Trinity College of Biblical Studies-Free Online Bible College
Life of Christ Unit Two
The Life of Christ is a thorough study of Jesus life and teaching along with studies in the historical first-century setting of Judaism
The Founder of Christianity
by C. H. Dodd
I have said that the reported sayings of Jesus bear the stamp of an individual mind. It may serve as a test of that statement if we now ask, how far is it possible to describe the characteristics of the mind that they reveal?
"The style is the man," they say. What, then, of the style of the teaching of Jesus as it has come down to us in the gospels? A large proportion of it comes in the form of short, crisp utterances, pungent, often allusive, even cryptic, laden with irony and paradox. This whole body of sayings, handed down through different channels of tradition, has an unmistakable stamp. It is impossible to suppose that they are merely the product of skillful condensation by early Christian teachers. They have the ring of originality. They betray a mind whose processes were swift and direct, hitting the nail on the head without waste of words.
There are longer passages with a marked rhythm of their own, which still makes itself felt after a double process of translation, from Aramaic into Greek and from Greek into English. Sometimes, indeed, it appears as if the Greek were only a thin disguise for an original which fell into the regular meters of Hebrew and Aramaic poetry. More often the rhythms are freer, but still with a marked balance and parallelism of clauses. Take, for example, such a passage as the following; it is given by Matthew and Luke with slight verbal differences, but the general structure is unmistakable:
Put away anxious thoughts
Look at the birds of the air;
Consider how the lilies grow in the fields;
Here an imaginative apprehension of the wonder and beauty of nature, and of the unity of nature and man under the care of the Maker of both, has brought forth the appropriate literary form for its expression. We may recall other sayings which express this sense of wonder and even mystery in familiar natural phenomena. "A man scatters seed on the land; he goes to bed at night and gets up in the morning, and the seed sprouts and grows -- how, he does not know." 2 "The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going." 3 Clearly we are in touch with a mind of a poetic and imaginative cast. This should never be forgotten in any attempt to understand the teaching of Jesus.
Further, whatever his theme, he thinks and speaks in concrete images and pictures in preference to general or abstract propositions. Thus, instead of saying "Charity should not be ostentatious," he says, "When you do some act of charity, do not announce it with a flourish of trumpets." 4 Where he might have said, "Personal relations are more important than religious observance," he makes a picture: "If, when you are bringing your gift to the altar, you suddenly remember that your brother has a grievance against you, leave your gift where it is before the altar. First go and make your peace with your brother, and only then come and offer your gift." 5 It is not accidental that both pictures have a suggestion of incongruity which is almost comic. Sometimes the picture is deliberately grotesque: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, with never a thought for the great plank in your own?" 6
It is this sense for the concrete, this delight in imaginative picture-making, that has shaped the "parables," which are so notable a feature of the gospels. The term "parable" covers a variety of literary forms, but all of them, as we meet them in the gospels, turn upon some familiar aspect of the human scene, depicted with economy of words and with unfailing realism. There are short Stories: about a traveler who was robbed and lay wounded by the roadside until he was succored by a kindly stranger; about a capitalist who entrusted sums of money to his subordinates for investment, and what they did with it; about the employment of casual labor in a vineyard and the question of wages and hours that arose. There are rapid sketches of typical human situations: fishermen picking over their catch, children quarrelling in the market place, a son watching his father at work and learning his craft by imitation. Sometimes a picture is conjured up by a simple turn of phrase: "When a lamp is lit, it is not put under the meal-tub"; "no one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth onto an old coat."
The "parables" (in the broad sense of the term) draw upon a wide range of accurate observation. Their Author is one who has noted with an interest, sympathetic but unsentimental, and sometimes humorous, that this is the way human beings behave. He has recognized their native virtues (the touching affection of a father for his scapegrace son, or the devotion of a shepherd to his flock), but also the odd mixture of human motives. There was a man who kindly got up at midnight to accommodate a neighbor in an emergency -- but he did it because the fellow was making a nuisance of himself! A dishonest servant under notice of dismissal provided for his future by a business transaction which, to say the best of it, sailed near the wind. He was no doubt a scoundrel, but what an example to us all of resourceful action in a crisis!
In this last example it is impossible to miss the tone of irony, and this is something which is often present -- more often than the casual reader might suppose. Sometimes it takes the form of the apparent reduction of great issues to the level of the banal. "When you are asked by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the place of honor. It may be that some person more distinguished than yourself has been invited, and the host will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your place.’ Then you will look foolish as you begin to take the lowest place;7 On the face of it, elementary advice on social behavior, with the most crudely prudential motive. Very likely some of the auditors took it as such. On further reflection it might dawn on them that there was more behind it. "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted"; the "moral" may have been attached by the writer of the gospel (it recurs in several places); but he has put the reader on the right track, though we should perhaps not be wrong in looking a little deeper still. It would be very much in the manner of Jesus to leave people to think out the implications for themselves. To take another example: "If someone sues you, come to terms with him while you are both on the way to court; otherwise he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the constable, and you may be put in jail." 8 Obvious horse sense -- especially if you are not too sure about the administration of justice in your local court -- but it was not just practical advice for litigants. No "moral" is appended, but in the light of the teaching of Jesus as a whole (to anticipate) it is not difficult to see that it touches upon one of its recurrent themes -- that the people he addressed stood in a situation in which decision was urgent and delay dangerous. In the end it is concerned with the eternal issues of human destiny, but this is not on the surface. The assumption is that life is like that, from the lowest levels to the heights. The principles of human action, like the processes of nature, fall within a universal order established by the Creator, to be recognized at any level by those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. No circumstance of daily life is too trivial or commonplace to serve as a window into the realm of ultimate values, and no truth too profound to find its analogue in common experience.
Here then we have a whole range of imagery drawn from loving observation of nature and human life. There is, however, also a quite different range of imagery, where realism yields place to fantasy. Take for example the following passage:
The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give her light; the stars will come falling from the sky, the celestial powers will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.9
Such images as these have a long history. They can be traced through many passages of poetry and prophecy in the Old Testament; they had a flourishing career in the "apocalypses" which pullulated in the period just before and just after the beginning of the Christian era; and they lived on. It is impossible to say how far such passages as that quoted above axe authentic utterances of Jesus, and how far the imagery has seeped into the gospel tradition from the environment. The images employed were part of the mental furniture of the period; there is no reason why Jesus should not have employed them. There is in any case nothing original about them. Where we may look for originality is the way they axe applied, and the meaning attached to them. For while this "apocalyptic" imagery was inherited, each writer was free to give it his own interpretation, and nothing is clearer than that the interpretation varies from one to another. We should certainly be prepared to find Jesus not less original than prophet or apocalyptist in his treatment of inherited material. So if he said, "You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God and coming with the clouds of heaven," 10 or, "I watched how Satan fell, like lightning, out of the sky." 11 there is no reason to assume that he intended to describe supernatural phenomena which might, in any literal sense, be "seen", nor is his meaning necessarily decided by the use of the imagery by other teachers -- prior, contemporary, or subsequent. Of this more later.
This "apocalyptic" imagery, then, though it may be said to fall in with the "pictorial" manner of speaking to which he inclined, is not characteristic of Jesus. It was something which he shared with many others. What is characteristic and distinctive v is the realism of the parables. This permits a further inference -- and here we pass from the manner and style which axe patent in the record to the personality behind them. The Author of the parables must have been genuinely interested in people; he must have enjoyed mixing with various types. As such the gospels represent him. He received and accepted invitations to festive occasions, more freely, his critics suggested, than a man of piety should. He dined with persons of respectable standing in local society, and he had at least one friend who moved in the highest ecclesiastical circles (he was an acquaintance of the High Priest" 12). But our informants draw special attention to his association with people who were neither socially accepted nor morally approved. He was censured as "a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners." 13
The peculiar venom that clings to the term "tax-gatherer" has its source in the special situation. Under the Roman administration, indirect taxes (Customs and excise) were collected by a method which lent itself to abuse. The right to collect was put up for sale and bought as a speculation (the Greek term properly means "tax-buyer"). The job was one that had to be done, and presumably it was possible to do it honestly, but the profession was one to attract the less scrupulous, and it had an unsavory reputation; in Greek society "tax-gatherer" was a dirty word. In Jewish Palestine, to make things worse, the taxes were revenue for a detested foreign government, or for local rulers who were its puppets. and their collectors were to nationalist feeling no better than collaborators with the enemy, while for the ultra-pious Jew their close involvement with the "unclean" ways of Gentiles was in itself an offense, They were ostracized from decent society. This goes far to explain the astonishment and aversion which were aroused when Jesus associated with tax-gatherers. Obviously these dubious characters must have liked his company a good deal better than they would have liked that of his critics, even if these had not held them at arm’s length.
It would be easy to misconstrue all this as indicative of no more than a sociable disposition. But this is certainly not the whole truth. When Jesus was criticized for the company he kept, he retorted, with caustic irony. "Healthy people don’t need a doctor; sick people do." 14 They were patients and he the physician; and a main part of the treatment was just his friendship. He was drawn to those who were sick in mind or body, because they needed help that he could give.
Many stories in the gospels illustrate his sensitive response to such need, whether the trouble was physical or moral. By his sympathy and compassion, but also by the strength which they felt in him, he inspired his patients with a new confidence -- with "faith," a term which in the gospels includes both trust in the goodness of God and the courage and firmness which derive from it. A father (we are told) came to Jesus in distress about the apparently incurable malady from which his young son was suffering: "If it is at all possible for you, take pity on us and help us." 15 Jesus replied. "If it is possible! Everything is possible to one who has faith." "I have faith," the father cried; "help my faithlessness." The superficial illogicality is illuminating. This was precisely what Jesus could do for people who were on the edge of despair. In this story there is something almost brusque about the way in which the man’s appeal is answered. There is another story about a man who had given way to a chronic disability, and for years had nursed a grievance which excused him from doing anything about it " (Someone else always gets in before me!"). "Do you want to recover?" Jesus asked, "Then pick up your bed and walk." 16 Compassionate, certainly, but bracing too.
His sympathy was particularly marked with those who labored under a disabling sense of guilt. His assurance, "Your sins are forgiven," restored their self-respect and liberated moral energy. But it was not intended to suggest that the feeling of guilt was a morbid delusion, or that his patients were worrying themselves unnecessarily. To accept forgiveness meant both that they recognized a moral standard from which they had fallen, and that they intended to take to better ways. That Jesus did in fact inspire not only the intention but an effective redirection of effort is implicit in these stories. Among the many references to his friendship with the ill-reputed tax-gatherers there is one only which tells us something about the individual concerned -- Zacchaeus, the wealthy inspector of taxes at Jericho, an enterprising little man who was perhaps no better and no worse than the average of his profession. It was thought shocking that Jesus should have accepted his hospitality. The outcome of the encounter is sufficiently indicated by what Zacchaeus is represented as saying: "If I have cheated anyone, I am ready to repay him four times over." "Salvation has come to this house today!" Jesus exclaimed.17
Again, it is recorded that on one occasion a group of lawyers brought before him a woman detected in adultery, with the hope that he would take the responsibility of pronouncing the ferocious sentence laid down in the Law of Moses (not enforced at that period), or alternatively, would by refusing to do so expose himself as one who condoned immorality. With characteristic irony he ostensibly corroborated the sentence of stoning, but gave it a twist: "That one of you who is faultless must throw the first stone. The group melted away. "Where are they?" be asked. "Did no one condemn you?" "No one, Sir," she answered. "No more do I condemn you. You may go. Do not sin again." 18 Compassion for the woman is no less marked than scorn for her accusers, but the final words have an astringency which rules out any suggestion of "permissiveness." If he said that "tax-gatherers and prostitutes" were more promising subjects than "scribes and Pharisees, it was in the sense that they were free from the odious complacency of the self-consciously pious. They were therefore more open to the physician’s treatment.
All these stories (and there are many of them) make it clear that the persons concerned recognized an authority to which they yielded. When he said, "Your sins are forgiven," they actually believed him, which was sufficiently remarkable in the religious climate of the time, and results followed. It must have been the same sense of authority that led others to respond to astonishingly exacting demands. The accounts of the "calling" of disciples are bald, and less informative than we might wish, but it stands firm that Jesus called upon certain persons to cut loose from home, family and livelihood and commit themselves to an insecure and precarious existence -- and all for the sake of a cause which they only dimly understood -- and that they responded. What led them to do so we are not told; the reader is expected to understand that there was something personally compelling about him. Indeed, with all his ready sympathy and his tenderness toward those who needed help Jesus could evidently be a formidable person to encounter. Two incidents illustrate the public impact he made. In Galilee he faced a crowd of some thousands bent on revolt, and bent on making him lead it -- obviously because they felt the presence of a natural leader -- and induced them to disperse peaceably. In Jerusalem, he drove the traders from the outer court of the temple, apparently by sheer moral force. Both of these incidents we shall have to consider later. They are cited here for the light they throw upon the impression of authority which Jesus made on minds not naturally predisposed to sympathy with his aims.
The note of authority, we are told. was recognized in his public teaching. The tone of many of his sayings bears this out. His "I say unto you" ("I tell you, Take my word for it,") is in all gospels an inseparable mark of his style. And not only did he pronounce decisively upon disputed points, but he was willing to pit his judgment against the venerable traditions of his nation, and even, it would appear, on occasion against provisions of the Law of Moses, divinely inspired as it was believed to be.
