Who Do Men Say That I Am?

The study of Jesus has been an extraordinarily active enterprise in recent decades. Though rooted in the past, it is among the least antiquarian of historical or theological pursuits

I spent some time not long ago in Tübingen, and passed the latter part of an afternoon in the company of Hans Küng, at his home high on the Waldhäuserstrasse. The decor had a contemporary, citizen-of- the- world sort of flavor. The furniture was modern and vaguely Nordic, the books on the shelves were in the three or four languages one might have expected, and the clothes on the master of the premises were timelessly mid-Atlantic—dark blue sport shirt and chino pants. Küng, at the age of fifty-eight, looked as spare and well-organized as did his domestic environment. He did not seem any older that day than he was ten years ago, when David Levine did a caricature of him for The New York Review of Books; the original was hanging framed in a stairwell.

Küng has had his troubles with Rome. In 1979 he was forbidden by the Vatican to call himself a Catholic theologian, though he retains a professorship at Tübingen. Küng is also the director of his own Ecumenical Institute. Whenever Küng must refer to Rome, he puts a certain spin on the word, conveying the most potent form of contempt, the kind that is somehow empty of both sneering and dismissal.

Küng's Christology—expressed most comprehensively in his book On Being a Christian (1974)is among the purest available versions of Christology "from below." Küng has little patience with the various proclamations ("from above") of an established Church; these amount, in his view, to opaque strata of time-bound interpretation. He believes that modern critical methods can recover a core of historical reality. And he believes that they can bring even a skeptic to recognize significant facts about the historical Jesus, and even a skeptic to acknowledge (somehow) Jesus as (somehow) the Christ: the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel, the divinely appointed object of human longing. Küng is saying not that one can accept Jesus as Christ without faith but that what one can learn of the historical Jesus is sufficient to reveal Jesus's message, and that the message in itself is conducive to faith. He is also saying that Church teaching on Jesus the Christ has to be related critically to the original message of Jesus himself. The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its résumé against Küng, found "serious harm to some essential points of Catholic faith" in this view of things, and more particularly in its results.

On Being a Christian is in large measure a vigorous meditation on the Jesus of history, on the Jesus distilled from Scripture by modern scholarship. Küng's intention is to identify what is historically reliable and theologically essential in the Gospels—the Jesus who proclaimed something called the Kingdom of God, who drew sinners (as then defined) into his circle, who preached a new future for the oppressed—and then to follow Jesus as a contemporary might have done. That is, to hear his words, to hear those words in a particular political and religious context, to appreciate the authority with which Jesus seems to have spoken, to contemplate how he lived and with whom he chose to pass his time, and finally to formulate a response. Küng writes: "Would it not perhaps correspond more to the New Testament evidence and to modern man's historical way of thinking if we started out like the first disciples from the real human being Jesus, his historical message and manifestation, his life and fate, his historical reality and historical activity, and then ask about the relationship of this human being Jesus to God, about his unity with the Father. "

I asked Küng why he had written On Being a Christian (it is very different from his books on papal infallibility, Church reform, and the priesthood). He said, "In writing my book The Church I found myself always speaking about this man Jesus Christ. I realized that I did not really know who this man Jesus really was. And it occurred to me that many of my colleagues and many of the people who read my books didn't know who Jesus was either. After writing Infallible? I was more than ever pushed to discover on what our theology is based. I think I know the tradition—that is, the old tradition—about as well as anyone. I was educated in Rome and spoke in Latin every day for seven years. And I liked it. But I was never able to preach about Jesus. It was easy for me to preach about the Pauline epistles but never very easy to preach about the parables. I decided eventually to preach on the Gospel of Saint Mark, and I did, verse by verse. I experienced in a new way what I had once found boring. I came to the conclusion that basically the Christian message is He Himself. I hate to say it so simply—I've seen in America what television preachers can do with such remarks—but that is a convenient way of getting across the general idea.

"Let me take one precaution. No one who comes 'from below' in theology says that there is no 'above.' That is a calumny. In essence, though, I am looking at Jesus as the disciples were looking at him; to ask the question, Who is he? That is the question that runs through all of the Gospels. Of course, some of them give him titles—in Saint Mark's Gospel he is called the Son of God—but the Gospels keep asking Who is he? Who is he? What is his relationship to the message about the Kingdom of God? His relationship to the will of God? All of this is seen from the point of view of the disciples. And here, I think, we have to be consistent. We cannot, when it's no longer possible to justify something from below, just come flying in by helicopter. I know that you can simply tell your students that this or that is a Christian truth, and make a big deal about it, with all sorts of sophistication, but the Jesus of history did not say, 'We are three in one, and now reflect on that.'

