Jesus Before the Gospels: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus

Jesus Before the Gospels: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus
David R. Weiss – February

[I’ll be using this as the basis for an adult forum at St. Paul’s UCC on Wed. 2/10/21 at 6:30 CST on Zoom. Ask me for the link if you’re interested. This is a longer than usual post. You can find a pdf here.]

“Who do you say that I am?” The question posed to the disciples in the Gospels (Mk 8:27-35 | Mt 16:13-23 | Lk 9:18-22) may or may not go back to Jesus himself, but it captures well the existential question that has confronted his followers ever since.

Faces of Jesus – Odessa Life Project (

It is, finally, a question of faith. His first followers answered it with their feet, their heartfelt loyalty, and often their lives—grounded ultimately in their conviction that Jesus was indeed somehow Messiah, Christ, “chosen of God.” Decades later the Gospel writers answered the same question in composing their tales of glad tiding. Although we presume their answers agree, there is a great deal more variety in how they portray Jesus than we’re entirely comfortable with. And, throughout history, the church—from theologians to mystics, from heretics to hermits—has wrestled with this same question.

And so do we.

But only in the last seven decades or so has that question been posed in two parts: Who was this man Jesus before the Gospels got a hold of him? And who is he in my life and the life of my community today? The first question names the challenge of “the historical Jesus”; the second one names the challenge of faith.

For close to two thousand years that first question wasn’t even around. Most Christians took it for granted that there was no difference between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith”—they assumed the Gospels offered us a more or less accurate historical record of Jesus’ life, free from “spin.” Thus, for most of church history—including as recently as that of our grandparents and great-grandparents—the decision about what to make of Jesus as Christ has been largely detached from history. It was a decision conditioned entirely by the biblical portrait(s) of Jesus, the dominant (or latest) theological trends, and (most likely) the preaching and teaching in one’s local parish. Generations upon generations of faithful Christians answered this question seriously, devotionally, thoughtfully, without the aid of recent scholarship. And we dare not diminish their answers on that account.

But neither can we pretend that the historical Jesus has no relationship to our faith today. What we are learning about Jesus “before the Gospels” matters. And even though our “quest for the historical Jesus” is a conversation with uncertainty, it is a conversation into which the God who is still speaking invites us today. Reckoning as best we can with the historical Jesus may help us notice more clearly the choices of interpretive faith—choices that cast the tidings about Jesus as glad tidings—made by the first Gospel writers in their accounts. And this helps equip us to offer our own most faithful account of who Jesus is for us today—especially those of us committed to being among the community of his faithful followers in such a time as this.

The Quest for the Historical Jesus

What has come to be known as the “Quest for the historical Jesus” began in the late 1700’s. While some of the earliest entries featured painstaking if not yet critical use of the Gospels, other “lives” of Jesus did little more than harmonize the four tellings and still others embellished Jesus’ childhood and inner life driven by theological presumptions—or outright sensationalism—but with no historical basis. Soon after, in the 1800’s, fueled by the Enlightenment, efforts were made to tell the “real” life of Jesus by erasing the supernatural. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, famously edited his own version of the Gospels, removing any of the miracles that offended reason, leaving a life of Jesus focused simply on moral teaching. Jefferson was no historical Jesus scholar, but his miracle-free Bible reflected perfectly the serious scholarly work being done at the time.

In 1906, Albert Schweitzer, shortly before heading to Africa as a medical missionary, published the book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, which has come to name (even retroactively) all such efforts. Schweitzer, using the best scholarship and critical tools available in that era, produced a portrait of Jesus that was unflinching in its ethical claims on human lives, but which came with a wrenching conclusion. Schweitzer’s Jesus was an apocalyptic (end-times) prophet who was convinced that if he was just audacious enough in his message and deeds, God would join him in effecting the Kingdom of God here on earth, now. In describing the culmination of Jesus’ life, from his entry into Jerusalem through his death on the cross, Schweitzer writes near the end of his book that Jesus “lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and he throws himself on it. Then it does turn; and crushes him.”

