Sunday, March 15, 2009

Jesus in the New Testament

As Lent approached, I was asked by the Rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Rehoboth, Delaware, to suggest a theme for the five Lent Luncheon Lectures offered every year. I first considered taking the Apostles’ Creed as a basis, (though who could compete with Karl Barth?), or, perhaps, the vexed issue of the Church and State, and then I contemplated several other possibilities, but none of them sparked a great deal of enthusiasm. Then, in a space of a few days of fairly desultory TV watching, the contemporary use and frequent misuse of the name ‘Jesus’ stuck me, and I came up with:

Jesus: From Synagogue to Cathedral

The Central Question

The basic question is: How did we get from an unconventional Rabbi, born a Palestinian Jew around 4 B.C.E, whose education was almost certainly minimal, and who joined the other village lads from time to time in the Synagogue to learn some foundational passages from the Torah and Prophets: how did we get from there to the massive basilica built by the emperor Constantius II, Constantine’s son, where the great dome, with a vast mosaic of Jesus the Christos, reigning in glory dominated the building? Many such churches followed and the reigning Christ oversaw the rich pageantry of solemn Liturgies.

Norman Perrin writing about the figure of Jesus in the N.T., says, “In part, he was the Jesus who had lived and proclaimed his message in Galilee and Judea…But in still larger part he was the risen Lord present in the Christian communities; still conducting his ministry to them and through them”. (The New Testament – An Introduction 277). And it is because of the “larger part” of the N.T. records that we are meeting today, for we do not meet as an antiquarian society, but as a believing community, part of a vast throng of believers down the ages.

Why Were Two Pictures not Seen?

Before we can even begin to deal with this lecture’s subject, we have to take seriously what Perrin says and consider its implications. For over 1500 years the fact that there are two portraits of Jesus in the N.T. was not a problem. There are, indeed, more than two, but the central issue is the two that Perrin identifies, which are frequently differentiated as the Jesus of history, going round Galilee teaching and exorcising, and the (Jesus) Christ of faith, the center of the community’s devotion, giving them access to God. We need to ask why it was the ancients were able to see one clear portrait of Jesus and we are faced with multiple, overlapping pictures?

The simple answer, that infuriates traditionalist conservatives, is that we know a great deal more about how the NT writings came into being than was known in the late second century C.E. This answer produces responses like “sheer hubris”, but a moment’s thought will show that we accept this in every other area of human thought and practice. Jesus and his contemporaries firmly believed that infectious diseases were caused by evil spirits that got into you: it is not hubris for us to say they were wrong and that cholera, for example, is caused by the ingesting and spreading of a bacterium, vibrio cholerae; nor is it human pride when we say that we know that things burn because of a reaction between oxygen and carbon, and definitively not because they contain a mythical substance called Phlogiston, which early research was forced to conclude must have negative weight.

The Harmonized Picture

Along with all other areas of human thought, the understanding of history underwent a startling change from the 18th century on. No longer was it assumed that a report was more accurate because it was repeated endlessly: documents Number Two through Twenty might all be quoting number One or each other, for example. The distinction that Perrin draws also gradually became clear. Odd as it may seem, the early theologians, while noticing that the four gospels exhibited different characteristics, nevertheless, did not feel that the differences were all that important. Consciously or unconsciously the approach to the gospels was to harmonize them, to assume, for example that when Mark and Matthew tell the same story, but with significantly different details, what we have is accounts of two happenings. This approach is epitomized by a mid-second century work called the Diatessaron (= one from four). To quote Elliott and Moir, “He [Tatian] produced a ‘scissors and paste’ life of Christ from the four Gospels”*1 . The work was widely used and was the forerunner of many more in the third to tenth centuries, indicting very clearly why it was thought that a single, focused picture of Jesus could be presented.

Emergence of Critical History: A New Picture

Modern critical study suggests a different picture. Not only do the four gospels exhibit distinctly the interests of each author, it is also clear that they were written at different times and with different audiences in mind: Matthew clearly writes for and to that group of Christians that retained a strong element of Judaism in its belief and practice, whereas Luke writes for communities in the Hellenistic world who had little or no background in the Hebrew scriptures. One of the most striking developments was the separating of John’s gospel from the other three. It became very clear that the first three have some complex textual inter-relationships. That is to say they either used each other or some original document that did not survive. In the early days of critical study, this second alternative was much favored, but as study progressed it became much more likely that the first three gospels used one another in some sequence or other. For this reason, they became known as the Synoptic Gospels, (from the Greek συν οπσις - syn-opsis) because they could be looked at together in parallel columns high-lighting common passages. In critical history writing of any kind, unanimity is hardly to be expected, but the end result of intense literary analysis of the Synoptic gospels is that a large majority of scholars hold that Mark is our first gospel, written around 68 C.E., followed by Matthew and then Luke in the next decade.

