Chapter 13: The Concern with the Man Jesus and the End of an Age
The path pioneered by Israel, leading to the abolition of mythology, the gods, heaven and religion came to a consummation in the man Jesus of Nazareth, so that his coming spelled the end to the world of ancient man, and the new age in human history began, as is demonstrated by our division of time into BC. and AD. But before we can see this, we must let go our hold of that traditional picture of Jesus which Christian thought and devotion has built up over the centuries and which reached its climax in the Christian mythology of the Middle Ages. The new world has been effectively destroying Christian mythology, but the mythology surrounding the person of Jesus has been the last bulwark of orthodoxy.
The traditional picture of Jesus presents Him as a supernatural person from the unseen world, who deigned to appear in human form and spend some years on the earth among men. Because he was really God, he could perform all kinds of miracles, he possessed the knowledge of all truth, and every word he spoke remains true and absolute for all time. To show God’s love and save men from damnation, he allowed himself to be put to death; but he knew that shortly afterwards, he would rise from the dead and ascend to his former home to sit at the right hand of God.
From the time the new world began to appear, men questioned this picture of Jesus more and more. But the New Testament appeared strongly to support it, particularly in the way it had been traditionally interpreted, and as long as the Bible could be regarded as an infallible source of truth, then that settled the matter. It was the new view of the Bible that finally shattered the traditional picture.
When a historian sets out to learn what a person from the past was really like, he looks first for records contemporary with the life of his subject. But for Jesus we have no relevant records written during his life, either by himself or by others. The historian then looks for records, which, though originating later, were written by men who knew the person firsthand. Here we draw our second blank. Though the memories of the disciples of Jesus are no doubt reflected in some way in the Gospels, it now seems probable that no New Testament book was actually written by one who had known Jesus in the flesh. The earliest New Testament books are the letters of Paul, and he gives no indication that he had ever met Jesus in the flesh, and he shows little interest in the earthly life of Jesus. The rest of the New Testament comes from the second and third generations of the Christian church, being written thirty-five years or more after the death of Jesus.
Last century this set many scholars busy searching the New Testament for the reliable human memories of Jesus it preserved, in order to reconstruct the historical picture of Jesus. There was a spate of books written on the life of Jesus. This inquiry received a sudden jolt when Albert Schweitzer wrote The Quest of the Historical Jesus, a book which showed, first of all, that the attempt to rediscover the historical Jesus had largely failed, and secondly, that the life of Jesus was set in a context largely foreign to us, this being marked by the expectation of the imminent end of the known world.
The search for the real historical Jesus had failed up to that date because each scholar selected and interpreted the Gospel material in a way which fitted his own presuppositions. But this is something which all Christians do in one way or another. When we read the New Testament we unconsciously construct in our imagination a picture of Jesus which is a rough and ready harmony of the four Gospels. We ignore, perhaps unknowingly, the inconvenient statements which conflict with our mental picture. The attractive figure of Jesus which each believer holds in his imagination must not be confused with the historical figure of Jesus, for it cannot even be reconciled with the New Testament, where there is not just one picture of Jesus, but several, all of which conflict at certain points.
This very thing that we find ourselves doing is exactly what the New Testament writers were already doing. What we have in the Gospels are not biographies of Jesus written by first-hand witnesses, but several portraits of the Christ of faith, written by men who had never seen Jesus in the flesh, and based on the church’s experience of the risen Christ in their midst and on the memories of the earthly Jesus that had been handed down from the original disciples by word of mouth. We may still conclude that these portraits of the Christ of faith bear a reasonable likeness to a greater or less degree to the historical Jesus, but this becomes a matter of personal conviction. We are in no position to assert as an historical fact that Jesus did ‘this’ or said ‘that’ just because we read it in the Gospels. The full and exact account of all that Jesus said and did during his earthly life is lost to us for ever.
In the New Testament we possess the early church’s testimony to the Christ of faith, and their testimony, including even the remembered stories of Jesus, reflect at many points the church’s own experience of the risen Christ they acclaimed their Lord. And after all it is not Jesus the teacher, nor Jesus the healer, who is at the heart of the Christian faith, but the Jesus Christ who is known by faith as the savior and Lord of men. To this Christ of faith the New Testament does give firsthand witness.
When we ask what gave rise to the Christ of faith in the early church, we can immediately say that it derived from a certain complex of events in human history roughly centered round the year AD. 30. Hardly anyone seriously doubts any more that there was a Galilean Jew named Jesus, who for a short time attracted local attention as a teacher who took an unusual interest in people and uttered some startling things, and who for this reason fell foul of the religious authorities, the result of it all being that the Roman governor had him crucified. This in itself is important, showing us how Israel’s concern to see the meaning of human destiny in the scene of human history itself and not the unseen world of the gods, came to a consummation in the Christian faith. For the Christian heritage points to a human figure of history, Jesus of Nazareth, as the key to human destiny and the focal point of all to which history-centered Israel was leading. It proclaims that this event was of such a nature that the world was destined never to be the same again. (Those who want to interpret the advent of Jesus in terms of supernatural intervention are inadvertently attacking the most distinctive element in Christianity, namely its concern with history and not mythology.)
