Cutting Superman’s Hair

Yesterday in my Sunday School class, we moved beyond our discussion of the varied portraits of Jesus found in the Gospels to begin to answer the question posed in Mark’s Gospel, “Who do you say that I am?” Being so used to discussing the views of others, it was interesting and helpful to have to give me own personal answer to the question. Ultimately, what I kept coming back to as central was Jesus as crucified Messiah. Historians may debate (as illustrated by the book by Tom Wright and Marcus Borg mentioned by someone in the class, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions) how Jesus viewed himself and how various Christian understandings of Jesus developed. But one thing seems clear. Christianity continued, while other messianic movements disappeared after the individual who was their focus was killed, because instead of concluding that Jesus was not the Messiah because he had been crucified, instead they reinterpreted what was meant by Messiah, leaving us with the challenge of following a path that does not lead to our own personal gain. It is the power of that message that has changed countless lives, and it does not ultimately depend on historical reconstruction in detail of all that Jesus said and did.

Other subjects came up which will be the focus of our discussion next time. It is common in a Christian context to speak about Jesus as “God”. But what does that mean? When Jesus behaves humanly, is that “just his humanity at work” at that moment? Did God accept human limitations in the incarnation (the term for that being kenotic Christology)? Was Jesus striding the earth getting the answer to every question right?

That last question led to an interesting side debate about whether Superman could get a haircut. My own answer is that I view Jesus as a human being through whom I (and others) feel we’ve encountered the divine; I don’t view him as a “superman”.

In that same context this cartoon from the Far Side came up…

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  • tripp fuller

    Sounds like a fun discussion. Is there a book or something you are using that does a good job dealing with the issue and appropriate for the Church Education setting?

  • Chris

    lol. Great images. I like Jesus as crucified Messiah too, but in the sense that he pioneered that path for us rather than in the sense that his blood covers our sins. The latter model doesn’t do anything for me.

  • Steven Carr

    JAMESChristianity continued, while other messianic movements disappeared after the individual who was their focus was killed, because instead of concluding that Jesus was not the Messiah because he had been crucified, instead they reinterpreted what was meant by Messiah….CARRSo this happened after the crucifixion?So Jesus did not reintepret the Messiah role before the crucifixion?He was busy preparing an army to take on the Romans?Why would Pilate offer to let a Messianic-candidate go, and find a Messianic candidate innocent?Assuming Pilate thought of Jewis Messiahs as people who were about to declare war on the Roman Empire.

  • James F. McGrath

    Steven, I don’t see how the historical unlikelihood of Pilate offering to release a prisoner (particularly of the sort that Jesus and Barabbas are supposed to have been) has any bearing on the content of this post.You seem to think that the fact that there is some unhistorical material in the Gospels leads naturally to the conclusion that it is all unhistorical. But that’s not how historical study works. It’s more like the fundamentalist approach in reverse. But historical study has to evaluate each piece of evidence on its own merits, and in all sorts of ancient (and not so ancient) sources it finds a lot that is unlikely or at best uncertain, and sometimes some material that is probably historically authentic.

  • James F. McGrath

    Tripp, we don’t have a book that we’re using as a guide. Perhaps it is just as well, since there are many Sundays when we don’t end up anywhere that I could have foreseen, with interesting results! :)

  • Steven Carr

    The portrait of Jesus in the Gospels was somebody who was found innocent by Pilate.Apparently this is unhistorical.So what is the methodology to determine what is historical in the Gospels and what is not?Jesus message is whatever the reader wants it to be, as it is well known that each scholar constructs the historical Jesus that he prefers.

  • James F. McGrath

    You can find an explanation of historical-critical methodology in many introductory books on historical study in general or the study of history in connection with the Bible in particular.I have a summary of the method, aimed at a general lay audience, in my book The Burial of Jesus.