Me: Hello again, Jesus
Jesus: Hello, I thought about what we spoke about last time. I have some questions.
Me: I though you might. I would too if I were you. I have some questions for you as well.
Jesus: You first
Me: At what point in your ministry did you decide you wanted to be the messiah?
Jesus: That’s an easy one, I didn’t. I was content in my role as divinely anointed prophet of the Last Days. It was only after arriving in Jerusalem for Passover some fellow pilgrims began to suggest the idea. At first I was reluctant but some politically active Israelites were insistent. I realized God could use me in this role so I bowed to the will of the people. Then when I was arrested, it seemed to reinforce it. Even when I was suffering on the cross I thought God would intervene and rescue me at the last moment, but I was wrong.
Me: What were your final thoughts if I may ask?
Jesus: Of course I was despondent because I was so certain of the kingdom’s imminent arrival and my role in it. But ultimately, it was never my decision. The Lord is free to choose whomever he desires. He had someone else in mind, obviously.
Now I have a question for you. I’m stuck on the idea that so many people think I am God even though I constantly preached about my relationship to “God.” I made it clear I was doing his bidding and could not do or say anything which I did not receive from him. Every miracle I performed and every word I spoke was because of his anointing spirit. Surely, they don’t think I was God while I was on earth?
Me: As a matter of fact they do. They believed you were perfect God residing in the body of a perfect man.
Jesus: But that would make me two beings at once. If I had the power of God, as God, I could have destroyed the Romans and reclaimed Israel. Also, God can’t die so how could I have died? It makes no sense and is unfathomable given I never made such a claim. What is most baffling to me is my disciples knew I was a prophet, so when and how did this wild theory start?
Me: We’ll talk about the implications of you being both man and God later. Let’s begin with how it all started.
Remember in our first conversation we spoke about how everything changed after the resurrection story began to gain acceptance? Once it was determined you had not simply been brought to life physically but had ascended to heaven, you could no longer be thought of as a mere mortal man. You were now divine. Since no one had ever been resurrected and granted entrance to God’s presence, it was deduced you were special. The question now was, “How special?” Even your disciples who were intimately acquainted with you regarded you as a divine Lord. It was the only explanation for their own mystical encounters with you.
Jesus: I understand that but we had many hours of conversation and I never indicated to them I was going to die and be raised to life let alone become divine. It is hard to imagine how they would arrive at this determination. Did they think I would keep something like this a secret from them?
Me: For later Christians this seemed to be the only logical explanation as to why you never spoke about it while on earth. The writings are full of speculation based on what Christians thought you were. This brings us to a vital point. Everything we know, or think we know, about you is contained in a collection of ancient writings. These are referred to as, “The New Testament.” They were selected from many other writings which were deemed spurious or non authoritative. There was considerable debate among Christian leaders for centuries as to which were genuinely authoritative and accurate and which were not. As you can imagine, there were many differing ideas about you so sorting fact from fiction was no easy matter. The writings we do have which attest to your life and that of your disciples are more theological than historical. Which is to say, they are not perfectly reliable accounts of what you or they said or did.
Jesus: I remember when I was alive there was a lot of speculation about who I was, but being God was never one of them.
Me: True, the challenge of reading this material is determining what your actual words were and what were not, but almost all the New Testament writings claim you were divine because of your resurrection. You yourself are said to have declared your divinity to your disciples even if you didn’t because it only makes sense you would have.
I should mention belief in your total equality with God was still centuries away. It was a progression that started with affirming your divinity after your alleged ascension and grew from there. Nothing in the New Testament writings explicitly teaches you are in essence equal to God. Rather you share God’s nature having “proceeded from him” and returned to him. After your death when the resurrection story began many new theories began circulating. Most of them without a known source. You had actual stories of your earthly life and newly evolving stories surrounding your heavenly existence.
Jesus: My disciples would have corrected the many misconceptions about me even if they thought I had been resurrected.
Me: That would be true but it would be forty years before someone attempted to sift through the many stories and compile the material into a written account. By then almost every eyewitness to your life would have been dead including your family and disciples.
Jesus: The authors were obviously believers who wanted to catalogue my life but how would they know what was true and what wasn’t?
Me: There are three categories of information about you: What is clearly false, what is clearly true and what is believed to be true even if it might be false.
We have four different versions of your life which are similar but contain multiple discrepancies and contradictions. It is generally agreed to by experts, they were all written by men who did not know you personally but perhaps knew someone who did. One was a companion of Paul, one an associate of Peter, one was perhaps a disciple of John, the beloved. The final gospel, attributed to “Matthew,” was likely composed by someone to replace an original work by Matthew that was lost or destroyed. Unique to all of them is their attempt to merge your earthly life with the Christian version of who you were after your resurrection.
