© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.
Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine,
And the configurations of their glory!
Seeing not only how each verse does shine,
But all the constellations of the story.
– George Herbert, “The Holy Scriptures”
The highest revelation is that God is in every man.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals
For over two millennia, Jesus has attracted followers, has annoyed skeptics, and has baffled many who wonder what his existence meant, in all its wild paradox, as Bultmann recognizes when he writes, “The Christ occurrence means the eschatological occurrence through which God has put an end to the world and its history. There, this paradox is the claim that a historical event is at the same time the eschatological event.” (1 – see footnotes below) That is, Jesus erases history, but he depends on it as well. As it were, the evolution of thinking about Jesus and what his existence signified began within moments of his departure from earth. Soon his disciples began to spread the gospel from Palestine outward, first colonizing adjacent territories, such as Macedonia and Thrace and Cappadocia, then taking the “good news” to Crete, Malta, Sicily, Egypt, and Rome, eventually reaching the farthest corners of the world. The church that arose in the name of Jesus splintered, however, into many churches, and some of these quarreled viciously, with competing theologies, all of them supposedly based on his life and teachings.
The most important early follower of Jesus was surely the apostle Paul. His letters, written twenty years or so after the Crucifixion, constitute the earliest Christian documents, composed two decades before the gospels themselves – a hugely important point that is rarely noted by Christians, who somehow imagine that because the Pauline epistles follow the gospels in the New Testament, they must have been written after them. (Thirteen of Paul’s letters are found in the New Testament, although only seven are considered authentic; the others were written “in the tradition of Paul” by his associates.) Paul’s supple and speculative mind shimmers through his correspondence, and it could easily be argued that he invented Christian theology by shaping its most elementary ideas. His formulations permeate all branches of the field to this day, and it seems impossible to imagine a Christian tradition of thought without him, even though others – James, the brother of Jesus, and Simon Peter, for instance – played huge roles in shaping the early church.
Stories about Jesus spread among his followers, and one assumes that those close to him – the eyewitnesses – could repeat versions of the Sermon on the Mount verbatim. The parables, too, would have traveled well. Stories of his encounters with people that he healed or comforted as he walked in Galilee would have been told and retold, and his final week in Jerusalem – his entry into the city on a donkey, the Last Supper, his arrest and trial, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, with its astounding aftermath – would have riveted all who listened. That interested parties would write down these narratives was inevitable, and it’s likely that we don’t possess the earliest versions – the raw materials that the evangelists (canonical and otherwise) used for the gospels that, decades after Jesus, found their way into written form, in due course becoming the central documents of the New Testament.
The gospels purport to be eyewitness testimony. Think of the opening of Luke: “Given that many have undertaken to compile a story of the things which have been accomplished among us, and just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed wise to me, having followed all of these things closely for some time, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.” (2)
This sounds very much like someone writing with personal knowledge of what happened, a writer with an urgent need to put down these “things that are most confidently believed among us.” Richard Bauckham has argued convincingly that one can depend on the gospels as participating in the genre of historical memoir. These narratives, he says, “embody the testimony of the eyewitnesses, not of course without editing and interpretation, but in a way that is substantially faithful to how the eyewitnesses themselves told it, since the Evangelists were in more or less direct contact with eyewitnesses, not removed from them by a long process of anonymous transmission of the traditions.” (3) Furthermore, Bauckham disputes the conventional (if unchallenged) view that “a long process of anonymous transmission in the communities intervened between their testimony and the writing of the Gospels.” In other words, eyewitnesses wrote down what they knew rather quickly. They offered portraits of Jesus, not carefully detailed biographies, drawing on impressions, even word of mouth passed along by those present at the time of the events relayed.
Needless to say, for the gospels to be considered accurate memoirs one would have to take into account the complicated process of memory itself. Bauckham does so to a degree, citing recent psychological studies of memory. These widely accept that it’s difficult to remember what happened last week, let alone a few decades ago. Memory plays tricks for all kinds of reasons, some innocent, others not so much. That is, sometimes a memory serves a purpose, semi-consciously, even unconsciously. One assumes that the evangelists each had a subjective view, an intended audience, with ideological assumptions that would have shaded their reflections.
