CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY: Who Is Jesus Christ?

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Jesus Christ. The expression is a combination of a name, “Jesus” (of Nazareth), and the title “Messiah” (Hebrew) or “Christ” (Greek), which means “anointed.” In Acts 5:42, where we read of “preaching Jesus the Christ” (literal trans.), this combination of the name and the title is still apparent. As time progressed, however, the title became so closely associated with the name that the combination soon was transformed from the confession—Jesus (who is) the Christ—to a confessional name—Jesus Christ. The appropriateness of this title for Jesus was such that even Jewish Christian writers quickly referred to Jesus Christ rather than Jesus the Christ (cf. Matt. 1:1; Rom. 1:7; Heb. 13:8; James 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1).

Sources of Information. The sources for our knowledge of Jesus Christ can be divided into two main groups: non-Christian and Christian.

Non-Christian Sources. These sources can be divided again into two groups: pagan and Jewish. Both are limited in their value. There are essentially only three pagan sources of importance: Pliny (Epistles x.96); Tacitus (Annals xv.44); and Suetonius (Lives xxv.4). All these date from the second decade of the second century. The main Jewish sources are Josephus (Antiquities xviii.3.3 and xx.9.1) and the Talmud. The non-Christian sources provide meager information about Jesus, but they do establish the fact that he truly lived, that he gathered disciples, performed healings, and that he was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate.

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Christian Sources. The nonbiblical Christian sources consist for the most part of the apocryphal gospels (a.d. 150–350) and the “agrapha” (“unwritten sayings” of Jesus, i.e., supposedly authentic sayings of Jesus not found in the canonical Gospels). Their value is quite dubious in that what is not utterly fantastic (cf. Infancy Gospel of Thomas) or heretical (cf. Gospel of Truth) is at best only possible and not provable (cf. Gospel of Thomas 31, 47).

The biblical materials can be divided into the Gospels and Acts through Revelation. The information we can learn from Acts through Revelation is essentially as follows: Jesus was born a Jew (Gal. 4:4) and was a descendant of David (Rom. 1:3); he was gentle (2 Cor. 10:1), righteous (1 Pet. 3:18), sinless (2 Cor. 5:21), humble (Phil. 2:6), and was tempted (Heb. 2:18; 4:15); he instituted the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23–26), was transfigured (2 Pet. 1:17–18), was betrayed (1 Cor. 11:23), was crucified (1 Cor. 1:23), rose from the dead (1 Cor. 15:3–8), and ascended to heaven (Eph. 4:8). Certain specific sayings of Jesus are known (cf. Acts 20:35; 1 Cor. 7:10; 9:14), and possible allusions to his sayings are also found (e.g., Rom. 12:14, 17; 13:7, 8–10; 14:10).

The major sources for our knowledge of Jesus are the canonical Gospels. These Gospels are generally divided into two groups: the Synoptic Gospels (the “look-alike” Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and John. The former are generally understood to “look alike” due to their having a literary relationship. The most common explanation of this literary relationship is that Mark wrote first and that Matthew and Luke used Mark and another source, now lost, which contained mostly teachings of Jesus (called “Q”) and that they used other materials as well (“M” = the materials found only in Matthew; “L” = the materials found only in Luke).

Jesus of Nazareth. In Matthew and Luke we find accounts of the birth of Jesus. Both accounts point out that Jesus was born of a virgin by the name of Mary in the town of Bethlehem (Matt. 1:18–2:12; Luke 1:26–2:7; attempts to find allusions to the virgin birth in Gal. 4:4 and John 8:41 are quite forced). Attempts to explain these accounts as parallels to Greek myths stumble on the lack of any really substantial parallels in Greek literature and above all on the Jewish nature of these accounts.

The ministry of Jesus began with his baptism by John (Mark 1:1–15; Acts 1:21–22; 10:37) and his temptation by Satan. His ministry involved the selection of twelve disciples (Mark 3:13–19), which symbolized the regathering of the twelve tribes of Israel; the preaching of the need of repentance (Mark 1:15) and the arrival of the kingdom of God in his ministry (Luke 11:20); the offer of salvation to the outcasts of society (Mark 2:15–17; Luke 15; 19:10); the healing of the sick and demon-possessed (which is referred to in the Jewish Talmud); and his glorious return to consummate the kingdom.

