Historical Jesus

Tom Wright, photo by Gareth SaundersN.T. Wright, former bishop of Durham and now at the University of St Andrews, says we may find a rounded portrait of Jesus, a full personality, from the historical documents. To Wright, Jesus considered himself Messiah in a new way, unlike that expected by the Jews at the time though a development from Old Testament thought; Messiah, rather than “second person of the Trinity”.

Between the Jewish concept of Messiah in 1AD, and the Christian concept in 100AD (he finds “CE” patronising) he finds Jesus, doubly similar and different to both. The Gospels seem a credible step between. In the Gospels, Jesus says cryptically what later Christians may say clearly. His clearing the Temple of the sellers is a claim to Messiah status, as are his conversations afterwards, if we may puzzle them out: when the Lord comes, says Zechariah (14:21) there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of Hosts on that day.

What is the purpose of the apocalyptic language? “You shall see the Son of Man descending on the Clouds”- is this a prophecy of the Second Coming, the Rapture of Christians into Heaven, or the end of the laws of physics? No, says Wright. Rather it is, among other things, an elaborate metaphor-system for investing historical events with theological significance. Jesus predicted war with the Romans, which happened in 66-70 with the destruction of the Temple, and 135 with the expulsion of the Jews from Judah. Daniel’s apocalyptic similarly referred to incidents in the Maccabean period.

What is the Messiah? The strongest current in Jewish thought at the time was that he would lead the Jews to military victory. All would worship on the Holy Mountain because the Jews told them to. This remains current- I read once that if the Messiah came he would be a fighter pilot. Other currents led towards Jesus’ intent, to lead the Jews into a Kingdom of Heaven by escaping the cycle of violence. “I desire mercy not sacrifice”. This confusion is found in Zechariah, where Wright claims Jesus found much about his role: The Lord of Armies will devour Tyre by fire (9:3-4); yet there are hints that Heaven does not come by military victory. In 13:8-9, two thirds of the people will die, yet the remainder will be the People of God. Here, Heaven comes through defeat. As in the Gospel of Thomas, the Kingdom of Heaven is here, now, as Jesus speaks. It is a new way for people to be, one with another. It remains our job to create it, here.

I thought the Bible shows the history of our learning about God, and Rowan Williams gives this example. In 2 Kings 9-10, the prophet Elisha anoints Jehu King over Israel, and Jehu murders the household of Ahab and Jezebel, the king and queen. This is seen as God’s Will. Yet in Hosea 1:4, the Lord condemns Jehu for that bloodshed. As people see more of God, Love and Mercy come into sharper focus.

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