Chapter 1: What Manner of Man Is This?

Jesus Lord and Christ
by John Knox (current)

Chapter 1: What Manner of Man Is This?

In one of his characteristically poignant and vigorous poems G. A. Studdert Kennedy once confronted the possibility, "if Jesus never lived," and tried to suggest how utterly his world would collapse if that possibility were proved true. No poet is to be taken too literally, and it is likely that Mr. Kennedy would have been able to adjust himself to this, as to any other historical fact, without complete disaster. It is safe to say, however, that he could not have done so without immeasurable loss. To be sure, it has often been argued that it does not really matter whether Jesus lived -- that we have emerging in the Gospels and in the tradition of the church a certain portrait of him and only the portrait is important. But those to whom that portrait is most precious are not persuaded; they instinctively feel that it matters tremendously whether Jesus ever lived and that it matters tremendously what manner of man he was.

Indeed, an important element in Christianity from the very beginning has been a sense of fellowship with Christ, conceived not merely as a "spiritual" but as an historical person. This is the one element reaching back to Jesus himself. For all the importance of the resurrection in the church’s rise, the character of Jesus was the deeper element, making the resurrection faith itself possible and making it a faith worth preaching. The important fact was not that a man had risen from the dead, but that a particular man had done so. The memory of this man dominated every-thing else in the minds of those friends and companions of his who first became convinced of his messiahship. It was their memory of him as well as their conviction about him which they shared with others, so that men and women who had never seen Jesus came not only to believe in him but also to feel that they had known him. Thus Christians writing almost a century after Jesus’ death could say: "We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten son of the father, full of grace and truth"; or, in the words of the same or a contemporary writer, "That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked on and our hands have handled . . . we disclose to you that you also may have fellowship with us." In a word, just as the earliest Christian community rested back firmly and surely on the historical reality of Jesus, so there has never been a time in the subsequent history of the church, regardless of how ideally Jesus may have been conceived, when a demonstration of his merely mythical character would not have struck at the foundations of its life. And, it may be added, the historical faith of the church involves our being able not only to say, "Jesus was an actual historical person," but also to affirm, "He was a supremely great, a uniquely significant person." It would be impossible to show that any of the many ways in which Jesus has been interpreted in the church -- whether as Messiah, Son of God, Logos, Lord and Savior, or under any other title -- is essential to the church’s life, but I see no reason to suppose that the church could long survive the surrender of the belief that the career of Jesus marks a supremely significant moment in the life of man and that he himself was supremely good and great among the sons of men.

I have just said that the church could not survive the surrender of these beliefs. But surely it would be more accurate to say that the church could not conceivably surrender them. For the Christian community carries the memory of Jesus deep in its heart. It carries much else in its heart, but nothing more certainly than that. This memory helped produce the documents of the New Testament, particularly the Gospels; it helped create the church’s sacraments; it lies back of and under all of the dogmas. But documents, sacraments and dogmas do not exhaust it; it belongs too intimately and essentially to the life of the church. Indeed, one might almost define the church as the community which remembers Jesus. It is itself a living memorial to him, and it could no more bring itself to deny his existence than one could deny the fact of one’s birth.

This memory historical research amply confirms. No reputable historian doubts the existence of Jesus. The question of historicity has been answered on grounds as solid and objective as anyone could want. But what can we know about this man whose existence has been so abundantly proved? What can we know about Jesus?

At the very outset of any discussion of Jesus some important limitations to our knowledge must be frankly recognized. In particular, it must be observed that we can know very little about what is usually meant by the "life of Jesus." Strictly speaking, a biography of Jesus would be an impossible achievement. Not only are the meager materials in the Gospels which deal with his earlier life obviously legendary and late, but even within the brief compass of his public career no certainty is possible as to the order of events and little as to the historicity of a great many particular events. One cannot even be sure how long the public career lasted.

