Taking Jesus’ Humanity Seriously

In order to refer to it more conveniently in a discussion I’ve been having on Scot McKnight’s blog, I’m reposting here an entry from my old blog about the humanity of Jesus and what it means to take it seriously. I begin by mentioning the very strong evidence that Jesus was mistaken about the nearness of the end. Although John Meier has argued that the key sayings (Mark 9:1; 13:30) may stem from the early church rather than being authentic words of Jesus, this does not detract from the likelihood that the early Christian emphasis on the nearness of the end derives from Jesus himself. One of the most impressive features of Keith Ward’s wonderful book What the Bible Really Teaches is that it tries to take this sort of information in the New Testament completely seriously.

What does it mean to acknowledge that Jesus was mistaken about something so important? Well, for one thing, it should put the claims of some fundamentalists to know the full story of the end times in perspective. But on a more basic level, it enables us to view Jesus as a genuinely human figure, and that helps us to treat him as a real figure, and not merely an ideal we create and contemplate in our imaginations.

We end up with a Jesus who can learn – which we are presented explicitly in Luke 2:52, but Luke’s fully-human Jesus has a tendency to disappear behind the theological portrait of Jesus as divine, influenced by John’s Gospel in the New Testament, but even more so by later creeds and developments. A Jesus who has nothing to learn (and thus makes no mistakes) is the pattern for many who call themselves Christians today, and they resemble this image themselves, believing that they too as followers of an inerrant Jesus know the truth and can proclaim it with utter certainty and no need to a humble openness to being wrong, to new information. But Jesus as we confront him in the Gospels, even if often idealized or in the process of being transformed into a sinless, other-worldly individual, still retains these characteristics of humanity.

In his book Bullying: A Spiritual Crisis, Ronald Cram writes about the story of the Canaanite woman:

Even Jesus implies she is a “dog”…But in a moment of enormous strength, dignity, nonviolence, and wisdom brimming with suffering, the Canaanite woman sympathetically throws up to Jesus a mirror in which to see the dehumanizing force of his own words, not as an act of retribution, but as embodiment of a caring and empathetic teacher who believes so deeply in the necessity of interdependence, including interdependence with the Palestinian Jew, that she is willing to perish for it. And remarkably, Jesus sees himself. Through the eyes of a nonperson, Jesus sees himself, repents, and learns more fully what it means to be a caring and just human. [p.62]

If we are open to taking seriously that Jesus was a genuine human being, and that he grew up in a world that included all the human features we are familiar with, including prejudice and racism, then Jesus certainly encountered them. But did he encounter them within himself? One does not need to posit that his parents were sinless in order for them to have taught Jesus to love rather than hate those different than himself. But when it comes to the Canaanites, it is hard to imagine anyone growing up in a devout Jewish family, learning the laws and stories about the Israelites exterminating vast numbers of the inhabitants of the land, not viewing such people as less than human. And yet Jesus also clearly had grown up to be a person who could contemplate loving enemies, even foreign oppressors, and thus when confronted with his own prejudice, he sees it for what it is and seeks to move beyond it.

This is the sort of thing that Jesus as a human being like us can be seen doing in the Gospels. Is there any miracle attributed to the “divine Jesus” that is more impressive than this, the miracle we witness when a human being who was raised in a culture steeped in prejudice, with the dehumanization of others taught even in his own sacred Scriptures, nonetheless learns to overcome it and appreciate another human being in spite of all this?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00088119765077193302 julieunplugged

    Wow. I so appreciated this post. I love the idea that overcoming deeply seated racism is a bigger miracle than healing someone.I’m doing a series currently on falling away from literalist faith over on my blog that is also detailing my journey through grad school in theology (MA Xavier University). Your ideas dovetail beautifully with my own. Thanks for such a well-written post.Julie (from Jesus Creed)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for the comment and reference to your blog. I personally would prefer to use some other terminology than that of “falling away” from literalist faith, since I suspect we’d both agree that it doesn’t imply that you have fallen away from faith. It was after reading Keith Ward’s book What The Bible Really Teaches, which I cannot recommend strongly enough, that I realized that (at least subconsciously) I was letting the so-called Biblical literalists make people like me feel guilty, so that I felt I had to apologize and offer a disclaimer, such as “I am a Christian, although I confess I don’t take the Bible entirely literally”.The truth is, though, that no self proclaimed Biblical literalist actually takes the Bible literally in a consistent fashion. I don’t just mean poetic passages, which they will admit they do not interpret literally (and rightly so). My favorite example is the dome (Hebrew raqia’) right there smack dab in the heart of the account of creation in seven days. If you take it literally, you have to reject not only evolution but cell phones that rely on sattelites that we are told made it into orbit without bouncing off a solid “firmament”. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00088119765077193302 julieunplugged

    I used the term “falling away from faith” because initially I was writing for those who call what’s happened to me “falling away.” I agree with you that it is the wrong term.I actually don’t even like the word faith that much as it conjures beliefs and “statements of faith” that misconstrue what I might mean by it.I like the idea of “trust” – as in pistis, as in trust in the depths of experience. I like what the scholars version has done with Paul’s epistles in this regard.Thanks for the interaction here and on my blog. I’ll be adding you to my blogroll. :)


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