Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Historical Jesus and Israel’s Messiah

The Historical Jesus and Israel’s Messiah


 Borg posits a radical disjuncture between the pre and post Easter experience, more precisely between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith in which the New Testament is a combination of “history remembered” and history “metaphorized.” Specifically, the notion of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah was a product of the early church and not very likely a contemporary reflection of Jesus’ self-perception.  Since Jesus did not embrace this category for himself, neither did he view a martyred death as central to his vocation (p. 54).  More, the “exalted titles” accompanying the church’s depiction of Jesus as Messiah according to Borg, are really “exalted metaphors.”  Behind and beneath these metaphors was the living presence of Jesus as a spirit filled person mediating the presence of God in pointing beyond language toward “deeper” truths that first century Judaism could at best only partially embody.

The historical personage, on Borg’s interpretation was primarily a teacher, healer, social prophet and “Spirit person” (p. 53), in many respects, the “liberal” Jesus of the late 19th century.  The categories Borg draws upon to characterize the historical Jesus are based less on Jewish history and Scripture per se “than cross-cultural study of types of religious personality” (p. 60) which may be as applicable to Buddhism as Judaism or early Christianity.  The broader point that Borg makes is that while the categories that he draws on “are not specifically Jewish,” and neither is “the language…specifically biblical,” “the phenomena” Borg describes, have roots in deep Jewish tradition (p. 60).  On this interpretation, both Judaism and Christianity may be viewed as “axial” religions in which their commonalities, an overarching quest for the universal god, are considered more fundamentally important than surface and not so surface differences (Armstrong, 2006).  This includes rejection of “supernatural theism” as a viable concept “for thinking about God’s relationship to the world” (p. 62), as well as any scandal of particularity that God is most fully (if not completely) revealed in a given religious “myth” or “metaphor.”

Thus on Borg’s interpretation, Jesus’ primary vocation was that of “Jewish mystic” (p. 64).  This was the fundamentally what Borg means when he describes Jesus as a “spirit person,” terms he used interchangeably.  Borg draws much on contemporary spirituality in this depiction. Thus, with other mystics, Jesus “had decisive and…firsthand experiences of the sacred” (p. 60).  Such “‘eyes closed’ mystical states” includes “ineffability that cannot be explained “in ordinary language but only with the language of metaphor.”  There is also a transient nature to such experiences and also much “passivity” in that “they are received rather than achieved.”  In addition, they are “noetic” in which there is a high level of certainty based on what is sometimes referred to as conative or embodied knowledge which accompanies these experiences.  These are not just “strong feelings” which are crucial to mystical experience, but knowledge gained through experience that, in some determinative way, requires undergoing to fully obtain.  Borg’s final depiction is the category of the “transformative,” in which the mystic is fundamentally changed as a result of such undergoing (p. 61).

It is this spirit person that most closely conforms to the Jesus as lived as disclosed to the extent possible, in the sources and in the prevailing interpretations of modern biblical scholarship when the New Testament overlay of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah are peeled back.  This Jesus was still Jewish in every way, which provided the religious tradition that shaped the categories of his mystical experience.  Still, on Borg’s interpretation, it is not clear the extent to which this Jewish “peasant” possessed “scribal literacy” (p. 64) and therefore the capacity to study the scriptures in depth as reflected in the midrashic depiction of Jesus of the gospel writers.  Even without such literacy, Borg notes, given his interest, mission, and their general availability, Jesus would have possessed a solid knowledge of the central biblical narratives even if he lacked full capacity to cite chapter and verse.  On this respect, Borg would agree with the New Testament characterization of Jesus as one who spoke with authority, following in the pathway of his mentor, John the Baptist, to establish a revitalization movement, based on the deepest calling of the Prophets, the ushering in of the kingdom of God in Israel.

Based on this interpretation in which the Jesus of history and the Christ of the New Testament diverge in some radical respects, the Jesus that Borg discerns was principally a “healer, wisdom teacher, social prophet, and movement initiator” (p. 65).  The scandalous question Borg indirectly puts to more orthodox interpretations is, “had Jesus lived and taught for forty more years as the Buddha did, what more might we be able to discern about his purpose?” (p. 65).  Thus, not only was the cross a tragically inessential aspect of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.  Borg’s implicit message is that neither is it the crucial event in our own interpretation and appropriation of the wisdom and teaching of Jesus in our lives.  The Jesus that Borg presents drew upon the deepest images of the religious and political culture of his time for an understanding of God, in a vision, which, of necessity, invariably transcended finite time and place. It is in this respect that Borg views the New Testament depiction of Jesus as categorically metaphorical.

