by Arthur Paul Patterson
"WHAT ARE THEY saying about me? What do you think about me?" Everybody has asked these questions but when Jesus of Nazareth posed them to his friends at Caesarea-Philippi, an ancient Roman cosmopolitan city on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, he started a discussion that continues to baffle, enrage and inspire people two millennia later. I have always wondered if these were real or trick questions. Was Jesus cornering Peter into giving the right dogmatic answer, later to be included in sacred writings, or was this an open question addressed to all people? I don’t want to wrench Yeshua bar Joseph (Jesus) out of his first century context by giving him motives of a 21st century psychobabbler but I do wonder what might have been his intentions when he asked about people’s perceptions of him.
He might have been asking his friends to help him toward a better understanding of his role and identity. It was a pretty confusing time with a smorgasbord of religious ideas and options that ranged from the ritual purity and isolation of the Qumran holy men to the cloak and dagger tactics of the political assassins, the Sacarri. Jesus’ outspoken friend and mentor John the Baptist ended his loquacious career with his head on a platter in the court of King Herod. It would seem an opportune time for Jesus to ask those who knew him intimately what other people thought of him and what their own thoughts were. Perhaps he was strategizing.
The questions could have been a test to gauge the loyalty of his friends. Did they really know him? Had his message gotten through to them? Were they behind him? It would take only one false friend to turn the living Jesus of Nazareth into a human bulletin board pinned to a Roman stake, warning dissident Jews to keep in their place. Many 21st century friends and followers of Jesus are so convinced about their answers to these questions that re-asking them seems unusual, even blasphemous. In the past few years, these odd questions have been getting more TV airtime and column space in popular magazines. Critical studies of the New Testament and movements like the Jesus Seminar are adding fresh interpretations. According to them, Jesus was a counter-cultural cynic, a political freedom fighter, a new age magician, or an impassioned poverty advocate. Modern images resonate with our contemporary issues but are they true to this first century character that has become all things to all people throughout all ages? Are we in danger of putting a political or cultural spin on Jesus, turning him into a mirror image of our national interests and ourselves?
Traditionalists demand that we stick to answers given ex cathedra by the church and scripture. “Don’t ask critical questions or lean on human reason and research to arrive at the answer to who Jesus is. Just accept his own answer in the Bible, which turns out, incredibly, to be the same as ours.” Such a response may have been adequate in an earlier stage of our human development when our cosmology and philosophy allowed belief without reflection. The traditional answer, to blindly accept the dogma of the church concerning Jesus, doesn’t address our modern consciousness or our conscience. Asking the questions afresh in our post-modern context is not only necessary for intellectual integrity, it is an obligation to answer the original questioner. “What are people saying and what do you say?” The order is important. First, “Who do people say I am?" What is the full range of interpretation available to us? To answer in a manageable way, it’s helpful to approach the questions from three basic vantage points.
1. What can be said from a scientific or historical point of view? (Voice of Science)
2. What can be said by various communities of interpretation about the significance of Jesus? (Voice of Community)
3. What can I say from direct internal experience about Jesus of Nazareth? (Voice of Personhood)
These subsidiary questions place the original queries in objective, cultural and subjective frameworks. Each framework has different standards by which to verify the authenticity of their findings. Hopefully, by listening to all three voices we will be on our way to authentically contemporary answers.
The Voice of Science
The goal of scientific investigation is to hold back opinions and interpretations and let the data speak in its own context. This requires wisdom and self-discipline, especially when looking at a culturally and emotionally-charged subject, Jesus of Nazareth. Smuggling in theology, creeds, and emotional reactions (positive or negative) casts a film over our historical lens. There is a time for interpretation and belief but not in the initial phases of asking the question, “What can be said historically about Jesus of Nazareth?” Instead of soaring with creative ideas, the historian is required to grub around in the soil of Palestine, in scroll caves, or libraries where the primary sources are housed. They look at the physical evidence, the archeology. They listen, without too much interpretation, to the beliefs and practices of Jesus' contemporaries in their own language and philosophies.
