Who Jesus Was and Why it Matters|
My image of who Jesus was and why he matters is the center point of my Christian faith. Many Christians say the same thing using different kinds of language. My first sentence is a progressive translation of such sentences as: "I have been born again in Jesus Christ," or "I claim Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour," or "I believe Jesus is the light of the world," or "I understand Jesus Christ to be the center and meaning of history." Please note that all of the above sentences are testimonial statements, not declarative statements. If I wrote a declarative sentence then I would have to spend a lot of words defending it. I prefer to share my understanding and then to welcome constructive dialogue.
This piece is not an attempt to contribute to the secular project of discovering the historical Jesus. I am thankful for some of the contributions of such scholarship but my goal is to share something that is precious to me. I claim Jesus as my Christ, my Saviour, my Messiah. I am headed toward salvation for myself, a shared salvation with those who walk common and related paths, and welcoming room for all who would join us. I mean salvation from sin and the effects of sin; salvation from anonymity, anomie, and alienation; salvation from hopelessness, meaninglessness, and negativity. I am saved for transformation toward a life of loving, thankfulness, serving, caring for, justice, mercy, forgiving, investment of my talents and following my call, abundance, stewardship, and sharing in the communion of Seekers Church and communion with saints of all kinds, whatever their languages and perspectives. Since I am willing to trust God with my life, it is very easy to trust God with my death without worrying about the mystery, without having to know more than I can know as a creature.
I have added and end note(1) about my grounding for writing this piece and there confess all the limits that I have identified so far. In the mean time, I encourage readers to do their own thinking and to approach my witness with appropriate caution. For this piece I want to start by moving directly toward the heart of my concern, instead of first sharing my limitations and justifications. It is Jesus that matters, not me. I am just one more Christian doing the best I can.
Who is Jesus
We know so little about Jesus, but it is enough for salvation. Salvation is not an intellectual achievement. What we know of Jesus is enough to point us toward, to help us appreciate, the living presence of God (the aspect of God called Holy Spirit) in our lives. The truths that matter the most are not speculative, not objectively provable, but are grounded in experience, truths that one lives into, truths that we cannot define but that nonetheless define us. The disciples did not know a lot, were not the scholars of their day, but they got "it." I feel that I have also gotten "it" and I believe you can to.
The best source for getting to know Jesus is the original Gospel of Mark, Mark without the addition of the last part of the last chapter after 16:8a. Mark provides the core story for the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). It is also the most straight-forward Gospel to pick up and read. Mark does not provide the beginning and end stories of Christmas and Easter that were added on by Matthew and Luke. Furthermore, though the writer of Mark has some biases; for example, he didn't like the original disciples very much; for example, he writes a here-and-story that lets us see why the original followers of Jesus followed.
Other important sources for understanding Jesus include two "saying gospels," collections of comments and parables and stories. The best known is "Q," the scholarly name for the sayings found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. The second is the Gospel of Thomas, not in the biblical canon, but containing numerous sayings found in Q, but in different, usually simpler, form. At least parts of the Gospel of Thomas were written as early as the synoptic Gospels. The materials distinct to Matthew and Luke are also of value.
The variations among Matthew, Mark, and Luke in presenting common materials are valuable for helping us understand the context and points of view that help us understand how the early church struggled with their memories of the stories of Jesus. My perspective is that the gospel of John, the writing of Paul, and the numerous other non-canonical gospels, tell us little about Jesus but tell us a lot about how the early church found saving meaning in their memories of Jesus.
This piece begins with my best effort to summarize the important things we can know about Jesus. With that in hand we can have a grounding for figuring out how the kerygma was engaged by his followers. (Kerygma is the saving truth of Jesus: his teaching, his healing, his leadership, his life.) In contrast to Mark, I try not to be dismissive of followers of Jesus. After all, this writing effort aims at responding to Jesus as we can know him just as the disciples were responding to Jesus as they could know him. We are indebted to his followers but we are more indebted to Jesus.
The story I am most interested in is what Jesus said and did with his followers, basically the story that Mark told. I regard the Christmas and Easter stories found in Matthew and Luke as stories that show us something of the faith response of his followers and interpreters; stories that point to meanings in their memories of Jesus.
I think the most important thing we can know about Jesus is that Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist. Jesus emerged into his own ministry when John was put in prison. First of all, he preached the same message as John, "Repent, for the empire of God is at hand." I hear this message as a message of "here and now," an empire realized within the relationships of Jesus and his disciples, a radical transformation of relationships that the disciples experienced as precious beyond measure, a transformation that allowed them to live with joy in the midst of oppression. "Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is revealed to us in Jesus as our Christ." (Romans 8:38-39)
There is no story of Jesus baptizing people. But since it was a ritual practice of Peter and other disciples, it seems safe to assume that Jesus, who was baptized by John, deeply valued the core message of baptism. If you repent (turn) you can be permanently forgiven by God. Christians made baptism the core ritual to membership in their "tribe," replacing the Jewish practice of circumcision and also replacing he ritual of animal sacrifice and other offerings to propitiate the anger of God.
