Ignoring Jesus by Making Him God

In orthodox Christianity Jesus is regarded as the Divine Son and Second Person of the Trinity; nothing less than God. Theologians – referring to those who presume to speak authoritatively about God (logos, the study of or talk about theos, god) – have ensconced him fully inside their doctrinal systems.

Over the centuries believers have witnessed to direct encounters with Jesus himself, but theologians are typically cautious when it comes to validating their authenticity. How can you recognize someone you’ve never met?

This point should not be dismissed too quickly. None of us today has a personal memory of meeting the historical Jesus, so the recognition must be based on popular depictions (like the gorgeous wavy-haired European Jesus in a Warner Sallman painting) or a conception more symptomatic of our individual and cultural biases. Maybe you saw the scars in his hands and feet. But then again, thousands in history besides Jesus have been crucified, so how can you know for sure?

The Jesus of orthodox theology is not the same Jesus who came from Nazareth, who lived and died in the first century. Archaeologists and historians are more helpful when it comes to clarifying our picture of what that Jesus may have been like.

But what about the New Testament Gospels? An internal comparison of the narratives themselves shows them to be more myth than history. I don’t mean this as an excuse to ignore what they have to say or relegate them to nothing more than Palestinian fairy tales.

These Gospel narratives were composed after the death of Jesus but before the dogma-machine of Christian orthodoxy got underway. They are not exercises in theology as much as productions in mythology, stories told as meditations on Jesus as a symbol of God. Not Jesus as God as later theologians would insist, but on Jesus as a threshold figure linking the realm of everyday life to the present mystery of reality, beyond names and forms.

Not one of the New Testament authors had known Jesus personally.

The traditional appellations of “Matthew” (a disciple of Jesus) “Mark” (an assistant of the apostle Paul) “Luke” (a disciple and biographer of Paul) and “John” (another disciple of Jesus) were added later. Their contribution was to collect and invent stories that featured Jesus as one who mediated for others an experience of spirit, but who could now only be remembered, not encountered. Even Paul, writing perhaps 15 to 20 years prior to the earliest Gospel (Mark c. 70 CE), had never met the historical Jesus.

Since they lived in closer proximity in time and place to where Jesus had been alive, the New Testament storytellers could depict him with greater realism than can a twenty-first century North American believer. Consequently those stories have seemed more like historical accounts to us than sacred fiction. Add to that our modern prejudice against fiction generally, which regards it as more fantasy than truth, and it’s no wonder that so many Christians (and others) read the Gospels as history.

This gives me an opportunity to reach back to a couple recent posts in this blog of mine, published under the general title “Idols of Orthodoxy.” There I offered a way of interpreting symbols – not mathematical or roadside symbols, but specifically symbolic objects like national flags, wedding rings, religious icons, and the human figure of Jesus.

A symbol in this sense will always have a tangible (i.e., sensory-physical) aspect – colored patterns on cloth; a band of precious metal; a portrait in stone, wood, or paint; or the body and behavior of a living person.

Who the historical Jesus was, what he said and did, and the effect he had on his contemporaries – some of whom felt arrested and transformed in his presence, others who conspired in his arrest and execution for rousing the rabble – are what the Gospel writers attempted to render in their mythological depictions of him. Again, they hadn’t actually been there, but they tried to capture his influence by placing their fictional subject within a constellation of mythological themes, heroic characters, and revealing episodes.

Thus Jesus the symbol of God became the Second Adam, a New Moses, the son of David, Suffering Servant, Lamb of God, and Word-made-flesh. By wrapping Jesus into this web of myth, they attempted to re-present him to their contemporary audiences, labeling and linking him to ideas then current in the way people characterized the transcendent mystery or Spirit of God. Under none of those titles was Jesus understood to be equal with God in any straightforward sense (which is our working definition of idolatry).

What we have in the early centuries of Christianity, then, is a progression – forward movement but not necessarily improvement – from the historical figure of Jesus, into the contemplation of Jesus as a symbol of God, and arriving finally in a theological orthodoxy that effectively ignores Jesus by making him God.

The paradoxical tension of the second phase (New Testament mythology) has snapped, leaving us with a deity out of this world – but coming soon! – and a Jesus long gone and all but forgotten.

