Wednesday, February 18, 2009


I have been recently working through the volume edited by Beverley Gaventa (Princeton) and Richard Hays (Duke), entitled "Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage" (Eerdmans 2008). The volume comes out of lengthy times of interaction and worship and presentations at the CTI (the Center of Theological Inquiry, which should surely be called the Center for Theological Inquiry) at Princeton. Here some sixteen scholars in the fields of Biblical Studies, Patristics, Systematics, Reformation History and Theology, Liturgy and other cognate fields got together to talk about the issue of the Identity of Jesus, in its various forms and facets, modes and meanings.

This volume can be seen as a sort of sequel to a previous such meeting of the minds at the CTI (some of the same minds and some different ones from the earlier project) which produced "The Art of Reading Scripture" (Eerdmans 2003), an equally interesting collaboration. This first post will be dealing with a central issue raised by this most recent collaboration, namely how do we get at the identity of Jesus, or better said, what is the identity of Jesus-- who is he, and what counts as knowing him? The second post will be a somewhat detailed review of this important book.


Perhaps you will remember Jason Bourne, and "the Bourne Identity". What exactly was his problem? In short, he had lost almost entirely any memory of his earlier life, and had no idea who he was, or at least who he had been before he was completely and almost literally brainwashed. Or consider the case of the Altzheimer's victim. What happens to them? They lose their memory, and in extreme cases they lose all sense of who they are, their identity.

Identity, we are told is bound up in memory. But there is more involved as well. One's personality and also one's character have something to do with identity. When we ask however the question about Jesus' identity, things are by no means as straightforward as with the case of Mr. Bourne or the Altzheimer's victim. It is not surprising then that there have been over the course of church history enormous questions raised and discussed quite specifically dealing with the issue of the identity of Jesus, especially by those who believe he was both truly a human being and also truly divine.

Normally, when we talk about the identity of someone we are talking about a normal historical person and his or her life from womb to tomb, but in fact the story of Jesus begins before the virginal conception in Mary's womb and continues after his exaltation to the right hand of God. This is precisely why analyzing the historical Jesus would never be adequate to define the identity of that man. Information about him as a historical person is only at best a subset of the data for understanding who he was and is, for the same stories that tell us he was a man from Nazareth are also the stories that tell us he was so much more than that-- namely a pre-existent Son of God and a post- resurrection risen Lord.

The historian's Jesus, or the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar, or the Jesus reconstructed on the basis of normal historical study of ancient figures could at most only be a discussion about a part of who he was, if the Gospels and the rest of the NT are anywhere near to being right about him. And of course if there is one person about whom we cannot afford the blunder of mistaking the part for the whole, it is Jesus.

We live in a Jesus haunted culture that is Biblically illiterate, and so unfortunately at this point in time, almost anything can pass for knowledge of the historical Jesus from notions that he was a a Cynic sage to ideas that he was a Gnostic guru to fantasies that he didn't exist, to Dan Browne's Jesus of hysterical (rather than historical) fiction. The real value of actual historical research about Jesus is that it provides a hedge against the inflation and infatuation of giving free reign to one's imagination when it comes to the identity of Jesus. It is thus a good thing that the writers of "Seeking the Identity of Jesus' were all able to come to the conclusion that a non-Jewish Jesus is not the real Jesus at all, and this of course is precisely the problem with the Jesus of Gnosticism who is often anti-Semitic if not simply non-Semitic.

One of the problems of course for the historian in assessing Jesus is that the stories about him are suffused with theology. Theology is not something added to the Gospels like icing on a cake that could with some hard labor be removed from the surface and the substance of what was being investigated. No, the stories about the historical Jesus are inherently theological in character. This of course is because the author's believed that God was an actor in space and time, not merely an observor of history from a far.

