Who Was Jesus?

Course: Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts

Lecture: Who Was Jesus?

I. Opening Remarks

In the textbook, chapters 18 and 19, we’ll go back and highlight information on questions of history and theology surrounding the life of Jesus. We have substituted a lecture that overlaps with the topics of both chapters but this creates a cluster of questions for living in today’s world. This lecture is entitled, ‘Who was Jesus? Modern Myths verses Biblical Basics.’ It takes only a phenomenon like the davinci code on the one hand or Mel Gipson’s Passion of Christ on another hand to suddenly raise public awareness and interest in the historical Jesus in ways not equally prominent at other periods of life of popular culture. Unfortunately, some of the most widely distributed and publicized approaches to Jesus are those who are least in touch with any genuine historical evidence. Thus I’ve entitled the first part of this lecture, ‘Modern Myths about Jesus,’ and I begin with the ones with the least amount of historical support and then in ascending order to those who have at least some historical support.

II. Modern Myths About Jesus

My first sub point therefore is information not related to any historical evidence. In the ancient world there were apocryphal books that sought to fill in perceived gaps of the accounts of the life of Jesus. These books included legendary stories about Jesus, the boy wonder, who worked miracles as a child or of stories of the nature of his decent into hell, was on the assumption of when his body lay in the tomb. These and many of their kind we may call ancient apocryphal. They are for most parts, Gnostic Gospels, most of which are not couched in narrative form at all but are merely collections of purported sayings or discourses of Jesus to one or more disciples secretly after his resurrection. The Gospel of Thomas as we noted earlier in this lecture series is about the only one of these Gospels with potentially more than just the varied slightest connection to actual events in history. There is also what may be labelled, ‘Medieval Fiction.’ Many Muslims at the level of popular culture are taught erroneously that the Gospel of Barnabas, unknown until the 14th century, in which Judas replaces Jesus on the Cross and other key events that would make Jesus fully divine are altered. Nevertheless, uneducated people influenced by powerful religious authorities can come to believe that the text, say nothing of the history, of canonical Gospels are so corrupt that one has to prefer a medieval fictitious source of this nature.

And then there is what might be called modern fairy tales, such as all of the revisionists rewriting of history in the davinci code with such baseless and unfounded allegations such as Constantine having anything to do with the choice of the canon of the New Testament Gospels, the Council of Nicaea having anything to do with such choice and no one having believed in the divinity of Jesus prior to this time of Nicaea in the early 4th century AD, etc. These are all baseless and unfounded. Only slightly less misleading are what I’ve labeled distortions of recently discoveries evidence. The Dead Sea scrolls and the Kamodi literature are unquestionable the two dramatic finds after WWII. From time to time, people have made erroneous claims, even in scholarly circles, but primarily in fictitious novels that the Dead Sea Scrolls actually contained Gospels or Christian writings among them or that some of the characters portrayed as Jews are really Christian characters in disguise. In fact, the vast majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls are pre-Christian in origin and there is no evidence to support the idea that Christians characters appeared there in code or that we learned anything that in any way undermines the accounts of the formation of the Christianity. Instead, we get insights to what is almost certainly an Essene sect on the shores of Qumran and learn more about the diversity of 1st century Judaism, and about various parallels to concepts that we did not previously realize had parallels to Judaism from the New Testament and we also got insights much about the life and thought about that particular monastic community.

The gospel of Thomas may indeed have a handful of sayings, preserved in its 114 verses, and not found anywhere else that reflects with any degree of accuracy. By definition, the only way that such things commend themselves is that if they comport with the vast database established by the Synoptic Gospels and to a certain degree, John’s Gospel as well, so that they in no way shed anything on the origins which would radical change our understanding of Jesus. The newly released apocryphal gospel of Judas previously known from the writings of Aranaus in the 2nd century, belongs somewhere between the first two categories under this same heading of modern myths. It is most likely a genuine document from antiquity and unlikely to be older than the second century and a deliberate distortion and reversal of the historical truths about the roles of Jesus and Judas. Then over lapping with what we have already discussed; there are already claims of alleged textual corruption particularly in folk Islam and in folk monism, though not in their official scriptures, not in the Quran, parse, nor in the book of Mormon, but there is wide spread in both religions that the content of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have been preserved so poorly over the centuries that additional revelation is needed to enable us to see the historically true from the historically false, but even the content, true or false of what the Gospel writers produced were.

