Sunday, January 15, 2012

The religion *of* Jesus, or the one *about* him?

Critics of Christianity have a stock saying that they are fine with the religion of Jesus, but not the one about Jesus. There is an implied claim here: a claim that Jesus didn't think he had any special place in the world, that Jesus claimed no special role in our understanding of God or in the kingdom of God (assuming there is such a thing), and that people are distorting the real Jesus if they are teaching about Jesus. (The same can be seen in the "Quest for the Historical Jesus" where the implied claim is plain enough: they claim that the Jesus of the Christians isn't the real one who lived in history.)

Anyone can make a claim; the question is how well a claim holds together when it is examined. Rational people will test claims to decide on their beliefs. So this set of claims about Jesus leads us to look at what we know about Jesus, and see what he taught. There is little argument whether Jesus taught about love, mercy, compassion for the poor, and the kingdom of God. The question is whether he also saw himself as having any special role in all that.

Where do we turn to learn about Jesus? Skeptics of Christianity might be inclined to turn to the alternative gospels outside of the Bible -- but in the alternative writings Jesus can be almost otherworldly maybe not even truly human. In some of the alternative gospels Jesus is no longer even identified as "Jesus" -- he is instead "the Savior". If a skeptic sets out on a quest to find a version of Jesus who fits that secular narrative, someone who was just a spiritual guy that was misunderstood after his death, the alternative gospels will not help him to find that.

Historians often take the view that the closer we are to the source, the better the material. And most scholars of early Christianity consider the Gospel of Mark to be the earliest record we have of Jesus' life. So that will be our source here. Some scholars consider the Gospel of Mark to be earlier than the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D.; others place it barely later than the fall of Jerusalem. Either way, that is within the lifetimes of many who had known Jesus in person. So the Gospel of Mark is early enough that we should be able to get fairly reliable information from it. If we limit ourselves to the Gospel of Mark as the earliest source, what does Jesus say about himself there?

One of the ongoing conflicts recorded in the Gospel of Mark is the question over Jesus' authority -- that is to say, the question over whether Jesus has any legitimate, identifiable position in religion. It's very much the same question the skeptics ask about him. Here in the Gospel of Mark we find early records of Jesus saying,
  1. The Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins. (Mark 2:9)
  2. The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. (Mark 2:28)
  3. The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)

The "power to forgive sins" struck the religious authorities as out of bounds; the accusation of "blasphemy" comes up here for the first time in Mark's narrative. ("Blasphemy" was a religious crime which, back then, carried the death penalty.) "Lord of the Sabbath" was probably a surprise to them. The part about giving his life as a ransom again sounds as if he thought he had some sort of special mission.

Some of the material he taught about himself is embedded in parables or prophetic statements.
  1. Jesus tells a parable comparing God to the owner of a vineyard who sent the tenants a series of messengers who were not respected, so last of all he sent his only son and heir. (Mark 12:1-12)
  2. In that same passage, he also quotes a prophecy and applies it to himself: The stone which the builders rejected has become the capstone. (Mark 12:10)
Here are two different sayings where, at face value, they sure look like Jesus is making unique claims for himself -- about how his relation to God is different than any other messenger, and why he is in the world, and his role in building the future.

More than once, we see Jesus himself pressing the issue of who he is, directly bringing that question to the front of the conversation.
  1. Jesus is the one who asked the disciples, "Who do the people say that I am? ... Who do you say that I am?" This concludes with Simon Peter recognizing Jesus as "the Messiah" (also translated "the Christ"), a long-foretold figure with a unique place in all of human history and in the kingdom of God. (Mark 8:27-30)
  2. Jesus is the one who challenged the religious leaders about whether the Christ or the Messiah was merely King David's descendant. Jesus quotes the Psalms speaking about the Messiah, "The LORD said to my Lord, sit at my right hand til I make your enemies your footstool," placing the Messiah as the one sitting at God's right hand. (Mark 12:35-57) He then challenges the religious leaders on how the Messiah could be merely David's descendant, when David spoke of him like that.

In these cases, Jesus is the one raising the question about who he is and what it means to be the Messiah.

Eventually with all the confrontations with the religious authorities, they had Jesus arrested. At the trial, the high priest asked whether he was the Messiah, son of the Blessed One, and Jesus answered:
I am, and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. (Mark 14:62)
The Gospel of Mark records that this answer was considered blasphemy, and played a direct role in Jesus being sentenced to death.* As has often been mentioned about the "revised Jesus" who was merely misunderstood -- it's difficult to see why anyone would have had him executed.

But let's stop for a moment. Everyone who considers a thing should consider both sides, otherwise they haven't considered it all; they have merely argued a position. I set out also to look through the Gospel of Mark and find sayings of Jesus where he portrays himself as no different than others. Here is one that seems less special than others just considered:
"A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own relatives, and in his own house." (Mark 6:4)

Many of the skeptics of Christianity might concede that Jesus was a prophet. The atheists might concede this because they don't believe in God, and a "prophet" is at best a guy who is spiritual. Others could call Jesus a prophet on the grounds that there are plenty of prophets and so someone could call Jesus a "prophet" and still maintain that Jesus has no unique place in our understanding of God.

Jesus also said:
Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother. (Mark 3:35)
Here Jesus claims kinship with anyone who does the right thing -- as Jesus says, the will of God. If Jesus is in the brotherhood of man, surely he's one of us.

However, whether he is one of us is something that both sides agree on. The question is whether he saw himself as having a unique place, such as Messiah.

I don't understand what course of open research would cause a person to consider what Jesus said about "prophet" but not see "Messiah" and "right hand of the LORD" and "authority to forgive sins". I don't understand what course of open research would cause a person to consider Jesus as brother to all who do God's will, but not see him challenging his disciples to think about who he is, and challenging the religious teachers about Messiah's place in the big scheme of things. It seems that someone would have to pick through the Gospel of Mark very selectively to miss the times when Jesus claims a one-of-a-kind role in the history of the world and in our relationship with God.

I know, all the things that Jesus said about himself have come under challenge as to whether they are "authentic" sayings. Even the high priest's declaration of blasphemy and tearing his robes in response has been challenged as to whether it is "authentic." But "authentic" seems to be judged by the criterion of whether it fits with the secular orthodoxy that insists that Jesus couldn't possibly have said that because Jesus must have been misunderstood, or have had his sayings embellished, or anything that would mean he never actually said such a thing. That is to say, the challenge seems to be based on secular dogmas, which raises the question: is the criterion a closed mind that won't give a fair hearing to the alternatives? Or is there some sort of actual historical reason to doubt that Jesus said these things? If Jesus did say these things, it would explain how the religion came to be about Jesus so very early in its history.

And so there, in the earliest gospel, we find Jesus challenging his disciples about who he is -- where we find he sees himself as the Messiah. We find Jesus challenging the religious authorities about whether the Messiah is more than they realized. What we don't see is just a guy who was misunderstood about whether he really thought he was unique.

Here I've made no argument about whether anyone should agree that Jesus is the Messiah, or agree that the Messiah is at God's right hand, or agree that Jesus is unique in all of history. But the earliest records we have say that he claimed it about himself.

* To us, the "clouds of heaven" part might seem overdone. But it's not the only time he referred to himself as coming on the clouds; elsewhere he said that the people would see "the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory" (Mark 13:26).

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