And with those words the quest for Jesus was virtually crushed as well.

For Schweitzer the Jesus of history is a sincerely mistaken messiah whose final gambit to bring about the kingdom he preached led tragically to his own death. This Jesus is ultimately a stranger to us, an enigmatic figure who Schweitzer suggests we would do best to leave behind and focus instead on a mystical union with Christ as ethical inspiration for our lives. This plays out admirably in his own life—in 1952, at age 77, and forty-six years after “throwing Jesus under the bus” so to speak—he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of “Reverence for Life,” articulated in both his writings and in his life work. But Schweitzer’s impact on the quest was to effectively end it for almost fifty years.

During this period (usually dated from the 1906 publication of The Quest until the mid 1950’s) leading church theologians focused on the priority of the church’s kerygma, its proclamation about Jesus as Christ: more specifically, its offer of salvation to those who believe. Some rather stridently said that the Jesus of history—whoever he was—simply doesn’t matter. What matters is what the church, beginning with the Gospels, proclaimed about him. At its strongest, this position argued that even if the Jesus of history was nothing like(!) the person preached by the church, that’s okay, because the only Jesus that truly mattered was the one God was proclaiming through the church. You have to appreciate the audacity of this approach—it was, in many ways, aligned with existentialist philosophy and theology and interested in promoting an authentic (and deeply ethical) Christian life. Still, there’s something unsatisfying and maybe more than a little unsettling about making the factual life of a movement’s founding person so superfluous to the movement itself.

In the mid-1950’s, sparked by new tools of textual analysis, the Second Quest began with scholars looking for the historical Jesus with fresh vigor between, behind, and beneath the lines of the Gospels. In large part this Second Quest was fueled by new insights into the layered writing of the Gospels that persuaded most (but not all) biblical scholars that the passages reflecting belief in the imminent end of history—including words placed on the lips of Jesus himself—were, in fact, creations of the early church. Although a bit alarming to the casual lay person (“Are you saying the Gospel writers put words into Jesus mouth?!”), this made sense to these scholars. Given what they were learning about the layered history of the Gospels, it was increasingly clear that some themes in the written texts were shaped by events, conflicts, and attitudes that came well after Jesus. If his apocalyptic sayings were in that category, it would mean that the historical Jesus would be found by looking elsewhere. And so they did. Jesus’ “rehabilitation” began.

Beginning in the 1970’s this “looking for Jesus elsewhere” became known as the Third Quest, which has continued to the present. The Third Quest for the historical Jesus is marked by its incorporation of tools, methods, and angles of investigation drawn from far beyond biblical scholarship itself. By augmenting—and interpreting—the biblical portrait of Jesus with knowledge from history, sociology, comparative religions, and the study of other movements, the Third Quest has brought us closer to the Jesus of history than ever before.

That isn’t to suggest there’s a clear consensus, but there’s an array of scholars leveraging a host of new insights to fashion fresh and often vivid portraits of who Jesus might have been. However, as with any discipline using a range of specialized knowledge, the “experts” in historical Jesus studies can be fiercely committed to their own conclusions—and even more fiercely dismissive of views that differ from their own. So, if you were hoping for a definitive once-for-all historical Jesus you’ll be sorely disappointed …

But that’s how it’s always been. Certainty was never in the cards.

Our Starting Place

Remember, there was a twenty year “gap” between Jesus’ public ministry (30-33 CE) and the first written records (Q around 50 CE), and a forty- to seventy-year gap between his life and the biblical Gospels themselves. That gap wasn’t silent—it was filled with oral stories. But these were tales of witness and faith and “glad tidings” (gospel)—not intended to capture or carry accurate history. Not surprisingly, then, even the four Gospels we have in the Bible differ in their telling. If the Bible marks out the range of acceptable variability in telling the glad tidings of Jesus, it’s a surprisingly wider range than we notice when we encounter Jesus in lectionary sound bites on Sunday morning.

