"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 dont 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 peoples 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 their re-asking seems unusual, even blasphemous. In the past ten 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. Dont 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, doesnt 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, its helpful to approach the questions from three basic vantage points.
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.