Friday, April 13, 2007

Historical Jesus

April DeConick has asked - who is your historical Jesus? She writes (and I quote since the link does not seem to be working to the original post):

there is too much doubt in my mind that the early Christian charismatic movement made any distinction between the voice of the historical Jesus and the living Jesus whose spirit inspired its prophets.
Then she lists the bare facts of the case:

He was a Jew born in Nazareth to his biological parents Mary and Joseph. He was born in the late first century BCE. As an adult he was baptized by John the Baptist and became part of his movement, preaching the imminent coming of God's Kingdom and calling people to repentance before the great Judgment. At some point Jesus (and John?) decided that Jesus was called to be God's anointed Prophet who would preach to the Jews about the type of righteousness the law and God demanded, the need for repentance, and the urgent need to prepare for the coming of God's Kingdom. He understood his healing mission to be part of the end-of-the-world war against Satan and his demons, so that he thought that the Kingdom was already in the process of unfolding as Satan was being defeated. At some point John was killed and Jesus was on his own. Jesus was kosher, and saw his mission to include the Israelites, but probably not the Gentiles. Eventually he and his followers made their way to Jerusalem at Passover. They went to the Temple and something happened (he preached/acted in such a way that it was understood that he was a messianic contender) that initiated a riot, for which he was arrested. He was tried as a leader of a seditious movement, convicted by the Romans of acting against Rome as the "King of the Jews," and executed as a criminal. The world never ended as he predicted. So he was a failed apocalyptic prophet. Of his actual words, I am less certain.

I must say that this historical Jesus is not particularly attractive to me. Nor I think to very many Christians today. He appears to me dangerous and maybe even crazy (which, now that I think about it, is the opinion that his own family appears to have had of him). Personally, he is not someone that I would feel very encouraged to follow.

This is a significant challenge. I awoke very early today with two responses in my mind:

  1. To describe HJ is to describe the in-breaking of God in the flesh in history.
  2. To describe HJ is to describe my fears and hopes without constraint.
" distinction between the voice of HJ and the living Jesus who inspired its prophets." I think this important sentence that April has written uncovers her intent in posing the question. I will add to it also: it is most curious that the voice of the Son in the epistle to the Hebrews has no words that remind us of gospel sayings but only words taken from the Psalter. And Paul's letters have only a few allusions to 'historical words' of Jesus and these can be found in the tradition of the Wisdom books. Michael Pahl in the making of a dissertation concludes that the Word of the Lord in 1 Thessalonians 4 is not a saying or allusion to a saying but the word of Salvation - the same word that is evident in all Scripture. In all the letters, is it only in 2 Peter that we find an allusion to an 'event' recorded in the Gospels?

It might be terrifying to enter this conversation seriously. But, using April's list which carefully moves from the biological to the mythological, let me try. There was a Jew born to a biological parent sometime in the final years of Herod the Great. He knew trauma of entry into the covenant. By taking what may have been the child of a war rape into the family, Joseph affirms a real humanity of love and acceptance. Such adoptions are fraught with difficulty - to skip ahead, this could be the reason that his family thought him out of his mind. And who knows the long-term effects of such an act? Can we blame Joseph for the ills of the world today?

And the child, Jesus, grew up as a tender shoot among them and showed some early signs of prodigy or precociousness especially in religious matters. I imagine some of his questions to the learned teachers in the temple:

Do the fires of Israel burn as the fires of a son should? Do the Gentiles see and rejoice?
And when no one could answer this, he would go on:

Does not the Scripture say, I called my son out of Egypt? and this not for the son's sake but for the Egyptians. What will I do with you, O Jacob, if your fires serve only yourselves?
They were proud of such a son in Israel. And then they might have asked him, a child, as if he were their shepherd: What is the teaching about the Vine? And he might answer,

The Vine will bear its fruit through the winepress of affliction. So it is written of the servant. (How will we console him?)
This last he said almost to himself. And they continued their questions: Are the Romans our affliction? And he paused and looked at them, and said,

The Romans are the inheritors of Egypt. We will be a light to them also. The song of the vineyard prepares the servant to know his security in any empire. They think to teach us the humanity they learned from Hellas, but they will drink a greater wine than that. The servant will create new wine.
We don't read much about him till an indeterminate adulthood - he is some age between 30 and 45 and he gets himself in with some radical crowds. Immediately we are into the underbelly of first century Palestine - a Northern rabble somewhat isolated from Jerusalem by Samaria, but as undesirable among polite folks as the inner city needle culture of today. Do we not imagine that judgment is coming? What are the demons of today? Do they know ethnic boundaries? Does our mission go beyond our comfort zone into the place of the legion and the pigs on the hill?

Jesus was definitely not kosher. Perhaps he only reflected the spirit of the time in his breaking of the rules, but I have not yet seen these breaks with fear in other people of the period except his followers. I expect he did visit the Decapolis perhaps against the advice of his elder brother James, and I expect he made more than one trip to Jerusalem. Even today, people walk long distances without visible means of support - especially in the subcultures of the world. The divisive issues: eating together, keeping the customs, cultural submission are all as divisive today as then.

So in some sense, the world did not end. And one could ask: where is the evidence of his coming? But there was a change in the ages - a new covenant arose out of his blood, a circumcision not made with hands, a universality at least in potential, and there was great destruction also after his death - though maybe it would have happened anyway. The prophecies of ancient Israel concerning the worship of the Gentiles have been fulfilled. Whatever we think of Islam or Christianity today, these faiths are influenced by Jesus and his teaching and the mythos about him. They would not have been so influenced without him.

When I look at the gospel of Matthew and read - some of you standing here will not taste death until you see the glory of God coming in the clouds of heaven, I do not think of this as a failed promise. This man reframed the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the Law, and the service of God, and the promises, and the Scriptures.

The writers of the NT found ways to express this impact. It has also impacted me - that is quite a long reach.

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