Secondly, the new view of the Bible has helped us to recover the true humanity of Jesus. This is not a loss, as some have thought, but a distinct gain, and constitutes a return to the distinctive witness of the Bible. In the ancient world there were gods in plenty who competed for the attention of men, but here was a man, a true man, who called for attention, and men found themselves giving him the attention and allegiance that they had previously given only to the gods. Israel had abandoned the gods of ancient man in favor of the YHWH who addressed them in history, and now in the Israelite human scene there appeared a man who not only spoke the Word of God but who embodied it in flesh and blood. This spelled the end to the gods of ancient man. The fact that the Jesus who became the basis of the Christ of faith was a true man in every way does not need to be argued away by Christians, for in fact it is basic to the uniqueness of the Christian heritage. (This truth has traditionally been enshrined in the doctrine of the Incarnation, but so often the truth has been affirmed in one sentence and obliterated in the next by that quick flight back into mythology which has repeatedly been the church’s undoing.)
The life of Jesus must be understood within the historical context in which he lived, and which helped to shape his thoughts and actions. It was an age of expectancy in which men, out of oppression and bewilderment, were looking hopefully for the new age to be ushered in cataclysmically by the anointed servant of YHWH. We do not know exactly what Jesus said about this and what he thought about himself in connection with it, but, whatever it was, the advent of Jesus led men to see in him the key to the new age, and their hopes suddenly blossomed forth with new vitality. Here was YHWH’s man. Israel’s concern for a renewed earth had arrived at a consummating point in the coming of the man Jesus, for through him the old world was now destined to pass away. The new age had come.
We have earlier noted how Jesus, in his ministry, took the questions of life out of the temple into the fields, the lakeside, the home and the street. There is no evidence that Jesus was greatly concerned with sacrifices, ceremonial purity, or religious exercises. The evidence rather points to his being concerned with the quality of the daily or secular life of man, as shown in honesty, integrity, and the readiness to give oneself in love to others. In the man Jesus the religion of ancient man came to an end. Thus the very things which we have seen to be both the distinctive elements of Israel’s heritage and the seeds of the new world came to a sharp focal point in Jesus. That which was in Israel in the process of becoming had now actually arrived in the man Jesus. He initiated the new age.
But how did it happen? If Jesus was truly a man, why did he and not some other man give rise to the Christ of faith? There are no clear answers to these questions. But the simple fact remains that it happened. This is what the New Testament repeatedly affirms. A glorious and wonderful thing had happened. Something like a parable of this is expressed in the story of the man born blind. He could not tell how he had been healed or who the mystery healer was, but one thing he knew, "whereas I was blind, now I see".
We cannot even say at exactly what point of time the Christ of faith emerged from Jesus, that enigmatic man of history. Some have thought it originated in the ministry of Jesus, some have said it was on Easter day and some have pointed to the day of Pentecost as the birthday of Christian faith. But actually we do not know the history of that period clearly enough, as we lack contemporary records. We are not at all clear as to what happened between the death of Jesus and the conversion of Paul. Paul’s letters are our earliest firsthand witness to the Christ of faith, but when he wrote them, he had been preaching the faith for some years.
Paul’s letters, however, make it abundantly clear that for him Christian faith centered round the death of Jesus on the cross and the subsequent Resurrection. As an example of Paul’s Gospel expressed in a nutshell, we may select Galatians 1:3- 4. "Our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father." Here Paul reflects the current eschatological conviction that they were living at the end of an age -- a wicked age that could end only in disaster on a cosmic scale. But it was the will of God that men should be delivered from that doomed age to enter into the new age. The self-giving of Jesus on the cross, in some way which Paul never makes clear, was thought by him to have achieved this deliverance, and this led him to "glory in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ". The cross has always been the focal point of the Christian faith, and consequently it became the chief symbol of Christianity. Christian thinkers have been led to develop various theories of atonement which try to explain why the death of Jesus on the cross is so significant, but though these theories have a cogency in their own time, they never become permanently valid, for they are expressed in a framework of thought which belongs to the period of their origin.
When we ask how Paul came to be preaching the cross of Christ, then we find that his Gospel took its origin and shape out of his conversion experience on the road to Damascus. To appreciate the significance of that, we must remember that Paul was a Jewish scholar of no mean ability, who knew that in Israel’s past, men like Abraham, Moses, Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah had heard God speaking to them when they least expected it, and that they had been commissioned to tasks which had previously not entered their heads. Secondly, as a devout and passionately loyal Jew, Paul was intent on stamping out what appeared to be the smoldering remains of the cause begun by the now crucified Jesus.
In the short dramatic turn of events which halted him in his journey to fulfil this mission, he was temporarily blinded, and he heard a voice, which said, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting". Paul found no way of evading the conclusion that the crucified Jesus was in some way still alive, as the Christians he was persecuting were then affirming. His own life was turned upside down, and he found himself commissioned to become an apostle of the death and Resurrection of Jesus. The new age he had awaited had burst in upon him.