The turning point in Jesus’ ministry came at Caesarea Philippi when, after being confessed as the Christ by Peter, he acknowledged the correctness of this confession and proceeded to tell the disciples of his forthcoming death (Matt. 16:13–21; Mark 8:27–31). Advancing toward Jerusalem, Jesus cleansed the temple and in so doing judged the religion of Israel (note Mark’s placement of the account between 11:12–14 and 11:20–21 as well as the contents of the following two chapters). On the night in which he was betrayed he instituted the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, which refers to the new covenant sealed by his sacrificial blood and the victorious regathering in the kingdom of God (Matt. 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18; 1 Cor. 11:26). Thereupon he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, tried before the Sanhedrin, Herod Antipas, and finally Pontius Pilate, who condemned him to death on political charges for claiming to be the Messiah (Mark 15:26; John 19:19). On the eve of the sabbath Jesus was crucified for the sins of the world (Mark 10:45) outside the city of Jerusalem (John 19:20) at a place called Golgotha (Mark 15:22) between two thieves who may have been revolutionaries (Matt. 27:38).

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He gave up his life before the sabbath came, so there was no need to hasten his death by crurifragium, i.e., the breaking of his legs (John 19:31–34). He was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:43; John 19:38) on the eve of the sabbath. On the first day of the week, which was the third day (Friday to 6 p.m. = day 1; Friday 6 p.m. = day 2; Saturday 6 p.m. to Sunday a.m. = day 3), he rose from the dead, the empty tomb was discovered, and he appeared to his followers (Matt. 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20–21). He stayed forty days with the disciples and then ascended into heaven (Acts 1:1–11).

So ended the three-year ministry (John 2:13; 5:1; 6:4; 13:1) of Jesus of Nazareth.

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The Christ of Faith. The unique self-understanding of Jesus can be ascertained by two means: the implicit Christology revealed by his actions and words, and the explicit Christology revealed by the titles he chose to describe himself.

Implicit Christology. Jesus during his ministry acted as one who possessed a unique authority. He assumed for himself the prerogative of cleansing the temple (Mark 11:27–33), of bringing the outcasts into the kingdom of God (Luke 15), and of having divine authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:5–7; Luke 7:48–49).

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Jesus also spoke as one who possessed authority greater than that of the OT (Matt. 5:31–32, 38–39), than Abraham (John 8:53), Jacob (John 4:12), and the temple (Matt. 12:6). He claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). He even claimed that the destiny of all people depended on how they responded to him (Matt. 10:32–33; 11:6; Mark 8:34–38).

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

Explicit Christology. Along with the implicit Christology of his behavior Jesus also made certain christological claims by means of the various titles he used for himself. He referred to himself as the Messiah or Christ (Mark 8:27–30; 14:61–62), and his formal sentence of death on political grounds (note the superscription on the cross) only makes sense on the basis of Jesus’ having acknowledged that he was the Messiah. He referred to himself also as the Son of God (Matt. 11:25–27; Mark 12:1–9), and a passage such as Mark 13:32 in which he clearly distinguished between himself and others must be authentic, for no one in the church would have created a saying such as this in which the Son of God claims to be ignorant as to the time of the end. Jesus’ favorite self-designation, due to its concealing as well as revealing nature, was the title Son of Man. Jesus in using this title clearly had in mind the Son of Man of Daniel 7:13, as is evident from Matt. 10:23; 19:28; 25:31; Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62. Therefore, rather than stressing humility, it is clear that this title reveals the divine authority Jesus possesses as the Son of Man to judge the world and his sense of having come from the Father (cf. here also Matt. 5:17; 10:34; Mark 2:17; 10:45). Many attempts have been made to deny the authenticity of some or all of the Son of Man sayings, but such attempts founder on the fact that this title is found in all the Gospel strata (Mark, Q, M, L, and John) and satisfies perfectly the “criterion of dissimilarity,” which states that if a saying or title like this could not have arisen out of Judaism or out of the early church, it must be authentic. The denial of the authenticity of this title is therefore based not so much on exegetical issues as upon rationalistic presuppositions which a priori deny that Jesus of Nazareth could have spoken of himself in this way.

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The Christology of the NT. Within the NT numerous claims are made concerning Jesus Christ. Through his resurrection Jesus has been exalted and given lordship over all creation (1 Cor. 15:27; Phil. 2:9–11; Col. 1:16–17). The use of the title “Lord” for Jesus quickly resulted in the association of the person and work of Jesus with the Lord of the OT—i.e., Yahweh. (Cf. Rom. 10:9–13 with Joel 2:32; 2 Thess. 1:7–10, 1 Cor. 5:5 with Isa. 2:10–19; 2 Thess. 1:12 with Isa. 66:5; 1 Cor. 16:22 and Rev. 22:20; Phil. 2:11.) His preexistence is referred to (2 Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:6; Col. 1:15–16); he is referred to as creator (Col. 1:16); he is said to possess the “form” of God (Phil. 2:6) and be the “image” of God (Col. 1:15; cf. also 2 Cor. 4:4). He is even referred to explicitly in a number of places as “God” (John 1:1; 20:28; Rom. 9:5; 2 Thess. 1:12; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:5–8; 1 John 5:20; although the exegesis of some of these passages is debated, some of them clearly refer to Jesus as “God”).