The consensus among modern historical scholars is that Jesus was a first century Galilean Jew living between 4 BCE and 30 CE. He was considered a prophet and miracle worker who believed he had a unique relationship with God and died an excruciating death by crucifixion under the Roman authority of Pontius Pilate. The rest of our common knowledge, from a bare bones historical point of view, is speculation, not correct or incorrect, just not provable through the historical method. Jesus left no artifacts, no writings, and those who were his followers mediate most of our knowledge of him, 60 years after the actual events took place. The historical Jesus is, as the careful scholar J.P. Meier tells us, not the real Jesus. History never allows us to view a real or entire person; it merely describes what can be known with scientific assurance about the person. A historical person is a hypothetical reconstruction, not a flesh and blood living totality. We can’t exhaustively answer the question concerning who Jesus is with bare facts but we can’t even begin to understand him without them.
While the four Gospels point toward the historical facts, their prime spiritual purpose was to express good news of a change of relationship between humanity and God through the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. They do not give us a modern biography or history of his life. This is not to imply, as some do, that the Gospels are deceptive; they are about something other than bare facts.
What is known with scientific surety seems minuscule but consequential because whatever else is said about Jesus must be tethered to history, to his ethnicity and the political character of his death at a particular time and place. When interpretations stray too far from history they no longer have Jesus of Nazareth as their focus.
Historical science gives us a monological perspective. It speaks at us but not with us. It doesn’t directly address issues of significance or meaning. There is virtually no significance in the bare facts of Jesus' existence as a casualty of first century Roman injustice. He was one among thousands who lived and died beneath the military cleats of Roman occupation.
The Voice of Community
To discover the significance of Jesus’ life we need to ask how various individuals and communities throughout history, beginning with his own followers, experienced Jesus. When we move from the bare facts of history’s skeletal Christ to pondering his meaning for people, we are making the transition from the objective to the cultural, subjective realm. The question, “Who do people say I am?” can be rendered “What do I mean to people?” This dialogical perspective involves interpretation.
Communities of interpretation place their answers in the context of their expectations and hopes for a meaningful and vibrant life. These expectations give colour to the pale picture of the Christ of history by tying a culture’s deepest needs to the alleviation of suffering. What a culture considers the solution to their basic human predicament profoundly influences their image of Jesus. Peter knew the word on the street was that Jesus was possibly the reincarnation of John the Baptist, or the living emergence of Elijah or Moses. Many thought Jesus could have been the Messiah (in Greek, the anointed one). They had all kinds of hopes and expectations about who the Messiah was, including such images as: a revolutionary prophetic deliverer from Rome, a welfare king for the poor, and a perfect priest. Prophet, priest and king were the first nationalistic-hued images of Jesus. Peter’s world wanted to get out from under the boot of Rome.
Taking Mark’s interpretation of Jesus’ exchange with Peter seriously, we see that he was not satisfied with the “messiah as triumphal deliverer” option. If he was the Messiah, as Peter said, he wasn’t the sort of messiah Peter had in mind. Peter’s messiah, as we find out a few verses later, was not going to be beaten raw by the Romans, suffer and die. At the height of Peter’s revelation, Jesus accuses him of being deluded by Satan! While Jesus doesn’t outright refuse the title Christ, he tells Peter to keep silent about it because Jesus didn’t think of being the Messiah in the triumphal and nationalistic way that his early disciples did. He redefined the religious terms, eluding the commonly held ideas of what a deliverer meant, and proposed a solution to the Roman condition that was authentic but unexpected. Jesus was a suffering servant who could be understood only in light of his destiny in the Cross-Resurrection event.