Yet the somewhat imperious tone of such sayings must be balanced by a consideration of another feature of the teaching not less prominent in our documents. The gospels report a number of dialogues in which Jesus is represented as arguing a point to a conclusion. They are usually summarized with the utmost brevity, but behind the concise and stylized form we can discern genuine discussions, in which, often enough, the questioner is led to answer his own question -- to answer it as posed in a way he had not thought of before. Many of the parables, it is clear, were intended to serve this purpose: the auditor is invited to pass judgment upon a fictitious situation, and then challenged to apply the judgment to the actual situation.
Analysis of a well-known passage in the Gospel according to Luke will illustrate this. A lawyer asked the question, "What must I do to gain eternal life?" The ensuing dialogue runs somewhat after this fashion. Jesus: "What is your own reading of the Law?" The lawyer: "Love God and love your neighbor." Jesus: "You have your answer." The lawyer: "But who is my neighbor?" Then follows the familiar story of the "Good Samaritan" who befriended a stranger, and the question, "Which of the three proved neighbor to the man?" The lawyer: "The one who showed him kindness." Jesus: "Go and do as he did." 19 The conclusion is peremptory enough, but the questioner has been led to it by a process in which he has taken a real part. In such instances the authority of Jesus has been exercised in bringing people, against their will, it may be, to the point at which they had to face the responsibility of a decision. If a person declined the challenge, Jesus simply left it to him.
Mark tells the story of a well-to-do man who approached him for advice upon the same subject. He was a good young man, and Jesus, we are told, liked him. But he startled him with the challenge, "Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and come, follow me." The man could not face it. Jesus commented ruefully, "How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through tile eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." 20 We must not miss the note of sympathy; he knew well what a lot he was asking; but he made the demand all the same. And yet when the man refused he made no attempt to bring persuasion or pressure to bear, but let him go away crestfallen. Authority was there, but an authority which respected the freedom of the person.
Authority it was, with no backing of official position or traditional prestige, to say nothing of legal sanctions or the ultimate sanction of force. It must have rested on some indefinable personal quality in Jesus himself. Our primary records hardly allow us to go further, except by inference. After his highhanded action in clearing the traders out of the temple court, we are told, Jesus was directly challenged with the question, "By what authority are you acting like this? Who gave you this authority?" He refused to answer except in evasive terms which suggested that if his questioners could not see for themselves it was useless to tell them.21
The nearest approach, perhaps, to a definition which Jesus countenanced was propounded by an army officer who wanted his help. The story is told by Matthew and Luke, with variations in detail but with close agreement in the essential points of the dialogue. The officer approached Jesus on behalf of a member of his family, or perhaps a favorite servant, who was seriously ill. In support of his plea he urged the following argument: "You need only say the word, and the boy will be cured. I know, for I am myself under orders, with soldiers under me. I say to one ‘Go,’ and he goes; to another ‘Come here,’ and he comes." 22 The implication is clear. He is himself responsible to his commanding officer, and he in turn to the local ruler, who in the end is subject to Caesar in Rome. And therefore the "company commander," just because he is loyally obedient to his superiors, can issue orders which have behind them the ultimate authority of the emperor himself. The authority which Jesus is expected to exert is subject to the same condition. It is a remarkable argument. At the least it suggests how the personality of Jesus impressed itself on a complete outsider. But still more remarkable is it that Jesus appears to have endorsed it, and this could be only in the sense that the authority he exercises is that of Almighty God, just because he is himself loyally obedient to him. This is put in explicit terms in the Gospel according to John: "I do nothing on my own authority, but in all I say I have been taught by my Father. He who sent me is present with me, and has not left me alone, for I always do what is acceptable to him. . . .The word you hear is not mine; it is the word of the Father who sent me." 23
We note here a characteristic difference between John and the others. Matthew and Luke have allowed the truth about the authority of Jesus to come out obliquely; John puts it into the mouth of Jesus himself. In this he is employing a method not unfamiliar among Greek writers -- historians and others -- with whom he has some affinity. He gives what may appear to be revelations about the inner life of Jesus, in the words of Jesus himself, but they must often be read rather as John’s interpretation, sometimes indeed expressed in theological language which would have been strange to the circles in which Jesus actually moved. This is not to say that they should be disregarded in the attempt to understand the mind of Jesus. They are the product of a singularly penetrating intelligence which has long brooded over his remembered words and actions. In the instance we have just considered, as often, John is making explicit what must be read between the lines in the other gospels. But the reticence which they observe on such matters reflects, in all probability, a reserve which Jesus himself maintained, and which we must take to be characteristic of him.
A few well-attested sayings seem partly to break through the reserve. Certainly we cannot miss a pervading sense of dedication to a mission, which at times was a terrible burden: "I have come to set fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism to undergo, and how hampered I am until the ordeal is oven" 24 In spite of his readiness for all kinds of social contacts, his mission set him apart from other men. It is not surprising that there should have been moments when the sense of isolation in an unresponsive society became almost intolerable: "What an unbelieving and perverse generation! How long shall I be with you? How long must I endure you?" 25
Yet at the heart of the storm there was a center
of calm: "No one knows the Son but the Father; and no one knows the Father
but the Son." 26 In the Gospel according to John this theme of
the mutual "knowledge" of Father and Son is developed in theological
terms; and indeed there is a whole theology implicit in it. But the saying
as I have quoted it from Matthew (and Luke has it with slight verbal
differences) is not theology but a spontaneous personal statement. It
begins with a confession of the deep loneliness which was increasingly the
lot of Jesus; he has found no one who really knows or understands him, not
even those nearest to him; but there is One who does know him -- God, his
Father. And in that same intimate, personal way he too knows God. Here, we
may legitimately infer, is to be found the driving force and the source of
energy for an almost impossible mission; here certainly the source of the
inflexible resolution with which he went, knowingly, to death in the
service of his mission. The words of the Fourth Gospel here ring true: "It
is meat and drink for me to do the will of him who sent me until I have
finished his work"; 27 and according to the same gospel he
moved into the final loneliness of his friendless death with the words, as
simple as they could well be, "I am not alone, because the Father is with
me." 28 Upon what went on in his mind as the end approached one
ray of light is permitted to fall: the prayer, "If it is possible, let
this cup pass me by. Yet not as I will, but as thou wilt." 29
It is the final act of dedication to his mission, and the key to the whole
1Matt. 6. 25-29, Luke 12. 22-23.
2Mark 4. 26-27.
5Matt. 5. 23-24
7Luke 14. 8-11.
8Matt. 5. 25-26, Luke 12. 57-59.
9Mark 13. 24-26.
12John 18. 15.
13Matt. 11. 9, Luke 7.34.
15Mark 9. 22-24.
16John 5. 6-8.
17Luke 19. 1-10.
18John 7. 2-11. This passage was not originally part of the Gospel according to John, being absent from early manuscripts; but there is no reason to doubt that it was a genuine piece of tradition.
19Luke 10. 25-37.
20Mark 10. 17-25.
21Mark 11. 27-33.
22Matt. 8. 5-10, Luke 7. 2-9.
23John 8. 28-29, 14.24.
24Luke 12. 49-50.
26Matt. 11.27, Luke 10.22.
29Matt. 26.39, Mark, 14.36, Luke 22.42, and compare John 12.27.
Life of Christ
In the Jewish society of his time Jesus found his place, to begin with, as a teacher of religion and morals. He was addressed as "Rabbi" (Master), and not only by his immediate followers, but also by strangers, including some who would themselves have claimed the same title. It is true that the title had not yet become (as it did by the end of the century) something rather like the equivalent of a university degree, conferring license to teach, but even as a courtesy title it implied public, if informal, acceptance as a teacher. It was as such that Jesus was at first regarded. It was as such that he attached "disciples" -- the word used was a technical term for those who attended upon a rabbi and formed his "school." What did Jesus teach?
It is clear that there was a wide ground which he shared with other rabbis of his time. He accepted, as they did, the Old Testament as containing a divine revelation. He could assume its teaching as something well known to his audience: God is one; he is "Lord of heaven and earth"; 1 he is supremely good ("No one is good except God alone." 2), and supremely powerful ("To God everything is possible." 3). Because he is both good and powerful, he is to be trusted. Because he is Lord and King, he is to be obeyed. He is stern in judgment, but also "plenteous in mercy," as the Old Testament constantly declares. So far there is nothing which would be unfamiliar or unacceptable to any well taught Jew of the time. Similarly, in his ethical teaching he started on common ground. He could assume all that was best in the Old Testament, and in the teaching of contemporary rabbis. He offered interpretations of the Law of Moses as other rabbis did, as well as some criticisms of it on which they would not have ventured. Jewish scholars have shown that there is a considerable amount of rabbinic teaching which is markedly similar to that of Jesus in the gospels, which after all is what we should have expected. Indeed, we must suppose that a good deal of the current ethics of Judaism is silently taken for granted.
And yet, the teaching is oriented in a direction which differentiates it from rabbinic Judaism; the angle at which it touches life is different. This can perhaps best be appreciated if we start again with the parables, which, as we have seen, are the most characteristic part of the record of the teaching of Jesus. If we survey the whole body of parables we cannot but observe that a large proportion of them have a common theme, which we might describe as the arrival of "zero hour," the climax of a process, bringing a crisis in which decisive action is called for. A farmer has patiently watched the growth of his crop: "first the blade, then the ear, then full grown corn in the ear." 4 For the moment there is nothing he can do about it; the forces of nature are in charge. "But as soon as the crop is ripe, he plies the sickle, because harvest time has come," and if he lets the moment pass, the crop is lost. A trader in gems who is offered a pearl of outstanding value -- the prize of a lifetime -- must buy there and then, or someone else will get it, even if it means gambling his entire capital.5 A defendant on his way to court had better settle in a hurry.6 A servant under notice of dismissal must devise means of avoiding beggary without delay.7 One picture after another drives home the same idea: a crisis calling for decision.
What was this "zero hour" he was speaking about? The gospels leave us in little doubt. It was the hour with which Jesus and his hearers were faced at the time of speaking. As harvest is the culminating point of the agricultural year, so this is the climax of centuries of growth. "Look round on the fields; they are already white, ripe for harvest. The reaper is drawing his pay and gathering a crop." 8 It is the time when the history of Israel, with all its unfulfilled promise, reaches fulfillment. "Happy the eyes that see what you are now seeing! I tell you, many prophets and kings wished to see what you now see, yet never saw it; to hear what you hear, yet never heard it." 9 More nearly explicit is a saying which Luke has rendered with almost telegraphic brevity: "Until John, it was the law and the prophets; since then, there is the good news of the kingdom of God." 10 That is to say, with the work of John the Baptist (who had recently been put to death) an old order was wound up, and a new order was inaugurated. It is characterized by "good news" about the "kingdom of God."
In Hebrew idiom this phrase means something more like "the reign of God," or even "the reigning of God," that is, God himself exercising his royal power. Jesus came into Galilee, says Mark, announcing this "good news," which the writer has formulated in a kind of slogan: "The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you!" 11 That meant, Here is God in all his power and majesty, confronting you where you live! What are you going to do about it? The Galilean public rightly divined that Jesus was here stepping outside the province of a rabbi. "He is a prophet," they said, "like one of the old prophets."12
Jesus did indeed stand in direct succession to the prophets of ancient Israel, whose message is preserved in the Old Testament. The prophets took their stand on the conviction that God has a hand in human affairs, and they therefore interpreted the events of their time with insight derived from their converse with the Eternal ("hearing the word of the Lord." as they expressed it). Similarly, we should understand Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God as an interpretation of the contemporary situation in terms of his knowledge of God. It was a significant situation on any showing. Within Judaism a crisis loomed which was bound to resolve itself one way or the other before long. In the wider world remarkable things were happening to the minds of men, and Jewish life could not be insulated from it. Things were happening; but what was happening? Then, as always, there were many possible secular answers to the question. What answer should be given by one who believed in God? The prophets had answered for their time in terms of "the counsel of the Most High." And so Jesus answered the question posed by the crisis he discerned in the words, "The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you." This is "zero hour," the hour of decision. God was confronting men, more immediately, more urgently, than ever before, and an unprecedented opportunity lay before them.
The statement needs some examination. God, the eternal, the omnipresent, can hardly be said to be nearer or farther off at this time than at that. If he is king at all, he is king always and everywhere. In what sense his kingdom does not come; it is. But human experience takes place within a framework of time and space. It has varying degrees of intensity. There are particular moments in the lives of men and in the history of mankind when what is permanently true (if largely unrecognized) becomes manifestly and effectively true. Such a moment in history is reflected in the gospels. The presence of God with men, a truth for all times and places, became an effective truth. It became such (we must conclude) because of the impact that Jesus made; because in his words and actions it was presented with exceptional clarity and operative with exceptional power. Jesus himself pointed to the effects of his work as signs of the coming of the kingdom: "If by the finger of God I chive Out the devils, then be sure the kingdom of God has come upon you." 13 The saying is obviously figurative. To speak literally, God has no fingers, and there may or may not be such things as evil spirits; what the gospels call casting out devils we might describe, rightly or wrongly, in other terms. But the essential meaning is not obscure. In the presence of Jesus the dark forces within, which ravage the souls and bodies of men, were overcome and their victims made new. That it was so, is a fact so deeply imprinted on the records that it cannot reasonably be doubted. And this, Jesus said, was a sign that God was coming in his kingdom. It would not be accurate to say that Jesus brought in, or set up, the kingdom of God. That was the work of God himself, whose perpetual providence, active in every part of his creation, had brought about this significant moment, and the most significant feature in it was the appearance of Jesus himself. In his words and actions he made men aware of it and challenged them to respond. It was "good news in the sense that it meant opportunity for a new start and an unprecedented enrichment of experience. But when a person (or a society) has been presented with such a challenge and declines it, he is not just where he was before. His position is the worse for the encounter. It is this that gives point to the tremendous warnings that Jesus is reported to have uttered about the consequences of rejection. That is why John, looking back on the career of Jesus as a complete episode, saw it as a day of judgment. "Now is the hour of judgment for this world," 14 he writes. "The light came into tile world and men preferred darkness to light." 15 Light is a good thing; to encounter the reality which is God’s presence in his world is in itself good. Whatever possibility of disaster may lurk within the choice which is offered, the facing of the choice, in the freedom which the Creator allows to his creatures, in itself raises life to greater intensity. The coming of the kingdom meant the open possibility of enhancement of life; it also meant the heightening of moral responsibility.
