DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Faith in Search of Understanding
3. Jesus
by Anthony Freeman

The fully developed Christian teaching about Jesus may be roughly summarised as follows:

Jesus is both 100% God and 100% Man. At a specific time in history, in order to save humankind from sin, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was born as a man. Without losing his divinity, he lived for about 30 years an obscure life in Palestine, before conducting a public ministry of about three years, which ended in his being executed by the Roman authorities. After his human death he was raised from the dead by God the Father; he met and spoke and ate with his disciples; and finally returned completely - God and Man - to the heavenly realm where he now lives. God the Holy Spirit was then sent to guide his followers upon earth.

That is the official doctrine, in response to which we are bound to ask, with John Betjeman:

And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

As historically and scientifically minded people at the start of the twenty-first century, our natural instinct is to test the truth of these claims about Jesus by looking at the evidence. What was he like? What did he do? What did he say? Did he behave like the maker of the stars and sea become a man on earth? 

Those are perfectly proper questions for us to ask. Unfortunately they are impossible to answer, impossible because we have no direct record of the man Jesus. He left nothing in writing. No-one painted his portrait. There is no raw evidence on which to base an unbiased assessment of the person and character of Jesus.

The four gospels
We have the four gospels, but they are not the kind of objective evidence that an unbiased assessment requires. The gospels contain accounts of Jesus' words and deeds that were written by his followers as they looked back at his earthly life across the events of Easter and Ascension and Pentecost. 

And what they saw as they looked back was not the life merely of a man, not even a very special man like the prophets of old, but of the man whom (in the words of Peter's Pentecost sermon in Acts Chapter 2) "God has made both Lord and Christ".

Whether or not Peter actually spoke those words in quite the way Luke describes does not matter for the moment. They undoubtedly reflect accurately the growing belief of the first Christians about Jesus in the months and years following his death.

This belief has had a consequence whose importance for us - in our search for the historical Jesus - is impossible to over-estimate.

The consequence was that the disciples looked back at the earthly life of Jesus with a kind of double vision. On the one hand they would certainly have remembered many things that he said and did as a man among other men in their time together. But on the other hand they also knew - and had learned at their mothers' knees and in the synagogue Sabbath by Sabbath - many things about the Christ (Greek for the Messiah, the "anointed saviour") towards whose coming every Jew eagerly looks.

So as they looked back, they saw the remembered-man Jesus through the eyes of faith and believed that he was the long-expected Christ. The picture of him drawn by the evangelists in the four gospels reflects that bifocal vision. Everything they wrote was based on a combination of memories of the man (either their own or those of eye-witnesses) and their expectations of the Christ.

It is no longer possible for us to disentangle these two threads that are woven inextricably into the gospel fabric.

Jesus of Nazareth - or of Bethlehem?
An excellent example of the problem is provided by Jesus' home town or village. If we know anything at all about the historical Jesus it is that he came from Nazareth - the phrase "Jesus of Nazareth" occurs some 20 times in the gospels.

And this brings us immediately to a conflict between the evangelists' two sources of information. Jesus comes from Nazareth, but the Messiah is going to come from Bethlehem. The famous text from the prophet Micah had long been interpreted in this sense by the rabbis.

Matthew knew this and even quotes the verse (Matthew 2.6 quoting Micah 5.2). And John portrays sceptical members of the crowd saying, "Has not the scripture said that the Christ comes from Bethlehem?" (John. 7.42). And an even more sceptical Nathaniel saying to Philip, "Can any good come out of Nazareth?" (John 1.46).

It is instructive to see briefly how each of the four gospel writers deals with this problem:

  • Mark just ignores it. The word Bethlehem nowhere occurs in his gospel.

  • John acknowledges it, as we have seen, but side-steps it by emphasising Jesus' heavenly origins - he comes from above, from the Father - and thereby plays down the significance of his earthly home.

  • Far more interesting from our point of view are Matthew and Luke. They both find it possible to reconcile the historical and the prophetic information by showing that although Jesus' family home was in Nazareth, he was born in Bethlehem.

Unfortunately for the modern historian, while Matthew and Luke each tells an internally consistent story, the two accounts cannot be reconciled with each other - no matter how valiantly the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols of the Anglican Church attempts to do it.

According to Matthew, Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem up to the time of Jesus' birth. They fled from there with the young child to avoid the wrath of King Herod. First they went to Egypt, and then finally settled into a new home in Nazareth.

But on Luke's account, the Holy Family lived in Nazareth all the time, and Jesus was only born in Bethlehem by accident (divinely inspired, no doubt) because his pregnant mother was on a visit there for the imperial census.

