For ancient Israel the numinous was a reality which, they believed, intersected with the everyday world at many points, most particularly at the Most Holy Place (the “Holy of Holies”) in the Temple in Jerusalem, just as it had with the Tabernacle before it, but was capable of spontaneous experience anywhere, at any time in the devotional and spiritual experiences of ordinary people, especially in Spirit-filled mediators such as Moses and the prophets. It is this tradition of Spirit-filled mediators, people particularly atuned to and open to the spirit that is most significant for understanding the historical Jesus.
The Bible is dominated by such figures. We would expect to find God, like the gods of other cultures, strutting through the myths that form the preface to the Hebrew scriptures, like some bit part actor in the unfolding drama. This is the way the gods are portrayed in myths. But beyond this, as we study the legends and “history” (to use the word in a very loose sense, to describe the narrative of Israel’s origins from the Exodus through to the Exile) of Israel, we find that there is a continued, immediate, experience of Spirit: Abraham, Sarah, Lot, Hagar, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Miriam, Joshua, Deborah, Gideon, Samuel, Nathan, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, and Isaiah and the later prophets. Their encounters were sometimes in their personal devotions, sometimes at times of deliberately seeking the Spirit, sometimes in sudden, unexpected encounters when the world of Spirit broke into the everyday world in visions of baskets of summer fruit, sail-cloths laden with animals or burning bushes, fiery ladders, or of an open doorway between the two worlds (Gen 28:17, Isaiah 6:1f, Rev 1:12-20 and 4:1), sometimes, too, the visions were incomprehensible (Ezekiel 1, Daniel 7-12, Revelation 5-22). These were people from every walk of life, from the highest to the least, male and female, who were perceived to be Spirit-people, they “heard” from God, they saw visions from God, they brought messages from God, were changed by their encounter with God (Moses’ face was reported to have glowed from his exposure to the שכינה (Shekinah, glory), while after his second encounter, Jacob limped). They were people who spoke of knowing and being known by God.
In Jesus’ day, the experience continued, the charismatic phenomenon of Jewish “holy people” active primarily in Galilee, were known for their immediate relationship with God, the efficacy of their prayer, and their mediation of the power of the Spirit, often, like Elijah, as healers and rainmakers. The two most famous, Honi the Circle-Drawer and Hanina ben Dosa, were both explicitly compared to Elijah. They were noted to have power over demons, who recognized and feared them and to have performed miraculous healings. Among the healings credited to Hanina, who lived in the mid first century A.D., was one in which he cured from a distance when he healed the son of Rabbi Gamaliel, the teacher of Paul, who was mortally ill with a fever, despite the fact that Hanina was in Galilee and Gamaliel’s son was in Jerusalem, a hundred miles away.
These spirit people were known for their intimacy with God. Sometimes they were even referred to as “son of God”. Honi, who lived two generations before Jesus, spoke of himself in a prayer attributed to him as “a son of the house of God (“Lord of the universe, thy sons have turned to me because I am as a son of the house before thee.”) and was seen as a powerful intercessor with the world of Spirit. A generation after Jesus’ death saw one of his followers, the apostle Paul, writing about his own journey into the world of the Spirit: “I know a man in Christ (Paul is referring to himself) who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” In this tradition, the world of Spirit is not seen, as it has traditionally been seen in Christianity, as a realm which the faithful enter after death, but as something close by and capable of being experienced now. Something seperated by several layers of experience, but, nonetheless, something capable of being entered, albeit something uncertain (“whether in the body or out of it”) and something so far beyond our everyday experience that it cannot be adequately described. Paul’s conversion too, is probably best understood as a charismatic experience, and he too, according to Acts, was seen a healer, a channel for the Spirit’s power and as speaking from God.
The reality of this other world needs to be taken seriously. However we understand these experiences there is much to commend them. Our principal objection comes from a rigid application of the modern scientific worldview, but while this is valid for understanding the concrete realities, processes, forces and functions of our universe, it is only one of a large number of models for our understanding of the totality of reality, but it is not an absolute. It has had many predecessors, all of which are the products of particular cultures and as our understanding develops, and it will be superceded or, at least modified. Already we recognise that reality behaves in ways that stretch this worldview beyond its limits. None of this proves the truth of the earlier, religious, worldview, but it undermines the principal reason for rejecting it. A worldview that rejects or ignores the spiritual dinension is one that is relative and partial. It describes the world we inhabit, but not our experience of it. Throughout most of history, people in diverse cultures have experienced another dimension which seemed to them to be more real, more powerful, and more fundamental than the world of everyday experience. There no good reason to suppose this other world to be unreal and much experiential evidence to suggest that it may be real. In any case, quite apart from the question of ultimate truth, it is necessary to take seriously the reality of the world of Spirit if we wish to take the central figures of the Jewish tradition in any way seriously. To try to understand Jesus and the wider Jewish tradition of which he was part while dismissing the notion of another world, or immediately reducing it to a merely psychological phenomena, is to fail to take seriously what these Spirit-people experienced and reported. Given the subsequent historical importance of Jesus we need, at least to attempt to understand the tradition and culture of which he was part and to understand its worldview.