 Borg views the healing narratives in the gospels as having “programmatic significance,” (p. 67), as signs of Jesus pointing to the breaking in of the indwelling kingdom of God.  In illustrating their metaphorical significance Borg (p. 67) quotes Matthew 11:4 in which Jesus is reported to have said:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf here [sic], and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Borg notes that such healing “points to a time of deliverance” (p. 67), but bypasses the context in which Jesus addresses John; namely, John’s question, “Are you the Coming One or do we look for another?” (Matt 11:3).  On this reading, healings do have metaphorical significance symbolizing the breaking in of the kingdom of God; however, according to the gospel writers, in a manner in which “the proclaimer is also the proclaimed, as Israel’s Messiah.  To be fair to Borg, his main objective in this particular section is to illustrate the importance of healing in Jesus’ ministry, and, also his objective throughout Chapter Four is to describe the pre-Easter, or to be more accurate, the pre-New Testament Jesus as best that can be discerned by the evidence shaped by the interpretive grids through which his analysis is sifted.  On this reading, particularly through dominant modes of form and redactive criticism, Borg can only but draw the conclusion that Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah was a New Testament retrojection. 

 The provability of Jesus’ consciousness is, as Wright, as well as Borg notes, beyond determination through available evidence.  Whether the intellectual mindset through which Borg discovers Jesus anew allows him to rigorously examine Wright’s hypotheses that the messianic identity of Jesus of Nazareth is not only historically plausible, but the most likely explanation of the available evidence is another matter of no minor significance.  This is an issue of considerable importance, since any such self-consciousness, as Wright argues, would have played a major role not only in the textual construction of the New Testament Jesus, but the historical one, too, in the shaping of the mission of the one who lived and died in a specific time and place.

So what was Jesus up to?  This is the question that Borg seeks to answer in Chapter Four.  As someone who shattered “conventional wisdom,” Jesus provided “a new way of seeing,” “a new way of centering” in which “he taught a path of transformation centered in the sacred” (pp. 69, 70, italics removed where applicable).  It was within this context of teacher that Jesus defined his core mission as “social prophet” and “movement initiator.”  As a social prophet, Jesus cast his lot with the poor, the outcast the “marginalized.”  In this respect, borrowing categories from Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, Jesus’ prophetic mission sought to counteract the “politics of oppression” (Rome and Rome’s agents in Israel), the “economics of exploitation” (against the power of the “urban ruling elites”), and the “religion of legitmation” (particularly the Pharisees and Scribes in their pejorative gospel depiction) (pp. 71-72). Jesus’ most fundamental mission, according to Borg, was, in building on the legacy of John the Baptist, to proclaim the kingdom of God through the vision of the inverted world in which the last ones now shall later be first. 

Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God, symbolized by the promise of the redemption of Israel to it rightful relationship with its maker, is a viable metaphor, for Borg, “as equally good as …[his] own crystallization ‘Jesus as Jewish mystic’” (p. 75), as long as the transcultural, metaphorical nature of such imagery is kept in mind.   Otherwise, the scandal of particularity, even of Jewish monotheism as depicted throughout the Old and New Testaments becomes conflated for a more universal truth which, if literally accepted denies on its face such equal legitimacy for other world religious perspectives, a position which Borg categorically rejects.  Borg can say the following about Jesus of Nazareth:

He knew how to heal.  He knew how to create memorable sayings and stories; he had a metaphoric mind.  He knew that God was accessible to the marginalized because he was from the marginalized himself.  He knew that tradition and convention were not sacred in themselves but, at best, pointers to and mediators of the sacred and, at worst, a snare.  He knew an oppressive and exploitative social order that legitimated itself in the name of God, and he knew this was not God’s will.  And he knew all of this most foundationally because he knew God (p. 76)

