From Jesus to Christ (1)

From Jesus to Christ

There is a huge leap from the Cynic preacher and Charismatic healer from Galilee, whose teaching is remembered in Q1, to the preexistent Logos, the Word incarnate, of John’s Gospel, one which is almost incomprehensible. Yet this is exactly what we find when we consider the texts of the New Testament. The vast gulf between Jesus the man and the Christ at the heart of the cult which became Christianity is almost unbridgeable and if the distance travelled from one to the other was a straight line from the earliest texts around 50 CE to the latest around 120 CE, we would be amazed at the rapidity of that development in a mere 70 or so years, but the picture is actually far more complex.

Jesus’ mission ended on the cross. The mission that was to spread in his name, however, in a sense only began at that point. Within days of his death, Jesus is reported to have appeared to his disciples as one risen from the dead. This small gaggle, who had followed Jesus in Galilee and had, in panic, deserted him in Jerusalem when he was arrested, regrouped believing that two of the promises of the messianic age, the resurrection of the dead and the vindication of the righteous, had been accomplished in him. What actually occurred in this “Easter event” is impossible to know. The simplest and most plausible explanation is that Jesus himself had come to see his crucifixion as increasingly inevitable, given the implacable intransigence, not only of Rome, but of the ruling class in Israel, and had perhaps also come to believe, in common with the popular apocalypticism of the time, that God would intervene to bring about the Kingdom. He had, perhaps, even come to see himself as the personification of Second Isaiah’s servant of God, whose death is the dynamic by which God destroys the current, evil, world order. If this is so, it is then entirely plausible that the disciples’ grief is interrupted at the point of denial and isolation by an hysterical belief, fuelled by populist apocalypticism and drawing on the concepts of Jewish eschatology with its belief in the general resurrection, to believe that Jesus had been resurrected as a kind of firstfruits, an earnest of the coming Kingdom.

The earliest extant reference to the resurrection is Paul’s from around 55CE, 25 years after the “event”, and is, even so, hearsay evidence (“I delivered to you … what I also received”; 1 Cor 15:3). The stories in the, even later, gospels are confused and disjointed. Mark “predicts” and Matthew reports post-resurrection appearances to the apostles in Galilee, Luke and John record them as occuring in Jerusalem. The gospels unanimously, although somewhat inconsistently, identify women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb, and, in Matthew and John, to the risen Jesus as well. Paul claims, additionally,  that Peter and then “the Twelve” also saw the risen Jesus. All that we can draw with any degree of confidence from this evidence, is the conclusion, that despite the absolute certainty of Jesus’ death, his immediate followers also believed, and subsequently announced that Jesus lived again. The Easter experience stands at the very heart of the early Christian movement and that, in itself, points indisputably to its origins in the eschatological hopes of first-century CE Judaism, with its belief in the general resurrection of the dead and the vindication of the righteous, when the Kingdom came. That Jesus’ followers believed Jesus to have been raised and vindicated demonstrates the degree to which he had united his followers into a committed community and prepared them for an eschatological event. They seem to have anticipated, when they went up to Jerusalem with him, the arrival of the Kingdom and the fulfillment of Jesus’ message. Instead, abruptly and with brutal finality, this message was refuted, their leader killed by an enemy who seemed to be the very incarnation of the ungodly powers of the present world order. Yet shortly after, Jesus’ followers experienced the unexpected: in an event of eschatological significance, Jesus, they believed, was raised from amongst the dead. The mission would continue, apparent refutation became total confirmation, since what else was the resurrection but a complete vindication of his message, and a sign of the closeness of the Kingdom? Mark’s gospel stops at this point, while the others link the resurrection with a charge to convert the nations. At some point, however, Jesus’ disciples began to reinterpret the eschatological significance of the resurrection. It could not in itself have signalled the breaking in of the Kingdom and the end of the present world order, because the Kingdom had not come, so a further reinterpretation took place which enabled the mission to continue further. If Jesus’ resurrection was not itself the beginning of his eschatological parousia, then there must be an intentional hiatus, an interim period, between the resurrection and the parousia, that definitive, glorious, second coming of Jesus as the Christ. The disciples came to see their role as continuing the mission and preparing Israel for the end they now knew, on the evidence of the resurrection, to be close at hand. Thus there ensued a period of intense and energetic missionary activity, fuelled by the belief, both passionately held and inevitably confounded, that united Jesus’ own mission with that of the Christ cult. Paul and Mark share this and the later gospels are shaped by it. The original message that Jesus  authoritatively preached: the coming Kingdom of God, was continually threatened by the elapse of time and successive disappointments gave rise to new interpretations as the tradition constantly reworked what was too central to it to be relinquished.

Jesus and his first followers stood recognizably within traditional Judaism and traditional apocalyptic expectation. After the Easter experience, they continued to worship in the Temple and to look forward to redemption which was now linked to a future second coming of their, soon to be, vindicated leader in their lifetime. And during the interim, they undertook the preparation of Israel.

