Western culture, indeed the world, has the pivotal question put to it, again and again – who do you say that I am?– Hans Urs von Balthasar
MAKING SENSE OF JESUS
Given the influence of Christianity in Western culture, Jesus has been the architectonic symbol of divinity and humanity for almost 2,000 years. The interpretation of Jesus as symbol has morphed over the centuries – Jesus as shepherd, king, soldier, messiah, sage, prophet, reformer, revolutionary, friend – each nuance shaping/reflecting the broader cultural trends of the time – and each interpretation coloring the practice of Christianity in turn.
Still, Jesus remains a cipher. We will never have the definitive interpretation of his life and meaning – he is always mediated – knowing him in and of himself is impossible. The historical Jesus is lost to the past – the sources, references, and records are scant. The gospels tell us what the gospel authors thought was vital and necessary, but not the whole story – and the gospels, like any text, always require interpretation.
Jesus is a symbol overladen with metaphors rich in meaning – the virgin birth, the miracle worker, the innovative teacher, the radical reformer, the crucified one, the resurrected one, and Lord. The actual historical core of these metaphors, the nature of the events behind them, remain open to exploration, meditation, and debate. To overly literalize the metaphors inflicts damage and denigrates their robust meaning. To emphasize the metaphor to the point of eliminating all aspects of the historical core, no matter how varied from the gospel telling, erodes their power as well.
HISTORICAL JESUS SCHOLARSHIP
Our vision and understanding of Jesus determines our vision of Christian practice. Yet we fail to realize that there are multiple visions of Jesus competing for our attention and allegiance. We would be wise to periodically questioning our personal vision of Jesus for accuracy and adequacy.
The man called Jesus has changed repeatedly, in image and in reference, down through the ages as the institutional Church and as cultural bias has demanded. Each age has applied to Jesus images and emphases consistent with that age, expressive of its philosophy and development. The Jesus that Pat Robertson reveres is a Jesus that Paul of Tarsus or Francis of Assisi would hardly recognize or that Erasmus or Aquinas would likely not find appealing.
The broad scholarly consensus, while not unanimous, affirms Jesus’ historicity. Unfortunately, there is a poverty of historical and independent sources about Jesus. The historical Jesus is largely understood through the prism of theological statements concerning his spiritual significance as recorded in the scriptures and other early writings – subjected to various historical, cultural, and textual analysis.
Historical Jesus scholarship is comprised of attempts to understand the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth from the perspective of his historical and cultural context in which he lived, using critical, scholarly methods including history, cultural anthropology, archeology, and hermeneutics.
As said above, Jesus is a cipher. The considerable lack of historical evidence means that there will never be a definitive vision of Jesus. Historians, theologians, and believers will argue over his exact nature and spiritual meaning for centuries to come and there will be no closure, no way to prove anyone’s version of Jesus right or wrong. Jesus will always remain a mystery and a hero figure onto which we project our own values and hopes.
Why is there a lack of historical resources about Jesus? The poor of the ancient world don’t speak to us. They don’t leave their voices. The writings that come to us from antiquity are the writings of the elite. The art that comes is the art of the elite. The poor do not have time or resources to record events. Jesus lived and preached among the poor, living a life on the margins and going unnoticed by most of the elites of his day.
Our primary source of knowledge of Jesus is the gospels, both the four in the Christian Canon and the several others that were rejected from the collection. The gospels are complicated works – almost biographies, but not strict historical documents, they employ myth, apocalyptic language, poetry, and engage in high use of Midrash of Hebrew Biblical texts.
Christians often naively assume that the gospels contain the actual words of Jesus. They may contain some authentic sayings, in other places somewhat accurate memories of such, and in other situations, complete fiction – sometimes to make a point desired by the ancient author or community, other times to reflect the best efforts of the authors to replicate what Jesus would have likely said. Jesus’ teachings and dialogs in the gospels are the product of interpretation, memory, re-contextualization, and often invention. Mark’s gospel is written thirty to forty years after Jesus’ death – even an oral culture – which is not what the culture of time was – would not have remembered the teachings verbatim.