Jesus: You saying many of these stories about me were fabricated on belief in a resurrection that never happened. Why would anyone make up information or deliberately deceive others about my life?
Me: That’s the big question. You yourself claimed to have a special relationship with God who provided you with exclusive information. After your resurrection, many of your followers claimed prophetic ability which gave them access to past details about your life. The motive of most was surely a sincere desire to answer the many questions people had. A perfect example are your disciples. They sacrificed their own lives to defend their belief in your resurrection and claimed their information was received firsthand. Christians for centuries have seen this fact alone as proof you did rise from the dead. Why else would someone die for a lie?
Jesus: If I were to hazard a guess based on what you have already told me. It is because the mystical encounter they claimed to have had with me was so convincing and “real,” it was as if they had seen me in the flesh.
Me: I would add to that Mary’s claim she did see you in your physical body, even though she didn’t, was sufficient proof to others you had. It only takes one person to tell a story and one person to believe it to start a legend.
Jesus: Mary was always one of my devoted followers since I exorcised seven demons from her. Before that she was constantly being tormented by dark forces which she saw all around her. I think she must have mistaken one of her visions for me because I certainly never met her.
Me: You have raised a delicate issue and one which I don’t think most Christians understand or want to understand. All evidence suggests the resurrection story would never have started had she not had her mystical encounters with you and an angel. If nothing else, she provided enough curiosity about the possibility of you being raised to life to cause others to consider it, none more important than your own disciples.
Jesus: Are you saying my disciples believed I had been resurrected based on her testimony?
Me: No, in fact it is interesting the gospel accounts stress initially your disciples did not believe Mary’s report about an angel who said you were alive. When they returned to Jerusalem for Pentecost and discovered Mary’s had had an encounter with you, they gathered and prayed to the Lord to show them. It was then some began to have their own experience with you which changed their minds.
I think the trust factor among your followers is also important to note. Once some started to testify to seeing you in your “spirit” body, others believed and sought a similar experience. This phenomenon is well documented among all religions and belief systems. People can generate a similar experience based on others accounts of what that experience feels and looks like. Some might call it faith imprinting. You mimic or copy the faith expression of someone else who you think is demonstrating a legitimate and real experience. It then becomes a shared spiritual experience with each reinforcing the other and so on. It becomes even more powerful when there is a reliable source, either written or verbal, on which to base them.
Jesus: I’m surprised my disciples didn’t attempt to provide an official version of events to serve as a measure for truth instead of leaving it for others to do.
Me: A couple things bare mentioning here. Your followers were persuaded you would return at any minute, so nobody thought it important to write down details about your life when it was most pertinent. Second, it would take many years before Christianity grew enough to be considered worthy of any written documentation. Third, the majority of your believers were uneducated and illiterate so oral stories and legends were far more practical and powerful because most believed them to originally come from first hand accounts. Last but not least, your disciples were more persuaded than any one of your resurrection so they were most guilty of spreading the resurrection myth.
Jesus: I noticed you choose the word, “myth.”
Me: I think it’s the perfect term because it suggests the sacredness of the belief and its power in the lives of those who adhere to it. In the case of the resurrection, it contains elements of truths around which the spiritual part of your resurrection has been built.
Jesus: Such as my death, a missing body and eyewitness accounts?
Me: These three facts alone were enough to launch the most powerful myth ever told, especially that last point.
Jesus: I lived at a time when people, myself included, had visions of angels and spirits regularly. Even the pagans believed in various gods and spirits. The unseen world is a misnomer because it is often manifested in tangible ways. People “encounter” this realm through dreams and visions which can be more real than the physical world. Demon possession is observable and the effects of God’s spirit can be both heard and seen.
Me: If I may interject. The story of the apostle Paul’s conversion is a perfect example. He was blinded by a bright light, yet claimed to have “seen” and heard you. One dreams with their eyes closed yet sees in their mind’s “eye.” The incontestable fact this singular event was enough to sustain him and many others to the point of a martyr’s death is strong evidence. Christians fail to appreciate how affirming spiritual experiences can be in any religion even if not factual.
Jesus: Are you saying an experience is not fact?
Me: No, I’m saying the experience itself is a fact but may not be based on a fact. It is the power of faith in something, whether true or imagined, that generates the experience.
Jesus: What about other details which neither I nor my disciples would have provided.