What response to the challenge did Jesus expect from his hearers? "The kingdom of God is upon you; repent!" So Mark’s slogan runs. The word "repent" in English suggests being "sorry for your sins." That is not what the Greek word means. It means, quite simply, to think again, to have second thoughts, to change your mind. "Repentance," as the gospels mean it, is a readjustment of ideas and emotions, from which a new pattern of life and behavior will grow (as the "fruit of repentance").
The readjustment turns upon acceptance of "good news of God" The news was, in the first place, that God was here, now. If once that was grasped, then everything that could be said about God had a new immediacy. What Jesus had to say about God, as we have seen, was expressed in language imaginative and emotive, which suggests rather than defines. We have noted how he dwelt upon the beauty and wonder of nature, and linked man with nature in one order where each level could be illuminated from another, and God was to be traced in all. At every level man meets his Creator, the Lord of heaven and earth, supreme in goodness and power, whose goodness is an exuberant generosity directed toward all his creatures without discrimination, and yet focussed on individuals in inconceivable intimacy. "Even the hairs on your head have all been counted." 16
It is instructive to observe how this way of thinking about God gives a new color to images of Deity which Jesus took over from the tradition of his people. The idea of God as the Shepherd of Israel is almost a commonplace in the Old Testament. A true shepherd, Jesus observed, will be deeply concerned over a single sheep that has gone astray: "He goes after the missing one until he finds it." 17 So does God. And the point is sharpened because Jesus was censured for doing that very thing. The parable of the Lost Sheep, in fact (so Luke tells us), was his reply to such censures. The traditional image of the divine Shepherd was revivified in his actions as well as in his words.
Again, God as the Father of his people was a very familiar metaphor, deeply embedded in the religious language of Judaism. And indeed the idea of a Father-god is common to many religions. But what is fatherhood, in its essential meaning, as applied to the Deity? Jesus did not hesitate to compare it directly with ordinary human fatherhood. "If you, bad as you are, know how to give your children what is good for them, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him!" 18 The same comparison emerges in the parable which is perhaps the best known of them all, that of the Prodigal Son.19 This is no ideal picture of an imaginary father, of such exceptional saintliness that he can stand for God himself. He is any father worth the name, as the hearers are expected to recognize, and this is how he would behave; and that is what God is like. Once again, the parable, we are told, was by way of a defense of what Jesus was doing against the censures of the pious, who are slyly satirized in the figure of the smug elder brother ("I never once disobeyed your orders!"). It is, in equal measure, an expression of the attitude of Jesus and an image of Deity.
All through, the teaching of Jesus about God is distinguished by the directness, warmth and simplicity with which the language of fatherhood is used. "You have a Father who knows that you need all these things." "It is not the will of your Father that one of these little ones should be lost." 20 The same qualities mark the prayer, used by the church from its earliest days, which was believed to have been taught by Jesus himself. The prayer as it is commonly used, now as for centuries past, in public worship agrees with Matthew’s version of it, cast in a form which no doubt had such use in view. Luke gives a simpler, perhaps a more original version:
Father, thy name be hallowed.
The word for "Father," which the earliest Christians learnt from Jesus in their native Aramaic, was "Abba" (the Aramaic word is preserved in some places of the New Testament), and "Abba" was the intimate mode of address from child to father in the Jewish family. "My Father," or "our Father," was felt to be slightly more distant or more respectful, and Matthew’s "our father in heaven" represents the formal language of liturgical prayer. Here again is a slight but not insignificant pointer to the way in which Jesus wanted his followers to think of God. The actual petitions of the prayer agree with this. They are the appeal of children to a father, simple, direct and confident.
This kind of language, they say, is "anthropomorphic." Of course it is; and of course all human language about God falls short of telling what he is -- the language of philosophical abstraction no less than the poetic image. But it is nevertheless intended to be taken seriously. In the first century many devout Jews were shy of such language. We can see this from the way in which they paraphrased passages in the Old Testament which sounded anthropomorphic, and from the circumspect terms in which they spoke of the Deity ("Heaven," "The Name," "The Holy One, blessed be he," and the like). Some of them, especially if they had come under Greek influence, as had many Jews of that period, spoke of "the One who really is," much as some moderns speak of "the ultimate reality," or "the ground of being." In contrast, the gospels are uninhibited in their use of anthropomorphic language. We must suppose that Jesus used it, by choice, because it is the appropriate way of speaking about the personal life with God which was his concern, but, even more, because it was the only possible way of speaking of God as he himself knew him. He was aware that there were sophisticated types who could not take his teaching; he accepted this as a part of the conditions under which he had to work. "I thank thee, Father," he is recorded to have said, in one of the very few echoes of his personal prayers that have come through into the gospels -- "I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and wise, and revealing them to the simple." 22 Some people would need to make a considerable effort to put themselves into the attitude in which his teaching would have meaning for them. "Unless you turn round and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of God"; or, in other words, "Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it. 23 This "turning round" is a large part of what is meant by "repentance" in the gospels. It is learning to think of God as your Father and of yourself as his child, quite simply.
How it would work out in daily practice is a question, it would seem, which Jesus was willing to leave very much to the awakened conscience of the individual. To bring about that awakening of conscience was a major object of his work, certainly the major aim of most of the parables. We look in vain in the gospels for any such elaborate scheme of rules for living as were offered by contemporary moralists, Jewish and Greek. This is not to be taken as meaning that there was either any vagueness about the true nature of moral action or any relaxation of the moral imperative. The follower of Jesus is under orders, no less binding because they are not spelled out in detail; he is "the man who hears these words of mine and acts upon them." 24 It is not because he wanted to let people off lightly that Jesus did not dictate a set of bylaws. And in fact the gospels do contain a small but illuminating body of directly ethical instruction. To this we must now turn.
To start from a point where Jesus occupied common ground with his Jewish contemporaries may help us to appreciate both the organic relationship of his teaching to its matrix in Judaism, and the new departure it marks. In the first century, some of the most advanced of Jewish teachers, faced with the growing complexity of the system of ethics contained in the so-called Law of Moses and its constantly proliferating interpretations and supplements, were attempting to bring out its central or overruling intention by giving prominence to one or another "great commandment" upon which the rest might be supposed to hang. Jesus was aware of these attempts, and in sympathy with them. It is recorded that in discussing the question he found himself in friendly agreement with some teachers of the Law that there are two "great commandments": Love God with all your heart; love your neighbor as yourself. According to Matthew and Mark the combination of these two commandments was suggested by Jesus, and his questions cordially agreed. According to Luke it was the "lawyer" (as he calls him) who made the combination, and Jesus assented.25 There is no reason why both reports should not be true. It is likely enough that the question was discussed on more than one occasion.
Love of God; love of neighbor: an important part of the ethical teaching of Jesus can be brought under these twin heads, and this has often been done by Christian moralists. But if we are to trust the three earlier gospels, this was not his way. The objection has often been raised, that love cannot be commanded, and that to say "Thou shalt love" involves a contradiction. The objection may be rebutted in various ways. But in fact Jesus dealt with the theme to which the two commandments refer in a different way, which is not open to any such objection. Singular as it may appear, he seems to have said little (in express terms) about the duty of loving God, and not much more (in express terms) about loving one’s neighbor, except where he was relating himself to current teaching with which his hearers would be familiar. Indeed he seems to have been sparing in his use of the word "love" (noun or verb).
Thus, when he is speaking in language of his own choice he does not say, "Thou shalt love God." He says (in effect) "God is your Father; become what you are, his child" To live as a child of God means, as a matter of course, trust and obedience. All that is in the Old Testament, and what Jesus says about it is only a re-emphasis. But there is a further point: the maxim "Like father, like child" holds good here, and it is in the application of this principle that we can recognize an emphasis which is characteristic of the teaching of Jesus. The child of God will be like his Father, at least to the extent that he will feel himself obliged to try to reproduce in his own behavior towards others the quality of God’s action toward his children, and to pursue the direction in which that action points.
The "imitation of God" was a not uncommon way of expressing the moral ideal; it is found in both Jewish and Greek moralists of the period. They differ among themselves in regard to the divine attributes held up for imitation. For example, there were teachers for whom the characteristic attribute of Deity was the blissful serenity of perfectly self-centered indifference, and it was this that the "philosopher" must imitate. For others it was a transcendent and ineffable "holiness," unrelated to the conditions and values of human life on earth, to be imitated in seclusion from the world, by a contrived and exacting discipline. This appears to have been the view of some Jewish sectaries. But in the best Jewish teaching (going back to the prophets of the Old Testament) the attributes of God which are to be imitated are those which can be conceived on the analogy of human virtues at their highest; such as his even-handed justice, his mercy, his "faithfulness." Jesus agreed: "Justice, mercy, and good faith" he declared to be "the weightier demands of the Law." 26 But he also put the subject in a fresh light by his emphasis on the undiscriminating generosity and sympathy of the heavenly Father, particularly as shown towards those who are unworthy of it. This is the divine quality, above all, in which children of God will be like their Father. He "makes the sun rise on good and bad alike, and sends rain on the honest and the dishonest." 27 This is not, in any workaday sense of the term, justice: it is "goodness beyond justice." And this is the kind of thing his children should be doing. Whether this should be called love to God or love to neighbor is a matter of indifference. To love God is to live as his child; to live as a child of God is to treat your neighbor as God treats you.
But since the goodness of God is undiscriminating, "beyond justice," the term "neighbor" is no longer serviceable unless it is redefined. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, where love to neighbor is, quite simply, doing for him what needs to be done, in the emergency, the good neighbor is both alien and heretic.28 And at this point, perhaps, some hearers who had assented so far might have had misgivings, even if they did not go to the lengths of those fanatical sectaries whose Manual of Discipline (found among the "Dead Sea Scrolls") enjoined them "to love all the children of light -- and to hate all the children of darkness, each according to the measure of his guilt." It may have been with teaching of this kind in view that Jesus said, "You have learned that they were told, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But what I tell you is this: Love your enemies." He was at pains to dot the i’s and cross the t’s of this challenging revision of the old commandment, "Love your neighbor."
If you love only those who love you,
It is impossible to miss the stress laid upon breaking out of the narrow circle within which it is natural to confine the love of neighbor, and this is specifically related to the quality of the divine action. It is also instructive to observe how the expression slides from "Love your enemy," modeled on the traditional "Love your neighbor," to "Do good," "Lend," becoming more concrete at each step. At a still further stage the expression becomes fully pictorial and we get what is in effect a parable. "If someone slaps you on the right check, turn and offer him your left. If a man wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. If a man in authority makes you go one mile, go with him two." (The reference is to the system of forced labor for the state which was employed under the Roman Empire, especially for the purposes of the imperial postal service.) "Give when you are asked to give, and do not turn your back on a man who wants to borrow." 30 Considered as regulations for the conduct of daily life these maxims are utopian. They were not intended as such regulations. Yet they are meant to be taken seriously. They are vivid and even startling illustrations, in extreme cases, of the way in which the quality and direction of God’s treatment of his children might be reproduced in human relations. The very extravagance of them shows that Jesus was well aware what a lot he was demanding of human nature when he substituted "Love your enemies" for "Love your neighbor." There is a somewhat similar note of extravagance in an illuminating little dialogue reported by Matthew. Jesus has been urging the duty of forgiveness. Peter is represented as asking, ‘How often am I to go on forgiving my brother if he goes on wronging me? As many as seven times?" Jesus replies, "I do not say seven times; I say seventy times seven." 31 Four hundred and ninety times -- which is absurd. Peter’s question is one which would occur naturally enough to a well-brought-up Jew of the period. He had been taught that forgiveness was a virtue, and, in the spirit of much contemporary exposition of the Law, be would like to know exactly how far he was expected to go. The reply of Jesus is a reductio ad absurdum of any quantitative treatment of the question. There are no limits.