More specifically they believed that Jesus was the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, and so history could hardly be parsed out from God talk-- theo-logia. Robert Jenson brings this up in an emphatic way in his essay "Identity, Jesus and Exegesis" in the aforementioned volume when he says "you cannot accurately pick out Jesus of Nazareth without simultaneously picking out the second person of the Trinity, and you cannot accurately pick out the second person of the Trinity without in fact simultaneously picking out Jesus of Nazareth...when we ask about the identity of Jesus, historical and systematic questions cannot be separated." (pp. 46-47). I would put it a little differently saying that historical and theological questions cannot be radically separated when it comes to Jesus.

Jenson points us to the sentence "Jesus is risen". As he stresses, the word risen refers to something that happened to Jesus in space and time. Resurrection is then not in the first instance about resurrection appearances which disciples saw, or thought they saw. Nor is it about visions of Jesus disciples such as Paul may or may not have had. In other words, resurrection is not and cannot be reduced to a purely human psychological category or phenomena.

What the early church proclaimed in the first instance was that Jesus was risen, and this was just as much apart of the historical story about Jesus, as for example the claim that Jesus was born. Its just that post-Enlightenment persons (sometimes called modern persons), have been used for too long to assume that there are certain things that cannot and do not happen in human history, in particular actual divine intervention, or as we call them miracles. But of course, since no one's knowledge of the human realm is exhaustive how could anyone prove the negative that "miracles cannot happen"? It is in fact impossible to prove such a negative assumption without exhaustive knowledge of the inner workings of history and space and time. And no one but God has such knowledge.

Jenson makes his point this way "The character of the predicate ' risen'... is not only a concept predicated of Jesus' story [e.g. ex post facto], it is itself part of the story." (p. 47). Exactly so. What the Gospels are, are theological history writing. Not history without theology, and not mere theologizing added after the fact to history, or theologizing done in the form of narrative and history writing. No, what we have in the Gospels is theological history writing, which is simply one sort of history writing, a sort that was very common in antiquity (see e.g. Herodotus the father of history writing), and more rare in our day. Its rarity today is not because we are so much wiser than the ancients, or because the divine Elvis long since left the building. It is in fact because we are not as wise as the ancients when it comes to historical matters that are miraculous and theological in character.

Identity, is in fact a slippery term in English. The Gospel writers do not do a lot of overt editorializing about who Jesus is. They use the method of indirect portraiture, allowing Jesus' words and deeds to speak for themselves and reveal his true character. And there is a wisdom in this because it means they are attempting to step out of the way, for the most part, and let Jesus speak and act for himself. Did you notice they nowhere give a physical description of the man, but most moderns seem to be pretty sure they could pick him out of a line up at Pontius Pilate's police station? The ancients knew that it was the content of his character not the color of his skin or eyes or hair that truly mattered.

But these Evangelists are also wise enough to know that Jesus' identity is not just a matter of telling what he said and did. His identity is perhaps just as much revealed by what happens to the man quite apart from his conscious decisions and actions--- for example the virginal conception in Mary's womb, or when God raised him from the dead. Jesus is only the risen Lord because God raised him from the dead. If you do not realize that who you are is as much a matter of what happens to you quite beyond your control as well as the facets of your life you can control, then you have not plumbed the depths of the nature of human identity.

In my earlier work written 20 years ago "The Christology of Jesus" (Fortress Press), I focused on the issue of the identity of Jesus, and one thing I pointed out is of course not only that identity is something that develops over time, even in the case of Jesus (see e.g. Lk. 2.41-52), but I stressed that who a person is, who a person thinks they are, who a person claims to be, and who others think that person is, can all be distinguishable and different things.

Jesus could have been the savior of the world, and quietly set about the task of doing the job without ever having made public claims to that effect. Other people could have thought of Jesus as a Zealot, but their thinking or claiming it did not make it so. My point in stressing this, is that the public claims and acclaims and refutations about the identity of Jesus are at best one inadequate clue to who he was, and who he thought he was.

