Friday, May 1, 2009

Creating Jesus 5: Why did the Christians "create" Jesus?

After laying down the ground rules, the first thing that I think we need to tackle is why the early Christians began to construct the picture(s) of Jesus they did? In other words, what inspired them to form their first christologies? What impulse(s) caused them to want to understand Jesus in "divine" categories beyond their memories of him as their Jewish teacher and leader?

These are not easy questions for sure, and it is necessary to keep in mind that a complex of impulses worked in conjunction with each other to form Christology. As Christianity mobilized and became geographically more and more diverse, the Christological formulations will also diversify. My study of the literature has revealed three major Christological paradigms that are connected with different geographical locales. So I will discuss diversity very shortly.

For now, let's just consider impulse. Why develop Christological schema at all?

One of the strongest impulses I have been able to recover from the literature is the need for the early Christians to attach some meaning or value to the troubling death of Jesus. Allusions and interpretations of his death are across the literature, deeply engrained from the very beginning of Christianity. Yes, even in Q, and even in Thomas. Both know Jesus died, and both offer meaning to that death. Now our different sources know or offer different meanings for his death, but know about it they do.

Why was it so troubling? Because he died as a Roman criminal. His criminal death was a problem that I cannot overemphasize. It was good for nothing in terms of theology. It was not good for trying to convert Romans, and it was not good for trying to convert Jews. It in fact was a liability that the Christians apologize for and explain over and over and over again in their literature.

But we can imagine from the explanations they provide for Jesus' death that some of their first questions following Jesus' death were likely along these lines:

Why was our leader killed as a criminal?
Why did God allow this to happen?
Where was Jesus now?
What would happen next?
What are we supposed to do now?

A second impulse that I think we have to take very seriously, again because it is all over the various layers of traditions (age and geography), were the followers' claims to visions of Jesus after his death. They claimed to have apocalypses of Jesus, to see him or talk to him after he died. Although we might see these as only their stories, it is clear from their writings that they understood these visions to be significant religiously. And because of this, their religiously interpreted experiences influenced sharply the development of Christology.


John Shuck said...

Wow, these are great posts. Thank you for spelling it out!

Memra said...

A great beginning. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of insurgents and rebels put to death by the Romans in the first century, but they inspired no religions and are largely forgotten.

So, why was the case of the carpenter from Nazareth different?

Anonymous said...

I second that Wow!

I am finally bookmarking your blog so that I can follow this. The that myriad struggles witnessed in the early literature ought to but another nail in the Jesus Myth coffin.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to future posts.

Anonymous said...

Memra - perhaps Christianity' push in to the diaspora allowed it to survive the destruction of Jerusalem whereas a stew pot of movements in the city were disrupted or snuffed out.

I suppose this is standard conjecture. I hope to be have many stupid ideas beaten out of me by the likes of Dr DeConick.

Michael said...

Thanks for this, April. I really appreciate your even-handedness.

I wonder how you feel about the authenticity of says like the one in Mark 10:45 and par where Jesus says that the son of man must give his life as a ransom.

Granted there are plenty of reasons to argue for a Markan redaction here, but given (1) the meaning attached to the deaths of the Maccabaean brothers (2 Macc 7:37-38; 4 Macc 17:20-22), and (2) the prevalence of Hanukkah celebrations, wouldn't it have been possible for Jesus to have (1) seen his violent death as inevitable, and (2) attached meaning to it himself?

Of course, it would also be possible that his followers attached that meaning to Jesus death as a result of the impulses you mentioned in this post.

I'd be happy to hear what you think about that scenario if you could fit it into a future post.

Either way, thanks for doing this, April. It's stimulating great opportunities for discussion and exploration!

Steven Carr said...

'What impulse(s) caused them to want to understand Jesus in "divine" categories beyond their memories of him as their Jewish teacher and leader?'

What memories does Paul have of Jesus as a Jewish teacher and leader?

When is Jesus portrayed by Paul as leading a movement and appointing people within that movement?

In Romans for example, what teachings of Jesus are given?

His criminal death was a problem that I cannot overemphasize. It was good for nothing in terms of theology.

Paul writes in Galatians 'Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree."

For Paul, crucifixion was essential to his theology. A Messiah who was not crucified was a Messiah who had not removed the curse of the law.

Why was it so troubling? Because he died as a Roman criminal.

Paul writes in Romans 13 'Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.'

Did Paul know that Jesus had ben unjustly killed by God's servants, who do not bear the sword for nothing, and from whom the innocent have nothing to fear?

Unknown said...

Somewhere in the midst of the interpretation, either before or after the Christian movement out of the Jewish (or proto Jewish if you prefer) there was a move to use typology to look at the Old Testament through the early Church's ideas about Jesus.

Why was it so important to tie Jesus to the Jewish scriptures, or at least what became the Jewish scriptures?

Jim Deardorff said...

If the simplest hypothesis were treated seriously, then the answers to the questions posed here fall into place. That's the survival-of-crucifixion hypothesis, or spontaneous resuscitation.

To recover from a shortened crucifixion, with medical help inside the tomb, is certainly much more probable than the concept of resurrection. Yet, from the time of Paul's Christology to the present day, it is a gross violation of (Christian) theological commitment to entertain the survival hypothesis. NT scholars evidently fear loss of reputation, position, or ability to publish, if they treat the survival hypothesis seriously. But this is not to say that a few independent scholars haven't treated it seriously: Karl Bahrdt, Karl Venturini, Heinrich Paulus, F.E.D. Schleiermacher, the Ahmadiyyas, Ernest Brougham Docker, Graves & Podro, J.D.M. Derrett, etc.

It solves many questions:
1. Survival of a crucifixion was very rare, so it could be deemed a miracle. That plus his miraculous healings, teachings and prophecies, etc., turned him into a divine figure.
2. It explains the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus in physical form. Which is more probable -- all those post-crucifixion accounts were made up out of whole cloth, or their basis was real?
3. It can explain Saul's conversion experience, in which the men with him also heard the voice and brief conversation (Acts 9, as later further revised in Acts 22 and 26). Paul, having been a Pharisee who believed in resurrection, evidently rationalized his event as an appearance of a resurrected Jesus. Paul's views came to dominate by the end of the first century. For Stephen Carr: Jesus had to die, not just be hung on a tree, to fit into Saul/Paul's belief system.
4. It can explain the 21 pieces of evidence reported by Holger Kersten and others left behind from the man's post-crucifixion travel from Anatolia along the Silk Road to northern India and Kashmir.
5. So, no need to be concerned with "dying to save mankind from their sins," brought into earliest Christianity by Paul and later the writer of Matthew.

Unfortunately, my experience is that his survival of the crucifixion will be considered more troubling, at least to Christians and NT scholars, than his (supposed) death on the cross.