Thursday, August 11, 2011

Jesus of History and of Faith

      In order to discuss who Jesus was in history, scholars try to separate the historical Jesus from the Jesus of Christian theology and the church.  This is something of a speculative project since the only substantive historical records were written by church theologians.  Jesus' ontological status as Son of God and savior of the world have been implicit or explicit in their proclamation of the gospel since the morning of the empty tomb. 

These theological assertions are not the material of historical analysis, and they may be true, even if Jesus had no such conception of himself.  An orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation must preserve the humanity of Jesus, and a man with awareness of his status as the Son of God and reconciler of the world to God is not a human being subject to the contingencies of human life as we know it.  At some point even the faithful--or especially the faithful--should try to determine the contours of Jesus' life by historical analysis.  Which acts attributed to him are most characteristic of him?  What did he teach?  What was his sense of mission?  What did he say about himself?  Who did he think he was?  If the kingdom of God is the focus of his proclamation and the rationale for much of what he did, how did he understand the kingdom?  What is it?

      Matthew's Sermon on the Mount--or Luke's Sermon on the Plain--contains material that echoes rabbinic Judaism.  Baba Metzia (1) includes discussions meant to probe the depth of the law.  With regard to lost property, he illustrates: "Once, some aged rabbis bought a heap of corn from some soldiers, and they found in it a bundle of denarii, but they returned it to the soldiers, who said, "Blessed be the God of the Jews."  This example is clearly beyond the literal meaning of the law.  Jesus' interpretations were not unique. 

      It is now assumed that Jesus did not say everything attributed to him in the Sermon on the Mount.  Literary license allowed ancient writers to paraphrase in order to convey a portrait of the speaker, but it is reasonable that some semblance of his attitude toward the law and its interpreters is reflected in the teachings found in these discourses.  Jesus' itinerant preaching, his association with John the Baptist, and his life of nonattachment to material goods are consistent with teachings that bestow blessings on the poor and describe God as providentially feeding the birds and clothing the lilies of the field.  Toiling away one's days to secure material necessities and a resultant stature in the community as one of God's elect is incongruent with what we know of Jesus.  He might quip upon reading about the Protestant work ethic in Max Weber, "They didn't get it from me!" 

      Has any other teacher ever directed his message to the alienated and depressed, or to the poor?  Though it would be disputed now, this high valuation of common people seems to be the rationale for inalienable human rights and democratic institutions that have become the cornerstone of social order in Western societies.  In Matthew's gospel, this special concern for the poor might be considered a function of the conflict the Jerusalem church was having with an established, not to say entrenched, religious order.  The conflict had apparently impoverished the community for whom Matthew wrote his gospel.  We get this impression from Paul's monetary collection among the Gentiles for the poor in Judea.  Matthew's gospel also evidences more antipathy toward the Pharisees than Mark.  The Gospel of Matthew seems throughout to be composed to target and expose sanctimonious piety and religious moralism.  The Sermon on the Mount can be read as a rejection of the holiness orientation, although it is debateable how accurate this caricature is with regard to rabbinic Judaism. 

      The sayings in Matthew of the form, "You have heard it said, but I say... ." are more extensive framing of some of Jesus' teaching than is found in the other synoptics.  Matthew accentuates a basic divergence in Jesus' interpretation of the Law with that of the religious rulers.  These kinds of disputes must have occurred for Jesus to find so little support among his compatriots when his movement grew to proportions considered dangerous to the Romans.  Marcus Borg (2) is probably correct in his assertion that Jesus was executed because he was a prominent leader with a large, potentially dangerous following.  He might have destabilized the peace established by the Romans in which the religious elite collaborated to some degree.  There seems to have been no general outcry or formal objection by Jewish authorities at the treatment Jesus received.  He had somehow alienated himself from his countrymen.  If the high priests abetted his demise at the hands of the Romans, it may have been because they feared reprisals should his followers incite rioting or insurrection.  Or, he may have, in fact, been as scandalous to the religious leaders as he appears in Matthew's gospel.