Finally, we may lump together a large portion of contemporary historical Jesus research under the heading of Portraits of Jesus based on only parts of the Gospels. The most famous example and one of the most radical in the 1990s was the Jesus Seminar about which we have talked about in our lecture on the quest and chronology, a much more sober work of meticulous scholarship by John Meyer with three volumes produced already and a fourth in the works and who knows how many beyond that. On Jesus as a marginal Jew, attempt the intriguing task of imagining what the product of an un-papal conclave of Jewish, protestant, Catholic and atheist scholars of the Gospels locked in the basement of Harvard Divinity Library with all of its resources available to them, would produce in terms of what can be known on historical grounds alone with reasonable probability of Jesus of Nazareth. Not surprisingly, although Meyer, himself, is a believing Catholic and more optimistic about what even history can demonstrate as he rigorously attempts to limit himself to the constraints of his exercise. Parts of the Gospels, even the synoptics that can be trusted remain only a bit more substantial and certainly less than the majority of the text that has been reserved in the canonical New Testament. In other writings, besides Jesus and the Gospels, particularly the book, Historical Liability of the Gospels, which was due for a revision in 2007, but also in such works as The Historical Liability of John’s Gospel, my article in Jesus, Under Fire and elsewhere, defend my conviction that even as a historian, one can point out persuasive evidence for accepting the board contours of the picture of Jesus that bridges the synoptics and the Gospel of John.

It would be easy, however, after such an undertaking for evangelicals to pat themselves on the back for doing such historical work and fail to realize that often they too have a de facto cannon, not because there are parts of the Gospel that they believe didn’t happen but because Bible readers and Christians throughout the centuries have almost indelibly found certain parts of the Bible to be more central or more significant and therefore even unwittingly may neglect other parts that in turn as circumstances change may need to be highlighted in ways that up to that point, they haven’t been.

III. Biblical Basics About Jesus

Hence, the second longer section of this lecture entitled Biblical Basics about Jesus. All of these reflect portions of the Gospel that even a broader cross section of scholarship beyond evangelicalism has often deemed to have an authentic core though certainly not the most radical wings of scholarship. And at the same time, there are areas that arguably conservative evangelicals have not paid adequate attention to in application to 21st century living. We begin with Jesus’ humanity in fighting the culture wars with those who would deny his divinity. It is arguable that we have swung the pendulum as not to do justice to his humanity. One thinks, for example of the beautiful portrayal, particularly in the Gospel of Luke, particularly the poverty and squalor into which Jesus was born. How often our Christmas pageants seem to glamorize the events that we scarcely imagine as it originally was. Or, what of Luke 2:52, ending the first two introductory chapters of that Gospel with a reminder that Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and humanity; he grew in every human dimension of life: intellectual, physical, even spiritual and social. Or do we imagine as other works suggest that not long after Christ emerged from Mary’s womb that as a baby, he announced his divinity to the world? Then again, how comfortable are we of the progression, even among disciples and the people who became his followers understanding of him.

We leave room for Matthew 14 at the end of the account of walking on the water when the disciples confess that he was truly the Son of God. For this to be something less than full-fledged later Christian understanding, particularly because in two chapters later in Matthew 16 Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God, it would appear that this has been disclosed to him and thus to the disciples for the first time supernaturally. Or about Jesus’ own reply to the Sanhedrin when he is asked whether he was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God and although Mark has recording the affirmative, ‘I am’, Matthew and Luke put it in a more veiled fashion and placed more emphasis on the Son of Man often thought to mean merely Jesus’ humanity than Christ and Son of God, yet one of the things that the Dead Sea Scrolls have taught us is that Son of God could mean in many Jewish contexts, simple a synonym for the Messiah, the Christ. Thus paradoxically, in this context and perhaps in others, Son of God is the less exalted and the Son of Man in the more exalted title as Jesus interprets them.