Moreover, while each Gospel puts a slightly different spin on how they see Jesus, meeting these tales as we do, with the “benefit” of a 2000-year tradition, it seems obvious that Jesus was who the Gospels make him out to be: Christ, Messiah, Emmanuel, Son of Man, Son of God, Savior of the world. But wait. While Jesus clearly caught the notice of his fellow Jews, most of them found him an ambiguous enough figure that it was easier to reserve judgment than to embrace him as messiah. That’s not evidence of their “hard-heartedness”! It merely proves that among Jesus’ most defining features was ambiguity.

Thus, the one thing that the historical record tells us with something close to crystal clarity is this: even if we could catch a time machine back to first century Palestine, 30 CE, and encounter the man from Nazareth firsthand, we would still have to figure out for ourselves how to answer his question, “Who do you say that I am?”—with no guarantee that we’d answer the same way we do today. And yet, if I could sell you a $25 ticket on that time machine, my guess is most of you would purchase one in a heartbeat. Well, I just happen to have the keys to Ms. Frizzle’s Magic School Bus for the evening, so if you’re game, find a seat—no tickets required!—and we’ll be off. 

First, a quick caveat: I’m not an historical Jesus scholar myself. But, in addition to having studied New Testament Greek and having done graduate level coursework in the Gospels, I’ve read a couple thousand pages of historical Jesus scholarship over the years. I’ve certainly learned enough to have made some informed opinions of my own.

Broadly speaking there are three camps of historical Jesus scholars. (Yes, this oversimplifies it, and there would be plenty of experts who’d say I’ve unfairly lumped them in with someone whose methods or conclusions they dismiss as foolhardy. But we don’t have time for a whole seminar on this topic, so simplicity wins the day.)

One camp of scholars continues to refine the trajectory marked out by Schweitzer, affirming that, like it or not, Jesus was convinced that the End was imminent. Therefore, however invigorating-and-then-discomforting that may have been for the early church (within decades they faced an End that wasn’t coming) as well as for us today, understanding who Jesus was back then—and deciding who he is for us today—begins with the recognition that he preached an End that never came. Oops. I think it’s fair to say that for most scholars in this camp Jesus is a subject of intense academic curiosity and passion … but of little faith concern. That is, most if not all the scholars in this camp are not Christian, so this Jesus is no threat to their faith.

While this view is in the minority today, it remains a tenacious minority. My guess is that most of us—persons with a vested interest in a “believable” Jesus—sleep a little easier knowing this view hasn’t won a consensus. But it’s important to acknowledge it’s a legitimate, defensible position.

A second camp of scholars pretty much affirm as “historical” the Jesus described in the Gospels. These scholars tend to be persons shaped by and connected to more conservative-evangelical or traditional-mainline faith traditions. Their biblical scholarship is top-notch, but it tends to be set within a framework that takes for granted that behind Jesus stands a personal supernatural God who intervenes in history in ways that bend or break the laws of nature.

This camp includes scholars who range from fundamentalist in their theology to others whose work and views are extraordinarily sophisticated and nuanced. I place them in the same camp because at the end of the day my sense is that these folks end up where they began: their scholarship, sincere and solid, is driven foremost by a desire to defend the biblical claims about Jesus. That’s a fair project, especially among mainline conservative-traditional and perhaps even liberal mainline Christians. It harnesses reason to make the best case for preserving (as much as possible) the picture of Jesus passed on to us by the dominant tradition of the church over the past two millennia.

But here’s my bet: most of us who’ve found our way to the liberal-progressive end of the Christian spectrum wound up here because whole pieces of that traditional-comfortable mainline Christianity began to feel uncomfortable for us. Whether because of our honest commitment to a rigorous scientific worldview, our awareness of how many voices—lives!—have been silenced and excluded by the Christian tradition across the ages, or simply the unexpected twists and turns of our own personal lives and inward journeys, our deepest intuitions bear witness to a world both messier and more wondrousthan the one we inherited. As a result, we’re willing to entertain proposals that seek to understand Jesus while dancing at the edge of doubt, portraits that can foster faith in the space where head and heart are mutual partners in holding our humanity together. That’s where we’re headed now.