"I am often surprised to see the kinds of tricks theologians resort to in order to bring in from above what they cannot justify from below. And I think that the major problems I have had with Rome and that others, like Schillebeeckx, have had with Rome have to do which whether theologians are willing to accept the historical-critical method or not, and whether dogmatics have to be built on a safe historical-critical foundation or not. In On Being a Christian I started from below and arrived at the top. Rome would say, 'Well, you should have said more about Chalcedon and all the rest.' And Rome would say, 'You can't get all the way from below, you need a helping hand from above.' I think the hand is there anyway, all the time. The hand, so to speak, is the message itself. You cannot read one passage of the New Testament without being challenged. Take the 'Our Father': there is a challenge in every phrase. But the challenge is not expressed in terms of a mystery. It is never said that you must believe, that there is a whole dogmatic system.

"Always the first thing to ask about the doctrine is, Would Jesus himself understand this? Karl Rahner once said that Jesus would not have understood the first Vatican Council on infallibility. But the Church instead asks the question of the Grand Inquisitor: Why do you, Jesus, come to disturb us? We have our dogmas about you. We know much better than you. You were not so outspoken. You were not so clear. We have made it much better than you said it."

A Life and a Death

What did Jesus say? How did he live? No one really knows where Jesus was born: possibly in Bethlehem (as Luke and Matthew claim), possibly in Nazareth. Nazareth was certainly where Jesus grew up. It was a town of so little size and consequence that its name appears in no literary source, or at least none that has survived, until the Gospels themselves. The first mention of Nazareth in a secular source is a carved inscription, discovered in 1962 and dating from the third or fourth century; other archaeological evidence, from Nazareth itself, confirms the existence of a town on that site at the time of Christ. There is general agreement that the information in the two Nativity narratives cannot be relied upon as historical fact and that these narratives were inserted into the Gospels of Luke and Matthew to assert certain claims about Jesus: for example, that he was descended from King David, whose own roots lay in Bethlehem. These narratives include elaborate and mutually contradictory genealogies tracing the ancestry of Joseph, the father of Jesus, back to David—an irrelevant exercise, admittedly, if one also accepts the idea of the virgin birth. The Christmas stories in Luke and Matthew are utterly divergent and cannot, as the exegetes say, be harmonized. (The best historical account of the Nativity narratives is The Birth of the Messiah, by Raymond E. Brown, a veteran biblical scholar. It is an extraordinary piece of work—I found myself reading all the footnotes, which are helpfully provided at the bottom of each page rather than at the back of the book—and it is a good basic introduction to the way New Testament exegetes do their business.) That the Nativity narratives in Luke and Matthew convey very different information will probably not be apparent in the Nativity displays on town greens throughout the United States. They will show the infant Jesus being visited not only by shepherds (who appear only in Luke) but also by the Magi (who appear only in Matthew and whose number—commonly depicted as three—is not given).

We do not know the year in which Jesus was born, though we do know that the years spanned by his life coincide roughly with the first three and a half decades of the first century. It is possible that Jesus was not an only child, given the references to that effect in the Gospels, the letters of Saint Paul, the Acts of the Apostles, and the chronicles of Josephus. (Here, for example, is Matthew: "Is not his mother called Mary? And his brothers James and Joses and Simon and Judas, and his sisters, are they not all with us?") He was, probably, the son of a carpenter named Joseph, who may have died before Jesus reached maturity.

There is no reference in the Gospels to Joseph after Jesus begins teaching.

The fundamental fact about the young Jesus—indeed, about Jesus at any age—is that he was, as Geza Vermes recently observed, "a Jew and not a Christian." Vermes is a distinguished Jewish historian at Oxford University and an expert on the Dead Sea scrolls. He notes that Jesus was raised in Galilee and spent almost all of his life there (far, in those days, from the religious niceties of Jerusalem), where a sturdy if unsophisticated kind of Judaism was practiced. Jesus was circumcised as a Jew, lived as a Jew, prayed as a Jew, performed Jewish rituals, and spoke in Aramaic to his fellow Jews in terms that they and he would understand. All of this is presented frankly in the Gospels, though Christian scholars for centuries were not disposed to make very much of it. Jesus was inextricably a part of the early-first-century Jewish world. Then as now the Jewish world was large and diverse. Some eight million Jews inhabited the Roman empire, accounting for as many as ten percent of those who rendered unto Caesar.