As my diagram shows, the second-phase storytellers inserted what we might call transitional mechanisms into their narratives in order to get Jesus out of the historical past and into their contemplative present (in the episode of his resurrection), and then later (with the ascension) into his identification with God.

By rotating the diagram 90° to the left we thus have the phenomenology of symbol perfectly illustrated: the (once-) tangible Jesus of history, the symbol in whom both human and divine are paradoxically united, and the transcendent mystery beyond name and form – although theologians are famously reluctant to admit it.

As a few early Christian theologians (particularly the so-called Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and their close friend Gregory of Nazianzus) were bending logic in their contemplation on Jesus as a symbol of God – “fully divine, fully human, neither separate nor confused” – the emperor Constantine was urging his new kingdom of bishops to make a decision for one side or the other.

The council decided in favor of making Jesus into God. And now he is nowhere to be found.

Published by tractsofrevolution

Thanks for stopping by! My formal training and experience are in the fields of philosophy (B.A.), spirituality (M.Div.), and counseling (M.Ed.), but my passionate interest is in what Abraham Maslow called "the farther reaches of our human nature." Tracts of Revolution is an ongoing conversation about this adventure we are all on -- together: becoming more fully human, more fully alive. I'd love for you to join in!

4 thoughts on “Ignoring Jesus by Making Him God

  1. Hi John, First, thanks for thinking of me on the B-day! 81 now and hardly even counting anymore. Second, on your above “tract” I don’t think you are making enough of the “fact” of “this Jesus” being a dead man. Really, bodily dead. A person his closest friends and followers knew was placed in Nick’s tomb. That he was dead is not a “myth”. It’s a “fact” Something happened to Jesus. Not just to them. They were demoralized, defeated, in no shape to even conceive of “resurrection” “rising from the dead”. Admittedly, something happened to them then too. I doubt they created the “resurrection of Jesus”. I think Jesus’ resurrection created their faith. Quite a difference, I would say. I know this is a faith statement, and can be and has been disputed. Jesus as “one with deity” developed from there. From the first day of the week, 36 hours after he was laid in Nick’s tomb. No body ever found. Why didn’t his adversaries produce the body? I suppose one could say (with Spong) that it was eaten by animals and disappeared; and that he was buried is a “myth” created by his hallucinating, gullible disciples. God never coerces people into “believing” what happened to Jesus. So, yes, I’m old fashioned, John. I have come to believe that Jesus broke the hold of death; not just for himself, but for us, and to show that the whole created order is subject to death and resurrection. We’re all to be dying to live. Evolution teaches it too. And that creation is body/matter as well as spirit/energy/gravitational force. Thanks for letting me respond my friend. Anyway, my reactions to your tract. Thanks for writing my friend. We’re staying in touch with your beloved dad. J

    On Wed, Feb 20, 2019 at 1:32 PM tracts of revolution wrote:

    > tractsofrevolution posted: “In orthodox Christianity Jesus is regarded as > the Divine Son and Second Person of the Trinity; nothing less than God. > Theologians – referring to those who presume to speak authoritatively about > God (logos, the study of or talk about theos, god) – have ens” >

    1. Of course, you are right: to claim Jesus’ resurrection as a physical fact is not something that can be proved or disproved. It has a lot more power and currency, however, if we can see it as something that didn’t merely “happen to” Jesus but represents our own liberation upon realizing that what he was all about did not end back then. We can’t ignore the fact that an “empty tomb” is not even mentioned by Paul, our first NT writer.
      Thanks for reading, and for your thoughtful comments!

  2. John, just a random observation. I’ve never heard your mention them, however, I keep hearing similar themes in your musings and those of Richard Rhor, and for that matter, Thomas Merton. It’s interesting that I keep thinking of you while listening to Rhor on YouTube. Are you familiar with these Franciscan Friars who explore mysticism, this/& vs this/or, and emphasizing contemplative thought and practice?

    1. I am familiar with Rohr and Merton, Preston – thanks for noting our common themes and concerns! There are so many important voices and deep wisdom available to us, if only we would pay more attention to what matters. Thank you for doing that.

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