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Who Is This Jesus, Anyway?
I saw on Amazon a British sports-arena version of Jesus Christ Superstar. The acting, singing, choreography, integration with giant video imaging, and the clever use of intentional anachronisms made for good entertainment for those who like drama. The lyrics and movement showed a keen familiarity with the Biblical text even though the writers clearly spun the narrative in directions completely unintended by the original authors. But then, since when had honoring the meaning and intent of the original authors meant anything to those in the art community?
While I enjoyed the entertainment, I did not find Webber-Rice’s version of an anguished, tormented, self-doubting, and annoyingly whiny Jesus to be very compelling. (If only he had listened to Judas!)
The problem of who Jesus was is by no means a new one. Pick up any book on church history and the first four hundred years or so seem dedicated to fighting to getting the story of Jesus right. Was he Creator or created? Was he human or God? If both, how does that work? And how do we reconcile this with Hebrew Scripture and monotheism? The creeds such as the Apostolic and Nicene creeds were kind of statements that said, “We have looked at this from every possible angle and this is the best language we can use to answer these questions.”
But the questions come even earlier. Many in the church advise new believers to start with the gospel of John. The book starts out fair enough with a dissertation here, a substantiating miracle there. But then the story breaks out into a community conflict so polarizing you would have thought someone brought up at a family Thanksgiving dinner the question, “Who is Donald Trump?” The answer would range from the most deceptive scoundrel ever to the savior of the world. (Note: I’m making an analogy about polarization here, not implying that Mr. Trump and Jesus are in the same category.)
Some in John’s gospel argue that the facts and history of Jesus just do not line up. Others point out that his teaching and his corroborating works of miracles could only point to the true Savior of the world. John, the writer, makes it no secret that the latter is the very place he is trying to take his reader. (See John 20:30, 31). At the end of John 7, after bitter but hushed debate (where the wrong statement could get you excommunicated or possibly killed), people throw up their hands and returned to their homes (John 7:53).
The Christian faith is fundamentally about Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?” While Christianity has its doctrines, its rules, and its metaphysical elements, it has this obsessive “Jesus is everything” quality about it. Even Marian theology among Catholics is set forth as a means to preserve the veracity of who the church believes Jesus is.
Those who evangelize Jews, such as Jews for Jesus, will likely argue how the life of Jesus line up with the laws, rituals, and prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. Those in the early church were less inclined to “prove Jesus” by how many prophecies He fulfilled (they weren’t moderns, after all) but would read the Hebrew Scriptures as if Jesus was indeed the interpretive key to everything that has come before.
Those who push back, such as Jews for Judaism, would point out that Jesus had not fulfilled all the Messianic prophecies (no universal rule of the throne of David, for example). Christians would retort that prophetic scriptures work outside of time, often having near fulfillments and far fulfillment, and in that spirit, it is perfectly consistent to argue that Jesus showed forth some of His Messianic qualities in the Incarnation and will fulfill the rest at his second coming. Jews for Judaism would argue that this seems more of a justification of a Messiah that fell short and that it would be simpler and perhaps more honest to await a Messiah that clearly fulfilled everything.
It is the same back and forth in the gospel of John, and like John 7, after a night of debate, all throw up their hands and returned to their homes.
Liberal Christians try to solve the problem of who Jesus is by assuming (as they generally do) that we are much more enlightened people than those in the past. We have science, textual criticism, and historical analysis methods that are far superior, so we are better equipped to get at the Jesus of history without being sidetracked by the Jesus of faith. But the fruit of their efforts only brings forth a tearing down of the Jesus that the church historically embraced without producing a viable alternative. One historian may say that He was like this and another may say He was like that. In the end, the varying views come down to what assumptions and biases the interpreter has. Often Jesus looks a lot like the current moral vision and wildly popular cultural trends that we already possess.
To no one’s shock and surprise, Jesus Christ Superstar portrays Jesus looking a lot like a sensitive soul leading a group one might find in an Occupy Wall Street rally while the religious elites dress remarkably in conservative business wear. It certainly makes a left-leaning audience feel more just without having to bother to change anything about themselves.
