Monday, July 8, 2013

Jesus: A Biography from a Believer by Paul Johnson

When the esteemed historian, Paul Johnson, wrote a biography on Jesus, I knew I had to pick it up. His subtitle, “A Biography from a Believer” explains his own point of view. But what I was most interested in was how his historian’s brain treated Jesus as an historical figure. 

He begins by stating, up front, his belief that Jesus was both God and man. Without this fundamental understanding, Jesus life can be confusing and subject to dismissal. But with this as his basic premise, he can treat the miracles, the virgin birth, the encounters with the people of his day and his death and resurrection as matters of fact rather than speculation.

I love how he introduces his book, “The problem with writing the life of Jesus the man is not so much the paucity of sources as their abundance, and the difficulty in reaching behind the written text to the full meaning of sayings and episodes which need to be explained afresh to each generation. There is the further problem of presenting to readers, two millennia later, the personality of a man so extraordinary and protean, passionate yet deliberative, straight-forward and subtle, full of authority and even, at times, stern, yet also infinitely kind, understanding, forgiving, and loving, so dazzling in his excellences that those close to him had no hesitation in accepting his divinity.”

He begins with the account of Jesus birth, dedication and episode in the temple at age 12. Being that he is Catholic, he believes those referred to as “Jesus’ brothers” are actually cousins and that Mary was a perpetual virgin. He speculates that during the “missing years” from 12 to 30 that Jesus spent time in a variety of occupations and with a variety of people. This led to his deep understanding of people and jobs such as shepherding and farming.

His next section deals with the Baptism, Temptation and choosing of the Apostles. With Jesus beginning to make a name for himself, Johnson points out that Jesus is never physically described. Yet again and again, he is described as “looking up” or “looking at”. Apparently Jesus had a penetrating gaze and was a keen observer. He also exuded an air of authority which was immediately recognized wherever he went. Johnson details the way in which the disciples were chosen, but makes the point that not all who were called responded favorably. The “rich, young ruler” went away sad that Jesus asked too much of a commitment from him.

Johnson goes onto highlight some miracles in the life of Christ. But these miraculous deeds were not without negative repercussions. As such, Jesus often performed these supernatural actions reluctantly, usually compelled by compassion. He asked the witnesses not to speak of them and lamented that people needed these signs to believe. Jesus knew from the start that his miracles would draw the attention of the authorities. “It was the miracles, and their obvious success and truth, which persuaded these men to put Jesus to death. For they drew attention to the real threat - Jesus’s teaching, which promised to overthrow all their traditional, ancient, exclusive, and hieratic values.”  At times he even intentionally goaded them, as when he performed healings on the Sabbath. 

Johnson then begins a discussion of what Jesus taught and why. Jesus taught constantly in his three year ministry. Every meal, every encounter, every detail along the roadside gave him an opportunity to expound upon an eternal truth. Jesus did not simply reiterate the laws which had bound the Jewish culture for centuries, but rather exposed the nuggets and moral soul within the law. He preached an eternal Kingdom of God in which the law was obeyed, not because of rules and regulations, but because of a changed heart. Jesus taught what had never been taught before. He turned all perceived wisdom on its head. “Love your enemies.” “Judge not.” The heart, not actions,  needed to be radically changed. Actions would follow. Jesus preached an equality of mankind unknown throughout the world. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And everyone is your neighbor!

How then did he teach? Certainly not in the usual way. His teachings are preserved for us in parables, poetry, and questions and answers. This memorable way of expounding truth has allowed so many of his words to remain with us to this day. When Jesus speaks, “inanimate objects spring to life, animals are anthropomorphized, nature teems with purposeful moral activity, and human beings often assume a dignity, a profundity, or a pathos, thanks to the brilliant glitter of Jesus’s imagery.” Jesus spoke in riddles and sometimes incomplete stories. These begged the listener to press in closer to him for the answers and understanding. His teaching tested his audience again and again as he repeated, “Let him who has ears to hear, hear.”

And what of the people he encountered as he walked from town to town? While Jesus addressed large crowds at times, we see a special intensity in his interactions with individuals. Social position or lack thereof appears to be irrelevant to Jesus. He could look straight into the heart of the person he addressed to see where the true need lay. To the paralytic he offered forgiveness, to the rich, young ruler he offered freedom from possessions, to the woman caught in adultery, he offered understanding. Although he is usually seen in the company of the outcast, even the highly placed found favor in his eyes when they placed their faith in him. He elevated women in a way no one had done before. They played a pivotal role in his ministry and he often found himself defending them against an intolerant society. He loved children. Unheard of in the ancient world. He expected a certain amount of childishness from his followers, urging them to become “as little children” in their faith.

“The aim of Jesus was not to change the world. His aim was to fit its inhabitants for the Kingdom of God, which he insisted ‘is not of this world.’” The Jews of his day had a hard time understanding that the meaning of this world lay in the one beyond. The understanding of an afterlife was rudimentary at best and many did not believe in it at all. They fundamentally misunderstood the concept of the Messiah and many rebelled when he failed to rise up politically. He constantly separated heaven and earth, refusing to get involved in even the petty political squabbles of the day. He dismissed raging controversies with, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Yet although he focused on making the citizens of earth fit for the Kingdom of Heaven, he paradoxically made them better citizens of earth. “The quest for the next world has transformed this one” as Christians have risen up and made the world a better place because of Jesus.

Jesus issued his own version of the Ten Commandments through the example set in his life.
  1. Each soul is unique, indestructible and timeless.
  2. Each person is part of the larger humanity.
  3. Respect the fact that we are all equal in the eyes of God. No jockeying for position.
  4. Love above all.
  5. Show mercy as God shows mercy.
  6. Live a life of balance.
  7. Cultivate an open mind.
  8. Seek Truth.
  9. Exercise power with restraint and modesty.
  10. Show courage.

Jesus preached revolution in the hearts and minds of the men and women of ancient Judea and for that he had to die. Two very public events preceded his death. He rose a verifiably dead Lazarus, and chose to ride into Jerusalem to the deafening cries of the crowd. Neither could be dismissed or ignored by the ruling elite. Jesus knew it was his time and so prepared for the end with one last supper and the institution of a holy communion to forever remember his death. After a trumped series of trials and false charges and crowds paid off by the accusers, Jesus died a criminal’s death on the cross.

But he didn’t stay dead! Apropos of the life and ministry of Jesus, it would be women who discovered the empty tomb. Women of faith and undying devotion to their savior brought the news to the cowardly and disbelieving men. Only when Jesus himself began to appear to them did they believe. After Jesus ascended back up to heaven, he left the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort the new church. While I may question why God would leave humans in charge of spreading the gospel message, he did. He has a reason. But first he came, himself, as a man, to show us how to live.

1 comment:

  1. When Jesus spoke of becoming like children, he was telling his disciples--who had asked about greatness in his new kingdom--that the greatest would be those who humbled themselves like the little child he set before them (Mt. 18:1f.). In a familiar society where men ruled and women and children were last of all, Jesus said disciples that became more like a child (and the women who followed him), lowly and powerless, yet serving humbly, would be great. Thus, rather than saying we are all equal in the eyes of God, he said his most humble servants would be the greatest in the eyes of God.