Jonathan Clatworthy, Honorary Assistant Priest at St Bride's and former General Secretary of Modern Church, is leading our new series of gatherings on the fourth Sunday evening each month.
This series of talks and discussions in the context of a Communion service & pizza is exploring 'What's so special about religion?'
Jonathan gave us the second instalment last Sunday reflecting on 'What's so special about Jesus?'. The following is an extract from his reflection last Sunday. Join us again at St Bride's on Sunday 26th March at 6.30pm for Jonathan's next discussion, Communion and pizza evening exploring 'What's so special about the Bible?'
Jesus for Constantine
300 years after Jesus’ time the Roman emperor Constantine told the bishops to agree a statement of belief for all Christians. It’s still recited in church services today.
It comes in four parts, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the other bits and pieces. The Jesus section is by far the longest, but still all we are told about his physical existence is that he was born, was crucified, died and rose again.
Jesus in the Middle Ages
Throughout the Middle Ages the Creed was generally accepted as authoritative. The Christian story was of creation, fall, redemption and second coming.
As for the human Jesus, the gospels were the only source of information. There are quite a few disagreements between the gospels, but people didn’t worry much about them. The dominant view was that what mattered was not the physical information but the spiritual truths underlying it; and the spiritual truths would be interpreted in terms of this creation-fall-redemption theology.
Jesus in the Protestant Reformation
Protestants emphasised the Bible rather than the Creed, and insisted that what the Bible said was literally true.
At the same time science was on the rise. Tensions arose within the universities. Natural philosophers observed that the physical world operates according to regular laws. Theologians taught that it operates according to the will of God. The obvious way to reconcile these traditions was to say that the laws of nature are God’s way of giving us a reliable world to live in. Until the middle of the 18th century leading scientists like Isaac Newton understood the laws of nature as God’s regularities. So that means God runs the world regularly most of the time but occasionally does something different.
Put the Reformation and the laws of nature together, and the physical Jesus becomes interesting. He walked on water. He was born of a virgin. He rose from the dead. These events broke the laws of nature. So Christianity must be true because Jesus could break the laws of nature, and only God can make that happen. What’s special about Jesus is that he could do these things that nobody else can do.
After that it wasn’t going to be long before people started saying that the Bible is full of lies because nobody can break the laws of nature. A lot of popular debate about Jesus is stuck here: for example, the idea that if you’re a Christian you have to believe in the Virgin Birth and the physical resurrection.
Jesus in modern theories
Scholars began to examine the Bible to puzzle out what really happened. Can we prove that the miracles happened, or can we find a naturalistic explanation for them? By the end of the nineteenth century, scholars were reaching a consensus that there must be naturalistic explanations for at least most of the miracles, and the important thing about Jesus was his moral teaching.
Then, at the end of the nineteenth century, this consensus was challenged by some German scholars, of whom the best known is Albert Schweitzer. Jesus wasn’t an ethical teacher at all. Jesus taught that the end of history was about to come. The end was nigh. God was going to start a new age. Everything was going to be different. And, clearly, Jesus was wrong.
This view dominated New Testament scholarship from the beginning of the twentieth century until the 1970s. So what do you do if you’re a committed Christian and Jesus was wrong? Some people argued that in a sense there was a new age. The dominant view, though, was that all these scholarly disagreements show how little we really know, so let’s forget about the Jesus of history and concentrate on the Christ of faith. Back to the creed.
Jesus since the 1970s
Since the 1970s there has been a huge amount of new research using different methods, and scholars are confident that they know more about Jesus and what he meant to the first Christians.
There was no Christ of faith without the Jesus of history. The reason why people called him Messiah, or Son of God, was because of what he said and did.
You can’t say he broke the laws of nature unless you believe in the laws of nature, and in his day nobody did. What people believed was that God runs the universe, and does most things regularly but may do some things irregularly.
The recorded sayings of Jesus cannot all be reconciled with each other. Either Jesus was inconsistent, or we are yet to understand some of them, or some sayings do not go back to Jesus.
At the time of Jesus many Jews believed the end of the age was imminent. Scholars disagree about whether the forecasts of an imminent end of the age were really by Jesus.
- He did offer moral teaching, but it was teaching based on his claims about the Kingdom of God. There is still debate about what he meant by the Kingdom of God.
- He was a Jew.
- The one indisputable fact about him is that he was crucified. This tells us a lot. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment, the most cruel punishment they had devised. They only used it for political threats, mainly rebel slaves. So whatever theories scholars have about what he did and taught, it has to explain why the Romans saw him as a political threat.
- The reason why his followers called him the Messiah or the Son of God was that they thought he had stood out with a unique message, and the way he lived and died expressed his message. Whether or not we think he rose from the dead, they thought raising him was God’s way of vindicating him. The point was that Jesus was right.
Jesus & the Kingdom of God
So what was he right about? What did he mean by the Kingdom of God? Scholars still debate it. Here I follow a group of scholars working mainly in America, of whom the best known are Dominic Crossan and the recently deceased Marcus Borg.
When Jesus was crucified, Jerusalem was packed full of pilgrims coming for the annual celebration of Passover. What did Passover celebrate? Freedom. God had rescued their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Were they free? No. They were governed by the Romans, in a very brutal manner.
So it was an ironic occasion. They gathered to celebrate a freedom they did not have. There was plenty of scope for resentment, and the Romans provided plenty of soldiers to suppress dissent.
What would it have been like if they had really been free? This is what Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God was probably about.
Jesus lived in Galilee, an area to the north of Jerusalem. Traditionally, Galilee was full of peasant farmers. They would grow enough food to feed themselves and pay their taxes. As taxes went up more and more farmers had to sell their land. They then became day labourers, and if they didn’t get employed they would starve. If you were rich with money to spare, you could buy land at really cheap prices, and then pay desperate ex-farmers to work the land for you at rock bottom wages.
These destitute ex-farmers knew their scriptures. The book of Deuteronomy commands that every seven years all debts are to be cancelled. The book of Leviticus commands that every 50 years all the land is to be divided up equally so that everybody has enough land to feed their families. To traditional Jews, that was what God had intended in creating the world. So when Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, he was saying God had provided enough for everyone. Nobody needed to starve. Justice was a matter of making sure everybody had enough.
But they were governed by the Romans. When they got into debt there would be no cancellations, ever. When they were forced to sell their land they would never get it back, ever. Roman pagans didn’t have any equivalent to the God of the Jews. They believed the world had been made by gods, but not that the gods had made it for a purpose. For pagan Romans the world just was the way it was, with all its inequalities, and always would be.
- What, if anything, do you find attractive about Jesus?
- Hebrew laws protected the poor and vulnerable. Roman laws did not. What is our society today like?
- Would our society today benefit from Jesus’ idea of the Kingdom of God?