The Fourth Gospel

It had been recognized in antiquity that John’s book was different from the others, and even a few voices were raised questioning its authority. The majority view however, expressed by Clement of Alexandria, was that this was “a spiritual gospel”, suggesting that it looked for the divine reality behind the ministry of Jesus. So in spite of the differences between this and the first three gospels, it was assumed to give us more historical information about Jesus.
In fact, the picture of Jesus we get from John is much more firmly in the second area that Perrin identifies. He is still the historical Jesus, but he has acquired traits of the glorified Savior and Lord. Jesus is clearly a human being, he weeps and is angry, but he is on the way to being more; he is according to John a bodily manifestation of God; at the very beginning of the book, John strikes a note very different from anything we find in the Synoptic Gospels, using a term from Greek Philosophy when he writes: “the Word (Logos) was made flesh and dwelt among us”. John assumes that Jesus knows what someone is thinking, and astonishes Nathanael*2 when in answer to the question “when did you get to know me?” Jesus replies, “‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you’”. (1.48).

St. John’s gospel was not the last to be written, but it is the last of the four that the church ultimately designated as “official”, known as the canonical gospels; it is also the one that exhibits most clearly the move from the Jesus of history to the Jesus Christ of faith. People often do not know that beside these official four there is at least a dozen or so more so-called ‘non-canonical’ gospels, the best known of which is The Gospel of Thomas.

Synoptic Gospels Not Neutral

It would be a big mistake, however, to assume that the Fourth gospel was the one that was all theology and that the Synoptic gospels are all “simple facts”. “That’s the truth pure and simple” is often used in rhetorical polemic, and, as has been frequently pointed out, the truth is rarely pure and never simple. The same can be said about ‘simple historical facts’; for instance, recording ‘A’ rather than ‘B’ is in itself the first step to interpreting.
To return to Norman Perrin’s distinction with which we began, it is clear that it is not only the Fourth Gospel that gives us a strongly interpreted picture of Jesus: the process was well under way in the earlier Synoptic Gospels.

One of the striking elements of interpretation was the effort, begun by Mark, to make sense of the death of Jesus, who, by the time Mark wrote, was accepted as God’s anointed one, the Messiach, the Christos. For the earliest believers this would be quite a stumbling block since in all the messianic expectations of the OT there is no evidence of a belief in a Martyr Messiah. Mark used, possibly following the teaching of Jesus himself, texts from Isaiah which speak of God’s Servant taking the message to the Gentiles, suffering and being rejected. In their original context these sayings*3 had no reference to a Messiah, indeed, it seems that it was the “holy remnant” of Israel who suffered for the nation as a whole. Another very important interpretative element in Mark (which is taken over particularly by Luke) is to see Jesus in his ministry fighting with the powers of darkness who appear again and again in the form of demons causing sickness, paralysis and blindness. Mark suggests that the earthly rulers of Rome and Jerusalem joined forces to destroy Jesus: thus Mark notes that as Jesus died a great “darkness came over the whole land”. *4

Can We See an ‘Historical’ Jesus?

Can we get behind this interpretive element to meet Jesus the Rabbi as he went to the Synagogue? This question has been at the center of much scholarship for over a hundred years: it has been named ‘the Quest of the Historical Jesus’. Some have felt that we can get behind the interpretive screen, so to speak and others that it is a hopeless quest. Perhaps a very tentative consensus has settled on a middle position. Careful and intensive work suggest that it is possible to identify the very earliest traditions about Jesus and the reporting of his message.

The Parables

The primary source is the parables. Linguistic analysis strongly suggests an Aramaic undertone, and though Jesus might have known a little Greek (the land, after all, was occupied by Greek speakers) he almost certainly spoke Aramaic. The parables strongly suggest that the fulcrum of Jesus’ message was the coming of the Kingdom (more properly, “the Rule”) of God, which, you may recall, is the very first thing that Mark records Jesus proclaiming after his baptism. Many of the parables begin with “The Kingdom of God is like … a father who had two sons…a merchant in the market for pearls … a shepherd seeking a lost sheep". The parables often imply a reversal of human standards and expectations, suggesting a view of God far from a narrow, exclusive legalism. *5 The strange parable of the farmer who paid all the day workers the same irregardless of how long they had worked, sets out the “amazing grace” of God, one of the central themes of at least two of Paul’s letters.