Despite the Diaspora, which began well before the Christian era, the focal point of Jewish spiritual life remained Palestine, and the Palestine that Jesus knew was a land in religious and political ferment. Jesus may have been old enough to remember, or at least to have heard described in graphic terms, the tax revolt in A.D. 6, which the Romans suppressed. Charismatic, apocalyptic preachers roamed the countryside. Thanks to the chance discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, we know a great deal about, for instance, the Essenes, who followed a Teacher of Righteousness and held eschatological beliefs similar to some of those taught by Jesus. The eager suggestion, made soon after the scrolls were found, that the Teacher of Righteousness was in fact Jesus himself is not accepted by most scholars. The fact that the scrolls contain terminology that corresponds to much Gospel terminology—for example, references to a conflict between light and darkness—suggests, however, that certain ideas, and ways of talking about them, were in the air. Christian scholars, especially in Europe, have tended to emphasize an abrupt discontinuity between the contemporary Jewish situation and the teachings of Jesus. Jewish scholars such as Vermes and, earlier, Joseph Klausner, who might be presumed to have a greater familiarity with Jewish texts and deeper insight into Jewish history, tend to find a place for Jesus in the multiform first-century Judaic context (as do most American Christian biblical scholars).

It is fairy certain that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Baptism was common in the Jordan Valley among reformist Jewish sects. It symbolized repentance and conversion to the way of the prophets. The tradition of Jesus's baptism is extremely old, appears in three of the four Gospels, and flies in the face of early Christian teachings about the sinlessness of Jesus (recall form criticism's principle of dissimilarity). Ironically, we know more about John's appearance—he dressed in camel's hair— than about that of Jesus, of which the Gospels say not one word. After his baptism Jesus began a ministry in Galilee. How long he preached there can never be known. The Synoptic Gospels say one year, John says at least two. Jesus's message and his behavior attracted considerable attention, a sizable following, and much animosity. When, near the end of his life, he came to Jerusalem (had he been there before during his ministry, as John states?), he was turned over to the Romans by a faction of the Jewish establishment and in short order crucified. Precisely what he did that made a number of sufficiently powerful contemporaries want to see him dead is unclear. It is generally accepted, however, that a sign was nailed to the crucifix stating THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

To reconstruct what the historical Jesus actually preached, as opposed to what the early Christian communities interpreted, and then quoted him as saying, one has no choice but to rely on the findings of textual criticism. There is consensus on some things. For one, Jesus was an eschatological prophet (and so he viewed himself; in fact, he may have viewed himself as the final one), who spoke of a definitive coming of the Kingdom of God (meaning, in some sense, "salvation"). There is no record of his ever advocating secular revolution against Roman occupation; divine intervention in the very short term would have made that unnecessary. Many of his contemporaries entertained similar beliefs. The Kingdom, Jesus said, is "at hand," and he invited those who listened to him to embrace it. Jesus did not, however, say precisely when it would come (on one occasion he admitted that he did not know when it would come), though he said it would come soon. He did not spell out what its coming would entail. There is no evidence that he intended to found a Church, at least not as the term is commonly understood, but Jesus clearly wanted to call together a group of followers, and he appointed leaders—"the twelve"—to help guide that body.

Jesus was obviously iconoclastic. He spoke with enormous personal authority. Almost never do the evangelists record him citing earlier prophets, Scripture, or the law to justify his statements. (By and large, where biblical citations are attached to sayings of Jesus, they have been added by the evangelists, whoever they were, as glosses, in order to provide a grounding in prophecy and therefore a context of fulfillment.) Apparently Jesus's teachings on several matters deviated from contemporary Jewish belief—for example, in forbidding divorce. On his own authority he performed exorcisms and forgave sins. And he associated freely with the outcasts of society—lepers, prostitutes, the poor, and collaborators with the Roman regime (notably tax collectors). None of this seems to have gone down well with the religious authorities: Jesus remonstrates, "The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man who is a glutton, and a winebibber, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners." But were these grounds for execution?

E. P. Sanders, an Oxford historian, argues in his provocative new book Jesus and Judaism that they probably were not. What the Jewish establishment may have feared more than anything else was simply a disruption of public order and subsequent Roman reprisals—a well-founded concern, in retrospect, given the calamitous rebellion in Palestine a generation after the death of Jesus, which resulted in the destruction of the Temple. Jesus was not the only charismatic Jewish preacher to be executed during Rome's occupation of Palestine.

