New Testament writers offer varied and persuasive pictures of Jesus that seek to draw people into faith.
For David Bartlett, New Testament Christology is “not so much a set of doctrines as a variety of stories, songs and scriptural interpretations that help Christian believers and Christian churches follow the Jesus they read about, hear about, and praise.“ Early Christians framed and told stories, shared teachings, testified to encounters, found solutions to problems, acted out in faith and love, and sang songs about and to Jesus Christ– the resurrected one who represents and shares God’s very self to repair and redeem a broken world.
Baptized by John the Baptist. Embarrassingly crucified. Teacher and interpreter of Torah. Reformer. Messiah. Proclaimer and agent of a new Kingdom era. Lord above and beyond Caesar’s empire. And most of all, a suffering, resurrected savior addressed through poetry, songs, stories, titles, and ongoing encounters with the community gathered by and in his name. Bartlett takes readers on a quick look journey through the New Testament writers’ understanding of Jesus and his saving significance. In the process, he reminds Christians and those who would understand their founding documents that these differing, context-dependent portraits of Jesus are vehicles of a practical, living faith. They don’t just say something, they do something, revealing an underlying conviction: somehow God was in Jesus Christ reconciling the world to God’s very self (2 Corinthians 5:19).
About the Author
David L. Bartlett was Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication, Yale Divinity School, and Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA.
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Christology in the New Testament
By David L. Bartlett
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2017 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Jesus of Nazareth
New Testament Christology is the study of what the writers of the New Testament claimed about the story and the significance of Jesus of Nazareth. From the very first days of the Christian movement believers asserted that Jesus was not only an identifiable, historical human being but also the unique representation of God. Different writers expressed that uniqueness in different ways, but all of the New Testament writers believe something like what Matthew asserts. Jesus is Emmanuel, which means "God with us" (Matt 1:23).
The first line of the earliest Gospel, Mark, says that Mark's book is about the good news of Jesus, who is also Christ, or Messiah (Mark 1:1). In the earliest writings in the New Testament the Apostle Paul almost always refers to Jesus as "Jesus Christ" or "Christ Jesus." For the New Testament writers, there was no way to talk about Jesus without also acknowledging that he was Christ or Messiah.
However, in more recent studies of the New Testament a number of scholars — those who believe that Jesus is God's unique representation and those who think that he was simply an admirable historical figure — have tried to ask what we can say about Jesus that everyone could agree on.
Because we live in the twenty-first century it may be useful to start with a twenty-first-century question: what can we say about Jesus of Nazareth before we study the claim that he is also Messiah or Christ?
"How Do We Look for Jesus?"
New Testament Christology is the study of what the first Christian writers believed about Jesus Christ. Though we tend to think of Jesus Christ as the full name of Jesus, the English version of the name of the man who is the subject of Christology is Jesus. Christ is the English transliteration of the Greek word Christos, which is a translation of the Hebrew word Messiach, which means "anointed one." Jesus is a name; Christ is a title. The elementary school child who thought that the first president of the United States was named General Washington confused a title with a name.
It is unclear whether Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah or whether the claim that he was the Messiah and the use of the title Christ first was the work of those who followed him. For some centuries now a number of scholars and writers have tried to discover or to imagine who Jesus was and whether or not he thought of himself as the Messiah.
One way to look at this search for who Jesus was is to say that scholars have been trying to find out what pretty much everyone can agree about when it comes to Jesus. Whether or not you believe that Jesus was the Messiah, whether or not you believe that he was son of God, whether or not you are a Christian, what can you say about him? The attempt is to try to reconstruct Jesus's life from our sources just as someone might want to reconstruct the life of Julius Caesar or William Shakespeare or Sojourner Truth.
This attempt to discover what we can know about Jesus apart from faith in him, this attempt to treat him like any other historical person is usually called "the quest of the historical Jesus." It turns out that drawing a portrait of Jesus that everyone can agree is accurate is largely impossible. (This is also true of Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare, and Sojourner Truth, so we should not be surprised.)
Partly this is because the sources we have about Jesus were written some time (several decades) after his life, and for Jesus, as for everybody, time tends to reshape memories. Partly this is because the sources we have do not all agree on some elements of Jesus's life. Partly this is because the earliest sources we have were all written by people who did believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They were not simply describing him; they were trying to persuade others to join them in that belief. The last verse of the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John actually works well to summarize the writings of all four Gospel writers and the letters in the New Testament too: "But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the [Messiah], God's Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name" (John 20:31).
The final complication is perhaps the most complicating of all. Those who seek to portray Jesus often portray him in ways that they find especially congenial or especially relevant to their own time. Albert Schweitzer, who was a great organist and a medical missionary in addition to being a brilliant student of the New Testament, noticed at the beginning of the twentieth century that the people who had written about the historical Jesus in the few centuries before always ended up portraying just the Jesus they wanted. To put it too simply, German scholars portrayed an orderly Jesus, French scholars a passionate Jesus, English scholars a polite Jesus. As for Americans, to this day there is considerable literature that suggests that the real Jesus was an entrepreneur — the perfect model for capitalist success. One fairly recent book is simply titled: Jesus, CEO.