God's Grace & Jesus' Openness

This view of God as, one might say, ‘profligate’ was (and, one might say, still is) infuriating to legalist authorities, and Jesus put it into practice in his open table fellowship, which, the gospel writers note, caused grumbling and then, enmity. This openness, his willingness to put love of people before the strict letter of the law and the politics of the Jewish rulers dependent on Rome seem enough to account for Jesus’ arrest and execution. This approach seems to give us the outlines of a picture of the historical Jesus. What follows on the execution, however, is beyond history. It is based on the faith of that small band of disciples who understood that the powers of darkness had not defeated God, but believed that the power of love had overcome hate, and that life was stronger than death.

A Picture and a Portrait

This presents us with two pictures of Jesus, rather like two photos printed one over the other and we cannot have one without the other. If we are looking for something like a modern biography, the NT will disappoint us: we do not know, for instance the color of Jesus’ hair or eyes; we do not know if he was tall or short; we do not know if certain food gave him indigestion. Those earliest followers in the Way had known Jesus as a man and friend, set at a certain point in the flux of history; he was in no way a mythical divine hero to them like the gods of the Hellenistic world, but from the beginning they sensed that he was adopted by or exhibited or shared in the Divine; (all these positions were held and debated in the early centuries), and that, of course, definitively colors the portrait that became the norm, what later was to be called the “orthodox” view.

The Other Writings of the N.T.

I am aware that time is almost out, and I have not even looked at the rest of the N.T. That may seem strange particularly because the earliest of Paul’s letters were written something like 10-15 years before Mark wrote the first gospel. On the other hand, the Letters, by and large, take for granted the traditions that were encapsulated by the Evangelists, and, as a result, we find few references to events in the life of Jesus. The exception to this is the way the letters, particularly Paul’s, concentrate on the death and resurrection of Jesus, suggesting various metaphors as ways to explain how God rescues fallen humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus. *6 Perhaps the most succinct summary of this in the whole N.T. corpus is in Paul’s Second Letter to Corinth: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation”. *7 Paul is also considerably exercised by the fact that God’s chosen people, Israel, seemed to be rejecting the Messiah, and he employs all his Rabbinic skills in an attempt to show that the Scriptures can be read to show that Jesus is the next stage of salvation, beyond the preparation provided by the Torah.

The Proclamation

We cannot end without noting the Acts of the Apostles; in the first ten or so chapters, Luke gives us a glimpse of the beginnings of the Church, or perhaps one should say ‘churches’, as new tiny communities sprang up outside Palestine. Most interesting is the series of speeches Luke reports. There is a common pattern, that looks, incidentally, very like the framework of Mark’s Gospel:

The work of Jesus is to rescue humanity from its self-made chaos, a chaos exemplified by the evil powers that cause madness, and all kinds of human sickness.

The healing stories, indicate that the power of God is working through Jesus;
His activities, in welcoming those regarded by the Law as unclean, bring him into conflict with the authorities, who in alliance with the demonic forces, conspire to destroy him.

The apparent victory of these powers as Jesus dies on the cross, is reversed by the mighty action of God who declares the ultimate victory of good over evil, love over hate in the Resurrection of Jesus.

I end with another quotation (edited) from Norman Perrin, which points us on to the theme of next week’s lecture: *8
"[Jesus] who proclaimed the Kingdom of God began himself to be proclaimed as (a) the one about to return on the clouds of heaven. {Apocalyptic Christianity} (b) as the one who “died for our sins and was raised for our justification”: {Paul} (c) as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. {Johannine literature}. *9

1 Manuscripts & the Text of the New Testament. Edinburgh 1995 p 77
2 This is one among hundreds of occasions when John gives information not found in the Synoptic Gospels.
3 Found in Deutero Isaiah. Chs. 40-52
4 Mk. 15.33 There is also more than a hint that the powers of darkness and chaos, overcome by Yahweh in the command 'let there be light', here seem to have returned in victory.
5 St. Paul grasps this central point in I Cor. 1.25 – “Gods’ foolishness is wiser than human wisdom”. Who but a fool would send off a feckless 18 year old with half his equity?
6 One should also note Paul’s account of the Last Supper, the earliest we have, and several references the actual words of Jesus.
7 II Cor. 5.18f
8 Jesus in Dogma – The Age of Controversy
9 Op.cit. 302

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