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Mahlon H. Smith
Rutgers University

There are not two Jesuses --
one pre-Easter and another post-Easter,
one earthly and another heavenly,
one with a physical and another with a spiritual body.
There is only one Jesus, the historical Jesus
who incarnated the Jewish God of justice for a believing community
committed to continuing such incarnation ever afterward.
-- J. Dominic Crossan/1/

Christianity’s claims regarding Jesus have never depended solely on Jesus’ own testimony
regarding himself, let alone its accessibility or otherwise.
On the other hand, a complete discontinuity
 between Jesus’ own self-assertions and the subsequent claims made about him
would constitute a fatal flaw
 at the foundation of the whole superstructure of subsequent christology,
not least the doctrine of the incarnation.
-- James D. G. Dunn /2/

"Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I tell you?"
-- Luke 6:46



1.1. Dialectic.

Every dialog has at least two sides. In the case of Jesus studies that can be multiplied by a factor of 1010.  Yet the fundamental issue has always been the question of the relationship of the pre-crucified Jesus to everything that developed thereafter.  From the first claims of his resurrection there has been a dogmatic insistence on continuity: the Jesus who died is the person who has been raised.  It is his name, his achievement, his triumph that continues to be affirmed and celebrated by all who claim to be his spiritual heirs.  Yet, again from the first, there has been just as strong an emphasis on discontinuity.  Resurrection always involves transformation (1 Cor 15:35-50): the Jesus that was raised no longer appears as he once did.  Thus, there is a fundamental historical dialectic built into all discussion of Jesus.  He has gone from rags to riches, from poverty to power, from mortality to immortality.  Not only for those who believe in him, but in the actual social and cultural history of the world.

1.2. Viewpoint.

Due to the assertion that this is one and the same person, reflection on both conditions belong to a single area of studies.  That is why books on the historical Jesus in libraries that use the Library of Congress system may be found shelved under “christology” rather than “history.”  That arrangement reflects the fact that for the past 1970 years most of what has been written about Jesus presupposes that what actually happened during his fleshly existence was only a passing phase and that what really matters is the status of his person for all time.  The historical before has been viewed as a mere prelude to the eternal ever after -- except for those few studies that have concluded that the historical Jesus has absolutely no lasting significance.

1.3. Redirection.

My proposal is that it is high time for the historical dialectic of christology to be reversed.  It is time to interpret both the person of Jesus and his eternal significance for history primarily in terms of what he actually said and did before he was crucified rather than how he came to be viewed thereafter. Since this calls for a redirection of two millennia of theological reflection and debate, the fundamental question is: why?  To make a case for the need to rethink fundamental assumptions one has to show where and why the discussion got off track.  My suggestion is that that point of deviation occurred so close to the foundation of Christian reflection that a christology that is truly indebted to Jesus himself is possible only if its basic presuppositions are restructured from the ground up, or else the whole superstructure is destined to collapse.

(a) Valuable Mistakes. While there is much that has been said or written about Jesus in the past that was a mistake (including many of my own pronouncements),  as a historian I do not believe that we benefit by simply consigning those mistakes to oblivion or by censoring those who made them. For without awareness of the outcome of any experiment, one is apt to repeat the problems of prior history.  The only way to recover the historical Jesus’ viewpoint is to distinguish it from that of those who thought him worth remembering.  The inadequacies of the visions of others have the value of alerting us to avoid potential problems in our own perceptions.  The inadequacies of our own proposals will have the value of pointing out to others -- and hopefully to ourselves -- what still needs repair.  The sole alternative is to stop talking about Jesus altogether.

(b) Fidelity. Since silence is not likely to stop others from continuing to debate the issue of Jesus’ status within and beyond all history, I enter this discussion as one who thinks that true fidelity to Jesus is of utmost importance, not just to me personally but to all who invoke his name or claim him to be ‘lord.’  Before suggesting what we need to do to achieve this fidelity in describing Jesus, however, we have to recognize what we need to undo.



2.1. Historical persona.

It has become a commonplace to categorize Christianity as a ‘historical religion’ because of its preoccupation with the person known to history as Jesus Christ.  Many of the fundamental claims of Christian theology stand or fall on the issue of Jesus’ historical existence and its significance for other humans throughout history.  Yet, as any student of the history of Christianity knows, Jesus himself has not always been interpreted primarily as a historical person, conditioned by and interacting with a unique confluence of verifiable cultural circumstances.  While the impact that the figure of Jesus made upon subsequent human history is undeniable, attention to the eternal theological significance of what happened to him has overshadowed the significance of anything he said or did within his lifetime or even his historical persona itself -- i.e., the characteristic traits of a concrete individual that enable to him to be distinguished from all others.

(a) From storytelling to research. From a very early date, to be sure, stories about Jesus played an important role in shaping the Christian imagination.  But storytelling is not itself history./3/   Since prehistoric times there have been story-tellers adept at presenting vivid and even gripping tales involving the interaction of completely fictional characters in situations that never actually happened.  Classic myths and modern fantasies from Homer to Star Wars have amply demonstrated the ability of a good story to capture the imaginations of millions and even shape whole cultures. Such stories presuppose the power of some super-human Force.  The forces that shape history, on the other hand, are often far less dramatic or uplifting; and an accurate reading usually requires painstaking research. The primary role of historical research is to constrain rather than entertain flights of the human imagination, to keep one’s mind firmly planted on solid ground rather than send it to venture across a wine-dark sea or prepare it for a leap of faith into hyper-space.

(b) From passive to passing creation. Fictional heroes like Odysseus or Luke Skywalker are passive creations, shaped by the active imaginations of story-teller and audience.  Historical figures, on the other hand, have a creative role in shaping their own stories by altering the world that others would have imagined without them.  It is the direction and duration of this creative energy that is crucial. A truly historical person, no matter how important, is always a passing force in the inevitable kaleidoscopic transformations that the space-time continuum imposes upon the social development of the human species. The things that s/he said or did may impact the minds and lives of millions for aeons thereafter. Yet that person’s creative role ends with a last breath. And that chapter in history is usually closed with interment. So, if Jesus is to be regarded as a real historical person, then his creative contribution to human history has to be limited to the impact of his interaction with others between birth and death, both on them and on subsequent generations.  The fact that Jesus’ burial was never the final chapter in the story told by his supporters is a clear sign that his life has been interpreted in a dimension other than history.

2.2. Problematic logic.

In accepting Paul’s use of botanical germination as an analogy to explain the kerygmatic claim of Jesus’ resurrection to scientifically sophisticated Greeks (1 Cor 15:36-37), Dominic Crossan recently wrote:

From seed to grain is a combination of something absolutely the same and yet totally different. So too with resurrection.  It is the same Jesus, the one and only historical Jesus of the late 20s in his Jewish homeland, but now untrammeled by time and place, language and proximity. It is the one and only Jesus, absolutely the same, absolutely different./4/

While these lines are powerful inspirational rhetoric, they are problematic in logic and deficient in historical analysis. For historical entities are always trammeled by time and place. Yet, like the Pauline metaphor that inspired it, Crossan’s description of resurrection above provides an excellent illustration of Jesus’ early metamorphosis into a person beyond any historical process within this world.

(a) Individuality and generation. Like Paul’s grains of wheat, all humans everywhere share certain common generic traits; yet each historical individual is distinguishable from all others of its genus at least by its appearance at a different point in the space-time continuum.  The historical Jesus, moreover, is -- or rather was -- an individual rather than a genus; and individuals always display characteristics that differentiate them from other members of their own family.  Distinctive aspects of this individual’s life and death planted seeds that germinated in the minds and lives of other individuals whose personal traits and biographies remained historically distinguishable from his own.  No matter how perfectly those seeds -- both word and deed -- preserved the unique DNA of Jesus’ persona, it was not the same historical individual who was generated in those who digested and developed them.

(b) Tracing distinctive traits. Paul is quite correct in stressing that what was sown -- by Jesus as by any other historical person -- is not identical with what was produced in the community that proclaimed his resurrection. The “one and only historical Jesus of the late 20s” died and (perhaps) was buried in his “Jewish homeland.”  The Jesus who was subsequently raised in the imaginations and activity of his comrades and later admirers bore features that are not traceable to the genetic code and spirit of the person whose name they celebrated. That is precisely why the quest of the historical Jesus always has to focus on separating the characteristic seeds that were sown by this particular Palestinian Jew prior to Passover in 30 CE from all that sprouted later and elsewhere.  Whether the genetic mutations between the historical Jesus and the persona projected by subsequent christology are extensive enough to constitute a “fatal flaw” for Christian claims of historical continuity depends entirely on whether that christology is attuned to instructions generated by Jesus himself.

2.3. Praise as forgetfulness.

From earliest days the tendency of partisans to celebrate Jesus projected glorified images that were not only larger than one human life but transcended the spatial and temporal limits that circumscribe every human existence. Christian preachers and writers put no historical reins upon their rhetoric exalting Jesus’ reputation and role in the history of the cosmos./5/

Since there were no surviving portraits of Jesus by disinterested contemporary observers, throughout subsequent history it has been primarily this enthusiastic poetry of praise invoked in communal worship that has formed the impressions of Jesus in the minds of most of those who never knew him in the flesh.  Difficult features of the historical Galilean’s life that were not regarded as worthy of praise or worship were generally overlooked and soon all but forgotten.

(a) Cosmic ruler or construction worker. Unfortunately, such unqualified praise of Jesus has historically contributed as much to social oppression as to justice.  Primitive Christian celebration of Jesus’ paradoxical exaltation to cosmic primacy created the awesome image of Christ the king: a victorious warrior who ruthlessly subdues all enemies./6/ Rather than serve as originally intended, as an icon for championship of those who had no other champions, this representation of Jesus has inspired Christian leaders -- ecclesiastical as well as secular -- to devote themselves to waging wars of conquest: from crusades against the “infidel” to subjugation, conversion and exploitation of “heathen” native populations around the globe, to contemporary blood feuds between fellow Christians. Overlooked, if not completely lost, in all of this devotion was the paradoxical wisdom of the unemployed construction-worker who, though himself a victim of military oppression, counseled fellow Israelites: “Love your enemies” (Matt 5:44//Luke 6:27,35).

