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JESUS NOW AND THEN
By Richard A. Burridge Graham Gould
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2004 Richard A. Burridge and Graham Gould
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJesus Now: The Start of the Third Millennium
As the new millennium approached, with all the celebrations planned and several catastrophes predicted, it really felt that something momentous was about to happen. With that one tick of the clock one era would come to an end and another come to birth. There was a great sense of expectation, which is difficult to remember with all that has happened in our personal lives and the political life of the world since then. In that atmosphere, many people thought about what they were celebrating, perhaps for the first time. Why the year 2000?
It was 2,000 years since the birth of a man who, more than any other, could really have been said to have divided history in two. What do we know about the man called Jesus of Nazareth? Surprisingly little. What we do know is not very promising. He never went to school, and may not have been able to read or write, although he could well have learned how to read the scrolls of the Jewish Law. Certainly we have nothing surviving written by him, nor do we have any indication that he ever wrote anything.
We do not even know when he was born or when he died. Notionally of course Jesus was born in the year 0, but this was based on the calculations in AD 533 of Dionysius Exiguus - which is Latin for Dennis the Short - and it turns out he got it wrong. Jesus was actually born a little earlier: maybe 4, maybe 6 BC. He lived a short life mostly of obscurity, in poverty, working as an artisan, perhaps a carpenter or a workman, in the north of a Roman province on the edge of the Roman empire. He had a brief public existence, but we don't know when it was or how long it lasted. The account in Mark's Gospel seems to record various events which could be fitted into a couple of months: John's Gospel makes it stretch over two or three years.
However long this period was, Jesus spent it wandering around, preaching and teaching in this outlying province of the Roman empire, and never went more than a couple of hundred miles from where he was born. He gained local popularity as a teacher, preacher and healer before falling foul of the authorities, being arrested and executed.
This is not an impressive record at first glance. It is therefore all the more extraordinary that the calendar we use is centred on him. Some people don't use BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini) any more, but BCE - 'Before the Christian Era' or 'Before the Common Era', as some people prefer. However we refer to this, the dates are still calculated by reference to him. Despite the little we know about him, and whatever your beliefs about him, the effect Jesus had upon people around him and upon millions since means that we cannot understand much about our history and our culture without understanding something about Jesus of Nazareth.
Whose Millennium Was It Anyway?
Our culture is fascinated by Jesus. When the Millennium Dome at Greenwich in London was being first suggested, the concept was to look at where we were in the year 2000 - Body, Mind and Spirit. Of course, as soon as 'Spirit' was mentioned, people were asking, 'Well, what about whose birthday it is? Isn't it really rather odd that he shouldn't be involved in some way? Shouldn't he be invited to the party?' That led to a great debate about the Spirit Zone, which then became known as the Faith Zone - a place to understand something of who Jesus of Nazareth was, the impact he and his followers have had upon the world in the last two thousand years and the role of all faiths in multi-cultural society at the turn of the Third Millennium.
I was brought in to do quite a lot of writing about Jesus for the Dome, including the opening statements for the Faith Zone and the introduction to the accompanying official souvenir brochure, just after the introduction by the Queen. Six million people visited the Dome. For the Faith Zone we shot eight films with the BBC about the impact of Jesus and his followers upon every area of British life - obviously worship, but also education, healing, the health service, justice, liberation, life and society. I was also involved with a huge exhibition in the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square in London called 'Seeing Salvation', which assessed the impact of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus on Western art over two millennia. Again, vast crowds came to enjoy it. You couldn't get away from Jesus in the year 2000, and the ripples from his life and teaching continue to spread today.
Jesus Christ Superstar
What if you go out for the evening? Both London and Broadway have had revivals of Jesus Christ Superstar, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock opera. This has Judas Iscariot as its main character, complaining that Jesus' followers have 'too much heaven on their minds'. The musical contains very little of Jesus' teaching, but follows the last week of his life, using particularly John's Gospel. After Judas has betrayed Jesus, he sings the showstopper song, "Jesus Christ Superstar," in which he says that he does not understand who Jesus is or what is going on; he wonders whether Jesus himself knows who he is and what he has sacrificed.