When we try to draw a picture of Jesus that everyone could agree on — believers and nonbelievers alike — there are at least three approaches. Each has some value.
The first approach, one that is essential and inescapable, is to try to get some sense of the world in which Jesus lived. He was born, taught, and died in an eastern province of the Roman Empire. Like many other people of his time and place he was a Jew, but Judaism in the first-century CE was not exactly like Judaism today, and we need to discover as much as we can about first-century Judaism, especially in Palestine.
He was also the inhabitant of an empire and finally was subject to the rule of Rome. Roman emperors were the final authorities in the empire of the first century, but local decisions were usually made by local officials, and many of those officials were recruited from the inhabitants of the territory. There were different customs in different parts of the empire; and in order to understand Jesus, it helps to understand something of what that empire was like and especially how Rome related to the province where Jesus lived.
The empire was also remarkably diverse; it embraced a number of religions, and its subjects spoke a number of languages. While Jesus, like many of his fellow Palestinians, probably spoke Aramaic — a kind of cousin to Hebrew — much of the most influential literature of the time was written in Greek or Latin, and much of the written business of the time was conducted in Greek. Paul, who is the earliest writer in the New Testament, wrote his letters in Greek, and the four Gospel writers all wrote in Greek. While I am not very confident about trying to reconstruct Aramaic teachings of Jesus behind our Greek texts, it helps to remember that he taught in a language different than the language of our New Testament.
The second approach to drawing a picture of Jesus is to concentrate on the teachings we have, especially in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. In this approach the attempt is not to discover everything that Jesus may have said — that is beyond even the most ambitious search. The attempt is to discover, among the things that Jesus is supposed to have said, what sayings were almost certainly original.
This approach was perhaps best exemplified by my late colleague Norman Perrin who wrote a highly influential book called Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. Perrin had a number of sophisticated ways of trying to winnow our Gospels in order to retain (rediscover) what Jesus really said. The heart of his argument was that we can be most certain that a saying comes from Jesus if it does not simply seem like a repetition of the Jewish teachings he would have inherited or like an invention of the early church put back in Jesus's mouth by later believers. (The stories about Jesus were passed on by word of mouth for a long while before they were written down, and some of the sayings may have been expanded in the telling. Furthermore, Christians believed that Jesus was still alive and probably still speaking. For a first-century Christian to say "Jesus said" doesn't necessarily mean that the Christian believed that Jesus had said it in Galilee during his ministry there.)
This concern for "dissimilarity" — for finding sayings that don't seem to repeat the tradition before Jesus or mirror the traditions after Jesus — has been one of the main inspirations for the Jesus Seminar, founded by Robert Funk and others and still alive and well in our day.
To take just one example on which many scholars would agree, at the end of the Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples to go throughout the whole world baptizing "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt 28:19). That sounds to many like a quotation of the words early Christians would have used to baptize new members — words that are well on the way to the later doctrine of the Trinity. To many readers of the New Testament (and to me), it seems more likely that some early Christians took a saying that was part of their own worship services and put it directly into the mouth of Jesus.
The attempt to rediscover Jesus by looking for what is unique in his teaching raises problems, however. For one thing, as almost all of these scholars would admit, when you get what is indisputably what Jesus said, you don't begin to get the full Jesus. What you get (as they admit) are the red passages in the edition of the New Testament published by the Jesus Seminar — the bare minimum on which they all can agree.
For another thing, as a teacher of mine long ago pointed out, pushed to its radical conclusion, this kind of quest for Jesus would be satisfied only with sentences that were largely incomprehensible. We couldn't explain them by the context from which they arose or by the implications that they had for the later life of believers. All language is rooted in the past and opens to the future.
Bearing these cautions in mind, I am still enough a student of Perrin to try with great tentativeness and some humility to guess what Jesus almost certainly said — not as the end but as the beginning of the larger quest for what he probably said.
The third approach is perhaps best represented by E. P. Sanders and Dale Allison Jr. In somewhat different ways and with somewhat different conclusions they want to ask about continuities and probabilities in what Jesus said and did. Sanders is especially concerned to say that we can understand Jesus in part by reading the stories about his actions, not just by a recitation of his sayings. In particular, suggests Sanders, Jesus's activity in stirring up a ruckus in the Jerusalem temple shortly before his arrest helps us understand why he was arrested and helps us understand what kind of teaching might have led up to that memorable behavior.
Allison is particularly concerned to find continuities in the stories about Jesus. What motifs occur time and again? What events or teachings might account for later developments in the church? Granting that coherence is often in the eyes of the student, Allison does a remarkable job of trying to discover in the diverse sources a kind of plausible picture.
