Friday, March 30, 2012

Thinking about Jesus

As the week called “holy” approaches, I feel drawn to comment on the leader of those who call themselves “Christian.” There are many kinds of Christians. For years I have been a kind of Christian Atheist, fond of Jesus as an amazing human being, a teacher of wisdom who became a powerful symbol of many diverse things. For 40 years I have studied, meditated upon, and preached about and around Jesus, his teachings, and what has been made of him. The four gospels in the accepted canon and the many other gospels of the first and second centuries testify to the many ways there were and are to think of him. [see below about photo]

First of all, I do think there was a man Jesus as described in the gospels. This is a difficult statement to make. He wrote nothing and much of what was written about him was written years after his death, and much of that is suspect as history. Much of what he taught is pretty much straight Jewish teaching of the time (in the school of Hillel). If things had turned out a little differently, we (or Jews only) might be reading of Jesus in The Mishnah. Tomorrow I will share the top teachings of Jesus.

The first “history” about him is that he appeared at the River Jordan with John the Baptist, who  baptized him. This implies strongly that Jesus was first of all a disciple of John’s. The next historical incident is that Jesus assembled disciples around himself. From this act and his later teachings we can deduce that he broke away from John and had a new message that differed from John’s. John apparently had preached that “the world is ending soon. Repent, and be saved now!” Jesus seems to have decided that the world might continue, and that God wanted us to be saved in the present.

The code phrase here for being “saved” is “Kingdom of God.” Matthew changed this to “Kingdom of Heaven,” but that comports with Jesus asking that God’s “will be done on earth as in heaven.” I was shocked to learn about 15 years ago that the Greek word for “kingdom” was the same word used when we speak of “the Roman Empire.” This created for me the same kind of electrical shock that it must have had for folks in the first century when Jesus first used it. His “gospel” or good news was highly political: We need to live here and now as if God were in charge. The Romans are irrelevant. There are many books in recent years to explain this in detail.

Luke records that Jesus taught “The Kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” [or “within” or “in your midst.”] This appears also in Thomas 3:  Jesus said, "If your leaders say to you, 'Look, the (Father's) kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is within you and it is outside you.”

Another way to understand “being saved” is to think of “being healed or made whole.” Many Jews speak of “healing the world.” Not so different.

Jesus was called “son of God.” This did not at first imply divinity. It was a term that meant “like God” or “son of Adam,” or “the Human one,” as Walter Wink described him. The Jesus Seminar scholars translated it: “this mother’s son.” He was also called “Messiah,” a Hebrew title which in Greek is “Christ.” This too, did not at first imply divinity, but merely a chosen leader. Those who are concerned about the divinity question must deal with Mark 10:18: “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.”

The most interesting book on Jesus I have read in recent years is by Paul Verhoeven, film director (Basic Instinct, Robocop, Starship Troopers, Total Recall, Black Book) and very serious Bible student. Because of his work in film, which is highly influenced by his childhood in the Nazi occupied Netherlands, he looks for the drama in Jesus’ life. He asks, “What in the gospels strikes us as genuine human activity and response?”  I hope to write a review some time on his 2010 book, Jesus of Nazareth.

Photo of Jesus above: Starting with the assumption that Jesus resembled a typical peasant from 1st century CE Galilee, Richard Neave, a medical artist retired from the University of Manchester in England, and his team of researchers: "started with an Israeli skull dating back to the 1st century. They then used computer programs, clay, simulated skin and their knowledge about the Jewish people of the time to determine the shape of the face, and color of eyes and skin." The result was a person with a broad peasant's face, dark olive skin, short curly hair and a prominent nose.

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