It might be asked why Jesus gave such prominence to these themes. One answer might be that he saw, as any sensitive observer might have seen, that Jewish society was being corroded by rancorous hatreds, among the parties and factions into which it was divided, and between Jew and Roman. It was the part of any publicist who had insight and foresight, to point this out and to urge a change of temper before it was too late. But there is more to it than that. It is in this field of human relations, where the issues are most acute and the emotions are most strongly aroused, that the absoluteness of God’s requirements can be exposed. This is a part of what is meant by the declaration that his kingdom is here. It is no time for the nicely calculated less and more of "practical" morality. It is a time for total commitment. There is no limit to what is demanded of children of God, nor can his demands be exhaustively fulfilled. "When you have carried out all your orders, you should say, ‘We are servants and deserve no credit; we have only done our duty.’" 32 All that a man can do is to accept full responsibility before God, and to throw himself on his mercy. Forgiveness to "seventy times seven" is a function of the heavenly Father. But "if you do not forgive others, then the wrongs you have done will not be forgiven by your Father." 33 This is not to be taken as a threat of retributive action on the part of God. It means that the unforgiving person does not stand in the relation of a child to the heavenly Father. He has broken that relation by his own attitude; he has placed himself outside the family of God. "Observe," Paul once wrote, "the kindness and the severity of God." 34 We can observe both here, in a tension which must not be evaded, if the teaching of Jesus is to be understood. A similar combination of kindness and severity is to be observed in his own attitude. His tenderness to men in their need, and his unsparing demands upon them, both arise from a deep concern for the individual as a child of the heavenly Father, and this reflects the attitude of God himself, as Jesus represented it.
We have seen that Jesus started from positions which he largely shared with other Jewish teachers of his time, but that in some respects he went beyond these positions. It is clear that a rift soon appeared, and this became with time an irreconcilable breach. In interpreting what the gospels report upon this subject it is well to bear in mind that, when they came to be written, controversy between the followers of Jesus and official Judaism had gone forward with increasing bitterness for some years before the final separation of church and synagogue. It was almost inevitable that in the course of this controversy the sayings of Jesus should sometimes have been given a sharper edge, certainly that those sayings should be most often repeated which were capable of such a sharp edge. But that he did upon occasion set his teaching in deliberate opposition to that of other rabbis cannot be doubted. Nor, whatever allowance be made for overcoloring in the course of controversy, is it possible to doubt that he did deliberately criticize them, and sometimes in trenchant terms, though we need not assume that all of them were included in such criticism; there were perhaps more teachers of the Law with whom Jesus could find himself in friendly agreement than the two or three who have found their way into the gospels. But a growing opposition is a feature of the record which cannot be set aside. In any study of the beginnings of Christianity it is necessary to take account of this opposition and to try to understand its nature and causes. Moreover, in the attempt we may hope to arrive at a juster appreciation of the distinctive tendencies and emphases of the teaching of Jesus himself.
It is evident from what has already been said that the ethics of Jesus are predominantly concerned with the dignity and responsibility of the human individual face to face with God. In view of this it is not surprising to find a certain impatience with minutiae of religious etiquette with which the most influential school of rabbinic Judaism was much preoccupied. Not that he seems to have set himself deliberately to undermine the cherished customs of his people. A good example is his treatment of the law of tithe, a tax of 10 per cent for religious purposes levied on agricultural produce. It laid a serious burden on those who tried to observe it with scrupulous exactness, for it was, of course, in addition to the imperial taxation. It was no bad test of genuine devotion to the Law. Upon this there is a saying of Jesus, reported (with small verbal differences) by Matthew and Luke: "You pay tithes of mint and dill and cumin, but you have overlooked the weightier demands of the Law -- justice, mercy and good faith. It is these you should have practiced, without neglecting the others. Blind guides! You strain off a midge, yet gulp down a camel!" 35 Jesus was not intolerant of these religious practices; there is no harm in having rules of discipline, and if such rules are accepted, certainly no harm in following them conscientiously. But there is a proportion to be kept: if they are allowed to get in the way of those personal relations which are summed up as "justice, mercy and good faith," then the attempt to keep the Law of God is frustrated.
It was on similar grounds that Jesus sat loose to other current rules of discipline; for example, the regulations about Sabbath observance, which had become immensely elaborate and detailed. Here again it does not appear that he planned to undermine the conventions of Jewish society. We are told that he was accustomed to attend the synagogue service on the Sabbath, and we may assume that normally he would conform with the rules generally observed. But when these rules conflicted with elementary human need, they must give way. In principle, indeed, this was conceded. "The Sabbath was given to you, and not you to the Sabbath": the sentiment is attributed to more than one Jewish rabbi. Jesus agreed: "The Sabbath was made for the sake of man, and not man for the Sabbath." 36 But his actions implied a more thorough application of it than others were prepared to allow. He gave serious offense by treating patients, not in immediate danger of death, on the holy day. When challenged, he propounded the question, "Is it permitted to do good on the Sabbath, or to do evil?" If the rules prevent you from doing good, that is, from promoting the welfare of any individual person who may be within your reach (your "neighbor"), then the rules must yield to a higher claim. There may also be a hint that to fail to "do good" because it is the Sabbath is to "do evil."
The keeping of the Sabbath may seem to us a comparatively trivial issue, but it was a sensitive point. It was one of the most obviously distinctive of all Jewish customs; it was one which the Gentile observer, however superficial, could not miss, as references in Greek and Roman literature sufficiently prove. Nor was it forgotten that in the first great national revolt, two hundred years earlier, Jewish fugitives had allowed themselves to be massacred rather than fight on the holy day. The Sabbath was specially prized as a mark of the separateness of the chosen people, and to attack it was to blur the national image.
Without going into further detail, we can see how inevitable it was that tension arose between Jesus and the exponents of current religious practice. But the trouble went deeper than the lack of proportion and sheer triviality to which their casuistry sometimes descended. Jesus saw in it the grave danger of such an emphasis on the overt act that the inner disposition was forgotten. He is reported to have put the point by way of an interpretation of two of the Ten Commandments. "You have learned that our forefathers were told, ‘Do not commit murder; anyone who commits murder must be brought to judgment’ But what I tell you is this: anyone who nurses anger against his brother must be brought to judgment." And again, "You have learned that they were told ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But what I tell you is this: if a man looks on a woman with a lustful eye he has already committed adultery with her in his heart." 37
There is nothing here that need have upset anyone who was acquainted with the Old Testament or with Jewish teaching of the time. There are many rabbinic sayings which condemn the indulgence of anger (against a fellow Jew, bien entendu), and the Ten Commandments themselves not only prohibit adultery but add, "Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife." But this constant and emphatic dwelling on the inward disposition rather than the overt act might well excite the suspicion of those who insisted on the deed as the sole visible test of obedience to the Law of God. It is clear that Jesus too attached importance to the concrete act; that is one reason why he cast so much of his ethical teaching in the form of vivid word pictures of action instead of abstract general maxims. But he did so with the proviso that the act is the sincere expression of an inward disposition. "A good man produces good from the store of good within himself, and an evil man from the evil within produces evil. For the words the mouth utters come from the overflowing of the heart." 38 It is a matter of wholeness of character, consistency of thought, word and act.
That is why he expressed such horror of ostentatious display of religion where a true inward devotion was lacking. "Be careful," he is reported to have said, "not to make a show of your religion before men. . . . When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; they love to say their prayers standing up in synagogues or at the street corners, for everyone to see them. . . . When you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is there in the secret place." 39 When he was censured for laxity in observing the traditional rules about ceremonial washing before meals, he retorted upon his critics in a biting phrase: "You clean the outside of cup and plate, but inside you there is nothing but greed and wickedness." 40 Again, it was held that certain kinds of food "defile" the eater. According to Mark Jesus pronounced categorically on the matter: "Nothing that goes into a man from outside can defile him." Mark adds an explanation: "From the inside, out of a man’s heart, come evil thoughts [and a whole catalogue of violent and criminal practices]. These evil things come from inside, and they defile the man"; and he adds, as his own comment, "thus he declared all foods clean." [he distinction between clean" and "unclean" foods was deeply embedded in the Jewish system and had its basis in the Old Testament itself. It has been doubted whether Jesus can have gone so far, but there seems no reason to question Mark’s report of the basic saying. It was known to Paul, who wrote, several years before Mark’s gospel appeared: "I am absolutely convinced, on the authority of the Lord Jesus, that nothing is impure in itself." 41 If he did say something to this effect, it is no wonder hostility was aroused. In times of persecution, the test of loyalty to the Jewish religion had often been just this refusal of "unclean" food. Was it possible to repudiate a principle which the martyrs had sealed with their blood?
Contemporary rabbis would not have dreamed of denying the importance of inward disposition. But Jesus pressed the principle with such ruthless logic that it seemed in danger of eroding the discipline by which social morals were safeguarded. For him it was a point of cardinal significance: an act is a moral act only so far as it expresses the whole character of the man who acts. His severest strictures are directed against those teachers of religion and morals whose lofty principles were belied by the pretentiousness, superficiality and inhumanity of their behavior. The strictures are severe enough; it is possible, as we have seen, that our reports of them have been colored by subsequent controversy. But that they were not without grounds we may learn from passages in the rabbinic writings themselves which castigate unworthy claimants to the honored name of "Pharisee" in terms no less scathing than those of the gospels. But all this is in a sense a side issue, significant only insofar as it illustrates the moral bias of the teaching of Jesus as a whole. And this bias can equally be felt in his strictures on followers of his own in whom he detected the same lack of moral consistency. "Why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord’ -- and never do what I tell you?" 42 So runs a characteristically pointed saying in Luke. In Matthew it is enforced by a telling piece of imagery, in which Jesus imagines himself confronting these unworthy followers on a day of judgment beyond this world. "When that day comes, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, cast out devils in your name, and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them to their faces, ‘I never knew you; out of my sight, you and your wicked ways!’ " It was not only Pharisees who had to feel the lash of his tongue.
But the fact is that his whole approach to morals was different from that which prevailed among Jewish teachers of his time. The formidable structure of tradition with which the Law of Moses had come to be surrounded was designed to bring its demands within the compass of the individual by making every command applicable in a clearly defined way to each situation in which he might find himself. He must know, for example, just how far he might walk on a Sabbath day without infringing the commandment, and exactly what circumstances might justify him in stretching it. (It was to the credit of the Pharisees that they did stretch it -- for example, to save life -- but within strict limits.) Something of the kind, no doubt, is necessary if ethics are to be made practicable; we can hardly dispense with casuistry. But it has its dangers. Beside the obvious danger of giving the outward act an independent value apart from the disposition which makes it a moral act, there is a more subtle danger, that of a quantitative conception of morality. It is as if there were a set of regulations each of which, like the questions in an examination paper, earned a certain number of marks, and the total could be put to a man’s credit. The implication would be that it is possible to score full marks, and to say with a good conscience (as someone says in the gospels), "I have kept all these." 43 Jesus had severe things to say about "those who were sure of their own goodness and looked down on everyone else." 44 That, of course, is the trouble. The yardstick by which one measures one’s own (real or supposed) excellence also measures the other man’s defects, to one’s own great comfort. In the teaching of Jesus, goodness is not measurable by any yardstick. It is qualitative and not quantitative at all. It is the effort to reproduce the quality of the divine action. The effort may be present at lowly levels of achievement; the quality itself is never fully present at the highest, since "no one is good [in the absolute sense] except God alone." There is therefore no ground either for complacency or harsh judgment on the part of the "virtuous," or for self-despair on the part of the "sinner." It is surprising how often the sayings of Jesus recur to this theme, of the folly and evil of self-righteousness and censoriousness. His heaviest count against the prevailing teaching of his time is precisely this: that, starting with the best intentions, it had come to encourage this folly and evil, as if it were inseparable from a high moral standard.
It is clear that there breathes through all this a lively sympathy with those whose weakness, or whose lack of opportunity, placed them at a disadvantage. But it would be misleading to regard it as nothing more than the protest of a warm-hearted, liberal-minded humanitarian. It arose out of the conviction that with the coining of the kingdom of God a new era in relations between God and man had set in. Morality might now draw directly from fresh springs. The whole apparatus of traditional regulations lost its importance. Jesus never intended a campaign against the Law. It might still serve a useful purpose in its way; it might be understood as bearing witness to the two "great commandments." But it was no longer central, and no longer constituted the whole structure of moral obligation.
The differences, therefore, which produced first a rift and then an irreconcilable opposition between Jesus and the dominant school of Jewish teachers in his time were not in the end (though they might appear at first sight to be) a matter of divergent interpretations of this or that point in the Law. After all, there was considerable latitude of interpretation among accredited rabbis -- more latitude at that period than in the reformed Judaism which emerged after the debacle of AD. 70. But his critics rightly divined that his teaching threatened the integrity of Judaism as a system in which religion and national solidarity were inseparable.
This was the secret of the fatal breach, as it is pinpointed by a modern Jewish writer, and one who is by no means insensitive to the many noble ideas which he finds in the teaching of Jesus.45 he writes:
The Judaism of that time, however, had no other arm than to save the tiny nation, the guardian of great ideals, from sinking into the broad sea of heathen culture and enable it, slowly and gradually, to realize the moral teaching of the Prophets In civil life and in the present world of the Jewish state and nation. Hence the nation as a whole could only see in such public ideals as those of Jesus an abnormal and dangerous fantasy; the majority, who followed the Scribes and Pharisees (The Tannaim). the leaders of the popular party, could on no account accept Jesus’ teaching. This teaching Jesus had absorbed from the breast of prophetic, and, to a certain extent, Pharisaic Judaism; yet it became, on the one hand, the negation of everything that had vitalized Judaism; and, on the other hand, it brought Judaism to such an extreme that it became, in a sense, non-Judaism.
This, a judgment from within the rabbinic
tradition, may probably be accepted as being, up to a point, a fair
assessment of the grounds of the opposition which Jesus encountered from a
party with which in some respects he had much in common. If this seems
hardly sufficient to account for a hostility which could be satisfied with
nothing short of his death, we may recall that the time was one in which
resentment of pagan domination was mounting high, and hot passions were
stirred in defense of the cherished values of "the Jewish way of life."