If you just focus on the Christological labels you will not sufficiently plumb the depths of who he was and is, not least because Jesus was a remarkably complex person, or as Eduard Schweizer said long ago... he was the man who fit no one formula, could not be pigeon holed. Just so. This is why a titles approach to discerning the identity of Jesus, while necessary, will never be sufficient, especially in regard to understanding his true and full humanity. Assessing the identity of a living person is less like assessing a marble statue and more like assessing the boundaries and character of a lake which while, it has some constant elements (e.g. water, and a generally given shape) nonetheless is constantly in motion and can be seen from ever fresh and new angles. (see Derek Parfit's comment on p. 310 of the book).

Of course the great problem in assessing Jesus' identity is that even given the conclusion that he is truly human and truly divine, figuring out what the Bible says about the relationship between those two natures has been the subject of no end of debate and church councils in church history. Unfortunately in conservative Christian circles we have tended to stress one side of the balance, namely the divine side, more than the other, seeing Jesus as sort of 90% divine and 10% human. Of course the Jesus seminar and others, seeking to redress the balance have wanted to stress the exact opposite proportions (Jesus lite, less filling but still tastes great!) if not denying Jesus any divinity at all.

Part of the problem with this debate was that the Greek notion of the impassability of the divine (i.e. that the Eternal does not change, and is not subject to change) has been interjected into the discussion. But the problem with using this notion to help get clarity about the identity of Jesus is that when the NT says things like "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever" it does not mean Jesus never suffered on the cross, or that Jesus never underwent any changes, or that Jesus had no emotions. It simply means that his character was consistent throughout and beyond time--- he was manifestly always the same person in the sense that he had the same character always. It requires real exegetical gymnastics with the NT text to try and conclude that the incarnation did not involve the second person of the Trinity incorporating some real, and indeed physical change into the Godhead. But this brings up another crucial point.

Jesus's identity cannot be adequately assessed by accounting for what can be said about him in distinction from and in isolation from all other beings. This is of course an important question-- asking what makes him unique. But what the Gospel writers say is that we understand him best when we understand whose he was (God's only begotten Son) which is to say, who he was in relationship to God (Son of God, God's Anointed one) and who he was in relationship to us (the Son of Man, the Lord of the church, the head of the Body of believers and so on).

Jesus' identity is as much revealed in his relationships as in isolation. And this brings up perhaps the most crucial point of this first post. What the Gospel writers insist is that Jesus cannot be understood or truly known apart from not only belief in God, but a certain knowledge of the relationship of God to Jesus, as well as of Jesus to God's people both Israel and the Church. This is precisely why the Fourth Evangelist writes at the end of his narrative. "these things are written so you might begin to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God". He presupposes that one already is at least open to believing in God before assessing the identity of Jesus. This means that truly seeing and knowing Jesus of course requires faith. While our world may use the cliche "seeing is, or leads to believing" what the Gospel say is that "believing leads to seeing" when it comes to the identity of Jesus.

In his helpful essay "The Historian's Jesus and the Church" Dale Allison concludes as follows: "Every piece of evidence we have indicates that from the beginning Jesus, whatever appellation he did or did not bestow on himself, was the leader, and everyone else a follower. He was the teacher, while everyone else usually listened; he was the main actor while everyone else for the most part observed. There is no tradition in which Jesus is not front and center. Moreover the primitive proclamation "God raised Jesus from the dead," however one accounts for it, was no reason to crown him Israel's king or to see him as a ruling lord-- unless he was antecedently hoped to be such.... The early interpretations of the Easter events presupposed Jesus' pivotal eschatological role; they were not its source." (pp. 92-93).

Just so. The Gospels stories are not examples of prophecy historicized (by which I mean faux history made up on the basis of a certain reading of OT prophecies), nor are they like Aesop's fables, or legendary material found in the Illiad and the Odyssey, much less like the stuff of Egyptian or Greco-Roman myths. No, these Gospel stories are tied down to specific times and places and persons who witnessed, experienced, were changed by encounters with Jesus both before and after Golgotha.

