First, let me explain my title. A few years back, a pastor at the church I attended did a series on Jesus. The sermon titles were things like “Jesus, my shepherd”, “Jesus, my healer”, and so on. Our collective favorite title (it still makes me smile now) was “Jesus, my God-man”. It amused us only because a common exclamation we used was “My god, man…” (as in “My god, man, what were you thinking to stick that fork in the electrical outlet?”). So this blog entry is done in fond memory of that pastor…although, he’d likely be rolling in his grave if he read this blog.
Now onto the heart of this blog entry…who is this Jesus we speak about? Was he real and how do we know about him? What was his mission and message, and why was he killed? Was he born of a virgin? Was he raised from the dead? Was (is) he divine - the messiah?
I need to preface this blog entry by giving credit to Marcus Borg (I borrow from his writings a lot in this blog entry). While I have now read a fair collection of writings about Jesus, Borg’s thoughts do sit right with me. I take snippets from others such as John Shelby Spong and N. T. Wright, but their ‘takes’ don't fulfill my thinking as much as Borg’s does. I’ll also say at this point, that I anticipate some will like this blog entry, and some won’t…claiming it is, in places, to wishy washy. My response? So be it. One of the things that is clearer to me today than ever before is that too much certainty can be misleading. So am I certain about what I write here? As certain as I can be…but I recognize and admit that I can’t prove what I write either. Nor, however, can potential critics disprove it. With that out of the way…let’s proceed.
Let’s start with the basics. Was Jesus real? That is, was there ever a historical Jesus? I’m not going to dwell on this question much since even most of the very skeptical Jesus scholars don’t try to argue that Jesus never existed. They may argue about many other things about him, but there is enough evidence (including Biblical writings and other writings about Jesus – such as Josephus) to suggest he did exist that to argue otherwise requires a high degree of skepticism and perhaps a good ‘conspiracy theory’ mind. As with a lot of historical figures, we don’t have the video evidence that we’re used to in today’s age…but we don’t question whether they existed. And I’d add one more thing to think about when discussing this topic…if Jesus didn’t exist, Christianity is a much more incredible phenomenon than ever, isn’t it?
So how do we know about Jesus. Primarily through the gospels in the New Testament. It is important to understand that the gospels were written between 40 and 70 years after Jesus’ death. So some of the material in the gospels goes back to Jesus, and some is as a result of the tradition that developed around Jesus after his death. It is also interesting to note that most biblical scholars believe that none of the gospels were written by any of the 12 disciples of Jesus. With that context, the gospels should be read as the product of a developing tradition. That is, they are a mix of “history remembered and history metaphorized” (1) – so some of the content is history remembered (or material as passed along by eyewitnesses) and some is metaphorical narrative that evolved as the traditions surrounding Jesus evolved in the decades between his death and the writing of the gospels. This is important for many today since much of what they read in the Bible can’t be believed literally. As I noted in an earlier blog though, it is important to remember that a metaphorical narrative doesn’t have to be literally true for it to still speak the truth. On top of that, a metaphorical reading often leads to a richer meaning than a purely literal reading.
In terms of how to think about Jesus, I like Borg’s dual view of the “pre-Easter Jesus and post-Easter Jesus” (1). The pre-Easter Jesus is the historical Jesus…that is, Jesus before his death. The post-Easter Jesus is what Jesus became after his death…that is, “the Jesus of Christian experience and tradition” (1). In terms of the pre-Easter Jesus, Borg describes Jesus in five ways (the following is a paraphrased and shortened extract from Borg’s The Heart of Christianity (1) on this topic):
- He was a Jewish mystic. Mystics are people who have vivid and typically frequent experiences of God. Found in every culture known to us, they are also central to the Jewish tradition (e.g. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, Elisha and the classical prophets, Paul, Peter, etc.). Whatever else needs to be said about Jesus, he was one of these. According to the gospels, he had visions, fasted, spent long hours in prayer, spoke of God in intimate terms, and taught the immediacy of access to God – something mystics know in their own experience. As a Jewish mystic, Jesus lived a life radically centered in God. His life was so fully lived that this is clear.
- He was a healer. Even nonreligious scholars agree that Jesus performed paranormal healings and what he and his contemporaries experienced as exorcisms. More healing stories are told about Jesus than any other figure in the Jewish tradition. He must have been a remarkable healer. Or at least the experience people had with Jesus caused them to associate that type of power with the one whom they experienced.
- He was a wisdom teacher. Teachers of wisdom teach a way, a path, of life. The “narrow way” of which Jesus spoke led beyond the “broad way” of convention and tradition. At the heart of the alternative wisdom of Jesus was the path of death and resurrection understood as a metaphor for an internal psychological-spiritual process. The new identity and new way of being was a life radically centered in God, in the Spirit of God Jesus knew in his own experience. He was not constrained by the religious dogma of the day...he was focused on wisdom beyond that...wisdom related to a way to live life fully, love completely and to fully be.