Yet there is something about the antagonism. as it is reflected in the
gospels, which seems to draw from an even deeper spring than apprehension
of a threat to the national heritage. Jesus was charged with "blasphemy"
The term is a heavily loaded one, and the charge suggests an affront to
powerful sentiments of religious reverence and awe, evoking both hatred
and fear. The charge of blasphemy expresses not so much a rational
judgment as a passionate, almost instinctive, revulsion of feeling against
what seems to be a violation of sanctities. There must have been something
about the way in which Jesus spoke and acted which provoked this kind of
revulsion in minds conditioned by background, training and habit. It was
this, over and above reasoned objections to certain features of his
teaching, that drove the Pharisees into an unnatural (and strictly
temporary) alliance with the worldly hierarchy, whose motives for pursuing
Jesus to death were quite other. But of this more later.
1Matt. 11.25, Luke 10.21.
5Matt. 13. 45-46.
6Matt. 5. 25-26, Luke 12. 57.59.
7Luke 16. 3-4.
9Luke 10. 23-24.
10Luke 16.16. Matthew’s version of this saying is more enigmatic, 11. 12-14.
13Luke 11.20; Matt. 12.28 has the more conventional. "by the Spirit of Cod."
16Matt. 10.30, Luke 12.7.
18Matt. 7.11, Luke 11.13.
20Luke 12.29, Matt. 6.32.
21Luke 11. 2-4; Matthew’s longer version, 6, 9-13.
22Matt. 11.25, Luke 10.21.
23Matt. 18.3, Mark 10.15.
24Matt. 7.24, Luke 6.47.
25Matt. 22. 34-40, Mark 12. 28-34, Luke 10. 25-28.
28Luke 10. 29-37.
29Matt. 5. 43-48, Luke 6. 27-36.
30Matt. 5. 39-42.
31Matt. 18. 21-22,
35Matt. 23.23, Luke 11.42.
36Mark 2.27, 3.4.
37Matt. 5. 21-22, 27-28.
38Matt. 32.35, Luke 6.45.
39Matt. 6. u-6.
40Matt. 23.25. Luke 11.39, Mark 7. 15-23.
41Romans 14.14. Such is probably the meaning of the expression which is literally translated, "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus."
42Luke 6.46, Matt. 7. 21.23.
43Mark 10.20, Matt. 19.20, Luke 18.21.
45Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (English translation, 1925). p. 376.
Life of Christ
Any student of the Græco-Roman world at the beginning of our era who tries to penetrate beneath the surface of the political, economic and military history of the period and discern what was going on in the minds of men, becomes aware of a widespread expectation of a turn for the better in human affairs, even the dawn of a golden age, after the violent convulsions which had disturbed society for a century or more. There was something of a religious faith about it. It invoked oracles and prophecies, ancient and modern. It was often associated with the figure of a "savior," or deliverer -- a great man, perhaps a superman with something of divinity about him, if indeed he was not a god. Millions of the subjects of Rome saw the emperor himself as the divine deliverer. A Roman poet hailed Augustus as praesens divus, a "present deity." 1 The emperor disposed of powers which seemed nothing short of miraculous to the subject peoples of the eastern provinces, who had lived for two or three generations in a disintegrating society. He had given unity to a distracted world. He could guarantee peace, safety from outward attacks, and a measure of social security internally. At the least he could provide everybody with "bread and circuses." The emotion which expressed itself in the worship of the emperor as a very god on earth was genuine. He was the savior, the "restorer of the world" (restitutor orbis). It was not difficult for propagandists of the empire to represent it as trembling on the verge of a millennium. Under Augustus it really did seem to many as if a golden age might be round the corner. By the time of Tiberius (to whose reign the events of the gospel history belong), the gilt was tarnished.
The Jews were not greatly impressed by imperial claims of this sort. But they shared in the general hope of a good time coming. Certainly they had their quest for "present deity." In the distant past, they believed, the great God had revealed himself to Moses and the prophets; he had acted in the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and the restoration after the Babylonian conquest. There was a deep longing that at this time of need, when Israel was again oppressed, he should once again manifest himself in appropriate action, and there was a varying degree of confidence that he would do so.
As the secular hope of a golden age had its prophecies and oracles, so the Judaism of this period produced that curious literature known as "apocalyptic." It professed to unveil the future -- the near future -- in visions, usually fantastic enough, and always in the sense of some glorious destiny impending for the chosen race. Inevitably, among large sections of the population the picture took on colors similar to those of the secular golden age. The place of the divine emperor, victorious in war, beneficent in peace, was taken by the ideal figure of the "Son of David," a wise and powerful king of the old legitimate line. He would be the Caesar of a Jewish empire no less universal than the Roman; though it would be fair to say that the program drawn up for the "Son of David" in literature not far in date from the time of Jesus has more about justice and moral reformation than about bread and circuses. To this ideal figure was often given the title "Messiah." The term was suggestive rather than precise in meaning. In itself it meant no more than a person "anointed," or consecrated, to an office of special solemnity; but always it was an office bound up with the peculiar status of Israel as God’s own people. In historical retrospect, David, the idealized founder of the Israelite monarchy, was "the Lord’s Anointed" (Messiah), par excellence, and the coming deliverer was to be in some sort a second David. Such seems to have been the most popular form of the "messianic" idea. Vis-à-vis Rome it spelt rebellion, and many were ready to implement it in that sense.
This militant "messianism," however, was not the only form taken by the national hope. The ancient synagogue prayer, "Bring back our judges as at the first, and our rulers as aforetime, and be thou king over us, O Lord, thou alone," combined the sober plea of a subject people for the recovery of independence with a genuinely religious aspiration. God was the rightful King of Israel; every Jew was taught that; but the effective reign of God was something hoped for rather than experienced. And so again the prayer was offered in the synagogue liturgy: "May he establish his kingdom in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the whole house of Israel." What the establishment of the "kingdom of God" might in practice mean was something about which minds might differ because of their different background, education and discernment. According to such differences various schools and parties had their several programs. But behind all the programs there remained the august idea of God himself coming to reign as sovereign, the living God, present and powerful, a factor to be reckoned with. This idea was waiting to be revived.
Then Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming, "The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you!" It is not surprising that some understood him to be speaking of the kingdom of the Son of David with its revolutionary implications. The misunderstanding dogged his mission to the end, until he was put to death by the Romans as "king of the Jews." A misunderstanding it was, and one of fatal consequence. Yet a misunderstanding may be a truth distorted by a mere shift of level or perspective. So it was here. Jesus held aloof from all the party programs; he cut through them all to the root idea of "present deity" -- God in all his power and majesty confronting individual men and women and demanding response; and to this idea he gave fresh clarity and strength, as we have seen. But it would be wrong to suppose that he so "spiritualized" the idea of the kingdom of God as to make it relevant only to the inner life of the individual. Aloof in one sense, he was nevertheless engaged with the contemporary life of his own nation. When he welcomed the "repentance" of an unpopular tax-collector, he spoke of him as a "son of Abraham." 2 When he defied censure to treat a crippled woman on the Sabbath, she was a "daughter of Abraham." 3 The expressions are revealing. As individuals they were important to him, but they were also members of a people; their plight concerned the historic community to which they, and he, belonged, and their "salvation" (physical or moral) also concerned the well-being of the community as a whole. Jesus spoke in parable of the finding of lost sheep, and emphasized the importance of the single sheep that went astray; but it was to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel," 4 he said, that he was sent. It is clear that in speaking of the kingdom of God he was not less aware than any contemporary Jewish teacher of the long tradition that Israel is the people over which God is rightfully king, in and though which his kingdom is to be realized.
This tradition the prophets of the Old Testament had made a part of tile whole Jewish heritage of thought. They insisted that God works in history, and works through a community dedicated to his purpose, a "people of God" or divine commonwealth, Israel was intended to be such a people; that was its raison d’étre. Indeed that was the implication of the name Israel itself as it was now used; it had ceased to have either geographical or political significance after two Israelite monarchies had been quashed some centuries earlier. Henceforward it carried ideal overtones. The Jewish community had been reorganized by the reformers of the fifth century BC. on the understanding that its whole corporate life should be governed by the sacred law which was believed to express the will of God. It was a brave and honest attempt to create a society in which the kingdom of God might be realized. But it had miscarried. The condition of Judaea in the first century was pathological. It was torn with faction; a largely secularized priesthood furthered its own ambitions by subservience to the foreign power; the mass of the people seethed with impotent hatred of Rome. The efforts of good and devoted religious teachers had the effect of widening the breach between the pious and the despised "people of the land." The situation worsened until it issued in the rising of AD. 66, which brought the end of Jewry as a political entity.
Jesus was alive to the danger threatening his people. Neither they nor their leaders, he said, could "interpret the signs of the times," 5 and one has only to read the account of the period by the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus to see how true it was. As the ancient prophets had pointed to a threat from Assyria or Babylon, so in the time of Jesus the Roman peril loomed. On one occasion he was told of a clash in the temple, in which some Galileans had been slaughtered by the Roman soldiery. About the same time, as it happened, one of the towers on the wall of Jerusalem had fallen, with fatal results. His comment was: "Do you imagine that, because these Galileans suffered this fate, they must have been greater sinners than anyone else in Galilee? Or the eighteen men who were killed when the tower fell on them at Siloam -- do you imagine they were more guilty than all the other people living in Jerusalem? I tell you, they were not; but unless you repent, you will all of you come to the same end," 6
"Unless you repent"; the call to "repentance" was addressed to individuals, certainly, but to individuals as members of a nation which was intended to be a "people of God" but had lost its way. If we ask what overt result Jesus may have hoped for, the answer is not easy, because he issued no program of religious or political reform, any more than he laid down precise regulations for individual behavior. He disclaimed any intention to reform the existing system. It would, he said, be no more sensible than patching a worn-out coat with new cloth. But it may be legitimate to ask, for example, what difference it might have made to the internal situation if those superior persons who "were sure of their own goodness and looked down on everyone else" could have changed their minds, or if the orthodox Jew could have been persuaded to accept the Samaritan as a "neighbor"; what difference to external relations if the pious sectaries of Qumran, feeding their frustrated animosities on fantasies of a holy war against Rome, could have learned that "love your neighbor" does not necessarily mean "hate your enemy," or if the entrenched hierarchy could have been persuaded to make the temple a home of real religion -- and a desegrated home at that, "a house of prayer for all the nations." 7 Such questions are idle except as a help to the imagination, by way of making concrete, in an actual historical situation, the bearing of the principles that Jesus laid down. But he promulgated no program, nor does it appear that he ever contemplated attempting to take over the Jewish establishment as a going concern and reshape it to his mind (as, shall we say, the English reformers of the sixteenth century took over the ecclesiastical establishment). It was not on that level that his mission proceeded.
The immediate prelude to his mission was that of John the Baptist, an enigmatic figure about whom we are told enough to stimulate conjecture, but too little to give much certain knowledge. A few sayings of his, however, preserved in the gospels, are unquestionably authentic. One of them runs as follows: "Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father.’ I tell you that God can make children for Abraham out of these stones here." 8 The implication is obvious: hereditary membership of the chosen people is no passport to membership of the true people of God. To bring the new "Israel" out of the existing system a fresh start must be made, and it must be by a creative act of God. That was John’s view; it is unlikely that Jesus was less radical than he. Indeed only a like radicalism can explain some of his words and actions reported in the gospels.
In this, as in so much else, Jesus stood in succession to the Hebrew prophets, of whom, he said himself, John the Baptist was the last and greatest. Time and again, facing national calamities, the prophets repeat in varying imagery that the true people of God will emerge through his power from apparently final disaster. It will be like a resurrection of dead men’s bones.9 The calamities the nation suffered dramatized, as it were, the just judgment of Almighty God upon their evil courses; but within the judgment lay the mercy of God, with power to create anew; and that was why, beyond all hope, the nation revived. Thus far the prophets. Jesus declared that the supreme crisis was now here. His own generation was caught up in a drama of divine judgment which summed up all the judgments of the past. "This generation will have to answer for the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world." 10 That was how he saw the approaching catastrophe. It was no satisfaction to him to have to announce it. On his last ride to Jerusalem, when the ridge was surmounted and the city came in sight, he is said to have wept as he exclaimed:
If only you had known, on this great day, the way that leads to peace! But no, it is hidden from your sight. For a time will come, when your enemies will set up siege works against you; they will encircle you and hem you in at every point; they will bring you to the ground, you and your children within your walls, and not leave you one stone standing on another, because you did not recognize God’s moment when it came.11
It was in these realistic terms that Jesus saw the plight of his nation. Yet the peril of a clash with Rome only brought to the surface something deeper than any political crisis. They were living through a spiritual crisis, and on the outcome of that crisis depended the future of the people of God in the world. It was a moment of decision and a turning point. In the prophetic interpretation of history, Israel dies to rise again. In terms of the existing situation, the present Jewish establishment is doomed; the true people of God will emerge from its ruins.
