Thursday, February 19, 2009


One of the real difficulties in collaborative volumes is adequately revealed in the old joke about whenever three rabbis get together you have four opinions on any given matter. Scholars, of whatever ilk, have been taught that they have, and ought to have their own individual voice, and should express it, otherwise, it is thought, they have little to add to the conversation. It is thus refreshing when you find a group of scholars such as those who have contributed to the volume edited by Drs. Gaventa and Hays who are earnestly looking for points of contact and convergence in the ways they view the identity of Jesus. What is particularly telling with this group of scholars is how they all agree that one cannot just assess the character of the historical Jesus if one is seeking the full identity of Jesus. The pre-existent Son of God and the exalted risen Christ must also be part of the discussion, and were part of the discussion from even before the time the canonical Gospels were written. This is obviously clear from one of the finest essays in this collection written by Richard Hays on the Pauline corpus, entitled "The Story of God's Son: The Identity of Jesus in the Letters of Paul". One of the most revealing parts of this essay is how Hays demonstrates that for Paul, Christ has an incorporative identity, by which I mean that the believer becomes somehow connected and taken up into the identity of Christ himself, being part of Christ's Body on earth such that not only can the apostle say that through his sufferings for the cause he is filling up or completing the sufferings of Christ, but also "we are always carrying around in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh" (2 Cor. 4.10-11). Not only is Paul claiming that Christ is in us, the hope of glory, he is also claiming that we are so in Christ, that what happens to us affects Christ himself. One can also see this in the famous threefold report of Paul's conversion on Damascus Road (see Acts 9,22,26) where the heavenly Christ asks a stunned Saul--- "why are you persecuting me?" not merely "why are you persecuting my people". Clearly Paul believes that the story of believers is not only connected to the story of Christ, but in some mysterious way is taken up into the story of Christ. And this is our earliest Christian witness to the identity of Jesus! Hays then rightly draws the conclusion: "the account of Jesus as Lord and Redeemer of the world is not--as is sometimes asserted--- a later doctrinal invention of the church in the second century; rather it belongs to the very earliest layers of the tradition to which we have access." (p. 199). This begs the question, since historians tend to think that the closer to the events themselves the more trustworthy the source of information is likely to be, why exactly it is that in drawing our picture of the identity of Jesus we don't start with Paul and work our way to the Gospels which were written later, and are no less or no more tendentious than Paul's presentation.

Hays then goes on to point out that if we follow Paul when he says "'one has died for all, therefore all have died', then his next move follows compellingly: we no longer know kata sarka [according to the flesh]; the old has passed away. We are living in the realm of new creation (2 Cor. 5.14-17). Our very concept of personal identity undergoes a mind-stretching transformation, including our own personal identities: we are transformed by the story of Jesus Christ, and we find ourselves living within that story rather than at a critical distance from it. If Paul's story of Jesus Christ is true, then we too have been crucified with Christ and will be raised with him. In the story of Jesus Christ we find our own." (p. 199). And this brings to light a crucial point. One of the reasons for the fascination with Jesus' identity surely is because it impinges on our own. If there could be a human being like Jesus, what does this say about us as a species, what does it tell us about human potential (or not). Jesus and his identity can even be seen as a threat to our autonomy and attempts at self definition, as he makes a claim on us, whether we accept that claim or not. This is of course one reason for all too frequent excuse that we hear when we sin or fall short, or fail, or are guilty of one type of transgression or another, namely "after all, I'm not Jesus am I". The distance between the character of Christ and our own character becomes the basis of excuse making.

Like any collection of essays, those in "Seeking the Identity of Jesus" are not all of the same probity, and will not all be of interest to everyone. Expressing a purely personal opinion the ones I found most revealing and helpful included William C. Placher's "How the Gospels Mean" where he points out that "These stories claim to offer a framework--- a beginning, an end, and a center--- for all of history, and they propose that our lives and all other events have meaning only to the extent that they fit into that framework. These stories proport to define reality." (p. 30). He goes on to point out that however much we may be truth seekers, at the end of the day, as Francis Watson has put it "We do not find out the truth, from our own resources; rather the truth finds us." (quoted on p. 41). It also included the very intriguing essay by Markus Boeckmuehl "God's Life as a Jew: Remembering the Son of God as Son of David" which includes a telling critique of Bruce Malina's approach to the social world of the NT (with further reference to a fuller critique of "The NT World" elsewhere), and the insistence that the Jewishness of Jesus must be given its full due (a view I entirely agree with).