 What Borg cannot say is that the historical Jesus was, or viewed himself as Israel’s Messiah, not only proclaiming the kingdom of God, but by being the primary agent through which the realm of God would be ushered in both in Israel and throughout the world, according to the Abrahamic promise.  What Borg most emphatically cannot say is that Jesus is God incarnate in human flesh, except in the most metaphorical sense, given the unfathomable gap between language and historico-cultural experience, and anything resembling transcendent universal truth.  Rather, Jesus was a pointer, an exceedingly profound symbol of such truth, which is manifest in different forms and personages in other cultures and times. It was this Jesus which Borg rediscovered, who, for him and for Christians mediates universal truth and God’s most profound love.  It is similar such experiences that Borg does not want to deny to other religious traditions, which have their own symbols and metaphors for conveying in language that can only falter, the universal search for truth and holiness, which, in many profound respects, can only but remain indescribable.

Wright does not categorically reject the depiction of Jesus’ mission identified by Borg, although he does not find it especially useful.  Rather, he roots Jesus’ mission more specifically than Borg in its historical context, and seeks to use as much as possible the language and thought world of second temple Israel to explain what Jesus sought to accomplish.  At the foundation of Jesus’ mission was “the belief [he shared] that Israel had been chosen to be YHWH’s special people through whom the world would be addressed by its creator” (p. 32).  That is, on Jesus’ interpretation the universality of God’s truth is revealed fully and nowhere else than in the Lord, our God depicted throughout the Jewish scriptures.  That truth, as Jesus would have understood it is neither “far off… in heaven” nor an impenetrable phenomenon “beyond the sea.” Neither was it “too mysterious” for human understanding.   Rather, the truth to which Jesus referred, the singular truth, “is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart that you may do it” (Deut 30:11-14).  This singular truth was revealed by Israel’s God in the “commandments and …statues ….written in [the]…book of the law” (Deut 30:10a). 

It was this law that Jesus radically brought to prophetic culmination rather than abolished (Mt 5:17) through his healing, teaching, and movement building, but ultimately through the agency of his own calling as Israel’s Messiah.  This is Wright’s key thesis.  Whatever validity in Borg’s depiction, any effort to reconstruct the historical Jesus through modern categories like spirit person, social prophet, or movement initiator, without a clear focus on the eschatology underlying his mission is likely to be tinged with a degree of presentism that occludes as much, if not more than what it discloses about the historical personage.  So argues Wright.

 In conjunction with Borg’s broader understanding, Israel acknowledged “the secret things belong[ing] to the Lord our God” well beyond human language and comprehension.  The more substantial issue remains that the heart of Israel’s religion was no universality that equally applied to the metaphors and symbols of other cultures and times.  Such cross-cultural sensibility of seeking commonalities rather than positing sharp differences between Israel’s God and other revelations would have been viewed as idolatry, “either concrete creations of human hands or abstract creations of human minds” (p. 31).  Wright contends that Jesus fully shared this perspective in his kingdom proclamation upon which he placed his ultimate concern that “the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” whom “you shall love…with all your heart with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut.6 4:-5) onto life and onto death.

 Thus, notwithstanding the ineffable mystery beyond human understanding as referenced in both testaments, the heart of Israel’s religion centered on “those things which are revealed [which] belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut:29: 29)—the heart and center of Scripture, the grounding source of Judaism and Christianity.  The Word was no mere metaphor or symbol pointing beyond its actual referent in which, according to Borg, its ultimate significance lies.  Rather, it is the means itself, however elusively, and also contentiously so, at times, through which the revelation of God takes place.  While there are those “secret things” about God’s truth beyond human comprehension, the focal point of Israel’s religion and the mission of Jesus centered on “those things that are revealed,” and the necessity of pursing such truth “with all your heart and all your soul” (Deut 30:10b).  Without that unified level of commitment, at least in intention, the specter of the idolatry of worshipping the creation rather than the creator, which invariably haunts the human heart, becomes the basis for unbelief, rather lack of knowledge itself.  The latter, according to Scripture, is a by product of the former, in an all-too-human desire to escape from the responsibilities and consequences of adherence, however fallibly held and understood to the covenant with the living God.