Sanders argues, too, that much of the central message of Jesus—about concern for the oppressed and about the love and forgiveness of God—was not antithetical to all Jewish thinking, though it is often portrayed that way in the Gospels. (This is especially the case in the Gospel of Saint Mark, which appears to have been compiled in Rome in the sensitive period right after Nero's persecution of the Christians and in the midst of the Jewish revolt in Palestine; one theory is that Mark was trying to put some distance between the beleaguered Roman Christians and the rebellious Palestinian Jews.) But the interest of Jesus in sinners and the downtrodden, unique or not, was clearly fundamental to his preaching. The parables of Jesus, which are largely though not wholly taken as authentic, and his sayings, particularly those known as "aphorisms of reversal" (for example, "But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first"), which are also largely accepted as authentic, speak overwhelmingly about the dispossessed. Three verses in Matthew and Luke that most exegetes agree are among the oldest in the tradition and that almost certainly constitute Jesus material are included among the Beatitudes, delivered during the Sermon on the Plain (as Luke calls it; according to Matthew, it is the Sermon on the Mount): "Blessed are the poor: for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now: for you shall be filled. Blessed are you who weep now: for you shall laugh." It is, of course, words like these that provide much of the impetus for modern liberation theologies, whether they be focused on political and social liberation for the downtrodden, as in Latin America, or on the liberation of women everywhere. Among the better-known liberation Christologies of the former kind are those by Gustavo Gutierrez (A Theology of Liberation, 1971), Juan Luis Segundo (The Liberation of Theology, 1975), and Jon Sobrino (Christology at the Crossroads, 1976).

As a growing number of feminist New Testament scholars have recently been pointing out, Jesus seems to have displayed attitudes toward women that were highly uncharacteristic of the first-century world. That those attitudes survive at all in Gospel texts compiled by men who may not have shared such views serves only to emphasize the importance of the tradition. Jesus associated freely with women and taught some of them as disciples. Women are frequently observed among his following, and many— for example, Martha, Mary, Susanna, and Joanna—are mentioned by name. The subjects of Jesus's parables are as likely to be women as men, and women in the parables are held up as models for emulation (or the reverse) no more or less often than are men. Jesus repeatedly expresses his concern for the plight of widows, refuses to shun the company of prostitutes and adulteresses, and performs numerous miracles in behalf of women. As noted, Jesus also forbade divorce. In the twentieth century divorce may be liberating for some women, but in the first century it was a calamity for most women. (In Jewish law a wife could not initiate a divorce, but her husband could do so at will and had no obligation to his spouse afterward.) The historicity of the preaching by Jesus on divorce is accepted by almost all scholars, though few go so far as to assert that in these sayings we have the ipsissima verba—the "very words themselves"—employed by Jesus. (A modern analogy: No one disputes the historicity of Jimmy Carter's famous "malaise" speech; in that speech, however, Carter never once used the word malaise. )

The Jesus movement, like other reform and renewal movements in first-century Judaism, was highly egalitarian, and the egalitarianism appears to have survived into the early decades of Christianity. The pre-Pauline Christian baptismal formulation, preserved in Paul's epistle to the Galatians, is a radical declaration. It reads: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Elisabeth Sch[cedilla]ssler Fiorenza, the author of In Memory of Her (1983) and perhaps the most prominent feminist theologian writing today, has attempted to reconstruct—as best one can, given the essentially androcentric nature of the sources—the role of women in the earliest Christian communities. She argues persuasively that many women played key roles in the early Church, served as priests and missionaries, often worked with their husbands as a team, and were members of the church leadership. Eventually, however, the Church readjusted to the patriarchal patterns of the surrounding culture. There is some speculation, incidentally, that one of the hypothesized pre-Gospel sources—L, the source thought to be unique to the Gospel according to Luke—may have been the work of a woman. Luke contains more passages involving women (about forty) than any other Gospel; roughly half of those passages appear only in Luke, and most of them seem to come from L.

The questions of Jesus's self-understanding is intriguing but ultimately elusive. It is not clear which of the titles or designations with which he is endowed in the Gospels he actually gave himself. Son of God, Servant of the Lord, and Messiah seem mainly to have been added to the texts by later believers. (There is a lot of controversy about the term Messiah, which had a range of meanings in the first century.) Jesus refers to himself on some seventy occasions as "the Son of man," a designation that appears to be somehow mystical and significant. It turns out to have been, among other things, a conventional way of speaking about oneself in Aramaic in the third person (as Jesus does in this passage: "Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay His head"). In passages that scholars accept as reflecting the earthly Jesus, he calls himself a physician (in the sense of a healer of souls) and a shepherd (leading a flock), and he accepts the designation of prophet.

