A Response to a Question

June 4, 2000


Response to a Question

I am always pleased, and sometimes excited, when someone has a sermon request which might be useful to others, so the preparation of today’s comments has been especially enjoyable. Here is what prompted the request: Last month, during a sermon, I mentioned a couple of times that mainstream Biblical scholars recognize a difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith — between the actual first-century Galilean Jew, a person of flesh and blood limited in time and space, and the Messiah/ Savior figure glorified years after his death in the writings of his adoring disciples. Once they were convinced that in some way he had survived his death and could be met anywhere as a spiritual reality, they began more and more to speak of him as an equal with God.
They addressed prayers and offered praise to Jesus-as-God in worship, despite the fact that in his flesh-and-blood lifetime Jesus distanced himself from God by saying, “Only one is good” (Matt. 19:17). But human beings in all ages have been fond of engaging in something called apotheosis , which means the elevation of an adored or amazing person to the status of a god — so if, as the evidence suggests to many Bible students, the disciples of Jesus did that it would not be unusual. Careful readers know that Jesus did not claim the omniscience we credit to God, and when he surrendered to God’s will in his agonized final prayers, there is no hint that he saw himself asGod’s equal. Like his fellow Jews, Jesus was a monotheist, believing in one God only, but in their adoration of him after his death his followers made him the second God in what would become a Trinbity of Gods, and in so doing forever alienated most Jews, who might have been willing to call Jesus a prophet of God but not a god himself.
Believers are familiar with the New Testament references to Jesus by his devoted followers, but historians seek balance in their research by finding out what enemies, or at least neutral parties, have to say, so any attempt to discover the actual Jesus of history should involve that kind of evidence. Unfortunately, there is not much of it. We have brief and sometimes vague references to Christianity and its founder by a couple of Roman writers, but they provide no details that would help a modern biographer reconstruct a real life.
Two generations after the death of Jesus, a Roman historian named Tacitus, reports that Christians were blamed for the burning of Rome during the reign of Nero, and says in passing that the name of this “pernicious superstition” came from one “Christus,” but the name is all we get. A generation later we hear from another Roman writer, this time a governor in Asia Minor known as Pliny the Younger. Clearly upset about a movement spreading rapidly in his territory, he consults the Roman emperor Trajan about what he calls a “depraved and extravagant superstition.” He is talking about our spritiaul ancestors!….about the people known as Christians, who, he says, meet early in the morning, sing antiphonal hymns “to Christ, as to a god,” and promise to live good moral lives. An interesting footnote, butno biographical information about Jesus himself.
Josephus, who became the official Jewish historian for the Romans, writes a few sentences about “Jesus, who was called Christ,” and mentions ““the tribe of the Christians,” but he offers no information not already available in Christian scripture. Joseph Klausner, a modern Jewish scholar, summarizes how Jewish rabbis of the lst and 2nd centuries wrote about the man known as Yeshu’a [Jesus] , who — they said — had “practiced sorcery, ” led astray the people of Israel, and mocked the teachings of the official scribes who interpreted Jewish law; that he had five disciples, and that he was hanged as a false teacher. Nothing here that we cannot discover in Christian scripture — except for the statement that Jesus had 5 rather than 12 disciples to carry on his work.
Much more interesting are the Christian writings which never became part of our New Testament library. I grew up hearing the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but no sermon ever mentioned that there were other gospels circulating in early Christian times which never made it into the New Testament as we have it today. So when I began to read more carefully, it came as a bit of shock to have Luke begin his gospel by saying that “many” others — not one or two like Matthew and Mark, but “many” others — had already written about Christian beginnings, but that he had done more careful research and was writing to provide a more truthful, or reliable or authentic account, depending on which English word is used to translate his Greek. Footnote: he does not claim inspiration, by the way — only his own research — but that’s a sermon for another day. So how many other gospels might have been floating around, I wondered, only to learn that before they were all shaken down and four were accepted, there were over 50 gospels and gospel fragments circulating in the centuries after the death of Jesus.
You will hear in a moment how bizarre some of them were, so it’s no wonder that by the second half of the second century, the church was moving to reduce the number it would use. With all the confusing and conflicting accounts, it struck a Syrian Christian by the name of Tatian to create (around 170 A.D.) a single harmonized gospel story. It was called the Diatessaron, and since that word, in Greek, means “through the four,” he probably used only, or at least mainly, the four we know today. The logic he used for doing that is lost, but we can hope he had a better rationale than one provided 15 years later by an early church theologian known as Irenaeus. I can’t imagine a stranger argument for restricting the church to the use of four gospels than the one he made.