THE CALL OF JESUS
Like Ezekiel some six hundred years before him, Jesus’ ministry began when (at his baptism in the Jordan) he saw “the heavens opened,” and briefly glimpsed the other world, as if through a door from which he saw “the Spirit descending upon him,” and heard a “heavenly voice” which declared him to be “… my beloved Son; with whom I am well-pleased.” There is little reason to doubt the historicity of the baptism and it seems petty to doubt the reality of the vision itself. There is some uncertainty over the “heavenly voice” though, because the words seem so clearly express the post-Easter understanding of Jesus’ identity that it seems likely that they are the product of his followers in the years after Easter as the Church began to form. However, this all depends on our understanding the phrase as the early Church intended us to, if, however, “beloved Son” is given the meaning which similar expressions have in stories of other Jewish charismatics, then it is eminently possible that this too was part of the experience of Jesus. Other Spirit-people had similar experiences in which a “heavenly voice” declared them to be God’s “son”. Whichever view we take concerning the historicity of “heavenly voice,” the story itself locates Jesus firmly in the tradition within Judaism of Spirit-filled charismatics and reflects the multi-layered understanding of reality which was the actual experience of his predecessors in this tradition and is highly reminiscent of the call of many of the prophets.
THE CHARACTERISTICS OF JESUS’ MINISTRY
Jesus’ ministry not only began with an experience of the Spirit, but was dominated throughout by his experience of the other world.
According to the traditional narrative in the gospels, immediately after his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he spent time fasting and where he had a series of visions revolving around his reflection on his vocation. In one of these, Jesus was tempted to use his powers to change stones into bread. In another, he sees himself, as it were, transported to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem from where he can view all of the kingdoms of the world in a single moment of time. Throughout these visions, Jesus is tempted to use his Spirit power in self-serving ways. The visions are highly stylised and reminiscent of the experiences of Moses and Elijah and other Jewish holy men, the historicity of the traditional narrative may not be authentic, but in terms of the tradition, the experience almost certainly is. Jesus travelled into the wilderness, alone, where, in a desolate desert area near the Dead Sea, he underwent a period of extended solitude and fasting, practices which are known to produce changes in consciousness and perception typical of what other traditions call a “vision quest.” We do not know if Jesus had other visions and the fact that none are reported may be not be significant, it may simply be that these served the gospel writers’ purposes, in framing his vocation.
Again like other Spirit-people, Jesus practiced prayer. This discipline falls between two stools in the modern world, on the one hand many believers readily talk about prayer and believe that they practice it in their daily devotions, however, what they mean by this is primarily that form of prayer in which God is addressed with words, whether aloud, in public prayer, or mentally in private prayer. “Verbal prayer” is typically brief and is focused on petition, intercession and Thanksgiving. Liturgically, it is also frequently associated with confession. But verbal prayer is only one form of prayer in the Jewish-Christian tradition and, indeed, it is only the first stage of prayer. On the other hand, this is also the idea of prayer which unbelievers understand to be definitive of the practice. Because of this, those for whom any experience of the Spirit is alien, understanbly perceive it to be immature and self-centred, and find the model of God which unerlies it (as the dispenser of blessings like a cosmic slot machine, who is able to intervene to suspend the laws of nature at his pleasure), to be implausble. Prayer is seen as being as valid as touching wood, or crossing one’s fingers, an out dated superstition resorted to sometimes in desperation, but psychologically and philosophically suspect Because of this the realm of Spirit us seen to lack credibility.
However, within the Jewish-Christian tradition, there are other, much deeper, and, sadly, much neglected forms of prayer, characterized by internal silence and lengthy periods of time. In this state, one enters into deeper levels of consciousness; ordinary consciousness is stilled, and one sits quietly in the presence of God. This is generally referred to as contemplation or meditation, or, in the older literature, and perhaps more accurately, as communion or union with God. In this the practitioner enters the realm of Spirit and directly experiences God. Though preserved in monastic communities and by such groups as the Quakers, it has largely disappeared from the experience of the largely superficial and consumer-driven contemporary Church. For the tradition in which Jesus stood, however, this mode of prayer was normative. Moses and Elijah, particularly are characterised in the literature as spending long periods of time in solitude and communion with God, as was Jesus.