What chiefly seems to distinguish Jesus from other Jewish charismatics is the intensity of what has been called his Abba experience, an experience that perhaps lies at the heart of his sense of authority. Abba is an Aramaic word for a male parent—the word a son would use (the connotation is "father dear," but the word's simplicity and ease of pronunciation suggests the speech of a child) rather than a word that might be used by a historian, an exegete, or a social-welfare agency. Jesus refers to God as "Abba" repeatedly in the Gospels. Abba is not a word that first-century Jews commonly used in prayer or supplication. The word is not unique to Jesus, but it is employed by him in a unique fashion, and if there is any word in the New Testament that one can be absolutely certain that Jesus used, used frequently, and used with a particular meaning, it is this one. The word even appears in its Aramaic form in the Greek text of the Gospel according to Mark. Greek texts are the earliest ones we have; the survival in them of Aramaicisms—whether these are words or peculiar speech patterns—is of considerable exegetic significance. In Mark, Jesus is quoted as saying on the eve of his death "Abba, [and then, translated] Father, all things are possible to Thee. Take away this cup from Me. "Nevertheless not what I will, but what Thou wilt." Abba is twice used in the epistles of Saint Paul. Personalizing a relationship to God in this way, and with such frequency, is utterly new. On just one occasion does Jesus speak of God in the sense of "your father in heaven" or "our common father": in John 20:17, a passage that occurs, significantly, after the Resurrection. Everywhere else he refers to God simply as his own father. (One might ask, what about the Lord's Prayer? The word our in the prayer's opening address— "Our Father, who art in heaven . . . "—is actually an emendation by Matthew; the shorter and more authentic version in Luke omits the pronoun.)

In the view of scholars the Abba tradition survives in the Gospels not because it represents anything traditional about Judaism but because it stuck in the memory of those who had known Jesus. Jesus used Abba to mean something special, to imply a relationship, to somehow define his own ministry, and he used it at some of the most critical points in his life.

Jesus did not, however, invoke Abba when he was on the cross. He said, instead, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" The question is another of those that scholars believe ring true historically. The words, quoted as Jesus would have uttered them, in Aramaic, come from Psalm 22. And after Jesus spoke them, he died.


I met with Edward Schillebeeckx one day last winter in his room at the Albertinum, the Dominican House at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. It was a cold and snowy day, and Schillebeeckx, who suffers from a heart condition and had just recovered from the flu, seemed somewhat frail; his thick eyeglasses and fine white hair reinforced the impression. Schillebeeckx, a Fleming by birth, is the author of many books on a variety of subjects: marriage, clerical celibacy, Mary, the Eucharist. During the early 1960s he achieved considerable prominence as an adviser to the Dutch bishops at the Second Vatican Council. Not until relatively late in his life did Schillebeeckx undertake the two works that have won him widespread recognition—Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (1974) and Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord ( 1977). A third book, completing what will stand as a christological trilogy, is in preparation.

Schillebeeckx has on three occasions—in 1968, 1976, and 1982—been challenged by the Vatican to explain his theological views. Each time he has been exonerated. The challenges have come on various issues: prominently, his failure, in the Church's view, to place enough stress on the traditional Chalcedonian formulas regarding the divinity of Jesus and to emphasize the "objective reality" of the Resurrection. Schillebeeckx's response to the first charge has always been simply that the terms used at Chalcedon, redolent of Middle Platonism, have no real meaning any longer for modern people. Over a millennium and a half such basic words as person—as in "two natures in one person" and "three persons in one God"—have been radically transformed in meaning. (I recall David Tracy saying that, sure, he could affirm the language of Nicaea and Chalcedon, but that he had had the benefit of a great deal of study. He wondered what a poll of ordinary Christians would reveal about their understanding of any statement in their creeds.) The question of the Resurrection consumes a considerable portion of Schillebeeckx's book Jesus, and it was the subject that I most wanted to discuss.

"The first thing to remember," Schillebeeckx said, "is that there are limitations to what we can know by using the historical-critical approach. The only texts that we have show Jesus already proclaimed as Christ by the Church and by his first disciples. The New Testament is the testimony of believing people, and what they are saying is not history but expressions of their belief in Jesus as Christ. But that belief is filled up and determined by who Jesus historically was, and this allows us to reconstruct Jesus to a certain extent. In Jesus I tried to reconstruct what happened to the apostles at the Resurrection, what is meant by the Resurrection. It was, of course, impossible, but we have some important elements of the story. Here is the central one: We know that the apostles were flying away after the death of Jesus. Then, within a matter of days, they are boldly proclaiming that he lives. What happened in between?"