Equally helpful is Francis Watson's "Veritas Christi" which helps us think more productively about the relationship between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith, ("The concrete traits of the historical Jesus belong within an account of the 'historic biblical Christ' and should not be allowed to take on an independent life of their own....The Gospels assume that we are to speak not of Jesus alone but of Jesus in relationship to God and God in relationship to Jesus; and there is no reason not to take that assumption seriously." (p.114).

There is a whole battery of what I would call survey essays on particular parts of the NT canon and what they reveal about the identity of Jesus as seen by these various writers. Dale C. Allison's "The Embodiment of God's Will: Jesus in Matthew" in some ways does the best job of all these essays of summing up what a particular NT witness has to say on the matter, but all of these essays are helpful and interesting. Marianne Meye Thompson stresses "From the Gospel of John we learn that Jesus cannot be reduced to a figure of the past of human history. Indeed, he is alive. Therefore, any attempt to understand Jesus that limits him to the past and assumes that 'historical' study can on its own produce adequate knowledge of him leads inevitably to a stunted grasp of who he is." (p. 178). Just so. It is also the Fourth Gospel that reminds us that to really know Jesus requires not just an intellectual quest, it requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit in one's life.

Of the essays by Biblical scholars, the most creative and intriguing and stimulating of the bunch is by Gary A. Anderson (OT scholar at Notre Dame) entitled "Moses and Jonah in Gethsemane: Representation and Impassibility in their Old Testament Inflections".

The notion of impassibility of course comes up for enormous challenges from OT texts which suggest that God changed, or could change his mind (and Anderson addresses some of these in intriguing ways), as well as NT texts which suggest that Christ's mind or will might be something different from that of his heavenly Father-- i.e. especially the Garden of Gethsemane story.

This has led to all sort of odd reflections by systematicians and others wanting to claim things like "Christ suffered impassibly" which is to say without any change in the divine reality, or that "Christ could not do otherwise than to submit to God's will, as he was pre-programmed so as not to mess up God's plan for human redemption", which leads to the odd conclusion that God the first person of the Trinity can predestine God the second person of the Trinity to no longer have the freedom that seems to be a sine qua non of the Biblical depiction of divine character! But if it is true, as Hebrews says, that Jesus was truly tempted like us in every respect, but he resisted and did not sin, that would seem to surely imply that he could have done otherwise. After all a temptation is not really tempting if there is no possibility of giving in to it. But what then would it have meant if Jesus actually sinned? Would the divine Son then have to separate himself from his Incarnate presence as Jesus? But of course that assumes that the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ, could be severed, just as it was originally joined at the incarnation. Would the Son then have had to incarnate himself in a different human manifestion that then passed the temptation test? These are the sorts of questions that one is led to raise because of accepting Greek philosophical notions like: 1) the impassibility of God; 2) the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ (see the formulations of Chalcedon and Nicaea). And what I find intriguing about all such discussions is that the Bible, including the NT, is entirely innocent of such discussions. It does not explain whether Jesus had the true freedom to sin or resist temptation or not, but it certainly seems that the Gospel writers and the authors of Hebrews and Paul's letters thought he did. While it is a constant lament of Biblical scholars that systematicians are too often guilty of anachronism, of reading back into the Biblical text ideas that not only aren't there, but do not entirely comport with the ideas which are there, I must say that in these kinds of matters, the lament is justified. Anderson's essay however makes the intriguing and persuasive case that in texts like Exodus 32 or Numbers 14 the book of Jonah the divine character is revealed not merely in what God says, but also in what a Moses or a Jonah says about God as well. God is not quixotic, but God is relational and complex in character, and one must do justice to not only God's justice but also his mercy and compassion if you want to understand the full character of God.