The Gospel writers set out then to reveal the faces, or multi-faceted identity of Jesus. As Fred Buechner said long ago, he had a face which was not a front behind which he hid, but rather a frontier, the outer most visible edge of who he was. In him was no shadow of turning, no dissembling, his character was authentic, honest, had integrity-- he was as advertised by the Evangelists. His was a face which has led millions to follow or flee him for all of their days for over 2,000 years. Its time for all of us to face up to that Face, and so be transformed and conformed to the image of the one whom we admire and love and serve. We have a choice-- shall we go on being a Jesus haunted culture, or a Christ like one.


Ivan Karel said...

Dr Ben, thanks.

How about Historical Jesus.

Should this study also involve theological concepts.


Ivan Karel-Jakarta

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Ivan:

Yes, absolutely,

Ben W.

Jim Deardorff said...

In seeking his historical identity, history needs to be explored free from false conclusions that can arise out of theological commitment.

To illustrate, consider the evidence that he traveled to India in his youth, and traveled and studied there under the master Buddhists and Hindus of that day for many years before returning. The evidence for this uncovered by Notovitch in 1894 was later independently verified by Swami Abhedananda in 1922.

Upon studying the refutation of Notovitch by Max Mueller and an unknown professor J. Archibald Douglas, you might find, as I did, that the claims against Notovitch were unjust, inaccurate or irrelevant, and Notovitch's responses to them ignored. Claims by Edgar J. Goodspeed also do not stand up, and those made later by Per Beskow, after Abhedananda's confirming explorations, did not even take the latter into account.

It seems to me that the theological conviction of these naysayers improperly colored their conclusions. My collection of information on this is here.

Knowledge that Jesus had traveled to India, etc., gives cause to revise the common conception that he was raised a Jew.

Ben Witherington said...

The problem with the traditions about Jesus traveling to India for a historian are threefold: 1) we have no evidence that any such traditions existed prior to the modern era. This is just the opposite of the Biblical traditions we have which we even have manuscript evidence for, going back to the second century A.D.; 2) more crucially the traditions you are referring are contradictory to various aspects of the earlier traditions about Jesus, and so must be rejected as later attempts to rewrite the story of Jesus, much like the later Gnostic traditions about Jesus which have no historical basis.

Ergo, purely on historical grounds, and not because of any sort of theological prejudice, historians have and continue to reject the whole legend of Jesus goes to India, not least because it is anti-Semitic in character, and Jesus beyond any historical dispute was a Jew. Even anti-Christian scholars are in agreement on that point. One could add that the evidence of rampant anti-Semitism in the very area where Notovitch came from needs to be taken into account, and could explain why, like Joseph Smith, he decided to make up a myth
about Jesus and the early Christian tradition.
Blessings anyway,

Ben W.

Eliyahu said...

The real problem is that you have a definition of a Jewish man that is historically provable and you have mixed that with a myth that can be proven to be completely subjective. The Jewish Ribi Yehoshua is not the Egyptian/Greek/Roman/Persian ad infinitum myth J-sus. But J-sus is a source of income for seemingly endless pseudo scholars.

James said...

Allison concludes as follows: "Every piece of evidence we have indicates that from the beginning Jesus, whatever appellation he did or did not bestow on himself, was the leader, and everyone else a follower."
Isn't this conclusion inconsistent with what we can reasonably infer from Mark 1:4-8 and parallel passages? Didn't Jesus begin his career, or precede his career, as a follower of John the Baptist? E.P. Sanders and Paula Fredriksen and other skilled historians have thought so. Or at least, is "every piece of evidence we have" a little on the strong side?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi James:

Actually, it is not at all historically clear that Jesus was ever a follower of John the Baptist. What is clear is that he was baptized by John and some of John's followers became some of Jesus' followers, and that Jesus endorsed the ministry of John the Baptist. There is a connection between the two ministries, but it would be pushing what evidence we have much to far to claim Jesus was a follower of the Baptist.