While Liberal Christians are free to pursue this route, I find this religious direction boring. The best you can say for such ilk is that their churches believe the same thing as Starbucks but makes no meaningful statement on who Jesus is over against the self-aggrandizing, secular movements they have already been conditioned to embrace.
In the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, Peter proclaimed the simple statement “Jesus is Lord” and remarkably thousands of Jews (and later Gentiles) believed. It was not a message of how to be saved, or how Jesus can give you peace, or how to use Jesus’ principles to win in life. It was more akin to after a military victory when a Centurion would come into a Roman outpost, set up a banner, and proclaim “Caesar is Lord.” It wasn’t a question or invitation. It was a non-negotiable proclamation. A “good news,” if you will, unless you happened to be opposed.
For 2,000 years, the church has been attempting to work out exactly what it means that Jesus is Lord. Some have done it well, others horrendously.
Nevertheless, regardless of what the church has done or not done, the question always traces back to the same place: Who was this Jesus anyway? The Biblical gospels themselves don’t give a whole lot of advice but just tell the story of his life, death, and crucifixion and gently asks the reader where they are in the story. Are you a follower or a detractor? Do you watch from afar or actively push back? Do you truly believe or pretend to believe in serving your own purpose? Are you for Him or against Him? Is he, as Rice put into Mary Magdelene’s mouth, “just a man” or is he something much more?
Wherever one stands or doesn’t stand religiously (and there is no judgment or condescension here), the one who embraces the claim that Jesus is Lord and aligns their life accordingly is what it means to be called a Christian, a follower of Christ. Those who don’t buy into such a claim are not.Published in Religion & Philosophy
Thank you for this post. When I started it, it felt like a review of JCSS but evolved into a much deeper question which is the title of your post. Your words caused me to slow down and think, I thank you for that. And I will continue to think on that question.
Sometimes, I tend to just fall back on my faith and think G*d gave the ability to choose to believe so He also gave the ability to always continue to question, not in a doubting way, exactly who He and His Son truly are. I am thankful for that blessing.
This is a great post, David. It deserves more than a like, but I’m not sure whether I have much to add.
I guess that I could follow up on this part:
I’m not completely sure about the portions of Acts that you mean to discuss. If you look at Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2, or his sermon in Solomon’s portico in Acts 3, he said much more than the simple statement that “Jesus is Lord.”
Peter explained that Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy, that Jesus did miracles, but that He was rejected and killed by the Jewish crowd — the same crowd that Peter was addressing. Peter explained that Jesus was resurrected, that He was the heir of David but greater than David, and that He was exalted at the right hand of God. Peter described Jesus as the Holy and Righteous One and as the Author of life
Peter explained exactly how to be saved, on Pentecost. “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” [Acts 2:38.]
Peter explained it again and told them how peace would come, I think, in his sermon at Solomon’s Colonnade. “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he man send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” [Acts 3:19-21.]
I think that do agree with the final part of your quoted statement, David — that Peter did not explain “how to use Jesus’ principles to win in life,” if by this you mean to “win” in a worldly way. I think that Peter did explain in this part of Acts — and the New Testament further explains elsewhere — that it is through faith in Jesus that one “wins” eternal life.
Excellent post. I finished one of the great courses on the New Testament which covered it from a historical perspective, not just what the evidence was for people and events described in the New Testament, but the books themselves: when were they written, by whom and how did they make their way into the version we now have. It was very interesting. I am used to hearing and reading the Gospels through individual verses. I had not realized the different points of view on many of the questions you raise above about Jesus, was he man or God or both, expressed in the different Gospels, at least according to this professor. So I have it on my list to read all the Gospels all the way through as a text, rather than as inspiration. Had I done that already, I might have more to contribute to your excellent essay.
But he also said, which I found interesting, that he has his students go through all the other books of the New Testament other than the Gospels, and record explicit mentions of Jesus. He said they would fit on a single index card.
Have you tried it? And do you count “the Lord” as a reference to Jesus? Or even “God”?
This is an interesting time in history that we are in – some say the most unique and challenging since the days of the Apostles. But more than that, we can see so much of what the words of Jesus, and many of the Apostles and Old Testament prophets predicted coming true.
