Tom Gilson

Jesus: Who Was He, Really?

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series What Kind of Man Was Jesus?

Series: What Kind of Man Was Jesus?

There sure are a lot of versions of Jesus out there. Can we know the real Jesus? How?

It’s almost embarrassing–yet not the least bit surprising–how many different views of him the world offers. Dallas Willard writes in Divine Conspiracy of one such opinion (p. 134),

Far too often [Jesus] is regarded as hardly conscious. He is looked on as a mere icon, a wraithlike semblance of a man, fit for the role of sacrificial lamb or alienated social critic, perhaps, but little more.

A well-known “scholarly” picture has him wandering the hills of Palestine, deeply confused about who he was and even about crucial points in his basic topic, the kingdom of the heavens. From time to time he perhaps utters disconnected though profound and vaguely radical irrelevancies, now obscurely preserved in our Gospels.

That’s one picture. There are others:

  • To many political liberals, and especially to many Latin American theologians in the 20th century, Jesus was above all one who came to free the oppressed, often by redistributing wealth but also by showing a new vision of justice.
  • To Mennonites, Jesus was a pacifist. (To many conservative American Christians, his way supports a strong defense.)
  • To the Muslims, he was a great prophet.
  • To followers of the Bahá’í faith, he was one of the many prophets, one of many manifestations of God who “have the same metaphysical nature and the same spiritual stature.”
  • Various cults – Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unification Church followers, members of “The Way” (now defunct? I haven’t heard much of it lately), and others – accord him various levels of high prominence but deny his full unique godhood in the classic Christian sense.
  • Whatever unity Unitarian-Universalists may believe in, there is no unity regarding their views of Jesus. Any view seems to be okay; though one Unitarian Universalist pastor once remarked to me that “The resurrection is a goofy doctrine.” (My response: that’s not the issue. The question is, “did it happen?”)
  • New agers likewise have multiple views of Jesus, but tend to emphasize his love, his sensitivity, and above all his non-judgmentalness; and to call on him in support of their belief that everything is going to be just fine for everyone, especially if we could just realize we’re all really on the same path after all (see one example here).
  • To at least one Buddhist, his true significance is hard to pin down. The one thing that’s clear is that it’s both appalling and repugnant to suggest he is the only way to God.
  • Secularists consider him an interesting and probably important historical figure, whose actual significance as an individual (if he even existed) has been blown out of all proportion by his followers, many of whom now are rather annoying in their insistence that Jesus really matters.
  • Many millions of us believe he is the Divine Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity, God with us, the sinless and perfect teacher and example, God’s own self-sacrifice for our sins, risen from the dead, now ruling in the heavens and coming back to claim and manifest his rule over all creation; the one who loves all, the one who rescues from sin and death any who will let themselves be so rescued. Given half a chance we would go on with even longer descriptions of his greatness and glory.

Even 2000 years later, he cannot be ignored. His influence isn’t going away. Everyone who knows about him has to make sense of him. This is certainly the reason you find so many versions of Jesus: everyone wants him on their side. In my observations it appears that he gets remade constantly into the image of whoever wants to claim him on their side. He’s a conservative, he’s a liberal, depending on whether you yourself are conservative or liberal.

Is there a way to sort out who he was, really? Is there a way to know the real Jesus, not one molded into our favored version? If there was some such method it would have to meet at least these standards:

  • Absolute reliance on the primary sources. We know nothing reliably of him except what is in the Bible, especially the New Testament. Apart from that, every view of Jesus is pure fabrication.
  • Attention to context: Jesus lived in a particular setting: a Jew among firmly monotheistic Jews, many of whom gave great credence to their Scriptures, including its prophecies of a Messiah. He lived in a land oppressed by an unwelcome occupying army, where certain religious leaders became his enemies.
  • Great care given to guard against making Jesus a member of our own party.

I believe these standards can be satisfactorily met. Take the third one, for example. While I don’t believe in a Hegelian dialectic truth – we do not create new truths, about Jesus in particular, through dialogue – I certainly recognize the value of a kind of dialectic in how we interpret truth. Among people who take Jesus Christ and the original documents seriously, there are definite cultural and geographical variations. As C.S. Lewis reminded us, these variations cut across time. We have to test our views in relation to each other’s views. Philip Jenkins’ work on The Next Christendom (review) shows that we in the West ought to be learning from Christians in the South and East.

Ought we even to take the original documents seriously, though? Well, why not? Don’t we usually take source documents seriously? What is it about these, the New Testament biographies, history, and letters, that would lead us to treat them any differently? Well, of course they make some unusual claims. And of course they are controversial. As documents, though, it is more than well established that they stand out far, far above others in their attestation and reliability (see two very brief sources here and here). Not to mention that they have changed the world!

In the context of his time, most of the above listed options regarding Jesus are simply impossible. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they are just wrong, and necessarily so. Jesus could not be an impersonal God-force; the Jewish religion and culture would have none of that sort of thing, and he gave no indication of being that sort of thing. For the same reason he could not have been one of many equally valid manifestations of God. He couldn’t have been a completely non-judgmental teacher of love who only wanted everyone to get along: they wouldn’t have killed him for that, would they? And the picture Willard presented of an incompetent, confused rambling teacher seems hardly likely for the founder of the world’s most largest and most enduring social movement!