Paul’s experience is perhaps no better expressed than in his own words to the Galatians, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." Later he spoke of Christ being formed in those who heard the Gospel. Paul’s conversion is the key to his faith and the Gospel he preached. The clearest evidence he had that the crucified and risen Christ was the Lord of the new age was in himself. He had become a new man, a new creation.
But Paul was not the first to proclaim as good news the death and Resurrection of Jesus, and he himself is our chief historical link with those who were. He tells us how he conferred with Peter, and James the brother of Jesus, and some years later with other apostles. No doubt they compared experiences. Paul was satisfied that they too had seen and heard the risen Jesus in experiences similar to his own. But if we seek further details of how they came to believe, and what it was they actually saw or heard, the answers are largely hidden from us. The historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus is to be found primarily in the apostles themselves.
The Gospel stories of the risen Christ, which have been highly valued in traditional Christianity through the centuries, are now regarded by New Testament scholars as containing many legendary elements, reflecting the developing traditions of the last quarter century from which they come. At the same time they genuinely reflect varied ways in which the crucified man Jesus made his impact upon them as the Christ of faith. Only believers testify to having seen the risen Christ, and sometimes they did not understand whom they had encountered until faith opened their eyes.
The New Testament nowhere describes the departure of Jesus from the tomb as a witnessed event in the way the later second century Gospel of Peter does. The nearest approach is in the story of the tomb found empty, which occurs in its earliest and simplest form in Mark 16:1-8. The fact that Mark’s version contains no supernatural elements, such as the later ones do, leads some scholars to regard it as having an historical foundation. But none of the apostles figure in this story, and whatever historical element may reside in it, it was not the finding of the empty tomb that brought the apostles to faith in the risen Christ, and if Paul ever heard the story he never thought it worth a mention, even when he assembled the evidence of witnesses in I Corinthians 15.
The resurrection of a man from the dead was not nearly such an extraordinary thing in the ancient world as in ours. The Bible refers to several instances. It is only in the late legendary material in the New Testament that the risen Christ is described in terms which imply that the Resurrection was simply the resuscitation of the dead body of Jesus. By that time various legends about Jesus were growing steadily, such as that of the Virgin Birth, and the more miraculous stories of what he did during his earthly ministry.
The Resurrection of Jesus must be understood within the eschatological context of the first century. There had already been a good deal of Resurrection talk before and during the life of Jesus. For in the hopes for the coming new age, it was expected that those who died before it arrived would be resurrected to take their place in it. Some even thought that the wicked would be resurrected too in order to receive their just punishment. Thus the Christian affirmation that God had raised Jesus from the dead was much more far-reaching than simply bringing the dead body of Jesus back into the tangible world. It was the triumphant declaration that the death of Jesus on the cross was not a miserable defeat, but the very victory which ushered in the new age. Jesus was not dead, but risen, the first-fruits of the great Resurrection which would accompany the imminent arrival of the new age.
There are three affirmations of the New Testament which must always be made in conjunction if they are to be properly understood, namely, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the new age. It is only because the Crucifixion led to the new age, that we can speak of the Resurrection. It is only because the crucified one is risen that we can speak of the new age. It is only because the Resurrection demonstrates the arrival of the new age, that we discern the significance of the Crucifixion.
But what of the new age? There is no doubt that in the days of Paul and the other apostles, it was expected very soon. Paul wrote, "For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord".
But the years passed and the apostles died and the end did not come. Yet the Christian faith did not just die out. Slowly and almost imperceptibly, it adjusted itself to the new situation. It reinterpreted the New Testament conviction about the new age. What they experienced within the Christian community was evidence in plenty that there was a sense in which the new age had already come. That is why they were led to name the supposed birth year of Jesus as the point which marked the end of the old age and the beginning of the new. But they also knew that there was a sense in which the new age was not yet seen in its completeness. This formed the substance of the Christian hope and lay ahead in the unknown future. Eventually it came to be expressed almost exclusively in the mythological terms of a supernatural unseen world.
The mythological world of medieval Christendom has slowly disintegrated and out of the crumbling ruins the new world has emerged, and is still developing apace. It is only because of the medieval world that the new world has become a reality, and consequently the new world owes its being to the man Jesus just as much as the medieval world. Yet medieval Christendom had to die in order that the new world might appear.
Not everything in the new world is directly traceable to the man Jesus any more than everything in the medieval world was. The new world, however, bears unmistakable marks of the new age that he ushered in. But now, as then, the new age is both here and yet to come. The extent to which the future history of man will see the new age come more completely rather than witness a calamitous return to the old world, depends on the continuing recognition of where this new world came from. It derives from the historically based, de-divinized, world-renewing, religionless heritage of Israel, which came to a focal point in the man Jesus. By his Crucifixion and Resurrection, the old world came to an end, and he ushered in the new age, an age which is still in the process of becoming.