tic rabbi; still others simply wanted to commune with a celebrity. But I think it's fair to assume that all of them were wondering just who this man was.
Midway through his public ministry, Jesus ventured with his disciples to the northern reaches of the Promised Land, to the region of Caesarea-Philippi, near the present-day Golan Heights, and there he posed just that question: "Who do people say that I am?" (Mk 8:27). We're so accustomed to hearing this question in the Gospels that we've lost a sense of its peculiarity. He didn't ask them what people thought about his teaching or what impression he was making, or how the crowds were interpreting his actions—reasonable enough questions. He wanted to know what they thought about his identity, his being. And this question—reiterated by Christian theologians through the centuries—sets Jesus off from all of the other great religious founders. The Buddha actively discouraged his followers from focusing on his person, urging them instead to walk the spiritual way from which he himself had benefited. Mohammed was an ordinary man who claimed to have received Allah's definitive revelation. He would never have dreamed of drawing attention to his own person; rather he wanted the world to read and abide by the Koran, which had been given to him. Confucius was a moral philosopher who, with particular acuity, formulated a series of ethical recommendations that constituted a balanced way of being in the world. The structure of his being was never a matter of concern either to him or to his followers.
And then there is Jesus. Though he did indeed formulate moral instructions and though he certainly taught with enormous enthusiasm, Jesus did not draw his followers' attention primarily to his words. He drew it to himself. John the Baptist instructed two of his disciples to follow after Jesus. They asked the Lord, "Where are you staying?" (Jn 1:38) and he said, "Come, and you will see" (Jn 1:39). That simple exchange is enormously instructive, for it shows that intimacy with Jesus—staying with him—is what Christian discipleship is fundamentally about. This preoccupation with Jesus himself followed, as I've been hinting, from the startling fact that he consistently spoke and acted in the very person of God. "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Mt 24:35). Sane philosophers and scholars invariably emphasize the provisional nature of what they write, but Jesus claims that his words will last longer than creation itself. Who could reasonably make this assertion except the one who is the Word through which all things came to be? "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me" (Mt 10:37). We could easily imagine a prophet, teacher, or religious founder saying, "You should love God more than your very life," or at the limit, "You ought to love my teaching more than your mother and father," but "unless you love me?" It has been said that the healthiest spiritual people are those who have the strongest sense of the difference between themselves and God. Therefore who could sanely and responsibly make the claim that Jesus made except the one who is, in his own person, the highest good?
Now, the possibility remains that Jesus might have been a madman, a deluded fanatic. After all, mental health facilities are filled with people who think they are God. And this is precisely what some of Jesus's contemporaries thought: "For this reason the Jews tried all the more to kill him; because he called God his own father, making himself equal to God" (Jn 5:18). What is ruled out—and C. S. Lewis saw this with particular clarity—is the bland middle position taken by many theologians and religious seekers today, namely that Jesus wasn't divine but was indeed an inspiring ethical teacher, a great religious philosopher. Yet a close reading of the Gospel witness does not bear such an interpretation. Given that he repeatedly spoke and acted in the person of God, either he was who he said he was and purported to be, or he was a bad man. And this is precisely why Jesus compels a choice the way no other religious founder does. As he himself said, "Whoever is not with me is against me" (Lk 11:23), and "Whoever does not gather with me scatters" (Lk 11:23). I realize how dramatically this runs counter to our sensibilities, but Christian evangelization consists in the forcing of that choice.
There is a strange passage in the tenth chapter of Mark's Gospel that is rarely commented upon but that is, in its peculiarity, very telling. Jesus is in the company of his disciples, and they are making their way from Galilee in the north to Judea in the south. Mark reports: "They were on the way, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus went ahead of them. They were amazed, and those who followed were afraid" (Mk 10:32). They were simply walking along the road with Jesus, and they found him overwhelming and frightening. Why they should have had such a response remains inexplicable until we remember that awe and fear are, in the Old Testament tradition, two standard reactions to God. The twentieth-century philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto famously characterized the transcendent God as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the mystery that fascinates us even as it causes us to tremble with fear—in whose presence we are amazed and afraid. In his sly, understated way, Mark is telling us that this Jesus is also the God of Israel.