Jesus: Who Was He, Really?

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?