Jesus Before God: The Prayer Life of the Historical Jesus

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Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Jesus Before God: The Prayer Life of the Historical Jesus

  1. Review

    Hal Taussig is a member of the faculty in Holistic Spirituality at Chestnut Hill College, Pastor of the local United Methodist Church, and a member of the Jesus Seminar. At the end of his book, he writes that the surprising conclusions of his work are not what he expected when he began and not "totally comfortable" for him. I mention this so that the reader may be alerted that there are surprises in the book that may be disturbing as well as challenging.

    This scholarly but very readable study grew out of the renewed interest, during the past decade or so, in the historical Jesus and the "passion for prayer" which is evident in contemporary spirituality. This is the context for the questions which form the heart of this book: "How did Jesus pray?" and "Does the historical human being of first century Galilee named Jesus have something to teach today about prayer?"

    The author begins his investigation by presenting a profile of the historical Jesus that has emerged

    from recent scholarship, concentrating on what illuminates the prayer life of Jesus. He concludes, that with some assurance we can describe Jesus as a "sage" who taught "a surprising and subversive wisdom about God’s domain," challenging "family, empire, religion and the marketplace."

    In the second stage of discovering Jesus at prayer, he examines the Gospel texts. There he finds differing "assumptions and inherent contradictions" in the portraits of Jesus at prayer sketched by the writers of the Gospels. He concludes that "nothing clear or positive" emerges in those pictures of the prayer life of Jesus. He then turns to another and earlier source of material about Jesus at prayer, the Q Gospel, which is incorporated into the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. He states that this material "bears fewer of the fingerprints and eraser marks of the gospel writers." It was precisely at this juncture that he was able to find in the "fragments of a shattered picture," material close to the historical Jesus that provided parts for a new and integrated portrait of Jesus praying.

    He takes the prayer from the Q Gospel, which is the foundation for what we know as The Lord’s Prayer, and locates each fragment of the prayer in specific settings of Jesus’ life. If one hears the prayers of Jesus, not as individual fragments, but in the context of his teaching, "there emerges a clear and astonishing fresh voice of prayer." He writes, "They end up being highly involved in fresh and gutsy ways with the Galilean people and the society in which Jesus lived."

    The author concludes that hearing the prayers of Jesus in the context of his teaching reveals a surprising picture of what Jesus prayed about and how he prayed. He suggests that the prayer life of Jesus was more broadly focused than that of most religious people today. He prayed about business, politics, sex, religion, family, and education. Jesus also had a style of prayer that was "on the run", "set in the hustle and bustle of daily life." He prayed in the midst of interacting and relating to other people, using prayers that were "highly self-critical" and had an educational thrust which challenged those who heard him.

    The author relates what Jesus prayed about and his style of prayer to our search for a "spirituality of integrity" today. He writes, "Jesus’ prayer life promises much to those who want to learn to pray in a way that supports and transforms the person praying."

    In conclusion, Taussig suggests that one of the main results of encountering the prayer life of the historical Jesus is a realization of how western dualism of a "body-soul" split and of a "heaven-earth" dichotomy undermines both our experience of prayer and our understanding of God. God is understood as "fundamentally belonging to another realm than the one we know about, struggle in, and love," and prayer connects us to God by "taking us out of our bodies and away from earth." By contrast, Jesus reveals a kind of praying that "holds mind and body, earth and heaven, God and humans together." God is "the dynamic" which is the "connection between everyone" and "everything upon the earth." When we pray, we are recognizing and participating in the "ultimacy and intimacy of the connectedness of all that is."

    The author writes, "Jesus’ prayer life, as uncovered in the complex search undertaken in this book, thrusts the possibility of prayer into the hot mix of personal give and take. The way he made himself open and vulnerable to others, the way he challenged everyone from Roman authorities to family members to reorient themselves then and there to what he had said in prayer, the way he pushed himself and others into the immediacy of God’s domain – all these envisioned and depended on a God who was present between people."

    This is a book that opens wondrous new vistas on prayer and our understanding of the God before whom we pray.

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