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Stories of Jesus and the Character of God

By Jack Hartjes

April 2015

Table of Contents

Preface and Introduction, below  
Chapter 1. The Infancy Stories

Chapter 2. Jesus’ Miracles
Chapter 3. Who Did Jesus Think he Was?

Chapter 4, Stories of Jesus

Part One: Stories of Jesus before Easter


Not the superhero type

In service to the kingdom

The party

The miracles

The glutton and drunkard

Nowhere home

Blessed are we poor

The failure, part 1, not many friends

The failure, part 2, misunderstood by his friends

A perplexing story: “Crucify him!

Part Two: Easter Jesus in the old stories


Sacred violence and a man named Achan

The scapegoat

Imagining religion's beginning

Two Original Sin stories

Abraham and Isaac

Cain and Abel

Jephthah’s daughter

King David: Everything is holy now

More Kings: Nothing is holy now

Ruth and Jonah


Part Three: Resurrection


┬Ě       The story of God from before the creation of the world until now



Biblical scholarship in the last 100 or so years has turned several corners in its quest to find what we can say with some probability about the facts of the life Jesus led on earth. What that life means for a believer or a non-believer today is equally controversial. Was—or is—Jesus God or was God acting in some way in him? Historical investigation can’t prove that. One of the conclusions I’ve come to while writing this essay is that even an eyewitness to the course of Jesus’ life might not get the kind of proof that today’s believer or a skeptic might ask for.

As a Catholic I believe that Jesus is God. My quest for the historical  Jesus is actually an important beginning of another search. Knowing what Jesus was like is the first step on the way to knowing what God is like. For someone else it might not be the first step, but it could be a step nevertheless—toward understanding God or ultimate reality conceived in some other way. This first step shows me that Jesus didn’t either look or act much like what I and many Christians have been accustomed to think God is. So was God hiding in Jesus or do our ideas about God change in any real encounter with Jesus? In this essay I’m going with the latter.

Before getting into Jesus’ history, an introduction to this essay ponders how odd it is that any single historical character or single point in time and place should be thought to hold the key to ultimate meaning of everything. The first three chapters are still somewhat introductory. They examine parts of the Jesus story that Christians have taken to support belief that Jesus was God in human flesh, often without being challenged to think divinity anew. Chapter One explores the Nativity stories in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. It turns out that the circumstances around Jesus’ birth are unknown to historical scholars. We get no proof of Jesus’ divinity or uniqueness from these stories. Chapter Two is about Jesus’ miracles and concludes that the miracle stories also don’t prove that a supernatural power was operating in Jesus’ career. Chapter Three considers what Jesus probably thought about who he was. Jesus almost certainly didn’t think of himself in quite the same way Christians think of him today.

Text Box: I look to Jesus to find out what God is like because I’m a Christian. Members of other faiths must rely on their own traditions. This pluralistic age has given us dialogue as another path to truth. Respectful dialogue tolerates differences, but eventually one wants to try to work things out.Chapter Four is the heart of this essay and by far the longest. For lack of anything like a biography of Jesus, which is impossible, it tells stories of Jesus. Then it tries to answer what God must be like if Jesus is anything like God. The key is to avoid thinking we know what God is like beforehand—and to be ready to be surprised.

I suppose every age presents the same two questions anew: What do you think God is like? and Do you believe in God? The questions have to go in that order, and for the Christian the first one can only be answered by looking at Jesus. In our age critical historical study has given us important new ways to see Jesus.

At a certain point Chapter Four jumps out of the Gospel stories of Jesus into the history of the Jews and of the whole human race. It does what Jesus’ first followers had to do. They had given Jesus an important place in their story and their people’s story as told in their Scriptures and interpreted over the years. His unanticipated death didn’t fit that old story, but those same Scriptures held an alternative to the usual interpretation. They were able to discover a new story and make sense out of what had seemed only a tragedy. In this part of Chapter Four I take my own journey through Jewish Scriptures, looking for that alternative, unexpected way of making sense of history.

Very soon after Jesus’ death the first Christians came to believe that God had raised him to new life. Chapter Four begins and ends with this belief and an attempt to say what it meant for Jesus’ first followers and can mean for us.

The Conclusion presents a story of God in the light of all that went before and some recent thinking about the Trinity.

Throughout I have relied on several sources. Bible scholars Raymond E. Brown and Walter Kasper helped me portray the humanity of Jesus. RenÚ Girard, who straddles the fields of literature and Bible studies. helped me find a way to relate the story of Jesus and Jesus’ Scriptures to the story of humanity in general. A number of scholars helped me put the story of Jesus in the context of the Trinity. I want to mention theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and the contributors to the multi-faith discussion in The Emptying God: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation, including especially Masao Abe and David Tracy. A bibliography of works cited and other relevant works shows how much I owe to a larger range of scholars.

