What is the nature of our God? Modern Christians refer to Jesus as the Christ, or Saviour, the Prince of Peace, King of Kings, Emmanuel (or “God with us”), the Messiah, the Lamb of God, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Good Shepherd, and a host of other regal, holy, and elevated noble titles. We picture Him in many ways, as the gentle redeemer, a lost lamb draped over His shoulder (reminiscent of Kriophoros and our collective Hellenistic heritage), dressed in white robes with a beaming smile and brilliant blue eyes, long hair and a halo that seems to emanate from His head, to depictions of His suffering on the cross, bloodied, broken, wearing a crown of thorns, nearly naked and helpless. We recall the miracles witnessed by His disciples, and picture a healer, a teacher, a fisherman, and carpenter. It’s easy to fall in love with this image of Him, and many do, and have, and many find comfort in these depictions of Jesus, but how well do we really know Him?
Historically, we know so very little about Him, and what we think we know, comes from scripture written, not by people who knew or even met Him, but by people who heard about Him – in many cases, decades, if not generations after His death. We have no physical description of Him, although the world’s cathedrals, churches and art galleries are full of artistic representations of Him, usually depicting one or more aspects of His character in the absence of any real idea about what He looked like. Most of what He taught, or we think He taught, survives in parables, in accounts written in the gospels incorporated into the canon of the New Testament, a collection of narratives written at different times (the earliest, Mark, being composed some 30 years after the death of Jesus, and the last, John, about 70-80 years afterward), jotted down on animal skins in a foreign language, in different places, by unknown anonymous authors (despite the names given to the gospels themselves, the true authors of these works may never be known, and they most likely drew upon earlier, even more obscure sources).
Despite the mystery of Jesus as a historical figure, the gospels do provide us with a fascinating, and in the modern sense, an outlandish and implausible story. Jesus, we are told, was born to a young virgin mother, Mary, who was engaged to a much older man who had other children by a previous marriage, Joseph, who had to be persuaded to marry her by the intervention of an angel. The birth of their son occurred while the unfortunate couple were on a return journey after checking in with their hometown for a census, and for want of accommodation arrangements, were forced to have the child among the livestock in a stable under the watchful eye of sheep herders. We’re told however, that Persian Magi, or wise men, kingly figures of sorts, were directed to the site, after having seen a star in the sky, and making the necessary enquiries of the ruling monarch at the time, King Herod, tipping him off to a potential rival, they then provided the young child and His family with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (substances traditionally used, incidentally, during death and burial rituals at the time – dramatic foreboding as it’s referred to in all the best literary genres). The child grows up, and becomes a carpenter, leading a quiet, at least unreported life, until about the age of thirty.
Jesus encounters John, a baptist on the fringe, and a family friend of sorts, their mothers having been acquainted with each other, and Jesus endorses his radical movement by submitting Himself to the ritual of baptism. He gathers unto Himself several disciples, twelve we’re told, and embarks upon a mission of healing, preaching, and miracle working. His followers form a motley group, and include mostly fishermen, and notoriously, a Roman collaborator (a tax collector). Jesus quickly gained a reputation for healing and preaching to the marginalized in His society, and was known to have encountered prostitutes, Roman oppressors, lepers, the deranged, invalids, the sick, and the poor, among whom He performed miracles of healing, food distribution, exorcisms, and resurrections. He’s also noted for having had the ability to walk on water, tame the weather, turn water into wine, and was rather handy at fishing and multiplying the day’s catch exponentially. Despite warnings to the benefactors of His miracles not to say anything to anyone about them, His popularity, and notoriety, quickly grew.
Three years into His mission, Jesus was betrayed by one of His closest disciples, Judas Iscariot, who turned Him over to the Temple Priest in Jerusalem in return for some quick cash. Jesus had been wanted on charges of seditious activities, having breached the peace in the Temple just days earlier during its busiest time of year – the Jewish Passover holiday. The city had been under Roman control for some time, and the penal system fell under their jurisdiction, and Jesus was appropriately turned over to the Roman magistrate, the governor at the time, Pontius Pilate, who ordered that Jesus be dispatched by way of crucifixion, a common sentence for non-Roman criminals, and threats to the Pax Romana. The followers of Jesus, we’re told, went into hiding, and denied ever having known Him, after having been His followers for three years, and dining with Him just three days earlier. Jesus was dispatched on the outskirts of town, and was then buried in the family tomb, which, as it turns out, was found to be empty some time later.
Evidently, Jesus had died, and been resurrected, and He was reported to have been seen by women loitering near His tomb, by several, if not all, of His disciples (some of whom had apparently gone back to fishing), a couple of travellers on the way into town, and a crowd of about five hundred people. After hanging around for a few weeks as a convicted felon on the run, He ascended into heaven, with what some believed was a promise to return. Most of His followers languished in obscurity, until, a Jewish citizen of Rome, who’d persecuted them, had a change of heart, and went on a road trip to establish a network of cells that he sought to radicalize with his new message. The money poured in, but on the way back to Jerusalem, Paul was arrested, taken back to Rome, and was similarly dispatched by the authorities on the charge that he was a troublemaker. In short order, many of Paul’s cohorts, including James (Jesus’ brother), and Peter (one of the fishermen who’d become an early adopter and organizer), also met their untimely demise, either by stoning, or public crucifixion.
