Thursday, 27 June 2013


"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "God's Messiah." Luke ch 9 v20

In the New Testament, there are three quite distinct ideas about the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and God. The earliest is St Paul’s, explained in his letter to the Roman church. The background to this is that Paul knew nothing – nothing at all – about what Jesus had taught. He was not interested in knowing about this, as he makes clear in Galatians; all he was interested in was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Their total belief in this astonishing event had overwhelmed Jesus’s disciples and driven them to become an embryonic heretical sect within Judaism – pretty much what the Jewish authorities had been trying to prevent by having Jesus killed. For the loyalist Saul who was to become Paul the authorities had been right to silence Jesus, and he felt called to continue their efforts by persecuting the followers of the disappeared Jesus. What little reliable evidence there is in Acts of the Apostles does not suggest that the disciples were repeating Jesus’s own teaching; they were just talking about his resurrection and how they thought it might be fitted into Jewish traditions. This, not the teaching of Jesus, was for Paul what their embryonic religion was about, and it was this religion that he joined and came to define. To this Paul added an account of Jesus’s last supper with his friends – but never anything of his actual teaching.
                For Paul, this Jesus whom he had never met and about whom he knew next to nothing, was either a dangerous misleader of the Jewish people or – what? If it had really happened, the resurrection would seem to have marked him out as something more than a mere prophet in the long Jewish tradition of prophecy, for there was no earlier account of a Jewish prophet being killed and rising from the dead. Clearly, if Jesus had been raised from the dead, there was something unique about him, and that uniqueness Paul spoke of in terms of God having made him his son, rather as Roman emperors sometimes made unrelated young men their official sons to give themselves heirs. Paul is quite clear in Romans that there had been nothing unusual about Jesus’s birth. It was the resurrection and only the resurrection that entitled him to be called the Son of God. If during his lifetime Jesus had gone around claiming to be the son of God, Paul would have disapproved of that as snatching at equality with God.
                Writing a quarter of a century or so later than Paul, Matthew and Luke push Jesus’s divine sonship back to his conception. Like the earlier Synoptic writer, Mark, one of their principal purposes was to give an account of Jesus’s actual teaching. Clearly they had accepted the idea that Jesus was God’s son, along with a lot of Paul’s theology, but they wanted that sonship to have begun earlier so that it could lend authority to Jesus’s teaching during his lifetime. They or their sources adapted the familiar Hellenistic idea of a hero being the child of a divine father, from whom the hero derived his characteristics, and a human mother. From the human point of view, this made it at least possible for Jesus’s mother to be a virgin, which would make his birth even more amazing. It’s not only Paul who shows no trace of this idea; neither does Mark.
And neither, later still, does John, though for very different reasons. For him, Jesus’s special relationship with God had not begun after the resurrection or even at his conception. John sees Jesus as the divine Word or Logos. In Hellenistic philosophy, the Logos had existed before, and had caused, the creation of the universe. So he had always been God, had appeared on earth as Jesus, and after his crucifixion and resurrection had returned to heaven. In this interpretation, it is not so much the resurrection as the crucifixion of Jesus that reveals his divine glory as the Logos. What interests John is not Jesus’s teaching but his status. What John presents as Jesus’s teaching is clearly a series of meditations about his status, as the Good Shepherd, as the vine and so on.
I’m not going to delve into the ancient and fruitless debates about the precise nature of Jesus’s divine sonship, or exactly what the Logos was or in what sense it was uniquely incarnated in Jesus. For two millennia, it has been the business of Christian theologians to try to weave these independent and to my mind irreconcilable accounts of Jesus’s unique relationship with God into a single coherent account. I don’t believe that that can be convincingly done, and I think the lamentable effect of all this effort has been to divert attention from what is most helpful and most significant about Jesus of Nazareth: his teaching. This is not a Pauline or a Johannine view; for Paul and John it is always and only who Jesus was or became – his status – and the death and resurrection that revealed, or confirmed, or promoted him to, that status. This is what the Christian religion is about, and to be frank, being centrally interested in Jesus’s teaching rather than his status prevents one from being in any strict, historic sense a Christian. 
Accepting the presence in the New Testament of three distinct strands of ‘Christological’ thinking and resisting the temptation to attempt the hopeless task of weaving them together is immensely freeing. For a start, it removes any sense that one ought to accept the New Testament view of Jesus, because there isn’t one single such view; at most one might feel bound to choose between the views of Paul, the Synoptics and John. But, more radically, one might be prompted by their differences of view to do what they did: make up one’s own mind about whether and why Jesus is worth taking seriously and to express any conclusions as best one can in contemporary language and imagery. The question we face is, ‘What is Jesus of Nazareth to you?’ Peter’s answer is not the one that matters to you: it’s yours.

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