Thursday, August 14

Different Views of Jesus: Cultural Christology

Christology is the study of an understanding of Jesus of Nazareth. What was his nature? How do we view Him? What was his mission? What do we know about Him? These considerations and others have often been filtered through a Western Christological understanding. This reading attempts to examine various christologies and how they view Jesus.

Prior to the formation of modern historical scholarship, most of Christology considered the Gospels to be fully historical narratives that were based in fact. Many have questioned this, but the rediscovery of Gnostic texts, Ebionite texts and several others have led to further questions about early Christology and the development of Christology. In the New Testament, we find examples of Jesus’ identity being questioned by everyone. Evidently, Jesus did not fit the expectations of the Messiah, a prophet or a teacher that those living in the time or up to that time had held. When Peter confesses Jesus to be the Messiah and the Son of God, this is a turning point in the narratives as it is the point at which Jesus Himself raises the question of His identity.

Since the 1700s, scholars (particularly German scholars) have been very critical of Jesus and his story. This has occurred – according to N.T. Wright, respected New Testament scholar – in four stages. There are also a number of different views of Jesus. For example there have been some who see Jesus as being similar to contemporary Greco-Roman philosophers who wandered around and proclaimed a withdrawal from a corrupt and immoral society. One of the problems with this claim, however (one put forth by Crossan from the Jesus Seminar) is that the message of Jesus is filled with Jewish eschatological concepts, which is certainly not found in the cynics.

Some, however believe that Christology grew out of Pneumatology. In this regard, Jesus calls God Abba (meaning Father), suggesting experiences of a mystical or visionary nature as well as claiming to be a conduit for the Spirit, as mystics and healers do. In this view, Jesus is seen as a Spirit-filled mystic or Spirit-possessed healer. There are others who identify Jesus as a Hasid, a charismatic Galilean holy man. However, the textual evidence does not support him as being a prayer warrior and moderate follower of the Law. According to these adherents, however, Jesus was indeed a holy man who was elevated to the incarnate Lord mainly due to seeming textual credence from St. John and St. Paul.

Some have certainly tried to place Jesus in his 1st century Jewish context. For some, he was a prophet who spoke openly about the eschatological end of the age, the kingdom of God and the judgment overall – similar to the Qumran community. For others, Jesus was a reform prophet initiating social reform within Galilean Judaism. In other views, Jesus is also seen by some as being a Jewish sage who ties together traditions of wisdom, apocalyptic and prophetic nature. For others, Jesus was a man who created a discipleship of equals wherein women, oppressed and others were all equal. In this sense, he would be a radical prophetic figure or sage.

Jesus as personified Wisdom is a High Christological concept found in the Johannine writings (as well as Hebrews). Some scholars also seen Hebrew wisdom tradition as having an already pre-Christian idea of wisdom personified, where wisdom flows forth from God. This idea of Jesus and his relation to God is also found in some early Christological hymns, including those found in the NT. Then there are those who see Jesus as the Messiah. The Messiah is not mentioned often in the Hebrew Bible, but is mostly prominent as the Son of Man in Daniel 7 and 1st Enoch, as well as certain expectations of a Davidic king and a future prophet (i.e., Deuteronomy’s mention of a prophet like Moses and the question asked in John, “Are you The Prophet? Are you Elijah?”). Some scholars rightly point out that Jesus had a large emphasis on the kingdom of God, and that the epithet on the cross said “King of The Jews.” Certainly, the idea of the anointed one or Messiah was present in the NT texts. Some, notably, also see Jesus as having been a follower of John the Baptist and carrying on his teaching – although this is debatable.

There are still yet others who view Jesus as an Eschatological Prophet. At the time of Jesus, a number of questions had arisen that brought the Jewish identity into a new light. Jesus was likened to prophets such as Elijah and Jeremiah in the NT for a good reason – he brought an invitation, a message, a redefinition and a challenge to others. Jesus ought to be understood in light of his own religious, political and social atmosphere, placed firmly in the 1st century Jewish context.

Now, the different forms of Christology seen in the New Testament can help form a clearer Christology, but on their own, we would be in a different frame of mind. For example, if we only had the Synoptics we may question His divinity; if we only had John we may question His humanity. There are three distinct yet interrelated patterns of viewing Jesus in the NT: An adoptionist Christology placed within the reality of the resurrection. This was soon recognized as inadequate and further post-resurrection reflection led to thinking on His pre-existence. As a result, kenosis Christology (as seen in Philippians 2:6-11) came about. Incarnaltionalism is a part of this, as seen in John’s gospel, Hebrews and some of the Pauline epistles. The Docetist heresy arose around this time as well, which claimed that Jesus was only in the form of a man but was only fully God, not man at all. Logos Christology, in which Jesus is the Word of God who was both the agent of salvation and agent of creation, began toward the end of the 1st century, followed - as evidenced in the NT. To note, Philo of Alexandria was writing about the Jewish concept of the Logos in relation to the Greek concept in the 1st century as well.

But is our only access to Jesus through the historical-critical method? How do we encounter Jesus today? There are two major christologies that we may distinguish between that can aid in these questions – therapeutic Christology and apologetic (or theoretical) Christology. Therapeutic Christology is a form of Christology is presented as confronting present misery and providing salvation that heals. In this view, although we have both a personal and communal relationship with God, we only really know the Messiah when we are immersed in and participate in Messianic work. Theoretical Christology seeks to provide an apologetic or intellectual foundation for belief in Jesus as the Son of God. There is a sort of continuity that united both of these Christologies, but Therapeutic may be said to deal more with experience whereas Theoretical may deal more with right teaching. 

We may understand culture as a way to develop and nurture human values. Theology is also understood as something that, in a way, transcends culture but is also culturally bound and defined. Jesus’ story, the Church’s story, the critic’s story, the Biblical story, and the cultural story all bear witness to the continued religious narrative. 

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