Dale C. Allison, Jr. neatly summarizes the textual tradition of the New Testament: “Approximately 3,000 mss. of the Greek New Testament (part or whole) have been preserved, copied between the 2nd and 17th centuries, plus over 2,200 lectionary [manuscripts] containing sections (pericopes) of the New Testament arranged for reading in church liturgy from the 7th century on.” (4) That is, no original manuscripts exist for the gospels, the letters of Paul, or any other material that appears in the New Testament. The first complete versions of the gospels, in fact, date to the fourth century – a very long time after the events they describe. One can only guess what the earlier versions might have looked like, or how scrupulous those who copied these texts might have been. (As there are numerous discrepancies in later copies of the gospels, one assumes that discrepancies happened along the way as well. Why wouldn’t they?)
So many people rightly ask: Are these stories true? It’s a complicated question without a simple answer. Pontius Pilate put the essential question before Jesus himself during his trial in Jerusalem: “So what is truth?” To a degree, literal truth isn’t terribly hard to recognize. If I hit my thumb with a hammer, it hurts. That is true. If my father dies, I feel sad. That is true. Then again, even these simple examples have complications. I’ve hit my thumb many times with a hammer, as I like to play around with tools at home; yet I’ve hit my thumb fewer times in recent years. The pain of the first few strikes and black thumbs were necessary in the advancement of my carpentry skills. So context and personal history play a part in my understanding of this truth. When my own father died, I felt devastated. That was true. But he died over a decade ago, and though I continue to feel his presence in my life every day, and love him now as much as I did then, I – really and truly – don’t miss him, not in the same way that I did at first. However odd, this is true as well.
Context is everything, and this makes it difficult to talk about the gospels, which are usually read out of context. Churchgoers like myself get used to hearing biblical texts recited in bits and pieces throughout the year. We hear passages from the Old Testament and the New. These fragments scatter in our heads and hearts, making it difficult to form a coherent picture, a sense of the overall pattern. And certain denominations – Christianity is a lush amalgam of churches and movements with very different theological opinions – tend to focus on one verse or another, highlighting a particular strain in the gospel narrative and repressing others. With the lectionary – the passages read in church each Sunday as stipulated by church authorities – an effort is made to link the readings, creating themes that reflect seasons in the church year, but the context is often lost on listeners.
In churches that run to the literal side, and where, in extreme cases, the Bible is taken as the Word of God in the most simplistic and literal fashion, certain verses stand out, summoned by pastors with flashing eyes, usually in the King James Version: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Or “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). These appear to narrow the path to heaven considerably, although a fuller exploration of such verses in their original Greek form often reveals a more complicated, and life-enhancing, message. In Matthew 7:13, for instance, Jesus famously says that the path to God is narrow but the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction. This verse, and others like it, seem to fundamentalists to point to eternal damnation. Yet the word in Greek is apoleia, which often means “a sense of loss” or a “waste,” thus mitigating the terror of endless torment so beloved of hellfire and brimstone preachers. The truth is, Jesus had little interest in damning anyone, and he certainly had no concept of hell as a place of perpetual torment.
A kind of literalist reading of the Bible came into play mainly in the wake of post-Enlightenment skepticism about scriptural texts, when a fierce reaction formed among a number of American and British preachers and scholars, who began to argue for biblical inerrancy, centering their faith on rather apocalyptic ideas teased mainly out of the Book of Revelation. One thinks of Dwight L. Moody, Charles Hodge, Arthur Pierson, Benjamin Warfield, or Cyrus I. Scofield in the US. or John Nelson Darby in England. Each of these men developed a large following, and to a degree their ideas still hold sway in Christian fundamentalist circles, with their emphasis on the end times, including the Second Coming and the Rapture, with the threat of hellfire and eternal damnation held up like a sword above the heads of fearful congregations. Belief in the inerrancy of the Bible gives them a sense of certainty that the modern age cannot offer.
