At first sight the figure of Jesus Christ might seem to serve as a focus of unity for the Christian faith. Whatever else they might disagree about, Christians are at least united in believing that Jesus has a unique significance. Look more closely, however, and it becomes apparent that this focus of unity can also be a cause of division. Though Christians agree that Jesus is significant, they may interpret his significance differently. Despite the strenuous attempts that have continually been made to contain him within a single interpretative framework, he always threatens to break free.
Some of this elusiveness may be traced back to Jesus himself. When he talked he often spoke in riddles and parables, and when asked who he was, he replied: 'who do you say I am?'. He laid down few clear rules, left no systematic body of teaching, and founded no school to pass on his wisdom. The mystery is also a function of the sources on which we have to rely. We cannot consult the books Jesus wrote because he wrote no books, and we cannot turn to contemporary accounts of his life and works for there are no such accounts. We have only interpretations, and interpretations of interpretations. Our most important sources of information are already embroiled in the debate about his significance, and already take sides. What is more, where Jesus is concerned the parameters of interpretation are particularly broad. It is hard enough to give a reliable account of the life of any individual; biographers make a living out of the fact that there can never be a single, definitive interpretation. But when considering Jesus, the difficulty is multiplied, for the issue is not simply 'what sort of a man are we dealing with?' but 'are we dealing with man or God?'. This chapter will review the answers that were given to this question in the first centuries after Jesus' death, answers that would prove enormously influential for subsequent Christian thought and life.
The earliest and most important sources of written information about Jesus are gospels. The genre is peculiar to early Christianity, and its name gives a clue to its intention, for 'gospel' translates the Greek word euangelion meaning 'good news'. This word was rarely used in pre-Christian times, except in Roman political propaganda, usually with reference to an emperor. To the extent that they aim to ,_ propagate a particular, exalted view of the person they describe, 5 Christian gospels are also propaganda. They tell their readers (or e hearers) that Jesus was something special, and they expect them to d respond accordingly. No neutral stance is possible in relation to a | gospel. Depending on your response, its message will turn out either to be good news for you - or bad.
There were many gospels and many different accounts of Jesus -just as there were many types of early Christian community that produced them. Today only a few of these gospels survive. The most familiar are those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John because by the 4th century they had been gathered together, deemed authoritative ('canonical') and included in the 'New Testament'. The latter (written in Greek) was bound together with the 'Old Testament' (the scriptures of the Jewish people written in Hebrew but appropriated by Christianity in an expanded Greek version) to form the Christian Bible. This was just one step in the long historical process whereby one version of Christianity came to establish itself as the authoritative, 'catholic' (universal) form of 'church', and to win out over its rivals. Once this happened, it was possible to draw a
1. Gospels were first circulated as 'codexes', small books made from papyrus. Many early Christian communities probably possessed only a single codex, perhaps a gospel or a 'harmony* of several gospels. It would be many centuries before churches possessed a complete New Testament or Bible. This early fragment from Matthew's Gospel probably dates from early in the 3rd century ce.
distinction between canonical gospels and 'apocryphal' ones, and to downgrade the importance of the latter. But in the earliest centuries after Jesus' death it was possible for any Christian group to produce its own gospel, thereby securing its particular understanding of Jesus and the life he inspired. A few of these apocryphal gospels have survived, including the very early Gospel of Thomas, which is considered briefly in this chapter. They serve to remind us that the Jesus depicted in the New Testament gospels was not the only Jesus who was remembered and revered in early Christian circles.
Possible dating of the earliest written sources on which our knowledge of Jesus depends
30-60 ce u
Paul's letters (Epistles) e A sayings source, 'Q', now lost, but used by Luke and Matthew £
A miracles source now lost, but used by Mark and John | Earliest layer of the Gospel of Thomas
The Gospel of Mark
Additional material in the Gospel of Thomas 80-120 ce
The Gospel of Matthew (c. 90) The Gospel of Luke (c. 90) The Gospel of John (c. 100-110)
120-150 ce The Book of Acts
Other New Testament Epistles including the Pastoral Epistles and Catholic Epistles
For now, however, let us confine our attention to the authorized version of Christian truth, the version that was propagated by the winning side, became canonical, and has informed the views of a majority of Christian believers ever since. It is here that we find the most influential answers to the question of who Jesus really was, and here that we encounter the Jesus who has inspired more lives and worked more miracles than the elusive 'historical Jesus' who historians struggle endlessly to recreate.
