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Who Was Jesus? Or, the Many-faced Messiah

“There must surely have been something not only mysterious but many-sided about Christ if so many smaller Christs can be carved out of him” (G. K. Chesterton). And the smaller Christs are plentiful and contradictory. Jesus has been portrayed as a celibate (J. D. Crossan), a homosexual (Gene Robinson), a lustful philandering heterosexual (Martin Scorsese), or a married family man (W. E. Phipps). He’s been a guerrilla leader (S. F. G. Brandon), a pacifist (J. H. Yoder), and a political innocent (Oscar Cullmann and Martin Hengel).

He’s been the founder of a mushroom cult (John Allegro), a charismatic leader or healer (Martin Hengel, Geza Vermes), a worker of magic (Morton Smith), a presenter of principles for business success (Bruce Barton, The Man Nobody Knows), a member of the ascetic Essenes (Barbara Thiering), and as well “a glutton and a drunkard” (Luke 7:34). He’s been depicted as everything from a blue-eyed Aryan to a black African; and he’s managed to visit not only his own Palestine, but also places as far a field as Japan, India, and America. He must have been a remarkable man to be seen in so many contradictory ways.

Then again, we have modern scholars endlessly engaged in The Quest of the Historical Jesus (the title of Albert Schweitzer’s famous book), whereas a minority such as A. G. Wells argue that Jesus is the product of Paul’s creative imagination and did not actually exist (Did Jesus Exist? 1975). This latter skepticism was humorously illustrated in the irreverent British sitcom, The Vicar of Dibley. In the opinion of the fictional female Bishop of Wickham, “Jesus didn’t exist, and even if he did, he definitely wasn’t a Christian.” The evidence for Jesus’ human existence is overwhelming, but what ruins the latter part of the joke is that it’s no joke: Jesus wasn’t a Christian; he was a first-century Jew.

Of course, the likes of Dr. Goebbels (the Nazi Minister for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment) can deny this: “Jesus was not a Jew. Historical proof is not necessary; it is so.” But modern historical scholarship has placed Jesus thoroughly in the context of first-century Judaism (for example, E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism; J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew). This is one certainty about Jesus’ identity. He was a Jew. Jesus’ Jewishness is beyond doubt. He was circumcised on the eighth day, he worshiped regularly in the synagogue on the Sabbath, he kept Passover and other Jewish feasts, he spoke Aramaic, he reverenced the Torah (law), his God was the God of Israel, his style of teaching was Jewish, the issues he debated were Jewish, and he lived out his whole life in Palestine.

However, he was an enigma to his Jewish contemporaries, too; even to those who found him magnetic and follow him as a teacher. They tried all the obvious classifications: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, a prophet like Moses (Matt. 16:14; John 6:14), but none seemed adequate. The Gospels capture a sense of mounting awe in both the crowds and the disciples by using numerous words meaning “astonishment.” Notice the build up in Matthew’s Gospel.

  • Matt. 8:27 (NRSV) They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”
  • Matt. 9:33 (NRSV) And when the demon had been cast out, the one who had been mute spoke; and the crowds were amazed and said, “Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.”
  • Matt. 12:23 (NRSV) All the crowds were amazed and said, “Can this be the Son of David?”
  • Matt. 13:54 (NRSV) They were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power?”
  • Matt. 14:33 (NRSV) And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
  • Matt. 16:16 (NRA) Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

There is a clear movement in these texts from the deliberative question, “What sort of man is this?” to an act of worship with the acclaims, “Truly you are the Son of God,” and “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” As early as the first decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, the first Christians are addressing their prayers to him and looking to him for grace (that is, divine favor). That early Jewish believers did this, which is incredible considering their strong commitment to monotheism, is demonstrated by the preservation of the Aramaic invocation maranatha (“Our Lord come”) in 1 Cor. 16:22–23. It is repeated in Greek in Revelation 22:20, and is also found in the earliest surviving liturgical text, Didache 10.6.

Praying to Jesus for help and blessing puts him in the position of God—and Jewish believers must have recognized that. Thus the Christian belief in the deity of Jesus was not the creation of their subtle theological reflections, but the consequence of their spontaneous worship. Thomas’ sudden exclamation of belief was an act of worship and adoration (”My Lord, and my God,” John 20:28). The theological reflection came later as Christians tried to reconcile the monotheism they inherited from Judaism with what was taking place in their daily worship. The New Testament writers reflect the realities of early Christian worship when they applied to Jesus the functions and titles that were traditionally the sole prerogative of God (for example, the title Lord and the forgiveness of sins in his name).

But the early Christian prayers also indicate something further, namely, that “the parousia [the Second Coming] is essential to the Christian understanding of who Jesus is” (Bauckham, 2001, 270).1 The early Christians lived within a temporal framework qualified by the hope expressed in the frequently expressed wish, “until I [he] come[s]” (Matt.10:23; John 21:22, 23; 1 Cor. 4:5; 11:26). This means of course that they did not accept that Jesus’ crucifixion was the end of his life. That God raised him from the dead is an equally essential fact for understanding who Jesus was and is. The belief in his resurrection also transformed their understanding of his death from a tragedy to a triumph, which is made especially significant for me as I’m writing this on Easter Sunday. It was the resurrection that elicited the disciples’ faith, as they testified (1 Cor. 15:1–11), and not their faith that created the story of his rising from the dead, as some say.

At the time of the furor over Martin Scorsese’s film, The Last Temptation of Christ, the August 15, 1988, edition of Time magazine ran a cover story, “Who was Jesus?” (Richard N. Ostling). For the sixteenth occasion Time put the face of Jesus on its cover. Their art department selected seventeen portraits (both ancient and modern) from some one hundred images to create a startling composite picture of Jesus. Although some of the suggestions about Jesus’ identity are contradictory with others, there is no doubt that the identity of Jesus is variegated.

So who was/is Jesus? He’s the risen Lord, and he’s a first-century Jew. He’s the Son of God, and he’s our brother (Heb. 2:11). He’s the Savior of the world (John 4:42), and he’s a prophet of God. He’s the Life of the world (John 6:51), and he’s the Crucified One (1 Cor. 1:23). He’s the revealer of God (John 1:18; 14:9-10), and he came in the weakness of humanity (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14, 17). We worship him as God, and we know him as a friend (John 15:14–15).

Notes and References

1. Richard Bauckham, “The Future of Jesus Christ,” in Markus Bockmuehl, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 265–80.

Norman H. Young is honorary senior research fellow at Avondale College, Cooranbong, Australia.

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