Yet the Bible itself declared its openness to interpretation. In Hebrews 4:12 we read: “For the word of God is living and active.” It’s sharper than any “two-edged sword,” piercing to the heart of a reader, “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” One has to accommodate all sorts of contradictory sayings and remarks by Jesus, Paul, and others. These often run against common sense, as in Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.” Really? Didn’t God in the Ten Commandments urge us to honor our father and our mother, and didn’t Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount say that the commandments handed down to Moses remain firmly in place? A living and active reading of such passages draws us more fully into the text, into the living Word, which is unstable, always challenging, never set in stone.
The problem of translation complicates all readings of Holy Scripture, for a start. Jesus (and most of his disciples) spoke Aramaic, although one guesses he could read Hebrew as well, having been trained in a local synagogue in Nazareth – at least, one imagines this was the case. Yet the gospels unfold in a late form of Greek, aimed quite specifically at various groups within the early church, some of them Jewish and others gentile. The Gospel of Thomas comes to us in Coptic, like other early writings discovered in Egypt at Nag Hamrnadi in 1945. (It’s impossible to know exactly what sources these Coptic translators drew on.) Many Jews at the time of Jesus knew the Hebrew Bible only in Aramaic translations called Targumim (a Targum is simply a translation) or in the widely influential rendition of the Old Testament into Greek known as the Septuagint, which dates from the third or second century BCE. So the story of Jesus takes on the colorations and idiomatic tones of many different languages. English versions, in fact, often derived from the popular Latin translation by Jerome, a very late (fourth century) version of the Bible commissioned by Pope Damasus I in 382., a translation that has many problems (and many glories as well).
Quests for the Historical Jesus
As for the historical details of the life of Christ, one feels the despair of scholars as they grapple with a long tradition known as the quest for the historical Jesus. Before the Enlightenment dawned in the late seventeenth century, there was not much concern about the historicity of the life of Christ: he was simply the man described in the four gospels. This was a world of superstition, where scientific inquiry had not quite impinged on theological matters. In the deist view of the world, popular in the eighteenth century, God was said to have created the clock of the universe, wound it tightly, and stepped aside to let it tick away. In the nineteenth century, a distinction arose between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, and this distinction has guided scholarship ever since, creating complications that remain difficult to address or “solve.”
The first phase of the quest for the historical Jesus, called the Old Quest, began with Hermann Reimarus, a revered professor of theology at Hamburg in Germany. After his death, his most adventurous theological speculations found publication, including On the Resurrection Narratives (1777) – a nuclear bomb exploded in the midst of biblical scholarship. He considered Jesus a revolutionary with political designs on the Jewish community of Palestine and decided that his frantic disciples must have concocted the story of the Resurrection, after having first stolen his corpse from the tomb. He pointed to numerous contradictions in the gospel accounts, and he coolly exploited these differences. Various (mostly German) theologians followed in his rebellious wake, although some tried to reconcile the contradictions that Reimarus had raised. In 1835, David Friedrich Strauss published his Life of Jesus Critically Examined, bringing the historical problems in Jesus scholarship before a broad public and playing into Enlightenment skepticism that had grown over the past decades. He attempted to remove the supernatural parts of the narrative, as Thomas Jefferson had done before him, turning Jesus into an ethical philosopher, nothing more. He didn’t see the gospels as history but legend, calling them myths – perhaps the introduction of that word into Christian discourse.
Strauss and successive theologians in Germany pioneered what became Source Criticism later in the century, centered on the idea that both Matthew and Luke drew on Mark as well as a lost document, always referred to as Q. What these scholars hammered home was that the first three gospels shared much the same vision, with many identical or nearly identical passages: hence, “Synoptic” came to describe them, as they saw the same things, even the same text. There could be no coincidence here. This was a case of rewriting and shaping existing material. These three gospels roughly tell the same story, with a few competing details, a few telling absences.
