Who Do You Say I Am? A Look at Jesus/Part One

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Who Do You Say I Am? A Look at Jesus/Part One-Eric Chabot 

 Now when Jesus came into the district of  Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:13-17). As of today, people are still trying to answer the same question  that Jesus asked Peter 2,000 years ago. 

 In his book The Case For The Real Jesus, Lee Strobel says if you search for Jesus at Amazon.com, you will find 175, 986 books on the most controversial figure in human history. As of today, biblical scholars have embarked on what is called “The Third Quest” for the historical Jesus, a quest that has been characterized as “the Jewish reclamation of Jesus.”   Rather then saying Jesus broke away from Judaism and started Christianity, Jewish scholars studying the New Testament have sought to re-incorporate Jesus within the fold of Judaism.  In this study, scholars have placed a great deal of emphasis on the social world of first- century Palestine.  Some of the other non-Jewish scholars that are currently active in the Third Quest are Craig A. Evans, I. Howard Marshall, James H. Charlesworth, N.T. Wright, and James D.G. Dunn and Richard Bauckham.  Some of the Jewish scholars include Geza Vermes, and the late David Flusser and Pinchas Lapide. (see W.L. Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd edition- pgs 294-95).

   In his book Jesus and the Victory of God,Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 2, author N.T.Wright says that the historical Jesus is very much the Jesus of the gospels: a first century Palestinian Jew who announced and inaugurated the kingdom of God, performed “mighty works” and believed himself to be Israel’s Messiah who would save his people through his death and resurrection. “He believed himself called,” in other words says Wright, “to do and be what, in the Scriptures, only Israel’s God did and was.” (Sheller, Jeffrey L. Is The Bible True? How Modern Debates and Discoveries Affirm the Essence of the Scriptures, New York. Harper Collins Publishers. 1999, pg 191). 

 Both E.P. Sanders and James Charlesworth say “the dominate view today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first- century Judaism.”  (E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985, pg 2: cited and endorsed by James Charlesworth, Jesus Within Judaism, New York: Doubleday, 1988), pg 205   A Few Things To Consider: Jesus’ Speaking AuthorityOver the years, I have had the opportunity to have several conversations with my Jewish friends about the differences between Christianity and Judaism. If I talk to one of my more Orthodox Jewish friends, they have told me on several occasions that any view that the Messiah is God is viewed in many cases as blasphemous and idolatrous. Of course, the same goes for Islam- to worship a man as divine is blasphemous.

What approach should one take in looking at the identity of Jesus in light of Judaism in the first century?  I think we can learn a lot from a specialist named Oskar Skarsaune- a specialist in church history at Norwegian Lutheran School of Theology in Oslo, Norway. This May, I get the opportunity of sitting under his teaching for a whole weekend. Skarsuane is a specialist in early Christianity and its relationship to Judaism.  I am going to using a lot of his quotes in this link. His two books that I will be using are Light In The Shadow Of The Temple: Jewish Influences On Early Christianity and Incarnation: Myth or Fact?  

For starters, in approaching the incarnation, Skarsaune says, “A point of view that seems to be gaining in scholarly research is that the oldest incarnation texts of the New Testament are not Hellenistic but Jewish. It means that if one is going to understand the concept of incarnation historically, one needs to understand it has arisen in a Jewish environment in which one was accustomed to differentiate sharply between the Creator and the created (Romans 1:25).  I have no doubt already implied that obviously (at least for me) the doctrine of the incarnation cannot be explained at all just by referring to a certain milieu. To put it another way, we will not go to some “early primitive congregation” or to a later form of Christianity to discover the origin of the dogma of the incarnation. We must go further back, to the disciples experience with Jesus Himself. In one way or another, through being with Jesus, the conviction that Jesus burst all categories of Judaism must have been impressed upon the disciples.” (Incarnation, Myth or Fact? Pgs 35-36). 

