Monday, August 26, 2013

Exploring the Christian Way of Life: The Identity of Jesus Part 1

This blog post is the first part of a paper that is the first major piece in my theological project, “Exploring the Christian Way of Life,” and examines the identity of Jesus. We will begin in this post by briefly providing rationale for our starting point and a discussion of methods. In our following posts, we will move into our main topic, the identity of Jesus.

It is my contention that every part of the Christian life is relative. Our experiences are subjective and relative as have been those of all Christians throughout the history of the church. Even our Scriptural witnesses are the products of humans in relation.[1]  Our situation is not hopeless, but we must account for this relativity in our theology. Otherwise it’s misguided, or perhaps, claiming a false objectivity. But, a theology that does properly account for our relativity is not only accurate, but very useful because it will align with actual Christian experience. All of our Christian experience is subjective to the objective reality of the Word of God. The Word of God has been most vividly revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Our study, then, must proceed toward understanding who Jesus was, is, and will be and how we relate to him. Through understanding who he was, the main focus of this paper, we hope that we may encounter the Word afresh today.[2]

Jesus does not walk the earth today, so what are our sources? We have no recourse except to the writings of the New Testament, especially the four gospels. But will they show us Jesus? How accurately do they give us the details of his life? Honestly, we don’t know and have no way of knowing the answer to the second question, but to a degree, that’s ok.[3]  The first question is the important one. And there I believe the answer is a resounding yes. What are the gospels? They are our authoritative interpretation of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Through these writings, we want to explore who he was and why he mattered. That will help us understand who is he to us now. The church through the ages has heard God speak through these texts repeatedly and have credited them as authentic witnesses. Our approach will be to study the repeated themes and see what pattern emerges, building our theology in conversation with history as best we can understand it.[4]  And from here we may begin. The best way to capture that question is, ‘Who did Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John believe Jesus was?’[5]  We will look at key vignettes from the beginning of each of their gospels to paint a picture that is synthetic while capturing the tension between perspectives that we find on the periphery. We will begin with the earliest gospel, Mark, looking at his account of Jesus’ baptism and then move on from there. I picked texts from the introductions of the gospels because it is there that each writer gives his most concise summary of Jesus significance. We begin with Mark as it was the earliest gospel and it set the agenda for the subsequent evangelists.


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[1]  The closest of relations to God, but still a relation none the less.

[2]  As Bockmuehl 2006 p. 227 notes, the resurrection confirms Jesus identity. It doesn’t change. His identity will be the same in the eschaton. Bockmuehl’s work is worth careful reading and rereading. In many ways I’m trying to follow the methodology he outlines. 

[3]  I have discussed this point more fully at http://zetountes.blogspot.com/2013/05/john-genre-and-historicity.html.  

[4] This is in line with the approach to the historical Jesus undertaken in Allison 2010. Historians and theologians alike have no other choice. You must trust the general pattern or you will have nothing to stand on. If the gospels are substantially distorted then all hope is lost. We don’t delve into it much in this paper, but Allison’s work will prove invaluable to my wider project. For now, I will note Allison’s argument that the evidence for an exalted view of Jesus is overwhelming. It is incredible to believe that some of that didn’t go back to him, that he didn’t see himself in an exalted fashion. See esp. pp. 225-44.

[5] Even if they invented stories about Jesus, they were invented to make clear the understanding of Jesus and his significance that they already had. It does not distort, it actually helps clarify. Allison 2008 p. 82 makes this point forcefully.

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For Further Reading:
Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage eds. Richard Hays and Beverly Roberts-Gaventa

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