Baptism, in addition to being a ritual of salvation and a ritual of entrance into the Christian tribe, announces the end to a centuries long path of faith, propagated by Hebrew prophets and priests, that the woes of the people Israel were the result of sins that displeased God and, in turn, led to punishment by God. This is a huge spiritual change of direction with multiple implications.
One of the implications was a huge political change of direction. Baptism freed Jews from a spiritual dependence on the temple in Jerusalem. The temple complex was huge and included what was then the largest building in the world. The temple, with its courts, was the center of being a distinct people within the overall empire of Rome. To declare freedom from the temple was to become independent of Herod and the temple priests who were the core of the puppet government that owed its allegiance to Rome.
A third thing we know about Jesus was that he was an ecstatic healer. In some cultures such a healer is called a "Shaman." Contemporary Western medicine is finally becoming more appreciative of the healing potentials of "right orientation." There are many books lurking in this recognition, long traditions of pastoral counseling and faith healing that carried such truth even when the medical professions were more mechanistic in their understandings, more hostile to the implications of faith. In first century theology, the healing works of Jesus, which Jesus named as the result of faith in God, demonstrates in powerful and immediate terms that the Creator and the Redeemer are more powerful than spirits or demons. This is another important "here and now" contribution that freed the followers of Jesus from distracting magic to a focus on what God was doing among them.
A fourth thing that Jesus did was to close out the long tradition of Jewish apocalypticism. By emphasizing that salvation is immediately available he redirected his followers from waiting for the future toward gathering one's life around what is precious in the common life, to what is possible in the world. Whatever Jesus thought or said about the Jewish apocalyptic stories, the radical impact of salvation was here-and-now, not there-and-then. Christian apocalypticism came later as a faith response of some followers who were devastated by the ugly and early death of Jesus. It propped up a faith that was less confident, less generative, without Jesus himself around to provide leadership.
The fifth thing, a thing most evident in the Gospel of Mark, is that Jesus was a charismatic leader. People flocked to Jesus, and some gave up everything to follow Jesus, because he touched their hearts in a deep way, a way beyond words. This "way" is important and one of the first names for the Jesus group was "Followers of The Way."
I understand charisma in the way that Max Weber understands charisma. People form a deep bond to a charismatic leader because he offers something precious to them at a point of great need, a need that is largely unconscious but still central. Being unconscious, it is hard to articulate. In short, people responded deeply to Jesus without first reaching an intellectual understanding of Jesus, without putting Jesus in his place, or rather in our visions of his place. The Jesus we know through Mark says that precious something is forgiveness. I would add that I believe Jesus understood that such forgiveness flowed from love rather than an act of will. The experience of being loved, deeply loved, is available today. We can point to it with words, but my experience, echoed in the testimony of countless others, is that the experience of love is beyond words. Jesus didn't just talk about love and forgiveness, he lived it out.
A sixth key thing to remember is that the impact of Jesus was shared in oral stories for a generation or more before the gospels were written. There are many implications of this for scholarship about Jesus. Here, I merely want to emphasize that whatever was most important about Jesus could be told in a story. The key revelations of Jesus were revelations before written theology, beyond written rules, etc. The scripture of that day and time for the followers of Jesus was Hebrew scripture, particularly Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
To understand the context of the ministry of Jesus is to understand the Judaism of that day. But we dare not think of the Judaism of that day as tribal and ingrown. Jerusalem was a meeting place between Judaism and Rome, and the archeological discovery of Sepphoris, a Roman town close to Nazareth, tells us that Jesus grew up with exposure to some kinds of Greek and Roman thought. As Crossan(2) reminds us, there were itinerant Roman philosophers wandering the roads and towns just as Jesus, and then his disciples, wandered the roads and towns. Many a book lurks there as well.
Finally, however it actually happened, we know that Jesus was aware that speaking out was dangerous. John the Baptist was beheaded. Jesus was crucified. Whatever he was saying and doing mattered to Jesus so that he followed his path to his ugly and painful death. He would not compromise the truth he carried. It was worth everything to him. It became worth everything to his disciples.
There is so much more that I would like to know about Jesus, but what we have is enough to live on.
Why Does Jesus Matter
Jesus matters because he opened a path to salvation as it had never been opened before. The path cannot be understood without the context of Judaism and it can't be understood as just an extension of Judaism either. Salvation cannot be understood without appreciating how the disciples carried "The Way" forward, but it cannot be understood by just relying on the perspectives of the followers of Jesus. We have to look back through their eyes and words to Jesus himself, to the kerygma. And it is not enough for salvation to know about the kerygma. It has to tried on, experienced, so that the reality of salvation is incarnated and not just discussed.