The idea finds expression in various metaphors -- seldom, if ever, in blunt prose. Most pregnant is a saying whose precise wording we cannot determine, because it is handed down in such various forms, but which, for that very reason, we may safely conclude to be both authentic and specially significant. Jesus was reported to have said something about the destruction of the temple, and this was made a charge against him. It was clearly an embarrassment to his followers in the tense situation that arose after his death. Mark gives the words thus: "I will throw down this temple, made with human hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands." But, Mark says, the allegation was false; he did not say this. But what did he say? Matthew has the words somewhat differently but he too discredits the report. Luke just drops it out. John, however, states plainly that Jesus did say: "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it again." 12 We must, I think, accept John’s version of the matter, and recognize that the saying is, like so many others, figurative: the temple stands for a way of religion and a community embodying it. The manifest disintegration of the existing system is to be preliminary to the appearance of a new way of religion and a new community to embody it. And yet, it is the same temple, first destroyed, that is to be rebuilt. The new community is still Israel; there is continuity through the discontinuity. It is not a matter of replacement but of resurrection.
We have now, perhaps, some inkling of the purpose underlying the intensive campaign which Jesus conducted among the populace of Galilee and Judaea. His aim was to constitute a community worthy of the name of a people of God, a divine commonwealth, through individual response to God coming in his kingdom. Some of his approaches to individuals we have already noted, and the results. Each such case was an image in miniature of the way in which the new people of God is brought into being, for in each case a man is made new by the power of God released through Jesus and through the "faith" which he evoked. Every such case is also a reinforcement of the call to "repentance," and they are all part and parcel of the great campaign.
Behind it all lies the vision of the all-embracing power and benevolence of the Creator. Especially it is the miracle of growth that sets the pattern. A man sows seed, "it sprouts and grows -- how, he does not know -- the ground produces a crop by itself," and almost before he knows what is happening, ‘harvest time has come." 13 Accordingly, when Jesus sent out messengers to proclaim, as he had himself proclaimed, "The kingdom of God is upon you," they are represented as reapers: "The crop is heavy, but laborers are scarce; you must therefore beg the owner to send laborers to harvest his crop. Be on your way!" 14 To change the metaphor, they are "fishers of men," 15 and fishers with a dragnet,16 which gathers in fish of all kinds, without discrimination. It is not for them to pick and choose. The disciples are recruiting agents for the new people of God, but their function as such is simply to confront men with the reality of God coming in his kingdom, and leave it to them. The response of each individual is voluntary; it is a choice and a decision of his own, before God. Those who accept his kingdom "like a child" enter in, and so by act of God himself, which is especially exhibited in the forgiveness of sins, his people is formed within the old Israel, ready to emerge in due time.
If the new Israel was to be more than an abstraction, it needed to be embodied. No doubt is was a theoretical possibility that a reformed Judaism might have supplied such an embodiment. Indeed, after the fall of Jerusalem the new rabbinic Judaism under the guidance of Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai and his school undertook something of the kind. But, as we have seen, Jesus did not contemplate a reformed Judaism. Yet he recognized the need for some vehicle of the new life which was emerging. There is a hint of this in a parable: "No one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins and then wine and skins are both lost. Fresh skins for new wine!" 17 The fresh vehicle was in fact beginning to take shape. The disciples of Jesus were called to be more than recruiting agents for the people of God, they were to be its foundation members.
This was most definitely true of the inner group which drew together out of the larger body of those who adhered to the cause of Jesus in a general way. It consisted of men who were wholly committed, and had left all to put themselves at his disposal. The number of this inner group came to be fixed at twelve. It seems clear that Jesus himself fixed it so, and, almost certainly, to symbolize the people of Israel with its traditional twelve tribes. In a very bold figure they are represented as "sitting on twelve thrones as judges of the twelve tribes of Israel." 18 They are addressed in terms proper to the people of God as an entity. All through the Old Testament, Israel is the "flock" of God, and so Jesus addresses the Twelve: "Have no fear, little flock; for your Father has chosen to give you the kingdom." 19 They are the Israel-to-be in miniature; not indeed to the exclusion of other disciples; it does not appear that in the gospels the Twelve form anything like a closed corporation. The center of the community is defined clearly enough: it is centered in Jesus and those closest to him; but its boundaries are not drawn. Any who hear his call to "repentance" and accept from his teaching the direction for their "change of mind," are members of the Israel-to-be. It is impossible, on the evidence we have, to distinguish clearly among the ethical sayings those which were delivered to a public audience, or in the course of discussion in a mixed group, or privately to the inner circle. Nor is it necessary to do so. In one aspect they are addressed to all and sundry, laying down the lines of an absolute ethic determined by the coming of the kingdom of God; but insofar as individuals accept them as such, and commit themselves, the new Israel is being formed, and the ethical teaching of Jesus becomes the new law by which it is to be governed.
But over and above the broad ethical teaching, intrinsically universal in its scope, there are sayings addressed directly to the disciples as a community in being, capable of being compared and contrasted with other existing communities: "You know that in the world the recognized rulers lord it over their subjects, and their great men make them feel the weight of authority. That is not the way with you; among you, whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the willing slave of all." 20 The theme recurs with striking frequency. Evidently it was, in the mind of Jesus, fundamental to the whole idea of the divine commonwealth. The saying just quoted is said to have been called forth by the appearance of rivalries among the Twelve. We seem to have a glimpse of a group of men striving to become a real community, and blundering through natural human failings. They are enthusiasts; they have given up everything for the cause; that in itself implies a more than average power of concentration on an object. That such men should entertain a not ignoble ambition to be leaders in the community can easily be understood. Nor was it wrong to seek leadership, provided it was the leadership of service. Any other form of the ambition to be first was directly contrary to the very idea of the people of God as Jesus conceived it. On one occasion he is reported to have enforced the lesson by example, when he took upon himself the duty (which in most households was performed by a slave) of washing the feet of his company. 21 "Who is the greater," he asked, "the one who sits at table, or the servant who waits on him? Surely the one who sits at table. Yet here am I among you like a servant." 22 We should understand this idea of the primacy of selfless service as applying not only to the relations of individuals within the community, but also to the function of the community in the world. The "messianic" idea as popularly held meant both the rule of the Messiah over Israel and also the domination of Israel over the nations. The new Israel has a "Messiah" who is the servant of all, and it must find itself in the like way of service.
The full scope of the demand made on the Twelve as the nucleus of the new community comes into view at the point when Jesus decided to lead them to Jerusalem, where by this time opposition had consolidated in the seats of power. It was clear that in going there he was putting his head into the lion’s mouth. Those who accompanied him must be under no illusion. Commitment to his cause now meant even more than it had done when they were called to leave home and livelihood. "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life, he cannot be a disciple of mine. No one who does not carry his cross and come with me can be a disciple of mine." 23 So Luke has it. Matthew gives the saying in slightly different terms: "No man is worthy of me who cares more for father or mother than for me; no man is worthy of me who cares more for son or daughter; no man is worthy of me who does not take up his cross and walk in my footsteps." 24
Most likely Jesus deliberately chose the harsh and extreme language which we find in Luke. It is in the tone of the occasion. He was calling for volunteers who renounce everything, renounce ("hate") life itself. And this renunciation of life is expressed again, in the most harshly realistic terms. To "carry the cross" is no mere metaphor. Crucifixion was the Romans’ short way with rebels. A criminal condemned to this atrocious punishment was normally compelled to carry to the place of execution the crossbeam to which he was to be fastened. That is the picture which the words of Jesus conjured up in the minds of those who heard him. They were to go to Jerusalem like a procession of condemned criminals with halters round their necks. Such was to be the end of the journey for him; he invited them to share it. "Can you drink the cup that I drink," he asked, "and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with ?" "We can," they replied. 25
It should be noted that the call to "carry the cross" is addressed to those who volunteered for service on a particular occasion. Jesus did not expect all those who had come to him in faith to accompany him on this desperate venture nor, if they did not do so, did he mean to disqualify them for a part in the new community. But the principle upon which the call is based is a universal one: "Whoever cares for his own safety is lost; but if a man will let himself be lost for my sake and for the gospel, that man is safe." 26
John has given this saying in a peculiarly suggestive setting. We have seen how central to the ideal of the emergence of the people of God is the thought expressed in the parables of seed and harvest. John has another such parable, in which the thought takes a deeper turn: "A grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls into the ground and dies; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest"; 27 and then, with an echo of Luke’s language about "hating’ one’s own life, "The man who loves himself is lost, but he who hates himself [in this world] will be kept safe [for eternal life]." Renunciation of self is the principle that validates the total commitment to God and his kingdom which Jesus demanded. In circumstances which put it to the utmost test, it might find expression in actual martyrdom, but something of its quality must be present in all truly ethical action. We have seen that the whole conception of a new people of God is based upon the principle of "dying to live," and here we have a model of the Israel-to-be as it shaped itself in the company of the followers of Jesus. In them the people of God was to die in order to live again.
The march on Jerusalem ended, as Jesus had foreseen, in a situation of intense conflict. As it reached its climax, he gathered the Twelve for a solemn meal together. At the close of the meal he passed round a cup of wine with the words, "This cup is the new covenant sealed with my blood" 28 -- these or similar words, for they are handed down in somewhat varying forms. There will be more to be said about this pregnant utterance, but for the moment it is the term "covenant" that concerns us. It was the postulate of the Jewish religion that the status of Israel as the people of God was founded upon a "covenant" which bound them to his service. When complete collapse came in the sixth century BC., a prophet had spoken of a "new covenant" as the basis of the new Israel that was to arise from the ruins of the old. 29 In the time of Jesus the sectaries of Qumran regarded themselves as the people of the new covenant. The idea, therefore, of a covenant as the foundation charter (so to speak) of the people of God was very much alive at the time, and there can be no doubt what Jesus had in mind when he invited his followers to drink of the cup of the covenant: he was formally installing them as foundation members of the new people of God.
And yet before the night was over they deserted him; he was arrested and brought to trial, and they scattered and left him to his fate. The new Israel seemed to have melted away at its very inception. And this raises an acute historical problem: how was it, in these circumstances, that the Christian Church ever got going at all? The answer that the first Christians gave (and who could know better than they?) was that Jesus returned to them, alive after death, and that this return was an act of forgiveness, which reinstated them in the place they had forfeited by their disloyalty. This is movingly portrayed in a dramatic scene at the end of the Fourth Gospel, where Peter meets the risen Jesus on the lake shore, after a night’s fruitless fishing. Peter, we have been told, had emphatically and even brutally dissociated himself from his Master at the time of his trial. After that, Peter never again saw him alive until that morning by the lake, when, unexpectedly, incredibly, they met again. Part of the conversation which followed must be transcribed in John’s words: "After breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he answered, ‘You know I love you,’ ‘Then tend my sheep.’
Then be added, ‘Follow me.’ "So in those words
the deserter is brought back to the very beginning and given a fresh
start, his disloyalty blotted out. It is a picture of what happened to the
"little flock" in which the new people of God was embodied. It had indeed
melted away, and there was nothing to show for all the work that had been
done, until it was re-created by an act of forgiveness. This was the
emergence of the new Israel, of which the prophets had spoken in terms of
resurrection from the grave. That was how the church was brought into
existence, and it could never forget that its foundation members were
discredited men who owed their position solely to the magnanimity of their
1Horace Odes III. 5.
2Luke 19. 9-10.
4Matt. 15.24 (absent from some mss.).
6Luke 13. 25.
8Matt. 3.9, Luke 8.8.
9This idea is elaborated into a highly dramatic picture in Ezekiel 37. 1-14.
10Luke 11.50-51, Matt. 23. 35-36.
11Luke 19. 41-44. The vivid details of the siege are drawn from descriptions of the siege and capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC.
l2John 2.19, Matt. 26.61, Mark 14.58.
13Mark 4. 26-29.
14Luke 10. 2-3, Matt. 9. 37-38.
15Matt. 4.19, Mark 1.17, Luke 5.10.
17Mark 2.22, Luke 5.38, Matt. 9.17.
18Matt. 19.28, Luke 22.30.
20Mark 10.42-44, Matt. 20.2.
21John 13. 5-9.
23Luke 14. 26-27.
24Matt. 10. 37-38.
25Mark 10.38, Matt. 20.22.
27John 12. 24-25.
28I Corinthians 21.25, Matt. 26.28, Mark 14.24.
29The new covenant: Jeremiah 31. 31-34.
3OJohn 21. 15-19.
Life of Christ
In an historical view, the one evident outcome of the whole life and work of Jesus was the emergence of the church, a society which regarded itself as carrying on the distinctive vocation of Israel as the "people of God," and yet was quite clear that it was a new Israel, constituted by a "new covenant. It had taken shape, not about a platform or a creed, but about a personal attachment to Jesus himself.
The relation in which he stood to the new Israel was defined in the early church by assigning to him the traditional title, "Messiah," the "Anointed." For Greek-speaking people this was literally translated as "Christos," Christ; but even so it was not generally understood, and it was soon taken to be simply a proper name. But in the gospels generally the term is fully alive in something like its original sense, and we shall do well to retain the Hebrew word as a reminder that "Christ," or "Messiah," is here neither a personal name nor a theological term, but an index to an historical role. John, in bringing his gospel to a close, says it was written to support the belief that "Jesus is the Messiah." 1 The writers of the other gospels might have said as much. It is all the more surprising that in the account they give of his words and actions the use of the title is comparatively scanty, and there is some ambiguity about it. Except in one passage of the Fourth Gospel,2 Jesus is never represented as spontaneously claiming, in so many words, to be Messiah, and even there it is not a public claim. Not only so; he seems to have discouraged attempts on the part of others to give him the title, though he may not always have been in a position to silence them. In two instances only he appears, somewhat doubtfully, to have accepted it.
The first occasion, as described in the three earlier gospels, finds Jesus alone with his closest followers at a place outside the boundaries of Jewish Palestine, known as Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asked his disciples to tell him what people were saying about him. They gave some answers. Then he asked, "And you, who do you say I am?" Peter replied, "You are the Messiah." From this point our informants diverge. According to Mark (closely followed by Luke). all the response that Peter got was: "he gave them strict orders not to tell anyone about him." Matthew gives a different view. As he has it, Jesus welcomed Peter’s statement, and yet, after praising him, went on (in agreement with Mark’s account) to warn them against letting anyone hear them say that he was Messiah. In John (to complete our survey) we seem to be looking at the same scene, perhaps through a less transparent medium, and yet one which allows us to see its main outlines. According to John, Peter did not actually use the term "Messiah," but said, "We know that you are the Holy One of God." The difference may be verbal: "anointing" (which makes the Messiah) is consecration, and the person so consecrated is "holy," by definition. There is something strangely enigmatic about this scene. Did Jesus, or did he not, intend to accept the title? If we follow Matthew, he did, though with some reservation. If we follow Mark, Luke and John, the most we can say is that he did not refuse it.3
And now let us look at the other occasion. According to the three earlier gospels, when Jesus was brought up for examination before the High Priest, he was asked point-blank, "Are you the Messiah?" According to Mark he replied, without ambiguity, "I am." According to Matthew the reply was, "The words are yours" (literally, "You have said"; there is no sufficient evidence that this was an accepted form of affirmation, either in Greek or in Hebrew or Aramaic; we might paraphrase it, "you may have it so if you choose"). In Luke we read that Jesus refused to reply at all. "Tell us, are you the Messiah?" says the High Priest; Jesus retorts, "If I tell you, you will not believe me." John does not describe the scene before the High Priest, but there seem to be echoes of it in a passage where Jesus is publicly challenged in words similar to those of Luke: "If you are the Messiah, say so plainly." Jesus replies, "I have told you but you do not believe" (meaning, apparently, that various things he had said and done should have led them to the right answer).4 Here again we have the same problem: did Jesus, or did he not, when he was publicly questioned, intend to accept the title, "Messiah"?
We may perhaps get some light on the matter if we consider the sequel to this questioning. Whether it was at a formal examination in court, or earlier in a public confrontation, that Jesus was asked the crucial question, we may fairly understand it as a preliminary to his arraignment before the Roman governor. The charge which was then preferred by the priests was that of claiming to be "king of the Jews." The charge was of course framed for Roman ears. Among themselves the priests would not have used that expression. They would have said that he claimed falsely to be the "anointed" king of Israel, the Messiah. In his examination before Pilate Jesus was asked, "Are you the king of the Jews?" and he replied (as all gospels agree) with the noncommittal expression, "The words are yours" ("Have it so if you choose"). At this juncture a refusal to disown the title would have the same effect as an avowal, and it was a matter of life and death. Jesus at any rate allowed himself to be condemned to death for claiming to be (in Jewish terms) Messiah.5
As we have seen, the office of Messiah was conceived in various ways, but always it was bound up with the special calling and destiny of Israel as the people of God. From the gospels we gather that Jesus set himself to constitute the new Israel under his own leadership; he nominated its foundation members, and admitted them into the new "covenant," and he laid down its new law. That was his mission. If it did not entirely agree with any of the contemporary ideas of what the Messiah should do, there was no other term available which came near to covering it. He could not deny his mission; he could not disavow the authority that went with it; and therefore, if the question was posed, he could not simply repudiate the title "Messiah." But it was an embarrassment to him, and lie preferred that it should not be used publicly, until at last his hand was forced. In the popular mind messiahship was associated with the political and military role of the "Son of David." To play that part was the last thing Jesus desired. Any suggestion that he proposed to do so was a hindrance to his true work and a danger to his cause. His appeal to his people must rest on something other than a debatable claim to messiahship.
Yet a title which he would not deny to save his life cannot have been without significance for him. Messiah he was, in his own sense of the term. We may therefore reframe our question, and ask, not, "Did Jesus claim to be Messiah?" but, "What kind of Messiah did he intend to be?" He would not be the Messiah of popular expectation. What then? At Caesarea Philippi, Peter hailed Jesus as Messiah. Jesus, having warned his followers not to say any. thing of the sort in public, abruptly changed the subject, or so it appeared to them: "He began to teach them that the Son of Man had to undergo great sufferings and to be rejected." (The enigmatic expression "Son of Man" we will leave for later discussion; here we may take it to mean simply "I.") Peter was scandalized, and took it upon him to set his Master right on the point. "Heaven forbid! No, Lord, this shall never happen to you." Jesus retorted in terms of unwonted asperity. "Away with you, tempter! You think as men think, not as God thinks." 6 Beneath the sharp interchange lies a profound difference of view. To Peter, this talk of suffering and rejection was utterly incongruous with any idea of messiahship; and most Jews of his time would have agreed with him. The Messiah was to be a conqueror, not a sufferer, not rejected but acclaimed as king of Israel. So the scriptures appeared to affirm.
They might however have recalled that the Old Testament knew of another character, hardly less significant than the Messiah himself, whose role was essentially that of the innocent sufferer. This character appears especially in certain passages in the latter part of the Book of Isaiah,7 as the "Servant of the Lord." To summarize briefly, he is one who has been given and has accepted a calling from God, and devoted himself body and soul to his service, bearing witness to the truth of God, enduring many sufferings, and in the end laying down his life for the sake of others. When the early church came to grips with the problem presented by the extraordinary career and the tragic fate of its Founder, it turned for elucidation to these passages of Isaiah, which speak of a life of service and a martyr’s death. Matthew, indeed, has taken over the passage where Isaiah first introduces the figure of the Servant, and attached it as a kind of motto to his account of the mission of Jesus:
"Here is my Servant, whom I have chosen,
In particular, the Servant is commissioned "to bring Jacob back to the Lord, and that Israel should be gathered to him"; 9 and so Jesus is said to have declared himself "sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." 10 And in fact, as we shall see, this is a key to much of his activity. It explains the importance he attached to his approach to tile "tax-gatherers and sinners," in whom he saw just such "lost sheep." And if the mission of tile Servant defined the work to which Jesus set his hand, the fate of the Servant, whose life was made "an offering for sin," 11 and who "bore the sin of many," pointed to the destiny that awaited him: "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give up his life as a ransom for many." There is good reason to think that Jesus himself first directed the attention of his followers to the figure of the Servant. He did so because by reflecting on it they might be led to a juster idea of what it was to be "Messiah." "You think as men think, not as God thinks," he said to Peter; we might venture to paraphrase: "Your Messiah is a conqueror; God’s Messiah is a servant."
The fusion of the two ideal figures of Messiah and Servant of the Lord in the historical person of Jesus is dramatically represented in the scene which in all gospels prefaces the story of his public career. Let us take Mark’s account. Jesus has been baptized in tile River Jordan. "At the moment when he came up out of the water he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice spoke from heaven: ‘You are my Son, my Beloved; on you my favor rests.’" 13 Obviously all this is symbolic. If we want to decode the symbolism we may start with the words spoken by tile "voice from heaven." They come out of the Old Testament. "You are my Son" was addressed to the king of Israel, prototype of the Messiah.14 "My beloved on whom my favor rests" is the Servant of the Lord in the prophecy of Isaiah.15 There the Servant is equipped for his task by the gift of the Spirit, which is here symbolized by the open heavens and the descent of the dove. Here then is a summary of the essential purport of the life and work of Jesus in a kind of symbolic shorthand: he undertook his mission, our informants are saying, as Messiah, as Son of God, as the Servant of the Lord, in the power of the divine Spirit -- and this is "God’s truth," affirmed by the divine voice whose echo can be caught by the inward ear.
If however we conclude that Jesus saw his mission adumbrated in the ideal figure of the Servant of the Lord, we encounter a certain difficulty. The mission of the Servant, his demeanor, actions and sufferings, are depicted in vividly personal terms, and yet we repeatedly come upon such expressions as "Israel, thou art my servant," or "Jacob my servant and Israel my chosen.’ 16 The alternation between the Servant as individual and the Servant as community is perplexing, but it should not be dismissed as if it were merely confused thinking due, perhaps, to an inability to form a clear idea of tile nature of personality. The prophet’s description, read with some imagination, suggests the fruitful idea that God is to be worthily served, not by individuals in isolation, but by a community, and yet a community so completely united in his service that it can be spoken of as a person. It may even suggest that it is possible to conceive a real person in whom the corporate unity finds effective expression. Nor is this idea so farfetched as it might seem at first sight. After all, history, and even recent history, knows instances where a powerful personality, temporarily and for particular ends, has come to embody in himself the spirit and purpose of a whole nation, and has been spontaneously recognized as its representative, in a more than formal sense. We may legitimately have such an analogy in mind when the gospels present Jesus in terms proper to the Servant of the Lord. The Messiah is not only founder and leader of the Israel-to-be, the new people of God; he is its "inclusive representative." In a real sense he is the true Israel, carrying through in his own experience the process through which it comes into being.
It is in this sense that we may read the remarkable passage which, in the three earlier gospels, follows immediately upon the scene of the baptism. We are still in the realm of dramatic symbolism. Jesus is represented as engaged in a controversy with the devil, who suggests to him various courses of action. Each suggestion is countered by a quotation of Scripture; by a quotation, to be precise, from the Book of Deuteronomy.11 Let us then look there for a key to the meaning of the scene. Moses is addressing the Israelites toward the end of their wanderings in the wilderness:
Remember all the road by which the Lord your God led you these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and put you to the test, to see whether you were minded to keep his commandments or not. He humbled you and famished you with hunger. and then fed you with manna, which your fathers never knew, to teach you that man cannot live on bread alone, but dives on every word that God utters.
And now look at what Matthew writes:
Jesus was then led away by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. For forty days and nights he fasted, and at the end of them he was famished. The tempter approached him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Jesus answered. "Scripture says, ‘Man cannot live on bread alone; he lives on every word that God utters.’ "
And so the story continues. At each stage we are reminded of incidents in which Israel was tested in the wilderness, and now the Israel-to-be, in the person of the Messiah (the Servant of the Lord) is put to the test. But where ancient Israel failed to pass the test, he stands firm. What may lie behind the story by way of a personal experience is a question I shall raise later; but our informants are telling us that Jesus won his victory, not simply for himself as an individual, but as the representative of the people of God incorporate in him.
Such ‘representation" might of course be no more than a legal, or even a literary, fiction. But here we can see that it was given reality by an actual and deliberate self-identification with people. This is the meaning of such sayings as "Anything you did for one of my brothers here, you did it for me," 18 or "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me." 19 With this clue, we can see why his reporters give such prominence to the association of Jesus with the rejected, and his compassionate approach to the suffering and frustrated. He was creating a solidarity between himself and those whom he saw as being, by grace of God, members of the Israel-to-be, even though the existing "Israel" (the Jewish establishment) might not recognize them. In this light also we can see that when he called disciples to follow him he was both recruiting them into the new community and (which was the same thing) inviting them to identify themselves with him. Such identity he asserted when he sent them out to carry forward his own mission: "To receive you is to receive me." 20 It meant also sharing his lot: "The cup that I drink you shall drink, and the baptism I am baptized with shall be your baptism." 21
The symbol of a "cup" to be drunk recurs. As we have seen, at their last supper together, he handed his disciples a cup of wine, with the words, "This cup is the new covenant sealed by my blood" (or, as otherwise reported, "This is my blood of the covenant, shed for many.").22 He was alluding to the ancient custom by which a solemn agreement or undertaking was validated by the sacrifice of an animal. But in the Judaism of the first century, although the primitive rite of animal sacrifice lingered on (until the temple was destroyed in AD. 70), the language associated with it had taken on meanings proper to religion on a more developed and spiritual level. Such language is employed in the prophetic description of the Servant of the Lord who died for others; and similarly the Jewish martyrs who suffered in the time of the Maccabees were said to have offered themselves as a sacrifice for the nation. Thus the idea of sacrifice passed into that of self-sacrifice, as a personal and moral act. Jesus was saying that in order that the "covenant" might become effective, or in other words that the new people of God might come into existence, he was voluntarily taking a course which would lead to his death. This was the length to which he was prepared to go in identifying himself with those to whom his mission was directed. The sharing in the cup by the disciples was a demonstration of their solidarity with their Master, both as beneficiaries of his sacrifice, and as being themselves committed to a like self-devotion for others, for this belongs to the character of the true people of God.
It was on the same occasion that Jesus spoke words which came to stand as the pre-eminent expression of this principle of solidarity. "During supper," we read, "he took bread, and having said the blessing he broke it and gave it to them, with the words, ‘Take this; this is my body.’" 23 No words of his are more firmly attested. The breadth and depth of their implications is a matter that has exercised the minds of Christian thinkers from the beginning until now. It is not necessary here to go into all that. But it is worthwhile to recall that within the first generation it was possible for Paul not only to describe the "breaking of bread" at the fellowship meal of Christians as "sharing in the body of Christ," 24 but to pass on from that to the idea that the church (the new Israel as it emerged in history) is itself the "body of Christ," each member of which is "in Christ," as Christ is "in him." The language, it appears, is Paul’s own invention, but he invented it to describe something that was there before ever he became a Christian at all. It goes back to the solidarity of Jesus with those for whom he gave his life, and their identification with him. This, we may believe, consistently with the whole trend of his teaching, lay behind his words and actions when he gave his disciples bread and said, "This is my body." The church recalled it, from the beginning, in dramatic action; and in this it was wise, or fortunate, for a doctrine of "representation," or "corporate personality," may well appear abstruse; but those who share the broken bread in Christian fellowship know in themselves what it means, whether or not they could form, or accept, any particular theory about it.