(1) Psychology of devotion. Despite Crossan’s statement cited in the epigraph to this paper, even from the beginnings of Christianity it has not been the historical man Jesus who really attracted the devotion of most fervent partisans./7/  It has rather been the aura of a super-historical colossus who transcends time: the right hand agent of the Creator who from the very beginning ruled all creation and at whose feet the whole human species is destined to bow in the end.  From the Pauline Christ hymns to the Orthodox Pantocrator to Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment and Handel’s Messiah this awe-inspiring Christ so dominated the rhetoric and artistic expressions of Christian worship that it is little wonder that only a dozen years ago the religion editor of TIME magazine concluded his condescending dismissal of current historical Jesus scholarship with these words:

...believers do care about the historical Jesus and urgently want him to square with the figure they know through faith.  They are not likely to be stirred by the less-than-robust Jesuses resulting from higher criticism... Even a clearer, more traditional Jesus of history is inadequate if he does not evoke spiritual awe./8/

While the logic of these lines is easily faulted, their insight into the psychology of popular devotion is (unfortunately) very perceptive.  The quest for personal inspiration often has a determining effect upon what people are prepared to recognize as true.  True believers always want their hero to manifest those qualities that they themselves regard as robust.  Hence, we all have a hard time accepting historical evidence that an individual we idolize -- be it a preacher, a teacher, a star or a president -- does not quite square with the figure we first believed him (or her) to be.  So, if the Jesus of history fails to fit one’s a priori model of a worthy leader -- not to mention a savior --, there are two easy courses of action.  One can always ignore or deny those historical discrepancies and continue to proclaim him to be the person one always believed he was; or one can recognize his inadequacies and look for another who would be a closer match. But in either case it is an ahistorical image that drives one’s quest, like a vision of the elusive Holy Grail, whose existence can be believed but never demonstrated.

(2) Modified ideals. There is, of course, another possible reaction to the discovery that one’s hero has clay feet.  But it is more difficult, since it involves placing loyalty to a concrete historical person above adherence to an abstract ideal.  That is to modify one’s ideal model to fit the characteristics of the person to whom one is devoted.  This is easier to do with someone one has come to know and trust.  Parents do it all the time with their children.  To some extent this is what early Christians did in the face of the inescapable facts that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was crucified in Jerusalem.  Though for many Jews this was enough evidence that Jesus was not the hero they sought, for some these discrepancies from traditional heroic models could not destroy their faith in him./9/  Similarly, for modern scholars who have devoted their lives to Jesus research, the discovery that there is no firm evidence that the historical Jesus claimed to be either the Messiah or the unique Son of God or that he literally was born of a virgin or walked on water has not lessened but, paradoxically, only intensified interest in getting to know him better./10/  To that extent, at least, Crossan is correct in claiming that both before and after Easter the historical Jesus is one and the same.  But for others, whose interest in Jesus rests primarily on such extraordinary claims and stories, and who have not been gripped by the voice and logic of the historical man himself, these discoveries can be so threatening that they are quick to berate and even seek to silence anyone who questions the historical accuracy of the web of propaganda woven by two millennia of Christian devotion and public relations./11/

(3) Accepting historical parameters. The reaction from Christian conservatives to Crossan’s own massive historical study subtitled The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant proves that the figure that most people still envision when they use the name “Jesus” does not really preserve the peculiar features of this Jewish peasant  from an insignificant hamlet in Roman occupied Galilee./12/  They do not think of him as a construction worker, known to contemporaries as Yeshu bar Yosef, who lived most of his life in secular obscurity until he caused a brief public stir as a vagabond in the wake of the execution of the real hero of the Jewish masses: a baptizing social reformer named Yohanan./13/  Nor is it yet generally recognized that Roman authorities made a public spectacle of his execution as a terrifying warning to other Jews who might also have thoughts of disturbing the status quo. Though traces of such parameters for this man’s life have survived in first-century texts we call “gospels,” those who describe themselves as “evangelicals” generally have trouble accepting them as historical fact.  While there can be no question that such self-styled conservatism is committed to continuing Jesus’ incarnation ever afterward, it is questionable whether it is really the actual details of the incarnation of this historical person that it is concerned to perpetuate.

(b) Buried facts. Until rather recently the mundane markers of Jesus’ historical existence have been buried in the collective Christian unconscious and even deliberately obscured by the inevitable tendency of those who have admired -- or at least been fascinated by -- Jesus to idealize his image and inflate its universal importance.  Less than a quarter century after Jesus was crucified, Paul -- the missionary who probably did more to spread and promote Jesus’ reputation than anyone else in the first century CE -- had to remind Greek Christians of the public scandal inherent in the mere historical fact of his crucifixion./14/   Within that same first generation, the author of the gospel known as Mark repeatedly berated those who claimed to be Jesus’ closest associates (Peter, James and John) for imagining Jesus to be like the heroic divine agents of Israelite salvation history (Moses, Elijah and David) and forgetting that he “came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45)./15/

(1) Deification and poetic license. Yet, the impulse to venerate Jesus was so contagious in Hellenistic culture, where tales of gods appearing in human form and heroes being deified were commonplace, that it was relatively easy for early Christians to ignore the historical Jesus completely.  In 112 CE, just a generation after Mark, former Christians in Asia Minor confessed to the Roman governor, Pliny, that they used to gather to sing “a hymn to Christ as to a god./16/   Several of the oldest surviving Christian hymns, in fact, are so focused on describing Jesus’ eternal status as equivalent to that of the supreme Deity that virtually no attention is given to any historic detail of his existence other than his birth and death./17/   And even these were often described by Christian writers with such poetic license that the harsh historical circumstances of these events is seldom evident.

(2) Incarnation or distortion. Thus, far from representing the person of Jesus as historical incarnation of the Jewish God of justice, as Crossan suggests, such glorification of his eternal cosmic status actually replaced recollection of practically all of the distinctive features of this particular man with contemplation of a disembodied and ethnically neutered primordial Power.  With the sole exception of references to crucifixion practically all of the classical liturgical language used to celebrate Jesus is drawn from traditional theological sources written long before his birth and, thus, could have been composed even if such a historical person had never existed.  Moreover, the fact that soon after the crucifixion Jesus’ death was represented as a traditional Jewish ritual slaughter of a sacrificial lamb rather than as characteristically Roman torture of a political offender tended to distort historical recollection of events and keep pious Christian minds from raising embarrassing questions about the actual historical circumstances that precipitated his execution.  As a consequence, for almost two millennia most Christians have confidently viewed Jews in general as enemies of the God represented by Jesus./18/

2.4. Philosophical controversy.

By the beginning of the second century even the abstract concepts of classic Greek philosophy had been pressed into service by Hellenized Christians to proclaim the divinity of Jesus. Whether the author of the gospel of John was himself indebted to Philo of Alexandria’s use of the Platonized stoic notion of a personified Logos that was a “son of God” (huios tou theou) and a “second god” (deuteros theos) is debatable./19/ But it is certain that many generations of philosophically trained Christian teachers, from the martyred Samaritan Justin (ca. 100-165 CE) on, interpreted the claims for Jesus in the Fourth Gospel -- and the synoptics -- in terms of Hellenic philosophy rather than the socio-linguistic matrix in which they were composed.  Not only did that further divert attention from the original legacy of Jesus, it plunged Christian communities into more than five centuries of conflict over abstract definitions of the “nature” (physis) of his persona, with an almost endless string of councils convoked by church leaders to condemn each others’ declarations of faith as heretical.  Throughout all of this, those who posed as champions of the “true faith” simply ignored the ironic wisdom of the Galilean carpenter who mused: “You see the sliver in your friend’s eye, but you don’t see the timber in your own eye.  When you take the timber out of your own eye, then you will see well enough to remove the sliver from your friend’s eye” (Thom 26:1-2)./20/

(a) The Word’s words. The incarnate Logos mysticism of the Fourth Gospel stressed preserving the words (logoi) of Jesus./21/   It is therefore ironic that the transcendent Word christology of second century Christian philosophy became the vehicle for relativizing the historical Jesus’ own sayings.  For, once he was identified as the eternal divine Logos, Christians tended to find Christ anywhere in Israel’s scriptures, which were regarded not as a collection of compositions written over hundreds of years by different historical individuals but as a single work composed by the personified Word of God./22/  Words ascribed to Moses or any prophet were read as if they were the words of the same transcendent author who was identified as Jesus.  But this dehistoricizing tendency of universal Logos christology did not end there.  For, since the Logos was viewed as the author of all things (John 1:3), he was regarded as capable of speaking -- however faintly -- through any rational human being. In effect, virtually any true statement could be regarded as a saying of Christ./23/   While the words of the historical Jesus were still treasured, they could be homogenized with those of Socrates (i.e., Plato) and other sages and the logical processes of any Christian author’s own mind.  Thus, the uniqueness of the voice of that Galilean construction worker-turned-itinerant and the distinctive logic of the sayings that he had uttered were reduced to a momentary phase in the revelation of pure logic to which anyone had immediate access.

(b) Definitions beyond Reason. The second irony of the legacy of transcendent Logos christology is that, while Jesus was viewed as the ultimate author of universal truth, his own persona was neither identified nor defined primarily by the words that took form on the flesh of his own lips. Rather, the structure of classical Greek logic and definitions of Aristotelian metaphysics were seized to analyze the personified Logos himself, both in his primal relationship to the supreme Deity and in his own incarnate existence.  Instead of being treated as the creative author of eternal Truth, Christ became a passive object, described and dissected by human authors, who invoked the influence of every political institution available -- secular as well as ecclesiastical -- to insure that their own original definitions of Jesus’ status both within and beyond all history would triumph over those composed by their competitors.  In effect, rather than being treated as a real historical persona, who creatively altered the way others viewed and interacted with their world, or even as the common universal Logos active to some degree in anyone -- even those who are regarded as atheists /24/--, Jesus Christ himself became the ultimate cosmic puzzle, the solution to which fewer and fewer rational beings could agree on.

(1) Categorical confusion. A third irony of this long debate is that the logical formulations that triumphed -- at least penultimately -- present paradoxical definitions that are beyond common human reason: a God who is three personae (hypostaseis) in one being (ousia) and a historical Jesus who is one persona (hypostasis) with two distinct natures (physeis).   Even professional biblical scholars and theologians need a crash course in Aristotle’s Categories just to begin to try to understand such affirmations./25/  Adding to the confusion is the fact that even as defined by Aristotle the central terms (ousia and hypostasis) were ambiguous, permitting conflicting connotations in their use in creeds that became the normative definitions of Christian orthodoxy./26/

To make matters worse, the use of this terminology to define the person of Jesus in the creed adopted at the council of Chalcedon violated a fundamental tenet of the Aristotelian metaphysical grammar on which it was dependent: the principle that individuals are identified by their nature, but without the individual that nature cannot exist./27/   Thus, the idea of a single person with two completely distinct natures “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” is an absolute paradox: an incomprehensible mystery, a philosophical freak totally unlike any other being in the universe./28/ Thus, far from clarifying popular understanding of Jesus’ place in the cosmic order, the philosophical terms invoked by church fathers simply contributed to mystification and further controversy.