This third camp of Questers include scholars who would identify as atheist, agnostic, or Christian. And the details of their specific portraits differ significantly. What links them across their differences is a conviction that the man Jesus, hidden-but-accessible in history, is best understood against the backdrop of the world in which he acted, in all its historical, political, economic, social, and religious richness. And—that we can deepen our understanding of that complex world by comparing it with what we know about other similar contexts of ferment in other places and times. And—that this Jesus can be refined in focus by careful references to other religious leaders, both within and beyond his own tradition.

The result is a three-dimensional sketch of Jesus informed by the biblical text, a deep sense of the dynamic context in which he lived, and a larger understanding of how religious leaders and their movements unfold in discernible patterns. From within the work of this third camp I’ve found a portrait of Jesus that is both compelling and challenging: it resonates with a thoughtful worldview even as it feeds a healthy restlessness within my heart. It has allowed me to encounter a Jesus whose echo can be discerned within the biblical text but whose life and energy is larger even than these early biblical tales captured.

A Portrait of Jesus for Hearts and Minds Today

The portrait I’ll share here is most indebted to the work of Marcus Borg, although I’ve also greatly appreciated the writings of John Dominic Crossan and Richard Horsley. What sort of person would we encounter if we could meet Jesus, the man, before the Gospels, during his ministry? Borg suggests we would meet a person who could be characterized in four ways: spirit-person, social prophet, movement renewer/founder, and wisdom teacher. All four are patterns of religious identity found in multiple traditions—that is, they don’t make Jesus one-of-a-kind; but they make him recognizably “holy” in a near universal way. I think that’s an asset. Often a holy person embodies just one of these roles, occasionally a pair of them. Jesus is fairly unique (but, again, not singularly so) in embodying all four roles. In any concrete expression these roles can overlap, and in Jesus’ life that’s certainly true. I’ll describe each role on its own, but there are no clear boundaries between them, and you’ll no doubt catch holiness “splashing” across the labels as I explain them.

Spirit-Person. Sometimes called ecstatics or mystics, these are persons with an immediate experience of the Holy, persons whose very presence exudes the intimacy they know with God … or Truth. For instance, it’s said that the Buddha’s face shone to a degree that was either enthralling or disturbing depending on your readiness to hear his wisdom. Or that if you met the Dalai Lama you couldn’t help but feel the peace flowing outward from him. Similarly, when Jesus prayed to God as “Abba,” (literally, a warmly affectionate term like “Papa” that went well beyond the more formal “Father”) it reflected not his piety—nor even his “ontological” relationship to “the Father”—but the radical nearness that he knew with God.

As indicated by the references to the Buddha and the Dalai Lama, however, spirit persons do not necessarily “prove” God; what they do testify to, is that capacity of humans to experience—and live out of—a Remarkable-and-Numinous-Depth-of-Reality (which might be named as God or Truth or Enlightenment). As a result, spirit persons are typically charismatic—NOT that they speak in tongues, but that they carry themselves with a presence that is intrinsically appealing because it rings with a Moreness that we humans seem to intuit is at the heart of reality even though we rarely meet it face to face. Spirit persons take your breath away because they’re almost more real than you think is possible. Were such a person to ask you to “Follow me,” you might well drop your nets and do so.

Spirit persons are often associated with visions (like at Jesus’ baptism, temptation, and transfiguration) and with the type of prayer or meditation that led Luke (writing decades later) to describe Jesus as regularly going off to a lonely place to pray all night long.

Spirit persons also frequently channel a sort of healing energy. This doesn’t mean they effect healings by magically altering the physical world. In Jesus’ case it meant that his deep connection to the Reality he experienced as God—and as profoundly, overwhelmingly gracious—opened him to an energy could be mediated to others. And mediated with such force that it could break through levels of trauma, shame, isolation, and judgment—all of which can have physical manifestations. And that this breaking through could have a “miraculous” healing effect on others, calling down “wholeness” onto bodies and psyches that had been otherwise bound and broken. That doesn’t imply Jesus could heal every disease or injury. But there was undoubtedly a large measure of healing energy that coursed through him, and it seeded the stories of healing that were remembered and multiplied after him.

