“Because of Easter and consequently Jesus’ exalted divine status, we are left in the Gospels with the best of Jesus’ humanity, but we lose the worst of his humanity. And yet there are strands of a fallible, imperfect Jesus that remarkably did not get completely edited/redacted out.“
Every serious student of the Gospels knows that in the oral transmission (the retelling) of the stories and teachings of and about Jesus, and in the final editing/redacting by the author, changes were made. Elements were added, deleted, and adapted to new contexts. Some of these changes were inadvertent, but many were intentional, reflecting the faith perspectives and biases of the writers and the communities they were written to and out of which they emerged.
The early disciples and authors of the Gospels read back into the Jesus stories the exalted status of the living Christ derived from the Easter experience. Historically, the most that can be said about that experience is that some of the followers of Jesus became convinced that God raised Jesus from the dead because they believed they saw/experienced Jesus alive.
The Easter stories are not historical reports, they are metaphorical narratives that may or may not contain bits and pieces of historical reflection. It’s impossible to know how much material (if any) in these stories contain echoes of actual memory and how much are pure legend or myth. What can be said fairly confidently, I think, is that some disciples believed wholeheartedly that they encountered Jesus alive from the dead. It’s doubtful there would have been any kind of early Jesus movement without this experience. The stories of and about Jesus then became occasions to proclaim the significance of the living Christ for their personal lives and churches. They believed the living Christ was among them, with them, and in some sense in them.
Thus, the Gospel stories are spiritual/theological stories about the reality of the post-Easter Christ, not historical reports. As a result of their Easter experience, the disciples began to think of Jesus as possessing divine qualities and status, which in turn was read back into the stories. We see this in the birth stories in Luke and Matthew, the stories of Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and in many of the healing and miracle stories.
For example, in the story of Jesus walking on the water there may be a historical echo of a profound spiritual experience in a boat during a storm on the lake of Galilee, but the story itself is mostly metaphorical narrative designed to proclaim spiritual truth about the living Christ and his ongoing relationship with and empowerment of his disciples. The living Christ is present with the church as she navigates through the stormy waters of persecution and violence from the powers that be.
In Mark’s account the story concludes by saying:
Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened (Mark 6:51-52).
Matthew, however, ends his account of this incident very differently:
When they got into the boat [In Matthew’s version Peter walks on the water too], the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matt. 14:32-33).
Clearly, this is not history; it is proclamation. Mark wants to highlight the spiritual ineptitude of Jesus’ disciples, whereas Matthew uses the same story to proclaim Jesus as God’s special agent of redemption.
Since the Gospel writers had no intention of reporting history according to modern standards, it was quite natural, in keeping with the customs and practices of their culture, to read Jesus’ post-Easter divine status back into his pre-Easter life in order to proclaim and spiritually appropriate the living Christ for their own time and place.
This evolution of the historical Jesus into the divine Christ occurred quite early. Obviously, one should never read the full-blown Christology of the Nicene Creed back into the New Testament materials, nevertheless, this process started right away. We see it everywhere in Paul’s authentic letters and the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 even predates Paul.
If the Lukan account of the early Christian preaching in Acts reliably reflects the essential components in that preaching, then clearly the Easter experience was pivotal and critical to the evolution of Jesus into the divine Christ.
Luke attributes to Peter in his first sermon on the day of Pentecost this conclusion:
This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted . . . and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. . . . Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him [the man Jesus] both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified (Acts 2:32-36).
And yet, a careful reading of the Gospels yields a fairly reliable portrait of the human Jesus as boundary breaker, prophetic challenger of the status quo, radical reformer, teacher of nonconventional, counter-cultural wisdom, empathetic and compassionate healer, lover of the poor and outcast, host to all manner of sinners, and liberator of the oppressed. We meet a human being who died a violent death at the hands of the political and religious authorities without returning the violence or even harboring violence in his heart.
It can be argued that the primary meaning of Easter according to the Gospels was God’s vindication of Jesus and all that he valued and stood for.
Easter vindicates the manner and way in which Jesus as a human being embodied and incarnated the divine – the divine, I would argue, that is in each one of us.
Because of Easter and consequently Jesus’ exalted divine status we are left in the Gospels with the best of Jesus’ humanity, but we lose the worst of his humanity. And yet there are strands of a fallible, imperfect Jesus that remarkably did not get completely edited/redacted out.
In the story of Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30 (par. Matt. 15:21-28; she is described as “a Canaanite woman” in Matthew’s version) Jesus not only demonstrates a lack of patience, kindness, and tolerance, he even uses a racial slur when he says, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Read my exposition of this story here).
In the story of the rich man who inquires of Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherent eternal life?” Jesus responds,
Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone (Mark 10:18; also Luke 18:19).
Here Jesus clearly denies having his own goodness put on a level equal to God’s goodness. But consider how Matthew edits/altars this to soften the impact and allow wiggle room for a different understanding:
“Teacher what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good” (Matt. 19:17).
Apparently, Mark and Luke’s version was theologically questionable to Matthew and his church.
There are also other incidents in the Gospels where we meet an imperfect Jesus, such as the time he curses the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14; Matt. 21:18-19), which in both Mark and Matthew becomes the occasion to teach a lesson about faith. We could also add the times when Jesus seems to lose his patience and lashes out, such as the time when his disciples could not cast a demon out of a boy. Jesus reacted harshly:
You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me (Mark 9:19).
When you think about it, it is quite remarkable that these elements that portray an imperfect, fallible, and very human Jesus make it into the final editions.
These echoes of a fallible, imperfect Jewish Jesus became my salvation. Several years ago I came to a place in my faith journey where I could no longer accept or relate to a Jesus who was perfectly divine right out of the womb. That Jesus was beyond me and one that no longer made historical or theological sense. My discovery of a Jesus who was a deeply spiritual and transformational reality, though quite human and fallible, offered me a compelling vision and hope.
As with all deeply transformational truth there is a paradox here. Had there been no Easter experience as the event that propelled forward the Jesus movement, we would most likely know almost nothing about the human Jesus. As a result of Easter, Jesus’ divinity overshadows his humanity in many of the Gospel stories. Yet still, the truly good, but imperfect humanity of Jesus breaks through to offer all who aspire to follow him a redemptive, liberating vision.
Image: Skylines / Shutterstock.com
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective.