Biblical scholars have for many decades made a helpful distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. The former refers to the historical man and what might be known about him. The latter refers to the projections of his editors and what it might be like to follow him. For shorthand purposes I call the former ‘Jesus’ and the latter ‘his editors’. The Gospels are a blend of both, and differentiating them is akin to dissecting a banana and berry smoothie.
The reading this morning reflects this blend. Jesus was theologically more aligned with the Pharisees than he was with the Sadducees. Jesus’ origins were in hillbilly, impoverished Galilee. An end-time resurrection was an expression of the hope that God would vindicate the poor and deal to the rich. Conversely the Sadducees being urbane and wealthy had no time for an end-time judgemental God who would reverse their fortunes.
In this episode the Sadducees, being clever dicks, have a great story to trap Jesus with, namely the woman who outlived seven husbands. The wags might say, ‘Well thank God in heaven she got a reprieve!’ Culturally, of course, re-marrying was the social security that her original husband’s family were obligated to provide.
Luke and/or his Jesus uses this opportunity to make some claims about heaven – namely that there is no marriage, plenty of angels, and is only for “the worthy.” He then goes on to base an argument on the present tense continuous. The words “I am” from the Moses bushing bush theophany, infer that God continues in the present to be the God of those who have died. The argument says therefore that those who are dead are still alive in the sense that God is alive. I suspect this was a standard Pharisaic argument for the resurrection.
Jesus and/or Luke believed in a life after death, a marriage-less heaven for “the worthy,” and intermediary heavenly beings called angels. The interesting thing of course is that many Christians, like me, don’t believe what Jesus and/or Luke believed.
I’m agnostic about life after death. I hope there is, but my faith isn’t shattered if there isn’t. I am though very sceptical about a heaven for “the worthy”. Determining who is “worthy” has always been a political game. At its best the Church has said that’s God’s call and God’s call alone. However, the Church being the institution it is can’t resist the temptation of judging others. It has damned anyone and everyone who doesn’t fit with the beliefs, morality, or authority structure of the ruling ecclesiastical elite. I personally think that if an afterlife exists everyone is going to be there. For some that will be heaven, for others it will be hell.
If we don’t believe what Jesus and/or his editors believed does that make us non-Christians or heretics? When it comes to Jesus are some of his beliefs optional for us? Did he get it wrong about some things? Are there central beliefs of his that every Christian should hold to, and peripheral beliefs that can be ignored?
Let me sketch some things about the historical Jesus. Firstly, he was Jewish. He was a Jewish rabbi no less, of the Pharisaic tradition – albeit a liberal critic within Pharisaism. The idea of his followers departing from the Jewish faith would have been anathema to him. Jesus’ editors, and the writings of Paul, try to disguise this inconvenient truth. Although much is made of Jesus’ liberal interpretation of the Torah, the total departure of the Church later on from the Torah is something else again.
In a similar vein I think it would be a mistake to imagine that Jesus saw no difference between Jews and Gentiles. The story of the Syro-Phoenician woman where Jesus says to her, ‘Why should I take the Jewish children’s food and throw it to you Gentile dogs?’ indicates some of the common racial prejudice that existed. Whilst Jesus was inclusive for his time and culture, to assume he was without prejudice is a statement of conjecture.
Thirdly there is his maleness. Although he was critical of the patriarchal family and the denigration of those who transgressed the purity laws, to say he was a believer in the equality of men and women is a fanciful reading into the text. Again, like with his relationship to Gentiles, in his time and place he crossed cultural and gender boundaries, and thus modelled for us an imperative to do likewise. But he was not your non-sexist, mutuality-committed, pro-equality male that we fathers all want our daughters to marry.
Then there is his theology. Jesus had a personal, male god whom he called daddy. Further this anthropomorphic deity lived above the clouds, in the top tier of the universe, called heaven. The second tier of the universe was the earth, and the third hell. We might like to imagine that he thought of these metaphorically, but I doubt it. Jesus also believed that he was going to ‘come again’ during the lifetime of the disciples. Of course as a good Jew he wouldn’t have had any truck with the Trinity, or the great schemes of sanctification that involved his literal blood making God accept and love people.
Some of Jesus’ theology we might resonate with and some we might be repelled by. A personal daddy god doesn’t do much for me. A three-tier universe doesn’t literally exist. Jesus didn’t come again during his disciples’ lifetime. However the complicated formulas of the Trinity and sanctification devised in the first four centuries of the Church don’t do a lot for me either.
Can I then still call myself a Christian?
I find the description of Jesus by the writer of Hebrews [12:2] as the ‘author’ or ‘pioneer’ of our faith helpful. The Jesus of history was a trailblazer, an exemplar, and a model for us. However as with all authors and pioneers of social change and radical thought we need to be selective about what we wish to emulate. He wasn’t perfect. The love he preached and lived in his context might have been, but in our context revision is needed.
This is where the writer of the 4th Gospel is helpful in telling us that the Spirit of Jesus will lead us into all truth. ‘Spirit of’ as distinct from ‘the man’. Truth was not fixed in 1st century Palestine. It was not fixed in a male Jewish rabbi. It is something that continues to enfold as we engage with our context in the light of what he taught.
This is where the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Catholic tradition are helpful in asserting the interpretative function of the Church to be more important than the literal words of the Bible. And conversely, the Protestant tradition of Anglicanism is helpful in acknowledging the Church’s tendency to be corrupted by its own interests, and its need to be critiqued again and again by the biblical texts. In other words there is an ongoing dialogue between text and interpretation, between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.
The Christ of faith, unlike the Jesus of history, is not dead. Earlier I called the Christ of faith ‘the editors’. Well Christ is more than that. It’s the animating Spirit that lives on in every age within and among us, interpreting and editing and living the wisdom of the Church, the Bible, and our changing world. The Christ Spirit at times brings to mind the example of the historical Jesus and at other times ignores him. And so it has always been. There are things about Jesus, and passages of Holy Scripture, that are best ignored.