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Friday, April 20, 2012

The Many Faces of Jesus

When I read about Jesus I prefer historical books to theological books because I want to know the real Jesus in all His exceptionality and courage. A serious historical investigation doesn't undermine the idea of Jesus as the Son of God in any way; on the contrary, it argues against certain thesis that depict Him as nothing more than a spiritual teacher.

For example, one might think that He was so incredibly charismatic that He prompted the birth of the Church simply with His words, actions and deeds. One may think that the apostles were so enamored with Him that they faced torture and death to spread His message, the message of a man crucified by the Romans. N.T. Wright's historical investigation undermines precisely these possibilities. He writes that Jesus was an eschatological prophet while the apostles were fishermen, peasants and tax collectors; he writes that Jesus could read the Hebrew Scriptures whereas the apostles could not; he writes that Jesus identified Himself with the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 and Zachariah while the apostles thought He was the classic messiah who was awaited to vindicate the Jews. In one word, the apostles couldn't fully understand understand Him.

Jesus believed that He could save His people only by defeating the Devil and that this could be accomplished not by the sword, but rather by offering the other cheek to the point of self-immolation. Instead the apostles believed that Jesus, as the messiah, would defeat the Romans and become king of the Jews. At that time, the messiah was so awaited that at least half a dozen prophets were believed to be him. Most of them were killed by the Romans and soon forgotten. Not so in Jesus' case.

Josephus, a Jewish historian of the time of Jesus, wrote that scripture oracles incited the Jews to rise against Rome. This is how the majority of the Jewish people understood what was told to them about Israel's God: He would send the messiah to bring them back from exile. For the fishermen, the peasants, the tax collectors, Jesus' shameful death could only mean the He was not the person the Jews were waiting for.
So there it is: the historical investigation leads us straight to the reality of the resurrection, for that's what it took to make the apostles change their minds. Atheist scholars maintain that the gospels were written to support the case of the early Church which, according to them, was born for obscure reasons. But in the gospels there are plenty of stories that represented an inconvenience for the early Church. One of them is the portrait of Peter: The evangelists wrote that he denied Jesus and fled, and it's only natural to think that Peter spoke about his denial and this oral history was passed to the next generation. Peter was the father of the Church; it doesn't make sense to think that the Church would deliberately choose to depict him as a coward.

Jesus died because He believed that Yahweh would act through His suffering, so that Israel would become the light of the world. As a prophet, He aimed to give voice to the God of Israel, from whom He gained His authority and in whom He put sheer trust. In spite of the persecution, the early Christians celebrated the victory of Jesus over evil as something that had already happened because they were witness of His resurrection.

I just love the ending of Wright's "Jesus and The Victory of God". He writes:
"But when we approached Jesus as we have tried to do in this book, we find him running to us as one well known, whom we have spurned in the name of scholarship or even of faith, but who was still patiently waiting to be sought and found once more…"


Manny said...

Very interesting. I had my period where I immersed myself in the historical Jesus. Ultimately I did find it lacking. Yes, Jesus was a real person in the real world at a specific time in the history of man. However, a lot of the historical Jesus is built on speculation. The Gospels are essentially all we have and they are not meant to be historical documents. I have not read N.T. Wright. If I had more time I would. He seems like a profound writer.

Antonella said...

I also read the gnostic gospels and I found them interesting. If nothing else, they are documents that attest to Jesus existence.
N.T. Wright is my favourite Jesus scholar because he doesn't make up staff and he has the right understanding of Him on the level of faith.