It always starts with faith – that is part of free will. There is no forcing and no one can make someone believe in Jesus. Only the Holy Spirit can open their eyes, but we are asked to be witnesses to the Truth. That’s all.
We are seeing a rapid acceleration of an anti-creation being formed. Everything that is anti-religious, amoral and perverse is being heavily promoted. The two pillars of creation are being destroyed (or trying).
No I haven’t. But I thought that after I read the Gospels back to back, I would try.
Let’s try that out, shall we? I’m going to start with Acts, and list the verses that reference Jesus — sometimes by the name “Jesus,” or by “Christ,” or by “he” or “his” where the context makes it clear that it is Jesus, and other references like the “Son” or the “Lamb of God” and so on.
Acts Ch. 1, verses: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 16, 21, 22.
Acts Ch. 2, verses: 22, 23, 24, 25, 31, 32, 33, 36, 38
Acts Ch. 3, verses: 6, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 20
Acts Ch. 4, verses: 2, 10, 11, 12, 13, 18, 27, 30, 33
Acts Ch. 5, verses: 30, 31, 40, 42
Acts Ch. 6, verses: 14
Acts Ch. 7, verses: 55, 56, 59
Acts Ch. 8, verses: 12, 16, 35
Acts Ch. 9, verses: 5, 17, 20, 22, 27, 34
Acts Ch. 10, verses: 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 48
Acts Ch. 11, verses: 17, 20
Acts Ch. 13, verses: 23, 24, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 33, 34, 38, 39
Acts Ch., 15, verses: 11, 26
Acts Ch. 16, verses: 7, 18, 31
Acts Ch. 17, verses: 3, 7, 18
Acts Ch. 18, verses: 5, 25, 28
Acts Ch. 19, verses: 4, 5, 13, 15, 17
Acts Ch. 20, verses: 21, 24, 35
Acts Ch. 21, verses:13
Acts Ch. 22, verses: 8, 10, 14, 15, 16, 18, 19, 20, 21
Acts Ch. 23,verses: 11
Acts Ch. 24, verses: 24
Acts Ch. 25, verses: 19
Acts Ch. 26, verses: 9, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 23
Acts Ch. 28, verses: 23, 31
Romans Ch. 1, verses: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
Romans Ch. 2, verses: 16
Romans Ch. 3, verses: 22, 24, 25, 26
Romans Ch. 4, verses: 24, 25
Romans Ch. 5, verses: 1, 2, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 15, 17, 21
Romans Ch. 6, verses: 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 23
Romans Ch. 7, verses: 4, 25
Romans Ch. 8, verses: 1, 2, 3, 9, 10, 11, 17, 29, 32, 34, 35, 39
Romans Ch. 9, verses: 1, 3, 5
Romans Ch. 10, verses: 4, 6, 7, 9
Romans Ch. 12, verses: 6
Romans Ch. 13, verses: 14
Romans Ch. 14, verses: 9, 14, 15, 18
Romans Ch. 15, verses: 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 29, 30
Romans Ch. 16, verses: 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 16, 18, 20, 25, 27
OK, I’m going to stop there.
I don’t know who taught this “great courses” series on the New Testament, and I can’t be sure that you are remembering what he said accurately, about the alleged paucity of references to Jesus outside the Gospels. I think that the list above proves that, if he really said that, he either: (1) had no idea what he was talking about, or (2) is a liar.
I’d be curious to know the identity of the teacher of the course. I have regularly found that unbelievers present themselves as experts on New Testament issues, often with impressive qualifications. Do not rely on them.
Oops! I should have said outside of the Gospels and Acts. Your list seems to support that there are relatively few mentions outside of that. I was expecting to be angry at the professor and stop listening as I am sensitive to anti-Christian bias but I found him reasonable.
The name of the course and professor is: Bart D. Ehrmann from UNC Chapel Hill https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/260605.The_New_Testament
And I should correct my statement after @arizonapatriot showed me that I misremembered. I believe the professor included both the Gospels and Acts. And he wasn’t trying to be pejorative. He was asking questions about what, for example, Paul knew about Jesus based on his writings.
