Jesus of Nazareth: The Mystery and Allure
Jesus of Nazareth is a mystery. No matter how much we know about him, he recedes beyond our grasp. It is difficult to figure him out from the New Testament witness. Thousands of books have been written about him and yet none can encompass his personality. A surplus always remains unexplained. As Albert Schweitzer said at the conclusion of a study hundreds of pages long, he comes to us as one unknown. A complete picture eludes us, as if parts of his face had been erased and we see blurred features.
In the youthful days of Christianity, people were concerned to figure out what relationship Jesus had to the one God he called Father. This process of refining an understanding of how Jesus could be both God and Man – to use the ancient wording of the creeds – took hundreds of years.
The Gospels contain less of his teaching than might have been included because the early church saw the last week of his life as the primary event. Only since the early 1800’s have people seen the Gospels as composite documents, fused together out of strands of previous material whether written down or transmitted as oral stories. Since that time, people have approached the Gospels as documents that yield to literary criticism, and there has been no end to that exploration.
Most of us who study the New Testament are convinced that there were underlying additional documents that contained instruction from Jesus himself – parables, stories, interpretations of scripture and the like. The closest you get to it in our time is with the Gospel of Thomas, a relatively recent addition to the resources that assist us to understand Jesus and his milieu.
Texts from the Old Testament cling to him and attempt to define him. The Gospel-writer Matthew strained to find texts by which to identify him as a special person among his own people. For centuries, however, Jesus’ Jewishness was hid from view to the point where many Christians no longer identified him among his people, despite Matthew’s great effort to locate him precisely in the heart of the Judaism of his time. In many ways this was deliberate; the sorry and sad history of Jewish-Christian relations reveals the awful results of this misreading, up until and through the Holocaust.
Scholars have been more than willing to embrace Jesus the Jew in the last fifty years, assisted in no small measure by many Jewish scholars. He is a teacher in the tradition that will eventually lead to the Rabbis. His teaching is more in line with Pharisees than with the other factions of his time, especially the Sadducees. We know this in part because he believed in the resurrection – as did the Pharisees over against the Sadducees – and he is constantly engaged in the interpretation of scripture along lines that the Pharisees embraced. Luke has no hesitation in describing his first public sermon as occurring in the Synagogue at Capernaum, and grounded in the prophecy of Isaiah.
Despite sensational attempts to demonstrate an erotic relationship with Mary Magdalene, including marriage and children, there is no evidence to draw such conclusions. Though Jesus’ relationships with women and, for that matter, gentiles and others not favored in Judea were open and compassionate, for the most part he remains a prophet and preacher and teacher who restricted his message primarily to the people among whom he was born. His trust in God is total and monumental and he called his followers to that trust. Trust God and leave all else to his providence. The message holds today, and its author will forever fascinate those who come to him.
published 21 May 2010