The gospels combine history remembered with history metaphorized. Some things reported in the gospels likely happened, others were mythic-fictionalized accounts meant to illustrate a theological point – what we call parables. The fact that the gospels generously employ myth and metaphor does not invalidate their truthfulness, but color our particular way of understanding Jesus. In other words, each gospel is a deliberate theological interpretation of Jesus – rather than a biography.
Aside from the religious writings of the period, there are only four independent, pagan-Jewish references to Jesus before 200 CE. None of these sources offer any theological insight about Jesus. They merely repeat what others have said. They indicate Jesus’ Jewishness, his preaching ministry, his death at the hands of Pilate, and his believer’s insistence that he continued to be present to them in some manner after his death.
Various approaches to Jesus have emerged that claim to be vital for an essential or reliable understanding of Jesus, including Jesus as Jewish Messiah, prophet, wisdom teacher, cynic philosopher, Jewish reformer, charismatic healer, social revolutionary, and apocalyptic prophet. The scholarly movement of historical Jesus research has not produced a unified vision, nor even agreed upon methods of such research.
Critics have claimed that much of the methodology applied has been faulty and that many of the scholars involved are overly influenced by personal and political agendas that skew their findings. Given the scarcity of evidence concerning Jesus – four canonical gospels, other Christian writings, and four non-Christian historical references – Jesus can be something of a mirror. There is a consensus, which tends to take the form of a warning, that “The Jesus you set out to find, is usually the one you wanted, and he looks much like yourself.”
Still, from the perspective of theological realism, Jesus is at the heart of Christianity, and therefore, any and all valid methodological tools from any applicable disciplines should be employed to uncover what information and insights are possible. Failing to do so would be to turn away from the fullest vision of Jesus possible for the sake of narrow, ideological reasons.
History does not tell us exactly how to respond to Jesus. Christianity is a highly personal affair. It requires consideration of the teachings of Jesus and finding ways, through trial and error, experimentation, and courage, to integrate his way, his teachings, and his manner into your life. Spiritual maturity can only be gained after answering the question Jesus asked in the gospel “Who do you say that I am?” for our self, honestly and clearly, and then living in integrity with those convictions.
The work of Historical Jesus scholarship is a form of evidential theology at its best. Using cutting edge human knowledge and reliable methods to uncover and understand the truth as we can most accurately see it 2,000 years after the fact.
JESUS IN CONTEXT
We gain valuable insight if we strive to understand Jesus in his historical context of first century Judea, as a Jew under the Roman Empire. Comprehending the rigidity, abusiveness, intolerance, violent and crushing aspects of empire casts Jesus’ teaching and activities in brighter light – light that helps us better grasp the meaning of his actions and teachings both then and today.
For the early Christian communities, Jesus was their leader, teacher, and example. He proclaimed a new social order, a new understanding of religion, and promoted a specific way of life. He was intentionally contrasted and compared to Augustus Caesar as the Reign of God was compared to the Imperial Rule of Rome. Within the contrast is found much of the meaning of Jesus’ message.
The common religious-cultural motif of Jesus’ period was to deify the emperors. Augustus was Lord, the son of God, a living God, born of a virgin, worker of great miracles, source of wisdom, and bringer of peace – this was the actual language used. The Roman Empire was the divinely sanctioned grantor of peace through military violence, its emperor a god. It’s system of patronage, elitism, militarism, taxation, tribute, slavery, patriarchy, and hierarchical social structure were the norms of the first century Mediterranean world. Rome brought order (logos, albeit a limited sense of such) and salvation (again, limitedly understood) to the world.