Years ago I thought I would take a course with the Great courses and I stumbled upon the New Testament course by Bart Ehrmann. It was before the DaVinci Code made Biblical deconstruction mainstream and popular so he didn’t have quite the household name for himself back then.
He became a Christian and to enlarge his faith, he went to an Evangelical college (Wheaton). He went to graduate school to be educated out of his faith. He became an expert in Biblical text (no one would deny his expertise in that area) and use that expertise to stop believing in the reliability and authority of Scripture though he yet had some faith in God.
He later wrote the book God’s Problem where he argues that the Bible never deals with the problem of evil and suffering. This brought him to be an atheist. He talks in the forward of the book how he went to his (then) wife’s Episcopalian church on Christmas Eve and heard the haunting and beautiful words of “God with us” and was saddened because he could no longer believe it.
When I took the course, it upended my world as it is a tight alternative universe of assumptions: The Bible has contradictions between books and lots of people use pseudonyms so we don’t really know who wrote what. Therefore we can assume it was all politically motivated and not to be taken as fact, so it takes modern scholarship to look beyond the text and reconstruct who Jesus really was. And (like I argued in my essay) he comes up with a Jesus different from the others who do the same.
I remember walking up and down a hill by my house trying to sort this all out and if I needed to abandon my faith in favor of such new information. But slowly it dawned on me that what he teaches is predicated upon assumptions. And why are his assumptions better than what has come before? On what basis do we assume that his assumptions are better than, say, the church fathers who lived at that time and were closer to the oral tradition that were captured in these books? Or N. T. Wright whose analysis of the text supports a faith once delivered to the Saints?
Again, Ehrmann is a scholar in a specific area and if I argued with him, he would eat my lunch. But like anyone else, he uses what he knows to make assumptions and with his assumptions, draws conclusions which leads him to yet another “Who do you say I am?”
Great Courses that I’ve enjoyed that are scholarly but are not specifically directed to undermine the historical Christian faith (graciously and fairly representing other positions that the professor may not hold) is The History of Christian Theology by Phillip Cary (some points in my article was motivated by this) and The Apocalypse by Craig Koester.
One other point. The fact that Paul held the cloaks of those stoning Stephen, means Paul (Saul) was local. Do you think it’s more likely or less likely that, even if he didn’t agree with Jesus at the start, that he heard and saw Jesus personally?
Not everything I know I learned from Mad magazine, but this one joke has stayed with me. A man was passing a psychiatrist in the hallway and said, “Good morning,” and the psychiatrist said, “Hm. I wonder what he meant by that.”
I also learned from two really great teachers in school and one said, “It is said that there are two kinds of intellects: the tumbler intellect and the soup bowl intellect. The tumbler is very narrow but very deep, and the soup bowl is very broad but shallow.” And somewhat sheepishly he said, “I am a soup bowl.”
I’ve gotten into — or rather had ended — conversations with professionals who thought of everything in terms of their professions. I once was discussing laws regulating sexual activity and said, “But the precedent it sets!” and he got mad and said, “Precedent is set at the appellate level, You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Recently I read an conversation here on R> which began when someone used the word “abstract” and the computer programmers (at least one of them) said that abstract means something very specific, as if to say: Pick another word, I don’t know what you’re talking about.
But more to the point, it’s the preconceptions that people bring to analysis that often create limitations, and one’s breadth and depth of the training that people take for granted, that influences, even gives strict boundaries, to what and how people think.
Chuck Missler (who among other things was a cryptologist) once said that he wasted decades on textual analysis. And finally one day, he realized (IIRC — his argument was) that Jesus quoted Moses from every section of the Pentateuch that was at the time supposedly authored by four or five different authors, and yet Jesus spoke of the man, Moses, as the writer of each section. And I think that basically, Missler said: Take the Bible at its word.
And Missler was a believing Christian, so how much more would disbelief or atheism distort the modern analyst’s interpretation of someone else’s authorship and the meaning of the author’s writings according to his own professional (regardless of his personal) biases?
