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The Life of Jesus : A Brief Assessment

   Introductory Comment: The following essay is an adaptation of the concluding section of my book Jesus After Two Thousand Years: What He Really Said and Did (London: SCM Press, 2000 and Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2001), pp. 686-693. Based on a translation from the original German by Dr. John Bowden, to whom I am duly grateful, the present text represents a revision I have made in collaboration with Tom Hall, whose diligent efforts are especially appreciated in view of his strong disagreement with several of my key conclusions. While the book remains a useful compendium for quick reference or for detailed study, the present brief sketch aims to transform the authentic words and actions of Jesus into a readable narrative.


    No doubt Jesusí gift for healing soon became widely known in Galilee. His cures of psychological and psychosomatic illnesses are the best attested of the New Testament ďmiracles.Ē At that time such afflictions were attributed to demonic possession, and since Satan was regarded as the chief of these evil spirits, these cures lent reality to the notion that Jesus was waging a successful battle against him. The report that he had seen Satan fall like lightning from heaven implies that he had become stronger than Satan himself, and thus represents an anticipation of the advent of Godís kingdom. That he could snatch people from the rule of the devil by providing healing and the forgiveness of sins shows that for him, sickness and sin were inseparably joined. Here again he resembles Paul, who could attribute an epidemic of debility, sickness, and even death in the Corinthian community in Corinth to the sinful misuse of the Eucharist.18

    According to Jesus, however, the kingdom of God meant not only liberation from sickness and other evils, but involved the establishment of Godís rule under the jurisdiction of Jesus and the Twelve. Underlying the latter notion was the ancient but delusory hope, that when God at last instituted his kingdom, he would also restore the ten tribes annihilated by the Assyrians seven hundred years previously. At the time of Jesus only the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained, but at the end of history, according to a promise attributed to Jesus, his twelve disciples would judge these twelve tribes. What higher prerogative than to sit beside Jesus among Godís elect in the Court of Heaven? Indeed the apostle Paul expressed a similar hope He called on the members of the Corinthian community not to go to law against one another, since they themselves would one-day judge angels.19

    Here we see directly into the hearts of a number of early Christians, no doubt including some members of the community gathered by Jesus. Their faith sprang not from reason or reflection, but the prospect of sharing in Godís rule. And this rule extended not only to human beings, but also to an entire cosmos that must be restored to the rightful order willed by God. Of course all this reflected a Jewish perspective, since it involved only the Jewish people, and focused on the New Jerusalem. Other peoples amounted to no more than neighbors or supernumeraries. Jesusí exalted status reflected the ardent hope that God would soon keep his promise. And the successes of his ministry subsequent to his departure from John the Baptist may well have convinced him that he must play the leading role in this final drama. Again the parallel with Paul is striking and perhaps illuminating: it was only a few years later that Paul became persuaded that he had been ordained to effect the incorporation of the Gentiles into the future kingdom of God.20

    The decisive actions of Jesusí career were molded by the unshakeable faith that it was his mission to interpret Godís law authoritatively in Godís name. And in general his interpretation can be perceived as based on an accentuation of the divine will. Thus he forbade divorce with an appeal to the goodness of Godís creation, in accordance with which the marriage of man and woman creates an indissoluble unity.21 He defined the commandment to love by the extreme demand to love oneís enemy.22 He forbade judging23 and swearing.24 Occasionally he proclaimed a sweeping retraction of the law Ė as for instance when he in effect declared the food laws irrelevant,25 and when he adduced human welfare as the purpose of the Sabbath.26 But anything that in the modern view would appear to be autonomy was grounded in heteronomy, in God enforcing his rule. Jesus could ordain this free yet radically conservative interpretation of the law only because he had received the authority to do so from the deity he lovingly addressed (as Paul did later,27) as Abba28 Ė a term connoting both intimacy and affection. Under such circumstances Jesus and his heavenly Father were practically one and the same, a notion that must have been highly offensive to his Jewish hearers.

    And although he drove out demons and expounded the law, Jesus was also a poet and wisdom teacher. He told intriguing tales of common scamps and deep-dyed villains and from their realistic estimations of the world drew morals for himself and his disciples. Indeed, his own life often resembled that of a picaresque hero, especially because of his itinerant mode of living; for having no income, he accepted the support of sympathizers and trusted in God. Embedded in some of his stories we find the kind of shrewd maxims one would expect from philosophers. In other parables he showed vividly how God will bring into being his kingdom: gently and yet at the same time irrevocably. Still others strikingly portray Godís attempts to reclaim the lost. Jesus provided living commentary for this lesson: he was often the guest of tax collectors and prostitutes. Some of the parables attributed to him contain a threatening tone: there will be judgment in the end, and God will destroy his enemies. Yet as the Beatitudes powerfully testify, he will also make good the fate of the poor, the hungry and those who weep.