The results of source criticism became the norm, and nowadays few scholars dispute that Mark is the earliest of the gospels, or that Matthew and Luke follow him closely, drawing on additional material not available to Mark. John – the Fourth Gospel, as it’s often called – continues to puzzle many, as it stands apart from its three cousins in style and substance. It presents new material (such as the story of Lazarus) and portrays a very different Jesus: one who does not, for instance, teach in parables but speaks broadly in “I am” statements, as in “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The majority of New Testament scholars date all four gospels to the second half of the first century, with Mark having been written about the time when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. John was probably the latest, composed in the last decade of the first century; although a handful of scholars (including J. A. T. Robinson, a former Anglican bishop) place it much earlier, possibly before Mark. Robinson says, provocatively: “One of the oddest facts about the New Testament is that what on any showing would appear to be the single most datable and climactic event of the period – the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism based on the temple – is never once mentioned as a past fact. It is, of course, predicted; and these predictions are, in some cases at least, assumed to be written (or written up) after the event.” (5)
A huge amount of historical and textual study occurred in the nineteenth century among Christian thinkers, culminating in Albert Schweitzer’s justly famous Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), which assembled all the known facts and relevant theories up to the date of its publication. At about the same time, other scholars, especially Johannes Weiss, began to dwell on the eschatological tone of the gospels, with their emphasis on a coming “end times” or eschaton. Schweitzer had picked up on this, observing the insistence on the end of the world in the gospels. Schweitzer argued that Jesus originally thought that a figure called the Son of Man would come and put an end to things. When this miraculous appearance or parousia failed to materialize, he simply became this figure himself, taking on a sacrificial role, imagining that his violent death would force the hand of God, who would bring all of history to a conclusion, with the righteous lifted up and the evil ones cast down. This didn’t happen, so the Jesus of Schweitzer became a failure, a man who only managed to get himself crucified. In the famous last paragraph of his book, Schweitzer managed to lift the level of rhetoric to quite a feverish pitch:
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside. He came to those men who did not know who He was. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, and the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is. (6)
In the wake of Schweitzer and several other major German theologians, Bultmann wrote in a moment of despair: “I do indeed think that we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus.” (7) This provocative and now legendary statement was mainly a reaction to the late-nineteenth-century so-called Liberal Lives of Jesus, which sought to examine his psychology, as in the popular treatment of Jesus by Ernest Renan, whose Life of Jesus swept through Europe in the 1860s and continued to attract a wide audience for decades. But these biographies also reflected a growing awareness that much of the historical record was inaccessible, out of reach; it was impossible to know the details of Jesus’s life in the way one knows the details of other historical phenomena. Instead of searching for some phantasm of history, Bultmann sought to discover the inherent message or kerygma of Christianity. With other colleagues, such as Hermann Gunkel, he developed what is called Form Criticism, a kind of “demythologizing” that seeks to discover a kernel of meaning within a particular form, such as a saying or a parable. Bultmann sought to take into account the setting for each narrative link in the gospels (German: sitz im Leben) in order to historicize it, to place it within a sound contextual framework.” (8) He hoped to separate the mythic strands, grounding the story in scientific realities that “proceed from the world picture of natural science.” (9) In doing so, he lost something of the mythic resonance of the narrative of Jesus, this mythos that I have hoped to reimagine.