Jim Deardorff said...

Ben, may I discuss your three points in your 5:03 AM post above?
There’s good reason why there’s a lot more oral than written tradition on the "lost years" subject. It was just as unacceptable to early Christians as it is to present-day Christians, and as we know, such writings tended not to survive, even outside of the Holy Land.

1. Regarding early literature that was witnessed but is/was safeguarded from destruction, both Notovitch and Abhedananda were witnesses to the Tibetan copy of
the Jesus-in-India ms, which was a transcription from the earlier writing in Pali kept at a different monastery for safekeeping. The independent translations each made from the Tibetan version are available for study and comparison.

And at the Puri Jagannath Temple in India, both the present and previous Shankaracharya are on record, from rare interviews, as admitting that writings
disclosing Issa's or Isha's presence there, in his youth, are/were located in the Temple's archives.

There is also the Talmud of Jmmanuel, which mentions both trips to India, and whose editor is still alive to vouch for the antiquity of its Aramaic text, which he co-discovered in 1963, and which did not survive past 1974 due to its heresies.

So this constitutes testimonial evidence that such traditions existed in written form prior to the modern era.

Re early written literature that is available, there is the Bhavishya Maha Purina, placing Jesus in Kashmir during the reign of King Shalivahana (39-50 CE). Written in Sanskrit, it reportedly dates back to 115 CE. (Of course, this involves the other topic, his
survival of the crucifixion and later life.)

2. This "lost years" evidence is more complementary than contradictory to what meagre
New Testament clues exist of Jesus' youth. One must allow that much of Luke's account of the Nativity and Jesus' early years could be myth or imagination, and especially the one verse that covers the "lost years" time period, Lk 2:52, which merely repeats Lk 1:80 and 2:40 (and 1 Sam 1:21b).

3. The idea that Notovitch was anti-Semitic doesn't accord with the text of the Lost Years Manuscript. In its recapitulation of the accusations against St. Issa and the trial, he is exonerated by the Jewish authorities but strongly condemned by Pilate.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jim:

Thanks for this. I don't put any stock in arguments for a supposed oral tradition that covers over a millenium with no textual evidence whatsoever to support it. But the more fundamental problem with the literature you are referring to is that it does not comport with the character of Jesus as portrayed in our earliest Christian literature. Furthermore, we are well aware of the tendency of Indian literature to make extravagant claims for example about Thomas as someone who evangelized India. These sorts of claims are understandable since everyone wants Jesus and the apostles to be "one of us" in some sense, but as for historical credibility, I don't know any Biblical scholars of whatever degree of orthodoxy or lack thereof that take these late claims seriously.


Ben W.

James said...

Well, if a guy is known as a baptizer, and baptizes me, surely that suggests I might be his follower. It isn’t pushing the evidence that leads to this inference, just trying to follow where it might lead. Similarly, if Jesus endorses John’s ministry he’s necessarily commending following him to others, and again that might suggest he did some following himself.

In several passages, most notably in John 1:20, 34 and 3:30, and the well-known “stoop down and untie the thong” passages, early followers of Jesus lay great stress on John the Baptist’s assumption of a role subordinate to Jesus. Why did they bother? Why did they speak of John the Baptist at all? When they did, why did they ascribe to him a self-assigned inferior role? If Jesus had begun his career as a follower of John, and followers of Jesus who wished to elevate his status encountered resistance from those who recalled his early acceptance of John’s mission, their insistence on John’s inferior role makes perfect sense.

I’d like to add a theological point. It would be no shortcoming at all for Jesus to have at some point in his career been more follower than leader. Few men and fewer women, when they begin their careers, ministries, missions, whatever, skate forthwith to the top. It’s a part of the normal human condition to experience subordination, and if Jesus did too, why then it only adds to his humanity.

Ben Witherington said...

