Which Jesus?

Christians know Jesus as their teacher, but also as more than a teacher. He is also Son of God and Savior from sins. The understanding of him as divine and as Savior have, in fact, often crowded out our hearing Jesus as our teacher, and Christians have sometimes developed elaborate theological reasons for qualifying or even largely ignoring his teachings about the manner of life his disciples were to lead.
    But the Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament, were written to enable people of later generations to hear the teachings of Jesus, to allow his teachings shape their thinking and lives, and so to become his disciples. They were written, that is, to be part of how the early church sought to carry out the mandate to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I [Jesus] have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20).
    When we read or listen to Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, we are brought face-to-face with his specific humanity more than we are likely to mention in our worship. His life, as represented in the four Gospels and other books of the New Testament, went something like this: He was a Jewish man who spent nearly all his life in Palestine/Israel, which was at that time under the rule of the Roman Empire, along with all the European, Asian, and African countries on the Mediterranean Sea and European countries on the Atlantic coast. Most of the people he was ever in contact with were Jewish. Though he was by family and training a village carpenter, he spent the last part of his life as a traveling teacher and worker of miracles, mainly of healing. He gathered a group of disciples around him.
    He was eventually put on trial and executed in Jerusalem under the authority of a non-Jewish Roman provincial governor. The means of execution was crucifixion — being nailed through his wrists and ankles to a wooden cross and displayed in a public place — which is why the cross () has been the most common symbol of Christianity. Two days after his death he became alive again. He then appeared several times to his disciples for another forty days, and then rose into heaven in their presence. His disciples then came to be the beginning of what is now the worldwide Christian religion.
    Each of the Gospels stands on its own as a narrative of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and as a presentation of his teachings. They are different in outlook and emphases to a degree that scholars study “the theology of Matthew,” “the theology of Mark,” and the rest, and that simple reading can also lead to some sense of their differences.
    Historical scholarship on the Gospels and Jesus has also recognized as a fundamental fact that nearly all we know about Jesus is filtered through the early churches, in which and for which the Gospels were written. There have been many attempts to read behind the Gospels, so to speak, and thus to construct an understanding of Jesus as he was, freed from the early churches’ interpretations of him and elaborations of his actions and teachings. This “suspicion” of the Gospels is necessary in historical scholarship because the differences among the Gospels, the literary artistry with which they were written, and their orientation to church problems (of whatever kind and to whatever degree) make it clear that they do not give us “Jesus straight,” so to speak. Add to that the simple fact that all narrative history-writing is selective and interpretive and cannot be otherwise.
    Some Christians have argued that it is the historical Jesus, set to some degree over against any of the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus, whom we are obligated to hear and pay heed to. But the very variety of reconstructions of the “historical Jesus” among scholars should at least warn us against that approach. And the fact that it would make us students, if not disciples, of those whose version of the historical Jesus we accept should also give us pause.
    We can, instead, recognize the link we forge with those early Christians because of our mutual desire to be Jesus’ disciples. Then, reading the Gospels because Jesus is our teacher will be guided by gratitude rather than suspicion. The historical scholar might see the early church, from whom we have the Gospels, as standing in the way of an understanding of Jesus even as it gives us the basic sources for historical knowledge of him. But those who are seeking to be Jesus’ disciples can be grateful to the early Christians who preserved and compiled the teachings of our teacher. Whatever “historical Jesus” historians might reconstruct, it is not that Jesus but Jesus as the Gospels present him who is the church’s teacher.
    This does not mean that the church owns Jesus. His teachings are available to the public. We do not hide the Bible. No institution can own Jesus or effectively claim sole right to explain what he is about. The endless variation on understandings of Jesus by all who want to appropriate his name, image, or some part of his cultural meaning follows directly from the incarnation: because God has truly entered our world as one of us, he is subject to the same possibilities of partial understanding, misrepresentation, use, and exploitation as the rest of us. That he is like us in this way is due to God’s grace, and we cannot receive that grace, God’s handing of Jesus over to us for our interpretation, without extending that grace to others as well. In other words, if I think I see Jesus being mishandled, I am being taught a lesson about what it means that, yesiree, God did really come as a human being, subjecting himself to the abuses that humans are subject to.
    Nonetheless, what Jesus claimed for himself is absolute and uncompromising, and what he asked of his followers is devastating to any attempt to moderate his teachings or divide them so as to use some parts and discard others. This challenge faces all readers of the Gospels, both inside and outside the company of his followers.
    For the church, Jesus is not just teacher. His teachings do not exhaust his significance for his followers. Christians believe in Jesus’ atoning death, his resurrection from death, and his continuing life and spiritual presence now. But Christians have often erred in the opposite direction, honoring his theological importance as atoning sacrifice and lord of all but neglecting what he taught his first followers and, through them, all his subsequent followers. Christians have, in fact, sometimes formulated theological reasons for that strange imbalance. But the establishment of the Christian faith and its understanding of the significance of Jesus was intended not to replace but to mediate what he said during that brief period of time long ago and his call for people to become his followers.

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