The middle years of the twentieth century are often called the era of No Quest: scholars gave up on trying to locate Jesus in time and place, agreeing with Bultmann that the quest was whimsical. But massive discoveries of fresh material in mid-century brought a crisp wind from the Near East, especially with the uncovering of new texts, including the Gnostic Gospels at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 and the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late forties and fifties. As Cynthia Bourgeault says, “We’re living in an era right now which some would call a major paradigm shift, where there’s an opportunity as perhaps there hasn’t been before to really open up the core questions again.” (10)
Already this was happening in the early fifties, when – fueled by these discoveries – interest in the life of Jesus picked up quite dramatically. One of Bultmann’s students, Ernst Kasemann, raised the issue of the quest once again in 1953, arguing that his teacher
had been too skeptical concerning the historical evidence and that in the light of new evidence one must try to wed the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith. He raised the old specter of Docetism, an early heresy in which Jesus was regarded as wholly spiritual, never a human being who lived in historical time. One product of this reopening of the quest – often called the New Quest – was Jesus of Nazareth by Gunter Bornkamm. Bornkamm wrote that each biographer of Jesus suffered from bringing “the spirit of his own age into his presentation of the figure of Jesus,” usually with disastrous results. He concluded: “No one is any longer in the position to write a life of Jesus.” (11) Nonetheless, he sought to lay down the undisputed facts, such as the birthplace of Jesus, his language (Aramaic), his baptism by John the Baptist, his trial and execution by the Romans. He emphasized the sayings of Jesus, the wise aphorisms that have traveled so well throughout the centuries. It turned out that one could count on quite a few hard facts, and that the sayings of Jesus could, after a fashion, often be judged as true statements. The quest was, once again, up and running.
A major effort to authenticate the sayings of Jesus began, with a lively group of scholars using various criteria of verification, such as “dissimilarity,” wherein a saying was deemed true if it contradicted things that might have been said in Judaism or the early Christian church. In other words, if it sounded like something often said by rabbis, it probably wasn’t something Jesus actually said. But this criterion has obvious problems. Why wouldn’t Jesus simply repeat things that he’d heard in the local synagogues and considered worthwhile? There is the added difficulty that we know little enough about Judaic aphorisms during this period that it might be difficult even to know what was likely or unlikely as a saying.
Another criterion is multiple attestation. That is, a saying is more likely to belong to Jesus if it crops up in more than one place and it’s not obvious that one source (Matthew or Luke) simply copied another (Mark). So scholars looked for multiple independent sources. Of course it makes sense that if different sources quote the same material, it might be especially noteworthy, even authentic. The problem is that it’s difficult to know who copied what, or if oral tradition might have floated any number of sayings, which got picked up here and there, in canonical writings as well as texts that lay outside the canon.
There is also the criterion of embarrassment. Would Jesus really have said or done things that embarrassed him or his followers? If embarrassing things got reported in a gospel, they must be true, as the early church would not like to see them conveyed to potential converts – although they probably felt they must report something if it happened to be the truth. A famous example is that of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Why would the Lord himself require baptism? He was Jesus! And why would he submit to baptism by a lesser person? I myself see little value in this criterion. Good theological explanations exist for Jesus doing things like being baptized by John the Baptist or fraternizing with tax collectors and prostitutes. In addition, Jesus liked to shock people, as it proved a good way to get their attention. In addition to this, ethical behavior is often shocking, cutting against the grain of popular morality at any given time. And the writers of the gospels understood this.
The list of criteria used to authenticate the sayings of Jesus multiplied. Historical plausibility, for example, was another one that seemed to gather a lot of attention. A saying must actually seem in accord with things Jesus taught elsewhere if one were to consider it authentic. There were stylistic criteria as well; the saying must somehow “sound like” something Jesus might have said. That subjective or ideological distortions could play into such criteria seems obvious enough, and these distortions make it very hard to say with any certainty that a saying by Jesus was “true” or “false.”
The next phase of Jesus studies, sometimes called the Third Quest, began in the 1980s, holding up the Jewish background of Jesus to close examination. This movement was aided by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as productive new archaeological digs in the region and the development of more sophisticated analyses of texts from the era. Scholars now reread Josephus as well as various rabbinical writings and newly discovered apocryphal texts in the light of freshly discovered facts. An explosion of research in the period of Second Temple Judaism helped to position the life of Jesus in a context that had explanatory value. Among those who pioneered this phase in Jesus studies were Geza Vermes, mentioned earlier, and E. P. Saunders, who published Jesus and Judaism in 1985 – an important point of reference for scholars interested in the Jewish origins of Christianity.