    One may reasonably wonder how the timeless nature of Jesusí wisdom comports with those passages that indicate the expectation of an imminent end. Some scholars cut the knot and declare the first authentic and the other a later creation. That at least produces a Jesus whom we find easier to understand today. But that is probably too modern a solution. What we cannot reconcile, the first century mind might have harmonized with little difficulty. Paul offers a contemporary example of the accommodation of wisdom teaching and the anticipation of an imminent end. Paul fully expected to experience the coming of the Lord on the clouds of heaven and was obsessed with spreading the gospel throughout the Roman Empire before Jesusí return. Yet we find in his writings such timeless observations as the foolishness of human wisdom before God,29 and the magnificent hymn we find in 1 Corinthians 13 is a paean to a timeless love that precludes the calculation of an imminent end. This love is greater than hope (for the end) and greater also than faith (in Christ who first made possible the expectation of an imminent end). Surely then, Jesus could also have combined apocalyptic preaching, wisdom teaching, and divinely sanctioned ethical demands however contrary to modern logic that may seem. A consideration of the final days of his life suggests that the image of the approaching end may have by then become predominant.

    Jesus had experienced great success in Galilee, but the same call to which the crowds had responded now drew him to Jerusalem, where he must proclaim to the Jewish people and its leaders the need for repentance. Marching into the city surrounded by both men and women followers, he went to the Temple and dramatized both his criticism of the existing cult and his hope for the coming of a new Temple by the symbolic act of overturning the tables of some of the moneychangers and traders. The Jewish priesthood and aristocracy could not forgive him that, and the subsequent events bore little resemblance to the occasional clashes between Pharisees and Jesus in Galilee. There Jesus had received no more than insults; here, in a city swarming with Passover celebrants, the authorities were in deadly earnest. Jesus was falsely labeled as a would-be king of the Jews, and Pilate gave him short shrift. Evidently his disciples were quite unprepared for this, for they all fled. The crucified Jesus was the victim of a criminal conspiracy: he suffered for deeds he had never attempted and aspirations he would never have countenanced. Although this unforeseen outcome seemed to repudiate all that he had told his disciples and the Jewish people, he probably did not perceive it that way. Once again a look at Paul helps: when some members of his community began to die and Jesus failed to return as soon as the Apostle had promised, Paul did not give up his faith, but proclaimed it all the more strongly. He announced that whether he lived or died, he belonged to the ďLordĒ. In all likelihood that is how Jesus thought and felt on the cross, surrendering himself to his Father. True faith can never be refuted by reality, let alone by arguments.

    Of course, the story of Jesusí life must include the accounts of post-mortem events, since except for these extraordinary reports, all knowledge about him would no doubt have ceased long ago. In their eagerness to exalt his memory, his disciples began by making Jesus the Jew into an enigma of the first order. Soon after his death they claimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead and would come again on the clouds of heaven as Son of God, as Savior, as Christ, as the Son of man. Even more important, a number of his followers drove out demons in his name and performed miracles similar to his. Some even claimed to speak on behalf of the risen Jesus and, ostensibly filled with the Holy Spirit, asserted the authority to deal with problems in their communities. The apostle Paul, the erstwhile persecutor of Jesusí followers whose reported encounter with the risen Christ resulted in his conversion, provided the relentless will that energized the mission to the Gentiles. With a genius for organization and an indomitable dedication to his calling, he became the prime example of this phenomenon.

    After the Jewish rebellion of 66-70 C.E. and the resulting destruction of Jerusalem, there followed a period of unparalleled confusion, out of which emerged a church consisting almost exclusively of Gentiles, who without delay branded their risen Lordís fellow Jews as murderers of God. The flood of bizarre interpretations that began with the reported resurrection of Jesus was unstoppable. Everywhere the constraints of reason that had reined in religious pretensions to infallibility began to give way. According to evangelists and preachers alike, the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) provided numerous cases in which God had alluded to Christ and announced his coming. Indeed Christ had been at Godís side when the world was created. As if the assassination of Jesus the authoritative exorcist, the expounder of the law, the prophet, the poet and the wisdom teacher at the hands of a political cabal were not tragedy enough, the long history of misinterpretation and misuse of his memory and message to benefit individual and sectarian interests is a greater and even more shameful one.

    Nevertheless a vital question remains: Once the ecclesiastical trappings and distortions are recognized as a shameless charade, what can Jesus mean in todayís world? For me Jesus is a sympathetic, original figure, a man of humor and wit at whom I sometimes chuckle. Yet one cannot doubt the earnest dedication that characterized his mission to those on the periphery of the Jewish society of his day. Jesus is the paradigm of one who will not be deterred from following a chosen path to the end; but his interpretation of the law, which both relaxed and intensified the essence of Torah, makes him too serious for me. Nor can I revere an enthusiasm that repudiates reason, or esteem the proclaimed kingdom of God that has failed to materialize. Finally, in his confident dialogue with God, Jesus seems almost delusional; like so many religious people he errs in seeing himself at the center of the world.

    Therefore the unity of Jesusí message and his integrity as a person remain problematical, and we cannot expect to build upon the sand of uncertainty solid answers to the haunting challenges of our world.

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