James I agree its possible Jesus spent time with the Baptist, that is not the issue. You seem to assume however that because one person baptizes the other, this makes the second person a follower of the first. This hardly follows. Water rituals were common in early Judaism, indeed most Jews went in and out of a mikveh every day. There were clearly many many people who got baptized by John for repentance of sins, and never became a follower of John. They were not looking fora movement to join, they were looking for cleansing from sin, a different matter. You are right that the Gospels stress the subordination of John to Jesus, and this is because John continued to be a popular figure and his practice popular long after he was killed (see Acts 18-19). This latter fact, and not the assumption Jesus must have followed John, better accounts for the evidence we have.

Ben W.

Eliyahu said...

The mikveh is not for cleansing of sin. That is a Roman Hellenist Xtian definition that has no substance whatsoever in history. Read the Encyclopedia Judaica for the correct history and definition.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Eliyahu: You are quite right, the mikveh is for ritual cleansing. However, it is a huge mistake to sever ritual from moral cleansing. The consequences of ritual impurity in early Judaism was often isolation, even being put outside the community, which is certainly a moral consequence.

You need to give up the 'Roman Hellenistic' schtick. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the portraits of Jesus in the Gospels-- they are throughly Jewish in character. Roman and Hellenistic folk did not believe in resurrection, they believed in the immorality of the soul, a very different sort of afterlife, nor did they believe in the atoning value of a human sacrifice. They saw no redeeming value in crucifixion, unlike Jesus and his followers.



Eliyahu said...

The schtick Roman Hellenist is J-sus. Roman Hellenism is the assimilation of Judaism into Roman/Greek culture. At the point of mixing Judaism, that is defined by Torah, with any other culture/religion you no longer have Torah defined Judaism for it is forbidden to mix the kadosh with the chol. Have you read the Torah (instruction) of the nidah, the leper, and those that have come in contact with the dead? They had not sinned but they needed the mikveh to allow them to again enter the Beit Hamikdash. If there was a willful/errant misstep of Torah it sometimes required a korban but not a trip to the mikveh. Every Jew that entered the Beit Hamikdash went in the mikveh not because of "sin" but to be sure he had not come in contact inadvertently with a situation that would make him/her tamei, disqualified to enter. It is a gross misunderstanding at best and at worst a displacement theology to look at the mikveh, which was what Yochanan supervised as the Xtian baptism for forgiveness of sins. A man and a woman that were married needed to go to the mikveh simply after marital relations. Was that a sin? Yes Yehoshua, the real man, the real Jewish teacher, the Mashiach, was JEWISH. And he taught to keep the Torah not to pick and choose from it much less to do away with it. J-sus is simply the greatest identity theft of history. They are not the same. One is the Mashiach the other is the anti-Mashiach.

James said...

"There were clearly many many people who got baptized by John for repentance of sins, and never became a follower of John. They were not looking for a movement to join, they were looking for cleansing from sin, a different matter."

One student of the period, Bart Ehrman, says "it was commonly understood that one doing the baptizing was spiritually superior to the one being baptized," and refers to Jesus beginning his activities by "showing his devotion to" John.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi James:

Beware of anyone who says "it was generally understood that the baptizer was considered spiritually superior", without providing a shred of historical evidence that this was so. Thank goodness my pastor doesn't think this about those he baptizes, and I doubt John the Baptizer felt that way about Jesus either.



James said...

"One of the essential problems is the accuracy of that description of the relationship between the two. That is, John as the self-conscious and deliberate forerunner of Jesus. Most contemporary scholars would see that to be a construct developed by the early church to help explain the relationship between the two. Because for the early church it would have been something of an embarrassment to say that Jesus, who was in their minds superior to John the Baptist, had been baptized by him, and thereby proclaimed some sort of subordination to him, some sort of disciple relationship to him...."

Attridge finds in the minds of the early followers of Jesus the notion that baptism connoted "some sort of subordination." And whatever baptism signifies, he who baptizes has an office--an authority to cleanse or whatever--not occupied by he who is baptized.