At about the same time as Vermes and Sanders began to explore the Jewish context of the gospels, the Jesus Seminar arrived on the scene, a group of 150 scholars founded in 1985 by Robert W. Funk under the auspices of the Westar Institute in Salem, Oregon. Among the leading members of the group were John Dominic Crossan, Marcus J. Borg, and Burton Mack. The group would meet twice a year to discuss the authenticity of sayings by Jesus, using criteria already in place and expanding on these with their own considerable skills in ancient languages and history. They used colored beads to vote on the degree of authenticity attached to each saying, for example, and voted by dropping them into a box. The Seminar rejected roughly eighty percent of the sayings by Jesus as either inauthentic or doubtful.
The danger of this approach is almost too plain and was nailed by Garry Wills, who wrote: “This is the new fundamentalism. It believes in the literal sense of the Bible – it just reduces the Bible to what it can take as literal quotation from Jesus. Though some people have called the Jesus Seminarists radical, they are actually very conservative. They tame the real radical, Jesus, cutting him down to their own size.” (12) I would have to agree with Wills (whose various studies of Christian ideas have shaped my own thinking).
One interesting byproduct of the Jesus Seminar was The Five Gospels (1993), a re-translation of the canonical gospels, plus the Gospel of Thomas (1993) by Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and other members of the Seminar. (13) This fresh translation of the Greek and Coptic texts is worth reading, even if one dismisses the idea of voting on the sayings of Jesus to determine their authenticity. In this edition, the sayings with a high degree of being the actual words of Jesus appear in red, those with less certainty appear in pink; those that seem like Jesus but are probably not his own words are gray. All sayings in black are considered as creations of his followers. While I find the project of trying to verify these sayings foolhardy, this edition provides thoughtful commentary and useful notes that explore the historical and literary aspects of given passages.
Despite the misguided efforts of the Jesus Seminar, there is much to admire in the Third Quest overall, a broad movement where Jesus emerges in a variety of forms, coming off as a millennial prophet (E. P. Sanders, John P. Meier, Dale C. Allison Jr.), as a revolutionary teacher (Marcus J. Borg), or as a political rebel wishing to overthrow both Herod Antipas and Rome (Richard A. Horsley, Reza Aslan). In other accounts, he becomes an itinerant rabbi who promulgated Kabbalah, a mystical form of Judaism (Bruce Chilton), or a radical Jew (Geza Vermes, Daniel Boyarin), or a master of ancient spiritual wisdom (Thich Nhat Hanh, Cynthia Bourgeault). In the many books by John Dominic Crossan, Jesus becomes a peripatetic Mediterranean peasant influenced by the Cynics – an early Greek school of philosophy that traced its origins back to Socrates; Crossan, in fact tends to discount the historical nature of the gospel narratives, preferring to focus on their deeper meanings. In a recent study of the parables, for example, he concludes: “The power of Jesus’s parables challenged and enabled his followers to co-create with God a world of justice and love, peace and nonviolence. The power of Jesus’s historical life challenged his followers by proving at least one human being could cooperate fully with God.” (14)
Finally, there is. N. T. Wright, a former Anglican bishop who has written voluminously on the life and teachings of Jesus, notably in Jesus and the Victory of God (1996) and, more recently, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (2008). In a dialogue with Marcus J. Borg, Wright has gone to the center of his project as a scholar and Christian where he argues that historians are “not disembodied. He or she lives in the created world, the sacramental world, the human world, the political world, the world of a reality simultaneously mundane and shot through with glory.” Once we have widened our horizons to include all this, he argues, “we will find, I believe, that the tension supposed to exist between history and faith is much more oblique, much less of a problem and more of a stimulus. (15) In effect, the problems dissolve as Jesus comes into view as an exemplary life, the human face of God, a mythic figure who lived in real time, transcending time.
