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.Resurrection
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.Christmas
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.