(b) Logical gap. The final irony of the centuries long attempt to define Jesus in terms of Aristotelian metaphysics and logic is that the categories that classical Greek philosophy used to analyze reality proved to be neither absolute nor eternal.  In all but a few academic courses required of philosophy majors, other ways of thinking and analyzing reality have become the norm for most educated people. Thus, today the gap between our perception of the universe in which we live and the logic of classical christology has become so great that even conservative theologians recognize that changes must be made in the way we think and talk about Jesus./29/

2.5.Reflection of whom?

A wide variety of new experimental christologies have emerged within the past century./30/  But with few exceptions they have taken their point of departure from previous models of Christian reflection about Jesus -- Chalcedonian two-nature christology, Logos-Wisdom christology, other New Testament affirmations -- rather than from logic traceable to the historical Jesus himself.  Assessing the christological achievements of the twentieth century in retrospect, one can say that there has been a tremendous increase in clarity regarding the complex historical origins and development of the terminology and logic used to describe Jesus in biblical and patristic texts, as well as promising attempts to find new significance and relevance for some of these classic forms. Yet, the basic critical question is not whether a revisionist christology can renew faith in Jesus but whether it is any more faithful to the historical Jesus than previous portraits of his persona. That is to ask: is this christology an adequate reflection of both the words and deeds that a neutral, critical historiography can demonstrate are traceable to this particular historical person rather than to someone else?

(a) Appropriateness. In concluding his careful study of the origin of the doctrine of the incarnation, J. D. G. Dunn wrote:

We cannot claim that Jesus believed himself to be the incarnate Son of God; but we can claim that the teaching to that effect as it came to expression in the later first-century thought was, in the light of the whole Christ-event, an appropriate reflection on and elaboration of Jesus’ own sense of sonship and eschatological mission./31/

The question of whether christological reflection is appropriate or not all depends on how one defines the whole “Christ-event.”  If one means simply Jesus’ transformative impact upon his immediate disciples -- those who knew him in the flesh -- and their own undying loyalty to the cause to which he committed his life, then it was entirely appropriate that they called him “Lord” even if he never thought of himself in that way.  If the historical parameters of that “Christ-event” are extended to a generation of Christian martyrs who, though they had never actually met the man called Yeshu bar Yosef, were prepared to risk their own lives just to live according to his egalitarian vision rather than submit to the autocratic claims of Roman imperialism, then it was indeed appropriate that they proclaimed him rather than a Caligula or Nero or Domitian to be the unique “son of God” even if Jesus never made such a claim for himself.  But the appropriateness of any claim always depends on the social and historical context in which it is made. For human language is itself a socio-historical phenomenon.  No definition -- no matter how time-honored -- is absolute.  There is always a historical dialectic built into the use of any words.  In first-century Palestinian Jewish culture where recognition of someone as God’s Anointed -- be it a ruler, priest, preacher or teacher -- meant acceptance of the authority of that individual’s leadership as normative, it made sense for Jewish partisans of Jesus to proclaim him Messiah rather than Antipas or Agrippa or Caiaphas or John the Baptist or the sons of Judas of Gamala.  Whenever contemporaries demanded recognition of and submission to the absolute authority of someone else, it was appropriate for early Christians to appropriate the terminology that opponents used to describe that individual in order to affirm their continuing loyalty to the historical Jesus.  But to perpetuate use of such terminology to describe his persona IS historically appropriate only if it is still in line with the type of person the historical Jesus presented himself to be. 

(b) Commitment. If one interprets the “Christ-event” to be the commitment of generations of Christians to perpetuate the persona of the real incarnate Jesus “ever afterward” (as Crossan stresses in the passage cited in the epigraph to this paper) then determination of what was or is appropriate depends entirely on whether one’s present image of Jesus actually reflects what that historical person actually said and did.  It would be inappropriate to represent Jesus as another Nero simply because like Nero he was proclaimed to be filius Dei. It would be equally inappropriate to confuse Jesus with Simon ben Koseba (alias bar Kochba) simply because both men were claimed to be messianic sons of David.  Commitment to a particular historical individual -- in devotion just as in marriage -- necessarily involves dedication to a persona with peculiar traits that differentiate that individual from all others who may be described in the same terms.  For even in the post-modern world at least one Aristotelian definition is still valid: no generic description has any real existence apart from that of the concrete individual of which it is predicated. Thus, genuine commitment to a particular historical individual always requires not only faithful recollection but critical research to insure that one’s impression of that person is really accurate.


3.1. Historical Priority of the Word.

Focus on the priority of the historical Jesus for christological reflection is hardly a recent phenomenon. The religious importance of the historical figure of Jesus has been recognized in the Christian West at least since 1202 CE when a twenty-year old native of Assisi named Giovanni di Pietro di Bernadone (alias Francesco) first read the gospel of Matthew in his native Italian tongue. Yet, in the mid-eighteenth century when H. S. Reimarus began to circulate a draft of his research on the Intention of Jesus and his Teaching among trusted colleagues, the idea of isolating the historical person of Jesus from all traditional Christian descriptions of him was still a revolutionary suggestion that was so explosive that he dared not publish it in his own lifetime.  At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, several new studies of the historical Jesus appear each year, some of which become instant best-sellers on the publishers charts.  So, one would think that there is hardly any need to emphasize the value and importance of such research. Each major historical breakthrough in the interpretation of Jesus’ person has involved serious attention given to sayings ascribed to Jesus./32/ Still, the critical question debated today is the historical reliability or even the hermeneutical wisdom of basing one’s image of Jesus primarily on his own words.

(a) Scholarly skepticism. The double-edged fact that there is no known text that was written or dictated by Jesus himself and that all extant documents that quote him were penned a generation or more after his death by scribes who probably never knew him personally makes most current scholars automatically cautious in identifying Jesus as the direct author of any pronouncement ascribed to him in the gospels./33/  A long period of oral transmission inclines one to conclude that even those sayings that do go back to Jesus himself are -- except for a few brief fragments -- at best paraphrases of what he actually said.  Add to that demonstrable evidence of scribal revision of many sayings, uncertainty about whether any extant koiné Greek aphorism translates a saying originally formulated in Aramaic, and the suspicion that -- other than pure scribal fabrications -- few if any Jesus sayings have been recorded in the original context which inspired them and one has a rather strong prima facie argument against constructing a portrait of Jesus based primarily on the sayings tradition.  But in any historical research the truth of the situation is not always as it first appears.

(1) Distinctive logic. Until quite recently historical research has always been dependent primarily on verbal rather than visual representation.  The primary advantage of language, after all, is that it is able to focus attention on points that a particular human mind considers important.  Only in the case of fictional scenarios is language able to preserve and convey all the information relevant to interpretation of a given situation.  But the logical structure of language makes it possible to preserve and transmit in a relatively stable form the distinctive observations and viewpoint of any person -- speakers as well as writers.  That is particularly true of well-formed aphoristic and anecdotal speech, as may be amply demonstrated by any comparative study of poets, sages, or stand-up comics.  While the exact wording of an author’s saying may not always survive oral transmission intact, expressions with striking logical structures can be shown to have amazing durability.  Even in oral discourse the peculiar traits of any individual’s viewpoint and way of speaking are so identifiable that they may be readily recognized by others and even mimicked by someone with a good ear.  The more so, if that speaker has distinguished her or his idiomatic style and viewpoint from those developed by others.  All historical evidence indicates that the historical Jesus demonstrated a viewpoint and style that distinguished him from his contemporaries: a style that was so unconventional that it provoked controversy, a viewpoint that was so socially radical that it cost him his life.  Thus, the only question about being able to identify Jesus’ voice in works written by his spiritual and intellectual heirs is whether his logic can still be distinguished from theirs.

(2) Mimicry. Of course, others may learn to echo any speaker or writer’s logic and adopt and develop what was originally one individual’s distinctive point of view.  That only testifies to the power of language to preserve, persuade and propagate.  Perfect mimicry is theoretically possible. But in the real world few people are perfect mimics.  Dale Allison has proposed the hypothetical case of an early Jewish Christian prophetess named Faustina who, speaking for the risen Jesus, “authored all the non-redactional sayings in which Jesus prophesies the future coming of the Son of Man.”/34/  Since Faustina “steeped herself in the primitive Jesus tradition and liked to imitate it.... she made Jesus’ style her own style.”/35/ Hence, these sayings became widely accepted in the earliest community as genuine Jesus sayings.  Allison is perfectly correct in maintaining that this fiction is not “far-fetched.”  Yet, he is mistaken in concluding that no modern scholar could distinguish such apocalyptic logia from genuine sayings of Jesus simply because no one after Faustina imitated her sayings.  For the criterion of distinctiveness -- or dissimilarity, as Allison prefers -- involves not just style but viewpoint.  That is to say, an individual’s characteristic speech is identified not merely by an idiosyncratic use of idioms but by atypical observations and patterns of logic.  Son of Man sayings that can be distinguished as authored by the historical Jesus are precisely those that (a) are not traceable to the influence of some other identifiable source and (b) express observations that were not commonly held by either the gospel writers themselves or the early Christian community.  The fact that the author of the coming Son of Man sayings was inspired by a biblical text (Dan 7:14) that was not used by the historical Jesus -- as Allison admits, at least hypothetically --, makes such sayings traceable to that source rather than to Jesus himself./36/   Thus, in creating the coming Son of Man predictions from patterns not found in any genuine saying of Jesus, Allison’s fictional Faustina proved that she had not made either the distinctive style or viewpoint of the historical Jesus enough “her own” for her forgery to escape detection by trained experts.  But what if Faustina had created a perfect forgery that was really indistinguishable from genuine Jesus sayings?  Then, even though that particular formula might not have not have come from the lips of the historical Jesus himself, it still would be a faithful replica of his own viewpoint and logic.  Such mimicry is the ultimate tribute to any author and, in Jesus’ case, would sow the seeds of a historically reliable christology.

(c) Minimal consensus? A common objection to basing one’s portrait of Jesus on his own words is that there is so little scholarly consensus regarding what Jesus actually said.  In a work published in 1985 E. P. Sanders wrote:

...scholars have not and, in my judgment, will not agree on the authenticity of the sayings material, either in whole or in part.  There are a few sayings on which there is wide consensus, but hardly enough to allow a full depiction of Jesus./37/

It is an irony of history that this judgment was published in the same year that the Jesus Seminar began its work to test scholarly consensus regarding the whole corpus of sayings attributed to Jesus in antiquity. While the Seminar has never pretended to speak for the whole guild, its work has proven Sanders’ prediction wrong in at least two respects.