In his helpful survey of key patristic sources, Brian J. Daley (in "The Word and his Flesh: Human Weakness and the Identity of Jeuss in Patristic Christology") does us a considerable service in unveiling how several of the church fathers wrestled with the idea of Christ's suffering and impassibility, and with how God who is ontologically distinct from his human creatures could unite his divine nature to a human nature without compromising the former. Because there was also a strong impetus towards a stress on Christ as the moral exemplar and paradigm for human behavior it was always difficult to know how far to press the argument that Christ was 'like' us. Daley ends by stressing "The identity of Jesus, however we parse it, is meant to be the pattern and promise of our own." (p. 269). That being said, and since we mere mortals are not hypostatically united to a divine nature, this makes more acute the issue of the 'kenosis' or self-emptying of the Son when he took on human flesh. In my judgment these church fathers did not do full justice to the implications of Phil. 2.5-11. The Son, it is said there, emptied himself, but of what? I would suggest this means he put the omnis on hold without divesting himself of his divine nature. He did not take advantage of his full equality with the Father whilst on earth. In other words, divine condescension meant divine self-limitation. This is turn meant that omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence were not characteristics of how Jesus of Nazareth operated. Yes, he had access to such powers, but no, he resisted drawing on them precisely because he came to partake of our natural finitude and die for us on the cross. This, I would suggest is precisely what the stories of Jesus' temptations are trying to tell us. Notice that in the wilderness the temptation does not run "if you are a human being then..." No, what the Nefarious One says is "if you are the (divine) Son of God... then.... In other words Jesus was tempted to act in a fashion that mere mortals can't act, act in a fashion that would obliterate his true humanity and thus his oneness with us as human beings. This temptation Jesus successfully resisted. He had taken on the form of a human being and taken on the role of a servant of all human beings (Mk. 10.45) and he would resist the temptation to violate either of these roles. This in turn means that when Jesus says in Mk. 13.32 that he does not know the timing of the second coming--- he means it! Now could he have accessed that information by drawing on his divine prerogatives? Well, yes, but the moment he did so, he would cease to be truly human and cease to be our human paradigm. In short, the story of Jesus' life is not a story of a divine being play acting and pretending to have human limitations. Rather, it is the paradoxical story of how the divine Son of God truly took on human flesh, and became the last Adam, Adam gone right, Adam who lived by the power of the Word of God and the Spirit of God in his life, and not on the basis of his divine nature while on earth, though he could have done the latter. This is precisely why that temptation story in Lk. 4 and par. tells us that Jesus resisted the Devil not by saying "I'm God. God can't be tempted, ergo.. your done here." No Jesus resisted temptation by quoting the Scriptures. By using the very resources all human beings have available to resist temptation-- the Word of God and the Spirit of God. Thus, he continued to be our paradigm.

It is of course true however, as Paul says, that there was a difference about the true humanity of Jesus, and ours. We are all fallen creatures, he was not. He was Adam gone right. He appeared only in the 'likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom. 8), he did not appear in sinful flesh. His was an unfallen human nature, like ours in ever respect save without sin. This explains how he was able to make the perfect atoning sacrifice on the cross, when we cannot do so, and it also means that Jesus is the one person for whom Jesus did not have to die on the cross. Indeed, as some of the Fathers said, Jesus is the one person who did not deserve to be punished for the wages of sin. The substitutionary sacrifice theology of atonement in the NT requires some such reading of the way the human nature and divine nature of the Christ were related whilst he was on earth. I could have wished for more reflection in this volume on this very issue, that is on the issue of the relationship between the divine and human natures of the Christ while on earth.

David Steinmetz is one of the truly gifted teachers and scholars of our time in the area of Reformation theology of various sorts. We here at Asbury were privileged to have him come and lecture on the Eucharistic theology of Zwingli, Luther, Calvin and others some years ago, and much of those discussions are reprised in his "The Eucharist and the Identity of Jesus in the Early Reformation". What Steinmetz shows so clearly is that it was precisely in Eucharistic theology where the implications of a Reformer's Christology would most clearly come to light. Were the elements of the Eucharist really transformed into the body and blood of Christ, or perhaps attached to them? Zwingli insisted that the exalted risen material body of Christ had gone to heaven, QED it was no longer on earth, and so could not be found in, under, around, or attached to the Eucharistic elements. He even denied that the sacraments were means of grace, arguing that grace came separately and by means of the Spirit and that one needed grace in advance to take the Supper properly. Luther by contrast concluded that due to the commumnicatio idiomatum (the communication of properties of one nature of Christ to the other) that Christ's body was as ubiquitous as the omnipresent Christ's spirit was, therefore Zwingli was out to lunch on this one, or better said, not properly serving and theologizing about the Supper. I loved reading this essay, and it reminded me how far the Christological discussions effect all Christian theologizing, not to mention how far the Reformers were in some respects from what the NT says about Christology and the Supper (on which see my book "Making a Meal of It").