The Meaning of Christ
That scholarship about Jesus should prove complicated, even contradictory, should surprise no one. Jesus was, and remains, a challenging figure, a voice that sounds through the centuries, calling us to attention, confronting us with hard truths as well as comforting words. He asks us to follow him. But the cost of discipleship, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer has shown us, is often high. In Bonhoeffer’s case, the cost was his life itself: he died a martyr to the ideas he lived by. But he understood Christianity as not simply a set of doctrines, a list of “beliefs” that one must check off in order to be “saved.” That wasn’t Christianity at all. As Bonhoeffer writes, Jesus made it clear from the start “that his word is not an abstract doctrine … but the re-creation of the whole life of man.” (16)
That we can’t quite grasp the full meaning of this message – the core message of Jesus – should come as no surprise. What does it mean, in fact, to call him the Incarnate Word, the logos, except to suggest that “God was in Christ” (II Corinthians 5:19), which is to say that the spirit of God moved in Jesus’s life in order to accomplish God’s purpose. The Incarnation, in other words, suggests that there was a spiritual presence in Jesus that was unique, bringing redemptive words into being, ushering forward deeds culminating in both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. That such matters should prove difficult to comprehend with ordinary human intelligence should not surprise us.
Anything of real value requires an effort of understanding as well as dedication. But it’s worth recalling that Jesus never meant to found a formal church with rituals and organized practices, to ordain priests, or to issue doctrinaire statements that formed a rigid program for salvation. Other than “follow me;’ his only commandment was “to love one another as I have loved you.” He also asked us to break bread in his memory as a way of creating community, of extending the mystical body of Christ into the world at large. Most crucially, he wished for us to experience a change of heart – metanoia – a term which, as noted earlier, suggests a shift into a larger consciousness, a life-enhancing awareness of the mind of God, a deepening into fundamental layers of awareness that transforms and transports us, brings us into contact with profound realities. Jesus offered an invitation to everyone – to an awakening, to a sense of God-consciousness. This kingdom lies within us, in the soil of our creation.
I don’t pretend to know more about Jesus than any well-disposed Christian who has spent a good deal of time reading about him, studying the Bible, trying to learn from his example and absorb the desert wisdom of his teaching. The place for anyone to begin their journey of faith is certainly with the gospels, including the Gospel of Thomas, with their rich layers of teaching and counsel, and with the letters of Paul, as well as other writings that have acquired sacramental value – as you will have gleaned, considerable portions of my own knowledge of religious ideas come from poetry itself, not only biblical poetry but a wide range of literature.
Revelation is active and ongoing, a lively stream that bubbles up from the ground of being. And the good news that Jesus hoped to spread continues to generate an endlessly active and emerging creation. As R. S. Thomas wrote in “Emerging” –
We are beginning to see
now it is matter is the scaffolding
of spirit; that the poem emerges
from morphemes and phonemes; that
as form in sculpture is the prisoner
of the hard rock, so in everyday life
it is the plain facts and natural happenings
that conceal God and reveal him to us
little by little under the mind’s tooling.
Notes to Chapter 8 – The Afterlife of Jesus
1. Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, ed. and trans. Schubert M. Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 163.
2. The addressee, one Theophilus, remains unknown; but his name in Greek means “lover of God:’ so it’s possible that this was a generic address, composed with a wry smile, a wink of acknowledgment to those who consider themselves lovers of God. Here as throughout this book, I use my own versions of the New Testament, except where the King
James Version (KJV) is so well known that it seems pointless to erase it. With quotations from the Old Testament, I generally use the King James Version, except where clarity is at stake.
3. Bauckham, 6.
4. Allison, 48.
5. John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1976), 13.
6. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, trans. W. Montgomery (London: A & C Black, 1954),401.
7. Rudolf Bultrnann, Jesus and the Word (London: Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1935), 14.
8. See Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology. See also History and Eschatology: The Presence of Eternity (New York: Harper and Row, 1962).
9. Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology, 5. For a full description of Bultmann’s idea of demythologization, see Robert C. Roberts, Rudolf Bultmann’s Theology: A Critical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, I976).
10. Bourgeault, 3-4.
11. Gunter Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (New York Harper, 1960), 1. Originally published in German in 1956.
12. Garry Wills, What Jesus Meant (New York: Viking, 2.006), xxv.
13. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, trans. with commentary by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar (New York: Macmillan, 1993).
14. John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus (New York: HarperCoIIins, 2012).
15. Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 227-28.
16. Bonhoeffer, 62..