It is possible that one of these two stories is historically accurate - though personally I doubt it - but they certainly cannot both be true.

The lesson for us is that when the evangelists were faced with an apparent conflict between what they remembered or had heard of the earthly Jesus, and what they knew by faith to be true of him because he was the Christ, faith usually won out over historical memory.

This is not a reason to doubt their claim that Jesus was the Christ. Quite the reverse, it is a testimony to the strength of their conviction, which should therefore carry all the more weight. But what examples such as this do show us is that the gospel authors did not believe Jesus was the Christ because his earthly life matched Messianic expectations.

It was the other way round. They believed his earthly life must have been patterned in a way to fulfil prophecy because of their pre-existing faith that he was the Christ

That faith of the early Christians resulted from the experience of the disciples in the days and weeks following the crucifixion.

In consequence, we cannot use the gospels as biographical evidence that Jesus was the Messiah, because the details of that information about his life were themselves shaped by that conviction.

Jesus as saviour
Accepting for the moment that we cannot get independent evidence of who Jesus was, I want us to turn now to the claim that he came as our saviour.

Doing my homework for this talk, I was surprised to find how seldom this word actually occurs in the New Testament. It is not found at all in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, nor in the four major letters of Paul. Luke has it twice - once for God (1.47) and once for Jesus (2.11). John has it once (4.42).

Most of the total of 24 uses in the New Testament are in late writings (the Pastoral Epistles and 2 Peter). Even extending the word-count to include the verb "to save" only increases the number of occurrences in each gospel by three or four. The expression "save from sin" comes only once (Matthew 1.21) as does "to save sinners" (1 Timothy 1.15).

The phrase "personal saviour", beloved of certain Christian circles, is completely absent from the Bible. Moreover, it is alien to its spirit. 

By contrast over half the New Testament uses are in the form "our Saviour". In fact the only person to use the expression "my saviour" is Mary, in the Magnificat (Luke 1.47). There of course it refers to God, not directly to Jesus.

We are bound to conclude that for the New Testament in general and the gospels in particular, the model of Jesus as saviour was much less important than it was to become in later theology.

One reason for this is that "sin" and "saviour" are very general words. The Bible has a whole galaxy of more specific and vivid images to illustrate the human predicament. Each picture or model of sin has its own appropriate description of Jesus as the remedy.

We tend to think of the "sinfulness of sin" in terms of personal wickedness and the willful breaking of God's commandments. But in a list of sixteen biblical metaphors there are only two where the sinners deliberately bring about their own condition, and at least six that are definitely "no fault" situations. The following chart illustrates:

Biblical Metaphors for Sin and its Cure

Category

Metaphor
for Sin

Character of Jesus

Reference

No fault

Sickness

Physician

Matthew 9.11 ff

No fault

Weakness

Strengthener

Hebrews 4.15 ff

No fault

Stain

Cleanser

Ps 51; Ezekiel 26

No fault

Under attack

Defender

1 Peter 5.8 ff

No fault

Slavery

Redeemer

Romans 6.18; 
Luke 4.18

No fault

Imprisonment

Liberator

Luke 4.18

Culpable

Law breaking

Advocate

1 John 2.1; 3.4

Culpable

Unrighteousness

Justifier

Romans 5.1

Questionable

Straying, getting lost

Guide / Shepherd

Luke 15.4; 
John 10.11

Questionable

Blindness

Light

John 9.5; 
Matthew 4.16

Questionable

Ignorance

Truth / Teacher

Ephesians 4.17-21

Questionable

Foolishness

Wisdom

1 Corinthians 1.20

Questionable

Debt

Canceller

Matthew 18.27

Questionable

Hardness

Softener

Ezekiel 36.26

Questionable

Separation

Reconciler

2 Corinthians 5.19; 
Romans 5.10 ff

Questionable

Unholiness

Sanctifier

Hebrews 10.10

Helplessness rather than guilt is the human plight that comes over most strongly in these metaphors. Post-biblical theology's emphasis on just one model for sin - disobedience or law-breaking - has distorted the picture of God's relationship with humans, and has thus also distorted the role of Jesus in relation both to God the Father and to ourselves.

The man who became God
We now turn our attention to the way in which the Christian understanding of Jesus developed.

I should say at once that there is no evidence of a linear progression from one view of the person and work of Jesus to another. What appear to us as fairly simple and modest ideas often appear in later books of the New Testament, while the early writings of Paul about Jesus contain some astounding claims for someone who had been dead only a dozen years or so.

Perhaps you should think of the development I am going to describe as a logical rather than an historical one.

We look first at Acts 2.22-24, which is part of Peter's Pentecost speech in Jerusalem:

Men of Israel, hear these words. Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst - as you yourselves know - this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, for it was not possible for him to be held by it.

