I have been recently working through the volume edited by Beverley Gaventa (Princeton) and Richard Hays (Duke), entitled “Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage” (Eerdmans 2008). The volume comes out of lengthy times of interaction and worship and presentations at the CTI (the Center of Theological Inquiry, which should surely be called the Center for Theological Inquiry) at Princeton. Here some sixteen scholars in the fields of Biblical Studies, Patristics, Systematics, Reformation History and Theology, Liturgy and other cognate fields got together to talk about the issue of the Identity of Jesus, in its various forms and facets, modes and meanings.

This volume can be seen as a sort of sequel to a previous such meeting of the minds at the CTI (some of the same minds and some different ones from the earlier project) which produced “The Art of Reading Scripture” (Eerdmans 2003), an equally interesting collaboration. This first post will be dealing with a central issue raised by this most recent collaboration, namely how do we get at the identity of Jesus, or better said, what is the identity of Jesus– who is he, and what counts as knowing him? The second post will be a somewhat detailed review of this important book.


Perhaps you will remember Jason Bourne, and “the Bourne Identity”. What exactly was his problem? In short, he had lost almost entirely any memory of his earlier life, and had no idea who he was, or at least who he had been before he was completely and almost literally brainwashed. Or consider the case of the Altzheimer’s victim. What happens to them? They lose their memory, and in extreme cases they lose all sense of who they are, their identity.

Identity, we are told is bound up in memory. But there is more involved as well. One’s personality and also one’s character have something to do with identity. When we ask however the question about Jesus’ identity, things are by no means as straightforward as with the case of Mr. Bourne or the Altzheimer’s victim. It is not surprising then that there have been over the course of church history enormous questions raised and discussed quite specifically dealing with the issue of the identity of Jesus, especially by those who believe he was both truly a human being and also truly divine.

Normally, when we talk about the identity of someone we are talking about a normal historical person and his or her life from womb to tomb, but in fact the story of Jesus begins before the virginal conception in Mary’s womb and continues after his exaltation to the right hand of God. This is precisely why analyzing the historical Jesus would never be adequate to define the identity of that man. Information about him as a historical person is only at best a subset of the data for understanding who he was and is, for the same stories that tell us he was a man from Nazareth are also the stories that tell us he was so much more than that– namely a pre-existent Son of God and a post- resurrection risen Lord.

The historian’s Jesus, or the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar, or the Jesus reconstructed on the basis of normal historical study of ancient figures could at most only be a discussion about a part of who he was, if the Gospels and the rest of the NT are anywhere near to being right about him. And of course if there is one person about whom we cannot afford the blunder of mistaking the part for the whole, it is Jesus.

We live in a Jesus haunted culture that is Biblically illiterate, and so unfortunately at this point in time, almost anything can pass for knowledge of the historical Jesus from notions that he was a a Cynic sage to ideas that he was a Gnostic guru to fantasies that he didn’t exist, to Dan Browne’s Jesus of hysterical (rather than historical) fiction. The real value of actual historical research about Jesus is that it provides a hedge against the inflation and infatuation of giving free reign to one’s imagination when it comes to the identity of Jesus. It is thus a good thing that the writers of “Seeking the Identity of Jesus’ were all able to come to the conclusion that a non-Jewish Jesus is not the real Jesus at all, and this of course is precisely the problem with the Jesus of Gnosticism who is often anti-Semitic if not simply non-Semitic.

One of the problems of course for the historian in assessing Jesus is that the stories about him are suffused with theology. Theology is not something added to the Gospels like icing on a cake that could with some hard labor be removed from the surface and the substance of what was being investigated. No, the stories about the historical Jesus are inherently theological in character. This of course is because the author’s believed that God was an actor in space and time, not merely an observor of history from a far.

More specifically they believed that Jesus was the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, and so history could hardly be parsed out from God talk– theo-logia. Robert Jenson brings this up in an emphatic way in his essay “Identity, Jesus and Exegesis” in the aforementioned volume when he says “you cannot accurately pick out Jesus of Nazareth without simultaneously picking out the second person of the Trinity, and you cannot accurately pick out the second person of the Trinity without in fact simultaneously picking out Jesus of Nazareth…when we ask about the identity of Jesus, historical and systematic questions cannot be separated.” (pp. 46-47). I would put it a little differently saying that historical and theological questions cannot be radically separated when it comes to Jesus.