There are no eyewitness accounts in the Gospels of the Resurrection, and certainly nothing to justify the common portrayal of that event in devotional art: as the great boulder rolls away, Jesus, clad in a winding sheet, blazes forth in glory from his grave. What one does find in some of the Gospels are divergent accounts of various people visiting Jesus's tomb and finding it empty These are thought by Schillebeeckx and others to reflect an ancient pilgrimage tradition. In the decades between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels, Christians visiting Jerusalem were shown an "empty tomb" as a devotional aid; the empty-tomb tradition was then incorporated into the Gospel texts. Far from being a proof of the Resurrection, the stories of an empty tomb reflect the practice of people who already believed.

Later on in the Gospels there are similarly divergent accounts of appearances by Jesus to one or more of the disciples. These cannot be taken at face value either. The idea of an appearance is probably not meant to convey an actual sighting but rather to suggest something more along the lines of a recognition. This is the sense it has in the epistles, when Paul describes his blinding on the road to Damascus, his vision of Jesus, and his subsequent conversion. It is clear from the context that what Paul really experiences is a "voice," a word that survives today with a full complement of notoriously ineffable connotations. It may very well be, as Schillebeeckx suggests, that the evangelists, writing after Paul, used Paul's description of his encounter (with a "risen" Jesus) as a model for their own descriptions of what transpired in the aftermath of the Crucifixion.

The fact remains that Christians believed, soon after the death of Jesus, in something they called a Resurrection—believed in it so intensely that they were willing to die for it. (Few if any of the twelve apostles are thought to have died a natural death.) Schillebeeckx begins his exploration of the "Easter experience" with the failure of Jesus's ministry in Galilee, a failure that is nowhere stated explicitly in the Gospel texts but that has been inferred by many scholars. For example, the number of references to the large size of the crowds that Jesus attracts diminishes markedly in the latter half of some Gospels, and anathemas are pronounced on towns that have apparently washed their hands of Jesus ("Woe unto you Chorazin. Woe unto you Bethsaida"). Rejected in Galilee, Schillebeeckx contends, Jesus decided to bring his message, the eschatological message about the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God, to Jerusalem. He probably knew that his life would be in danger. ("One would have to declare Jesus something of a simpleton," Schillebeeckx writes, "if it were maintained that he went up from Galilee to Jerusalem in all innocence, without any idea of the deadly opposition he was to encounter there.") And he probably made some sort of connection in his own mind between the possibility of death and the coming of the Kingdom. The account of the Last Supper, though heavily overlaid with material that reflects a developed liturgy of the Eucharist, also contains very early passages suggesting, in what may be a recollection of Jesus's own words, that death was not to be the end of the matter.

Jesus was arrested, and the disciples fled. The theme of rejection and denial by the apostles is so strong in the Gospels that behind it must lie some hard core of fact. The apostles fall asleep while Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane; they run away when the authorities come to get him; Simon Peter even refuses to admit having known him. As Schillebeeckx sums it up, the apostles left Jesus "in the lurch." (This notion survives in texts that were written under the auspices of a Church that had been led by the very men the Gospels criticize; there is obviously some importance to the idea of rejection. ) As the disciples scattered, perhaps to Galilee, Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin and convicted, not, in Schillebeeckx's view, for anything he had preached (although the Gospels contend that he was condemned for blasphemy) but rather on the technicality of his refusal to answer the tribunal's questions—in other words, contempt of court. The nature of first-century Jewish legal proceedings is one thing that historians can reconstruct with a fair degree of reliability. Another is the horrible technique of crucifixion, which caused death, often by asphyxiation, only after prolonged agony. Indeed, a leg of the victim was sometimes broken in the end, in order to diminish his capacity to raise his hanging body, anchored by nailed feet, and thereby gain a full breath. This apparently was not necessary in the case of Jesus. He was already dead when the executioners came around to break his leg.

The Resurrection was, at least in part, a Resurrection of faith. The disciples had been dispersed. They dared not associate with one another. At the same time, in the view of Schillebeeckx, they began to reflect on the traumatic events of the recent past, experiencing intense feelings of guilt and repentance. They had been men "of little faith," as Jesus had said they were. But had they lost the faith? Schillebeeckx describes a conversion process in which the disciples, upon recollecting the Jesus they had known, and what he had done and said, came one after another to a kind of illumination: a palpable sense of forgiveness and renewal, and a conviction that fellowship with Jesus—a risen Jesus who was actively present—remained possible. Precisely what happened, of course, one cannot describe. It is very likely, however, that it was the apostle Simon who was the first to experience a conversion, and that he was instrumental in gathering the disciples ("but some doubted," in the words of Matthew) together once more. Among the apostles it was Simon to whom Jesus made his first appearance (for example, in Luke: "The Lord has indeed risen, and has appeared to Simon") and it was to Simon that the early Church, though putting the words in the mouth of Jesus, gave the additional name Peter (Latin for "rock"), apparently in recognition of the fundamental role he played.

