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The Historical Jesus and Christian Preaching

by Marcus Borg

Marcus J. Borg is Distinguished Professor of Religion, Oregon State University and author of many books, including Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith; Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally; and The God We Never Knew.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 28- September 4, 1985, pp. 764-767 . Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


I hear very few sermons about Jesus. Perhaps this is because of the kinds of churches I have most frequently attended (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian), though I think it is probably the same for most mainstream churches. True, sometimes a parable or saying or healing act of Jesus may be preached on, but I seldom hear a sermon about Jesus, except at Christmas or in Holy Week (though not always then), and occasionally on other festivals which celebrate his divine identity.

Scarcely ever have I heard a sermon about what Jesus was like as a historical figure, or about his purpose as he saw it, or about the way he related to the society of his own time. If, as we affirm, the Word became flesh in Jesus, then surely the historical life of Jesus discloses something about that Word. Paul’s recognition that "we no longer know Jesus according to the flesh" should not be construed to mean that Jesus’ historical life is irrelevant.

I suspect this lack is because neither the popular image of Jesus nor the dominant scholarly image learned in seminary provides a gestalt of the historical Jesus suitable for mainstream preaching. The popular image -- popular in the sense of most widely held -- pictures Jesus identity and purpose with great clarity: he was the only begotten Son of God, whose purpose was to die for the sins of the world. Christians and non-Christians alike share this image, drawn from the Gospels (especially John) and creeds, carried through the history of the West. and nurtured by our culture’s celebrations of Christmas and Easter. Christians are those who believe the image to be true, while non-Christians are those who do not.

The popular image of what Jesus was like continues to thrive in fundamentalist and much conservative preaching, but for those of us schooled in mainstream seminaries or divinity schools, that image died as part of our educational process. There, if not before, we learned that the popular image does not correspond to what Jesus was like as a figure of history. Rather, we saw that the popular portrait came about by projecting the church’s later beliefs and images back into the ministry itself. We learned that in all likelihood Jesus did not speak as he does in John’s Gospel; that even the synoptic Gospels are a complex mixture of historical memory and post-Easter interpretation; that the image of Jesus as one who deliberately gave his life for the sins of the world is the product of the church’s sacrificial theology; and that Jesus probably did not proclaim his own exalted identity, or even think of himself in such terms. In short, we came to see that the popular image was the product of Christian theology and Christian popular culture. The image of Jesus as one who proclaimed his identity in the most exalted terms known to Judaism, who asked his hearers to believe his claims, and whose purpose was to die for our sins itself died.

In part this conclusion resulted from the dominant scholarly understanding of Jesus that did emerge from the withering fire of historical criticism: that Jesus was the eschatological prophet who believed that the final judgment was coming in his generation. Originating with Bernhard Weiss and Albert Schweitzer around the turn of the century, this understanding (in a stripped-down version) was propounded by Rudolf Bultmann and his successors. Moreover, according to it, Jesus’ conviction concerning the coming end was not simply an odd, adventitious belief which he held, extraneous to some more important conviction, but was central to his sense of who he was and what his mission was. He himself was conscious of being "the eschatological prophet"; the crisis that runs throughout his teaching was the imminent end of the world; his historical purpose was to warn his hearers to repent before it was too late and to invite them to ground their existence in God, for the world was soon to pass away.

This view does yield some powerful existential insights that can readily be made the subject of Christian preaching. But as an image of the historical Jesus, it is very difficult to incorporate into the life of the church. For, according to it, Jesus was a mistaken preacher of the end; he was wrong about the most central conviction which animated his mission. It is difficult to imagine this tenet forming part of a sermon; I cannot recall a preacher ever saying, "This text tells us that Jesus expected the end of the world in his own time; he was wrong of course, but let’s see what we can make of the text anyway. Indeed, I suspect that most pastors have held the dominant scholarly understanding at arm’s length largely because of its unhelpfulness for Christian preaching and teaching. It is not only a speculative scholarly construction, but an unattractive image of what Jesus was like as a historical figure.

And so we in the mainstream churches believe we cannot know much about Jesus, and what we do know does not compel our imaginations. No wonder we are left with so faint an image.

First, Jesus was vividly in touch with the world of Spirit. Whatever else he was, he was a "holy man," to use a semitechnical term from the history of religions. The word "holy" here is not an adjective pointing to righteousness or purity, but is used in the sense made famous by Rudolf Otto: as a noun, pointing to the numinous, the mysterium tremendum, the awesome reality and power at the heart of existence. A holy man is a person who experiences the holy vividly and frequently, who is experientially in contact with the power of another realm, the power of the Spirit.

Such persons, known in many cultures and including both women and men, are delegates of the tribe to the other realm, to use an anthropological characterization. As such, they are mediators between the realm of the Spirit and this world, entering the former realm in order to mediate power from that world to this one, especially in deeds of healing. To state the two defining characteristics of such people as compactly as possible, they are mystics and healers.

Such figures are known not only worldwide, but specifically within the history of Israel. Moses and Elijah are the two great holy men of the Old Testament, both known for their direct encounters with the other world and for their deeds of power. The classical prophets of ancient Israel regularly report seeing into another world (cf., for example, the opening verse of Ezekiel: ‘‘The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God"), though they are without the healing powers characteristic of the holy man proper. Contemporary with Jesus are several Jewish holy men, especially Honi the Circle-Drawer. Hanina ben Dosa and, slightly later, St. Paul.