(1) Critical residue. The first phase of the Jesus Seminar’s research demonstrated a rather extensive scholarly consensus regarding sayings that the historical Jesus probably did not author.  Fifty-seven per cent the 1544 items inventoried could not attract enough support to be accepted into the Seminar’s data base, including all of the verses identifying Jesus as the unique Son of God which contributed to the classic patristic debates regarding his cosmic status./38/ Yet, in spite of such thorough-going critical caution, ninety-one sayings were recognized by the majority of Fellows as distinct enough in their logic to be accepted as probable products of the mind of the historical Jesus rather than someone else./39/ Ninety-one is more than just a few. Of course, Sanders would be correct in insisting that even a corpus of ninety-one sayings is not extensive enough to develop “a full depiction of Jesus.”/40/  But it still represents a rather sizable residue from a rigorous filtering process of logical formulations that are not likely to have been constructed by any voice in the early Christian movement other than that of Jesus himself.

(2)Voice print. Certainly, not everyone expressed the same confidence in the historical reliability of every saying in the Jesus Seminar data base.  But since unanimity on any issue is so rare in human history, it is totally unrealistic to make that a requirement for making historically sound judgments.  The point is that these particular ninety-one sayings were able to survive the collegial historical skepticism of scholars who methodically doubted that Jesus himself formulated most of the sayings that have been attributed to him, while those sayings that have provided a basis for classical christological reflection did not.  So, if one is interested in identifying the voice print of the historical Jesus, it is only reasonable that one look for it first in the former group of sayings instead of the latter, unless one can still find cogent reasons for tracing the latter sayings to Jesus himself and the former to some other identifiable voice in the early Christian tradition.  To insist on basing one’s christological reflections on statements that others made about Jesus rather than on the things that he himself is most likely to have said would be a supreme act of hubris.  For it would presuppose that others understood him better than he understood himself.  And that is inconsistent with any theological or historical theory of incarnation./41/

(d) Not just words. Sanders proposed another reason for not basing one’s portrait of the historical Jesus primarily on his sayings:

Secondly, when the study of Jesus is equated with the study of his sayings, there is the unspoken assumption that what he really was, was a teacher./42/

The logic of this objection is flawed, unless one assumes that teachers are the only ones who say anything; in which case, everyone who speaks is a teacher.  Those who assume that Jesus was really a teacher will inevitably focus on what he said; but the reverse is not necessarily the case.  Yet, Sanders is not the only recent scholar to conclude that excessive emphasis placed upon the importance of the sayings of Jesus is apt to give a distorted picture of his real historical persona.  The paradigm of Jesus the Teacher is still a prevalent enough residue of nineteenth century liberal Protestant christology that other scholars with divergent views of Jesus have recently expressed sentiments similar to those of Sanders./43/   Even Dominic Crossan, who arguably has done more than any scholar in the past half century to advance understanding of the sayings of Jesus, writes in his latest book:

The earthly Jesus was not just a thinker with ideas but a rebel with a cause.  He was a  Jewish peasant with an attitude, and he claimed that his attitude was that of the Jewish God.  But it was, he said, in his life and in ones like it that the kingdom of God was revealed, that the Jewish God of justice and righteousness was incarnated in a world of   injustice and unrighteousness.  The kingdom of God was never just about words and ideas, aphorisms and parables, sayings and dialogues.  It was about a way of life.  And that means it was about a body of flesh and blood./44/

It is hard to disagree with such a powerful piece of rhetoric; but again it needs unpacking.  There is hardly a scholar today who would argue that the historical Jesus was concerned just about words or deny that he was really concerned with a way of life, even though those points have often been lost sight of in christological controversies across the centuries.  But it is just as incontestable that Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God and described the way of life it entails in words as well as actions.  Without his words no one would have ever guessed that Jesus’ way of life had anything to do with God’s kingdom.  Those who actually lived with him and whom he invited to share in his way of life might have learned more about him from his gestures and deeds than from his words.  But anyone who has not actually encountered Jesus in his living flesh can gain insight into what this historical individual was really about only -- or at least, primarily -- through the medium of words: both his words and those of others.  Others may have faithfully described Jesus’ deeds and way of life.  But they necessarily did so from their own viewpoint rather than his.  Since the historical Jesus can be identified as a rebel in his practice, his real attitude and concerns are accessible only though his own words.  That is particularly true of any claim that he himself may have made about the relation of his way of life to the realm of God.  Thus, fidelity to the historical persona of Jesus and continuing his practice is necessarily dependent on heeding his words and then doing what Jesus’ own logic implies./45/

3.2. Indirect Image.

A final objection to basing christology primarily on words that are traceable to the historical Jesus is that the corpus of genuine sayings of Jesus does not say much directly about Jesus himself.  But that in itself speaks volumes.  The historical Jesus was not recalled to be prone to speak about his own person, despite the evidence of all our earliest sources that his fans spent a lot of time speaking highly about him./46/  This indicates that Jesus did not put himself at the top of his agenda or at the center of his own concerns.  His focus was eccentric rather than solipsistic. That is a practice of the historical Jesus that deserves serious attention in any accurate description of his persona.  Our only access to Jesus’ self-image is as an indirect reflection in sayings that directed attention away from himself.  Yet that reflection is clear enough to act as a corrective to abuse of classic christological claims about Jesus’ cosmic status.

(a) Lord?  In a world that presupposes hierarchical social structures, it makes sense for people to express their respect for and allegiance to someone by addressing that person as a social superior: “My lord,” “Master,” “Sir(e),” “Madam(e).”  Today in modern egalitarian democracies these conventional patterns of address have become little more than courteous formalities -- except in the sphere of religion, where time-honored titles are treated as if they were Plato’s eternal ideas.  Under the Roman imperium early Christians made a powerful statement of social and political resistance with their paradoxical proclamation that a homeless construction-worker who had been crucified by imperial forces was now “the Lord” (Philp 2:8-11). Unfortunately, however, that paradox was lost sight of when Christians themselves came to political power, if not before.  For centuries, proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ has been both the battle cry and banner of Christian triumphalism.  But if fidelity to Jesus is what is really desired, it has to be asked whether Jesus himself envisioned a world order in which he was “lord.”  Several sayings suggest that the most probable answer to that question is: probably not.

(1) Kingless kingdom. The language of hierarchy and social subservience is part of the baggage that Jesus inherited from a cultural environment that he, like any other historical individual,  neither invented nor chose.  Absolute rulers called “king,”  “emperor” or a wide range of other titles that expressed the idea of totalitarian control were an accepted political fact of life in the ancient Near East.  The rule -- not just the reign -- of kings was the rule rather than the exception.  Emerging within that world early Israel had established a constitution that was a noble social experiment: a society with no single human ruler.  Israelites’ independence from subjugation to surrounding kingdoms was to be guaranteed by the principle that they recognize no one as “lord” except the power that had liberated them from servitude to Egypt, an empire which -- in legend at least -- had been a model of totalitarian power with a king who was worshipped as a divine incarnation.  Early Israel’s dialectical resistance to such a social system was embedded in refusal to represent its “god” in the form of any human or other creature.  Instead of an idol, the artifact originally at the center of its worship represented an empty throne.  While neither that social experiment nor Israelite independence was eventually able to withstand external or internal pressures, regular ritual reminders imbedded in the minds of at least some Israelites an idealized memory of a system in which there was no king, no master, no lord except that invisible power, or “god,” that liberates people from subjection to any social hierarchy. Jesus’ pronouncements about God’s kingdom being the property of paupers (ptóchoi) and pre-schoolers (paidia) presuppose precisely such a social system./47/

(2) Beggars opera. To call ptóchoi (lit. “beggars”) “fortunate” (makarios) is an absolute contradiction in terms in a world where at least some are wealthy.  But the obverse side of that makarism is Jesus’ pronouncement that a camel can squeeze through a needle’s eye more easily than a wealthy person can get into God’s “kingdom” (basileia)./48/ Crossan has called this a “kingdom of nobodies.”/49/   It is perhaps more accurately styled a society of have-nots.  If the imperium of God is the treasure or precious gem that one must sell everything to possess,/50/ then only those who have literally nothing can ever hope to possess it.  In a society where everyone is a beggar, no one is superior to anyone else. The only “Lord” is the benign Providence that gives every creature its daily “bread.”/51/   That is a role Jesus never claimed for himself.  Rather than pose as anyone’s “lord,”  Jesus identified himself with the homeless./52/   Like them he did not even have a place to sleep, much less a throne.  Still, he reminds his fellow Jewish peasants who bear the burden of imperial and temple taxes that it is their good fortune that the God of their tradition is one who frees people from slavery to wealth,/53/  yet feeds and clothes them as he does the least of the wild creatures./54/  A world where everyone is a hobo but no one need worry where the next meal is coming from is truly a beggar’s opera.  Its basic plot is that the only prince is the pauper. In such a “kingdom” everyone is equal and free; and any tramp is king of the road.  Gospel narratives indicate that Jesus put this way of life into practice.  So, historically speaking, the only people who would be in an appropriate social position to call him “lord” would be those few who, barefoot, penniless, and without provisions abandon(ed) all their property to follow his lead./55/   Anyone who imagines him to display a different persona after Easter -- one with royal possessions and power -- is (or was) worshipping a different Jesus, an unhistorical hypostasis.

(3) Autocracy vs. autonomy. The basic connotation of the concept of basileia (“kingdom”) is the office and authority of a basileus (“king”): i.e., one who is in absolute control of a particular social situation./56/   No imperium extends any further than its emperor’s ability “to command” (imperare).  That is why nations in antiquity had no recognized fixed territorial boundaries.  Anyone who exercised enough autonomous authority could at any time challenge the autocratic claims of the strongest of kings and establish his (or, at least in a few cases, her) own “kingdom.”   It made no sense in antiquity for someone to recognize a “kingdom” where someone was not currently in control.  Thus, ancient Israelites could maintain their independence from domination by human despots only by insisting that their “god” -- the power that set them free of domination by other humans -- was still the real “king” even in situations where others temporarily asserted suzerainty.  The prophetic “visions” of the majesty of YHWH enthroned on high were formulated for specific political situations in which foreign tyrants -- Assyria’s Tiglath-Pilesar in the case of Isaiah; Babylon’s Nebuchadrezzar in the case of Ezekiel -- threatened to compromise or crush Jewish cultural and political independence./57/  Current affairs might not provide visible evidence of YHWH’s dominion. But even for the most devout Yahwist, a “god” whose current “kingdom” was only "in heaven" would be neither really King nor truly God.  YHWH’s “kingdom” was still effective on earth, incarnate in anyone who maintained a fifth column resistance to the autocratic claims of current tyrants who tried to enslave the Jewish spirit and make Jews abandon or forget their ideal of freedom.