Jenson points us to the sentence “Jesus is risen”. As he stresses, the word risen refers to something that happened to Jesus in space and time. Resurrection is then not in the first instance about resurrection appearances which disciples saw, or thought they saw. Nor is it about visions of Jesus disciples such as Paul may or may not have had. In other words, resurrection is not and cannot be reduced to a purely human psychological category or phenomena.

What the early church proclaimed in the first instance was that Jesus was risen, and this was just as much apart of the historical story about Jesus, as for example the claim that Jesus was born. Its just that post-Enlightenment persons (sometimes called modern persons), have been used for too long to assume that there are certain things that cannot and do not happen in human history, in particular actual divine intervention, or as we call them miracles. But of course, since no one’s knowledge of the human realm is exhaustive how could anyone prove the negative that “miracles cannot happen”? It is in fact impossible to prove such a negative assumption without exhaustive knowledge of the inner workings of history and space and time. And no one but God has such knowledge.

Jenson makes his point this way “The character of the predicate ‘…is risen’… is not only a concept predicated of Jesus’ story [e.g. ex post facto], it is itself part of the story.” (p. 47). Exactly so. What the Gospels are, are theological history writing. Not history without theology, and not mere theologizing added after the fact to history, or theologizing done in the form of narrative and history writing. No, what we have in the Gospels is theological history writing, which is simply one sort of history writing, a sort that was very common i
n antiquity (see e.g. Herodotus the father of history writing), and more rare in our day. Its rarity today is not because we are so much wiser than the ancients, or because the divine Elvis long since left the building. It is in fact because we are not as wise as the ancients when it comes to historical matters that are miraculous and theological in character.

Identity, is in fact a slippery term in English. The Gospel writers do not do a lot of overt editorializing about who Jesus is. They use the method of indirect portraiture, allowing Jesus’ words and deeds to speak for themselves and reveal his true character. And there is a wisdom in this because it means they are attempting to step out of the way, for the most part, and let Jesus speak and act for himself. Did you notice they nowhere give a physical description of the man, but most moderns seem to be pretty sure they could pick him out of a line up at Pontius Pilate’s police station? The ancients knew that it was the content of his character not the color of his skin or eyes or hair that truly mattered.

But these Evangelists are also wise enough to know that Jesus’ identity is not just a matter of telling what he said and did. His identity is perhaps just as much revealed by what happens to the man quite apart from his conscious decisions and actions— for example the virginal conception in Mary’s womb, or when God raised him from the dead. Jesus is only the risen Lord because God raised him from the dead. If you do not realize that who you are is as much a matter of what happens to you quite beyond your control as well as the facets of your life you can control, then you have not plumbed the depths of the nature of human identity.

In my earlier work written 20 years ago “The Christology of Jesus” (Fortress Press), I focused on the issue of the identity of Jesus, and one thing I pointed out is of course not only that identity is something that develops over time, even in the case of Jesus (see e.g. Lk. 2.41-52), but I stressed that who a person is, who a person thinks they are, who a person claims to be, and who others think that person is, can all be distinguishable and different things.

Jesus could have been the savior of the world, and quietly set about the task of doing the job without ever having made public claims to that effect. Other people could have thought of Jesus as a Zealot, but their thinking or claiming it did not make it so. My point in stressing this, is that the public claims and acclaims and refutations about the identity of Jesus are at best one inadequate clue to who he was, and who he thought he was.

If you just focus on the Christological labels you will not sufficiently plumb the depths of who he was and is, not least because Jesus was a remarkably complex person, or as Eduard Schweizer said long ago… he was the man who fit no one formula, could not be pigeon holed. Just so. This is why a titles approach to discerning the identity of Jesus, while necessary, will never be sufficient, especially in regard to understanding his true and full humanity. Assessing the identity of a living person is less like assessing a marble statue and more like assessing the boundaries and character of a lake which while, it has some constant elements (e.g. water, and a generally given shape) nonetheless is constantly in motion and can be seen from ever fresh and new angles. (see Derek Parfit’s comment on p. 310 of the book).

