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The Rev. Madison Shockley is a minister of the United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, Calif. and a regular commentator on religion, race, politics and popular culture....
Jesus: The Man, the Myth
A Dig led by The Rev. Madison Shockley
The Death of Jesus
The death of the man from Nazareth was historically inconsequential—a crucified Jew in Jerusalem among so many hundreds crucified during the riotous atmosphere that often surrounded the Passover observance. Passover, a celebration of Jewish freedom, was always an anxious time under Rome’s oppressive occupation. The historical fact is that Jesus was crucified by the Roman Empire. The charge was political sedition, considered a capital crime. For being known as the “King of the Jews” he was crucified by Rome because assuming such a title challenged the sovereignty of the Caesar. The trial scenes recorded in the Gospels were a fiction devised by the early Christian writers to put blame for Jesus’ death on Jewish leadership and deflect responsibility from Roman officials. They did this so that the new religion could survive in a hostile Roman Empire. Not only do they deny any Roman responsibility for the crucifixion, the Gospel of Matthew has a Roman centurion confess, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (27:54).
Was the resurrection a historical event? No. It is a thoroughly theological concept. We learn a lot from the resurrection literature of the early Christian writers. Most of the resurrection stories find the disciples either hiding in fearful seclusion or having returned to their former lives (mostly as fishermen). So why was resurrection necessary?
With his death, his message, his meaning and his mission were now left to others to remember, interpret and continue. It all would have been so simple if Jesus had just written his sermons down. The most likely explanation as to why Jesus didn’t write his own Gospel is that Jesus was probably illiterate. Early Christian communities viewed themselves as authentically representing the words, ministry and mission of Jesus. The only way they could do this was if Jesus were still alive. So, they resurrected him.
But Jesus’ story proved quite malleable in the hands of the skilled editors who would later tell his story. Initially, a wide variety of such remembrances, interpretations and extrapolations emerged from the early Christian communities that had known the historical Jesus. This group—its members generally were known as “the disciples”—was soon distilled into an authoritative clique that the early church came to revere as “the Apostles.” Paul is the only apostle from whom we have authentic written product. However, he, by his own admission, was a lesser apostle because he never knew the historical Jesus but rather was commissioned as an apostle (“as one untimely born”) by the “risen” Jesus.
Though the documents that ultimately became the four Gospels bear the names of two apostles (Matthew and John) and two alleged companions (Mark, supposedly a friend of Peter, and someone named Luke, supposedly a friend of Paul—though the only evidence for this is “Luke” himself), they are all anonymous. These characterizations were added in the Second Century in order to add authority to the Gospels. As literary production proliferated, the early church began to list (canonize) certain documents as useful and all others were deemed heretical. It wasn’t until the Fourth Century that the Christian “canon” was closed.
However, all of the Gospels (in their final form) and Paul refer to Jesus as far more than a Jewish sage, wisdom prophet and sometime healer and exorcist. But it is exactly this “more” that reveals the fluid treatment that the historical Jesus received at the hands of his biographers. It seems that they mapped his footsteps rather than followed them. Each created the Jesus he needed for his constituency. Matthew mapped a very Jewish Jesus for his Jewish Christian community. Mark mapped a martyr Jesus to encourage his besieged community facing the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish war with Rome. Luke mapped a Holy Spirit that inhabited Jesus to do the work of God and inhabited his church to be the embodiment of the divine presence. John mapped a cosmic Jesus from the beginning of time to the end of eternity. All of this is evidence that the decades separating these writings from the life of Jesus were filled with theological imagination. It wasn’t until the authority of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, combined with a nascent church bureaucracy that alternative interpretations of Jesus were quashed. Only then would the Christian Church (big C) emerge as an international operation of culture and power with Jesus (the) Christ as its imperial head and the bishop of Rome as his vicar.
So Who Is Jesus Today?
Liberation theology is a branch of Christian theology that understands God to be primarily at work in the world for the liberation of the oppressed. Drawing from the story of the Israelite Exodus (Exodus 3:16), the Israelite prophetic tradition and the teachings and preaching of Jesus, liberation theologians see a clear and consistent “preferential option for the poor” (a phrase borrowed from the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops’ campaign for human development). Liberation theology identifies Jesus with the marginalized in every society, whether they be peasants in Latin America, African Americans in the United States or gays and lesbians everywhere. So, for black liberation theology Jesus is poor and black. When James Cone declared in 1969 that “Jesus is black” he caused no little controversy in religious circles. The claim by black theology that “Jesus is black” (note the present tense) had both theological and racial implications. First it meant that Jesus was not white. Jesus could not be white because whites were the embodiment of black oppression in America. Theologically, the claim meant that the Eurocentric faith produced by imperialistic Christianity was a gross distortion of the original Jesus movement. This distorted theology produced icons and images of a white-skinned, blond-haired and blue-eyed Jesus totally unreflective of the Palestinian peasant named Jesus, who lived at the nexus of the African and Asian continents. The assertion that Jesus was not white sent a shudder through a mainstream Christianity that was suddenly forced to confront its own racism and examine its version of Christianity, which was little more than a baptized Western culture. This same Christianity has not hesitated to traffic in slavery or condemn the Third World to colonial subservience.
The claim that Jesus is black, or gay, or a woman, or a peasant, is not an assertion about Jesus’ personal identity. It is more a way of making demonstrably clear what the central focus of Jesus’ ministry would be today. A popular phrasing of this approach simply asks, “What would Jesus do?” Liberation theology sees Jesus engaged in a ministry outside the four walls of the church and less engaged in a priestly ministry of liturgy and incense.
Conversely, the traditional mainline churches continue to hold themselves out as the embodiment of the continuing presence of Jesus—whether the Roman pontiff as the vicar of Christ, or the Anglican, Lutheran and Methodist claims of apostolic succession (for their bishops) or the Protestant focus on the local gathering of Christians in the church (derived from the Greek ekklesia) as the “body of Christ.”
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