One argument used by scholars to trace exorcisms (one special type of psychic healing) back to Jesus himself is that even his adversaries acknowledge that he cast out demons; they accused him of accomplishing his exorcisms by being in league with Beelzebub, the prince of demons—evidence that his reputation as a healer was too well established for anyone to challenge the healings outright. Borg further distinguishes between miracles that belong to the story of Jesus (healings and exorcisms) and miracles that belong to the story about Jesus (those that involve suspending laws of nature: multiplying food, walking on water, stilling storms). For Borg the second set of miracles are not untruths per se; rather, although not historical fact, they’re part of the symbolic narrative that carried the truth of Jesus as spirit person to later generations.

Finally, in the Jewish tradition in which Jesus emerges there are instances of other spirit-persons—other Jewish holy men—whose intimacy with God was so striking that it led others to refer to them as “son of God.” The church eventually decided Jesus’ “sonship” was a theological claim about divinity, but it’s possible that it began as the simple, awe-driven recognition that he was a most special but thoroughly human person.

Social Prophet. Such holy persons were well-known in Judaism. We know their names: Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and others. These persons were often also ecstatics (driven by visions or otherworldly convictions) but because this holy identity usually expressed itself in a severe critique of the social order, they were more likely to be disdained as gadflies than revered as mystics.

“Prophet” in this role does NOT mean they predicted the future via supernatural foresight. In Israel, prophets spoke to the present moment with a keen sense of God’s expectations joined to an uncompromising view of their community’s life and an uncanny perception of larger geopolitical tumult. They were, in a sense, God’s intelligence operatives on the ground in Israel. Just as some savvy observers of the American socio-religious political landscape “predicted” years ago that conditions were ripening for the re-emergence of white supremacy and a political leader like Trump, Israel’s prophets, from Isaiah to Jesus accurately recognized a collision course between Israel’s inner life and catastrophic outward effects. It’s very believable to suggest that Jesus foresaw violence in Jerusalem’s future not because he could peer past the present, but because he was keenly perceptive of the forces at play in the present.

For Jesus, as well as for his “colleagues” across the ages, prophets were intrinsically social prophets. They were animated by their conviction that God’s holiness was profoundly political: that God was deeply invested in how power was held and shared in communities. Hence, God’s commitment to freeing slaves and to safeguarding the needs of orphans, widows, and the needy. In most societies—Israel is hardly unique in this—power tends to accumulate with those who hold wealth or status, who then consolidate power further by using religious and other social mechanisms to maintain their place at the top of a social hierarchy. Borg describes this as a “politics of holiness,” where categories of clean/unclean and other ritual expectations end up being used to determine who’s in and who’s out, who holds value and who is unvalued.

Once you can grasp that this manner of “holiness” is really a cover for human bias amplified with sacred/social value, you can realize that this type of politics undergirds the structural bias that misshapes most societies—including ours today. White supremacy, homophobia, and sexism all express a politics of holiness where one type of value is made “sacred” or “ultimate” and others are denigrated as a result.

In Jesus’ day, the oppressive economic-cultural-imperial pressure of Rome threatened Jewish identity in multiple ways. And a “politics of holiness” played out as well in efforts to preserve Jewishness in the face of outside pressure. Essenes retreated into the wilderness in isolation. Pharisees doubled down on adherence to the Torah. And resistance fighters took up arms against Rome. Each response was an attempt to preserve one understanding of Jewish identity but threatened to fracture the community overall.

Borg says Jesus’ response was to challenge the politics of holiness altogether, drawing on the legacy of the Jewish prophets to argue for a politics of compassion. He looked to preserve Jewish identity by calling his community back to the most liberating expression of their faith espoused in the ideals of the Exodus and the messages of the prophets: a community founded on interwoven care for others as beloved by God.