 Did Jesus speak as any other rabbi, prophet, or teacher? I have a Jewish friend who believes that Jesus is the Messiah. I once asked him how he viewed Jesus before coming to faith in him as the Messiah. He told me he was taught Jesus was a good Jewish teacher, but certainly nothing more than that. Anyway, this leads to an interesting comment by the Swedish rabbi Marcus Eherenpreis. He says,“A difference appears immediately that from the very beginning constituted an unbridgeable wall of separation between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus spoke in His own name. Judaism on the other hand, knew the one I, the divine Anochi (the Hebrew word for I) who gave us the eternal commandments at Sinai. No other superhuman has existed in Judaism other than God. Jesus sermons began, “I say to you.” Here is a clash between that goes to the inner core of religion. Jesus’ voice had an alien sound that that Jewish ears had never heard before. For Judaism, the only revealed teaching of God was important, not the teacher’s personal ego. Moses and the prophets were human beings encumbered with shortcomings. Hillel and his successors sat where Moses sat.” (Light in Shadow of Temple, pg 330). 

 It seems Eherenpries is right about this: Jesus spoke in a manner that placed him above the highest category allowed for humans in Judaism, that of the prophet, to say nothing of that of a rabbi. The rabbi may say, “I have received as a tradition from Rabbi A who heard it from Rabbi B,” thus authenticating his halakic ruling by the authority of tradition, ultimately deriving its authority from the oral Torah from Moses. The prophets spoke more directly from God when they say, “Thus says the Lord.” But the prophet also is only a representative of God.  He speaks in God’s name, not in his own. He wants to restore or strengthen the people’s relationship with God, not their relationship with the prophet. His own person is not important. He does not have God’s word in himself, it “comes to him”; sometimes he has to wait for it.  Jesus never authenticated his teaching the way the rabbis did. He never said “I have received as a tradition.” “He taught as one having authority, and not the scribes’ (Mark 1:22).  Nor did he speak like a prophet. He never made himself a representative of God by using the prophetic formula “Thus says the Lord.”  He spoke God’s word, he said God’s Law in his own name: “ You have heard that it was said  [by God] to those [at Sinai] ,..but I say to you.” (Matt 5:21-22; 27, 31, 33, 38). (Light in Shadow of Temple, pgs 330-331). 

 Furthermore, the rabbis could speak of taking upon oneself the yoke of Torah or the yoke of the kingdom; Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” (Mt 11:29). Also, the rabbis could say that if two or three men sat together, having the words of Torah among them, the shekhina (God’s own presence) would dwell on them (M Avot 3:2) ; Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be among them” (Matt 18:20). The rabbis could speak about being persecuted for God’s sake, or in his Name’s sake, or for the Torah’s sake; Jesus spoke about being persecuted for and even loosing one’s life for his sake. 

 Remember, the prophets could ask people to turn to God, to come to God for rest and help. Jesus spoke with a new prophetic authority by stating, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). In Mark 10:37, a wealthy individual asks Jesus what must I do to have eternal life? For the rabbis people were perfect according to their degree of Torah observance. Jesus instructed the man not to turn to Torah, but instead to sell his possessions and “Come, Follow Me.” (Mark 10: 17-22). So it is no wonder the Jewish people looked at Jesus’ teaching and healing authority in a significant way.  If we look at the Old Testament for role models of this characteristic of Jesus’ behavior –this I beside God, speaking and acting as if this I were God’s own- we find only one: God’s Wisdom (see Prov 1:20—33; 3:13-26; 8:32-36; 9:4-6). (Light in Shadow of Temple- pgs 331-332). 

As Skarsuane says, “Jesus appears in roles and functions that burst all previously known categories in Judaism. He was a prophet, but more than a prophet. He was a teacher but taught with a power and authority completely unknown to the rabbis. He could set his authority alongside of, yes, even “over” God’s authority in the Law. He could utter words with creative power. In a Jewish environment zealous for the law, only one category was “large enough” to contain the description of Jesus: the category of Wisdom.” (Incarnation, Myth or Fact? Pg 37)     

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