‘Who Do You Say That I Am?’

Posted: August 24, 2017 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 12A

Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10            Matthew 16: 13-20

‘Who Do You Say That I Am?’

I never had the good fortune to learn languages at school but I am told that the French language has a very small number of words in comparison to English and that the various subtleties of meaning come from body language. The British, it is claimed were generally more reserved in temperament, need more words. Whereas ….The French, being perhaps more demonstrative in temperament, needed less words… And leaping ahead to today we see that one of the interesting things about Internet communication is that there are various sets of characters which are used to express, in shorthand, the spirit in which something is said. We see that a full colon followed by a dash, followed by a closing bracket, makes up a smiling face. This suggests that the preceding statement is meant to be funny not serious. But if the colon is replaced with a semicolon, this denotes a ‘wink’ – whatever a wink denotes! This is apparently the Internet way of making meaning: the spirit in which something is ‘said’.

Why that introduction? Well I suspect that when we approach the translations of the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures we need to consider that it is not just a matter of substituting a word in English for a word in Greek because there are interpretive and cultural differences involved in both the texts and the translators that colour the meanings given to the words used. Just taking one example, we see that in the Hebrew text of Isaiah from which Matthew quotes to undergird his story of the birth of Jesus there is no word let alone concept of virginity. It is only in the Greek that the understanding of virgin is present. Likewise, the Bible is not a scientific textbook.  Bishop Jack Spong writes: “Jesus could not have imagined such an idea as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity… Concepts commonplace today in the world of physics, subatomic physics, astrophysics, and cosmology would have drawn from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to say nothing of the author of the Book of Genesis, nothing except blank stares of incredulity” (Spong 1991:25).

To claim the Bible is the inerrant and authoritative word of God for all time has very little justification. Like the question of whether or not to pull down all the confederate statues that support slavery in American history is not too dissimilar from the veneration of the Bible as a Holy Bible. Why because many of us have been taught that its content is a message from God that is set in concrete.  Untouchable and the only spiritual resource. If that is the case then I guess I need to be fired and banished from the Ministry or listened to very carefully. I have been struggling lately with just what we are saying about the Bible by carrying it in and out prior to and after our services. In that simple ritual we venerate the bible and confirm many of the magic notions about it. If it is Holy, what does that mean? The reality is that it isn’t a message book. Neither is it ‘untouchable’ or holy. It is rather a very human collection of writings assembled over 1,000 years or more. And as Spong says; those who want to insist otherwise, are putting the Bible in jeopardy, and becoming, even if unwittingly, “accomplices in bringing about the death of the Christianity they so deeply love” (Spong 1991:32).

And let’s be clear also. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the Bible seriously because we should.  And when we do take the Bible seriously, a question we need to bring to every story is: “What do you make of it? not What is the meaning of the story?  You and I bring the meaning to it.  It’s not there without us reading it and getting something out of it.  We are the context in which it will be figured out and lived, if it’s worth it. This is the freedom the storytellers of our readings have and they use that freedom all the time.

Now you might be saying well if that’s the case why bother with the scriptures at all? But again that is not the only approach one can take. The scriptures are still examples of how people approached and recorded what they believed to be important. The importance was however not dependent upon a so called absolute truth or a single account of recorded fact. What we have is much richer than just a single verifiable factual account. We already know this because we have huge interpretation differences in the four Gospels of the biblical canon and the reason for the differences is that none of what we have is an original nor an eye witness account of the life of Jesus. In fact historians know very little about the personal life of an average peasant in Roman Palestine in the first half of the first century of the Common Era let alone the peasant life of the man we know as Jesus. Archaeology reveals physical aspects of the setting in which they lived out their lives and archaeologists must use artifacts and imagination to sketch out in very broad outline aspects of peasant life, but the peasant as a real flesh and blood human being remains elusive. All that remains are places and things to be pondered and interpreted. No narrative descriptions of day-to-day activities of peasant life and those of the still lower classes in the Roman province of Palestine exist. Such sources do not even exist for peasant life in the whole of the Roman Empire, where a great deal can be known about the private lives of people of means.

According to the earliest sources we have, Jesus was a first-century man from the region of Galilee, which was a part of the broader geographical area known in the Greco-Roman world as Judea. The people who populated the area were generally known by outsiders as Judeans. Jesus was the heir of the ancient Israelite religion, which in his day was associated primarily with the “land of [Judea], Jerusalem and the temple, and the cult and law as practiced there.” He belonged to the elusive impoverished classes of the greater Palestine area, and except for the early Christian gospels would have suffered the fate of oblivion, as did others of the impoverished classes of that period. We do not know for certain when he was born, his course of life, what he looked like, or where he was buried.