Thus, as a social prophet Jesus challenged the religious-social values that fractured the community, generated poverty, created outcasts, and maintained unjust relations. His clashes with the religious authorities—some of which no doubt trace back to his lifetime, others of which were created by the later Gospel narratives—reflect this role. His decisive action in clearing the Temple is a prophetic act that directly accused Temple practices of having veered from supporting compassion to served “holiness” in an unholy way. It is fundamentally of question of whether God serves to maintain status and order or whether God longs to liberate absolutely everyone. Social prophets—including Jesus—proclaim God’s solidarity with everyone, but especially with the least of these.

Movement Renewer/Founder. This role describes persons who move beyond the critique of what’s wrong, to fill out a positive view of what an alternate community would look like … would live like. As such a person Jesus didn’t seek to found a new movement; he sought to spark a renewal of his own Jewish tradition. With this in mind his ministry involved imagining and implanting community practices that embody a new (renewed) way of being, one that would recapture and deepen the liberatory vision of Moses and thereby fashion a community where all might flourish in the knowledge that God loved them and that their community affirmed them as beloved by God.

Jesus, like many other social prophets, including Martin Luther King, Jr., understood that the politics of holiness preserved power for those at the top by pitting those below against each other. Hence, any effort to build a Beloved Community required dedicated practices of forgiveness, reconciliation, inclusion, and generosity. We catch glimpses of Jesus setting up practices like these—including his radically open table fellowship in the Gospels (a sort of precursor to lunch counter sit-ins)— and these scenes likely echo aspects of Jesus’ actual life. The active presence of women in Jesus’ ministry reflects this vision, as do his teachings that hint at the profound mutuality he deemed as the hallmark of the kingdom—the kin-dom—of God. That Jesus seems to have been derided by his critics for feasting too much (and doing so with outcasts), and being overly joyful—these things suggest that his movement was, in fact, an active and successful experiment in creating Beloved Kin-dom.

I say “experiment” not to make it seem overly marked by “trial and error,” although perhaps it was. Gandhi titled his memoir “My Experiments with Truth,” to evoke the sense that nothing about his life of action was “certain” beyond his conviction that all persons were interconnected and holy. Everything else was a matter of leveraging these truths in this way or that. I imagine Jesus did something quite similar. His teachings on turning the other cheek, walking a second mile, and surrendering one’s cloak are Gandhian in their strategic understanding of power. None of this is to lessen Jesus’ stature. It may suggest that how we answer his question, “Who do you say that I am?” involves stating whether we are willing to join in continuing that experiment of God’s kin-dom today.

Wisdom Teacher. Called sages, sometimes pictured as mountaintop gurus, there were wisdom teachers, like Socrates—and Jesus—who were active in the marketplace, using probing questions, pithy aphorisms, or imaginative stories to try and pierce the “conventional wisdom” that held the world, as it is, in place.

Wisdom teachers are those who speak from the road less traveled. Conventional wisdom has its place—it’s “conventional” because it works most of the time—but it isn’t the wisdom that breaks through to the next place. In fact, conventional wisdom is what undergirds the politics of holiness. It is the currency of the world we know, but it cannot purchase the world we—and God—long for. A deeper wisdom is needed for that.

In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles it is the Deep Magic from before the dawn of time. For Buddha, it is held by the Four Noble Truths and mutual co-arising. For Hindus, it is hinted at in atman, the thread of being that unites all. For Jesus, this alternative wisdom is rooted in the radical graciousness of God. (I don’t want to necessarily claim that all religious truth claims are echoes of one final truth, but I do think that, beyond the way they get refracted by different cultures, languages, histories, topographies, etc., there is more agreement than we notice.)

Both Jesus’ short sayings and his longer parables function like Zen koans, seeking to flip worlds where they are most firmly anchored—inside a hearer’s heart or head. Collections of Jesus’ sayings were among the first written documents produced, even before the Gospels were written. Clearly, his spoken words were memorable and treasured by his followers. They seem to have held onto them (we catch glimpses of this already in the Q material and the community that gathered around it) in the confidence—the faith—that somehow these words themselves have the power to create the community they speak of. Such words were honored not as magical incantations, but as invitations to repattern human lives grounded in a sweeping notion of grace.

