[*] 3 of 3: Who was Jesus?

The series got interrupted by the death of the Roman Catholic Pope, and the irony, I think, is that the controversies that are in evidence in the blogosphere and also in the forum-o-sphere over John Paul II are directly related to this question of "who was Jesus?" The amusing part of the controversies, really, is that those who are banning dissenting voices and shutting down their forums are the ones accusing others of "hatred" -- when there's nothing hateful about pointing out matters of historical fact.

And that's Wright's overall point in "Who was Jesus?", isn't it. The matters of historical fact ought to be the trusted ally of the person faithful in Christ. But those matters of fact, in Wright's summary of what we can know about this Jesus, are something played on a very grand scale. He says:
    The strange thing about Jesus' announcement of the Kingdom of God was that he managed both to claim that he was fulfilling the old prophecies, the old hopes, of Israel and to do so in a way which radically subverted them. The Kingdom of God is here, he seemed to be saying, but it's not like you thought it was going to be. (98)
Well, great. This sounds like someone some of the readers of this blog are familiar with -- who says that if we read Scripture the "right" way, we are going to find that we have got a lot of things wrong. ("we" being Protestants who will not give quarter to Rome, particularly "Baptists" who also have problems with a lot of more-magisterial forms of Protestantism)

But is that the implication Wright is making here? He may make it elsewhere, but not at all in this place -- because Wright's point ultimately is that the Jewishness of Jesus advanced something he calls "double revolution". Here he does not draw out the conclusion that this or that soteriological doctrine has contextual problems, but instead points out that radical redefinitions of Jesus have problems in the context of the historical setting.

Let me be clear here that I am sure none of the advocates that I list in my links "for reference only" are advocates of radical redefinitions of Christ in the sense of the three "popular" revisionist histories Wright refutes in this book. Whatever problems I have with them, it is not that I think they trash Jesus personally or christologically.

That said, Wright is pointing out that the facts surrounding the person of Jesus indicate that he intended to do, and ultimately accomplished what he intended, something which was not only radical and world-changing externally (in fulfillment of the Jewish expectations), but also internally, so as to overturn the expectations that the Jews themselves had regarding their own slice of the pie, so to speak.

There are dramatic implications to this perspective on the historical Jesus -- and one of them relates to a topic near and dear to my theological heart: semper reformata. The Jesus who was working to overturn the external forces of oppression of the Jewish people (summarized in the slogan, "There is no King but God" -- which, ironically, is not a slogan of Jesus) was also the Jesus who was working to overturn the internal forces of Jewish culture (which certainly would have set all other nations as second class) by doing something which would (apparently) draw all men to himself. That is to say, as much as Jesus was working to liberate the Jews from Roman transgressions, he was also working to liberate the Jews from the notion that God was only for them.

Some may say to that: Huh! Antisemitism! To those I say: read Wright's book rather than rail on about my summary.

Others will say: what does that have to do with "semper reformata"? It has everything to do with the idea of the church always being vigilant to reform itself. In the first place, Jesus' view of His work was not monochromatically "theological" in the sense that it fulfilled certain propositions related to beliefs about God. Jesus saw His work as historical in the sense that is was action inside history and time. It was work that was intended to be done in the (excuse the modernity) metanarrative of God's plan for the world -- that is, the larger "societas". But it was also work done explicitly for the sake of the nation of Israel -- which is to say, for the sake of the particular "societas".

In the second place, inside that more particular work, the question for us as Christians reading Wright -- and we cannot stop at this text if we are to search out Wright's broader themes -- is what kind of work was Jesus doing in particular? Was it merely reconciliation of Jew to Gentile through an act of social revolt? How can we say that when a central matter for Wright is that the tomb was empty -- that Jesus actually conquered death? At the same time, can we limit or over-emphasize the empty tomb strictly to the work of mending the relationship of God and man, making the resurrection consequential in temporal matters, but overwhelming those with the eternal significance of that one sacrifice that perfects for all time? How is that right when Jesus consistently preached a Kingdom of the here and now, a Kingdom which had immediate consequences for a man and his neighbor?

I think one clear implication of Wright's short work is that the matter of Christ in society is a matter of complete and radically immediate reform -- that no societal construct is itself sacrosanct. Rome was certainly not Jesus' idea of a finished, God-centered society; it turns out, however, that neither was Israel. If that is the case, why should we assume that the society formed by the first generation of followers of Christ was itself sacrosanct? Or the society formed as the generations progressed? Why would the society in the 4th century be exempt from reform? Or the 8th? Or the 12th? Or the 16th? Or the 21st?

I do not have the rest of Wright's "stuff" yet, so we're not done with him. I agree that Christ is the one who changes the whole world, but I think the matter really comes down to "to what end?" and "by what means?" This will be an on-going topic on this blog because it seems to be important for some of the dissenting voices one encounters.