Stories of Jesus and the Character of God: Introduction

A Scottish theologian, T. F. Torrance, was an army chaplain, holding the hand of a very young, dying soldier during World War I. After the war, as a pastor he was holding the hand of one of the oldest women in his congregation. They both asked exactly the same question: “Is God really like Jesus?” He assured them both: "To see the Lord Jesus is to see the very face of God.” [William C. Placher, The Triune God, p. 139]

That story contains an insight and a challenge for any inquirer. The Christian says, “Jesus is God.” The atheist says, “Of course, he is not; there is no such thing as God.” The Christian as well as the atheist may be assuming that we know what the word “God” stands for and are simply dealing with the question: Is Jesus that? The pastor’s insight is that we don’t know God properly until we know Jesus. The challenge is to know who Jesus is and let that knowledge transform our understanding of God.

Knowing Jesus comes first. How strange it is that knowing simple facts about a person who lived a long time ago should be considered a way to understand ultimate reality or God! What use is knowing about ancient people anyway?

Some thoughts about history and the historical Jesus

The study of history is of no practical use whatsoever.

I forget the name and place of the museum where a guide said that. That view of history would have suited me fine in high school. History was my scariest subject. All those names and dates with no logic to them! I preferred things that made sense like physics, math, and grammar. But I'm also a Christian, and Christians have to take history seriously. If that museum guide is right, then Christianity is wrong.

Here's another quote:

God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths. – Pope Francis, interview with La Civilta Cattolica, August 2013

We’re used to abstract truths – ideas taken out of the history or the world where we get them. In math we have theorems, and there doesn’t have to be any real Pythagoras or even any real triangles for the Pythagorean Theorem to be true. In science we have theories. If the Theory of Relativity is true, it doesn’t matter who Albert Einstein is. We have other theories like Capitalism and Communism, and they work the same whether Karl Marx liked the one or the other. There would still be the moral virtues even if Socrates was a schmuck or a character that Plato dreamed up. Even in religions we find compendiums of abstract truths. Buddhism’s Eight-fold Path would be just as enlightening if the Buddha himself never existed. And the Golden Rule doesn’t need Jesus or Confucius to be a good idea. Why not just go with the abstract truths and forget the history of their acquisition?

But a Christianity with just the ideas but not the memory of Jesus—or a Judaism that preserves all the teachings but forgets the history of the Jewish people—is impossible. Biblical faith is uniquely historical. It isn’t just a case of some people getting a revelation about God and passing that knowledge on. It’s a case of meeting God in history—past, present and future—and in the world where history happens. Forget the history and you will never find the Bible’s God.

History becomes an important factor in the second paragraph of the Nicene Creed, a statement of Christian doctrine agreed upon at the Council of Nicea in 325. The words in this paragraph that historians can make some confident judgments about are in bold print:

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through whom all things were made. For us men [the Greek and Latin say human beings] and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried…. (Translation from the Roman Catholic liturgy)

I hesitated with “was incarnate.” It seems to say more than “was born.” It implies some historically unprovable, pre-existent being that was “made flesh,” but it does include the reliable fact of Jesus’ birth. Historians don’t have much to go on in assessing Mary as a virgin. Jesus’ burial is probable but a question mark for some historians who think victims of crucifixion were often left unburied to be eaten by wild animals. But the crucifixion is a historical event according to the vast majority of historians, as is some role by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. (Interesting that the Creed memorializes this third-rate but definitely historical figure—a sort of hook connecting the Christian creed to the wider secular world.) These historical facts are central to the Christian faith and to this longest part of the Creed.

That is strange because of what historical events are – just things that happened that could as easily have happened differently or not at all. History seems to be, in the words of Samuel Clemens, "one damn thing after another." Yet the Jews found their history to be a meaningful story, and Christians, originally a sect within Judaism, found the center of that story to be connected with a single Jew from Nazareth in Galilee, a negligible corner of the world, in what we arbitrarily designate as the first century of our Common Era with 20 centuries between then and now.

Since history is so important in Christianity, it seems Christians would be highly motivated to seek and find out exactly what Jesus’ history is. Surprisingly, that search didn't really get going until about the 18th or 19th century, when new methods of investigation brought the goal of knowing history—as it actually was, rather than as legend and creed would have it—a little closer to practicality.

But not much closer at first. The “quest of the historical Jesus,” as Albert Schweitzer named it in a book with that title, got off to a pretty shaky start. Schweitzer concluded that all the "biographies" of Jesus up to his time told more about their authors than about the real Jesus. Their "Jesus" looked like an enlightened 19th century figure rather than a first century Jew. Schweitzer’s book dates to 1905. (The Quest of the Historical Jesus, online version by The Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/45422/45422-h/45422-h.html)

It took a while for historical Jesus research to recover from that blow. A kind of historical pessimism set in through the first half of the 20th century. Some Christians said we could know next to nothing about Jesus beyond the fact that he existed. And there were those on the fringes who called Jesus’ very existence a Christian myth. You can find them pontificating (if that’s the right word) on the internet still today.