The audacity of Christianity was to proclaim Jesus as Lord. The subversive claim dared even use the same language and concepts – Jesus, too, was born of a virgin, was the son of God, was God incarnate, and the bringer of peace – the ruler of a new godly system meant to co-opt the Roman Empire – the new order – a reign of love, peace through justice, equality, freedom – the inverse values of Rome.
The early Christian proclamation of Jesus as Lord was not an academic or emotional theological statement of the divinity of Jesus. It was a subversive statement of allegiance to Jesus and his social and cultural vision – an allegiance seen as treasonous by Roman authorities.
JESUS AS TEACHER
As portrayed in the gospels, Jesus’ ministry was comprised of three parts – signs and wonders, the healings, miracles, exorcisms – hospitality of the open table, the subversive creating of new communities through meals and social celebrations – and teaching, his lessons, parables, and sayings.
What was the basic message of Jesus? What is the content of his teaching?
The central rubric of his teaching could accurately be described as offering a new social vision which he called the Kingdom of God – a way of life and a resulting social order rooted in kenotic love, compassion, and justice.
THE MEANING OF KINGDOM
“If concerned about sexist implications, use any modern translation of “Kingdom of God”, but remember it should always have overtones of high treason. Similarly, to say Jesus was Lord meant Caesar was not. Translate “Lord” with any contemporary expression you deem appropriate, as long as it is one that can get you killed.”
– John Dominic Crossan.
For Jesus, the reign of God was a metaphor for a social vision where peace is established through justice (rather than military conquest), where the dignity of all life is affirmed, where compassion reigns and the needy are cared for, where freedom supplants slavery and domination, and where religion, the underlying rationale for the above, is based on mercy and purity of heart and not adherence to custom or law.
Intrinsic to the new order is a new understanding of religion. The creation of a church or new religion does not seem to have been Jesus’ aim. Rather, his teaching and example amount to a critique and reform of Judaism. Judaism in the time of Jesus was undergoing significant transition, mostly prompted by Roman occupation and the eventual destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple system of sacrificial religion. The Pharisees represent the emerging trend (Rabbinic Judaism) toward a Judaism rooted in ethical behavior and observance of Jewish ritual, custom, and law (Halakhah). Jesus rejects the Temple system of animal sacrifice, but also the legalism and literalism of the Pharisees.
Jesus taught that the Kingdom was now – that it was available to all whose chose to make it a reality in their lives and the lives of others – through their actions. The Kingdom didn’t require a military revolution, or a political solution – it required the hearts and minds, and lives of those who embraced it. It was entered and made manifest through compassion, mercy, sharing, hospitality, justice, and kindness.
The radicalism of Jesus is not that he preached love – the Jews of his day believed in love and social justice, but within limits that Jesus breached. The radicalism of the message of Jesus is his argument that a new social-spiritual reality was breaking forth, was already present and available, one that favored the lowly, the outcast, the unclean, and the unwanted. The radical nature of the message is who is favored and to whom the Kingdom is revealed – a vision that directly threatens and contradicts the social, religious, political, and economic order of Jesus’ day.
The Sermon on the Mount (the new Sinai experience), and Jesus’ parables, present the Kingdom’s vision of holiness and goodness – a vision that calls us beyond the normal understanding of morality – and one that turns the world upside down. The imperfect and humble are favored over the self righteous and the legalistic. The violent power of Empire is supplanted with the gentle power of generosity of self.
At the heart of the Kingdom is the understanding that kenotic love is vital to our wholeness. According to Jesus, goodness and virtue alone do not “save” in the full sense of the term. This is the mistake of those who value ritual and moral purity more highly than love and mercy – only the process of dying to self and the giving of self to others in love is fully transformative.
THE OPEN TABLE
Jesus used the central practice of an open table as both a real and symbolic/iconic way to convey this new order. Here I rely heavily on the scholarship of John Dominic Crossan.
A central aspect of Jesus’ ministry was the open the table that welcomes all people. Jesus’ table was scandalous for his day. It was a table where the sexes, classes, and social groups all mixed together as equals. Anyone could have been seated next to anyone – male next to a female, free next to slave, socially privileged next to the destitute, and the ritually pure next to the unclean.