Not many years ago it was commonly believed that Mark, the earliest Gospel and the principal source for both Matthew and Luke, preserved an authentic tradition not only as to particular incidents, but also as to the general movement of Jesus’ career. Relying chiefly on this Gospel and harmonizing with it as well as we could the special materials in the other Gospels, we talked about the "Early Judean" and "Galilean" periods, the "Perean Ministry," and the like. It is now recognized that although such schemes may be convenient ways of analyzing the Gospel materials, they have little necessary reference to Jesus’ career itself. Mark’s Gospel could not have been written before 65 A.D., and any written sources upon which he may have depended can hardly have been much earlier. For most of the interval between 30 A.D., when Jesus’ career ended, and the date of the beginning, so far as we can know, of Gospel writing, the tradition about Jesus existed only as individual stories and sayings, circulating separately and orally among the scattered churches. What we know of this process of oral transmission in ancient times, especially among Oriental peoples, gives ground for considerable confidence in its fidelity. But obviously such a process is not likely to have preserved any reliable tradition as to the order of events. It is now beyond doubt that the stories and sayings which make up our Gospels owe the positions they occupy in the several narratives not to any primitive memory but to the art of the compilers. The recognition of this fact makes impossible our use of the Gospels as the basis for a detailed reconstruction of Jesus career. Moreover, it must be remembered that the Gospels are the records of early Christian preaching and teaching rather than attempts at objective historical narrative and are thus more immediately valuable as sources for the faith of the primitive church than for the biography of Jesus.

Needless to say, certain formal facts emerge clearly enough. Indeed, the very process of proving the historicity of Jesus involves establishing a few basic biographical data. We can say such things, for example, as that he was born in Palestine during the reign of Herod the Great; that he was brought up in Nazareth; that he lived the normal life of a Jew of his period and locale; that he was baptized by John, a proclaimer of the early coming of God’s judgment; that he spent a year or more in teaching, somewhat in the manner of contemporary rabbis, groups of his fellow countrymen in various parts of Palestine, mostly in Galilee, and in more intimate association with some chosen friends and disciples; that he incurred the hostility of some of his compatriots and the suspicion of the Roman authorities; that he was put to death in Jerusalem by these same authorities during the procuratorship of Pilate.

This is the merest skeleton, of course; but study of the literary and archeological sources for life in Palestine during the period is enabling us to clothe this skeleton with flesh. We are learning more and more about what it meant in concrete terms to be a Palestinian Jew in the first century: the character of home and education; the way the Jew conducted his daily life; the kinds of social organization in which he participated; the influences, national and Hellenistic, which played on him. We are likewise learning more about first century religion in Palestine -- as, for example, about the place of synagogue, Torah, temple and sacrifice; the meaning of the terms "Pharisee," "Essene," "Sadducee," "apocalyptist"; the nature of Judaism and of rabbinic teaching. We are also able to see more and more clearly the political and economic situation in Palestine -- the character of Roman rule and of popular reaction to it; the burden of state and temple taxes; the extent of wealth and poverty. Such knowledge is far from complete, but it is growing. The Dead Sea Scrolls are adding tremendously to it.

Within the limits of this brief study it is obviously impossible even to summarize the content of this body of knowledge. The point I am concerned to make is that every addition to that knowledge is an addition to our knowledge of Jesus. There is a sense, therefore, in which we possess a vastly larger fund of assured information about Jesus than we had, or even thought we had, twenty years ago. Much the greater part of the life of any individual is the common possession of the social community to which he belongs. If we knew all about life in Palestine in Jesus’ period, we should have gone a long way toward understanding Jesus himself, and without some such knowledge we cannot understand Jesus at all. It is of the greatest importance to recognize that Jesus was in very truth a Jew of first century Palestine and to know as fully and as concretely as possible what that fact implies.

But such knowledge of Jesus is knowledge of a type. That knowledge is absolutely indispensable -- and is all too often dispensed with -- but it is obviously not adequate. How much farther can we go? Can we properly claim any knowledge of Jesus as an individual?

It is impossible to exaggerate the caution with which one must proceed who presumes to move toward an answer to that question. We see Jesus only through the eyes of writers not one of whom had seen Jesus through his own eyes. The earliest voice we directly hear, that of Paul (for Paul antedates all of the Gospels), tells us little about Jesus, and Paul’s testimony is not that of an eyewitness. The Gospels, besides being relatively late, were written to meet the practical needs of the rapidly growing Christian community and reflect a stage of relatively advanced theological and institutional development. The Christian movement had long since emerged from its Jewish, not to speak of its primitive Palestinian, phase. Only the most expert and careful criticism can separate the earliest layers of tradition from later accretion, and such criticism can rarely be quite certain of its results. And even when reasonably assured results are achieved and the authentic material is laid before us -- even then there remains the gigantic task of interpreting it. We cannot help seeing Jesus, if we try to see him at all, through our own eyes, and our eyes must in the nature of the case distort him. Our eyes are modern Western eyes; Jesus was an ancient Jew. Even if he stood before us, we could not clearly see him; even if we heard his very words, we could not fully understand.

