This gospel … is about [God’s] Son: on the human level he was born of David’s stock, but on the level of the spirit – the Holy Spirit – he was declared Son of God by a might act in that he rose from the dead: it is about Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 1 v4
People speak of Jesus Christ as they might speak of Winston Churchill, and use ‘Christ’ as if it were a family name that could properly be used as an alternative to the personal name in formal, historical contexts. It isn’t of course, and I am often thrown when people say things like, ‘Christ was born in
, especially when the speaker is not a Christian. ‘Christ’ is very much a technical term within Christian theology; it really shouldn’t be used when people mean the historical ‘Jesus’, unless of course they deliberately want to proclaim that they believe that the Jesus of history is to be identified with the Christ of Christian theology. With a bit of effort, we can discern pretty clearly Jesus the prophet of Bethlehem whose anti-religious teaching, common-sense social philosophy and new view of what the divine could mean to us got him executed by the religious authorities. It’s less easy to understand how that Jesus came to be identified with the Jesus of the new religion that took him as its eponymous founder, in the process giving him the title ‘Christ’, the literal Greek translation of the Hebrew term ‘Messiah’, the One Anointed by God who is to come to save his people. Nazareth
Looked at historically, the real founder of the new Christ-ian religion,
, appears as a shrewd operator. He took the Jesus of history and used what he had heard of his death and ‘resurrection’ as a hook on which to hang a new religion, based on Judaism but without many of its least helpful aspects, and incorporating some Hellenistic ideas and attitudes. He did not claim to be the founder of this new religion. By giving this starring role to a man who was unavailable, St Paul Paul was able to avoid the kinds of expectations that would have been put on a living religion-founder without compromising his ability to define what the religion was about. Part of the mechanism for doing this was to regard Jesus the prophet of Nazareth as the risen Jesus, the Christ and unique Son of God, and the early church quickly joined in ascribing to him the usual attributes of such a character, including a virgin birth and bizarre miracle-working.
All this may appear shrewd, but it was not cynical:
Paul passionately believed his account of Jesus, perhaps out of a desperate need to feel that he could be saved from the results of his human shortcomings. He seized on Jesus as the Ideal Man who had been divinely anointed to sacrifice himself so that people – all people – could overcome the limitations and disappointments caused by the failure of the First Man, Adam, to obey his creator. If, like Paul, you take literally the Genesis account of Adam’s Fall you need such a Second Adam to be almost everything that Adam was not; in particular he needs to be sinless and obedient, like the ancient Jewish sacrificial animals, though of course he had to be a real man. The real man element took his shape from Jesus of Nazareth. The ‘sinless’ and ‘obedient’ characteristics Paul could not have obtained from that real Jesus; apart from anything else, there is no reason to think that Paul knew enough about him to have a view one way or the other. This was a case of the ideal Jesus having to be sinless and obedient because that was what Paul’s theology demanded. Integral though it was to Paul’s theological project, the attribution of sinlessness in particular has unfortunately made it rather difficult for us to engage with Jesus of Nazareth and to hear his authentic voice; this would have been unlikely to worry Paul, who after all knew practically nothing of Jesus’s teaching himself.
By transforming Jesus of Nazareth into Jesus the Christ and the Ideal Man,
Paul made it possible for ‘Jesus’ to become a name for the ideal man we find it useful to carry round in our heads, a kind of elder brother whom we look up to and want to emulate. His sinlessness is a bit of a problem here too, because of course we cannot be sinless, and trying to be so leads us back to exactly that rule-bound approach that the real Jesus of Nazareth wanted to free people from. However hard we try to be sinless, we can’t ever measure up to this elder brother. But because Paul’s Jesus is still alive, as Christ in heaven, accessible in prayer, we can apply to him for advice and strength whenever we need to do so. Now we do of course get into situations that our ordinary rationalistic and instinctual selves find it hard to deal with, and it’s possible in such situations to discover sources of understanding and strength that we didn’t think were available to us; a mental conversation with an ideal elder brother might well be an effective way of accessing those resources. You don’t have to accept Paul’s mythological explanation for these resources to be able to make good use of them.
It’s time, I think, to disentangle Jesus of Nazareth from
Paul’s Jesus Christ. Each can have a role in our lives, but identifying them as one entity damages their ability to perform either role – or more accurately, damages our ability to use the idea of each of them to enrich our lives. This untangling isn’t easy, because so much Christian literature has – quite deliberately, for soundly Pauline reasons – muddled them up. This is not as destructive of the Christian tradition as you might, and certainly would, think. Incarnation, love, self-sacrifice, and resurrection still characterise flourishing human life; it’s just that they are not found in a unique form in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. This is no doubt why so many non-Christians find it rewarding to mark Christmas and Passiontide-Easter. The teaching of Jesus about the place of self-determination, forgiveness and freedom in flourishing human life that has seeped through St Paul Paul’s religion into western thought becomes more accessible to us. We owe Paul much for bringing us where we are. Now we must move on.