      What did Jesus teach?  Sayings of the form, "You have heard it said, but I say," are often cited to indicate Jesus' concern for higher righteousness.  Higher than what? we wonder.  Higher than a form of religious moralizing that is odiously familiar.  Puritanical holiness seems to qualify as a kind of pseudo-orthodoxy among the fervently religious, if we follow an old definition of orthodoxy as that which is always and everywhere prevalent.  The Pharisees, Augustine's self-congratulatory Confessions, Puritans on both sides of the Atlantic, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Moral Majority, and the Oregon Citizens' Alliance all evidence this disposition.  We can readily find the modern equivalent of the leaven of the Pharisees that characterizes the kind of religious moralism to which Jesus, or at least Matthew, seems to have objected.  A paraphrase of Jesus' call to higher righteousness might go something like this: 

      You have heard it said by pro-lifers and anti-war activists that you shall not kill, but I say, the stereotyping and hate mongering in your fund-raising campaigns is tantamount to murder! 

      You have heard it said that pornography, fornication, and sexual revels are evil, but I say, you are just as guilty.  You preach and publish sanctification.  Do you really want to be holy?  The next time you find yourself watching a pair of long legs, gouge out your eye and throw it on the sidewalk.  If you masturbate with your right hand, cut it off and send it down the garbage disposal.  You've noticed a lot of flamboyant homosexuals parading around lately.  Have you forgotten that half the people in church are divorced and remarried or living together? 

      You wouldn't think of using the kind of language heard in any office lunchroom these days, but do you have the courage to let what you say express the truth?  Is your word, even among your closest friends, anything more than carefully calculated public relations?  Do you tell the truth about biblical inerrancy? 

      You who marched in the antiwar demonstrations of the Vietnam era, who vilify the defense industry.  You have heard it said that you should love your enemies.  Do you love your enemies so much that you will not acknowledge what happened in Vietnam and Cambodia after American forces pulled out?  Lovers of peace and justice, do you humiliate your students with the dogma of deconstructionism?  You demonstrate against evil, real or imagined, with ten thousand others in the street; what credit is that to you?  Where is your resolution when you have to stand alone?  Have you moralists of the left any backbone?  Treat others as God appears to treat you when He gave the gifts of freedom and opportunity to the children of the men who fought for them.

      Do I have to go on with this?  There are hypocrites who love demonstrative worship and praying in restaurants.  Environmentalists who think their dubious scientific pronouncements are worth what their research grants cost.  Don't be like these deadbeats!  Money and politics will not solve the human dilemma.  Have faith that God is working.  Take your life one day at a time and try to do good. 

      Am I putting words in Jesus' mouth?  Was Matthew?  Luke's rendering of the sayings referred to here is abbreviated.  Mark's treatment is more austere.  In Mark there seems to be no Sermon on the Mount or on the Plain, just a few cryptic remarks suggesting self abandonment for the kingdom of God.  In all the synoptics, Jesus sometimes sounds like a hard-core world hater, perhaps a religious fanatic.  His teachings are, at times, very unlike the sayings about the lilies of the field. 

     I get a number of reactions when I give my interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount.  Some people laugh.  There is something humorous about a characterization of Jesus that, in a sense, bites the hand that feeds it.  The church is supposed to be the bride of Christ; how dare I suggest that the Christian Coalition of political activists or armies of family advocates are acting like Pharisees?  But, the bride of Christ, in our time, seems to have become an extremely dowdy housewife. 

Another response I get is the angry assertion that I am doing the very thing I identify as Pharisaical moralism.  Since I have gored sacred cows all over the ideological pasture, it should be no surprise when people come out with pitchforks.  I have begun to insist that I am merely trying to explicate the text.  Of course I have made judgments.  My only defense is that Jesus, whatever else can be said of him, must have been frequently offensive, even scandalous.  He seems not to have consistently practised what he is supposed to have preached, at least not about passing judgment.  I think we can argue Jesus was moral, but not moralistic.  He was against injustice, but aware of how difficult it is to root it out, and he meant to expose hypocrisy in favor of deeper self criticism and awareness of the mechanisms of power at work in all areas of human corporate action.