According to Wright the belief in the radical particularity and superiority of the living God revealed in and through Israel’s Scripture grounded everything that was essential about Jesus’ mission.  Wright accepts Borg’s modernist categories as a type of minimalism, but reference to Jesus as a “spirit person” or even “Jewish mystic” lacks the specificity of who Jesus was in the highly particular context of his times.  More pointedly, intimates Wright, any interpretation of the historical Jesus not deeply seeped in the language and beliefs surrounding second temple Judaism can only be but profoundly flawed on its face.  So, what was this “Palestinian Jew” up to according to Wright?  In broad strokes Wright follows along the trajectory of Borg’s five point depiction, but fills in the description with what he views as the specificity of Jesus’ distinctive Jewish identity.

First and foremost Jesus was a “first century Jewish prophet” (italics removed) (p. 33), a “second temple” religious leader whose mission embodied the imagery of exile and return as exhibited in the political and religious imagination of the period among a wide array of groups.  Among those seeking a restoration of Israel’s greatness in a return to God’s calling of a holy people, the imagery of “new exodus” took on a significant role.  Unlike the Babylonian captivity, with a corresponding quest for a geographical return to a redeemed Israel, the restoration in the second temple period required an internal cleansing in a turning back to God combined with a decisive eradication of the domination of Rome in a perspective in which politics and theology were complexly intertwined.  It was within this context that “Jesus spoke of himself as a prophet …behaved as a prophet, and when others referred to him in this way he did not correct him” (p. 33).  Thus, more than a “spirit person” or even “Jewish mystic,” Jesus was a prophet in the mode particularly of Isaiah, with sharply articulated Jewish connotations based on the imagery of exile, an internal one, in the second temple period, in the establishment of God’s kingdom in Israel in truth and power.

Thus, the second stroke to Wright’s historical sketch. “Jesus was a first century prophet [italics in original] announcing God’s kingdom” (p. 33).  The pivotal point was the restoration specifically to something pointed to in times of old, but never achieved, God’s full indwelling within the nation of Israel, in which the redeemed nation in turn becomes the vehicle for the building of God’s kingdom throughout the world.  Thus, with Borg, there is a universalism implicit in this Isaiac vision, but it is the God revealed to Israel, and to Israel only, which is the basis for the worldwide establishment of the kingdom of God.  Namely:

 I, the Lord have called You in righteousness,

And I will uphold Your hand;

I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people,

As a light to the Gentiles,

To open blind eyes,

To bring out prisoners from the prison,

To those who sit in darkness in the prison house.

I am the Lord, that is My name;

And My glory I will not give to another,

Nor My praise to graven images (Isa42: 6-8)

            This was the light that shone through Israel’s vision of the Lord our God, the father of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph.  According to the Script, this God, who also describes himself as the mysterious “I am who I am,” who keeps “the secret things” to Himself, has given specifically  to Israel, and through Israel to the world, sufficient revelation in Word and in Spirit, a foundational vocabulary and identity in radical fidelity to His Truth and Wisdom.  “Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end” (Isa 8: 7). This, according to Wright, in the most fundamental sense is the kingdom that the Jesus of history and also of the New Testament announced.  As Wright describes it, this kingdom “denoted not a place where God ruled, but rather the fact that God ruled—or, rather, the fact [italics in original] that he would soon rule, because he was certainly not doing so” during the time of Jesus’ ministry “in the way he intended to do so” (p. 33). 
Jesus’ understanding of God embodied the ineffable, transient, noetic, and transformative dimensions of spiritual reality as Borg described.  Yet, for Jesus such experiences that Borg identified were manifestations of the presence of God revealed in Israel’s most evocative literature and not the substance of faith itself, which resided, and resided only, for Jesus in Israel’s founding revelation.  It was this religion Jesus sought to revitalize, and, on Wright’s interpretation, to bring to a dynamic fulfillment through the agency of his own personage.

As Wright notes, one could draw on the categories Borg uses in his depiction of Jesus to get a handle on what he was up to.  Without specificity, which Borg does provide in his description, these categories can only be, but highly abstract.  If taken as the summation of religious experience they reflect a sort of empty universality in which the specific context of any particular religion are evaluated not on their own terms, but how they measure up to these intangible depictions.  Truth, in effect, is defined by the authenticity of experience which, in its depth, is beyond the capacity of language to describe, although it can be pointed to metaphorically.  According to Wright what drove this “Galilean Jewish peasant” (p. 59) to the point of ultimate commitment was his proclamation of the kingdom of God in the restoration of Israel’s most fundamental calling as a light onto the Gentiles, which to the Jesus of history was no mere metaphor.  