But true as all of this is, we must not conclude that the difficulties are insuperable and that the individuality of Jesus is altogether hidden from us. On the contrary, although the Gospels do not succeed fully in revealing him, they are utterly unable to conceal him, and no critical reader, unless he be entirely devoid of imagination, can miss the mighty and distinctive force of the personality which moves through their pages. No such reader will be in danger of supposing that Jesus can be adequately described merely in the terms of his Jewish and Hellenistic environment. Those who feel that to know life in first century Palestine would be to know Jesus (if there are any who take so extreme a view) are even more mistaken than those who suppose that merely to know the words of the Gospels is to know him. To be sure, Jesus belonged to first century Palestine in the same profound and thoroughgoing way in which every man belongs to his age and culture, but to say this is not to say everything, or even everything that can be said. Indeed at least two things can be said, and the omission of the one or the other results in a picture which is either false or less adequate than it might legitimately be: First, Jesus was in every sense a Jew of his period; and secondly, he was, to say the very least, an individual of vastly more than ordinary stature. No representation of Jesus which does not say both things can be historically convincing.

For whatever may be lacking in our picture of Jesus, we know more than enough to be able to characterize him as a person of strange and incomparable greatness. The meaning of that fact is for the theologians to discover and formulate (we shall be dealing later with its meaning for Paul and the primitive Christians), but the fact itself can hardly be disputed, although "scientific lives" of Jesus, in their understandable and praiseworthy effort to avoid any appearance of sharing in the older apologetic motive, are sometimes in danger of ignoring it. Even in the obscurity the figure of Jesus can be discerned, and, although its outlines cannot always be surely and clearly drawn, it is evidently a figure of heroic dimensions. Jesus belonged to first century Palestine in the same way that Shakespeare belonged to Elizabethan England. It produced him; he was at home in it; in considerable part it explains him, but at every really critical point it falls short of explaining him.

"Greatness," writes Matthew Arnold, in speaking of England, "is a spiritual condition worthy to excite love, interest and admiration; and the outward proof of possessing greatness is that we excite love, interest and admiration." One finds here the crowning proof of Jesus’ greatness -- a proof in the last resort far more convincing than anything in the Gospels. Indeed, the Gospels themselves are most significant not for their particular contents, but as being themselves witnesses to the "love, interest and admiration" with which Jesus was regarded from the beginning.

It is hardly necessary to recall here the ample additional evidence for this same fact. The first voice we hear directly out of the obscurity of Christianity’s first age is Paul’s. It has already been remarked that he tells us little about Jesus. In the obvious sense that is true; but, as we shall see more fully later, there is another sense in which he tells us more about Jesus than the Gospels do, for he tells us at first hand how he regarded Jesus. His love evidently had the character of absolute devotion, even to the suffering of persecution and death; his interest was a perpetual obsession; his admiration was worship. Nor are we justified in regarding this attitude as peculiar to Paul; in its essentials he obviously shared it with "those who had been apostles before him." Although it is unquestionably true that Paul’s Christianity had its peculiar features which set it off from that of his contemporaries who had known Jesus "after the flesh," there is no evidence that in devotion to Jesus they were one whit behind him.

Neither is it possible to say that this Lord of the early church had no connection with the earthly Jesus. To this point the last two chapters of Book One will be largely devoted; at the moment it is enough to say that the connection was close and continuous. Strange as it seems, there can be no doubt that it was to the very man whom they had known in intimate human association that the first Christian community offered a measure of devotion ordinarily reserved for a god. How can we conceive of Jesus so as to make understandable so stupendous a fact?

Some of us acknowledge the fact but believe that if more data were available it could be explained on so-called naturalistic grounds. Others are likely to believe that no naturalistic explanation could be relevant. But all will agree in recognizing that early in the first century in Palestine there lived a man "mighty in word and deed" whose brief career, for the most part hidden from us, was an event of incalculable magnitude, not only because of its effects but because of what it was.

Professor R. H. Lightfoot closed a fine study of the Gospel records with these words: "For all the inestimable value of the Gospels, they yield us little more than a whisper of his voice; we trace in them but the outskirts of his ways." (History and Interpretation of the Gospels [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938] p. 225.) But they yield enough to convince us that the voice was one of surpassing beauty and the ways great beyond our understanding.