(4) Unsupervised kindergarten. Born into a world where Israelite ideals were difficult to maintain in the face of the pervasiveness of Greek culture and Roman military and economic imperialism, any Jew other than Jesus might have mimicked and elaborated the ancient prophetic descriptions of YHWH’s hierarchical heavenly domain.  And several did./58/  But there is no reliable evidence that the historical Jesus chose this tact. Rather, he paradoxically depicted God’s basileia as the possession of paidia -- i.e., children under the age of seven -- and insisted that only those who mimicked paidia had access to it./59/  Preachers and theologians have long romanticized or allegorized this pronouncement.  But no one who has ever lived with a child in this age bracket or tried to teach kindergarten could honestly maintain that what Jesus really meant was that people should be innocent or absolutely dependent or obedient or display unqualified trust.  If there is anything a pre-schooler, whatever its culture,  is not, it is all of the above.  So, if Jesus meant any of these, he chose the wrong metaphor.  Pre-schoolers are notoriously and innately independent-minded and hard to control.  That is precisely why classic pedagogy stressed the need for strict discipline./60/  But Jesus’ pronouncement leaves no space in God’s basileia for any pedagogue other than the benign Papa (Abba) who provides his offspring’s daily nourishment and tolerates the bad along with the good./61/  Instead of depicting this Parent as a strict disciplinarian dedicated to reforming his children, Jesus portrayed him as one who celebrates the homecoming of the wayward child who had lost everything he had given him./62/  Jesus, for his part, did not volunteer to act as supervisor of such urchins. Instead of posing as a teacher, Jesus thanked his Abba for revealing to infants (népia)  -- i.e., children who are not ready for any instruction -- what sages per se cannot see./63/  Infants are not passive subjects; they demand attention and do what they -- not any parents -- want.  So, if the synoptic anecdote that portrays Jesus as identifying himself as a paidion is a Markan fiction, at least it is what R. W. Funk terms a “true fiction”: a story that accurately illustrates the logic and attitude of Jesus himself./64/  The historical Jesus was a Jewish Peter Pan, who warned his fellow homeless “boys” (and “girls”?) against acting like educated -- supposedly grown-up -- scholars who seek personal recognition and vie for places of honor for themselves./65/   Thus, the only people who were (or are) in an appropriate position to proclaim Jesus as their “master” (kyrios) and themselves as his “students” (mathétai) would be those who follow(ed) his example of childish autonomy, even if that meant defying parents and older siblings/66/  and defaulting on the most basic honor children owe their natural fathers: a decent burial./67/   Crossan is certainly correct, therefore, to characterize Jesus as a “rebel with a cause.”/68/  For, far from demanding that others recognize him as their master, Jesus encouraged youngsters to assert their own autonomy vis-à-vis even domestic autocratic hierarchy.  He did not offer to save them from the consequences.

(5) Social liberation. The only sense in which the historical Jesus was a liberator is that he urged those whom society classified as helpless to stand up and act on their own: to get off that stretcher and, like any toddler, learn to walk even at the risk of falling./69/  He did not ask people to fall at his feet but to stand on their own.  When slapped down, to defiantly turn the left cheek, asserting their independence of anyone who tried to treat them as inferiors./70/   If sued for all they had, to shame the creditor by volunteering to go naked./71/  Thus, Jesus devoted himself to the cause of radical social independence rather than political and intellectual subservience to himself any more than to anyone else. To call this  Jesus “Lord” is the ultimate social irony.  So, unless this historical paradox is kept absolutely clear, this practice needs to be abandoned.  It has outlived its social usefulness.  It served its historical purpose as the early Christian cry of defiance against the inhumane exercise of totalitarian power within the Roman imperium and occasionally elsewhere.  If one remains clear about the actual historical persona of Jesus, then recognition of him as “lord” might still prove useful in convincing some Christians to refrain from policies that stifle the independence of the young and the homeless.  But since Constantine, the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” has proven to be an ineffective safeguard against either social tyranny or political aggression in policy issues in which nominally Christian leaders, communities and institutions have become involved.  It has not incarnated social justice -- especially for Jews.  Instead it has been turned into a tool to deny social independence and free expression to Jesus’ own people and others who have been regarded as “infidels” -- no matter how faithful they be to their own perception of the truth -- simply because they stubbornly refuse to recognize Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.  It is high time to stop confusing our own logic with the Logos that governs the whole world or even that of the historic Jesus himself.  After seventeen hundred years, it is finally time to recognize that this christological experiment has failed to guarantee fidelity to the historical Jesus and is too easily open to abuse.  If there were an appropriate title or form of address for someone who identified himself with beggars and pre-schoolers I would suggest its adoption.  Since I know of none, I propose that true fidelity to Jesus is best expressed by following his practice of diverting attention away from him personally and focusing instead on the social implications of what he told others to do.

(b) Only Son? The second fundamental corrective to classical christology required by attention to the genuine words of Jesus himself is abandonment of the concept that Jesus was absolutely unique. There was a time when, and a social context where, it was entirely appropriate to proclaim a crucified unemployed Jewish construction worker as the only genuine (monogenés) “son of God.”/72/  That was a time when political despots and mythological heroes were regularly claimed to be “sons of god,” a social context in which his fresh voice was overshadowed by the aura of Mosaic law and the appeal of Hermetic revelations.  In such a Sitz audiences needed the imprimatur of a divine bath qol in order to pay any particular attention to what this vagabond from an insignificant village in Galilee himself had to say./73/  But that was then, this is now.  Jesus is no longer an obscure person.  More has been written on him than on any other recognized authority before or after; and few historical figures other than he are still seriously claimed to be a “son of God.”  In fact, millions regularly equate his name with that of the supreme deity and regard him as fundamentally superior to every human being who has ever lived.  Even those who reject the idea that Jesus was ontologically different from other humans, still infer that he saw himself as morally superior to others and equated his own activity and his own attitude with that of God himself.  Witness: Crossan, in a passage already quoted, wrote:

He was a Jewish peasant with an attitude, and he claimed that his attitude was that of the  Jewish God. But it was, he said, in his life and in ones like it that the kingdom of God was revealed, that the Jewish God of justice and righteousness was incarnated in a world of injustice and unrighteousness./74/

So, while the demon of Jesus’ “messianic consciousness” has been exorcised from most current critical Jesus scholarship, it returns in guises that may in the long run prove to be even more insidious.  For if Jesus really identified his own life as the criterion for measuring the mind and work of God, then he was personally the author of the doctrine of the incarnation and was indeed guilty of the highest hubris possible within a truly Jewish worldview. 

(1) Jewish mindset. Jewish tradition certainly had more than its share of prophets who claimed to see and speak for YHWH himself and even occasionally to demonstrate by gestures how that God would act.  At least one (Hosea) even gained insight into God’s behavior by analyzing his own personal experience.  But not even Moses would have presumed to claim that the God of justice was himself  “incarnated” and “revealed” through his personal lifestyle.  Rather, in the mind of the true Jew, it is absolutely incumbent upon all humans -- even non-Jews -- to recognize the difference between God’s standards of justice and their own personal behavior and to confess publicly their own shortcomings.  One of the most common petitions in Jewish prayer is the plea for God to humble the proud; and, for Jews, the public disgrace of anyone -- Jew as well gentile -- who presumed to act as superior to other humans is the ultimate sign that their God still lives and reigns.  That is why the self-deprecating comment -- not disparagement of others -- is the unpatented trade mark of Jewish humor.  Thus, it is timely to ask whether the historical Jesus really saw himself as different from other humans or identified his own activity as a unique revelation of the mind of God.  If one bases one’s judgment primarily on those sayings of Jesus that are most likely to be genuine, then I suggest that the most probable answer to this question will again have to be: probably not.

(2) Our Father. While it is virtually certain that Jesus called God “Father,”/75/ there is no reliable evidence that he himself ever claimed that God was his father alone or suggested that he personally enjoyed a special relationship with that divine Parent that differentiated him from all others.  Indeed, the most unique and distinctive echo of Jesus’ concept of theological parenting -- i.e., use of the Aramaic term Abba to address that primal Being on which the whole universe depends -- was not an epithet that Christian tradition assigned exclusively to Jesus.  Rather, if Paul is to be trusted in this, from the earliest days of Christian mission, that distinctive idiom was at the center of the ritual of initiating others into the social movement that claimed to take its cue from Jesus./76/   Recognition that the supreme Power could and should be called by the name that any Semitic child used dozens of times a day to address the paternal figure in its home is an idea that historically is traceable to the inspiration of Jesus.  But instead of patenting it for his own benefit, it was an idea which he published as freeware on the first-century’s version of the internet, so that anybody who wanted to could make use of it.  And, at least for a generation, many did, including Greek-speaking gentiles from Asia Minor to Rome who may have never learned another word of Aramaic.  Members of that inter-ethnic long-distance fellowship regularly and publicly referred to God as “our Father,” not his Father” -- i.e., the father of Jesus alone.  While Paul, and probably others among the first generation of Christian missionaries, understandably deferred to Jesus the first-born’s rights of inheritance, Jesus was credited with making them all co-heirs of the family estate./77/  It is hardly credible that such a concept could have developed so quickly after the death of the historical Jesus, had he copyrighted the idea of divine sonship for his use alone.  Although invocation of “our Father” in the “Lord’s prayer” recorded in Matthew and the Didache is demonstrably a communal formulation that Jesus himself may never have uttered, that community’s regular insistence that Jesus had taught it to pray thus is a clear sign that the first Christians firmly believed that Jesus had authorized others to share the same theological software that he had designed for himself.  While that formula may be a fabrication and, thus, the claim that Jesus taught it a complete fiction, it reflects the logic of the concept he released for public use.

(3) True Siblings. Only in one saying traceable to Jesus is there any high degree of historical probability that he referred to God as “my Father.”/78/  But the very logic of that aphorism excludes any idea that Jesus reserved exclusive use of that form of reference for himself.  For far from claiming that he alone knew or obeyed this God, it asserts his readiness to recognize anyone who does the will of his Abba as a true sibling.  How they might know his “Father” or discern what the paternal will might be is left unsaid.  But unlike gospel claims of exclusive sonship that are dubiously ascribed to Jesus, this declaration does not infer that Jesus himself needed to reveal his Father to others much less tell his siblings what his Father wants them to do.  Quite the contrary.  The assertion that other people perform the paternal will is given both rhetorical and logical priority.  It is the common family trait by which Jesus claims to identify his true kin. Rather than make his own lifestyle the criterion for others to learn the will of God, he makes the lifestyle of others, rather than biological kinship, the criterion by which he is able to learn just who his real relatives are.  He identifies himself with them whether or not they identify themselves with him.