And this practice would have been a social and cultural nightmare and a sincere threat to all who carefully defended and/or benefited from the social constructions and conventions of the First Century. The open table is a microcosm and symbol of the non-discriminatory new order of love – and visible, real, and sincere threat to those who supported the Imperial or Jewish ritual orders of the day.
After Jesus’ death, the early Christian community continued the practice of the open table and found meaning in the action. The practice which morphed into many forms of Eucharist – or meals of thanksgiving – is a foundational continuation of the open eating and inclusive community that Jesus established. And the meaning of the open table continues today to speak against social and religious customs that exclude, alienate, judge, and divide others. It is a practice today’s Christians would be wise to continue and renew.
The open table symbolizes genuine human community, oneness, equality, and love – exactly the message Jesus intended. This vision clashed fundamentally with the basic hierarchical, elitist values of the Hellenistic-Roman Mediterranean culture of the day.
The work of Hal Taussig, a New Testament scholar, provides rich meaning and context for Jesus’ open table. Taussig calls to our attention that meals rooted in ritual sacrifice are not part of the contemporary world. However, such meals were ubiquitous in the world of Christian origins. The ancient Mediterranean world was organized around a militaristic state, layered systems of economic and cultural patronage, and cultic religion for which communal sacrifice (community meals and private gatherings) was central.
Another New Testament Scholar and Jesus Historian, Stephen Patterson, comments on how sacrifice was at the core of every ancient Greek and Roman city. These sacrificial meals ritualized the power of the Empire and reinforced oppressive power structures. One cannot state strongly enough how these ritualized meals reinforced the Imperium of Rome and all it stood for – how you participated in these communal meals was directly related to your place in the Imperial order.
One of the basic layers of meaning in these communal celebrations was the food itself. Sacrifice in the basic sense was killing and offering up of an animal or group of animals, and the ritual included the sharing and eating of the flesh of these creatures. The word sacrifice in Greek means to feast, to butcher, and to ritually slaughter. Therefore, for this ancient culture, sacrifice had a necessary culinary element – the eating of meat was a sacred occasion.
Sacrifice had an inherent economic and class context. In a peasant economy, in which over 90% of the population lived at barely subsistence levels, food was an all-consuming affair. Meat was a luxury, and a source of vital nutrition.
The typical ancient city would look to its economic and cultural elites to organize and finance the sacrifices. Sacrifice was an expensive system. It required temples, public altars, priests, helpers, many animals, servers to distribute the food, set-up, clean up, and so on.
Once the meat was ritually sacrificed, it was cooked, and then distributed for feasting. While modern anthropologists tend to focus on the ritual slaughter aspects of the sacrifice, the ancients likely focused on the feasting and sharing aspects – not to mention seating arrangements, who got what quality of food, and so on.
Ancient societies were organized along lines of strict class boundaries and patronage. The Roman world, especially, was one of hierarchy and patronage, especially in the form of the Imperial Cult.
The “first” citizens of the city received the largest, choicest portions, second ranking officials and merchants, standard cuts of meat. Further down the social food chain the shares would become smaller and meager.
Finally, outside the circle of “ranks” and “patrons” would stand widows, orphans, slaves, non-citizens, and those deemed “unclean” and “unwanted.” This group would belong to no patron system, would have no voice, no social power, no rights, and would be on the margins of the sacrifice altogether.
Sacrifice was also indicative of the cultural values and structures of the day. A sacrifice expresses and reinforces the ordering of the community through ritual and elemental means. The sacrifice would visually and practically stake out the boundaries of the community. Ranks would sit with ranks, power with power, and so on down. In essence, attending a sacrifice was attending an index, or map, of the community gathered.
Careful attention was paid not to mix gender, class, vocation, standing – sacrifice, more than any other tangible act of ancient culture, indicated where one fit or didn’t fit in society.