The writers wrote it down as best they could. They were not writing history as we think of the professional writing of history today. They were sharing what they had discovered as precious, what they were giving their lives to, what they talked to each other about as they tried to follow "The Way" as they had received it. How can we sort out what came from Jesus and what was the distortions of the writers?
I will address two major linked distortions that came with a post-Jesus theology of atonement and let those comments stand as a model for addressing other distortions as well. Before I begin I want to emphasize that I see no error in the writings of Paul and the writers of the gospels. Each were telling the truth the best they could with the words and reference systems they had, and each was trying to lift up an important concern that arises as people live the way to salvation.
Jesus died an early and ugly death. Crucifixion was a common Roman torture and execution intended not only to kill, but also to intimidate the audience, to diminish and embarrass the victim. Thirty plus years after the death of Jesus the Romans destroyed the temple and much of Jerusalem and did a thorough professional Roman job of genocide. Thereafter the diaspora of Christians mingled with the historic and larger diaspora of the Jews.
After Jesus was crucified, and again after the genocide of Jerusalem, the followers of Jesus must have felt that "all is lost." Not only were Jesus and many Christian leaders dead, there was a lot of tension between diaspora Christians and diaspora Jews. Finally Christians were expelled from at least some synagogues and had to make their own way. Surprisingly they thrived. The Jesus stories held their power and attractiveness. It is hardly surprising that the stories were embellished to deal with the horrible losses.
Of all the losses, the most critical spiritual loss was the hope that Jesus was the expected Messiah, the restorer of the Davidic political dynasty or the fulfillment of Jewish apocalyptic hopes. After the genocide of Jerusalem the hope for a political restoration finished dieing. Still, the early Christians, before they had even claimed the new name, knew that Jesus was important and that the stories they carried were precious. Something had to be said that pointed to how big and how special their experience was. For the disciples their core world view had shifted. The core spiritual and social revolution had occurred. Life was just different.
With this perspective it is not hard to see how they turned to a theology of atonement, how they emphasized apocalyptic themes, and then how they later turned to salvation as a path to heaven after we die. Though I write as a progressive Christian, I honor the original orthodox transitions. Though my watchword is Christianity before orthodoxy, I see progressive Christianity as carrying forward the kerygma of Jesus and appreciate orthodoxy as a major bridge to carry that story forward within the conceptual options that were then available.
The atonement story is most prominent in Paul and the Gospel of John, but it is all over the New Testament. In the atonement story the key to understanding Jesus is that he was the "Lamb of God," the ultimate sacrifice that propitiates God forever. The story is not merely the story of a sacrifice of a human life; not merely a story of commitment, vision, courage, and self-sacrifice; but a story of God sacrificing God's self for the sake of the people God loves, and ultimately for all people. Like baptism, atonement carries the truth of God's love, freely given and not earned, and the recognition that claiming such love, turning to a life based on such love, is of enormous importance for individuals and for the community (church) they can create together.
The atonement story was readily understandable because the centuries long Jewish story of propitiating the wrath of God because of our sins, and for the sins of our ancestors. It was a theology that helped Paul to name and claim his experience of the risen Christ, the presence of God that changed everything for him, a way for Paul to talk about his experience to others. Jesus may be dead but the promised "Comforter" is still alive and well, still readily available. As Martin Luther King put it, "Truth crushed to earth shall rise again." In these ways the atonement story carries forward the kerygma of Jesus.
Still, the atonement stony introduces several distortions of the kerygma, several misdirections for living. Most importantly it makes the earthly Jesus a mere actor in a heavenly drama. It encourages faith in Jesus more than following Jesus. In atonement theology, since the critical work was all done by Jesus, what is left for the rest of us is hanging on until something changes. Jesus wanted us to follow him by incarnating the change as best we are able.
Two flavors of expected change were in the air. The first was the expected last days of Jewish apocalypticism. A new dramatic action by God, a new creation on the Earth, was expected and then painfully released by many Christians, while other Christians to this day still focus their faith on waiting for some new creation. Such speculation carries hope and names the truth that, despite all appearances, God is still in charge of the world and we are not abandoned, not forsaken because of our sins. A common sub-theme of apocalypticism is revenge: all the bad people who seem to have triumphed will be punished by God in the end while the faithful few will be spared and welcomed into God's presence to enjoy God forever. This is one of several places where revenge and anger, rather than forgiveness, have been sustained in the "under-belly" of Christianity. Such revenge and anger has led, among other things, to many horrible persecutions of Jews, as well as to other persecutions that have created such a bad oder for Christendom.