Soon the message of Jesus and the coming Kingdom spread to the synagogues of the Diaspora. But at this point, the missionaries encountered active hostility, not from Rome, but from fellow Jews. Jesus the Cynic sage and charismatic healer found a ready audience amongst the peasants of Galilee and the marginalised in Jewish society, but Jesus as the Messiah (Christ) was entirely another matter and was met with incredulity and offence. By the end of the first century, the churches, now predominantly Gentile, that traced their origins back to the early Jesus movement, repudiated the Torah, viewed the Roman destruction of Jerusalem as the fulfillment of prophecy (which, in the Greco-Roman world, was understood in terms of the ecstatic oracles of classical antiquity at such as Mari, Wadjit, Dodona and Delphi, as divination, a “foretelling” of the future, rather than the Jewish understanding of “forth-telking” by one who speaks from God), saw “the Jews” as the enemies if God and claimed the promises to Israel for themselves.

That is the background to the transformation of Jesus to the Christ, but the reality on the ground was somewhat different.
The gospel of John, one of the later texts in the New Testament, has, what is termed a “high Christology”, that is, it has a very developed theology of Jesus as the divine Son, as might perhaps be expected, but so do the writings of Paul, the earliest documents in the New Testament. The term “Son of Man” had an equally unpredictable development. It seems to have entered the Christ cult through the preaching of Jesus himself, but it is, frustratingly, ambiguous. We find it in the synoptics as, variously, a Jewish circumlocution for “I”, a way for someone to speak of themselves in the third person, just as in English we may use the word “one”, (it is, clearly, used in this way, for instance, by Hanina ben Dosa, in the Babylonian Talmud (Y. Ber 5. 1/26 (9a)) of himself when he is bitten by a snake), as such it is used in contrast to God and is a reminder of the speaker’s mortality. Most frequently the phrase is used simply as a synonym for “human being” (Num 23:19; Job 16:18-21; 25:1-6; 35:6-8; Ps 8:5-6; 80:15-19; Isa 51:11-13; and 94 times in Ezekiel; etc) in the same way that Barnabas was referred to as “son of encouragement” ie one who exemplified encouragement, and James and John were referred to as “sons of thunder” ie the very personification of a quick temper, and yet it may also have Messianic overtones in apocalyptic literature such as Daniel. It is most likely that, despite his growing sense that his role may be that of an eschatological catalyst, as he fatefully drew closer to Jerusalem, that Jesus used the phrase of himself in the normal Hebrew and Aramaic sense, but that this was reinterpreted by his disciples after their Easter experience in a more apocalyptic and Messianic sense. That said, it fails to appear at all in Paul, the most unabashedly apocalyptic of all the New Testament documents. 

PAUL’S JESUS

If we turn to the letters of Paul we are move closer to the origin of the Jesus movement, and yet, we find ourselves to be moving further away from the historical Jesus. Paul was Jesus’ younger contemporary and personally knew many of Jesus’ immediate disciples, Peter and John, as well as “the Lord’s brother,” James (Gal 1:18–19; 2:9). Paul had come into contact with the movement within a few years of Jesus’ death. But, as he himself boasts, he was independent of this circle. The source of his Gospel was neither the earthly Jesus nor any tradition passed from one to another within the Jesus movement, but was derived immediately from his mystical experience of the risen Jesus as the Christ, revealed through a special act of God (Gal 1:11–17). Paul distances himself from the traditions coming most directly from the ministry of the historical Jesus that the gospel writers eventually put in writing. Furthermore his letters date from some 25 or so years after the “Easter experience” toward the end of his own missionary career,  which had been spent arguing for Christ with those for whom Greek categories of thought, more than Jewish, were normative, nevertheless they do come from someone well acquainted with the leaders of the original Jesus movement.

The greatest difficulty with Paul’s perception of Jesus, more even than that he is writing pastorally to address Christian praxis and ethics, rather than presenting the life of Jesus in any form of Gospel, is that it is unique to him and radically distinct from that of even his fellow Christians, whom he frequently denounces in the most belligerent and vituperative language as “dogs,” “mutilators of the flesh,” “servants of Satan,” and “false apostles” (Phil 3:2; 2 Cor 11:12–14; cf. the “false brethren” of Gal 2:4) and whom he saw as preaching a “different gospel” and a “different Jesus” from Paul’s own. For Paul Jesus was a human being (ανθρώπους anthrōpos), born of woman, under the Law, that is, a Jew (Gal 4:4; Rom 9:5); a descendent of King David (Rom 1:4) and thus the messiah (Christ). However, like John’s Logos, in Platonic fashion, the preexistent Son of God “through whom all things are” (1 Cor 8:6), came to earth, died by crucifixion, was raised and exalted, and is soon to return. Before his earthly life, Jesus was “in the form of God” (ie. divine), yet did not cling to his “equality with God.” Instead, he entered into human existence, “emptying himself,” taking on the “form of a slave,” and was born in “human form” (Phil 2:5–10), even taking on “sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3), so “becoming sin” for the sake of human beings (2 Cor 5:20). Thus moving from a glorious preincarnate state to life in a body (2 Cor 8:9). All this occurring “according to the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3, although Paul does not say what scripture he is thinking of). God then vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. For Paul, Christ is God’s agent whose mission is nothing less than the redemption of human beings and all creation (Rom 8:19ff.) from sin, decay and frustration. For Paul, Jesus’ death was expiation made in blood for human sin, and those who receive this gospel in faith are redeemed, as God acquits them through his son’s sacrifice (Rom 3:24; also, e.g., 4:24; 5:9). This, preeminently, is the Christ of the Christ cult and of much subsequent Christianity.

