The Worst Thing to Think About Jesus

We can get Jesus wrong in so many ways

Whatever some may think about Christianity, more or less everyone in the world can agree on one simple fact concerning Jesus: He was fully human.

Non-Christians believe that he was a human being, and no more. Christians of all major denominations, and virtually all minor ones, hold that he was at once fully human and fully divine. Many Christians, though, have real problems in accepting the implications of that humanity.

Jesus the man was a thoughtful and devout Jew living in first century Palestine, under Roman occupation.

For Christians, the man Jesus was limited by the conditions of his time and culture. Even if he had a divine nature, as a man he was not all-knowing. He did not, for instance, know that there would someday be a World War II, nor did he know the outcome. Anyone who imagines him as a purely divine being cut off from those cultural roots has lapsed into some of the church’s oldest and most often condemned heresies.

Jesus the man was a thoughtful and devout Jew living in first century Palestine, under Roman occupation.

That fact has to shape our understanding of his words and deeds. Often, for instance, we read that Jesus did not say much about given issues, usually involving sexual behavior, so therefore he did not regard those matters particularly grave or sinful. Recently, that argument is taken to mean that Jesus did not condemn homosexuality, and that Christian prohibitions on that point stemmed from a twisted and repressive Paul of Tarsus.

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But we simply cannot argue from silence. As a faithful Jew, Jesus assuredly accepted the moral and ethical codes of his time and place, which were by our standards stringent and puritanical on matters of adultery, fornication, or homosexuality. The famous passage in which he saves the woman taken in adultery only makes sense if Jesus and his audience agreed that adultery was an extremely serious sin that under normal circumstances deserved death.

Certainly, on occasion, Jesus pushed the legal and ethical boundaries of his time, but in selected areas that Gospel writers highlight. He was in dialogue with other Jewish thinkers about matters of, say, Sabbath observance or the degrees of ritual purity, and those controversies were often fierce. His willingness to cross the dividing lines separating Jews and Samaritans was bold and noteworthy.

The fact we don’t hear him talking about other matters almost certainly means that Jesus was not at odds with the standards of his time, so there were no debates to report. If you want to know what those mainstream beliefs and mores were, then you have to turn to the very substantial rabbinic literature compiled from the first century onwards, and you won’t find much there to please a modern-day liberal.

Any attempt to see Jesus going beyond, or outside, the Judaism of his day is deeply troubling.

That observation might sound like good news for conservative Christians, but they might want to withhold their cheers until they think through the implications of that cultural setting. Thankfully, the time is long past when even educated Christians presented Jesus as leading a kind of protest movement against Jewish exclusivism and ritual laws. He didn’t, and even some of his most radical recorded statements can be located on the spectrum of Jewish schools and sects. Any attempt to see Jesus going beyond, or outside, the Judaism of his day is deeply troubling.

But that constraint also has to apply to his relationship to gentiles. Did the living Jesus recorded in the New Testament believe that his mission extended to gentiles? None of the four canonical Gospels explicitly declare that he recognized any duty beyond the frontiers of Judaism, which is remarkable when we recall that all four were written at a time when the Jesus movement had opened its doors to non-Jews.

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One harsh story, in fact, strongly suggests that Jesus denied any such mission or intent. He refuses to extend his healing powers to the daughter of a gentile woman (Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician), until she makes a self-deprecating joke about the dogs eating the scraps thrown to them under the table of those who are intended to receive the real food. She receives the favor she seeks, but it is clearly meant to be seen as a rare and exceptional favor (Mark 7:25-30, Matthew 15:21-28).

That ethnic limitation is not surprising when we realize how limited Jewish attempts at proselytizing were in that era. Why should Jesus have been different? Only after the Resurrection, when he had risen above human status, is Jesus reported to have ordered his disciples to preach the gospel to all nations, panta ta ethne. And even then, the Book of Acts says that the Apostle Peter needed a special divine revelation before agreeing to admit gentiles to the emerging community.

We can get Jesus wrong in so many ways. The worst blunder we can make, though, is to forget that he was a first century Palestine Jew, and any attempt to understand him or his message has to be grounded in that fact.

Philip Jenkins is a distinguished professor of history at Baylor University.

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