Finally, sacrifice served a cosmic-religious function. The sacrifice was meant to maintain or restore order and balance in the status quo – to help win the war, keep the peace, stave off the famine, fight the pestilence, to restore the inner integrity of the polis – and to above all, maintain the Empire.
Therefore, sacrifice meant participation in religiously supporting the status quo, praying and worshiping for the continuation of the current culture – be it oppressive or not. Sacrifice sustains, creates, and maintains community according to the lines of the powerful and cemented social paradigms it symbolically represents.
Enter Jesus and the early Christian community. Jesus intentionally used his table ministry to contrast and challenge the status quo of the sacrificial order. Jesus sought out, had a preference for, appealed to – the destitute, the outcasts – those outside the bounds of the sacrificial order. The untouchables. Those without patrons, without power, or stability, or standing.
Jesus’ table was meant for the unclean, those on the margins, and the lowly of the social order. And Jesus’ table was easily recognized as a dangerous threat to the established social, religious, and economic order, as well as the Imperial Cult.
Further, Jesus’ meals were not sacrifices – the food was freely offered, not ritually slaughtered, not offered to a god. People were invited to eat, to be nourished, and were simply welcomed. Jesus and his early community refused to sacrifice, refused to participate and place themselves in the web of social, political, and economic hierarchy and Imperial structures that bound together the forms of oppression and harshness. Christians would not eat the meat of the Hellenic/Roman sacrifices.
The Roman Empire could not accommodate the Empire of God. So, the Christians took their leave. They opted out of the Empire and their assigned places within it. And they stopped doing the thing that religiously created, affirmed, and maintained the whole Imperial system – they stopped participating in the sacrifice.
The meaning of the open table continues to speak against our social and religious customs that exclude, alienate, judge, and divide others – when done properly as Jesus appears to have intended. The Open Table is the ritual-practical realization of the Open Kingdom. The table is a core metaphor – and meeting place – for the new order of love.
Three sets of questions arise from this analysis of early Christian practice. First, to what degree do we participate in sacrifices to today’s structures of Empire? Second, do our churches practice a sense of openness and hospitality, including policies regarding Eucharist? Third, do we practice an open table in our homes, welcoming others and offering hospitality?
REFLECTIONS ON DEATH & RESURRECTION
Throughout his ministry, Jesus never advocated violence. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount he directly taught nonviolence, and elsewhere he taught that one should love his or her enemies. When faced with arrest, he did not resist. And from the earliest, the Christian communities opposed violence.
Jesus died a violent death, being executed by the Roman authorities, likely with cooperation from the Jewish religious authorities. He was arrested for reasons related to insurrection, trouble making, and veiled threats that amounted, in Pilate’s mind, to treason. Given that much of his ministry was a challenge, be it nonviolent challenge, to the Roman Empire and Temple authorities, his execution, while tragic, should not have been a complete surprise.
Still, Jesus’ followers struggled to make sense of his death and find meaning in the tragedy. How could someone who seemed so connected to God, who promoted justice, and taught and lived nonviolently, meet with such a violent and ignoble end? Was there any “higher” meaning or purpose to this disappointment?
Underlying the earliest Christian communities wrestling with Jesus’ execution was a searching of the Hebrew scriptures for possible insights. Some early Christian thinkers argued that Jesus’ death was connected to Jewish notions of sacrifice, while others made assertions of some positive power (grace) emerging from such. All of this began to be overlaid with themes of atonement.
Paul, who authored the bulk of the New Testament, implies that the events in the opening of Genesis constitute a rupture in the relationship between humans and the divine. The Covenant offered to the Jews was a means of healing the division. Paul speaks for many in the early community when he connects Jesus’ resurrection to some sense of atonement – a healing deeper than the Covenant.