It is always good to conclude a series of stimulating essays with a bang, and this volume does so with Sarah Coakley's fine discussion entitled "The Identity of the Risen Jesus" Finding Jesus Christ in the Poor". In essence she wants to argue that the place where we find the continuing presence of Christ is not merely in the church but in the poor. Here, it seems to me that the line between Christ's identity, and Christ's identifying with a particular group is blurred through a questionable exegesis of Mt. 25.31-46. She discusses other texts as well, but at the end of the day, what she seems not to grasp is the language of Jewish agency found not only in this text but elsewhere also when the issue of the 12 being Christ's agents or apostles comes up. Jesus identifies with the poor in the same way he identifies with the child in Mk. 9-10, not because his presence or identity lies in the poor or in the child, but because he wants his disciples to have the same concern for, compassion for, serviced given to, such groups. In short he wants the disciples to continue the ministry he himself announced in Lk. 4 and engaged in, fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah.

As you can tell, I think this book is excellent, a real stimulus to helpful discussion about the Identity of Jesus, both the historical Jesus and the risen Christ, and I highly commend it. It is the best such collection of essays done in recent years on this subject, and deserves to be a textbook at Christian colleges and seminaries, and used by churches to prompt the discussion as well. What makes this book most interesting is that despite all its diversity of views and interests all these writers are professing Christians who have high regard for the Nicean and Chalcedonian formulations about Christ. This was clearly not another incarnation of the Jesus Seminar that produced this book. If I could have recommended a couple of things that would make this a more user friendly textbook, they would be: 1) a good summary of each of the articles either in the conclusions, or a synopsis appended to each of the articles themselves for quick reference. The conclusions of each article are not simply a synopsis of that sort, and should be retained as well. 2) it would have been useful to have had some of the actual back and forth dialogue about these papers that went on at the CTI. As it is, we just have essays revised in light of the dialogue. It would be helpful to know what they looked like before and after the discussion, or at least a page or two summary with each article of how the discussion went. 3) the conclusions at the end of the book as we have them are not substantial enough to show the broad range of agreement amongst these scholars, especially on the crucial issue of Christology. The point is not that they are trying to be an ecclesial body drawing up a confessional statement. The point is to show the broad range of agreement amongst diverse scholars which is an encouragement to the faithful and others to keep the conversation going.

I want to thank Richard and Beverly for assembling this collection of 'works in progress' and all the labor involved. It is and can accomplish its aim of advancing the discussion, and even advancing our knowledge of God as revealed in his Son.


Marc Axelrod said...

I can't remember everything he said, but N.T Wright's critique of this book at SBL was devastating. And I'm pretty sure that Dr. Hays didn't entirely disagree with Wright. In fact, Dr. Gaventa got up after the speech and said "I'm glad you liked the book, Tom!"

I'll have to reread this critique and get a copy of the book to see if it jogs my memory.

crystal said...

This is probably a dumb question, but ...

Paul wrote about his religious experience, and about what he heard form others about Jesus, but he never knew him when he was alive. Though he wrote what he did earlier than the gospels were written down, shouldn't they still be a better source of info about Jesus since they tell of the first hand experience of people who lived with Jesus, heard what he said, saw what he did? Thanks.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Crystal:

This is not a dumb question at all. Paul of course knew and consulted various of the eyewitnesses and he in fact grew up in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus' ministry. We do not know whether he had met Jesus personally or not, but it is possible (read 2 Cor. 5.16). Neither Mark nor Luke were eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus so far as we can tell. The Beloved Disciple seems to have been an eyewitness of some of the Judean part of the ministry, but someone else put together his Gospel after his death as the end oif John 21 indicates. The Gospel of Matthew, uses Matthean material as a source, but mainly relies on Mark, and most scholars agree it was not put together by Matthew in its final form.

Ergo, Paul is probaly as good a source as anyone for this sort of info.


Ben W.