Our own attempt to describe Jesus in terms that might be persuasive both to believers and unbelievers depends on all three of these approaches. In presenting this portrait I admit that it is necessarily tentative and inescapably shaped by perspectives that I bring to the task and often do not recognize even in myself. In presenting this portrait I also say what I will say again. The life, the teachings, the ministry, and the death of Jesus of Nazareth (Jesus without the "Christ") provide one way of beginning to understand Christology — but only a beginning. The development of Christology will require the faith of Jesus's followers.
What Do We Find?
The first irrefutable fact about Jesus is that he was a Jew. We remember this not only as a protection against the implicit and explicit forms of anti-Judaism that have appeared from the first century to the twenty-first. We remember that Jesus was a Jew because apart from that fact his ministry and his teachings are incomprehensible.
The presupposition with which Jesus lived his life was that the God of Israel was the one God of all the world. Jesus was theistic without apology and monotheistic without reservation. Many of the arguments that contemporary people want to have (Is there a God? Is the universe created or accidental? Why worship? Are there immutable religious and ethical principles?) are simply never argued in Jesus's teaching, because the answers are assumed in the way any religious first-century Jew would assume them: there is one God, the creator who establishes immutable principles including the principle that we are to worship that God.
Jesus's scripture was what we call either the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. When he argued he drew his conclusions from scripture, and when he told stories he drew his images from scripture. I suspect that one reason the Apostle Paul seems to have instructed Gentile converts in the Old Testament is that they would not have been able to make any sense of Jesus without it.
It is clear that Jesus saw himself as a reformer of the Judaism of his day. It is possible that he began to envision a message that extended to Gentiles, too; certainly by very early after his death, Jewish followers were commending him to curious Gentiles. What seems unlikely is that he saw himself as the founder of a religious community in competition with the temple or with the synagogue. What seems likely is that like the prophets before him and like many a Jew after him, he wanted to purify the faith in which he lived.
When we ask what we can say with some certainty about the events of his life, the odd rule still seems useful. If the story is embarrassing but still remembered and retold, that is probably because it is an inescapable part of Jesus's story. It is what everybody knew.
(This is different from Norman Perrin's criterion of "dissimilarity," which counts a saying as genuine if it does not sound too much like what Jews were saying before Jesus's ministry or too much like what the church was saying afterward.)
The biggest embarrassment and the most irrefutable feature of Jesus's story is that Jesus was crucified. Whatever hopes his followers may have had for him, those hopes could not have included the hope that he would be executed as a criminal — perhaps as a political prisoner. Whatever made it so hard for Saul of Tarsus (the Apostle Paul) to believe that this man was who his followers said he was, was the fact that Jesus was crucified. What at first seemed to Saul/Paul most outrageous turned out to be most inspiring, but none of that takes away from the sheer fact that this man was executed.
The New Testament sources know, but do not much emphasize, that Jesus would only have been crucified because he was sentenced by the Roman authorities. Execution by crucifixion was a punishment inflicted by the imperial authority, not by the provincial Jewish leaders and not by the officers of the temple. We do not know precisely what charges were brought against Jesus, but it seems likely that something more than blasphemy was involved. Who he was and what he did threatened the realm and not only the faith.
I am largely persuaded by E. P. Sanders that what precipitated Jesus's arrest was the incident in the Jerusalem temple early in the week of his arrest, and perhaps along with this the so-called triumphal entry into the city. Whatever Jesus intended, the actions in the temple could be interpreted as the beginnings of insurrection, and the march into the city could be interpreted as an unsettling political demonstration.
In large measure the development of Christology — the subject of the rest of this book — was an attempt to explain how Jesus the Christ could also be the crucified one. But we should not lose sight of the reality that that execution took some explaining.
A second embarrassing feature of the story about Jesus is that he was baptized by John the Baptizer. In the first century of the Common Era, John the Baptizer is better known by non-Christian writers than Jesus is. John was what we would call an "apocalyptic" preacher; he believed that the present age was passing way and that God was about to establish God's own rule. According to the New Testament stories, John baptized people when they repented of their sins. A less theological reading might suggest that John baptized people who chose to be his followers.
Excerpted from Christology in the New Testament by David L. Bartlett. Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
General Preface xi
Chapter 1 Jesus of Nazareth 1
Chapter 2 Jesus's Resurrection: The Turning Point 13
Chapter 3 Titles for Jesus 23
Chapter 4 The Beginning of the Gospel(s) 39
Chapter 5 Singing about Jesus: Hymns and Prayers in the New Testament 57
Chapter 6 Practical Christology: Paul and His Letters 79
Chapter 7 Stories Jesus Tells 97
Chapter 8 Stories about Jesus: The Gospels (Mark and Matthew) 119
Chapter 9 Stories about Jesus: The Gospels (Luke and John) 143
Scripture Index 167