Meeting this character named Jesus again
Andre Borisovich Bloom was a doctor and surgeon in the Soviet Army during World War II. At one point in his career he was challenged to read the Gospel to see what he would make of Jesus. Bloom read the Gospel of Luke and was confronted with the portrait of one whom he had never known. It was a life-changing experience. Fifty years later he died, having become Metropolitan Anthony, the hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in Great Britain, and the second most well-known figure in world Orthodoxy.
Let us set aside the complex history of how Jesus of Nazareth became celebrated as the second person of the Holy Trinity; thousands of pages and hundreds of books are written on this topic. In the last fifty years, however, the figure of Jesus has been explored in context, within the formative Judaism of his time, and that figure alone is compelling and of great interest. One popular book about this emerging figure of Jesus is Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus again for the First Time, a title that shows the fascination of reading old texts in a new light.
Who is this Jesus? In my courses at the University, we explore him as a character in a novel, because that’s what you do when you study the New Testament as literature. He remains elusive and mysterious at best, but a portrait emerges that can touch a reader willing to enter the experience as did Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.
More than ever before we see Jesus as a Jew; we should learn to call him Yeshua, his Hebrew name. He fits, with singular exceptions, into the thinking, the cultural values, and the religious movements of his time. Yes, he is to some extent a reformer; yes, to some extent he comes across as a charismatic figure who inspires others. But he is solidly part of his culture and not apart from it. A hundred years ago people could be dumbfounded by the simple proclamation of Jesus’s Jewishness. Today historical study has made it obvious.
Jesus fits into a long line of mavericks stretching back to Moses and including such characters as Elijah and Elisha, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the healers and mystics and wonderworkers of his own time. The emphasis in his ministry on healing, so evident in the Gospel of Luke, recalls such holy figures. He falls into place when we compare him to them.
Jesus may have begun his career in the footsteps of John, the wild desert figure known as the Baptizer. Like John, Jesus called people to rethink the direction of their lives (the meaning of repentance) and to seek out the presence (or Kingdom) of God in this life rather than in the next. He called his followers to a pathway of kindness and compassion.
Although Jesus is portrayed in contention with the Pharisees, in fact he may have been one of them. The friction between him and the Pharisees was an in-house struggle for the interpretation of the Law so that it could be followed by the ordinary person. The Pharisees, so often depicted as the conservatives of their time, were in fact innovators and experimenters with the Law. Judaism was far from monolithic in that era and lots of people had a stake in shaping what it would become in future generations; the Pharisees and Jesus and his disciples stand out as the leaders of movements within Israel that would eventually – and in many ways, tragically – split into two parts, Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. But they began as brothers in the house of Israel.
If you have a yen to discover this person, begin with the Gospel of Mark, the shortest and most brusque of the treatments of his life in the New Testament. Take the filters from your eyes and allow him to confront you directly apart from the superstructure of dogma and doctrine. You may be surprised whom you meet.
(READERS please note that this column, and others like it, are aimed at the general public who are not members of churches, may be completely anti-Christianity, and so forth; thus the style of writing is not the same as one would write for those who are Christians.)