      From some of the same texts, and others, it can be maintained that Jesus was spiritual, but not sanctimonious.  When Borg says Jesus was a very spiritual man, my alarm bell starts ringing.  Spiritual in what sense?  Did he spend hours each day in contemplation?  Was he a trancendentalist, detached from the world and its atrocities?  An ascetic who despised the world and the preoccupations in which ordinary people spend their lives?  Were his miracles meant to demonstrate the superiority of the spirit over matter?  The accusations of his opponents would suggest otherwise.  Apart from a few sayings, it is hard to maintain that Jesus was otherworldly.  He is purported to have said, "Lay up treasure in heaven, not on earth."  And there is a remark about those who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.  There are some severe teachings about self denial and renunciation of family ties.  Serving God rather than mammon is a basic requirement of his regimen.  But these things can be distinguished from a world-hating renunciation of life and the passion obsessions that became characteristic of later Christian asceticism.  There would be little motive from the perspective of the early church to include the accusations leveled at him that he was a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.  Jesus must have been able to enjoy life even in dubious company.  And it seems unlikly that any tax collector would be found conversing with the likes of St. Anthony the hermit.

      I persist in believing we can know things about Jesus from the outline of his conflicts with other partisans in first century Judea.  We have to consider the source of the accusations about eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners.  These were the same religious authorities who quibbled about the Sabbath while taking advantage of widows for their own profit, a practice with which many contemporary ministers, political activists, and fundraisers are familiar.  My guess is he liked to eat and drink with people who were less psychologically aggressive than many religious leaders.  His eating and drinking is to the everlasting chagrin of vegetarian spiritualists of every stripe.  Did he like a rare piece of meat washed down with quantities of wine?  It should not be concluded that he went in for antinominian revels of the sort some gnostics justified, claiming the insignificance of life in the body.  His answer to the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" is in essence, "Keep the law!"  But he does appear in the Gospels as a man who enjoys life and robust companions, even those who had strayed onto the fringes of what was acceptable in his time, and some who were outcasts or frauds.  He might have gotten along better with modern televangelists than we suspect, probably as well as with respectable, if duplicitous, clergymen.  At the very least he could have tolerated aluminum siding salesmen, card-room types, and attorneys.

      Jesus' miracles are a bone of contention in a world of scientific rationalism.  It is not necessary to argue the possibility of healings of the sort attributed to Jesus.  Medically unexplained remissions do happen.  Doctors are sometimes mystified, even amazed.  There are documented cases of healings at Lourdes and in the files of numerous faith healers.  Jesus can be assumed to be at least as good as the Lady of Lourdes at effecting cures.  Debating how much the miracle stories of the gospels are exaggerated or embellished is tangential.  Even farther from the mark is the sophistry which relates Heisenberg's uncertainty principle or relativistic physics to the miracles of the bible.  Proponents of this approach should be required to take a physics course.
      Jesus performed wonders, but what is their meaning?  The Pharisees said his healings and his exorcisms only proved he was in league with Satan.  His power raises many different issues.  For us the whole implicit world view is problematic.  He casts out demons instead of treating epilepsy or mental illness.  Forgiveness of sins is related to healing.

      The stand-off with the Pharisees is interesting.  Again it can be illustrated by reference to the dispositions of many modern religious enthusiasts.  Jesus' response to the Pharisees' charge is that a house divided against itself cannot stand.  His healings were of such obvious physical benefit that calling them sorcery intended to deceive people was the equivalent of blasphemy.  Unfortunatly this tendency among intolerant believers is still easy to find.  You hear the argument fairly often that trancendental meditation, or whatever, may have helped somebody get off drugs, but it was the devil's power that accomplished the transformation, and it was being used to deceive the unsuspecting former addict.  Jesus would not accept this line of reasoning.  Health and psychological integrity are characteristic of Godly influences, not Satanic.

      Jesus often related his healings to the kingdom of God.  If the miracles were manifestations of God's mercy, as they were purported to be, the kingdom of God had indeed come upon those who witnessed them, and they were harbingers of a restoration of health and dignity on a much wider scale, perhaps even the redemption of the world as envisioned in the eschatological discourses of Isaiah.  The kingdom of God is central to Jesus' teaching.  Though he discusses it only obliquely, its nearness or impending expansion in the world must be considered the motivation of his work.  The urgency he communicated to his followers grew out of an expectancy associated with God's activity in human affairs.  Among an occupied people with an imperial history and the still fervent memory of the Maccabean revolt, any discussion of God's impending judgment and the establishment of his kingdom called up visions of a restoration of the Davidic dynasty, or failing that, another Judas Maccabaeas to liberate Judea from Roman domination.  Undoubtably, in the throng who followed Jesus, there were many who wanted a war lord possessed of a divine mandate.

