Monday, October 15, 2007

The Jesus of the Gospels

When I performed the exercise of reading carefully through all four gospels in at attempt to see how the gospels themselves were trying to present Jesus and his mission, trying not to impose my preconceived evangelical framework on them, and trying to make full use of the large number of scholarly books about the social-cultural background of the time that I'd read, I was quite surprised at the results. First of all, what wasn't there: The gospels spend very little time on questions of Jesus' divinity or the meaning of his death. The Evangelical "gospel" of a divine Jesus in whom we need to place faith in his atoning death in order to be saved is not the focus of the biblical gospels, nor is this depicted as the content of Jesus' preaching.

The Jesus of the gospels is presented as taking up the lead of the Kingdom of God movement, already in motion under John the Baptist. Jesus is perceived by people as a Prophet (he is called a prophet far more in the gospels than anything else). He gets into repeated arguments with people over three issues: Torah (Israelite law and customs), Temple, and Wealth. In all these areas his concern for the poor, needy, sick, and outcasts shows through. The major focus of all these is, time and again, economics! (I was very surprised) The focus is especially the plight of suffering poor compared to the wealth of the rich. His criticisms of the Temple and Torah seem to always be focused on economics and how these institutions are causing poverty and benefiting the rich. The morality discussed in the gospels is most often interpersonal economics related morality.

Jesus' criticism of Torah constantly focuses on how the Pharisees' careful following of Torah is resulting in suffering for the poor and needy. Jesus emphasizes the Torah themes of caring for the poor and marginalized, echoing many of the Prophets in Israel's tradition. His criticism of the temple returns time and again to money, as he sees it as an instrument of oppression toward the poor from whom money is extorted by it. He predicts therefore that God in an act of judgment upon it will destroy the Temple. The "Kingdom of God" idea seems to be based on the concept of a Utopia. The kingdom of God is the conceptual perfect ideal in which everything in the kingdom is as God wishes it to be. In English we might say "A Better Tomorrow" or "God's Ideal for the World".

Much space in the gospels is dedicated to focusing on Jesus building up his movement. He recruits followers and organizes them and sets them about recruiting more. Exhortation to his followers to persevere takes up an amazing amount of space in the gospels (a whopping 30% or so!). Time after time, Jesus warns his followers of hardships and persecutions they may face, of the sacrifices they will have to make, and encourages and exhorts them to persevere with the promise that God will reward them for their actions both in the present life and after death. He warns that they, like himself, may be killed for the cause. I found the theme of secrecy in the gospels particularly intriguing. First Jesus tries to hide his movement from the authorities, telling those he encounters to tell no one about it, though he tells his followers that eventually it will come out in the open. Throughout the course of the gospels his movement grows and his attempts to keep it secret increasingly fail. Finally when he is told the authorities have learned all about him and his movement he begins to confront them publicly.

The Jesus of the gospels is thus primarily presented as a social reformer. He is a social activist, a popular Prophet in the tradition of Israel's history of Prophetic reformers who challenge and are killed by the authorities, a leader of a grass-roots lower-classes movement that challenges the authorities and upper classes in an effort to achieve greater egalitarianism. Call it what you will, but by far the closest parallels are people such as Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, or Robin Hood - people who led movements against the authorities in attempted reform on a variety of social issues, and who enjoyed the popular support of the masses. This concept of Jesus was really quite different to anything I had thought or dreamed of finding in the gospels.

The other thing I found surprising was the huge extent to which Jesus is clearly depicted as a martyr for his cause in the gospels. As his movement increasing becomes known to the authorities and he enters into conflicts with them, he warns his followers of the persecutions and death they may face. He reminds them that God will reward them either now or in the afterlife for doing his will. As he realizes that if he continues his movement he will be killed for it, he makes the painful decision to continue nonetheless. He is finally captured by the authorities who execute him. But his followers then see him resurrected by God, demonstrating that everything Jesus had stood for was true, and they are inspired to carry on the movement.

Now there are certainly further questions that can be asked and issues that border on the periphery in the gospels, where the answers are left vague or unclear: Is Jesus' movement nonviolent? In what sense (if any) does he consider himself a Messiah, or would he prefer to avoid the role of Messiah thrust on him by others? Would he have been for, against, or indifferent to the armed insurrections against Roman rule that engulfed Israel about once a generation? To what extent does he believe in the "communist" type ultra-egalitarian ideals he advocates as general principles universally applicable, as opposed to seeing them as a practical solution to a particular situation at that time and place?


Blogger Bryan L said...

Why do you think the early church has always seemed to see him as so much more than that? Especially when they were all using the gospels as their source for what they believed about Jesus (except for the other writers of the NT)?

Also what do you do with all of his miracles (most of which he does without asking the father) and other signs and wonders. What about his exorcisms and the fact that the demons submit to him and fear him? Those are just a few things that immediately came to mind when I read your post.

By the way I agree with much of what you wrote about Jesus, yet I feel it's a lowest common denominator Jesus. The Gospels present him as being and doing much much more and there are always those verses that throw a monkey wrench into our models that we would like to put Jesus in.

Also I definitely see the value of studying the social-cultural background of the Gospels in understanding Jesus, but it seems they can only take us so far. What do they do when something unprecedented in history happens or someone comes claiming to be something totally different than anyone before and after doing things totally different than anyone before or after. It seems like the social sciences don't have any conceptual framework to put someone like that in so they try to force them into another common and known mold that doesn't quite fit. I think Jesus is one such case and I think that's why the early church quickly latched on to those differences and saw him as so much more than just a prophet bringing social reform.

