatic presence. Bornkamm claims that he was someone who possessed innate authority. For others he had a powerful charisma or presence about him. He spoke words that had an impact. Take an example. In Luke 24 two disciples met the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Initially they did not recognize him, but after he has been disclosed to them their comment was "Did not our hearts burn within us when he explained the Scriptures to us." This ability to inspire seems to have been one of his characteristics. Let's look at another, the healing of the paralysed man in Mark 2. Jesus without having met the man knows the source of his illness [probably hysterical paralysis due to guilt feelings] and simply says "Your sins are forgiven" In his depths the man knows that God has forgiven him and then Jesus tells him to get up and walk. Knowledge and the power to touch a human in his innermost depths! In the healing of Jairus daughter in Mark 5 he knows before meeting the girl that she is not dead, but sleeping, but he calls into the depths of her clinical death/coma and his voice is effective in raising her. Strange;authoritative;charismatic.
A Challenge to Religious Models.
Those encountering Jesus began to draw on well-established titles to explain the challenge and the mystery of his personality. Some classed him as a prophet, as he resembled the ancient prophets in so far as he spoke for God and called people back to His will. Yet others speculated that he was the messiah [Christ], but the explanation was complicated by the fact that Jews differed in their understanding of what the messiah would be. Would he be a Davidic king to expel Rome, a prophet or a priest who would make the perfect sacrifice? Many Jews thought that there would be two or three messiahs drawn from these three categories.
Jesus often referred to himself as the Son of Man, but this was a mysterious figure found in the book of Daniel, one sent from God to effect his judgment at the key point in history. That he called himself the Son of Man is evidenced by the fact that the church retained this description in the gospels, even though they never developed a theology around it, so it is in the gospels a theological anachronism that cannot have arisen in the post-resurrection church. Jesus also spoke of destroying the temple and building it in three days, but this was later seen as referring to the temple that was his body. In effect, as the temple was the seat of God's presence on earth, Jesus was saying that in him God's presence was manifest among his people. Furthermore, he was speaking of God as his Father. This was a little odd for a Jew, but not blasphemous, as the term could be used metaphorically.
None of the titles that people applied to Jesus indicated that he was divine. Son of God could mean any holy person. Son of Man indicated a heavenly being but not the deity. Messiah/Christ did not denote divinity. None of these titles,therefore, merited an an accusation of blasphemy.
I am going to make the suggestion that meeting Jesus was a religious experience. Martin Buber, a Jewish thinker writing in I and Thou, said that religious experience involves a sense of power/presence. Applying Buber's ideas I suggest that in meeting Jesus people had the sense of being in a special kind of presence. Pilate seems to have noted it. A Roman official does not dialogue with a prisoner, especially not a ruler as ruthless and brutal as Pilate was, but we find a dialogue going on, and Pilate seeming to become more and more unsettled until he crumbled to the religious authorities out of fear. The traditional Jewish titles were being applied in a new religious situation, and in doing so they became transformed.
The Moment of Transformation
The critical moment came before Caiaphas, the high priest who tried Jesus. What Jesus said changed the accusation from the treason to Rome to a religious crime meriting death. Claiming to be messiah was treason, but blasphemy was a different matter. For Jews blasphemy was a crime, but for Romans injuries to the gods were business of the gods. They could sort themselves out.
"Are you the Christ [messiah] the Son of the Living God?" demanded the high priest.
"I am. And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power and coming on the clouds of heaven." Jesus replied.
This was the moment when the penny dropped and Jesus' understanding of who he was became clear to the authorities. I am [Yah] is the root of Yahweh [misread as Jehovah] the divine name. Jews uttered it very carefully, and Jesus used it of himself! In conjunction with a positive response to the question are you son of God Jesus' response indicated that he saw his sonship in a more than metaphorical way, and that he somehow he stemmed from God. Added to this was Son of Man, a heavenly being! Sitting at the king's right hand meant some kind of parity, and coming on the clouds of heaven was a traditional vision of God's arrival in Israel at the Day of Judgment, so all in all the titles when uttered together had a massive impact. Jesus was claiming to be in some sense related to God in a way that other human beings were not, someone special.
The traditional titles when spoken together were transformed to reveal a new religious situation, a new kind of religious experience. Their implication was that the divine presence was in Israel in the person of Christ. This was either a wonderful disclosure, the words of a madman or a monstrous blasphemy. The words got Jesus executed.
What Think You of Christ?
The events of the next few days transformed everything. The tomb was found empty, and certainly the women who discovered it thought that the body had been stolen. But then the visionary experiences began. The gospels do not present a coherent account of the appearances of the risen Lord, for as Cardinal Kaspar says in his detailed tome on Jesus of Nazareth, the resurrection kerygma, preaching, was earlier than the resurrection stories. The stories were compiled later and have some inconsistencies of time in them. and the editorial process has re-arranged time and place.
But the church was adamant: Jesus had risen from the dead and the apostles were the witnesses of this fact. The significance of the resurrection was that while Jesus had been sentenced to death for blasphemy, God, the ultimate court of appeal, had cancelled the sentence and reversed the punishment. Thus Jesus' claims before Caiaphas were approved by none other than God himself. This is the core of the orthodox Christian faith.
Yet the issues were not resolved. For the first four centuries the question that was discussed between Christians was "What think you of Christ?" Paul formulated his opinions and they so well expressed the Christian experience that they became widely accepted. A number of so-called liberal Christian thinkers claim that Paul invented Christianity. He did not, as he joined an already existing community which had its own faith, but he did co-invent Christian theology, along with the writer of John's Gospel.
The central issue was to formulate a philosophically coherent doctrine that was faithful to the religious experience of the church. The doctrines of the church which declared Jesus the Son of God and the Second Person of the Trinity, and indeed the doctrine of the Trinity itself were formulated during the first four hundred and fifty years or so of the church's existence. They are not found in Scripture, but they grow out of Scripture as they are scripturally based and are ways in which the church reflects on its own faith expressed in the teachings of the Bible.
Of critical importance is the discussion of the significance of events in Jesus' life. The great one is the cross. Christians had to come to terms with the significance of the cross. One hanged from a tree was cursed and forever excluded from the community of Israel, which is why the chief priests wanted crucifixion for Jesus, but the apostles asserted that God had reversed the sentence and that the ultimate punishment had become the ultimate redemptive sacrifice. The sacred king, to speak in mythological terms, had been sacrificed for his people. Thus Jesus was seen as not only Son,teacher and prophet, but also sacrifice and high priest.
The significance of the resurrection cannot be understated. Jesus was not seen as having risen then disappearing off to heaven. He was believed to be still present at the heart of his community through the Holy Spirit. Thus for Christians the church is not merely a human community, but a sacred reality with Jesus' presence at its heart. The Eucharist is the symbolic, sacramental expression of this belief.
Christian doctrine does not solve the mystery of Christ, it merely forms a guide into the mystery. I have tried to express the church's faith, but it is inevitable that my efforts will fall short of the mystery that they try to express. Theology is doomed to inadequacy. When teaching Religious Studies I have said to children that religion is a long road with a distant light at the end. You get onto the road by asking questions and are driven forward by questioning. The great error is to cease questioning. Proceed thoughtfully.
Picture at the top by Stuart
Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict the Sixteenth
Gospel Truth, Russel Shorto, Hodder and Stoughton
Jesus of Nazareth, Bornkamn, Hodder and Stoughton
The Meaning of Jesus, Borg and Wright, SPCK