Who Were Christianity’s First to Third Centuries Non-Christian Witnesses for the Historicity of Jesus Christ?

The Quest for the Historical Jesus. The beginning of the quest for the historical Jesus can be dated to 1774–78 when the poet Lessing published posthumously the lecture notes of Hermann Samuel Reimarus. These notes challenged the traditional portrait of Jesus found in the NT and the church. For Reimarus, Jesus never made any messianic claim, never instituted any sacraments, never predicted his death, and did not rise from the dead. The story of Jesus was in fact a deliberate deception by the disciples. In so portraying Jesus, Reimarus raised the question, “What was Jesus of Nazareth really like?” And so the quest to find the “real” Jesus arose. During the earliest part of the nineteenth century the dominating method of research in the quest was rationalism, and attempts were made to explain “rationally” the life of Christ (cf. K. H. Venturini’s Non-Supernatural History of the Great Prophet of Nazareth). A major turning point came when D. F. Strauss’s Life of Christ was published in 1835, for Strauss in pointing out the futility of the rationalistic approach argued that the miraculous elements in the Gospels were to be understood as nonhistorical “myths.” This new approach was in turn succeeded by the liberal interpretation of the life of Jesus, which minimized and neglected the miraculous dimension of the Gospels and viewed it as “husk” that had to be eliminated in order to concentrate on the teachings of Jesus. Not surprisingly, this approach found in the teachings of Jesus such liberal doctrines as the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the infinite value of the human soul.

EVIDENCE FOR THE HISTORICAL JESUS: Is the Jesus of History the Christ of Faith?

The “death” of the quest came about for several reasons. For one, it became apparent, through the work of Albert Schweitzer, that the liberal Jesus never existed but was simply a creation of liberal wishfulness. Another factor that helped end the quest was the realization that the Gospels were not simple objective biographies which could easily be mined for historical information. This was the result of the work of William Wrede and the form critics. Still another reason for the death of the quest was the realization that the object of faith for the church throughout the centuries had never been the historical Jesus of theological liberalism but the Christ of faith, i.e., the supernatural Christ proclaimed in the Scriptures. Martin Kähler was especially influential in this regard.

THE HISTORICAL JESUS: Did Jesus Really Exist?

During the period between the two World Wars, the quest lay dormant for the most part due to disinterest and doubt as to its possibility. In 1953, a new quest arose at the instigation of Ernst Käsemann. Käsemann feared that the discontinuity in both theory and practice between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith was very much like the early docetic heresy, which denied the humanity of the Son of God. As a result he argued that it was necessary to establish a continuity between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. Furthermore he pointed out that the present historical skepticism about the historical Jesus was unwarranted because some historical data were available and undeniable. The results of this new quest have been somewhat disappointing, and the enthusiasm that greeted it can be said, for the most part, to have disappeared. New tools have been honed during this period, however, which can assist in this historical task.

The major problem that faces any attempt to arrive at the “historical Jesus” involves the definition of the term “historical.” In critical circles the term is generally understood as “the product of the historical-critical method.” This method for many assumes a closed continuum of time and space in which divine intervention, i.e., the miraculous, cannot intrude. Such a definition will, of course, always have a problem seeking to find continuity between the supernatural Christ and the Jesus of history, who by such a definition cannot be supernatural. If “historical” means nonsupernatural, there can never be a real continuity between the Jesus of historical research and the Christ of faith. It is becoming clear, therefore, that this definition of “historical” must be challenged, and even in Germany spokesmen are arising who speak of the need for the historical-critical method to assume an openness to transcendence, i.e., openness to the possibility of the miraculous. Only in this way can there ever be hope of establishing a continuity between the Jesus of historical research and the Christ of faith.

THE HISTORICAL JESUS: Who Did Jesus Think He Was?

By R. H. Stein

Bibliography. M. Bockmuehl, This Jesus; G. A. Boyd, Cynic Sage or Son of God?; R. E. Brown, Death of the Messiah; F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament; S. T. Davis, Risen Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection; J. B. Green, ed., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels; J. G. Machen, Virgin Birth of Christ; I. H. Marshall, Origins of New Testament Christology; J. P. Meier, Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus; B. F. Meyer, Aims of Jesus; E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism; J. W. Shepard, Christ of the Gospels; R. H. Stein, Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings and Jesus the Messiah; G. H. Twelftree, Jesus the Exorcist; J. van Bruggen, Christ on Earth; J. J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, eds., Jesus under Fire; B. Witherington III, Christology of Jesus; Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth; N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God. Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 629–632.

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