In many ways, Judas echoes the voice of Tim Rice, the writer, but also of many people who ask the question, 'Who is this person?' Elsewhere in the opera Mary Magdalene sings a beautiful love song, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," in which she says that Jesus is just a man, but in a way that suggests she's beginning to think that maybe he's not just a man. The album sold in enormous quantities, it grew and developed into stage shows in London and New York, a film, and recent stage revivals.
In Godspell, Jesus became a clown: again this was a stage show and film, and it reflected the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s - Jesus with the flower children and the Hippie culture. This included a treatment of many parables taken from Matthew's Gospel, and a great deal of fun and play. It is interesting to note that both shows ended with Jesus' death and portrayed no resurrection. Superstar ends with peaceful music to the theme of Jesus' burial, and Godspell ends with his corpse being carried across the stage.
Jesus Goes to Hollywood
Hollywood has a fascination with the person of Jesus: he seems to be big news at the box office. In 1927 Cecil B. de Mille's silent movie classic King of Kings was an extravagant and very reverent portrayal of Jesus on film. By 1959 de Mille claimed that over 800 million people had seen that film, and that he had introduced more people to Jesus through the film than anything except the Bible. During the 1950s and 1960s there was a rash of Hollywood blockbusters from Ben Hur, the 15 million dollar epic with Charlton Heston, to Quo Vadis, The Robe, Barabbas - all trying to reconstruct the time of Jesus and show people meeting him. In 1966 Pier Paolo Pasolini, an avowed atheist and Marxist, produced a black and white film, The Gospel according to Matthew, which he dedicated to Pope John XXIII, and which, strikingly, was a faithful reinterpretation of the text of that one Gospel.
In 1977, Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth was a TV blockbuster six hours long, mixing all the Gospels up but maintaining a very reverent attitude and including the resurrection. It was then rapidly followed very irreverently by Monty Python's Life of Brian, which used exactly the same staging as Zeffirelli, in which Brian is a character who is not Jesus. The film makes it absolutely clear that it is about someone like Jesus but who gets it wrong all the time. John Cleese, one of the creative team behind the film, said at the time that they just couldn't make fun of somebody as good as Jesus, so they had to show somebody trying to do the things he does and getting them wrong.
There was a lot of controversy over Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal (1989) and Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Scorsese's film is a treatment of an original Greek novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. It focuses on Jesus' struggle with the temptation just to have an ordinary life - a wife, children, sex, home and so on - and shows him fantasizing about those possibilities even on the cross. Arcand gives an account of a modern passion play set in Montreal which leads to conflict between the actor playing Jesus and the religious leaders and city authorities. More recently Murray Watts and Channel 4/S4C produced The Miracle Maker - a film animation with Ralph Fiennes as the voice of Jesus, Julie Christie as Mary, and Miranda Richardson as Mary Magdalene. It played in UK cinemas for several months during the summer of 2000 and was the TV movie for Easter in the UK and the United States for the first couple of years of the third millennium.
Many other films, while having no explicit reference to Jesus, explore related themes. George Lucas' Star Wars films (1977, 1980, 1983, 1999 and 2002) pick up on the battle between good and evil, the good side of the Force and the bad side of the Force, and the importance of self-sacrifice. Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982, 2002) is about a person who comes down from above, is only understood by children, is opposed by the authorities, dies and is revived when somebody says that they love him, then reascends back into heaven. The film The Matrix (Warner, 1999) similarly uses a lot of motifs of Jesus in the way in which Neo is described as 'The One' and fights against evil with a woman called Trinity, even leading to his death with a resurrection and ascension at the end.