- He was a social prophet. Social prophets were God-intoxicated voices of religious social protest against the economic and political injustice of the domination systems of their day. Jesus was a prophet of the Kingdom of God – of what life would be like on earth if God were king and the kings and emperors of the world were not. As such, he was a radical critic of the domination system of his time that channeled wealth to the few and poverty to the many.
- He was a movement initiator. A movement came into existence around him. Remarkably inclusive, it subverted the sharp social boundaries of his day.
But the pre-Easter Jesus was killed…executed actually. Why? Likely because of his social protest and the movement that was building around him. If he was only a mystic, a healer and wisdom teacher, he likely wouldn’t have been targeted. In summary, he was killed “because of his politics and his passion for God’s justice” (1). With that perspective, it doesn’t seem likely that Jesus saw his life purpose as “dying for our sins”. When you think about the concept, it’s a little strange anyway. Why would an almighty God be so limited in his power to forgive that he would have to send his son to die (not to mention that this requires thinking about God as "out there")?
In fact, the whole question of messianic consciousness has always intrigued me about Jesus…even before I embarked on this prospecting journey. I was always intrigued by the fact that in many places within the gospels, Jesus doesn't come out and state that he is the messiah when asked. In fact, if you look at the gospels, the self-claims of messiahship seem to develop throughout the tradition. If you look at Mark (the earliest gospel written…and a gospel which Matthew and Luke would have had as a reference when they wrote their books), when Jesus asks who people say he is, Peter says the messiah, but Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about him. In Matthew, this story “develops” in that Peter says Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the Living God. And Jesus replies that Peter is blessed as Jesus’ Father in heaven has revealed this to him. A similar example can be seen when Jesus walked on water. In Mark, the story ended with the disciples confused, not believing and with hard hearts. In Matthew (remember, he would have had Mark’s gospel and written his afterwards), the story includes Peter coming to walk on the water as well and the story ending with the disciples worshiping Jesus and saying “You really are the Son of God”. Similarly, the gospel sayings that would suggest that Jesus thought of himself as the messiah (for example, the “I am” sayings of John) are seen by many scholars to represent the post-Easter Jesus tradition that built up around him and sought providential purpose in his death (as opposed to sayings that Jesus himself said). And as shocking as this suggestion may be to traditional Christians, when you think about it, does a messianic consciousness really matter? Whether Jesus thought of himself as the messiah or not, he still is the messiah for Christians (more on that later).
While we are on the metaphorical language about Jesus’ messiahship, I find it interesting that of all the metaphors used to describe Jesus (e.g. bread of life, true vine, light of the world, lamb of God, word of God, son of God), we have tended to literalize only one of them – son of God. We don’t have any problem seeing the other metaphors for what they are – that is, we don’t think Jesus is literally a vine, bread, lamb, etc. But we do literalize son of God – maybe because it is an easier metaphor to literalize. It is interesting that in Biblical times, the phrase son of God was used to describe many people/nations – nation of Israel, kings, Jewish mystics, and angels. It was seen to infer someone whose relationship to God was very intimate. So we should be cautious when we throw around the 'son of God' metaphor and just assume that we can literalize it.
Let’s move on to the topic of the virgin birth. I find it interesting how many people are truly tied to this as ‘required truth’. John Shelby Spong has an interesting discussion on this topic in one of his books. He talks about how the thinking of the day would have been that all genes would have come from the male. So the virgin birth was a good explanation of how Jesus was conceived as the son of God. However, when knowledge evolved to show that half the genes of a baby comes from the mother, the church had to revise their thinking on this topic and blend in the idea of an immaculate conception of Mary to preserve the purity of Jesus’ heritage. Based on my current understanding and thinking on this topic, I think the idea of a virgin birth is a metaphorical narrative that evolved as the tradition of Jesus developed following his death. If you look at Paul’s writings and Mark’s gospel (our earliest writings after Jesus’ death), they don’t mention the miraculous birth (a rather stunning thing to leave out don't you think?). As the tradition developed, both Matthew and Luke have added virgin birth stories to the Jesus tradition (note though that there are many differences between their birth stories – genealogy, home, birth visitors, Herod’s plot, use of the Hebrew Bible – which makes one think even more that these stories developed over time).