IV. The Theology of Jesus

And finally, how readily to we take seriously what the author of Hebrews will say reflecting on the temptations of Christ that he was indeed tempted in every way like ourselves but for him without sin. Jesus did not have to have a sinful nature to be fully human as with Adam and Eve, before they fell into sin, they did not have a sinful nature. It would seem to require that Jesus had at least the ‘possibility’ for him to commit sin, a conviction that troubles some arch conservatives and thus reinforces my point that we don’t always deal adequately with the true humanity of Jesus. For if he did not even have the possibility of sinning, even as Adam and Eve before the fall did, it is difficult to see how his temptation could be in every way like ours and that of every other human who has lived. In the 1970s, when Demess, a scholar, wrote the first of many scholarly works on the historical Jesus and entitled, ‘Jesus, the Jew’, many Christians were scandalized. It was not that many years removed from the Nazi holocaust and the anti-Semitism of mid-20th century that made it difficult to think of Jesus as anything other than a Christian even though the term was not yet used in his life time and even though in many ways in his practices and thinking, Jesus was every bit a Jew of his day. One thinks particularly of his use and the Gospel writers’ use of the Old Testament in all their many varied usages, ranging from direct predictions to pure typology to multiple fulfillments and combinations thereof. Approaches which except for the direct fulfillment of prophecy often seem uncomfortable to conservatives today that they concoct all kinds of exegetical doubt to try to insist that the Old Testament actually meant what Jesus and the Gospel writers said was being fulfilled in him, faulty understanding of multiple fulfillments or typology functions and yet fully confident with Jewish and rabbinic thought of today.

Or, again, what of the notion that in an age of ritual purity with so many things that were believed, we so readily defile an individual, Jesus, still within fairly Jewish confines stood that concept on its head and talked about his holiness that could help others to be holy rather than their sin. Hence, his repeated association with tax collectors, prostitutes and other notorious sinners of his world; not simply for the sake of breaking down barriers but to call them to repentance but to do without the humanly erected boundaries that kept Jewish leaders from any kind of intimate association with them at all. What can be called the communal concerns of the 1st century, true of Judaism and Greco-Roman culture as well where individuals showed important interest as members of families and tribes and nations and religions and only secondly as individual beings with personal aspirations, dreams, responsibilities and the like. What again, the centrality of the Kingdom as over against the church where it is God’s dynamic range and his purposes which he desires to implement throughout the world and not just through Christians in local bodies of believers that form the focal point of Christ’s message.

Then, again, if Jesus identified with John the Baptist in baptism, even though Jesus had no personal sin to repent from, we see corporate and communal solidarity coming to the fore again. He certainly could have repented and ask for the forgiveness of sins by God on behave of his people or his nation more generally. And, finally, what of the anti-Semitic character that even more than half century on from the end of holocaust still often unwittingly bedevil Christian preaching even when language is used simply of the Jews as if the entire nation or race believe something or acted in a way when simple substitution of the phrase, ‘certain Jewish leaders’ would be more historically accurate. We recall more specifically our comments from pass lectures on the Pharisees and they were first of all the most well intentioned of the leadership sects and even in Jesus’ day they continued to be the most popular even if a few had degenerated into the hypocritical practices Jesus berated.

V. Jesus' Compassion for Social Outcasts

Thirdly, under the heading of Biblical basics about Jesus, we may speak of his compassion for social outcasts already having mentioned his friendship with tax collectors and sinners, whether one applies the old single dissimilarity or the newer double dissimilarity and similarity criteria which we discussed when we talked about the quest for the historical Jesus. Here, appears the central result particularly over the eating of meals, a practice reserved for the most intimate of friends and designed to create such intimate friendship where it was not previously in existence. He does indeed call individuals to repentance if they have not so volunteered, but instead, takes their word for it, immediately welcoming them into his kingdom rather than requiring the period of probation or penance to know such repentance was genuine as it were that Jews typical applied. The character of Jesus over against John in the little parable of children in the market place comes up as Jesus talking about others reactions to himself, of the slogan, ‘behold, a gluten and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ When we are so assessed today, is it in the direction of Jesus or more along the lines of the Pharisees with whom Jesus did take exception because of their legalistic or nomistic practices.

