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Who Was He, Anyway?

22 April 2009

Have you ever tried to answer the question, “who was Jesus?”


It’s not as easy as it sounds.  Not by a long shot.  Not if we want to answer more questions than we raise, anyway.


One of the problems with reading N. T. Wright is that he never lets up the pressure on those of us who have been comfortable with the poorly-thought-out, overly simplistic, cheap, implausible answers to the kinds of serious questions that Christianity’s bold claims inevitably elicit from the thoughtful pagan who wants to give the Bible a fair hearing.  “Who was Jesus?” is one such question.

Was he an anti-Roman revolutionary?  A wandering Cynic moralist?  A Jewish rabbi with some interesting takes?  A Pharisee with subversive tendencies?  An ordinary Hebrew with a reformer’s chip on his shoulder?  A figment of imagination?


To say he was the “son of God” begs the question.  “Son of God” is not a category that adds to our understanding; for an agnostic the concept of “god” just confuses the issue.  We can’t start with “God” as a presupposition.

“Messiah” doesn’t help us, either, unless we first do the hard, painstaking work of describing first-century Judaism.  (That’s exactly what Wright does, by the way, in the first volume, The New Testament and the People of God.  Pack a lunch.)

So if we want to put Jesus into an accessible context, we’ve got to use categories that make sense, which is to say, categories that fit the (public!) historical record without distorting it beyond comprehension.


I was taking “anti-Roman revolutionary” for a test drive over lunch today, recalling a conversation our men’s Bible study group had this past Tuesday morning.  


So here’s a poor, Galilean carpenter who has walked down to the Jordan Valley to encounter a funky cat named John.  John smelled bad, ate insects, wore animal skins, and pretty well stayed out in the desert country shouting epithets at curious onlookers, epithets like (borrowing McGuiggan’s take) “you’re a bunch of snakes.”  But people are starting to notice, starting to put two and two together.  Somebody must have recalled the story of his elderly father, Zechariah, and that little episode where Zechariah lost his voice for a few months while Elizabeth was pregnant.

Now, here’s Jesus wandering out to see him…and to be baptized by him.  Baptism?  Hmmm.  Looks from here like a rite of membership.  But membership in what, precisely?


Depending on which account you believe – see the previous blog post on John vs. the Synoptics – the next thing we notice about John is that he’s got a couple of Galilean disciples hanging around him, a guy named Andrew who fishes for a living, and somebody else whose name we just can’t place.  Jesus walks by the three of them, and John says something.  Jesus stops; a conversation ensues; and “Andrew” runs off for a few minutes, returning with another fellow that looks a lot like him.  Yes, that’s Simon Peter, Andrew’s brother and business partner, another poor fisherman.  The two of them leave John and walk off with Jesus.

Next thing we know, there are four fishermen following Jesus, including two notorious firebrands – James and John Bar-Zebedee – Boanerges, the “sons of thunder.”  They’ve all got nothing to lose, I guess…except that Peter’s married, isn’t he?  And aren’t they all from Capernaum-by-the-Lake?  What are they doing down here in the Jordan Valley?  

Before long, the band has grown to a baker’s dozen.  One of ’em is a guerrilla named Simon, already on record for his opposition to Rome.  Another is Judas, who looks oddly like those terrorists who hang out in the cliffs of Mt. Seir. 


And then there’s this guy who doesn’t fit, who’s dressed a little better than the rest.  His name’s Matthew.  He works for Rome, or for Herod’s family at least.  Does pretty well for himself, too, by all appearances.


When it was just a bunch of fishermen and a desert rat, this little cohort was worth a chuckle but not much more.  Jesus appears to have expanded his scope a little bit, though, and now he’s making inroads among Rome’s imperial apparatus.   Something’s up, that’s for sure.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 April 2009 11:28 pm

    we are actually at a very small congregation in abilene. Hope church of Christ. Our daughter and son in law worked for them while Justin got his masters. Justin was the youth minister. We fell in love with the people and daniel is one of the 4 elders. how are you??

  2. 24 April 2009 12:13 pm

    That’ll preach!


  3. 24 April 2009 3:02 pm

    Perhaps, Coop, but HOW? How does one preach, in the classical sense, from such a deep reservoir of uncertainty? (I think I know what you’re going to say, and if I’m right, you won’t have answered the first question. *chuckle*)


  4. 24 April 2009 3:03 pm

    Cathie, how long have y’all lived in Abilene? qb

  5. 24 April 2009 5:27 pm


    My answer to the first question you ask–“Have you ever tried to answer the question, “who was Jesus?””–is Yes. I have tried over and over but my answers have always been proved provisional. Which is why I am “Christ-haunted.” (John 8:25ff speaks to that for me.)

    One preaches from where one is. Your post proclaims that. I don’t think anyone can do more than that. Our words and perspectives are reshaped as Paul says, “By the renewal of your (plural) mind.”


  6. 27 April 2009 11:10 am

    One question as I contemplate the introductory portion of your “Gospel”: what on earth is going on in God’s name?


    P.S. Yours, on second and third thought, is an excellent reflection.

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