Me: Belief about you was fluid. As questions arose surrounding the events of your life, answers were formulated which became popular and achieved a certain oral fixity. They contain information about who you were prior to being born, your ministry, arrest, death, resurrection, ascension to heaven and perhaps most importantly, your return. There were many gaps which required filling necessitating deductive reasoning. But only when Jewish Christianity was under threat of extinction was there an urgency for these oral traditions to be evaluated, sorted and composed.
Jesus: I suppose this threat was pressure from the religious establishment who distrusted my ministry from the start. It must have intensified when my disciples suggested I had been resurrected and would begin my messianic office. And they must have been especially enraged by Paul.
Me: While your followers were constantly being persecuted by these leaders for declaring you messiahship, and of course Paul for his gospels departure from Judaism, it was something far greater which prompted these writings.
Around 66AD, some Israelites started a series of revolts against Rome that escalated into a full scale rebellion. Roman retaliation was swift and severe. The details are inconsequential other than the city was ruined, the temple profaned and many thousands of Israelites were enslaved or lost their lives to starvation, disease or execution. Many saw this as a sign Yahweh was going to intervene and deliver his people. Jewish Christians, as you can imagine, were convinced it would signal your return. By the time the dust settled and smoke cleared over the holy city, you had still failed to appear.
The impact of yet another unrealized return was profound. Apathy and malaise began to settle over the Jewish church and some returned to Judaism. In a desperate effort to stem the tide of departures and resuscitate the faithful, the gospels were written. They contained a lot of information primarily intended to establish your credentials as the heavenly messiah. Most importantly, they offer a stern warning. Those who had become “drowsy,” irresponsible or otherwise unprepared because of your protracted delay in returning would face severe judgment. As it turned out, this idle threat would sound the death knell for this original branch of Christianity. Meanwhile, Gentile Christianity flourished.
Jesus: No doubt because of its loose affiliation with Judaistic Christianity.
Me: Though Paul was already dead, he had given Gentile Christianity the independence from Judaism it needed to survive without its Jewish parentage. For centuries Christians blamed Jerusalem’s devastation on Israel’s rejection of you as Messiah. They believed God was punishing them. Eventually, Christians who were almost exclusively Gentile, suggested the Israelites had been replaced with the Christian church. It is a hotly debated issue even today especially among a Christian sect called evangelicals. We will talk about them in another conversation if you are interested.
Jesus: I find all this troubling to hear but at least my people are presently back in the land the Lord promised them, right?
Me: Yes, though very few practice Judaism as you would demand. Most are secular Jews who loosely hold to the traditions but are not enthusiastic about subscribing to the ancient laws. I should mention the Temple was never rebuilt so Judaism has changed significantly. However, we’re getting off topic. Where were we?
Jesus: I’m surprised that nobody wrote anything earlier about my teachings especially if they thought I had been resurrected. I think that would have been worth writing about. Why did it take so long?
Me: That’s an important point. Your Jewish followers already had plenty of writings with the Hebrew Scriptures. As you know, they were still very much a part of Judaism so with that and a robust oral tradition about you, nothing else was needed. For Gentiles, on the other hand, it was a much different matter. They were in need of more specific writings tailored to their needs and beliefs.
Jesus: Let me guess, this involves the Paul you spoke about before?
Me: You have to remember once Paul began his ministry only a few years after the resurrection story began, there were two branches of Christianity operating. As we mentioned previously, he found little receptivity among his fellow Israelites in Judea so he ventured north where there was less resistance. According to the New Testament book, Acts, he first introduced the gospel to an exclusively non Jewish pagan audience in Psidian Antioch. I would say if this account it accurate, it was the watershed moment for Christianity. Paul was now free to take his version of the gospel to Gentiles far and wide without encroachment by your disciples in Jerusalem.
Jesus: I can’t imagine my disciples or any other Israelite would tolerate such a gross violation to the sacred traditions of Judaism in Judea. Paul was a defector who betrayed his heritage, yet according to you his version of Christianity survived while my disciples’ gospel did not. All because of my repeated failures to return as messiah and the fall of Jerusalem. I’m a little unclear as to why Gentile Christianity managed to survive.
Me: That’s a perfect lead in to Paul and his philosophy of Christianity. We could spend a lot of time on this topic but we will confine ourselves to a brief sketch of the most important points. I’m sure we will refer back to it often anyway.
Paul’s biggest hurdle was addressing a growing tension among his Jewish and Gentile converts who resided in one church. The issue was the role of “the Law” in his version of Christianity. Because he was ministering to a Gentile audience with no allegiance whatsoever to the traditions nor obligation to the Mosaic Law, he had to create a new set of teachings for their education and edification. At the same time he had Jewish converts who had entered the faith through Judaism. This juxtaposition created a tension which would eventually need resolution. You can’t have two different gospels in one religion let alone under the same roof.