As for the Resurrection itself—as something that occurred in reality, and not merely in the minds of the disciples—Schillebeeckx deems it to be so alien to human experience, so "apart" from human history, that it cannot be adequately explained or understood by means of historical-critical methodology. One accepts it on faith. And when we met in Nijmegen, Schillebeeckx made it clear that he does. "The Resurrection is a vindication of Jesus," he said, toward the end of a long conversation, "but it is not only a kind of ratification of the values proclaimed by Jesus. It is also a ratification of the person of Jesus. Something happened to Jesus himself. The Resurrection is not only about what happened to the disciples after the death of Jesus. There are some theologians who are saying that the Resurrection can be reduced to the Resurrection of our belief. I think there is more. As I said, something happened. Something happened to Jesus."

The Jesus books of Edward Schillebeeckx are remarkable pieces of scholarship, extraordinarily erudite yet thoroughly accessible. One has a sense of the author as a man of infinite patience. One has the sense of him also as one who lives for his subject, in all meanings of that phrase. I asked him, as I was leaving, how he spent a typical day. Schillebeeckx said' "I work. And I work. And then—of course I get my sleep."

The First Coming

Not long ago a photocopy of an article in The New York Review of Books appeared on the bulletin board at the Jesuit Residence on the campus of Loyola University, in Chicago. Scrawled on the article was a question: "Can you believe this was written by a member of the Loyola faculty?"

The author was Thomas Sheehan, a professor of philosophy, and the article, though ostensibly a review of Hans Küng's Eternal Life?, was really an evaluation of the status of recent scholarship about Jesus. Sheehan referred to a "liberal consensus"—a consensus that, in his view, had emerged among progressive theologians who employ or rely on modern critical methods—and he argued that the liberal consensus represented not merely a demythologizing of Christian, specifically Catholic, belief but also the dismantling of orthodox doctrine. Theologians had, he wrote, "pushed Catholic theology to the point where it seems to break down." Sheehan described this development as immensely promising. The appearance of Sheehan's article provoked something of a tempest. The Catholic magazine Commonweal commissioned and printed several rebuttals, generating in turn numerous letters to the editor, responses to the letters, and responses to the responses. The magazine required several issues to purge itself of the debate.

Sheehan's latest book, The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity, was published this fall. The title of the book is taken from Saint Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist and the first to refer not only to the first coming, of Christ, but also to some sort of second coming. Jesus had spoken of the coming of the Kingdom of God which he believed was imminent, but early Christianity eventually shifted the focus from the message to the messenger. (The proclaimer became the proclaimed, in Bultmann's famous phrase.) The Christian tradition, in Sheehan's view, amounts to an enormous distortion of the original message of the Kingdom of God. Sheehan proposes a reinterpretation that is free of the notion of Christ ("that is, without interpretations that equate the kingdom of God with Christ's salvific acts . . and ultimately with his divine person") and more or less free of Jesus ("not dismissing the prophet, but also not turning him into an idol"). It is Sheehan's hope that the contemporary resurgence in critical studies about Jesus means that Christianity will discover what he believes it always was about: "Not God or Christ or Jesus of Nazareth, but the endless, unresolvable mystery inscribed at the heart of being human."

I joined Sheehan for lunch one day at a rather crowded restaurant on Broadway Street. He is sharp-featured and swarthy in appearance, precise and self-confident in speech. There is a kind of voice that, though not loud, somehow tends to be everywhere audible in a room dense with conversation, and Sheehan's voice is like that. (The result was that as we talked, surrounding conversations were gradually extinguished; I think everyone was probably listening to Sheehan's peroration.) He expressed a certain puzzlement at the refusal of Christian scholars to draw the conclusions that he himself draws from the evidence. "They say, 'Yes, the scholarship says this, or that, or the other, but I still believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, he existed from all eternity' they just continue to incant the myth " Sheehan explained that while some had called him a post-Christian agnostic, he preferred to be thought of as a "pre-Christian catholic, catholic with a small c"—willing to acknowledge what was universally valid in the message of a pre-Easter Jesus who was not God. On such terms alone is he willing to affirm a belief in what Jesus is about.

"I can subscribe to that formulation," he said, "only as long as I am allowed to interpret it: Jesus is a symbol of human liberation. I believe that, sure. The real issue is that Jesus didn't come to proclaim himself. He didn't come to proclaim any particular interpretation of himself. He came to proclaim the Kingdom of God—something that in itself is problematic, couched as it is in an apocalyptic, eschatological language.