What about the resurrection stories of Jesus? Well, from what I can tell, something must have happened at Easter that had startling and enormous power. Whatever it was, it “reconstituted a scattered and demoralized band of disciples, it turned a denying Peter into a witnessing and martyred Peter, to turn disciples who fled into heroes willing to die for their Lord, it created a holy day” (3)…in fact, it resulted in the whole Christianity movement. So what exactly happened? Was Jesus physically resuscitated or were the resurrection experiences something other than encounters with a physical Jesus? Well I think there were encounters - yes, experiential realities involving Jesus! Based on the language used in the Bible, it would seem to me that the encounters were not with a physical body…they were more like visions or apparitions. Paul notes that he also saw Jesus…and his language was certainly vision-like. As well, in the resurrection stories, Jesus appears and disappears…not something that a physical body does. So what the encounters seem to have been were experiences of the power of Jesus’ spirit – similar to the experiences they would have had with Jesus when he was alive. But the important point is that it does seem that they did have these experiences – so the post-Easter Jesus is not just a tradition but also an experiential reality. “And Christians throughout the centuries have continued to experience Jesus as a living spiritual reality. Those experiences have taken a variety of forms, but at their heart, I believe they are realizations of what Jesus represented...a vision of God (not literally as a human who was inhabited by the divine; but as a human who so fully lived, loved and was, that this experience we have is as close to our ability to describe a God-experience as humans can manage. As a result of these experiences, the post-Easter Jesus “lives” and “is Lord” – the post-Easter Jesus was experienced as someone who was ‘one with God’. That is who Jesus is for us as Christians. Ultimately, the death and resurrection of Jesus is a revelation of “the way” – that is, an internal transformation which results in growth in love, life and being.
So in conclusion, is Jesus divine? Well, my answer is yes. The pre-Easter Jesus can be seen as an incarnation of God. His spirit seemed to be incredibly open to the presence of God (some refer to Jesus as having an extreme “emptiness of spirit” that allowed for a powerful experience of God’s presence). Those who experienced the pre-Easter Jesus did not experience an ordinary person. Spong alludes to Jesus as being an amazing example of how to live life fully and love completely. And the post-Easter Jesus is experienced as someone who is one with God – that is, Jesus is a view into God. I like the analogy of masks – God can be seen through different masks, one of which is Jesus. For Christians, the decisive mask for us is Jesus. He is our decisive revelation of God. And note that this does not require affirming that Jesus is the only adequate revelation of God. But Jesus shows us, as Christians, what a life full of God is like, and is our ultimate sacrament of God. Through Jesus, we see the heart of God.
So, in summary, here are my fundamental beliefs about Jesus:
(1) There was a real, historical Jesus.
(2) Our primary source about Jesus, the gospels, are the product of a developing tradition and include a mix of history remembered and history metaphorized.
(3) I like the dual view of a pre-Easter Jesus and a post-Easter Jesus. The pre-Easter Jesus is the historical Jesus…that is, Jesus before his death (Jewish mystic, healer, wisdom teacher, social prophet and movement initiator). The post-Easter Jesus is what Jesus became after his death…that is, the Jesus of Christian experience and tradition.
(4) Jesus was killed because of his social protest and the movement that was building around him, not because he was a mystic, healer and wisdom teacher. With that perspective, it doesn’t seem likely that Jesus saw his life purpose as “dying for our sins”.
(5) I do not think Jesus was born of a virgin. I think the idea of a virgin birth is a metaphorical narrative that evolved as the tradition of Jesus developed following his death.
(6) I believe that something must have happened at Easter, and it must have had startling and enormous power since it resulted in the whole Christianity movement. I think there were Easter encounters with Jesus (experiential realities involving Jesus) and Christians throughout the centuries have continued to experience Jesus as a living spiritual reality. As a result of these experiences, the post-Easter Jesus “lives” and “is Lord” (i.e. one with God) for us as Christians. Ultimately, the death and resurrection of Jesus is a revelation of “the way” – that is, an internal transformation which results in growth in love, life and being.
(7) For Christians, the decisive revelation of God is Jesus (note that this does not require affirming that Jesus is the only adequate revelation of God). Jesus shows us, as Christians, what a life full of God is like, and is our ultimate sacrament of God. As such, Jesus is divine.
POSTSCRIPT: OKAY, I MUST ADMIT MY THINKING HAS CHANGED SINCE I WROTE THIS BLOG 3 YEARS AGO. THE WHOLE "HEALER" DIMENSION DOESN'T WORK FOR ME AT THIS POINT...I WOULD ATTRIBUTE THAT TO THE DEVELOPING TRADITION AS OPPOSED TO ANY PRE-EASTER REALITY. AND MY THINKING ABOUT EASTER HAS COMPLETELY CHANGED...I DON'T BELIEVE FOR A SECOND THAT ANYONE HAD ANY REAL PHYSICAL ENCOUNTER WITH JESUS. SOMETHING OCCURRED, BUT I WOULD NOW ATTRIBUTE THE "SOMETHING" TO BE MORE LIKE A NEW THINKING ABOUT JESUS WHICH INSPIRED HIS FOLLOWERS ANEW AND CAUSED THEM TO PUSH THE MOVEMENT FORWARD. THERE IS ALSO A DIMENSION OF POST-EASTER ELABORATION ON THE STORY OF JESUS AND THE EASTER MOMENT WHICH MAKES IT SEEM LIKE A "MOMENT IN TIME" WHEN IN REALITY IT SHOULD LIKELY BE SEEN MORE AS THE EVOLUTION OF THINKING AND HOW THE MOVEMENT EVOLVED OVER TIME.
(1) Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).
(2) Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999).
(3) John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).