The canonical gospels combine stories about Jesus with records of his teaching. Despite important variations between them, they share a common narrative thread and a common purpose. The narrative falls roughly into two halves. The first establishes Jesus as a teacher and miracle worker in Galilee (the northern province of
> Israel). Though baptized by John the Baptist, he launches an independent career and wins his own followers. Jesus works
J amongst his people, the Jews, and acknowledges their God and u scriptures. He offers an interpretation of the Jewish faith that is critical towards the religious elite but favourable to those who are destitute, humble, of no account. The second part of the narrative shifts to Jerusalem in Judea (the southern part of Israel), where Jesus' provocative ministry alarms the governing authorities (the Romans, supported by Jewish leaders) and leads to his arrest, trial, and execution. He is crucified as a criminal and buried in a tomb. When some of his followers visit the grave three days later, they find it empty. Miraculous appearances by Jesus convince his followers that God has raised him from the dead. The Book of Acts (written by the author of Luke's gospel) continues the story in the New Testament, recounting how Jesus, having ascended into heaven, pours out his Spirit on his followers at Pentecost and brings into being the Christian community.
The common narrative thread reflects the gospels' common purpose: to persuade that Jesus was no mere mortal, that he was uniquely favoured by God, that he has transcended the limitations of normal human life, and that those who dedicate their lives to him may share in the eternal life he now enjoys. To press the message home the gospels marshal the most convincing evidence they can find. It falls into four main categories: teaching, miracles, resurrection, and fulfilled prophecy.
Jesus' teaching testifies to his immersion in the religion and culture of the Jewish people. The followers of an exclusivistic monotheism, their identity was based on the belief that God (Yahweh) had called them out of all the nations, made them His chosen people, granted them the land of Israel for their exclusive possession, and given them the Law (Torah) by which to live. Successive foreign occupations of Israel were often interpreted as punishment for failure to observe the Law. In Jesus' day, with Israel under Roman occupation, a wide range of Jewish teachers, groups, and movements attempted to make sense of this latest episode in the stormy history of God's chosen people.
Jesus taught that far from abandoning His people, God's reign (basileia, usually translated 'kingdom') was imminent. Speaking almost exclusively to fellow Jews, he told them to be watchful of the signs of the times and to ready themselves for the new Godly society that was being prepared. Readiness consists in living as if God's will and law were already in force - by observing the spirit rather than the letter of the law, its essence rather than its every detail. And the essence of God's law, according to Jesus, is love without limits. God is calling His people to love as he loves: perfectly and without limitation. Those who do so join the family of God, whose ties and loyalties surpass those of any natural form of human association, including the biological family.
Although addressed to the individual and calling for a personal change of heart, Jesus' message envisages a universal society bound together by divine love. Replacing limited human ties of affection based on kinship, ethnic identity, and self-interest with the unlimited love of God, it is an egalitarian kingdom of love without limits. Jesus likens it to a family in which all are brothers and sisters of one another and children of the one Father ('Abba', Jesus' preferred name for God). When God's reign begins on earth it will be those who are sufficiently humble to accept their need for divine love and forgiveness who will find that they belong to this order of things, whereas the proud, self-righteous, and unjust will be exposed as citizens of an alternative order. Thus the first will be last, and the last will be first.
Extracts from Jesus' teaching: Matthew 5 and Luke 14
You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the just and on the unjust.
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
Since Jesus' teaching points away from his person towards the kingdom of love that he proclaims, it leaves the question of his status open. The gospels record a few sayings in which Jesus makes explicit reference to his own unique significance (though there is extensive debate amongst scholars about their authenticity). Some of these sayings suggest that Jesus is ordained by God to inaugurate the divine rule on earth. Others have Jesus openly declare that he is the 'Son of God'. John's gospel goes furthest by including long discourses in which Jesus reflects on his divine status (the 'I am ... ' discourses). In other gospel passages it is other people who announce Jesus' unique status - as Peter does when Jesus is transfigured, and the centurion when he witnesses Jesus' death.
More important than words in establishing Jesus' extraordinary status are miracles. The gospel narratives are full of accounts of Jesus' miraculous deeds. They linger lovingly over the detail, and they lay great emphasis on the way in which witnesses react with awe and wonder. Some of the miracles involve human healing, while others demonstrate Jesus' control over natural events -stilling the storm, walking on water, feeding five thousand. Since the Jewish people believed that God alone had ultimate control over the world, the clear implication was that God was at work in Jesus. Even those who are not convinced by Jesus' miracles admit that some supernatural power must be at work - if not God, then Beelzebub the devil.
The greatest miracle of all is the resurrection, and it is no surprise that three of the four gospels make it their climax (Mark's gospel was quickly amended to ensure that it too ended with stories of the risen Christ). Just as Jews believed that only God could work real miracles, so they believed that only God could raise a human being from the dead. There was also widespread belief that God would only do this at the end of time; the first resurrection would inaugurate a more general resurrection as history was brought to its close. Thus Jesus' resurrection would signal to those who believed in it that God's power was at work in this man in a special way. It would confirm that Jesus had a unique role in the divine plan for the world, and that through his work the long reign of suffering and oppression was about to come to an end.
Jesus' resurrection gained its meaning by being interpreted in the context of Jewish prophecy and expectation. Since the same was true for the other events of his life and death, the gospel writers are at pains to show that all these things happened in accordance with the Jewish scriptures. If, as the Jewish people believed, God was in control of history, and the prophets had some insight into the direction in which He was leading it, then they must have foretold the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So intense is the gospels' concern to demonstrate this logic that some of the stories about Jesus actually seem to have been shaped or even generated by a prophecy. This is particularly clear in the stories that the gospels of Luke and Matthew supply about Jesus' appearance on earth -including the conception by a virgin (Mary), the birth in a stable in Bethlehem, the visit of wise men, and the flight into Egypt.
It was not only Jews who might be convinced by being shown how 'these things took place to fulfil what the prophets foretold'. The Jewish faith and scriptures were also held in high regard by some > Romans, who admired their morality and antiquity. By presenting itself as the fulfilment of Jewish hope, Christianity might win a J more favourable hearing than if it were perceived to be a novelty -what we might call a 'new religious movement'. To show that Jesus' life, death, and resurrection took place in accordance with prophecy, would thus be to transfer some of the weighty authority of the ancient Jewish scriptures to him and the community that gathered around his memory.
Who do you say I am?
The earliest gospel, Mark, portrays the most human Jesus, and the latest, John, the most thoroughly divine. But all the New Testament gospels agree that Jesus stood in such a uniquely close relationship to God that he alone crosses the line that separates creatures from the God who made them. This emphasis on Jesus' divinity is echoed and reinforced in the other documents of the New Testament, including the epistles of Paul. The latter, written by an aspiring early Christian leader to various groups of Christians around the Mediterranean, barely refer to the earthly Jesus. Their focus is the risen Jesus, the 'Lord' who dwells in the heavens and is present on earth in the Spirit. Similarly, the Book of Revelation that ends the New Testament portrays Jesus as the heavenly Lamb who stands by the throne of God and returns to judge the earth at the end of time, precipitating terrible destruction before the heavenly Jerusalem finally descends to earth and God's triumphal reign begins.
To read the New Testament as a whole is thus to be left in no doubt that those who compiled it and deemed it scriptural were the champions of a version of Christianity that wished to stress the divinity of Christ and the almighty power of the God on whose right hand the Son now sits. But there were other options open to those who came into contact with Jesus. As they were expressed in the earliest Christian centuries, they fall into four main categories -which have shaped interpretation of the elusive figure of Jesus ever since. —
Although Jesus taught and ministered amongst the Jewish people £ in Palestine, there were many - the majority - who refused to accept n that he was anything more than a man. There were many itinerant teachers and miracle workers operating in the same area at the same time, many of whom proclaimed the coming rule of God. Some were crucified by the Romans as well. What made Jesus so special?
'Gentile' (non-Jewish) inhabitants of the Roman Empire might be equally sceptical. If even Jesus' own countrymen regarded the claims made on his behalf as ridiculous, who were they to disagree? Palestine was a small but troublesome region in the Empire, and Jewish radicals were continually inciting their people to rebel against the Romans (such rebellion gave rise to the Jewish wars of 66-70 ce and 132-5 ce). Like Jesus, some of these radicals came from the lowest strata of society, and some preached a primitive communism. Romans of the ruling classes were bound to be suspicious. What mattered to them was this world not the next; the
Empire not the Kingdom. Those whose views have been recorded -the more educated and philosophical - found the Christian appeal to miracles and resurrection manipulative, the sighing after another world misguided, the worship of a God-man demeaning, and the emphasis on faith irrational.