Just some thoughts.

Bryan L

Blogger Andrew said...

I think it is key to start off by getting things in perspective by seeing what the gospels focus on, and how much they focus on different aspects. As CS Lewis would have put it, we need to start with the Elephants and work our way down to the fernseed. It is not helpful to start with ideas that we, 2000 years later, think ought to be primary and say "can we find at least one verse that supports it"? We have to let the bible itself determine the relative importance of our ideas, and that means taking as primary what the bible does.

Obviously my comments in my post don't cover everything that's relevant to Jesus. They simply outline the primary picture that the gospels dwell on the most and paint clearest. Once that picture is firmly grasped, we can then move to looking at other issues that the gospels spend less time on. However my observation is that the primary picture painted by the gospels is not only not firmly grasped by most Christians today, and is not only ignored entirely but even rejected as not Christian.

The social sciences don't provide conceptual frameworks to "put" Jesus in (at least, not in any books I've ever read), rather it's just the name given to studying the life and times of Israelites at the time of Jesus, getting a better understanding of how people lived and thought, and thus seeing how words and statements and deeds depicted in the gospels would have been interpreted by the people. The notion of Jesus as a prophet of social reform is not a pre-built construct of social science study which is then imposed on Jesus. It is the rather a conclusion built up out of looking at the evidence and attempting to come to grips with how his contemporaries understood his actions.

Israel's prophets had often performed miracles - hence why the people around Jesus perceive him so often as a prophet when he does miracles. He is considered by them as being empowered by God to do the will of God. The gospel writers call the readers to see Jesus as being more than just a regular prophet and to believe that through Jesus God was doing something greater. However this idea does not form the public content of Jesus' ministry.

Blogger Bryan L said...

Matthew only twice talks of the people saying/thinking Jesus is a prophet - Matt 21:11, 46. And this is at his entry into Jerusalem (for the first time possibly). One is a comment from the people and the other is an editorial comment from Matthew. Jesus possibly refers to himself as a prophet in Matt 13:57. Peter in Matt 16:14 suggest that people think Jesus may be one of the prophets (along with him being Elijah or John the Baptist) but it still sounds like they are thinking in terms of one of the past prophets that might have come back.

Mark parallels Matt 13:57 (Mark 6:4) and Matt 16:14 (Mark 8:28) and that’s it.

Luke also parallels Matt 13:57 (Luke 4:24) and Matt 16:14 (Luke 9:8 and 9:19). He also has people saying he is a prophet in Luke 7:16 (after he raised the widow’s son at Nain). Luke also has the Pharisees questioning whether Jesus is a prophet in 7:39 because of his apparent lack of knowledge. Jesus refers to himself as a prophet in Luke13:33 on commenting that it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem. And then again Cleopas refers to Jesus as a prophet in 24:19. And that’s it for Luke.

I won’t even go into John because we know of the high Christology in John.

With this being all the evidence I could find in the Synoptic Gospels (maybe I overlooked something, if so please point it out) I find it hard to see why you would say “hence why the people around Jesus perceive him so often as a prophet when he does miracles” especially when you compare how often John the Baptist is referred to as a prophet and Jesus refers to the old prophets from the OT.

You said, “The gospel writers call the readers to see Jesus as being more than just a regular prophet and to believe that through Jesus God was doing something greater. However this idea does not form the public content of Jesus' ministry.”

I find it hard to see how even Jesus sees himself as just a regular prophet and not something greater.

“The notion of Jesus as a prophet of social reform is not a pre-built construct of social science study which is then imposed on Jesus. It is the rather a conclusion built up out of looking at the evidence and attempting to come to grips with how his contemporaries understood his actions.”

My point about social science studies is that they refuse to have Jesus seeing himself as more than just a prophet or a social reformer (which is a common and convenient category for that time period) so they seem to ignore or try to explain away all of the evidence that suggest otherwise. Jesus was so different and unique and they have no category from that time period with which to fit him into or truly compare him with. So they must try to fit him into the category of a prophet (which seems like the least common denominator) and in doing so they ignore all the other evidence within the Gospels that suggest otherwise (especially if it looks like Jesus saw himself as more than a prophet and possibly divine).
They ignore him saying he is Lord of the Sabbath, the significance of his exorcisms and his power and authority over demons. They ignore miracles like walking on water or transfiguration or calming the storm. They ignore Jesus talking about people doing miracles in his name (Mark 9:39), or believing in him (Mark 9:42), claiming higher authority than Moses (Mark 10:1-12) and David (he’s David’s Lord – Mark 12:35-37) and Solomon, forgiving sins, referring to a special relationship he has with God as his son (Mark 12:6 & 14:36), receiving worship from his disciples (Matt 14:33, 28:9 28:17, Luke 24:52).

I could go on and on. Sure some of these could probably be explained by something else but that’s the point. They can’t see Jesus or his followers thinking he is divine so they must find a way to either discount something as never happening or never being said or look for a near parallel somewhere else. And maybe if it was just one or two parallels I would agree that it was probably nothing, but when you add it all together and realize it is one person who all this can be said of then you start to think maybe it can’t be explained away. Maybe Jesus and his disciples did see him as divine and much more than just a prophet and social reformer, even during his public ministry.

It’s possible.

Bryan L


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