Eventually, in the course of the last century a second and even a third “quest of the historical Jesus” developed, using specific techniques designed to counter the defects of previous approaches. Common to all these quests is that the information contained in Christian and Jewish scriptures is evidence, which, like any historical source, can confuse us or enlighten us, point toward or away from what a historian wants to know. And there are other sources of evidence—non-canonical Christian writings, Jewish writings from around the time of Jesus or shortly after, a very few references to Jesus by Roman authors, archaeological digs, even research into the religiosity of humans in general and the ways religious meaning gets expressed in ritual and literature. It’s like a detective story. I find it a fascinating search.

The private investigators in this quest aren’t only Christians. Here's another quote:

Give him back to us. – Roger Garaudy, atheist Marxist philosopher

Jesus belongs to the world, and this atheist wants him rescued from the Church, from the pious and doctrinal lenses through which Christians have viewed Jesus. Historical Jesus scholars can be Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics…. You get the idea. The ones who adopt modern techniques have concluded that the Bible can’t be read as straight history. Those doctrinal and pious lenses, along with imperfect memories and lively imaginations, were operating even as the Bible was being written. The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes that the Bible was written by human beings with all their various human strengths and limitations. With that and the fact that Jesus lived a long time ago in a culture whose literary ways and whole culture were very different from ours, it shouldn’t be at all surprising that the historical trail back to him is rather difficult to follow.

Here’s another problem for the Christian. It’s possible to uncover all the available data and put one’s faith in the wrong thing. The history is so interesting and the process of discovery is so engaging for me (who would have guessed?) that for a time I thought all I had to do was uncover the real history and I’d have the truth that God intends me to know. It’s like: Getting the history right is a good enough substitute for having been there, and, of course, if I had been there I would have believed.

Well, not necessarily. There were lots of people who met Jesus, heard him, saw what he did, and didn’t believe in him. Even though we can say, with Pope Francis, God reveals himself as history, something more than historical information is needed.

The Church has always had that something more—a certain way of imagining the world, themselves, and God. These “doctrinal and pious lenses” may obscure the historical Jesus—that is, what historians can reliably say about Jesus—but they may also reveal more than the historian can about the real Jesus. The early Church knew something of the real Jesus even while being confused about a lot of the historical details.

Straightening out the confusion on the historical details may seem like abandoning the real Jesus that the Church always knew. That may explain the reality behind this quote, which I ran into somewhere:

The historical Jesus is not well-known in the churches.

I’m not even thinking of those churches who don’t bother with modern historical methods because they believe there can’t be any errors in the Bible. I’m thinking of my own Catholic church, whose scholars have long been engaged in a critical study of the Bible. Catholic pastors hesitate to use many of the results of their own scholars’ research. Seldom does a pastor preaching on the Flood, for example, let us in on the completely non-controversial “secret” that the Flood didn’t happen.

Even though I think this is unfortunate, I can see why it is the case. Historical Jesus research changes the way we imagine Jesus. I think the changes can have a positive effect on the understanding of doctrine and the practice of piety. But change is scary. It’s hard to know what will happen to the whole picture as some of the details change.

In an age in which accurate history is at least a goal, often a possibility, and sometimes, more or less, a reality, images of Jesus that are not true to history won’t continue to inspire people much longer. Is an unreal Jesus already leading many to leave the Church and maybe give up on God entirely? I don’t know, but many good people are leaving, people who want to see and be involved in reality as it is—this universe, this fragile Earth and its history, and the perils facing our natural and human communities. On the internet a common atheist’s criticism of Christianity is that it is pious nonsense based on myth, not reality. Jesus is not a myth, but a Christian way of imagining the world based on an unreal picture of Jesus is not very convincing. I believe a more truly historical picture of Jesus can foster a way of imagining reality that can inspire and challenge the most realistic of modern people. At least in my case, acquaintance with modern historical Jesus scholarship has strengthened my faith, has in fact made it possible for me to keep on believing.

I am trying to put together a story of Jesus that is historically credible. It turns out to be a challenge to the one who has always believed and to the one who has ceased believing or never believed but could say with Roger Garaudy, “Give Jesus back to us.” Truly encountering anyone is a challenging experience, but meeting Jesus is dangerous. One might have to heed Jesus’ favorite saying: “Repent, ‘rethink, change your mind, change your view of the world. The Kingdom of God is at hand.”

This essay chronicles some of the changes in understanding and outlook that I have gone through in my encounters with Jesus, first in his traditional guise with obvious divine powers, and then as the clearly human “historical Jesus” that a critical historical approach to the evidence reveals. It’s been a challenge, but one that I can recommend for others—to explore new possibilities for understanding and, perhaps, believing in God.
On to Chapter 1, The Infancy Stories