MARK’S JESUS

Mark’s Jesus is someone with great personal authority. He calls, and people follow (eg. 1:16–20), He teaches without citing any source, thereby “astonishing” his listeners (1:21–22), he commands  “unclean spirits, and they obey him” (1:27), he has mastery over sickness and, by extension in the minds of his contemporaries, sin (2:1–10), he commands nature and with a word, the wind and sea become calm and a fig tree withers (4:39; 11:14, 20). When Mark presents Jesus to his readers as this commanding figure, it is in conjunction with the term, “Son of Man”. Jesus speaks of the Son of Man in the conventional way, in the third person, but what he says is perplexing: the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins (2:10), and is lord even over the Sabbath, which is made for him, rather than vice versa (2:28). What is Jesus saying? It may be, as we have already seen, that he is saying that I, personally, have authority to forgive sin (which is the prerogotive of God) and that I am lord of the Sabbath, which would be extraordinarily arrogant, or it may be that he is saying that the eschatological Son of Man figure of popular apocalyptic has this authority, or it may be the incredibly empowering and liberating message that human beings have this authority. The words are almost certainly authentically those of Jesus, rather than those of Mark or his sources, but which is the most probable interpretation? The likelihood is that Jesus intended them in the last sense, but that the developing tradition, which Mark represents, uses their ambiguity to further the messianic mystery, a theme Mark relishes. The Son of Man is, however, also an example of humility; he is not served, but he serves, ultimately giving his life as a ransom for many (10:46). For Mark, suffering, ignominy, and death are the Messiah’s lot, finding himself rejected by the Jewish authorities and delivered to the Gentiles, to be mocked, scourged, and killed, according to the scriptures. But for Jesus, the message to his hearers is different. It is not the mysterious apocalyptic figure who these words speak of, but everyone. It is a message if empowering liberation, but also of personal responsibility, even of self sacrifice. For Mark, the son of Man figure has been transformed and with it the intention of Jesus’ message: vindication awaits and the Son of Man will come again in glory and power, with angels, to usher in the Kingdom of God (8:38–9:1; 13:26; 14:62). 

Interestingly, however, in distinction to Paul, Jesus is the Son of God and not the son of David, and he seems deliberately to repudiate Davidic descent as a necessary precondition of messianic status. Jesus asks, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is David’s son?” and he quotes Psalm 110.1 in the Greek translation against such an idea: “‘the Lord [God] said to my Lord [the messiah], “Sit at my right hand’” … David himself calls him ’Lord’: so how is he David’s son?” (12:35–37).

For Mark, if we are to be included among the elect then, the we, as hearers, must believe now that the Son of Man has already come for the first time as Jesus of Nazareth, has suffered, died, and on the third day was (or, within the gospel’s time frame, “will be”) raised. According to Mark, Jesus’ identity as Son of Man is his message.This makes all the more puzzling Mark’s portrayal of Jesus as one who demands silence from those who realize who he really is and who routinely rebuk those who confession him as Christ and Son of God. The reason Jesus apparently works at cross-purposes in this way is because the “messianic secret” has apologetic value. Mark is able, in thus way, to explain three facts that confronted his readers: the lack of recognition that Jesus  received among his own people in his lifetime; the continuing lack of Jewish recognition for Christian claims about Jesus; and the (recent) destruction of the temple, Judaism’s holiest site, by the same imperial power that had executed Jesus. For Mark, the destruction of the Temple represented both the natural political outcome of the Jewish refusal to follow Christ and divine censure of that refusal. For Mark, the concept of the Messiah (and the necessary Davidic descent) is stripped of its political content, so that, despite Jesus’ death on the cross as a political insurrectionist, his concerns were far from political, as Pilate sensed and the Roman centurion realized (15:10, 39). For Mark, Jesus heralded a new kingdom, but it was one which was religious and cosmic, not one which was political. If the Jews did not understand, it is because they were never meant to do so and, if the messiah suffered and died, it is because that is what he had come for.

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