We have no personal information about him in contemporary documents originating in the period in which we think he lived. The earliest information we have as to his personal history is inadvertently provided by a first-century man who described himself as the apostle of Jesus. Only six personal features from the life of Jesus are mentioned by Paul, the apostle. Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4: 4)— meaning that he was a human being who was born into a social context under the authority of the Torah of the Israelite people. The names of his parents are not mentioned, which suggests they were likely unknown.

Paul’s description of the birth of Jesus does not use incarnation language such as is found in Matthew, Luke, and John. He does however in his need to hold Jesus as special indicate that Jesus is a descendant of the legendary Israelite King David (Rom 1: 3). This is suspect as an unprovable ascription of faith and Paul is using confessional language anyway. Paul also knew an apostle named James, whom he described as “the brother of the Lord” (Gal 1: 19). Again this is suspect in that in the undisputed Pauline letters the word “brother” (ἀδελφός) always refers to a religious connection (i.e., a “spiritual brother”), whereas here Paul seems to have resorted to a familial relationship to distinguish this James from another James. Paul mentions only three incidents from the life of Jesus and his failure to mention others suggests that he does not know anything like a sketch of the life course or even a career of Jesus.

According to Paul, Jesus ate a meal “on the night he was delivered over” (1 Cor 11: 23– 25). The clearly liturgical language he uses in describing the bread and the cup makes it doubtful that he knows this event independently of early practice when followers of Jesus gather. He further knows that Jesus was both crucified (Gal 3: 1) and buried (1 Cor 15: But the lack of detail does not instill any confidence that Paul has any independent information apart from what has come to him through the kerygma of the early followers gatherings. Four narratives emerge in the latter half of the first century (70– 90) purporting to describe the public career of Jesus and with these texts began the attempts to explain the origins of the church’s message. Mark, the earliest of the four writings about a generation after the death of Jesus, begins the narrative this way: “Beginning of the gospel about Jesus, the Anointed” (Mark 1: 1). What follows in Mark’s narrative is a brief abridgement of the public career of Jesus, containing examples of things Jesus said and did, things said about him, and things done to him.

The same is true for the other three gospels. Basically all four gospels are aiming to explain who this mysterious figure is that is preserved in the gospel message preached by the church (cf. 1 Cor 15: 3– 9; Acts 2: 22– 24). Only one author of the four gave a reason for writing a narrative about Jesus; Luke’s reason for writing a gospel was so that his patron would “know the truth about the things of which you have been informed” (Luke 1: 4).

All four accounts, all the gospels, describe the content of that “truth” differently, and they had no primary historical sources uninfluenced by religious faith on which to draw. Scholars theorize that the basic sources used by all four are derived from a generation of oral tradition about Jesus passed along by word of mouth; this oral tradition depicts him through the eyes of faith as bigger than life. As a result, the gospels themselves belong more to the category of “evangelistic tract” or propaganda literature than they do to disinterested historical narrative. The church’s canonical gospels are not the ultimate authoritative historical descriptions of Jesus; rather they should be conceived as among the very first attempts at fleshing out the kerygma about Jesus of Nazareth on whom the church based its message, aiming, as it were, at clarifying the origins of the church.

Who do you say I am? Takes on a richer background I suggest, as the interesting feature of these four narratives is their portrayal of situations in which the contemporaries of Jesus were perplexed as to how to regard him. For example, in the synoptic gospels there are several pronouncement stories, which can be anecdotes of identity. They are comprised of a brief setting, confusion over the identity of Jesus, and conclude with a pronouncement saying. The evangelists also include other brief descriptions of reactions to Jesus in longer narrative units where people are perplexed as to his identity. Certainly these latter descriptions are novelistic and intended to heighten the mystery surrounding Jesus. But they have the added effect of introducing uncertainty into the narratives as to how Jesus should be understood. The four canonical gospels suggest that mystery had always surrounded him. In Mark’s gospel, for example, we have Jesus as both crazy and possessed, as well as common or mundane as carpenter, son of Mary, and regional as Jesus of Nazareth. He is given some are titles of community respect asteacher, 9: 17; rabbi, 9: 5; prophet, 6: 4; lord/ sir, 7: 28, 11: 3; son of David, 10: 43– 4815), and political titles (king of the Judeans, 15: 2; king of Israel, 15: 32) or enigmatic as son of man, 9: 9). The religious appellations, including those suggesting that Jesus has some special relationship to God, are not explained or clarified further in Mark (son of God, 3: 11; holy one of God, 1: 24; son of the most high God, 5: 7; the Anointed, 8: 29; the Anointed, son of the Blessed, 14: 61; a son of God, 15: 39).