Without this radical specificity at the heart of second temple Judaism and emergent Christianity, faith becomes, in the final analysis, subordinate to a constellation of experiential categories that then profess to be the basis for religious universality.  The religion of Israel grounded so extensively in the written word and dynamic, historically influenced inter-textual shaping of an emerging and ultimately enduring canon, becomes on Borg’s interpretation, a metaphor, of a profound sort, to be sure, for a more universal truth, transculturally accessible through other images, stories, and doctrines through other religious traditions.  By contrast, as Wright understands it, the symbols, language, and historical unfolding of Israel’s biblical story, carried for Jesus of Nazareth the full significance on its own term through which he encountered the ineffable, whom he named, and lived and died for, namely, Abba Father, the Lord, our God.

The third and most fundamental of Wright’s claim about the historical Jesus (in which Wright’s last two points are briefly incorporated here) was “that the kingdom [of God] was breaking in to Israel’s history in and through his own presence” (italics removed) (p. 37) as the long awaited Messiah.  In line with a broad stream of critical biblical scholarship it is this claim, in particular that Borg rejects, which in turn grounds his proclivity to posit a great divide between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.  Wright notes that that the issue over the consciousness of Jesus lacks sufficient empirical verification to claim as an established fact.  Nonetheless, he puts forward his hypothesis on what he discerns as the most likely conclusion to be drawn from the available evidence particularly when one is not locked into the paradigmatic assumptions of the broad stream of contemporary biblical scholarship extending back to the late 19th century.  This included not simply the brute claim, which, according to Wright, Borg too easily dismisses, but the nature of the kingdom proclaimed, based on a suffering Messiah who conquered, but only by way of the cross. 

 The cross was not the pathway only of the Messiah, but representative of the paradigmatic suffering a redemptive Israel needed to attain as reflected, in turn in the temptations Jesus faced in the desert.  Namely, Jesus’ repudiation of Satan’s temptations was a call for radical obedience to God to the point of surrendering all efforts of national glorification, and embracing instead the truer vocation of the Suffering Servant in which God, and God only would bring to magnificent consummation His kingdom in His time when the fullness of the Gentiles were brought in.  On Jesus’ messianic vision, Israel was called, but enjoyed no special privileges other than the mandate to be faithful to the call itself to the point of death of any vestige of national triumphalism.  That death to glorification is what Jesus mirrored in and through his own ministry in which Israel—the Israel of the New Covenant— symbolically became the Suffering Servant in carrying out what the nation had not been able to achieve through obedience to the law.  It was in this sense that the blood of the Lamb took on and took away the sins of the world in which the Messiah became the preeminent mediator to the pathway that would lead to full consummation in Israel redeemed.  The Kingdom of God would reign on earth in the era of New Israel ushered in by the messianic prompting of Jesus of Nazareth.

What Wright argues is that given the temper of the times and that all that contemporary scholarship discloses of the period and the historical Jesus, there was nothing in the nature of those times that would have impeded his self-identification as Israel’s Messiah and much to support it based on the trajectory of his mission and the logical conclusions that it assumed.  Wright is quick to point out that this messianic consciousness was still a good distance from a fully developed Trinitarian Christology, a topic to be discussed in the next section, but a logical development, which Wright fleshes out in vast detail in his more extensive works, based on the life, the mission and death of the Jesus, and the proclamation of his resurrection by his earliest followers.  Wright acknowledges theological enhancements of claims linking the constructed Christ to the prophecies of old in the gospel narratives.  Nonetheless, the substance of the literary artifice has, on Wright’s view, a much more substantial historical core than that posited by Borg and his associates of the Jesus seminar.  In conjunction with the main thrust of contemporary biblical scholarship Borg posits a fundamental divide between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith as articulated in the New Testament in which Jesus’ messianic vocation is a literary construct created by the early church.  With Borg, also, there is a nucleus in history—history remembered, yet more fundamentally, history metaphorized.  With Wright there is much greater symmetry between history as lived and faith as received even as the gap between the two remains, in the most literal sense of the term, unfathomable.

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