The question of circumcision had already been addressed at a formal gathering of your disciples convened in Jerusalem. It had been decided after a vision Peter had, which we can discuss another time, Gentiles who had converted but not been circumcised would be granted salvation. The admission of God-fearers was a small concession which created an opportunity for Paul to fully exploit.
Jesus: What I find astonishing is Paul’s version of the gospel seemed to be evolving based on expediency. It is no wonder he had to appeal to direct revelation since he was moving further and further away from the central tenets of Judaism.
Me: The necessity of legal conformity was so embedded in the psyche of religious Israelites, it was difficult if not impossible to consider abandoning it. But Paul had brought Gentiles into Christianity who had no exposure to these ancient traditions but were told they were now full inheritors of the promises. They would never convert if required to be circumcised. Now the question was, what about things like obeying the Sabbath, attending the festivals, keeping dietary laws and the legal precepts? What impact did the law have now that you were a Christian, whether Jew or Gentile?
Jesus: I would argue, even though removing circumcision contradicts the law, it is imperative to keep the rest of the legal precepts in order to be assured of obtaining the Lord’s blessing and avoiding judgment when his kingdom arrives in full. It would seem to be the only way to be consistent with the traditions and avoid further compromise.
Me: Paul must have considered this for a time but then rejected it. He determined if part of the law was not necessary to gain salvation, none of it was necessary to keep salvation.
Jesus: How did Paul reconcile my ministry which not only reiterated legal conformity but also internal piety with his views.
Me: Paul seemed unfamiliar or uninterested with your earthly life focusing almost exclusively on the heavenly Christ aspect. As far as Paul was concerned, it was only your resurrected role which mattered.
Jesus: Paul seems to have begun down a dangerous road from which he could not or would not turn back.
Me: I think that is an accurate appraisal. Paul has witnessed an overwhelming response by pagan Gentiles willing to embrace his gospel and live virtuous lives, yet they were uncircumcised and unfamiliar with the Mosaic law. I think Paul was under tremendous pressure to find a solution to keep all his converts and not risk theological ostracization for discounting the law. This compelled Paul to seek out textual support.
Jesus: I know he must have found it but I am curious as to where? I listened to the holy writings expounded my entire life and never heard anything close to what Paul was teaching.
Me: First, I would strenuously argue Paul took incredible liberties with the many texts which violate their integrity and intended meaning. His reason for doing so is his claim to have received his mission through direct revelation from you. He was up against your own disciples and in order for his radical gospel to be taken seriously he had to profess two things. First, a visitation from you personally to qualify him as an apostle after his conversion. And second, a commission from you to take the gospel to Gentiles without legal requirements.
Jesus: I can see how vital it was he make these two claims, but he still faced the enormous task of justifying it from the sacred writings.
Me: Paul was highly motivated when he was a Pharisee as he wrote in one of his letters. He refocused this zeal in his new role, and as you said, he had few other options once he started. His extensive knowledge of the Hebrew writings and conviction he was divinely appointed and anointed to preach the gospel to the Gentiles propelled him to search the scriptures for vindication.
His central argument as found in his letters to the Romans and Galatians stems from the Lord’s covenant with Abraham which preceded the giving of the law to Moses. Fundamental to his position was the verse, “Abraham believed the Lord and he credited to him as righteousness.” He alleges it was faith alone without any “work,” i.e., the law, which qualified Abraham as righteous and therefore inheritor of the promises. On the surface and out of context it would appear Paul has a case, but a closer inspection and comparison with similar texts reveals a flagrant contradiction.
Jesus: Paul’s argument is false. Abraham’s faith was still predicated on obedience to God’s oral commands regardless of whether the written law had been given. He moved his entire family from Haran to Canaan based solely on God’s command to do so. Second, the prerequisite for inheriting the promises of the land and descendants to fill it was circumcision to which he willingly submitted. Third, Abraham’s entire life is characterized by acting in accordance with what God told him. Finally, according to Moses, Abraham and his offspring were constantly implored to obey God’s word. He specifically reinforced this to Isaac after Abraham’s death.
“I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, 5because Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions.”(Genesis 26:4,5)
One could look at it this way. Abraham and his offspring were obeying God’s oral law which is every bit as binding as the later written law.
Me: Agreed, I think the term “active faith” best describes what God required as opposed to a dormant faith which produces no righteous fruit. Certainly if Abraham had acted “unrighteously” or disobediently, the Lord would not have rewarded him.
Jesus: Obedience is critical. No self respecting Israelite who wanted to secure the Lord’s blessings would ever question the essentialness of this rite. Anyway, this still doesn’t account for including Gentiles in the promises.