That Jesus belongs within this charismatic strand of Judaism is evident. According to the Gospel accounts. his ministry began with an experience of "the heavens opening" and the Spirit descending upon him; he applied to himself the words, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me"; and he spoke of the Spirit as active through him. He practiced spiritual disciplines common to holy men: fasting, solitude, long hours of prayer (presumably contemplative), even an ordeal in the wilderness. He called God "Abba," clearly reflective of an experiential intimacy with the holy. To his contemporaries, both friend and foe, he was known above all as a healer and exorcist, as one who mediated the power of the Spirit. Whatever else he was, he was a holy man.

There is a second feature of the historical Jesus which can significantly inform the life of the church today: his relationship to the society of his time. He was deeply involved in the historical life of his own people. Specifically, he saw them headed on a course toward historic catastrophe, flowing out of their loyalties and blindness; he called his hearers to a radically different understanding of what faithfulness to God meant, an understanding which was to be embodied in the life of a community in history.

This connection to the life of his own time can be seen in his roles as prophet and renewal movement founder. As recent scholarship has emphasized, Jesus founded a renewal movement within Judaism which competed with other Jewish renewal movements for the allegiance of his contemporaries. Each had a different vision of what the people of God should be, each with different historical consequences. Jesus sharply denounced the path on which his people had embarked, including the ways advocated by the other renewal movements. He warned of catastrophic consequences -- war, the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple -- if their blindness continued.

Jesus’ connection to the historical crisis of his time was obscured throughout much of this century by the portrait of him as the eschatological prophet. In that role, he was not seen to be concerned about historical matters. The crisis that he announced was the end of the world, not a historical crisis in the life of his people.

But almost without realizing it. recent scholarship has undermined the eschatological understanding of Jesus. That view was founded on the "coming Son of man" sayings as authentic to Jesus; yet New Testament scholars now routinely (and, I think, correctly) deny that the "coming Son of man" sayings go back to Jesus. For the most part, however, the undermining goes unnoticed; the portrait of Jesus as eschatological prophet remains, despite the disappearance of its foundation.

But if the crisis that Jesus announced was not the imminent end of the world, what was it? It was a coming historical catastrophe, probably not yet inevitable, which would result from the combination of Rome’s imperial needs and insensitivity with the cultural direction of his own people. Like an Old Testament prophet (to whom he was compared by his contemporaries), Jesus criticized the present path and threatened destruction if it did not change.

As a prophet and renewal movement founder, Jesus called his hearers into "an alternative community with an alternative consciousness," to use Walter Brueggemann’s illuminating phrase (The Prophetic Imagination [Fortress, 1978]). The marks of his renewal movement stand out sharply against the background of his time. His acceptance of the outcasts -- one of his most radical acts -- pointed to an identity defined by one’s relationship to God rather than by cultural standards of performance. He proclaimed the way of peace instead of war, both in his teaching and in the deliberately dramatic manner in which he entered Jerusalem on an animal that symbolized peace rather than war, an action very much in the tradition of prophetic acts in the Old Testament The Jesus movement was the "peace party" within Judaism, as Gerd Theissen puts it (Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity [Fortress, 1978]).

In place of ‘holiness" as the imitatio dei followed by the other renewal movements ("You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy," Lev. 19:2), Jesus substituted a different blueprint for the life of the community: "Be compassionate as your heavenly father is compassionate" (Luke 6:36). Moreover, this directive was intended for the earthly life of the people of God. Jesus’ intention was the transformation of his people in the face of a historical crisis.

These are potent themes for our own times. They invite us to take very seriously the two central presuppositions of the Jewish-Christian tradition. First, there is a dimension or realm of reality beyond (and beneath) the visible world of our ordinary experience, a dimension charged with power, whose ultimate quality is compassion. Second, the fruits of a life lived in accord with the Spirit are to be embodied not only in individuals, but also in the life of the faithful community. In short, God cares about the shape and texture of historical communities -- and sometimes "hands them over" to the consequences of their own blindness.

Yet these themes are also threatening to us. The first threatens our sense of normalcy. What if it is true, as Huston Smith argues, that the world of our ordinary experience is but one level of reality, and that we are at all times surrounded by other dimensions of reality which we commonly do not experience? (See his Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition [Harper & Row, 1976], where he sketches the multidimensional model of reality and the self which he finds to be virtually a cultural universal, attested to by the collective experience of humankind prior to the modern period). Such a view challenges the practical atheism of much of our culture and church. The claim that there really is a realm of Spirit is both exciting and oddly disconcerting.

The second theme threatens our comfort within contemporary culture. The historical Jesus, with his call to a counter community with a counterconsciousness (including consciousness of another realm), challenges the central values of contemporary American culture. Increasingly, our understanding of reality is one-dimensional, even within the church; our quest for fulfillment seeks satisfaction through greater consumption; our security rests in nuclear weapons, and our blindness and idolatry are visible in our stated willingness to blow up the world, if need be, to preserve our way of life. We are called to become the church in a culture whose values are largely alien to the Christian message, to be once again the church of the catacombs.

Images of Jesus give content to what loyalty to him means. The popular picture of Jesus as one whose purpose was to proclaim truths about himself most often construes loyalty to him as insistence on the truth of those claims. Loyalty becomes belief in the historical truthfulness of all the statements in the Gospels. The absence of an image -- the most common fruit of mainstream theological education -- leaves us with no clear notion of what it means to take Jesus seriously, no notion of what loyalty might entail, no rudder for the life of discipleship. But the image of Jesus as a man of Spirit, deeply involved in the historical crisis of his own time, besides being more historically adequate than either the popular or dominant scholarly image, can shape the church’s discipleship today.


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