Apparently Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had taken clear leads in the contest of the Gospels, so Irenaeus begins with this sweeping and very curious argument: “And it is impossible,” he said, “that the gospels can be either more in number or, on the other hand, less than they are.” Now you expect him to say next that the four have become more sacred to the church than all the others, or that they simply make better sense, but his defense of four rather than a single gospel, or a dozen gospels, is as bizarre as anything you could imagine. Here it is: “For since there are 4 zones of the world in which we are, and also 4 principal winds, and since the Church is scattered throughout the whole world, …..it is natural that she should have 4 pillars breathing out immortality all over [the earth]…..” [Against Heresies, 3.11.8 ] So that’s why we have four gospels instead of one or many?
Well, my guess is that this weird argument would not have convinced people who were not already bonding with two gospels believed to have been written by disciples of Jesus (Matthew and John) and two more believed to have been written by followers of Paul (that would be Mark and Luke). Good students of the New Testament understood, even in those earliest times, that the four do not agree in every detail, but key churches in various cities had come to possess and favor one or another, and it would probably have provoked great quarrels if the church had tried to settle on just one of them. I used to wonder as a teenager why it was necessary to have basically the same story told in four different books. I would have understood it better if I had known more of the history of how the New Testament was formed.
I would also have understood it better if I had known how fantastic some of the competing Gospels were. Not all of them, because I have no quarrel with the scholars of the “Jesus Seminar” who add the Coptic Gospel of Thomas to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in their search for the authentic words of Jesus. But along with many sayings left out of our New Testament which Jesus may very likely have spoken, there are some incredible stories told of Jesus as a child which the church was wise to reject. You will probably agree, although — let’s face it — if they had been included all along most of us would probably consider it heresy to question them.
Here are some of the most memorable examples I know of how some early followers tried to fill in the gaps in the childhood of Jesus. An early “gospel” tells how when Jesus was five he played one day with some other children near a pool of water, fashioning 12 sparrows out of soft clay, only to have someone go tell his father Joseph that his little boy had violated the sabbath by working. When Joseph comes to rebuke his son, Jesus claps his hands, tells the sparrows to skedaddle, and they fly off chirping.
At this point the son of a religious leader takes a willow branch and breaks up the little pool of water Jesus had made, an action which — to put it mildly — so irritates the five-year-old Jesus that he calls the other child an “insolent, godless dunderhead” and says that for his interference he will be withered up like a dying tree. “And immediately,” we are told, “that lad withered up completely” and Jesus went home. The victim’s distraught parents then bring their disabled child to Joseph and say, “What a child you have, who does such things.” Soon after this, when a playmate accidentally bumps Jesus’s shoulder, it is written that “Jesus was exasperated and said to him, ‘You shall not go further on your way,” and the child immediately falls down and dies.’” We are solemnly informed that the parents of this child also come to Joseph and say bitterly, “Since you have such a child, you cannot dwell with us in the village; or else teach him to bless and not to curse. For he is slaying our children.’”
Once again Joseph rebukes his son, who says he will try to do better but that those who complained will have to bear their punishment. “And immediately those who had accused him became blind.” We are told that Joseph was so unhappy with Jesus by this time that he did what my father did a few times when I misbehaved: he took Jesus by the ear and pulled it so hard that Jesus said what I would never have dared say, “Do not vex me.” Other stories tell of the boy Jesus raising one of his playmates from the dead, and of his stretching boards so they would be the right length for his father in the carpenter shop.
I think it’s safe to say that these tales represent an attempt by lovers of miracles and magic to create a wonder-working child, and that the church’s decision to ignore these childish stories was right. But for several centuries great thinkers disagreed on the nature of Jesus. Some, like the Ebionites, saw him as a man, a prophet like many who had come before him, but certainly not a second God. Others, like the Gnostic Christians, insisted he was a supernatural figure who only appeared to be human. For them it was inconceivable that this divine being should suffer, so they decided that just before the crucifixion he suddenly took the form of Simon of Cyrene — remember the man pressed into service to carry the heavy cross? — so it was Simon who was actually crucified while Jesus stood by and laughed at the mistake made by the powers of evil. If you feel confused sometimes about different modern views of Jesus, think what it would have been like in those first few centuries as the church sorted out the writings it would keep and those it would toss!