After the events of Jesus' life, four, likely anonymous, individuals wrote gospels with different chronologies and pictures of what their communities felt Jesus meant to them. They took stories and traditions about him and merged these with their community’s lived experiences and concerns. The result was Matthew’s Moses look-alike, Mark’s fast paced “band on the run” sort of Jesus, Luke’s vision of a sophisticated Christ for all people, including Roman elites and John’s stridently anti-Jewish leadership Jesus whose feet barely touched the ground.
These communities had different sets of challenges: integrating the Jewish and Gentile perspectives on the Law, fending off or enduring waves of Roman persecutions, defining faith over against fighting in-groups. It is no wonder that these early followers grasped at so many potent titles and symbols - Lord, Son of God, Son of Man, New Adam, Shepherd, Door, Way - to express what Jesus was slowly and developmentally coming to mean for them. The earliest traditions are not unified but creatively diverse with no one image dominating. What does dominate is the centrality of Jesus of Nazareth as the focal point for a spiritually-renewed worldview.
We are only beginning to be realize through New Testament studies that there are far more than four gospels that refer to Jesus’ significance. Many of the others, while not included in the final four, are genuine attempts at making sense of the effects of Jesus’ life. One novel group’s perceptions (the Docetists) were coloured by classical Greek and Roman expectations of gods coming to earth in the guise of humanity. They taught that Jesus only appeared human. One of the texts of this group records a ghostly Christ sitting on a hillside observing the crucifixion of the fleshly Jesus. Greek mythology, coupled with a need to transcend human suffering, allied to create this strange image. While declared heretical by the church, this group’s hope that God would come to earth as a human was influential in the later debates about Jesus which made him less and less human and more divine.
Old garments have a way of recycling into current fashions; classical philosophy transmuted into so-called orthodox theology. Docetism’s obscure image would come to life again in the Patristic period (third and fourth centuries). The powerful Roman and Greek elites moved increasingly toward the Christian movement since it became the state religion under Constantine. Influenced by Plato’s cosmology, they mingled Classical ideas with Hebrew concepts such as Logos and Sophia. Their expectations involved a vision of stability and a reality that could not be altered by historical accidents or the spontaneous occurrences in nature. They needed a source above and beyond the material world.
The significance of Jesus for the Church Fathers involved the precise way that God revealed his reality in the material world through this unique individual. They had an entire Greek and Roman terminology handy to explain the presence of God in Jesus. They wanted to protect their image of God from earthly contamination and still maintain the centrality of Jesus. The more they crafted their statements the more nuanced and sometimes unfathomable the meaning of Jesus became. Tension developed as one group began to see Jesus as identical with absolute God and another group sought to maintain God’s unity by declaring Jesus as merely a good man who was adopted by God as his son. In attempting to definitely resolve the paradox of the co-existence of God and human beings, the early church ultimately obscured the meaning of both, creating a crisis of interpretation that has lasted until our time.
It seems that the one who originally asked, “Who does your community of interpretation say that I am?” confounded those who sought to answer exclusively in the categories of their own preconceptions. Cultural and historical revolutions, with their varied expectations and hopes, have carved ever-new conceptual cradles for Jesus of Nazareth. The Reformation's anxiety over sin and personal guilt, the Enlightenment's concern for reason and historical criticism, the Idealist emphasis on the transcendent basis of all reality, and the Romantic response to personal subjectivity - all have vied for dominance. Meanwhile, the importance of Jesus of Nazareth has been minimized through de-historicizing, colonializing and domesticating him into a mirror image of culture.
We have inherited much of our language about Jesus from these traditions and have added our own set of assumptions and expectations about him. Our assumptions are based on the community of interpretation that we find ourselves in, whether conservative or liberal, orthodox or esoteric, devotional or scholarly, justice-oriented or spirituality-oriented, believers or unbelievers. Ironically, it is through the interpretive tensions and creative diversity of all these communities that we can receive an image of Jesus that relates to our age. Listening to the communities of interpretation provides vitality and relevance of which historical methods alone are incapable. Nonetheless, meaning that is not grounded in history can rapidly turn into a narcissistic illusion.
