The Nature of Jesus, part 2: The Jesus Stories

Professor Larry Hurtado, an extremely well-respected historian and New testament language scholar, has referred to the Gospels as “Jesus Books.” This is a great name for the stories written by Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, because it immediately puts them in their proper context: stories. Stories don’t have to be true. They often use fictional characters for dramatic effect or to create meaning. Stories often have a moral attached to them. Stories are parables, and the Gospels are indeed parables explaining a wide range of theological and moral ideas. The gospels even move into the realm of deep spiritual mysticism. All of them are firmly rooted in Jewish theology, culture, and their socioeconomic position within Roman society. The writing style of the Gospels is typical of the Roman biographical style of the era (which rarely had anything to do with actual historical events), and the Jewish practice of recording the teachings of great Rabbis.
 
The word “gospel” itself simply means “good message.” It wasn’t until nearly 1000 years after Jesus that the word came to be almost exclusively related to the stories in the Second Testament. If you check an American dictionary, you’ll see that the first two entries for “gospel” are about Jesus. The third is about gospel music—which is largely about Jesus. British dictionaries do a better job of properly defining the word.
 
The gospel stories say many things about Jesus. Much of the Greco-Roman mythology that pervades the stories was used for political purposes (although much of it has unfortunately become creedal for many Christians). Once we get past the supernatural and superstitious aspects of the stories though, we find an important thread that weaves through all of them: Jesus is the supreme theological and spiritual authority. This idea represents a significant change in attitude for his Jewish followers.
 
For thousands of years, it had been the Jewish tradition to record, and record debates about, the teachings of their religious leaders. This midrash and mishnah was encouraged and expected. Some of the stories about Jesus’ early life (debating other scholars, studying and interpreting scripture) closely resemble stories about famous Rabbis like Hillel or Gamaliel, and certainly developed from within the traditional Jewish storytelling framework. The major difference in the Jesus stories is that his interpretations of scripture, his actions, and his descriptions about human relationship with God, are seen as the final and supremely authoritative word. As far as I can tell, Moses was the last Jewish figure to be exalted in such a manner.
 
Again, when we understand that the early followers of Jesus were recovering from a deep personal and psychological loss, this exaltation makes sense. In addition, some followers of Jesus believed he was the long-awaited Messiah, while others did not. To make matters even more difficult, people like Saul of Tarsus were evangelizing Jesus to Gentiles. Attracted to his message of God’s forgiveness, this once exclusively Jewish movement now found itself in the midst of a pagan invasion.
 
Originally, the followers of Jesus worshipped in the synagogues and Temple, just as did the followers of any other Rabbi. While there was disagreement about the nature of Jesus and whether he was or wasn’t the Messiah, the debates were between Jews—people very much used to this sort of discussion. Now though, Gentiles were in their midst, and generally, Gentiles were not allowed in the synagogue unless they first converted to Judaism. This one radical event—the evangelism of Christ to the Gentiles, caused a rift that would, in essence, create a new religion—Christianity, and forever change the way people viewed Jesus. And not necessarily for the better.
 
Meditation: Make your presence known to me, God who is ever-present. Give me insight and wisdom to see beyond the obvious. Open my mind, my heart, and my very being to Oneness with you, now and always. Amen.

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