"To say I believe in Jesus means, first of all, that I want to take Jesus at his word. To take Jesus at his word means to step behind Christology and take the content of the message as it was actually preached. We can find out through scholarship what that message was. What is the message of the Kingdom of God? The future is now present—where the future means the eschatological coming of God—granted, present in an incipient, inchoate way, but present and soon to be fulfilled. That's the bottom line. Translate that into terms we recognize: the incarnation of God among his people, God refusing to make a distinction between divinity and humanity Translate that: religion is over; religion that draws distinctions and tells you how to get from the human to the divine is over. Eschatology is converted into the tasks of justice and mercy. It's as simple as that.

"There's nothing absolutely foundational in Christianity that is obligatory for anybody—for the Salvadoran guerrilla, the Evanstonian bourgeois Catholic, David Tracy, or me. What you have is always the slippery ground of hermeneutics, of the need to interpret. Frankly, I don't think that there's a definable orthodoxy any longer even within Roman Catholicism. I know a Jesuit theologian who told a group of us that the Christ event—Jesus sent by God and the whole ball of wax—applies only to Western culture. 'Christ is the symbol of Western culture for being touched by God. Ontologically, the Christ does not apply, may never have had any significance, for Eastern cultures.'

"I think what we have today is an explosion of pluralities. All efforts to reduce to unity are over. This is not without precedent. In the first century A.D. Christianity was not a unity, it was a plurality of different approaches. Johannine Christology was very different from Mark's Christology. Q Christology was very different from that of Luke and Matthew. You don't even get the same interpretations of what the victory of Jesus was. Was there a Resurrection? Was it an exaltation? Was it a rapture into glory? What you had was a plurality that only pulled itself together under force of political circumstance after two or three hundred years. At Chalcedon, perhaps. In the early years variety was the norm. You didn't even have the same structures for governing the Church. Did all early Christian communities have bishops? No. Perhaps what we're seeing as the Church enters its third millennium is a reprise.

"That doesn't mean that we've lost anything. Everything is still available for retrieval—for pulling from it some kernel of truth, depending on the interest of the group looking back into it. If you break down the surfaces of positions you can still find something in the most speculative fourth-century Cappadocian Greek Fathers that is useful today for liberation theology."

Thomas Sheehan is a layman. He is a philosopher, not a theologian, and he stands at the modern end of a long, uneven, tradition: of secular writers who have ventured into Jesus territory. His book will probably hit a nerve in some educated Christians, who will suspect that Sheehan is saying what many theologians don't dare to say but deep down really believe. I think that perception is wildly incorrect.


A striking quality of Jesus is his utter independence—in his life and in subsequent history. No one interpretation has ever achieved a monopoly. In his recent book Jesus Through the Centuries, a survey of perceptions of Jesus in art, literature, philosophy, and social science, the historian Jaroslav Pelikan, of Yale University, calls Jesus "the man who belongs to the world." It is hard to think of any other figure who, over the years, has been claimed by so many and in so many different ways and for so many different purposes, who yet has never been identified exclusively with any single cause, and who has remained perpetually available for use. The diversity that Pelikan finds is extraordinary. And Pelikan is concerned only with how Jesus has been perceived in the West.

Diversity of interpretation will inevitably increase; on this point Sheehan is surely correct. The scholarship of the past few decades has largely been specific to the developed world. It has involved the tasks of both demythologizing and translating: of making the content of first-century Palestinian texts somehow accessible to educated "Christians in the twentieth-century West. But the developed world's way, for so long the dominant way, is already a minority's way. It is in the Third World that most Christians now live. There are more Presbyterians in South Korea than in Scotland, more Anglicans in Africa than in England, more Catholics in the Southern Hemisphere than in the Northern Hemisphere. We are only just beginning to hear from scholars in the Third World—in Latin America (primarily), Africa, and Asia. In East Africa, Christians call Jesus "the first ancestor." In Ghana he is "the great snake." The Lakota Sioux refer to him as "the buffalo calf of God." Contexts shape Christology, and they always have.

There is something to be said, finally, for mythology. Around Christmas time last year the context I found myself in was Chicago, Illinois. I had spent a long day talking with various scholars about Jesus research, and at times I had had the distinct impression of being present at some sort of clinical procedure. Walking up Michigan Avenue in the early evening through a light snowfall, I came to the Water Tower, brightly lit. On the pavement nearby was a Salvation Army band, which, as I approached, began to play "O Little Town of Bethlehem." And I must say that it was quite a thrill.

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Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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