(4) Common experience. The clearest indicator that Jesus did not claim his life, his personal experience, to be a special revelation of God’s behavior is that whenever he had to illustrate the kingdom of God to others he regularly focused attention away from himself and on their own common experience.  Instead of claiming to have had a unique vision of what the divine realm is really like, he compared it to the natural behavior of the most mundane elements in the world of the poorest of peasants: the seed of a common weed (mustard) and the stuff that produced everyday bread (leaven)./79/ 

These were things that they all had seen but whose theological significance those other than Jesus were apt to overlook.  Intellectual historians may confidently identify these observations as insights that originated with the historical Jesus.  Yet, there is no evidence that Jesus himself filed a claim to have discovered these things first.  Rather, he reminded unemployed people worried about the basic necessities of life to think of what they already knew and believed: that even wild birds could find food and untended vegetation flowered and that, as humans, they held a more important place in the cosmic plan./80/  He urged them to have the courage to beg and the trust to accept what they received, by reminding them of how they as parents treated their own children./81/  Thus, the criterion he established for recognizing how their cosmic Papa acted, was not his behavior, but theirs.  It is this regular appeal to common mundane experience in genuine Jesus sayings that proves that the historical Jesus was no apocalypticist claiming to reveal an otherwise hidden God whom others had not seen or could not otherwise recognize as active in their own lives.  Thus, if the doctrine of a divine incarnation recognized primarily, if not exclusively, in the person and life of the historical Jesus is fundamental to christology, the historical Jesus himself was not the founder of Christianity.

(5) Generic dignity. There are only two aphorisms in the data base of sayings that are traceable to the voice of the historical Jesus that can be -- and indeed have been -- interpreted as claiming a special cosmic dignity for Jesus himself and a special theological significance for his activity.  But those interpretations are possible only if one ignores the logical structure of the dialectical contexts reported to have occasioned these comments.  The first of these is the declaration that “the son of Man is lord” (kyrios) even of Shabbath./82/  Though the barbaric Greek idiom ho huios tou anthropos is traceable to Jesus’ distinctive usage and was regularly understood by gospel writers to be his unique form of indirect self-reference, the chreia for which this particular aphorism serves as punch-line does not focus on the behavior of Jesus himself but rather on that of his disciples. Their gathering of food from the fields on the day of cosmic rest is identified as the practice that provoked Pharisees to alert Jesus to a potential violation of Torah. Thus, it is their lifestyle rather than his lifestyle that is in question.  While the chreia gives no indication that Jesus either ordered or authorized his disciples’ pattern of behavior, he defends their right to do what they have already done by appealing to the cosmic status that the Creator accorded the human being per se.   The sabbath was designed for humans as a species (ho anthrópos).  No interpretation of the Genesis creation story could appeal to a more common Jewish belief.  It is this traditional Jewish premise of generic human dignity that provides the logical basis for Jesus to expect even the most scrupulous Pharisees to accept his conclusion that any human individual has God-given authorization to decide how to act on the holiest of days.  Jesus presents this radical insight as an inherent generic right that any Jew as a Jew should be able to grant to every human being, Jewish or not.  Far from making his own personal decisions the criterion for judging whether the behavior of others measure up to standards set by God, Jesus was arguably the first to defend the right of anyone to make their own independent decisions on how they lived.  Left unqualified, that may be a socially dangerous principle./83/  But this declaration of absolute generic religious independence is evidence that Jesus did not make his own lifestyle the standard for that of others.  Exclusivistic claims made for Jesus by later Christians have consistently served to emend and obscure the logical implications of that declaration./84/

(6) Divine index. The one probably genuine Jesus saying that identifies direct divine involvement  in the activity of Jesus himself comes from the Q version of the so-called “Beelzebul controversy.”  Jesus replies thus to critics charges that Jesus’ performs exorcisms as an agent of the “prince of demons”:

If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out?
Therefore, they shall be your judges.
But if by God’s finger I cast out demons,
then the kingdom of God came first to you (ephthasen eph’ humas)./85/

Both the dialectical context and the rhetorical construction of this aphorism are central to the correct interpretation of these words.  Jesus does not go around identifying his index finger with that of God himself; nor does he claim that he personally has initiated God’s kingdom.  Rather, in response to a damning characterization of his behavior, Jesus presents his critics with an option: either they can sustain their contention that his behavior is alien in inspiration and, thereby, alienate their own associates who are doing similar things; or they can recognize his activity as a sign of the immanent suzerainty of the true God.  The initiative is theirs, not his.  The question is who do they think is really in charge of the present situation: a demonic pagan Power or the God of Israel.  Jesus makes no claim here to have special power to zap demonic invaders in a cosmic video game. On the contrary, he parallels his acts with those of agents of his opponents.  Instead of promoting his own reputation, he asks his critics whether they are willing to insult the Power that they claim to supreme by excluding his (Jesus’) activity from God’s sphere of effective influence -- i.e., his kingdom.  Israel’s fundamental theological affirmation leaves no room for recognition of any other Prince other than YHWH.  So, if others are ready to recognize God’s suzerainty as they claim to, then they should be prepared to accept Jesus’ activity -- however unorthodox it may appear -- as an indication that their own God’s power still prevails.  Everything in this aphorism is conditional. That is still the case when it comes to evaluating the ultimate cosmic status of the historical Jesus.


Commenting on his sixth thesis for a new Reformation, R. W. Funk wrote:

Jesus pointed to something he called God’s domain, something he did not create, something he did not control... instead of looking to see what he saw, his devoted disciples tended to stare at the pointing finger. Jesus himself should not be, must not be, the object of faith.  That would be to repeat the idolatry of the first believers./86/

His eighth thesis reads:

Give Jesus a demotion. We must begin by giving Jesus a demotion. He asked for it, he deserves it, we owe him nothing less./87/

I second both points and call the question, with but one added comment: undoing the exaltation and deification of Jesus would be finally to do what he himself said.  To take any person at his word is true fidelity. 

But deconstruction of the misleading distortions of classic christology is only the first step. The goal of a truly historical christology is to reconstruct an image of Jesus that accurately describes the actual person behind that name. The real historical Jesus was and always will be a true Jew with characteristic chutzpah, one whom latter day Jews might call ein wirkliche Mensch ("a true Human being").  While he never would have thought to claim divinity for himself, he took seriously the ancient Hebraic depiction of the human being per se as created in the image of God with divine authorization to take control of one's own life and the surrounding world.  While other Jews, including some of his own followers, interpreted this vision as applying only, or at least chiefly, to a particular individual chosen by God, Jesus himself saw this--correctly in my view--as the God-given destiny of any member of the human species and he made it his mission to get others to see themselves in that light, particularly those whom he found oppressed and overwhelmed by the harsh circumstances of their lives. Instead of shunning the unfortunate, he sought to raise their spirits by instilling confidence, compassion and hope.  For those who heeded or heed his voice, he was and always will be as Dietrich Bonhoeffer described him: "the Man for others."/88/



/1/ Birth of Christianity, p. xxx.

/2/ Christology in the Making, 2nd ed., p. 254.

/3/ So too Crossan: “History is not the same as story. Even if all history is story, not all story is history” (Birth of Christianity, p. 20).

/4/ Birth of Christianity, p. xxx-xxxi.

/5/ Cf. 1 Cor 15:20-28; Philip 2:5-10; Col 1:15-20; John 1:1-18; Heb 1:1-4.

/6/ E.g. 1 Cor 15:24-27; Rev 19:11-19.

/7/ Crossan’s argument is part of a study focused narrowly on the formative elements of Christianity at its birth, which he defines as before Paul (Birth of Christianity, p. xxi). Yet, he presents his point dialectically, as a correction of Pauline christology.  Therefore, I make my point dialectically as a corrective, to prevent Crossan’s analysis from being read as descriptive of the panorama of christology from Paul to the present.

/8/ R. N. Ostling, TIME (August 15, 1988), p. 42.

/9/ E.g., John 8:40-52; 1 Cor 2:22-25.

/10/ E.g., M. J. Borg (Meeting Jesus AGAIN for the First Time, pp. 1-17) and R. W. Funk (Honest to Jesus, pp. 1-14).

/11/ I use “propaganda” in the politically neutral sense of its root Latin denotation as in the Vatican’s congregation Propaganda Fidei: “what is to be planted, prolonged or promoted.”

/12/ E.g., the noted christologist Gerald O’Collins, S.J. wrote: “John Dominic Crossan offers a further example of such bad biblical scholarship, hyped up into a marketing success... he ‘reconstructs’ Jesus as a Cynic peasant, akin to a magician, who practiced free healing, common eating and radical egalitarianism in the service of the kingdom of God” (Focus on Jesus, p. 10).

/13/ John’s superior social reputation among Jews over that of Jesus is attested not only by Q (Matt 11:7-19//Luke 7:24-35) but by Josephus (Antiquities 18.117-119; cf. Into His Own, par. 37).

/14/ 1 Cor 1:18-25.

/15/ Cf. Mark 8:31-33;  9:4-6, 32; 10:35-38.

/16/ Cf. Pliny, Letter 96 (Kee, NT in Context, p. 44).

/17/ E.g., Philp 2:5-9; Col 1:15-20; Heb 1:2-4. The pseudonymous early second-century “Letter of the Apostles" (Epistula Apostolorum) provides an excellent example of this tendency to identify Jesus as the supreme cosmic power from eternity: “We know this: our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (is) God, Son of God who was sent from God, the ruler of the entire world, the maker and creator of what is named with every name, who is over all authority (as) Lord of lords and King of kings, the ruler of the rulers, the heavenly one who is over the Cherubim and Seraphim and sits at the right hand of the throne of the Father, who by his word commanded the heavens and built the earth an all that is in it and bounded the sea that it should not go beyond its boundaries, and (caused) deeps and springs to bubble up and flow over the earth day and night; who established the sun, moon, and stars in heaven and separated light from darkness; who commanded hell and in the twinkling of an eye summons the rain for the wintertime, and fog, frost and hail, and the days in their time; who shakes and makes firm; who has created man according to his image and likeness; who spoke in parables through the patriarchs and prophets and in truth through him whom the apostles declared and the disciples touched....” (Ep.Ap. 3 from Hennecke & Schneemelcher, NT Apocrypha vol. 1, p. 192).