Me: Right, Paul still needed scriptural justification for this part of his theory. Again, he turned to the life of Abraham. Based on his previous conclusion, participation in the promises is a matter of faith alone and not obedience to the law which had not been given yet. Therefore, Paul concluded the promises were not tied to the law but faith and claimed Abraham had both natural and spiritual offspring. However, only those who believed through faith were his true children and inheritors of the promises. In the passage where the covenant of circumcision is inaugurated, Paul takes the word, ‘goyim’ (“nations” or “families”) and extends it to include Gentiles as well.
Jesus: The original context would suggest otherwise and such an interpretation contradicts the spirit of the passage whose focus is specifically on Abraham’s natural offspring. I find it brazen Paul uses a passage where circumcision is mandated to argue against its importance.
Me: Paul believed he was being vouchsafed revelation which superseded the literal contextual meaning even if he knew it. He was pioneering a new and better way which replaced the law and traditions with a concept called grace. Grace is incompatible with the law and superior to it.
This esoteric approach to the prophetically inspired writings seems to be a common approach by Christian writers though Paul was the most radical in his interpretation. I guess it’s a matter of believing what you want to believe and seeing what you want to see with God’s spirit guiding you no matter how divergent it was from the traditional view. I think Paul reveled in this special role.
Jesus: Did Paul think the teachers of the law had been blind to this interpretation for centuries? Does he honestly think Abraham thought God was telling him about a future where Gentiles would believe a gospel that superseded the law while Israelites would needlessly adhere to it for centuries? Or Moses’ work as the great giver of the law was inferior to his?
Me: Many religious Judeans must have posed these same questions and he had a clever answer for them. Paul regarded his gospel as a mystery hidden for generations until God finally choose him to reveal it. In this respect, God intended Abraham and Moses to only see what he revealed until the fulness of time came for a new redemptive program. Paul refers to the law as a “tutor” who prepares a student until he or she reaches an age whereby they no longer need instruction. Your arrival and subsequent death and resurrection brought centuries of being under the law to a terminus, after which, it was replaced by the age of grace through faith. All based on your death and resurrection. It all seemed perfectly reasonable especially to a Gentile audience with little or no understanding of these ancient texts.
Jesus: But, what about his Israelite followers? You mentioned there were two gospels operating simultaneously, one for Jews and one for Gentiles. I find it remarkable Israelites would not fight to keep the sacred traditions even if Gentiles refused.
Me: It is hard to know what Paul was thinking on this matter but it seems clear he viewed his interpretation of the gospel as superior to that of your disciples because he claimed to have received “his gospel” by direct revelation from you. He clashed with Peter over this issue but managed to get the Jerusalem church to endorse his ministry. As I mentioned already, they needed the financial contributions of Paul’s Gentile converts more than they cared about his theology.
Jesus: I would be curious to know whether Paul’s Jewish converts were resistant to abandoning Judaism or happy to no longer be under its demands.
Me: I would offer a third possibility. I think a large portion of Jewish converts were from outside Judaism and like Gentiles were attracted to Paul’s gospel. It was an opportunity to partake of the promises without adhering to the law. However, we know some of Paul’s churches were split on this issue with Jewish Christians trying to force Christians to obey the law. The problem arose when Jewish Christians who were keeping the Law were fellowshipping and worshipping with Gentiles who did not have to keep the Law. Regardless, reading through some of Paul’s writings reveals the theological quagmire he had created for himself.
Jesus: When was it finally settled?
Me: After Jerusalem’s fall, Jewish hope in a restored Israel faded. I think even Jewish Christians struggled in their faith. Meanwhile, Gentile Christianity was flourishing and using these events as proof they were the spiritual offspring of Abraham. Jews must have felt increasingly unwelcome. But nothing contributed more to the death of Jewish Christianity than your absence. It was predicated on the gospel you preached of a soon to arrive kingdom which never came to fruition.
Jesus: How many Israelites are Christians today?
Me: Historically, only a tiny fraction of Jews have embraced Christianity. Many have been coerced into conversion and persecuted by Christians for their reluctance to acknowledge your messiahship. It has been a rocky relationship until recently. A group I mentioned earlier, evangelical Christians, devised a new and bizarre theory concerning the relationship of Israel and Christians. It is only a few hundred years old but has had a massive impact. I think it poses an existential threat to Israel.
Jesus: You’ve piqued my curiosity. I’d like to explore this more.
Me: Great, let’s make it the topic of our next conversation. We also need to discuss how you became both God and man in one body and how those two natures related to each other.
Jesus: We still have a lot to cover. Until then…