Of course the great problem in assessing Jesus’ identity is that even given the conclusion that he is truly human and truly divine, figuring out what the Bible says about the relationship between those two natures has been the subject of no end of debate and church councils in church history. Unfortunately in conservative Christian circles we have tended to stress one side of the balance, namely the divine side, more than the other, seeing Jesus as sort of 90% divine and 10% human. Of course the Jesus seminar and others, seeking to redress the balance have wanted to stress the exact opposite proportions (Jesus lite, less filling but still tastes great!) if not denying Jesus any divinity at all.

Part of the problem with this debate was that the Greek notion of the impassability of the divine (i.e. that the Eternal does not change, and is not subject to change) has been interjected into the discussion. But the problem with using this notion to help get clarity about the identity of Jesus is that when the NT says things like “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever” it does not mean Jesus never suffered on the cross, or that Jesus never underwent any changes, or that Jesus had no emotions. It simply means that his character was consistent throughout and beyond time— he was manifestly always the same person in the sense that he had the same character always. It requires real exegetical gymnastics with the NT text to try and conclude that the incarnation did not involve the second person of the Trinity incorporating some real, and indeed physical change into the Godhead. But this brings up another crucial point.

Jesus’s identity cannot be adequately assessed by accounting for what can be said about him in distinction from and in isolation from all other beings. This is of course an important question– asking what makes him unique. But what the Gospel writers say is that we understand him best when we understand whose he was (God’s only begotten Son) which is to say, who he was in relationship to God (Son of God, God’s Anointed one) and who he was in relationship to us (the Son of Man, the Lord of the church, the head of the Body of believers and so on).

Jesus’ identity is as much revealed in his relationships as in isolation. And this brings up perhaps the most crucial point of this first post. What the Gospel writers insist is that Jesus cannot be understood or truly known apart from not only belief in God, but a certain knowledge of the relationship of God to Jesus, as well as of Jesus to God’s people both Israel and the Church. This is precisely why the Fourth Evangelist writes at the end of his narrative. “these things are written so you might begin to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”. He presupposes that one already is at least open to believing in God before assessing the identity of Jesus. This means that truly seeing and knowing Jesus of course requires faith. While our world may use the cliche “seeing is, or leads to believing” what the Gospel say is that “believing leads to seeing” when it comes to the identity of Jesus.

In his helpful essay “The Historian’s Jesus and the Church” Dale Allison concludes as follows: “Every piece of evidence we have indicates that from the beginning Jesus, whatever appellation he did or did not bestow on himself, was the leader, and everyone else a follower. He was the teacher, while everyone else usually listened; he was the main actor while everyone else for the most part observed. There is no tradition in which Jesus is not front and center. Moreover the primitive proclamation “God raised Jesus from the dead,” however one accounts for it, was no reason to crown him Israel’s king or to see him as a ruling lord– unless he was antecedently hoped to be such…. The early interpretations of the Easter events presupposed Jesus’ pivotal eschatological role; they were not its source.” (pp. 92-93).

Just so. The Gospels stories are not examples of prophecy historicized (by which I mean faux history made up on the basis of a certain reading of OT prophecies), nor are they like Aesop’s fables, or legendary material found in the Illiad and the Odyssey, much less like the stuff of Egyptian or Greco-Roman myths. No, these Gospel stories are tied down to specific times and places and persons who witnessed, experienced, were changed by encounters with Jesus both before and after Golgotha.

The Gospel writers set out then to reveal the faces, or multi-faceted identity of Jesus. As Fred Buechner said long ago, he had a face w
hich was not a front behind which he hid, but rather a frontier, the outer most visible edge of who he was. In him was no shadow of turning, no dissembling, his character was authentic, honest, had integrity– he was as advertised by the Evangelists. His was a face which has led millions to follow or flee him for all of their days for over 2,000 years. Its time for all of us to face up to that Face, and so be transformed and conformed to the image of the one whom we admire and love and serve. We have a choice– shall we go on being a Jesus haunted culture, or a Christ like one.

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