What might it mean to Defund the Police or even Abolish Prisons? Such phrases are easy to lambast from the vantage point of conventional wisdom. But from the claim of God’s radical graciousness and the daring invitation to “experiment” with such a truth, these phrases sound astonishingly like echoes of gospel. To take Jesus seriously as teacher of alternative wisdom “back then” can make for some surprising echoes when that wisdom speaks today.

The Question Posed Again: “Who do you say that I am?”

Ms. Frizzle’s Magic Bus always took her students on journeys of discovery, but perhaps never quite so provocative as our excursion today. Were we to travel back in time we’d encounter a Jesus who looked quite unlike our Western art has imaged him: shorter, swarthier, more earthy and more “foreign” that we easily call to mind. And he would be speaking Aramaic—without subtitles—making it altogether impossible to follow his words. But if we presume to surmount these obstacles, there is a historical person out there that we might meet.

Jesus, before he was throned in glory, before he was laid in a manger, was a real person.

He was a spirit-person. Had we encountered him, even without understanding a word he spoke, it’s likely we would’ve felt our hearts quicken and maybe even the hair on our necks rise up in physiological acclamation. Call it holiness or full-on humanity, Jesus’ presence was palpable.

He was a social prophet. The fire in his belly was fiercely fixed on the gap between the vibrant community God longed for and the world that was (that still is). His criticism of unjust power was unflinching and withering. He was a force to be reckoned with.

He was a movement renewer/founder. Rooted in Israel’s hope, he gathered a community that actually began to incarnate the kin-dom he imagined. Were we there, we’d be struck—maybe dumbfounded—by the vibrant energy of human lives touching their power in new ways.

He was a wisdom teacher. And while this would require a facility in Aramaic and in his social context to follow the power of his words, if we did nothing more than watch the faces of those who could follow his speech, in their eyes, their raised or furrowed brows, their smiles or frowns, we’d see worlds flipping before our very eyes.

The Gospels do their best—each for their own audiences set in a particular time and place—to tell the “glad tidings” of Jesus. That is, they summon up a tale that hopes to make those who hear it, feel, experience, know, and be transformed by the good news they tell. But the very nature of such good news is that it is always specific. It waits—it longs—to be told fresh in each new age.

That longing is what we hear in the question before us, “Who do you say that I am?”

There has never been a single once-for-all answer. So, like it or not, we’ll need to answer this question for ourselves, singly and together, but understanding who the historical Jesus was can help. Although I must confess what has come to haunt me most about this Jesus. I get that he’s somehow holy. But I increasingly suspect this is because he’s decidedly more fully and recklessly human than I have ever been. And the more I learn about him, the more I’m convinced he was never interested in being worshipped. But rather truly interested in having a community of folks willing to do experiments in grace alongside him. Together.

Jesus: “Who do you say that I am?”

Me: You are rooted in God’s grace, overflowing with compassion. And more fully human than I’ve ever been—

*          *          *

SOURCES – I’ve chosen not to footnote this essay to keep it easier to read. Among the many authors and books that have influenced my thinking, the most significant are:

Borg, Marcus: Jesus: A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship, HarperSanFrancisco, 1987; and Meeting Jesus Again: The Historical Jesus & the Heart of Contemporary Faith, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. New Vision is an accessible but meticulously detailed sketch of the Historical Jesus. Meeting Jesus is a “Reader’s Digest” version of New Vision, pitched to a wider audience; it’s an excellent introduction.

Crossan, John Dominic: Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. Crossan’s Jesus is more austere than Borg’s, but his presentation is eloquent, challenging, and evocative nonetheless.

Horsley, Richard: Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, Fortress Press, 1987; and Jesus and Empire, Fortress Press, 2003. Horsley’s work is dense, but super informative on the social context and dynamics in which Jesus was active.

© David R. Weiss | 2021.02.07 |

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at Read more at where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at

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