Meditation also is found in Jewish mysticism, not just in the (medieval) Kabbalah, but in the Merkabah mysticism which was contemporaneous with Jesus. For these mystics, contemplative prayer was the vehicle for ascending through the heavens to the ultimate vision of the throne of God, that is to say, of experiencing the מלכות, the βασιλεία του Θεού, the kingship (or kingdom) of God. The gospels depict Jesus as one who practiced this form of prayer, something almost unknown in modern culture, regularly withdrawing into solitude for hours, or even overnight, spent in prayer; not verbal prayer, but contemplation or meditation, the stilling of the mind and directing of the heart toward God. The same practice is reported of Hanina ben Dosa and others in the Jewish spiritual tradition.
The intimacy of Jesus’ experience of Spirit is pointed to by one of the distinctives of his prayer life: his use of the world Abba, an Aramaic word used by very young children to address their daddy. In Judaism, it was rare to call God “Abba”, the normal expression was “Father”, yet (again unlike the Church with its remote language through which believers keep God at a respecful distance: “Almighty and most merciful Father …”; “Amighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all men …“) such was Jesus’ practice.
Luke places the words on Jesus’ lips at the beginning of his ministry, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” They were from the writings of an earlier charismatic, which Luke has Jesus read at the beginning of his ministry. Whether in doing so, Luke was noting something the community recalled Jesus actually doing, or was framing Jesus vocation in terms of the tradition, is a moot point, but he has Jesus add at the end of the reading, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Intentionally or otherwise, Luke has linked Jesus’ ministry to the Jewish charismatic tradition and in doing so may actually be reflecting Jesus’ own understanding of his mission. It may well be, that by the time Luke was writing, the Church was already so detached from its Jewish roots, that he unintentionally kept the reference in, because he misunderstood it in terms of the proto-orthodoxy which was already developing. For him, it was about seeing Jesus as the annointed one, the Christ, while for Jesus, it spoke of his identification with the tradition and his Spirit empowerment within that tradition. Whatever the case, we see Jesus in the gospels as one whose life, from his baptism onward, throughout his ministry and mission, was marked by an intense experience of the Spirit.
In his book, The Experience of the Holy, Rudolf Otto describes the numinous presence that frequently is felt in charismatic figures by those around them. There is something uncanny about such figures which evokes awe and wonder and impresses people with the feeling of another world. There may be something authoritative about the way they speak, something penetrating about the way they see, something powerful about their presence – all if this was true of Jesus. Mark wrote in his gospel, “and they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were filled with awe.” Jesus made a striking impression, very different from the trained and institutionally recognised rabbis: “They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” The word translated “authority” translates a rabbinic term: גבורה (Geburah, power): “He speaks from the mouth of the Geburah,” that is to say, from the power or the Spirit. This is why popular opinion associated him with such earlier charismatic figures, as Elijah or John the Baptist. The aura of “otherness” surrounding him may also explain the reaction of his family on one occasion: “They went out to seize him, for they said, ‘He is beside himself,’ ” that is, insane. Even his opponents granted that there was a spiritual power at work in him, but interpreted it as coming from “Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” Unsurprisingly, he attracted crowds: people “could not get near him because of the crowd“. More than that, however, Jesus himself was aware of this power or authority which others sensed in him. When some of the religious leaders in Jerusalem questioned him about his authority, Jesus responded with a question: “I will ask you a question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?” Jesus claimed the same authority as John, one grounded neither in institution nor tradition but in the Spirit. Similarly, Jesus was aware of the power of the Spirit he mediated, on one occasion, it is reported in the gospels, after a woman had touched his garment in order to be healed, he perceived that power had gone out of him. The style of Jesus’ teaching too shows this awareness on his part of an immediate, numinous, authority. We see it in his emphatic, “You have heard it said … but I say unto you” statements.
It is difficult to get behind the words of the gospels, shaped as they are by the Easter experience and the Christology which developed after Jesus’ death as his followers focussed more and more on his significance as the Christ, and less and less on his actual life, ministry and teaching, but again and again what we see is this charismatic, Spirit-person, breaking the surface. What we encounter is someone unique in his experience of the Spirit and unique in the power with which he transmitted that experience, but nevertheless someone deeply rooted in the tradition of Jewish mysticism. The potential for transformation that he offers, even after two millennia is enormous and the challenge to experience that transformative power, the immediate experience of God, contained in the simple, often repeated petition, “Thy Kingdom (מלכות) come” is huge.