So 2,000 years after this wandering Jewish teacher, there still are huge numbers of differing interpretations being put forward. How does this Jesus, who is so fascinating to people even now, fit in with what we know of Jesus then? Let's take a look at the traditional Christian view.
Jesus Then: The Traditional Christian View
How Have Christians Traditionally Regarded Jesus?
The traditional Christian view of Jesus is that he is divine and human, or God incarnate (which means 'made flesh'); in less formal terms, Jesus is God come to earth. This is the position which went almost unchallenged as orthodox Christian teaching from the fourth to the sixteenth century (when some radicals began to deny it), and is still maintained today by the main Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the churches of the sixteenth-century Reformation including the Church of England and Anglican communion, and modern evangelical, charismatic, and pentecostal churches.
There are, of course, alternative views of Jesus among people who call themselves Christians (including some members of the churches just listed), and we will be exploring some of these views later on; but for the moment, it is the traditional view which is the focus of our interest. This view is clearly expressed in the sixteenth-century language of the Church of England's Thirty-Nine Articles, article 2, which states in terms which would be acceptable to most orthodox Christians: 'The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man's nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided.' How did this view originate in early Christian teaching?
The Impact of Jesus on the Early Church
When the first Christians, as they reflected on their experience in the early days of the Church, began to consider the question of who Jesus was, it was not just his teaching that impressed them, or the quality of his life, or his miracles, or even the fact that he had died as a martyr, the victim of a conspiracy between the Jewish religious authorities and the occupying Roman power. What was central to all early Christian accounts of the significance of Jesus was the fact that he had been raised from death by God on the third day after his crucifixion.
'But God raised him up', says Peter in Acts 2.24 after summarizing Jesus' life in terms of his miracles and crucifixion, 'having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power' (NRSV). Without the resurrection, there would be no significant story of Jesus to tell - no Christian movement and no question of Jesus for us to consider nearly two thousand years later. Whatever we believe the concept of resurrection actually means - whether physical resurrection is possible, and, if so, what actually happened when Jesus was raised and his tomb (according to the Gospel accounts) found empty - it is a fact that it was the earliest Christians' experience of Jesus as risen, a living and present figure, which launched the Christian Church.
However, belief in Jesus' resurrection alone would not entail belief in his divine status. To explain why Christians came to believe that Jesus was God as well as human, we need to look at other factors.
As Christianity grew, it rapidly expanded beyond its original geographical context in Jewish Palestine and into the Greco-Roman world - the area, particularly around the Eastern Mediterranean, which was dominated by a Greek-speaking literary, artistic, and intellectual culture (the latter expressed through a long tradition of writings in philosophy, history, medicine, and science). Many converts to Christianity looked at Jesus through the lens of Greco-Roman culture, and they would have applied to Jesus some of the cultural concepts with which they were familiar for expressing religious devotion or ideas.
The Divine Man or Saviour
One of these concepts was the 'divine man' or 'saviour', who comes from heaven to offer to people on earth some form of salvation or rescue from earthly and temporal life. Interpretation of Jesus as a divine man would make it easier to see him not only as a moral and spiritual teacher and martyr whose resurrection marked his approval by God but as someone who even during his earthly life had been a heavenly, supernatural figure.
New Testament scholars disagree about the extent to which the figure of Jesus, as we read about his life in the Gospels, was modelled on the myth of a divine man or saviour from heaven, and whether this affects in any way the truth of the claims made by Christians for Jesus' uniqueness as the source of revelation from God. It is not clear, indeed, to what extent the myth of the divine man was ever applied to a historical figure apart from Jesus. (The best candidate is the first- or second-century pagan miracle worker Apollonius of Tyana, whose biography by Philostratus seems to portray him deliberately as a pagan rival to Jesus.)
Excerpted from JESUS NOW AND THEN by Richard A. Burridge Graham Gould Copyright © 2004 by Richard A. Burridge and Graham Gould. Excerpted by permission.
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