As a footnote, it is worth recording that the tendency of modern historical scholarship has been to reinforce such scepticism about the New Testament's more exalted claims for Jesus. As information about the Mediterranean world in the 1st century ce has increased, scholars have pointed out numerous parallels with Jesus' life and teaching, and have attempted to show that no supernatural causes need be invoked to explain the nature of his career, the expectations that gathered around him, or his execution at the hands of the Romans. They have turned the argument from prophecy on its head by claiming that the gospels' birth and resurrection narratives can > be explained as attempts to fit Jesus' life into the logic of Jewish expectation. And they have offered sociological explanations of how J and why Jesus' followers turned him into a supernatural being at the centre of a cult. Like many others in the first centuries of the Christian era, they may be prepared to accept that Jesus was a remarkable and inspiring human being, but most (not all) are reluctant to go further - on existing evidence at least.
There were other close contemporaries of Jesus who were prepared to accept that he was something special, even though they would not go so far as to proclaim him divine.
The idea that God might bless and exalt a man (rarely a woman) was a commonplace of Jewish thought. The scriptures contained many such examples: Abraham, Moses, and, above all, the righteous ruler of ancient Israel, King David. So central was the figure of the chosen and favoured king in Jewish history that many prophecies had come to focus on the figure of a coming 'messiah' who would deliver Israel from all its troubles and oppression.
Though there were many different conceptions of what the messiah would be like, he was generally viewed in largely human terms as a mighty man anointed by God to fulfil the divine purpose on earth.
Given the heightened climate of messianic expectation in Jesus' day, it was relatively easy for some of his earliest Jewish followers to view him as the long-awaited messiah approved by God. The Greek word 'Christ', which translates the Hebrew word 'Messiah', is one of the first titles associated with Jesus, possibly during his own lifetime. We know that there were many early Christian groups who remained faithful to the Jewish Law and its ritual observances, and who continued to consider themselves Jews. What set these 'Jewish Christians' apart from their fellows was their belief that the messiah had appeared in Jesus of Nazareth and would shortly return to inaugurate God's Kingdom. We know from the New Testament that Paul came into conflict with such Christians when he took the —
s gospel to Gentiles and relaxed the demands of the Jewish law, 5
including circumcision. Though Paul's strategy eventually won the e day, there is evidence that groups of Jewish Christians continued to d exist for many centuries to come. Their interpretation of Jesus as a | man exalted by God also found expression in the early Christian doctrine of 'adoptionism' - the belief that Jesus Christ was a righteous human being who had been adopted and anointed by God.
The reason many Jews could accept that Jesus was special but not that he was divine was that the Jewish faith is strictly monotheistic. Though a human being can be called by God, exalted by God, adopted by God, resurrected and caught up into the heavens, he will still be a human - for there is and only ever can be one God.
In Hellenistic culture, however, the boundaries between divine and human were less clearly set. This was the dominant culture of the Roman Empire in Jesus' day, and it drew its inspiration from the cultural legacy of the Ancient Greeks ('Hellenes'). (Much Jewish culture was also influenced by Greek thought, and the division between Jewish and Hellenistic should not be too sharply drawn.) Hellenistic culture knew many deities, not just one, and its gods and goddesses presented themselves as larger-than-life characters in whom human virtues and vices were magnified. Since the deities often took human form and mingled with mortals, and there was regular traffic between heaven and earth, it was easy enough to fit Jesus into this frame of reference - if one was persuaded there were grounds for thinking of him as more-than-human. And since there were so many divine beings, one could accept that Jesus was divine without necessarily believing that he was unique.
We know that there were many different groups in the first centuries of the Christian era who were inspired by what they heard about Jesus and happy to admit that he had brought the sacred into the midst of life. Though they were later classified by the > 'orthodox' form of Christianity that produced the New Testament .§ as 'heretical' and 'gnostic', they were more diverse in belief and J organization than these blanket terms suggest - as we will see in u
Chapter 4. What many shared was the view that Jesus imparted a special wisdom ('gnosis') that could help human beings unlock the sacred potential of their own lives. Rather than viewing him as a God who must be worshipped, they therefore viewed him as a divine being who could help individuals get in touch with 'the god within' - the divine potential that lies at the heart of the human.
Gnostic groups existed alongside other forms of early Christianity for several centuries. They wrote gospels (like the Gospel of Thomas), formed canons of scripture, and some developed sophisticated theology that drew on Greek philosophical themes. Where they differed from orthodox Christianity and its interpretation of Jesus was in their view that human beings were potentially divine. This message had radical, disruptive, and egalitarian possibilities. Later writers attacked the gnostics for the way in which they treated women as equals, became arrogant with their own knowledge, and threatened to undermine established forms of authority. Recently discovered gnostic scriptures, most notably from Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, reveal that gnosticism drew on female as well as male imagery in speaking of the divine, that it often questioned established ways of thinking about human and divine hierarchies, and that it presented Jesus as a teacher who sought not to humble but to exalt his followers. In all these respects it challenged the versions of Christianity that found expression in the New Testament and the church that supported it.