Today we expect humanity to be globally focused. Nationalistic and culturally exclusive answers are not sustainable in the age of Social Media and a 24-hour news cycle. Our world is connected, for all its differences. Therefore the perceptions of others must be valued. We are coming to believe that no racial, cultural, or even religious group has a monopoly of interpretation about Jesus.
The very idea of interpretation has been transformed by our recent awareness of the flexibility and symbolic nature of language. Such realizations in the area of linguistic philosophy make literalism and dogmatism nearly impossible. On the other hand, we are beginning to realize that language is not entirely relative or socially constructed, as some linguistic nihilists have imagined. We expect that any modern interpreter of these questions will be both convictional and flexible.
The original questions were posed in a way that assumes there will be a difference between those who believe in and follow Jesus of Nazareth and those whose allegiance lies elsewhere, in other forms of spirituality or philosophy. That doesn’t negate the importance of listening respectfully to a broad range of spiritual and intellectual traditions. Listening is not agreeing or watering down our unique images; rather, it strengthens our perspectives when we differentiate with openness and respect. Even hostile and obtuse representations of Jesus of Nazareth can deepen our appreciation for what we see in him. They can provide a contrast and even correction to our own interpretations.
We expect that experience is a genuine vehicle for truth. Someone may declare that it is snowing outside. Based on their declaration we might believe that they are telling the truth but to verify it we have several options. We might want to ask them on what basis they say it is snowing. They may tell us they heard it on the radio, or better yet, that they went to the window and actually saw the snow. This direct observation would be more convincing than merely hearing second-hand from the radio. To further check things out, we might conduct an experiment to see if any sighted person who goes to the window observes snow. Can others replicate the same experience of snow seeing as our source? Merely seeing snow from the window is inferior to actually going out and experiencing the snow fall on us as we crane our face upward, stick out our tongue, and allow the flakes to land in our mouth. After making a few snow angels and lobbing a few snowballs, we will be convinced it has snowed. This is the way that modern people generally verify truth; philosophically, this is called the empirical method.
When modern people are asked, “Who is Jesus?” they would like to proceed experientially and empirically. Being told about Jesus Christ second-hand by history or tradition ranks as a poor second place to actually having an experience of him. Unfortunately, an experience with Jesus or any person who is no longer in a material form is something we modern people tend to rule out from the beginning. We rule out dimensions of reality based on our preconceived notion that only the physically real is real because it is subject to observation and measurement, whereas other forms of experience are, from our modern bias, unreal or at least not verifiable.
Given these assumptions, the question, “Who do you say I am?” cannot be answered. At best you might be able to answer the question, “Who do you say I was?” That is why the most popular answer today is that of the scientific historian or social scientist. The Jesus Seminar group, as do most academic researchers, tends toward this sort of historicism. Their work is to be genuinely appreciated but there are other credible communities of interpretation that are not as restricted by their methods. These seekers apply similar scientific principles but to the area of the spirit. Those involved in a spiritual approach to knowledge include history and the opinions and reports of a broad range of communities but they add to them their own experiential knowledge.
A Personal Voice
Writing about how I experience Christ fuses an inexpressible subject with the limited vehicle of language and sets these influences smack in the middle of my life. I get the impression that instead of writing about how I encounter Jesus of Nazareth, it is more accurate to say I experience myself being rewritten. My life is reevaluated, mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically in the light of Jesus of Nazareth - the Human One.
I am tethered to history. To know me or to know Jesus is to acknowledge the worlds we live in. Our worlds are, as songwriter Bruce Cockburn once described, “two thousand years and half a world away,” yet we are linked because we are historically and culturally embodied. When I look at my hands I am reminded he had hands as vehicles of action in the world. When I suffer I know that he suffered although for different reasons and because of his cultural circumstances more physically than I do. I am not alone in recognizing that Jesus of Nazareth was human in every way. One of the early communities reflected on this fact and included it in their interpretation, “For since he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).