The exact nature of atonement has been debated through Christian history. However, notions of violent atonement – treating Jesus as some sort of human sacrifice where Jesus substituted himself for us, and died a penal, substitutionary death – present many problems that most Christians overlook, awash in the current culture of popular Christian language and expression.
Violent forms of atonement contradict our most basic understandings of justice. How does the death of an innocent other make right the transgressions of someone else? Modern humans understand that culpability resides with the offending individual and cannot be erased by punishing another, even if that other volunteers for such a role. Such punishment is immediately understood as wrong.
Further, such notions imply a father who arranges the death of one of his children for the benefit of the rest of his children. These atonement motifs amount to divine child abuse. Such theories also seem to imply that God’s options are limited and forgiveness without blood is impossible.
The meanings inherent in Jesus’ death must move beyond those of satisfaction, justice, payment, sacrifice, and punishment underlying most notions of atonement today. Rather than overlay Jesus’ death with such, Christian theology might gain from focusing on Jesus’ nonviolent response to his violent execution.
In the cross, we find a symbol of integrity and self-giving love. Reading early Christian literature, and extrapolating on the circumstances, it appears that the first Christians assert the resurrection as the recognition that Jesus – his teaching and the way of life he offered – are vindicated and shown worthy despite Jesus’ death.
The cross – the banner of the new order – is the ultimate symbol of the transformative dynamic potential of kenotic love. The integrity of Jesus’ love and the true meaning of sacrifice and self-emptying becomes rawly visible in the passion – regardless if the recorded details of such be a blending of allegory, spiritualized fiction, and fact.
The resurrection is therefore intrinsically linked to the cross. Proclaiming Jesus as Risen is to proclaim the victory of love and human dignity, despite the reality of death. The resurrection is the logical result of the power of kenosis demonstrated on the cross – and calls us to a way of life marked by the radical giving of self to realities that deserve our dignity and gift. The byproduct of kenosis is life returned, restored, and transformed.
Jesus’ execution by the Empire didn’t prove to be a final victory of Rome. The first Christians grasped that how they now lived, the affirmation of their dignity, the refusal to submit to the dehumanization of Empire – was justified and demonstrated correct. The meaning of their lives became entwined in the layered meanings of the cross and empty tomb – you may kill us, but you cannot win.
JESUS AS LORD & SACRAMENT
Is Jesus God? To answer this question, we must first wrestle with the meaning and nature of divinity – an inexhaustible task. Incomplete and imprecise metaphysics and language fails to adequately illuminate. What we do know is this – that many who encounter Jesus find meaning, power, purpose, and love – they encounter what we tend to think of as divine realities. Is Jesus God? The lines blur. Metaphysics grasps at mysteries.
In Jesus we see the things we consider divine, sacred, and Godly – forgiveness, love, mercy, compassion, the attributes we understand to be profound and worthy to give ourselves over to. In Jesus, we also see the best of our humanity – the same traits we consider godly, thereby harkening back to the words of Genesis that we are made in God’s image. Jesus is therefore the unitive sacrament of God and humanity, a uniquely Western vision.
Who do you say I am? This decisive, pivotal question of Jesus remains key to restoring the vitality of Christianity in each and every age.
To answer the question conceptually, to default to elaborate metaphysical claims concerning the nature of Jesus, today lacks wisdom and appeal. To treat Jesus as a something like a child treats an imaginary friend – a kindly, ghostlike presence who comforts, neglects the seriousness and radicality of Jesus. Worse, to interpret Jesus as a divine sacrifice, offered to appease a demanding God – a blood payment granting individual salvation – is to reduce the meaning of Jesus to a ticket to heaven.
Renewal appears linked to giving a personal answer – calling Jesus Lord – identifying him as the true core of meaning among the competing power centers and structures within the broader culture. To claim Jesus as Lord is a subversive statement of allegiance, values, and fundamental life stance – not shorthand for an elaborate, abstract Greek ontology.
All content copyrighted with all rights reserved. Gregory Gronbacher, 2021. (C)