/18/ E.g. 1 Thess 2:14-16; Matt 27:20-25; John 8:39-47. The legacy of this rhetoric even in the third Christian millennium is demonstrated by responses to a nation-wide poll conducted by TIME and CNN after Albert Gore (a Baptist) announced Joseph Lieberman (an Orthodox Jew) as his choice for his vice-presidential running-mate. Asked whether they were concerned about “the fact that Lieberman does not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God” almost a quarter (24%) replied that they were “very concerned.”  Among those who identified themselves with the Christian right virtually half (49%) chose this answer (TIME August 21, 2000, p. 27).

/19/ J. D. G. Dunn is probably correct in concluding that “the antecedents [of the Logos hymn] are mainly to be found in the Wisdom tradition [of Hellenized Judaism] rather than in Philo” (Christology in the Making, p. 242).  But his denial that Philo regarded the Logos as a personal intermediary distinct from God himself (p. 228) and his contention that the “revolutionary significance” of John 1:14 is that it “marks...the transition from impersonal personification to actual person” (p. 243) are questionable in the light of these passages from Confusion of Tongues :

“For [the Logos] is the eldest Son, whom the Father of all raised, who elsewhere is named the First-born. And indeed, having been begotten, he imitated the ways of the Father; and by looking at his archetypal patterns, he formed the ideas” (63). “And if there is anyone who indeed is not yet worthy to be called a son of God, let him strive to be ordered [kosmeisthai] in relation to (God's) First-born and eldest Messenger [angelos], the Word: that is the multi-named Archangel (who was) at the beginning. For he is also called "the Beginning" and the ‘Name of God’ and the ‘Word’ and the ‘Man after his Image’ and ‘Israel the Seer’” (143) [from “Philosophy & Allegory” in my Into His Own, par. 306-307]. 

Such rhetoric does not represent the abstract allegorical interpretation of a biblical story but rather the transformation of philosophical concepts into a biblically based myth. It is precisely these elements of a pre-existent mythic persona who can appear in many guises that are absent from the Johannine Logos hymn.

/20/ The non-judgmental Thomasine form of this aphorism was probably unknown to most Orthodox theologians. Yet, the more scathing Q version (Matt 7:3-5//Luke 6:41-42) presents even clearer reason for refraining from censoring minute flaws in the formulations of others.

/21/ “If anyone loves me, he will treasure my word (ton logon mou) and my Father will love him and we will come to him and make a home with him. One who does not love me does not treasure my words (tous logous mou). And the word (logos) that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me” (John 14:23-24).

/22/ Justin wrote to the Stoic emperors, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius: “But when you hear the utterances of the prophets spoken as it were personally, you must not suppose that they are spoken by the inspired themselves, but by the Divine Word who moves them. For sometimes He declares things that are to come to pass, in the manner of one who foretells the future; sometimes He speaks as from the person of God the Lord and Father of all; sometimes as from the person of Christ; sometimes as from the person of the people answering the Lord or His Father, just as you can see even in your own writers, one man being the writer of the whole, but introducing the persons who converse” (First Apology 36; italics mine).

/23/ Justin wrote: “We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably (meta logou) are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists” (First Apology  46). “For whatever either lawgivers or philosophers uttered well, they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Word [logos]... For no one trusted in Socrates so as to die for this doctrine, but in Christ, who was partially known even by Socrates (for He was and is the Logic [logos] that is in every man, and who foretold the things that were to come to pass both through the prophets and in his own person....” (Second Apology 10; italics mine).

/24/ So: Justin, First Apology 46 (cf. note 20 above).

/25/ J. McIntyre wrote: “It is important that we should endeavour to grasp what Aristotle is saying [in Categoriae 5.2a.11-19].  The distinction he makes here becomes regulative...of the definition of orthodox theology some seven hundred years after he made it, and remained so...even until our time” (Shape of Christology, p. 87).

/26/ Ousia (lit.: “being”) may mean either “an individual entity” or an “essence” common to more than one entity of the same species. So the critical term in the Nicene creed -- homoousios (“of the same being”) -- could be interpreted either as “of the same essence” (in which case Father, Son and Spirit would have to be conceived as three distinct entities with a common essence) or “of the same entity” (in which case Father, Son and Spirit would have to be conceived as three faces [prosopa] of the same divine person).  Such ambiguity opened the formula to charges (by supporters of Arius) of heresy, since the term homoousios had figured in the condemnation of the modalistic monarchianism of Sabellius a century earlier.  The problem with hypostasis was that, though it had a technical connotation of “an individual existence” in philosophical circles, its literal meaning was “substance” (with secular connotations of “property” or “foundation”).  Further confusion was created by the fact that homoousios was translated as “consubstantial” in Latin versions of the creed.

/27/ Contrary to Plato’s conception of reality, Aristotle contended that the real world is composed of individuals rather than generic universals.  Therefore, the reality of any idea is totally dependent on its existence in concrete individuals: “Animal is predicated of man, and therefore of individual man; for if there were no individual man of whom it could be predicated it could not be predicated of man at all....Everything is either predicated of primary substances [proté ousiai = individual hypostaseis] or present in them; and if these last did not exist, it would be impossible for anything else to exist” (Categoriae 5.2a34ff cited in McIntyre, Shape of Christology, p. 88).

/28/ Since according to Aristotle’s definition there is no nature apart from an individual (see n. 25 above), if Jesus did not exist as an individual human being he could not be really human, but if was a real human individual, then he could not be really God. Conversely, if his real existence was divine, then he could not really be human. By excluding the conception of any fusion of the two natures in Christ, Chalcedon left it unclear just how Jesus was to be understood as “perfectly” both divine and human. D. W. Odell-Scott concludes: “At the center of orthodox Christian belief, at the heart of Christian convictions, is an absurdity, a self-contradicting assertion, a gap in the conceptual terrain, a fault which runs the breadth and length of Christian theology, a hole or cut or lapse upon which christendom is built” (Post-patriarchal Christology, p. 81).

/29/ In 1998 J. Macquarrie wrote: “The christology worked out in patristic times attained a classic status, and indeed is still the norm today.  But since the eighteenth century at least, that classic expression of the church’s belief about Jesus has made little contact with the modern mind. It speaks the language and employs the conceptuality of a former age....it is not liberating in the modern age, but has become almost a barrier to understanding.  So we in our time have to look for ways of communicating faith that will speak to the mentality of our contemporaries, just as the fathers of Chalcedon did in their time” (Christology Revisited, pp. 11-12).  The same year J. McIntyre wrote: “It will be my main contention that classical christology has come under severe strain in these new settings in which it has of late found itself and that a crisis has begun to develop which can only be resolved by a radical reassessment of the basic shape of this central doctrine of the Christian faith as expressed today” (Shape of Christology, p. 5).

/30/ J. McIntyre proposes this typology for analyzing the theories of quite independent thinkers:

  • (1) a psychological model (e.g., D. M. Baillie, God Was in Christ; L. Hodgson, And Was Made Man; H. R. Mackintosh, The Person of Jesus Christ);

  • (2) a revelation model (e.g., A. A. M. Fairweather, The Word as Truth; E. Brunner, The Mediator; K. Barth, The Doctrine of the Word of God;

  • (3) a process model (e.g., D. R. Griffin, A Process Christology; J. B. Cobb, Christ in a Pluralistic Age and Encountering Jesus); N. Pittenger, Word Incarnate and Christology Reconsidered;

  • (4) neo-Chalcedonian (e.g., J. Macquarrie, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought; G. O’Collins, Christology).

For inclusiveness this grid needs to be expanded to cover a wide variety of recent works by adding at least two more types of christological reflection that emphasize its socio-historical dimension:

  • (5) a functional model (e.g., J. Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator; D. Edwards, Jesus the Wisdom of God); and

  • (6) intellectual history (e.g., W. Pannenburg, Jesus - God and Man; E. Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology; J. D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making).

/31/ Christology in the Making, p.254 (italics mine).

/32/ H. S. Reimarus wrote: “I found  great cause to separate what the apostles say in their own writings from that which Jesus himself actually said and taught, for the apostles were themselves teachers and consequently present their own views....” (“Concerning the Intention of Jesus,” p. 64).

/33/ Despite conflicting views of Jesus, few in the guild would disagree with this statement by D. C. Allison: “Once we doubt, as all modern scholars do, that the Jesus tradition gives us invariably accurate information, unvarnished by exaggeration and legend, it is incumbent upon us to find some way of sorting through the diverse traditions to divine what really goes back to Jesus” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 2).

/34/ Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 7-10; quotation at top of p. 8 (italics mine).

/35/ Jesus of Nazareth, p. 8.

/36/ Jesus of Nazareth, p. 7-8.  Even if Jesus himself spoke of a coming Son of Man, it would not be distinctive, since it would only be an echo of a biblical text (Dan 7) that was used by other Jews (e.g., 1 Enoch & 4 Ezra).

/37/ Jesus and Judaism, p. 4.

/38/ E.g., Matt 11:27//Luke 10:22, Mark 14:61, John 3:16.  The primary reasons for not accepting such sayings as genuine Jesus sayings are that (a) they are found only in one source and (b) except for the first, they are indistinct from the christology of the author of that gospel.

/39/ Five Gospels, pp. 549-553.

/40/ See note 37 above.

/41/ The principle that someone else may understand you better than yourself is a basic tenet of Freudian psychology that can be demonstrated in case after case.  But christology is not akin to psychoanalysis; and classical theological reflection on Jesus hardly qualifies as a parallel to the Oedipus theory.

/42/ Jesus and Judaism, p. 4.

/43/ E.g., Stevan Davies, Jesus the Healer.

/44/ Birth of Christianity, p. xxx (italics mine).

/45/ Jesus’ practice is the focus of liberation christology (cf. J. Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, p. 51).

/46/ It has been argued that this is a circular argument from silence: an artificial and potentially false impression created by the fact that (a) the sayings preserved in the Jesus tradition do not represent all that he actually said and (b) those sayings in the gospels that do make claims about Jesus’ person have been methodically excluded as inauthentic.  Such an argument, however, ignores the fact that the latter group of sayings were identified as unreliable on the basis of theologically neutral historical criteria -- i.e., lack of witnesses or corroborating evidence, affinity to the language and viewpoint of the author of a Hellenistic Christian text rather than the voice of a Galilean Jew, and above all contradiction of logic inherent in statements credited to Jesus that are most probably genuine.  In reply to the first point, it needs to be stressed that any historical judgment can only be made on the basis of extant evidence. What someone might have said that was not reported is a matter of pure speculation.  To rest one’s case on that is really to argue from silence.

/47/ Luke 6:20//Thom 54 received a weighted average of 91% in the Jesus Seminar voting (Five Gospels, pp. 549, 552). For a distribution of the votes see FORUM 6/3-4, pp. 301, 315.