VI. Money and Stewardship

One thinks of Philianties, a scholar, who comments while travelling and talking to people asking non-Christians what they understood ‘evangelical’ to mean. By far the two most common answers are, ‘oh, those are the people against abortion and hate homosexuals.’ We should love homosexuals while opposing homosexual sin. We should oppose abortion while we should be known for being the most compassionate and loving people in context to those who have been afflicted by these sins rather than those who are perceived to be the most hateful and harshest against such individuals. We have had an occasion already to talk about money and stewardship but one in every five red letter verses (words that Jesus spoke) in the Gospels has to do with money and good stewardship in one fashion or another. It would appear from texts like the unjust steward, the rich fool, the rich man and Lazarus, the parables of the talents to be examples of the Kingdom of God to be at work in a person’s life. And given the consistent patterns of American Christian giving of between two and three percent of their annual net income to all forms of charitable work put together and with evangelical Christians averaging only about a percentage point higher than that, there is much work to be done if we are to meet the desperate needs of the world.

VII. Creating Community

Finally, we might add the topic of creating community, in the church and church lobbies and in society and government circles about family values, but how do we deal with Luke 14:26, ‘whoever who does not hate mother or brothers or sisters can not be my disciples.’ We are grateful for the passage in Matthew 10:37 in exploratory fashion rewords things referred to not loving God far more than family members but have we even achieved that level. Rodney Clatt’s book from the mid-90s, ‘Families at Cross-Roads’ remains as important now as it was then, or consider the great controversy story at the end of Mark 3 in which his biological family wants to talk to him and he puts them off when told that his family members are nearby, he responds with the rhetorical question, ‘who are my mothers, brothers and sisters?’ To whoever does the will of God is my mother, brother and sister. If and when allegiance to God’s people conflicts with a person’s immediate family, Jesus makes it clear that fellow Christians take precedence. Certainly a radical thought within the Judaism of his day.

Then again, there are those texts that we often fail to recognize involving plural pronouns used, ‘you all’ as our southern friends would say such, ‘seek you all first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added to you all.’ (Matthew 6:33) If taken individually, it is false but millions of Christians who starve to death or fail to be healed of terminal illnesses or have suffered tragedies to natural disasters and the like. If taken corporately of the body of believers, if the church together seeks God’s true will, it will by definition help the poor and needy in its mist. Or again, in Mark 10:29 when those who have left everything to follow Jesus are promised one hundred fold, mothers, brothers and sisters is clear that Jesus is talking about the extended family of the household of Christ’s disciples. So when he also takes about houses and fields, he is talking the possessions that God’s people share with one another as some have need; hardly justifying the notion that if one gives a dollar gift to a television evangelists making a promise that he or she will receive a hundred fold in return.

VIII. Unity of Jesus' Followers

Finally and perhaps the most glaringly absent piece of the canon of the Gospels as far evangelical obedience is concerned is the dramatic picture of the unity of Jesus’s followers of which Jesus himself prayed in John chapter 17, unity cannot be a lowest common theological denominator of unity, but the model of evangelicals committed to the broad cluster of essentials of the Christian faith joining hands and working in countless para-church groups demonstrating what indeed is possible but still remains to take place at the level of the local church. On the one hand, there is certainly less of a stress of denominational distinctives and conflicts today in the western church that has been perhaps since the protestant reformation. But on the other hand, even the new non-denominational and inter-denominational networks of churches that are arising are at times creating their own de facto denominations as churches seek to do it their way rather than the way of the next network starting by some of mega-church elsewhere in the country. By way of conclusion, there is therefore plenty for conservative and liberal alike, believer and unbeliever alike, still to come to grips with, in terms of both the historicity of the Gospels and the convictions and demands of the historical Jesus.