      Among the sayings of Jesus there is nothing to encourage this militancy.  Instead we have Jesus' interest in the poor and despised.  He says, "Blessed are the poor," or the "poor in spirit."  He heals lepers.  If it was the church that transformed him from a militant into a theologian as he appears in John's gospel, why is all this evidence of compassion for the alienated and depressed so prevalent in the synoptics?  Furthermore, if he was an apocalyptic visionary who saw in the signs of the times an impending lightning storm of God's intervention, the climax of history, why does the preponderance of evidence describe a man who is so responsive to basic human needs?  A Man who heals old women and lepers?  A man who shares meals with frauds and sabbath-breakers, people who never pay their tithes?  In our time it has proven difficult for believers to sustain both a dedication to serve basic human needs and an interest in the equivalent of apocalyptic literature.  There is little overlap in the clientele of prophecy interpretation seminars and social service volunteers.

      Besides Jesus' solidarity with the common people and his responsiveness to their suffering, there is something festive about the kingdom of God as suggested by the table fellowship in which Jesus engages, which he seems to enjoy.  Wedding celebrations turn up in his parables and allusions.  John the Baptist lived the life of an atavist, but the Son of Man came eating and drinking.  The wedding guests could not fast while the bridegroom was with them.  The Last Supper is something of a prelude to the table fellowship of the kingdom of God, but its atmosphere of foreboding is an exception to the rule.  It pains me to admit it, but popular-music worship services may be more in the spirit of the gospels than much of our lugubrious piety.  Even worse, Jesus may feel at ease on the brothel-like sets of the television church.

      In the words of the institution of the Sacrament, "This is my body," can be found the germ of the church's conception of Jesus as the lamb of God sacrificed for human guilt.  Mark's gospel has been called a passion narrative with an extended introduction.  If the climactic words of the Last Supper are not an invention of the early church, Jesus had a rationale for his martyrdom beyond Schweitzer's interpretation that he threw himself on the wheel of history in order to force God to act.  For Christians who have found God's acceptance through Jesus' solidarity with them in suffering, the next turn of the wheel, which crushed him, was not all.  A community of the redeemed was established.  C.H. Dodd has emphasized the necessity of explaining the church in his study, Founder of Christianity.3  Visionary fanatics are not unknown in the modern world, but their movements die out after a brief epiphany.  David Koresh was apparently a brilliant man.  A graduate of Harvard Law School, he was very capable as a linguist and literary interpreter.  His appearance as a con-man prophet created a spectacle.  But his death was the end of his movement.

      The endurance of the spiritual kingdom that began with Jesus is historical fact.  As to its coming in a literal sense with power, the gospels univocally attest Jesus' resurrection to be the climax of his worldly mission.  Of course, the contradictions between the accounts regarding his post-resurrection appearances are disturbing.  They lead to the conclusion, which is probably already established on other grounds, that the gospels were not written by witnesses to the astonishing events described in them.  But they do seem to be pretty much what one would expect of a movement growing rapidly in size and influence in several geographical areas simultaneously.  The resurrection not only explains the establishment and endurance of Jesus' spiritual kingdom, but promises more than any spiritualist can promise concerning the redemption of the real world.  If Jesus did rise from the dead, a logical congruence between his body and the world can be affirmed as more than a theological formulation.  Christians can rationally hope for the redemption, not only of their bodies and souls, but of this awe-inspiring, if mortally flawed, world.  We might affirm with Paul the apostle that all of creation waits with eager longing for the appearance of the sons and daughters of the kingdom, and that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.


1.  Barrett, C.K.;  The New Testament Background; Selected Documents; Harper Torchbooks; 1961. (Y. Baba Metzia ii. 5. 8c 1)

2.  Borg, Marcus;  Jesus; A New Vision; Harper Collins; 1991.

3.  Dodd, C.H.;  Founder of Christianity;

4.  Schweitzer, Albert; The Quest of the Historical Jesus; Macmillan; 1964; Von Reimarus zu Wrede; 1906.

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