Patriotism. Allegiance. Dissent. Loyalty. Conscience. These are loaded words, often meaning radically different things to different people. How should we honor the flag? How should […]
Ryan Ahlgrim is pastor at First Mennonite Church in Richmond, Virginia.
First, most Christians do not know what “Son of God” means. Many think it means that Jesus is the offspring of God—a kind of half-human, half-divine hybrid. Or they think Jesus was God disguised as a human being during his earthly ministry—a sort of pretend human. Neither of these notions are what the New Testament writers meant when they called Jesus the Son of God.
Second, a growing number of people don’t care what Christians or the New Testament call Jesus anyway. They want to know who the “real” Jesus was, unfiltered by the faith of the later church. Might he have been a violent revolutionary, or a teacher of esoteric wisdom, or a feminist, or secretly married or gay? Might he be a pure myth, a symbolic figure who never existed at all? In a culture that is skeptical of all sources of authority, the public has actually become more gullible, willing to believe anything about Jesus—whatever tickles us most.
Let’s start with what the professional historians say. Historians begin by looking for the most reliable sources of information and analyzing that information. In the case of Jesus, the very earliest information about him comes from some letters Paul of Tarsus wrote about 20 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Unfortunately, apart from a few teachings, Paul doesn’t say much about Jesus’ ministry.
The next oldest sources of information are the four gospels in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Mark was probably written in the year AD 70, about 40 years after Jesus’ ministry. Matthew and Luke were probably written at least 10-20 years later. And John was probably written around the year 100. Other gospels about Jesus were written in the second century, but except for a collection of sayings known as the Gospel of Thomas, historians are mostly agreed that these later gospels are pure entertainment and contain no historically reliable information about Jesus.
Two ancient historians at the end of the first century provide confirmation for a couple of important pieces of information asserted by Paul and the four gospels. Tacitus, a Roman historian, reports that Jesus was crucified by the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, during the reign of the emperor Tiberius. Josephus, a Jewish historian, records that Jesus was a popular teacher crucified by the Romans, and that Jesus’ brother James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem.
There are no other records about Jesus from the first century, so that leaves the four gospels as our primary sources of information about him. In order to evaluate these sources, historians use various historical criteria and ask certain questions, such as: Are there contradictions within or between different accounts? Are people presented as acting in realistic ways? Is the information consistent with what we know about the culture and events of early first century Palestine? Are there claims made that were embarrassing to the later church? Are there sayings or events that are recorded by more than one independent source? Do certain events or sayings help explain how Jesus came to be crucified by the Romans?
Through careful examination, historians have noticed inconsistencies among these gospels. In particular, John is not consistent with the first three. He records no parables, no exorcisms and almost no sayings about the coming kingdom of God; he also places key events on a different timeline. Matthew, Mark, and Luke also contain some glaring inconsistencies, but their word-for-word agreements are so numerous that most historians think Matthew and Luke copied off of Mark and off of another source that has been lost.
As historians sift through all of the data, a consistent picture of Jesus begins to emerge that has a good chance of being historically reliable: Jesus grew up in the small village of Nazareth in Galilee in the first quarter of the first century; he joined John the Baptist’s revival movement and was baptized by him; he then began his own itinerant ministry to the villages near Lake Galilee, proclaiming the coming of God’s reign on earth and telling people to take radical action to get ready for it; he chose 12 followers to form an inner circle, symbolizing the re-establishment of Israel; he offered healings and exorcisms as a sign of God’s coming reign; he broke through social and purity barriers by eating with outcasts; he included women among his followers; he intensified Moses’ moral laws while subordinating rituals and some Sabbath regulations; he preferred speaking in metaphors and parables; he taught freedom from worries and possessions, trust in God, and love for everyone, including enemies; he advocated forgiveness and reconciliation; he prayed to God saying, “Abba”—a term of striking intimacy; he protested in the Jerusalem temple, symbolically enacting its coming destruction; he was arrested for sedition; he was crucified by the Romans; shortly thereafter, his core followers proclaimed he was raised from the dead and had commissioned them to announce his vindication as the messiah.
Although historians doubt that Jesus said and did some of the things attributed to him (especially in John’s Gospel), the consensus above is the same general outline we find in the first three gospels. Indeed, the gospels capture the personality and influence of Jesus in a more full and authentic way than any reconstruction by historians. The most “real” Jesus is the one we meet in the gospels.
So now we have a fairly reliable sense of the kinds of things Jesus said and did. But that still does not answer, “Who is Jesus?” Is he a deluded end-or-the world fanatic who we should largely ignore? Is he an inspirational teacher who is helpful for private guidance but useless for world politics? Is he a social revolutionary who lives in our hearts—and nowhere else? Or is he something else?
No, not half-human and half-divine. No, not God pretending to be human. Jesus was a real and full human being, like the rest of us; but he was uniquely filled with God’s Spirit. He was so filled with God’s Spirit that he embodied the presence and character of God. “Son of God” is the New Testament writers’ way of saying he reflected God and represented God. He is God’s creative Word, God’s self-expression, enfleshed in a human being. Do you want to see what God’s grace and acceptance look like? Look at Jesus at his table fellowship. Do you want to see what God is willing to do to save us from our own self-centeredness and self-destruction? Look at Jesus on the cross.
But just as importantly, look at how Jesus represents our humanity. Look at how he was tempted and tested. Look at how he cried in the Garden of Gethsemane and begged God not to let him be crucified. Look at how he came to the resolution: “Yet, not my will, but your will be done.” He is us, but he is us with faith. He is us with full obedience to the radical, self-giving love of God. The earliest Christians affirmed that God raised him from the dead, not because he was God, but because he was obedient to God. He was willing to be God’s servant, and our servant. He was the first complete human being—the kind of human being we are all meant to be. Jesus is the great paradox: fully reflecting God because he accepted being fully human. Now, as the risen Lord of all, he is indeed one with God.
Is this who Jesus is? This question is answered by each person’s own encounter with him. Read about him. Walk with him. Participate in his “body”—the church—as it continues to do his ministry by his Spirit in this world. Then you decide who he is.
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