Immediately we hit a problem of dating.

These words are presented as having been spoken by Peter just a few weeks after the death of Jesus. But the best scholarly estimates are that the book of Acts in which they appear was written by Luke about 50 years later. The speeches in Acts are the compositions of Luke himself rather than verbatim reports of the characters into whose mouths they are put. (It was common practice for ancient historians to do this. Pericles' famous Funeral Oration for the fallen warriors of Athens was written by the Greek historian Thucydides.)

So the views about Jesus expressed in the above speech might be the ones actually held by the apostles at that time, or they might just be the ones that Luke thought they had held at that time. We simply don't know.

I don't think they contain Luke's own beliefs, because according to my scheme they represent a different stage of development from the birth stories in Luke's gospel, and I take them to reflect Luke's own view of the matter.

But to return to the substance of the speech, what does it say about Jesus and what does it say that he did?

According to Peter, Jesus was a man. A man singled out by God certainly - but the same was true of Moses or Abraham or any of the prophets.

And what did he do? Well nothing. Jesus himself did not do anything. Other people did things to him. God worked miracles through him; the Jews and Romans conspired to kill him; and God raised him from the dead according to a pre-arranged plan.

But more than that, if we skip the next bit of the speech, which is heavily larded with quotations, we reach the climax in verse 36:

Let the whole house of Israel therefore know for sure that this Jesus, whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Christ.

The claim here is that following the crucifixion, God has raised Jesus by the resurrection and ascension (best thought of as a single act of exaltation to new life after death) and appointed him as the Anointed King of the New Israel, or Kingdom of God (Kingdom of heaven).

The story emerging here is of an ordinary man who is singled out by God to be used for a special purpose and eventually to rule his kingdom. We all know similar stories, many at a purely earthly level. Within the Bible itself there is Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, only to be singled out by Pharaoh to be ruler of the whole land. It is the classic "rags to riches" story - but there is something missing from it.

Or think musical comedy. The humble sailor becomes the naval captain; the duke's attendant becomes the king. However, very often the final exaltation turns out to be in fact the re-instatement of the hero to the position that he has truly held in secret all along. High-born babies are switched in infancy to lead a lowly childhood before being restored to their rightful stations in life. A similar thing happened in the Church's thinking about Jesus.

The God who became man
People began to ask whether this simple "man to Messiah" version of Jesus' career really added up. If in the mind of God and by his divine plan, Jesus was always destined to be "both Lord and Christ", would it not be truer to say that he was the Messiah all along? Was he not the hidden Messiah during his earthly life, and the declared Messiah after his exaltation?

At the beginning of his Epistle to the Romans, Paul gives the man-to-Messiah story in a form that paves the way for something of this kind:

On the human level he was born of the stock of David, but on the level of the Spirit he was declared Son of God in a mighty act by the resurrection of the dead (Romans 1.3).

By the time we get to Mark's Gospel (10 to 20 years later) the timing of this declaration of divine sonship (which does not entail divinity in the full sense but is certainly the equivalent of Christ or Messiah) has been pushed back from the resurrection of Jesus to his baptism:

And voice came from heaven: You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased (Mark 1.13).

Matthew and Luke take the point of recognition that Jesus is divinely appointed - if not outright divine - right back to his birth, with the appearance of the star and the angelic host in the sky, and the visits of the shepherds and the wise men.

Finally, with John's gospel we are told straight out that the human Jesus is none other than the Word of God, who was with God at the beginning before the foundation of the world, come to dwell among men (John 1.14).

Just to emphasize that this was a much more complicated development than I have outlined, with parallel ideas coming about in different places at different times, just consider this familiar passage from Paul's letter to the Philippians. The letter itself is earlier than the earliest gospel, and in this section Paul is widely believed to have been quoting a poem or hymn that was earlier still:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things in earth and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2.5;11)

Note that the earlier things we have talked about are still there:

  • Jesus' earthly life is a humble one; and
  • his exaltation comes only after his death.

But at the same time he is acknowledged already to be no ordinary man:

  • He was already "in the form of God";
  • he took upon himself the form of a servant and was born as a man;
  • he humbled himself.

This is very different from Peter's Pentecost sermon in Acts, where Jesus was the passive instrument and it was all God's doing.

Within the Bible itself this question of the precise relationship between Jesus and God is never resolved. It would be five centuries before the Church came to some kind of agreement on the matter - and even then there were Christians unwilling to accept the general consensus and whose minority churches survive to this day.

The outcome of those centuries of debate are enshrined in our creeds, especially the Nicene Creed that most Christians say at the Eucharist.

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