Of all these Jesus is portrayed as applying only the title “son of man” to himself, and interestingly accepting the appellation of the Anointed, son of the blessed. This is the reason I have chosen to use the anointed in our community prayer. Rightly or wrongly it seemed to describe someone who was a special human being in history but not God.

The result over all this defining stuff is a confusing portrait of the protagonist of Mark’s gospel. How should a reader of Mark’s gospel describe Jesus? Is he an unschooled peasant with enough native ability to be regarded as a teacher or rabbi? Should he be included among the prophets of Israel? Did he have political aspirations? How should a reader regard the religious appellations used in Mark in the light of the other designations that seem to cast Jesus as a common man with unusual gifts (cf. Mark 2: 7)? Matthew and Luke have appellations much the same as Mark, which might prompt a similar confusion as to the identity of Jesus were it not for their birth narratives (Matt 1: 18– 2: 23; Luke 1: 5— 2: 52) that influences readers to see Jesus as a divine emissary, although they never clarify how humanity and divinity are united in the man from Galilee.

Matthew goes so far as to identify him with Lady Wisdom herself (Matt 11: 16– 19). On the other hand, the status of Jesus in the Gospel of John is heightened to the point of portraying him as a divine agent in human guise (John 1: 1– 18; 20: 28; cf. Phil 2: 5– 11).

Using these admittedly confessional narratives, as well as noncanonical sources, modern historians have been engaged for over 200 years aiming to develop a historical understanding of Jesus of Nazareth with mixed results. They have been quite successful in understanding and describing the nature of the sources, but have not been as successful in developing a historical description of Jesus that commands the general agreement of New Testament scholarship.

This means that views about Jesus of Nazareth at the end of the twentieth century have become numerous and quite different from one another. Marcus Borg has summarized at least six distinct ways of viewing Jesus as human being that have appeared in major studies. Borg elaborates further in his book but according to E. P. Sanders, “Jesus was an eschatological prophet standing in the tradition of Jewish restoration theology.” Burton Mack characterizes Jesus as a ‘Cynic sage’ or ‘Cynic teacher,’ more Hellenistic than Jewish, in a thoroughly Hellenized Galilee.” Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza regards “Jesus as a wisdom prophet and founder of a Jewish renewal movement with a socially radical vision and praxis.” Borg’s own view is that Jesus “was a charismatic healer or ‘holy person,’ a subversive sage who undermined conventional wisdom and taught an alternative wisdom, a social prophet, and initiator of a movement the purpose of which was the revitalization of Israel.” John Dominic Crossan argues that “Jesus was a Jewish Cynic peasant with an alternative social vision.” Bart Ehrman describes Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet who expected the end of the old world and the establishment of a new world order on earth.

Today; given the nature of the sources with which scholars must work almost any view of Jesus is possible. The most common up to date study draws on the critical eight-year sifting of the sayings of Jesus by the Jesus Seminar, and this present study aims at describing Jesus simply on the basis of those sayings that have the highest claim to have originated with him. A description of Jesus based on his sayings alone will naturally vary depending on the sayings identified as having the highest claim to have originated with him. Nevertheless, the most reasonable place to begin a study of Jesus’ ideas and character based on his own words is with the sharpest critical sifting of the sayings tradition. This study identifies a range of historical valuations of the entire data base of sayings attributed to Jesus. The “voiceprint” that emerges from such a study casts him in a rather different light from the majority of lives of Jesus published at the end of the twentieth century. The question; ‘who do you say I am?’ takes on another part of its journey. Amen.

Notes: Funk, R. W. 2002.  A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press. Spong, J. S. 1991.  Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. NY: New York. HarperSanFrancisco. Vosper, G. 2008.  With or Without God. Why the Way we Live is more Important that What we Believe. Canada: Toronto. HarperCollins.

Hedrick, Charles W.. The Wisdom of Jesus: Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (p. 2). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

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