His humanity included many dimensions but it was his suffering that poignantly defined him and even accounted for his spiritual development. My ordinary human sufferings, if entered into as vulnerably as he did, place me in a state of union with him. They give me a subjective experience like his, linking us in body and soul. Many spiritual explorers, from the martyrs to the mystics, from the Anabaptists to the Quakers, have experienced the practice of entering the inner cross. Modeling my life after his allows me to participate in his image, knowing him from within and not just as an object of study or interpretation.
It is not only through creative reflection but also through regular practice of the disciplines of spirit that inklings of Christ’s character are experientially mediated to me. When I empty my conscious mind, directing it toward the Source, a source Jesus called Father or Abba, I experience a cry and a yearning in my heart that desires a personal intimacy with God. “But you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry Abba, father! It is the very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. And if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ if in fact we suffer with him we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15-17).
This cry is a deep return of my spirit from my alienated state to the state of its authentic origin. This experience has been called various things: an abba cry by Paul the Apostle, desolation and consolation by Ignatius, sehnsucht (German word for deep unrequited yearning) by C. S. Lewis. One author called this heartfelt yearning to return home to God the spiritual practice of tears. These tears of homecoming melt my stone heart and cynical mind so I can receive the generous gift of grace that comes to me through Jesus the Human One.
In prayer I receive a sense of sonship and affinity with God. I participate in the divine nature that Peter and the Eastern Church Fathers describe as divinization. “Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature” (1 Peter 1:4). It is this participation that enables me to subjectively understand when the tradition says Jesus and God are one. Out of my humanity, as understood through Christ, I begin to realize who God is.
Through mediation, I personally enter the union of Jesus with the Father; an experience reenacted when those who follow Jesus’ injunction to pray from the heart also enter into unity with God. That unity extends to every person made in the image of God. No one is outside of that unity, no matter how diverse their culture or religious perspective, personal temperament or behaviour. This meditative union results in the practical reconciliation with humanity which is at its essence one. The Human One unites humanity on the spiritual level leaving for us the task of realizing that union in our historical squabbles and our stubborn pride. Moving toward global union through education and spiritual dialogue gives me a personal sense of vocation.
A present manifestation of the life of Jesus of Nazareth is available through human community. Wherever there is a spirit of vulnerability, deep yearning for truth and desire for a realization of God, I sense the spiritual presence of Jesus of Nazareth. This tangible experience is mediated in the loving grace of those with the strength to forgive, to embrace, to empathize, to empower and to love one another. Paul the Apostle recognized this as the experience of the body of Christ. This body, which I experience in and beyond the parameters of the religion called Christianity or its institutional church, participates in both the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. No matter what my fluctuating belief is about life after death or the reanimation of the body of Jesus, or any other dogma, I am struck by a sense of accompaniment. A special and specific person called Jesus communes with my consciousness; other persons in the global community, surrounding me in forgiveness and grace, mediate his reality.
“Who do people say I am? Who do you say I am?” are indeed honest questions. Answering objectively from a historical point of view, and sincerely from a subjective point of view, is absolutely essential. Jesus of Nazareth probably knew the questions couldn’t be answered definitively but he does invite Peter and all the communities of interpretation to give these questions their best efforts. Grounding our answers in the soil of Palestine, in continuity with many communities of interpretation, in the hopes and expectations of our current world yet without denying Jesus’ humanity or uniqueness is a humbling task. For those who find their spiritual center in Jesus, allowing their lives to be rewritten by meditation on this life is even more daunting because it threatens our religious creeds, lifestyles and cultural certainties. It leads through human suffering to a global love for one another and ever-partial but authentic responses to who we are and who Jesus of Nazareth is for us today.
Portrait of Christ by Georges Rouault, used by permission
Pantocrator 6th century icon from public commons