Remnants of the “Jesus movement” continued to survive in small pockets for many years, under suspicion that they were incestuous cannibals (eating the flesh and drinking the blood of their boss), fire bugs, and were otherwise anti-social (particularly absent from the holidays), until their fortunes changed dramatically when Constantine, a new Roman emperor, officially sanctioned the movement after attributing a military coup to a “vision” that corresponded to it’s symbolism. Under the emperor’s governance and influence, diverse and radically differing views on the new “religion’s” dogma were ironed out, and the “church” became incorporated into Roman society, and grew accordingly as a result of the endorsement of the powers that were. Stories about Jesus were consolidated, edited for doctrinal appropriateness, and were incorporated into a canon of literature which formed the basis for the early church’s marching orders. The church, ironically, survived the fall of the empire that had sustained it, albeit at the sacrifice of its homogeneity, and would, in time, fracture into a multitude of sectarian denominations, many of which survive to this day.
So how on earth did this man, Jesus, an obscure felon slapped with the death penalty, become the God worshipped today by nearly seven billion people? Many of Jesus’ early followers believed that He was a messianic figure, a promised champion, who would restore them to freedom and release them from the oppression of occupation. Some believed, then, and subsequently, that He was the messiah, not just a liberator for the Jews, but for all mankind, freeing us from the oppression of “sin,” reuniting us with God in a new pact based on forgiveness and His sacrifice as God’s only begotten son. Some even believed, fervently, that He would return to finish the job, many of whom were sadly disappointed, when the Romans put down their revolts and razed their temple (ironically rebuilt by Herod, and still under construction), and city, to the ground, slaughtering all resistance (the second such unfortunate defeat of this kind, the first having been at the hands of the Babylonians several centuries earlier, resulting in the wholesale enslavement of the Jews for centuries). Rome was eventually usurped by the new faith, not by force, but by incorporation.
So what kind of messiah was this this man, this God, we know today as Jesus Christ? Throughout the faith’s history over the last two thousand or so years, many events, including wars, famines, plagues, and revolutions have seemingly warranted the belief that His return was imminent, at least according to prophetic interpretations of His seemingly reluctant role as liberator, returning, as it were, to establish a kingdom of His own in the place of such chaos and suffering. Some have been so bold as to claim title to this kingdom, only to be met with failure, and often a swift dispatch of their own. Apart from some mentally perturbed accounts by dubious and desperate witnesses, discredited by failed “end of the world” prophecies of their own, there’s been no sign of Him, other than the faith we’ve institutionalized and integrated into our culture and society that bears His name. His principle edicts were hardly radical, in ancient times, or now, being simply that we should love God, and each other, and that through forgiveness, rather that retribution, we could find salvation from our shortcomings, being, as it happens, all fishermen in the same boat. So why do so many of us turn to Him in prayer, and believe and accept that He is our God? What, if anything, did He really “save” us from?
Perhaps the answers aren’t as clear cut as we’d like them to be, and in many ways, the whole story of Christianity is one big, mysterious parable. Jesus was a radical, a reluctant revolutionary, who’s ministry consisted mainly of efforts to embrace outsiders and the disenfranchised, the marginalized, within a system that itself was in collaboration with imperial corruption and domination. He was a Jew, living in an occupied homeland, with a social status that at best, barely got Him inside the gates of the holy temple, the place where God was believed to be directly accessible, at least by the High Priest once a year, on Passover. His contemporaries were not necessarily so fortunate. Jewish purification rituals prevented the sick, the lame, and the “unclean,” from a direct relationship with God, and if you were a Gentile, a Roman, or worse, a Samaritan, you were written off completely. Sure, you could worship other gods if you were so inclined, and many did, but you didn’t get access to the God of gods, the One God. Jesus must have known that He’d be nailed for what He tried to do, and that deed, simply put, was to tear down the barriers to the divine so that God could be known by everyone, regardless of whether or not you were a Jew, “pure,” “clean,” or devout. He ate with sinners, associated with prostitutes and low-lifes, and He brought God to the streets, where He was needed most, in a time when He was held hostage as much by His Roman oppressors, as He was within the walls of His own temple. He did it without killing anyone, and instead, sacrificed Himself, reluctantly to be sure, believing that we are all the son’s and daughters of God. He came to fulfill the covenants of a people with their God, and more – He expanded it to all mankind, not just to a “chosen” few.
Many Christians maintain that Jesus is their saviour, and that through His death and resurrection, we’re saved from sin, and through Him, have the promise of everlasting life. His life and death have entered into legend, in profound ways, and His teachings, though at times obscured and distorted, still resonate with us today. He makes us think about the possibility of a society based on fairness, mercy, love, forgiveness, and an inclusive, pluralistic and compassionate “kingdom” based on a profound respect for the fact that we are all each others’ brother or sister. He challenges us to know God, in ways that we never could before, and above all, to remember how valued and loved we are by Him. So, while we worship an executed criminal, we at least have resurrected His radical suggestion that love and forgiveness are viable, if not challenging, alternatives to violence and revenge, in the course of human affairs, and in our relationship with our creator. If anything, these ideals have done more to rescue us from our true oppressor than any messiah imagined by the ancients ever could have – and the truth of them have made us free to embark upon the incredible undertaking of building the kingdom we have yearned for throughout much of our history, the last two thousand years of which, have brought many of us into a closer relationship with God, and with each other, in a uniquely personal, and profound way.
Whatever your theology, dogma, or religious beliefs surrounding Jesus, one thing is for sure, His story, no matter how far-fetched, continues to capture the imagination, and the hearts, of many who encounter it.
It’s a story that says as much about us, and our capacity for faith, as it does about Him.