And about there being only a few explicit mentions of Jesus outside the Gospels, I think this is word games. Picking an epistle at random, Colossians, it begins: Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Here Jesus is clearly identified as the Christ, and Paul goes on to mention this Christ 25 times throughout the epistle. The whole New Testament is meaningless without the references to Jesus Christ.
I don’t think that my list supports the assertion that there are relatively few mentions outside of the Gospels and Acts. I covered just the book of Romans and listed 87 verses explicitly referencing Jesus.
There are 16 more verses in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians.
I was wondering whether it was Ehrmann. He is one of the most prominent unbelieving scholars of Christianity.
Many years ago, I started listening to a lecture series on the Christian apocrypha (I checked it out of the library). It was by Ehrmann. He was identified as something like a scholar of early Christianity, and I assumed that he was a believer. About one CD into the series, his commentaries made it clear that he was not a believer. I looked him up online, and sure enough, he is one of the most significant opponents of the faith among academics.
I think that you need to be very, very careful about such sources. What do the Gospels and epistles say about listening to false teachers and false prophets? They can be very convincing, and sound very reasonable, and lead you straight to Hell.
I will grant one thing to Ehrmann. I’ve listened to some YouTube debates that he’s had about the historical reliability of the New Testament — I think that at least one was with William Craig Lane. Ehrmann concedes that most of the New Testament was written quite early, generally in the mid-to-late 1st Century — i.e. from perhaps the late 40s to the 90s AD.
This is a major concession from the critics. In the 19th Century, the field of “textual criticism” of the NT arose, principally in Germany, claiming that the NT was not written until much later, generally around the 4th Century. This undermined the faith of a great many people, I think, and it was completely wrong.
Have you ever read Lee Strobel’s book The Case For Christ? Strobel is an interesting fellow — if I recall correctly, he was trained as a lawyer, became a journalist specializing in legal issues and court cases, then came to faith and did his own investigation of various disputed issues. The book is a series of interviews with experts in a variety of areas, including the historicity of the New Testament. The scholar interviewed in this area was Bruce Metzger, who was actually Bart Ehrmann’s teacher. Suffice it to say that teacher and student disagree.
David, thanks for both the post and your comment #10 above. I want to follow up on one part of the comment:
I don’t know how Ehrmann could reach this conclusion. I think that the Bible does deal with the problem of evil and suffering. I could probably write a 50-page pamphlet on the issue today. The answer is a bit complicated, perhaps.
I haven’t read the book, but I can give my impression based on your summary. The issue is not that the Bible does not answer the question of evil and suffering. The problem is that Ehrmann does not like the answer.
The reason that he, and others, do not like the answer is that they want to be God. That’s what it means when one criticizes God. It means that they think that they could do a better job than God, that God is some bumbling idiot, or worse.
The Book of Job is very important on this question. It does not fully answer the question. It shows us where to start, with a spirit of humility. It is not our place to question God, and if we do, we are lost.
I should probably make clear what I mean by “question God.” I think that it’s acceptable, even proper, to legitimately ask God why things happen that we do not understand. I think that there is an answer, which we will see if we hold to faith in the goodness of God. If we question God’s goodness, though, then we commit the sin of pride, presuming to sit in judgment on Him.
Believe me I take everything coming out of scholars mouths with a grain of salt. I probably shouldn’t have weighed in here before I did my own research. On the other hand, I have appreciated the counters to my premises based on the course.
but I have to say I did not react negatively to the course or the professor. I decided long ago that my Christian faith required no historical proof. But it is a fascinating topic.
As soon as I read that assertion, I got out my Greek NT and read through the first twelve chapters of 1 Corinthians and found 4o mentions of just the name “Jesus” or “Christ” or the two together. That does not include uses of “kyrios” that refer to Jesus. And it is only one book. The mentions of Jesus in the NT epistles would only fit on a postcard if printed in two point type. Maybe a microfiche taped to the card. Ehrmann sometimes makes concessions to the truth, as in that debate metioned above, but on the whole the man is a servant of the anti-truth and not to be trusted as a source about the New Testament.
Jesus is mentioned 17 times in the first chapter of First Corinthians. And it is not a really long chapter. His index cards must be bigger than mine.