Extract from the Gospel ofThomas (Saying 3)
Jesus says, 'If your leaders say to you, ''Look, the Father's rule is in the sky,'' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ''It is in the sea,'' then the fish will precede you. Rather the Father's rule is inside you and outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.'
None of the above views represent the New Testament's interpretation of Jesus' significance. This finds its earliest and in many ways its most systematic expression in Paul's letters. Paul's view differs from both adoptionism and gnosticism, and it helped mark the boundaries of what, after the extended period of struggle that will be reviewed in the following chapters, would eventually be established as orthodox 'Christology' (literally, 'words/thought about Christ').
Paul was a Jew, and he accepts the monotheism of the Jewish scriptures. He believes that there is only one almighty, male, creator God and that all creatures are subordinate to him - as a pot is to a potter. If God is displeased with what he has made, he can smash it and begin his work again. This rules out the gnostic route for Paul, for it would be impossible for him to affirm that humans contain the inherent potential to be reunited with their divine source. But Paul is also unable to rest content with an adoptionist Christology, for he believes that Jesus has a connection with God that is closer and more intrinsic.
For Paul, Jesus is connected to God in a way in which no other human being ever has been, can be, or will be. He is not in the heavens with God because God chose to dignify his humanity - he was with God from the beginning of time and all things were created in and through him. He is, in other words, nothing less than the ordering principle of the universe, the timeless divine wisdom by and through which all things were made, and the image of that perfect divine humanity that is the goal and purpose of the whole
> creation. He is God even more than he is man.
J Unlike gnostic inner Christianity, the Pauline view presents human beings not with the challenge of realizing their own divinity by going within, but with the duty of looking upward toward 'the Lord' (Paul's preferred title for Jesus and for God) who alone can save them from their destiny of sin and death. Such salvation can only come about if creatures are prepared to renounce their own judgement, will, and desire in order to be possessed by the Spirit of Christ (the 'Holy Spirit'). For although human beings have no natural ability to become a 'Son of God' like Christ, by supernatural grace they may be transformed into new beings - 'sons by adoption' in Paul's terms. Humans are saved not by their own power or potential, but by being ruled by Christ and living in, through, and for him rather than for themselves. For Paul, the ritual of water baptism symbolizes the death of the old self and the birth of a new Christ-like self. After baptism, as Paul puts it, 'it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me'. The baptized do not become gods in their own right, but members of 'the body of Christ' - parts of a divine collectivity under the headship of Christ. Their
2. Mosaic of Christ from St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City (3rd century ce). Early Christian art borrowed images from classical mythology in order to depict Jesus as a divine being. Here he appears as Apollo/the sun god.
transformation begins on earth, but will culminate in their resurrection from the dead.
For Paul, then, Jesus is the unique God-man - with the emphasis on 'God'. Though truly human, he is divine in a way no other human being ever can be. His humanity, though affirmed, tends to be subsumed and subordinated to his divinity, as it is in the equally 'high' Christology of John's Gospel. The distinction between God and humanity is preserved, as is the necessity of human subordination. Humans are saved not by their own powers, but by the power of the God to whom they must submit, the work of Christ which they must accept with faith, and the power of the Spirit which must take control of their lives.
Extract from Paul's Letter to the Galatians
When we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. But when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as Sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'.
Extract from John's Gospel
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father ... No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.
The spiritual energy harnessed and unleashed by the life, ministry, teaching, and memory of Jesus gave rise to a range of interpretations of his significance, and with them a range of different 'Christianities'. Amongst the latter there were those which saw in Jesus a stimulus to realize one's own divine nature and unite with one's spiritual source. For them, the God-man was a dazzling provocation to seek the divine within. There were others which held that the God-man should be worshipped not emulated, and which placed more stress on his unique divinity than his common humanity. For them, the God-man reinforced belief that God was above rather than within, and that He must be obeyed and revered. And in between these poles were those which agreed that salvation must come from above and must cleanse and destroy our sinful human nature, but nevertheless believed that the divine - as Holy Spirit - could enter within the human to render it more g
All these interpretations would be carried forward into Christianity and shape its course in the coming centuries. The first view - the = inner, mystical, more gnostic version of Christianity - lay at the margins of what came to be considered orthodox, whilst the 'higher' Christology was gradually identified with the orthodox cause. But at some point in time each and every one of the positions along the spectrum would find its champions and win its supporters. And the interactions between them, and between them and wider society, would shape the course of Christian history.
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