In the apocalyptic story Jesus becomes the apocalyptic version of a messiah. In the gospel of John, Jesus is the "Cosmic Christ" and little of the Jewish Jesus of Mark shines through. Despite Matthew's best efforts to argue that Jesus was the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectation, most Jews were not buying. For the Jews the arguments of Matthew seemed lame and I agree with them. Jesus is my Messiah, the Christian Messiah, because he points the way to engaging and appreciating the Divine Presence of God, the Holy Spirit.
My biggest problem with eschatological formulations of Jesus is that it directs attention away from the core of the saving power of Jesus, directs attention away from an appreciation of the present Holy Spirit that can make us healthy and redirect our lives. Here-and-now becomes there-and-then. Apocalypticism directs us to our complaints about injustice and oppression, to the negative implications of our sins and the sins of our ancestors. When we turn to the basic Jesus story we are inspired to bring our individual lives into harmony with others, to create the Christian Community as the embodiment of the living Christ.
Part of claiming the kerygma of Jesus is that we can think of Jesus as an unexpected kind of political messiah, not the restorer of the Davidic dynasty, but of kingship turned on its head as service, stewardship, and democracy. When we return to the basic story of Jesus we rejoin the disciples who understood that the Messiah has already come. No more revolution is needed before we can start living well, before we can experience the abundance of God's presence among us.
After the messianic hope of Paul and others was delayed and delayed, and particularly after the genocide of Jerusalem, messianic hope in the emerging Christian community in diaspora began to morph into the hope of Heaven. Heaven is not so much somewhen else like the apocalyptic vision of a new creation on Earty, but rather somewhere else, with "where" becoming an increasingly magical concept. As Christain theology became married to Greek philosophy, particularly to a Greek theme of the dualism of body and spirit, the speculation about Heaven gathered cultural authentication.
I have the same affirmations of the story of Heaven as I have for apocalypticism, and the same kind of critique of the story of Heaven. The Heaven story makes the story of salvation problematic because it has usually picked up a theme of works righteousness. It tells us we will be rewarded or punished in Heaven for what we do with our lives on Earth. This part of the Heaven story qualifies the total forgiveness story of baptism. In the original Jesus story we are challenged to embrace our forgiveness and respond with joy as to what that makes possible here and now. It is a story of living forward after the revolution rather than waiting for justice and reward after death.
`The theological base of the original Jesus story, themes with origins in Hebrew Scripture, is that creation is good, that despite our sins and short-comings God is ever with us, and that our personal spirituality begins with thanksgiving rather than guilt or fear or anger: thanksgiving for our lives, for the earth and the wider creation we live within, for each other as gifts, as partners, and for what is made possible when we work together to show forth the love of God. To the extent that guilt over our sins and those of our ancestors distracts us from forgiveness, to the extent that fear of God's wrath makes us hesitant to embrace God's grace, to the extent that anger over continuing oppressions depresses our spirits and our willingness to work together for the common good, we lose the vitality of the fundamental Jesus story.
Communion, washing each other's feet, the celebration of Pentecost as the transformative power of the Holy Spirit coming among us to bring ecstasy and community, the celebration of the birth of Jesus as the entry of possibility into the world, the recognition of Easter that the cross is not the last word and that we can discover the presence of Jesus in the presence of the Holy Spirit, are Christian rituals and stories that carry more than these poor words can carry. It is when our hearts are touched, when our rituals help us see how we can love each other even more, that we come to know, in the whole body sense of knowing beyond our words, that Jesus mattered and that Jesus has given us each other.
1. I am not a biblical scholar in the sense that I do not read any biblical language nor have I pursued any scholarly classes beyond college survey courses and seminary introductory courses. Such formal training as I have goes back to the 1950's and 1960's. But I have continued to be an active student of the Bible and have read quite a bit of scholarly work or listened to it on CDs. I have been, and am, a preacher and all my sermons include some serious bible study. I have read the lectionary regularly for years and taught Bible courses in different settings. Whatever my strengths and weaknesses, I urge my readers to take a fresh look at the sources listed, particularly the Gospel of Mark, and judge for yourselves whether my writing holds up. I cannot adequately reference the various scholars who taught me one point or another in this writing, because I mostly don't remember. Paul Tillich and several existentialist certainly played their part. If this piece has value it is because I have put thoughts together in a fresh and hopefully accessible way. I would also point out, for the postmodernists among my readers, that this piece does not appeal to the Bible as privileged discourse. Instead, it points to the constructive power of the Jesus narrative, a "freedom for" in answer to the deconstructionist :freedom from." The Bible is scripture for me because it has led me to precious experience and precious reflection that I am happy to share with you.
2. John Dominic Crossan, "The Historical Jesus," San Francisco: Harper, 1991, pp. 72-88.