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Who was Jesus? Part One

The Beginnings, Encounter

The question about Jesus is not a simple question. In search of the answer, wars have been fought, laws passed and broken, kingdoms gained and lost, and heretics burned at the stake. The Thirty Years War began in 1618 with disagreements between Catholics and Protestants, ultimately claiming the lives of 8 million people and redrawing the map of Europe. Understanding Jesus is a thread woven into the fabric not only of Christianity, but also of western civilization itself. The question is not merely academic.

When Jesus walked the earth about 2000 years ago, people reacted in different ways. The vast majority, spread across the globe, had no idea that he even existed. They could have cared less. In Israel, rumors about the rabbi from Nazareth spread, some believing that perhaps he was the promised messiah who would drive out the Romans. The Romans themselves took note of all seditionist groups and began to keep an eye on Jesus. For the most part, however, I find it difficult to believe that most of his countrymen paid any attention to him, despite the contrary picture that we get in the gospels.

Some people, however, did pay a great deal of attention and were profoundly affected. As the itinerant teacher wandered about Galilee, he impacted a few in such a way that they became his disciples and followed him about. It’s not easy to determine who exactly these people were. The idealized calling of disciples that we find in the gospels is a product of an established church looking back at its origins. I am not a biblical scholar, but it seems likely that Jesus would have appealed to the disenfranchised, peasants who had lost their land under the burden of taxation and fishermen whose occupation had been upset by the exporting of fish paste to satisfy Roman taste in the nearby city of Sepphoris. When he left John the Baptist he took some of his newly found friends with him. Some of the well-to-do were no doubt struck by his person and message, as well.

In any case, he did impact people who were very responsive to who he was and what he said. We have the impression that there were 12 men who represented the 12 tribes of Israel, but we have the names of many women who also followed him, bringing the total number of the immediate group to about 25. These are the people who went with him to Jerusalem, where he was crucified.

But there was most likely also another group. When one reads the gospels of Matthew and Luke, one finds an interesting literary anomalie. They both contain a great deal of the earlier gospel of Mark, and, additionally, they contain a great deal of material common to both of them. This source is referred to as Q. Q consists mainly of sayings of Jesus, and is devoid of any reference to the death and resurrection. This stands in contrast to the other sources which focus heavily on the death and resurrection. 

Not every biblical scholar supports the idea that there was a source Q, but most do, and its existence is supported by the discovery in 1945 at a place called Nag Hammadi in Egypt of a previously unknown gospel called the gospel of Thomas. Thomas, like Q, is a series of sayings of Jesus. Building on this archaeological find, scholars postulate the existence of an early group of Jesus followers who had a gospel with no reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus. As you might expect, evangelicals, who base their whole theological edifice on the belief that “Jesus died for your sins”, reject the idea that there was such a Q community, who were disciples of Jesus and who were totally oblivious to the passion story. Apparently they were encountered by Jesus, had their lives changed, and as Jesus went his merry way, these disciples went theirs, preaching about a new way to live.

Given that the Q source and the gospel of Thomas both focus on sayings of Jesus and have no reference to the death and resurrection, one might suspect that the original collection of the sayings pre-dated the death of Jesus. The later gospels focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus because that was the determinative factor in their life. So we quite conceivably have two groups of disciples, both created by Jesus: an early Q community, and the later what I will call the Jerusalem community. There may have been others, referred to as the 72, sent out two by two, but we don’t know.


As the earliest disciples spread their message, their numbers grew and their influence spread. Since Jesus was no longer alive, personal encounter was impossible, and newcomers began analyze and to speculate. Who was Jesus, and what did he do? 

The beginnings of different opinions are found in the Christian Scripture itself. The earliest writings were the letters of Paul, beginning in the late 40s, and the last were in the first decade of the second century. Over this period of about 70 years, different locales developed different concepts of who Jesus was, and these differences are reflected in the biblical writing. The earliest gospel, Mark, for example, begins with the man Jesus who receives divine affirmation when he is baptized by John the Baptist. Both Luke and Matthew, written later, add virgin birth and resurrection narratives. Lastly we have the gospel of John, wherein we read “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Clearly, early Christians were struggling to understand who Jesus was, and story seems to always get better.

Different portraits of Jesus in the Bible were more nuance than outright conflict. As a consequence, later generations of Christians were free to develop their thinking in different directions, and it was that process that resulted in radically different positions. The serious controversies began in the second century and carried on for hundreds of years, focusing on two issues: how was Jesus related to “the Father”, and how were the humanity and divinity in Jesus put together?

There was a variety of answers. Beginning with the first issue, some argued that Jesus was simply a man, and not divine at all. At the opposite extreme, Jesus was seen as God walking around, not human at all, only appearing to be so. Another option asserted that Jesus started as a human and God was so pleased that he adopted Jesus into the godhead. Others believed that Jesus had the same will as God (monothelite) or the same essence (homoousion) or a similar essence (homoiousion). To us some of these distinctions seem trivial, but to the people of the early centuries, they were matters of life and death.

The divisiveness of the issues became so critical to the unity of the empire that Constantine ordered all the bishops to come together and agree on a solution. And so in 325 in Nicaea, the church gathered in council and proclaimed that Jesus was both fully human and fully God, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of the same substance, homoousion, as the Father. Any other formulation was declared heretical.

That creed, however, did not end the confusion. Even as Jesus was proclaimed to be fully God and fully human, others now asked how that was possible. How can someone be both human and god? Over a century of new controversy again forced an emperor to gather a council to settle that issue. The theological battles raged. Were the two natures mixed up in Jesus? Were they separated? There seemed to be no third alternative. The bishops came together at Chalcedon in 451 and essentially decided that there was no answer to the question, that although Jesus was fully God and fully human, those natures were neither mixed nor separated. Beyond that, they could not say. They could define what Jesus was not, but not who he was. 

The mystery was not solved and is still very much in the news, albeit in a variety of ways. One question quite simple is: What did he look like? In 2015 Popular Mechanics had a forensic expert utilize the tools of anthropology and biology to create an image of Jesus consistent with his actual time and place. Assuming that Jesus was comparable to other men, he was about 5’1” and weighed in at 110 pounds. His appearance was that of a laborer, muscular and swarthy, with dark skin, dark eyes, short to medium length curly black hair, a short scruffy beard and moustache.

But there is more at issue than physical appearance. Over the last twenty years or so, biblical scholars have embarked on a search for the historical Jesus that has at its disposal the full array of modern investigative tools and techniques from disciplines as varied as archaeology, sociological analysis and comparative culture. New tools, however, have not answered the question. Again, the answers are many, and at time conflicting. Some say he was a Zealot, and so he bonded with those who sought the overthrow of Rome. Others believe he was a wanderer, healing, teaching, and inspiring, who related to common folk outside the bounds of acceptable behavior. Or, he was a spirit man who enabled others to re-connect with the Spirit of God that surrounds us. He was a pacifist. No, he was willing to use violence. He believed that the end of time was just around the corner. No, he looked to an obtainable and peaceful and just future on earth. He died for your sins. He carried on an ancient wisdom tradition. He was a mystic.

Differing eyes see differing dimensions. The peasants of Latin America see a Jesus who liberates from oppression. Those who are prosperous see a Jesus who is favorable to those who succeed. Those who are gay see in Jesus’ bachelorhood a sign that he was gay. Feminist theology. Womanist theology. All these perspectives see something that was, no doubt, overlooked previously, and each broadens our understanding of who Jesus was. But the question “Who was Jesus?” still seeks an answer. Stay tuned. The next reflection will propose a new approach.

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