/48/ Matt 19:24//Mark 10:25//Luke 18:25 received a 67% weighted average (Five Gospels, p. 550). Vote distribution in FORUM 6/3-4, p. 307.

/49/ Historical Jesus, p. 266ff.

/50/ Matt 13:44(//Thom 109:1-3) received a weighted average of 71%; Matt 13:45-46//Thom 76:1-2, 68%. For vote distributions see FORUM 6/3-4, p. 305-6.

/51/ Matt 6:11(//Luke 11:3) received a weighted average of 60% (Five Gospels, p. 551). Vote distribution in FORUM 6/3-4, p. 309.

/52/ Matt 8:20//Luke 9:58//Thom 86:1 was weighted 74% (Five Gospels, p. 550). Vote distribution in FORUM 6/3-4, p. 304.

/53/ Matt 6:24a//Luke 16:13a//Thom 47:2 received a 72% weighted average; the part of the aphorism that declares slavery to wealth (Mammon) incompatible with service to God (Matt 6:24b//Luke 16:13b) was received a lower rating (59%) largely because it has no parallel in Thomas and was thought by some Fellows to be a hermeneutical addition by the author of Q. Nevertheless, it is compatible with Jesus’ view of wealth in general. See Five Gospels, p. 550. Vote distribution in FORUM 6/3-4, pp. 304-305.

/54/ The long aphoristic cluster on anxieties was divided into its logical components for evaluation.  The segments received the following weighted averages:
Matt 6:25//Luke 12:22-23//Thom 36:1 (“Don’t fret”) 75%;
Matt 6:26//Luke 12:24 (“Birds fed”) 67%;
Matt 6:27//Luke 12:25 (“Added cubit”) 54%;
Matt 6:28-30//Luke 12:27-28//Thom 36:2  (“Lilies clothed”) 68%
(Five Gospels, pp. 549-552). For vote distribution see FORUM6/3-4, p. 303-307, 313.

/55/ The only parts of the missionary instructions the gospels ascribe to Jesus that received more than a 50% weighted average in the Jesus Seminar voting were the injunctions to itinerants to stay at whatever house offered them hospitality (Luke 10:7a) and to eat whatever they were served (Luke 10:8//Thom 14:4a). See Five Gospels, pp. 552-553. The Q form of the injunction to travel light, without any possessions (Luke 9:3//Matt 10:10a), fell just shy of a probable rating (46%) because of differences in the Matthean and Lukan versions. Yet it was still well within the range of sayings that possibly contained ideas formulated by the historical Jesus himself. For vote distributions see FORUM 6/3-4, p. 314-315, 317.

/56/ Mark 10:14//Matt 19:14//Luke 18:16 received a 52% weighted average (Five Gospels, p. 552). For vote distribution see FORUM 6/3-4, p. 315.

/57/ Isa 6:1-5; Ezek 1:1-28.

/58/ E.g., the authors of Daniel, 4 Ezra, the “parables” of 1 Enoch, and the Christianized Apocalypse of John.

/59/ Mark 10:14//Matt 19:14//Luke 18:16 received a 52% weighted average in the Jesus Seminar voting (Five Gospels, p. 552); Mark 10:15 and parallels (Matt 19:15//Luke 18:17 and the analogous aphorism in Matt 18:3) were rated just less than probable (45%) but still high among the sayings in the Seminar’s data base that reflect ideas in line with genuine sayings of Jesus. For voting distributions see FORUM 6/3-4, p. 314, 318.

/60/ E.g., Prov 13:24, 22:15; Gal 4:1-2.

/61/ Matt 5:45 received a weighted average of 53%  (Five Gospels, p. 552).  For vote distribution see FORUM 6/3-4, p. 313.

/62/ Luke 15:11-32 received a weighted average of  70% (Five Gospels, p. 550). For vote distribution see FORUM 6/3-4, p. 305.

/63/ Luke 10:21//Matt 11:25-26 received a weighted average of only 36% when it was first considered in 1989, which barely qualified for inclusion in the Jesus Seminar data base of sayings that possibly contained elements traceable to Jesus (see vote distribution in FORUM 6/3-4, p. 323).  Its low rating was largely due to the fact that it prefaces a christological statement that was overwhelmingly regarded as a post-crucifixion formula (Luke 10:22//Matt 11:27). When it was pointed out (in 1997) that the christological appendix contradicted the logic of the thanksgiving [see FORUM n.s.1/2 (Fall 1998) 462-463], the Seminar reconsidered the thanksgiving as an independent aphorism and accepted it as probably traceable to Jesus himself.

/64/ Matt 18:1-5//Mark 9:33-37//Luke 9:46-48 (see Five Gospels, pp. 84f, 213f, 315).

/65/ Mark 12:38-39//Luke 8:16 received a weighted average of 61%; Matt 23:5-7 received a lower rating (53%) because, in integrating it into a long tirade against Jewish teachers, that evangelist turned it from a warning into an indictment (Five Gospels, p. 551). For vote distributions see FORUM 6/3-4, p. 308.

/66/ Luke 6:32 received a weighted average of 56%; other versions of this logion (Matt 12:8 and Thom 55:1-2) were rated lower because of editorial redaction that softened its sharp edge (Five Gospels, p. 552). . For vote distributions see FORUM 6/3-4, p. 312.

/67/ Matt 8:22//Luke 9:59-60 received a weighted average of 70% (Five Gospels, p. 550). . For vote distributions see FORUM 6/3-4, p. 305.

/68/ Birth of Christianity, p. xxx (quoted above; cf. n. 44).

/69/ The Jesus Seminar accepted the historicity of the core story behind synoptic and Johannine accounts of Jesus’ cure of a cripple as probable (Mark 2:1-12 par and John 5:1-9). The only common wording in these versions is Jesus’ instruction to the cripple.  Since the only thing that Jesus does is tell  the man to get up, this command must be considered part of that core.  It was not colored pink in the Acts of Jesus due to an editorial decision to print all of Jesus’ words in stories about his deeds in regular typeface (see Acts of Jesus, pp. 63-65, 382-383, 558,567).

/70/ The Jesus Seminar was virtually unanimous in accepting Matt 5:39//Luke 6:29a as a genuine Jesus saying (92% weighted average; see Five Gospels, p. 549). The Matthean form specifies a backhand slap to the right cheek -- a traditional gesture for putting a social inferior into his/her place.  There were no black votes and few gray votes on either version (see vote spread in FORUM 6/3-4, p. 301).

/71/ Matt 5:40 was ranked equal to Matt 5:39 (see preceding note); Luke 6:29b which does not specify the context of debt collection was rated a bit lower (90%; see FORUM 6/3-4, p. 301). Surrendering one’s cloak would embarrass a creditor in a culture that took Deut 24:10-13 seriously. The Lukan version probably emends this gesture for a non-Jewish social context.

/72/ John 1:18.

/73/ While the voice from the cloud -- “This is my beloved son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7 par) -- in the transfiguration story is pure fiction, it is a true historical reflection of the tendency of even Jesus’ most fervent fans to confuse his voice with those of traditional authorities.

/74/ Birth of Christianity, p. xxx (italics mine). See n. 44 above for fuller quotation.

/75/ See my Excursus on “Abba, Father” (Forum n.s. 1/2, pp. 464-465).  The use of simply “Father” in the Lukan version of  the prayer that Q ascribed to Jesus was judged traceable to Jesus by more than three-quarters of the Jesus Seminar (77% weighted average; vote spread in FORUM 6/3-4, p. 301).

/76/ Gal 3:26-4:7.

/77/ Rom 8:15c-17, 29.

/78/ The Seminar judged those versions of Jesus’ pronouncement regarding his true relatives that refer to “my Father” (Matt 12:50//Thom 99:2) to be probably closer to the original wording of this aphorism than those that have him refer to “God” (Mark 3:35//Luke 8:21) since the core logic of this saying involves the question of family relationships. For vote spread see FORUM 6/3-4, p. 309).

/79/ The parable of the leaven (Matt 13:33//Luke 13:20-21) received a weighted average of 83%; the version of the mustard seed that realistically the plant as a shrub (Thom 20:2-4//Mark 4:30-32) 76% (Five Gospels, pp. 549-550; for vote spread see FORUM 6/3-4, pp. 302-303).

/80/ See n. 54 above.

/81/ The comparison between a human father’s inclination and God’s in Matt 7:9-11 received a 59% weighted average; the preceding injunction to beg & knock was rated a bit lower (51%).  Luke’s wording was judged less likely to be original (Five Gospels, pp. 551-552; for vote spread see FORUM 6/3-4, p. 310, 314f).

/82/ Mark 2:27-28 received a 55% weighted average (Five Gospels, p. 552). The Matthean and Lukan omission of the premise -- i.e., “the sabbath was created for the human being not the human being for the sabbath” -- on which the son of Man statement is based caused these versions to be rated lower. For vote spread see FORUM 6/3-4, p. 313.

/83/ W. Wink wisely comments: “...it is not Jesus but the disciples who take on the right to decide when the sabbath is being broken.  Such sovereign freedom, placed in the hands of the underclasses, inevitably strikes terror in the hearts of those entrusted with the tranquility of society” (“The Son of Man,” p. 170).

/84/ Again Wink: “But when all authority is vested only in Jesus, what becomes of the sovereign freedom that Jesus evoked in his disciples?  What becomes of deciding for ourselves what is right (Luke 12:57)?  It is indeed awesome how christology has been used to avoid the clear intent of Jesus!” (“The Son of Man,” p. 171).

/85/ Matt 12:27-28//Luke 11:19-20 received a 64% weighted average. For vote spread see FORUM 6/3-4, p. 307.

/86/ Honest to Jesus, p. 305.

/87/ Honest to Jesus, p. 306.

/88/ In a proposed "Outline for a Book," one of his last papers, Bonhoeffer wrote: "Our relation to God is not a 'religious' relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable — that is not authentic transcendence — but our relation to God in a new life in “existence for others”, through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation. God in human form — not, as in oriental religions, in animal form, monstrous, chaotic, remote, and terrifying, nor in the conceptual forms of the absolute, metaphysical, infinite, etc., nor yet in the Greek divine-human form of “man in himself”, but “the man for others”, and therefore the Crucified, the man who lives out of the transcendent" (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 381f).






Allison, Dale. Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.

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  • This essay is a revised edition of a paper presented at the Fall meeting of the Jesus Seminar (Santa Rosa CA) 6 October 2000. It was published in FORUM n.s. 3,2 (Fall 2000) 321-356.
  • Hypertext links to this web page and brief quotations in scholarly reviews and publications are invited. But the text as a whole may not be posted or reproduced elsewhere without express written permission of the author & Polebridge Press.


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