To make the record clear (and to avoid the N.T. Wright trap): I am thoroughly committed to the trustworthiness of the documentary record–also known as the Bible. My own concern is not whether it can be trusted, but what it takes for us to be trustworthy ourselves in the way we understand it. We have more we can count on, of course, than just comparing one opinion with another. We have God who intends to communicate, whom we can trust to be successful in doing so. He promised guidance by the Holy Spirit.

But I’m interested to know, what do you think? Who was Jesus, really?

Series Navigation (What Kind of Man Was Jesus?):<<< Jesus: Full of Grace and TruthAwesome Christ >>>
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5 thoughts on “Jesus: Who Was He, Really?

  1. You wrote:

    – Great care given to guard against making Jesus a member of our own party.

    But isnt it what christians have dones? There are dozens (maybe hundreds) of different Christian religions invented or promoted by men to become rich or powerfull and to control other men.

    To name a few: The Roman emperors, Henry VIII king of England, the German princes backing Luther, the catholic kings of Europe. Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy….

    They all share the name of Jesus and the simple image of a cross which makes people believe that this trademark is somehow valid.

    If Jesus was really the one way to god and god is so true and powerfull then it would be obvious to the whole mankind. It is obvious we need air to breath and water and food to survive, it is not obvious Jesus is lord. So it cannot be true.

  2. If Jesus was really the one way to [G]od and [G]od is so true and powerfull then it would be obvious to the whole mankind. It is obvious we need air to breath and water and food to survive, it is not obvious Jesus is lord. So it cannot be true.

    (See here regarding the upper case G.)

    Emilio, this is an interesting and important point you raise. It is not obvious to all that Jesus is Lord, that is certain. But does it follow that it cannot be true? There are many things we need to survive besides air and water and (generally speaking) food. It was not obvious to British sailors they needed vitamin C to survive, thus they developed scurvy.

    But perhaps that’s a trivial analogy, since God’s necessity is completely all-encompassing. Our need for him is much more closely parallel to our need for air.

    Christian theology recognizes what you have said. I think the first thing to know is that while God is necessary for life, belief in God is only necessary to a certain kind of life, i.e, the strong, thriving, abundant, and eternal life that God promises for those who believe in him. Every person, indeed every living thing on this planet, draws life from God, whether they know it or not. Belief in God enables us to connect to the true source of life in a way that transcends and transforms ordinary human living.

    But shouldn’t even that more obvious? God has not deemed that it should be that way. It would violate the major purpose for which he created us, which is to live in a freely chosen attitude and state of loving trust toward him. If he were as obvious now as air is, we would not choose him freely, any more than we decide whether we like the idea of breathing or not.

  3. Hello Tom,

    I am not denying what you say about God. I believe God is obvious everywhere you just have to look at everything around us and you see God. One just has to observe what lies behind many events happening in one’s life and may see God.

    I believe it is obvious, and in fact so obvious that a majority of people have a tendency to believe in God (even though the may be negative reasons leading to that belief).

    But it is neither obvious that Jesus is God, nor that Buddah is or Allah or Jehovah are. If any of the thousands of religions invented by men were right…Then it would be obvious.

    To go further on my critics about the belief in Jesus, but I can develop similar critics on Allah or Moses. I think that if God really sent his son on earth, that son would have had to accomplish better miracles than multiplying a few loafs of bread and healing a blind. Come on, you arrive on earth as the son of god and you are not able to solve the major problems of that time? You are not able to leave a message to the future generations about how the world will evolve (the revolution of electricity, oil, atoms and the risks humanity will face).Your message is so unclear that all your faithful followers write Gospels with so many differences ( and I am only talking about the ones from the new testament chosen by the Roman empire, not the apocryph ones they wanted to destroy).
    Look at the power of the creation. Do you really think someone that powerful who wants to send us a sign will do it in such a weak way, at times when the population was hundreds of time smaller than today and when it cannot be proven that his message is true.

    Really this is a joke! No one really looking at this story with an open mind can believe in it.

  4. I’ve been really busy…

    Emilio, much of the grandeur of Jesus is revealed in the way he humbled himself. See, for example, Philippians 2:1-11. He showed that his character is about more than power, more than flashiness; he came as a servant (Mark 10:45). His love was deep enough for him to connect with us on our own level. As a human he showed us how to live a fully human life; and as a human, he paid the sacrifice for humans’ sins.

    He was himself the sign, sent in a way that those who would receive it could receive it, and those who would reject it could reject it. For him to reveal himself in the power you have supposed he would use would deny every person the ability to receive him freely; and that freedom is something God intended to be our birthright.

    To believe in Jesus, compared to founders or gods of other religions, is a matter of seeing his character as portrayed in the source documents, the Bible; to know that they are credible historically; to understand philosophically how he satisfies human questions; and to experience a relationship with him through faith and his freely given gift of life. I can perhaps develop those thoughts further at another time.

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