In a number of the significant sayings we have been considering, we meet with the peculiar expression, "Son of Man." 25 It is now time to ask what meaning we are to attach to it. The question has been much debated, and it cannot be said to have found an agreed answer. I can only offer what has come to seem to me the most probable way of understanding it. To begin with, there is no sufficient evidence that in Jewish circles of the time of Jesus "Son of Man" was current as a title equivalent, or alternative, to "Messiah," or indeed as a title at all. The expression, as unnatural in Greek as it is in English, is a literal translation from the Aramaic which was the native speech of Jesus and his first followers. In Aramaic, "son-of-man" is a quite ordinary way of saying man, in the sense of an individual of the human species ("a man," or "the man," as the case may be). The writers of the gospels must have had some particular reason for translating it with an almost wooden literalness. It is noteworthy that they do so only in reporting sayings of Jesus. They never place this particular expression in the mouth of any other speaker, nor do they use it in telling their stories. It may be that they have sometimes introduced it into sayings where Jesus did not use it, but the most likely reason for this surely is that it was felt to be characteristic of the way in which he was accustomed to speak. What was his intention?
In many of the sayings, "Son of Man" could be replaced by "I" or "me" without apparent change of meaning. In other sayings it might seem as if he were referring to someone other than himself. Now in the Aramaic of Palestine it was not uncommon for a speaker, on occasion, to substitute "son-of-man" (i.e., "a man," or "the man") for the first personal pronoun. He might do so out of a certain sensitiveness in speaking about himself, or a desire to avoid the appearance of egotism. (We might compare the affectation, in colloquial English, of saying "one" in place of a blunt "I.") Or he might have a particular reason for using some reserve and leaving a possible doubt whether he really meant himself or "so-and-so." Thus, if a similar doubt can arise (as it has arisen) regarding some of the sayings of Jesus, there is nothing inherently strange about it, in a speaker of Aramaic. Only, we have to ask whether it is possible to discern any particular reason why, in certain connections, he should have chosen this indirect form of speech. I think it is possible. There are sayings so astonishingly bold that their very boldness might seem to justify the avoidance of direct statement in the first person. Some of these will come up for notice presently. But both there and elsewhere the use of the indirect form might often be understood if Jesus wished to suggest, without saying it in so many words, that he was fulfilling a role which would be recognized by those sensitive to his message, while others would be left asking (as John says they did ask), "What son-of-man is this?" 26 If so, then it would appear that the role he wished to suggest was that of the prophetic Servant of the Lord, with its overtones of corporate representation, which, as we have seen, was so much in his mind.
It is at any rate striking that so many of the "Son of Man" sayings are associated with functions of the Servant, and especially where Jesus is referring to the sufferings and death that lie before him: "The Son of Man is to undergo great sufferings . . . to be rejected . . . to be treated with contempt"; "The Son of Man came to give up his life as a ransom for many." 27 All of these echo the language of the prophet. The forecasts are more than an intelligent reading of the existing situation and its likely developments, though in part they may be just that; they are the acceptance of a vocation, and there is a solemnity about them to which the more indirect mode of speech might seem appropriate. If Jesus thus employed a familiar way of speaking, not just casually but in circumstances which made it the vehicle of a partly veiled assertion of his vocation, then "Son of Man" came to be something like a self-designation replacing the traditional title of "Messiah" That is how the writers of the gospels seem to have understood it.
Some of the forecasts to which I have referred point to a destiny lying beyond suffering and death. Of this Jesus is reported to have spoken in various ways. Some sayings speak of "rising from the dead," some speak of "coming again," and sometimes they are in vaguer terms: "A little while and you see me no more; again a little while and you will see me." 28 It is perhaps impossible to decide which of these best represent what Jesus actually said. That forecasts may have grown more specific in the light of what happened is likely enough. It is also likely enough that what he said on various occasions was sometimes more explicit, sometimes more cryptic. But one thing we may say with reasonable certainty: quite apart from the question of time authenticity or the verbal accuracy of this or that reported saying, the idea of new life through death, of victory coming out of defeat, is an inseparable part of the thought of Jesus about his destiny.
So much we may be content to affirm. Beyond that there are difficulties to be encountered. If we go back to the three types of forecast which I have distinguished, we may say that "rising from the dead" speaks simply of life beyond the grave, and "a little while and you will see me" speaks of the renewal of personal relations interrupted by death. These are tolerably straightforward. But the language about the coming of the Son of Man is another matter. "The Son of Man is to come in the glory of his Father"; "They will see the Son of Man coming in time clouds"; "Like the lightning flash that lights up the earth from end to end, will the Son of Man be when his day comes." 29 Of course it is imaginative symbolism; but what does it symbolize? It occurs in association with language about the Last Judgment and the End of the World, which apparently are conceived (at least in some passages) to coincide with the coming of the Son of Man. We cannot but recognize here traits of the "apocalyptic" hopes and speculations which, with a long ancestry behind them, revived in strength during the feverish years that preceded the fall of Jerusalem. The early Christians shared many of these hopes. They discussed them anxiously, as we know from writings of the New Testament outside the gospels. We can understand that they seized avidly upon any remembered words of their Lord which seemed to have a bearing upon them.
They remembered, for example, that he had uttered somber warnings of disasters threatening the Jewish community and its holy city, and that he had said that "this generation" was doomed to bear the accumulated guilt of Israel’s sinful past. Perhaps (they thought) he was really saying that in the lifetime of men and women about him God’s final judgment would bring history to a close, so that "this generation" would actually be the last of all. There are passages in the gospels which seem to say so. Is this what Jesus meant? Or should we be right in suspecting that his reporters, understandably anxious to find his words relevant to their own urgent preoccupations, have given them a twist away from their original intention? There is reason to believe they have sometimes done so.
Yet we should here proceed with caution. It is reasonable to suppose that Jesus himself would have employed the imagery which was traditional and familiar among his contemporaries. Only, as I observed earlier, while the imagery was largely inherited, it could be, and was, applied differently by different people. If Jesus did use it, it does not follow, either that he intended it to be taken literally, or that line meant by it just what his reporters supposed. The question remains open, what did he mean?
It would seem right to start from the standpoint of sayings which are both plain and central to the teaching of Jesus. Nothing in it is more clearly original or characteristic than his declaration that the kingdom of God is here. It meant that a hope has become a reality. You no longer look for the reign of God through a telescope; you open your eyes to see. But at the same time there is more than meets the eye. It is the reign of God; it is the eternal God himself, here present. There is a power at work in this world which is not of this world, something "super-natural," an invasion from time Beyond -- how. ever you may choose to express it. It gives an eternal dimension to time temporal present, and to each succeeding "present"; but it can never be exhausted in any temporal present, however deeply significant. The kingdom of God, while it is present experience, remains also a hope, but a hope directed to a consummation beyond history.
To express this aspect of the kingdom Jesus was content to make use of long-established symbols -- a feast with the blessed dead who are "alive to God," 30 a great assize with "all nations" standing at the bar.31 These are not forthcoming events, to which a date might be assigned. They stand as symbols for the reality to which the spirit of man awakes when it is done with past, present and future. This is the Kingdom of God in the fullness of its meaning, and it lies beyond history. And yet it "came" in history, in that crucial episode of which Jesus was himself the active center. Its blessedness was a present possession of those who accepted it. "How blest are you who are poor! The kingdom of God is yours." 32 They were guests at a wedding feast: "How can you expect the bridegroom’s friends to fast while the bridegroom is with them?" 33 And yet, it is in another world than this that they are to "eat and drink at his table in his kingdom." 34 Again, the moment of decision to which the presence of Jesus brought those who encountered him was the judgment inseparable from the coming of the kingdom. "Now," writes John, "is the hour of judgment for this world" 35 -- the Last Judgment, he means. Essentially it was a judgment which people passed on themselves by their reaction to his presence. It might be acquittal ("Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.") 36 or it might be condemnation ("Alas for you! It will be more bearable for Sodom on the Day of Judgment.").37 It is judgment in history. but its significance reaches beyond history; and this ultra-historical significance is expressed in the dramatic picture of all nations gathered before the throne of the heavenly Judge.
In view of this, it follows that the total event of the earthly career of Jesus, as well as his action in detail, is regarded in two aspects: on the one side it had effects in an actual historical situation; on the other side it had a significance reaching out into man’s eternal destiny, and to be expressed only in symbol.
It is in this light, I suggest, that we may best
understand the cryptic sayings about the coming of the Son of Man. Central
to the whole group of such sayings is the answer which Jesus is reported
to have given to the High Priest when he was interrogated about his
alleged messianic pretensions: "You will see the Son of Man seated at the
right hand of God and coming with the clouds of heaven." 38 The
language is allusive and the imagery close-packed. There are echoes of two
passages in the Old Testament. In one of these the Almighty is represented
as conferring the highest dignity on the king of Israel (prototype of the
Messiah), in the words, "Sit at my right hand." 39 This is here
associated with another passage, from the Book of Daniel, which describes,
in bizarre imagery, a vision of timings to come. First, there is a
procession of weird and ferocious beasts, and then "one like a son-of-man
[a human form, as distinct from the bestial figures] came with the clouds
of heaven," to be invested with everlasting dominion.40 The
prophet himself has supplied a key. The beasts stand for the brutal pagan
empires by which Israel had been successively oppressed, and the human
figure stands for "the people of the saints of the Most High." He is
therefore a "double" of the Servant of the Lord, an embodiment of the
people of God, first oppressed and then vindicated in glory. It is a
vision of the final victory of God’s cause over all powers in the
universe; it is also a vision of (expected) historical victory for Israel
over its oppressors. We are probably to understand that in recalling this
prophecy Jesus also was pointing to the final victory of God’s cause, or
in other words the consummation of his kingdom, beyond history, and was
affirming his own part in it; but as in Daniel, so here, this victory has
its embodiment in history, namely in the impending fate of Jesus himself,
who is to pass through suffering and sacrifice to glorious life. The human
figure of Daniel’s vision has acquired a new identity. It is this
historical Person in whom, as its "inclusive representative," the new
Israel, the people of God, is to emerge from apparently irretrievable
disaster -- "raised to life with Christ," as Paul was to express it.41
This is the coming of the Son of Man on the historical plane. His ultimate
"coming" lies beyond history, but the essential pattern of it is already
given in the historical Person and the historical event.
lJohn 20. 31. It seems clear that the Fourth Gospel as originally planned, ended here, Chapter 21 is an ap. p end ix.
2John 4. 25-26, in a private conversation with a Samaritan woman.
3Mark 8. 27-so, Matt. 16. 13.16, Luke 9. 18-21; and compare John 6. 67-69.
4Mark 14. 61-62, Matt. 26, 63-64, Luke 22. 67-70; and compare John 10.24.
5Mark 15.2, Matt. 27.11, Luke 23.3, John 18. 33-37.
6Mark 8. 31-33.
7The most important of these is the poem contained in 52.13 -53.12, but the theme of the Servant is seldom long out of sight through chapters 40-55. The language of these chapters is echoed with remarkable frequency all through the New Testament, either in direct quotation, or by way of allusion. I have made a list of such echoes in According to the Scriptures, pp. 88-103.
8Isaiah 42. 1-4, quoted in Matt. 12. 17-21.
10Matt 15.24: In Luke 19. 1-10 Zacchaeus is represented as just such a "lost sheep"; he is a "son of Abraham" who has strayed, and Jesus "has come to seek and save what is lost,"
11Isaiah 53. 10, 12.
12Mark 10.45. This is no bad summary, in the fewest words, of what Isaiah said about the Servant of the Lord.
13Mark 1.10-11; compare Matt.3.16-17,Luke 3. 21-22, John 1.32.
14Psalm z. 7.
15Isaiah 42. 1.
16Isaiah 44.1, 21, compare 45.4, 48.12, 49.3.
17Matt. 4. 2-10, Luke 4. 2-12. The passages in Deuteronomy referred to are 6. 13, 16, 8.2.3.
19Matt. 18.5, Mark 9.37.
22I Corinthians 11.25, Mark 1424.
23Mark 14.22, Matt. 26.26, Luke 22.19. I Corinthians 11.24, and compare John 6.51, which appears to be based on a different translation of the original Aramaic of the saying.
24I Corinthians 10.16, compare 12.27, Romans 12.5, Ephesians 4.12, etc.
25It should perhaps be said that the view here put forward requires some modification of what I have previously written elsewhere. On the question of Aramaic usage I am greatly indebted to G. Venues, in an appendix to M. Black. An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (3rd edition, 1967) pp. 310-330.
27Mark 8.31. 9.12, 10.45, echoing the language of Isaiah 53. 3-5, 10, 12.
28John 16. 16-18.
29Matt. 16.27, Mark 13.26, Luke 17.24.
30Matt. 8.11, Luke 20.38.
31Matt. 25. 31-2
36Luke 7.50, &c.
40Daniel 7. 13-14’ 18.
Life of Christ Unit Two
The Life of Christ is a thorough study of Jesus life and teaching along with studies in the historical first-century setting of Judaism