There is a splendid recent book called When Jesus Became God which traces in great detail the often bitter divisions in the early church over whether Jesus was wholly man , wholly God, or somewhere in between. Church councils were called over and over again to try to settle the matter, with preachers and scholars banished, even killed, for being on the wrong side at a given moment. So where are we now? Well, in one curious way, we are almost back where we started — meaning that in front of this pulpit we could stack a library of books making the case that Jesus was God incarnate, paying us a temporary visit; that over on the lectern side we could stack up another library of books written by equally devout Christians who believe Jesus knew the truth about how we should live but knew it as a completely human being; and that between those two stacks — in front of our communion table — we could pile up another library of books attempting to prove somehow that Jesus was both God and man at the same time.
I have the impression that most good people get lost trying to weigh these different perceptions, and that most of them are quite content to accept whatever they were told by the churches in which they grew up. Opinions formed like that can be almost impossible to change, no matter what logic or evidence is brought to bear against them. As a single, simple example, I think of the woman who worked very hard one day to convince an adult education class in her Catholic parish that Jesus was born a Jew, spent his life in basic sympathy with Jewish laws, ceremonies and holy days, and that this is important for understanding what he was all about. She seemed at last to have won them over to the fact that Jesus was truly Jewish, only to have somebody say, “Well, maybe He was, but certainly not the Blessed Mother.”
But, of course, the Blessed Mother certainly was Jewish, and so was the man people who knew Jesus called his father, and so was Jesus himself, about whom there is good reason to think that his mission was to reform Judaism rather than establish a church that would be called by his name. What seems fairly certain about the real Jesus is that he grew up in a small town called Nazareth in the hill country of southern Galilee about a hundred miles north of Jerusalem. Estimates of the population of Nazareth range from 200 to 2000, but it was hardly a backwater community. Less than four miles away was Sepphoris, largest city in the province with its 40,000 people. It was a fairtly cosmopolitan city, with a Roman theater, which meant that in adolescence and early manhood Jesus may have been exposed to more culture than we have imagined.
That is, unless his social status simply made that impossible. The parables of Jesus often touch on a depth of poverty he may have known firsthand. Jesus and Joseph are both referred to as carpenters, but buildings were not usually made of wood in Palestine and the Greek word tekton , translated carpenter , really means one who made fairly simple wood products like doors, roof beams, yokes, and plows. A tekton was at the low end of the social scale, lower even than a peasant who still owned a small piece of land. So it’s quite possible that when Jesus told of the woman searching frantically for a lost coin and calling in the neighborhood to rejoice when she found it, and when he told of a man knocking on a friend’s door at midnight to ask for bread to set before unexpected company, he was recalling personal experiences.
But the truth, at last, is that we know very, very little about the humanity of Jesus, partly, I would guess, because details would have been hard to find by the time the church began writing about him, and partly because the church by then was interested in the Christ of faith and not much at all in the Jesus of history. The myth-making process that spawned those foolish childhood tales you heard earlier includes the following nonsense from a credulous Christian who visited Nazareth more than five centuries later. Even after 500 years he solemnly tells us, “there is still the book from which our Lord was set to learn A.B.C. In the synagogue, too, is the bench upon which our Lord sat with the other children. This bench,” he tells us, in a sad example of anti-Semitism, “can be moved and lifted up by Christians; but Jews cannot at all stir it, nor does it permit itself to be carried out of doors.”
It sometimes seem a truly great wonder to me that Christianity has survived this kind of foolishness, and the bloody wars fought in its name, and still continues to inspire some of the noblest of human lives with its high moral challenge to love and to forgive, to help and to heal.
As for knowing more about the Jesus of history, I am content to think what a remarkably radiant and compelling personality he must have been to have done so much in so short a time. The founders of other world religions lived long lives, active for decades, while Jesus preached only about a year according to Matthew, Mark and Luke, perhaps three years at most in John’s recollections. When his followers exclaimed, “What kind of man is this?” the answer of many was the one those of us in this room can still make with absolute conviction 2000 years later: “He is the Lord of life.” Welcome his spirit into your spirit, and you will live better than you can have ever imagined possible.
May we be better people this week, less selfish and more kind, our
Lord, because we have been together int his place. Amen.