Harold Babcock's Sermons

March 24, 2013

All We Know About Jesus

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 9:51 am

March 24, 2013 

“. . . All that remains for me is to present in a nutshell
what we know about the historical Jesus, Jesus the Jew.”
– Geza Vermes 

Back in the day when I attended the Unitarian Sunday School in my hometown in Castine, Maine, Jesus was a much more central figure in our religious education programs and affections than he is today.  In books like Jesus the Carpenter’s Son and Who Do Men Say I Am?, the old Beacon Series religious education curriculum presented Jesus very much in the light of modern historical and literary criticism of the Bible: a human Jesus, one meant to inspire not by his supposed supernatural powers, but by his prophetic imperative and by serving as a human role model for the very best that each of us can aspire to be.  A historical Jesus, as opposed to the Christ of faith.

Perhaps this reflected the more mono-cultural and mono-religious context of the 1940s and 1950s, when Unitarians more closely reflected the prevailing Christian culture, and awareness of other non-Christian faiths—including even Judaism—was less pronounced.  “Church Across the Street”—the precursor to our “Neighboring Faiths” program, was, as its title suggests, a curriculum about visiting other Christian “churches.”  “Neighboring Faiths”, its successor, accepts the reality of the many non-Christian and new religions which now practice among us, and includes visits to synagogues, temples, and mosques as well as churches.

Be all of that as it may, I grew up with both a fascination about Jesus and a strong sense of his moral leadership for our faith.  Of course, there were other more contemporary religious role models of whom I was aware and to whom I turned: Gandhi, certainly, but also Martin Luther King, Jr., then at the height of his activities and power.  In Sunday School we also did learn about other great historical religious figures: the Buddha and Mohammed, as well as Moses and the Hebrew prophets.  But Jesus stood above them all, again reflecting our Protestant Christian roots and, to some extent, the remnants of our Christian chauvinism.

Unitarians were among the first to extoll the virtues of studying world religions—what was then known as “comparative religion,” “comparative” because everything was to be compared to Christianity.  Christianity was still for a long time considered just a cut above the rest.  James Freeman Clarke, a Transcendentalist and later a professor of the new field of comparative religion at Harvard, wrote one of the first books on the subject, entitled Ten Great Religions.  While it mostly succeeded at offering an objective view of other faith traditions, the book and its author could not escape from the conviction that Christianity somehow represented the culmination, the zenith if you will, of religious faith.

Perhaps this accounts for the centrality of Jesus in Unitarian Universalist religious education during my childhood.  Whatever the case may be, I imbibed without hardly knowing it New Testament passages like the Sermon on the Mount, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and the turning over the tables in the Temple.  I knew the rough outlines of the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life and death.  I liked Jesus, and I suppose that to some extent I believed that I should try to live a life as closely approximating his as I could.

And I wondered about all the claims made for Jesus.  I enjoyed speculating about those claims, and while I remained very much a humanist in respect to them—that is, a believer in the full humanity of Jesus as opposed to his unique divinity—it nevertheless led me to consider the ways in which Jesus—and indeed any of us—might come to be not just a “son or daughter of God” but, in a very real sense, might become “godlike.”  Jesus fanned his “spark of the divine” into full flame, but any of us, I believe, contain the same potential as he.

I maintained this fascination with Jesus through the years, and was excited to have the opportunity to pursue my interest in an intentional way in classes I took after entering Divinity School.  The so-called “quest for the historic Jesus” became one of my favorite subjects, both formally and informally.  To this day I enjoy reading books about Jesus and the continuing scholarly pursuit of historical knowledge about him.  The most recent of these books that I have read is a brief one which I commend to you: Searching for the Real Jesus by Geza Vermes.

Before I turn to an examination of some of Vermes’ conclusions, I can’t resist relating a humorous incident that took place during the infamous “Senior Exams” which used to be a requirement for graduation at Harvard Divinity School.  These consisted of a week of intensive exams covering every aspect of the Divinity School curriculum: Old and New Testament studies, World Religions, theology, ethics, and so on.  My colleague Stephen Kendrick, now minister of the First Church in Boston, decided to play a joke on all of us nervous test-takers on the first day by producing a bogus senior exam, which he passed out before the real one had arrived.  I’ll never forget one of the questions on Stephen’s fake exam: “Should the ‘Quest for the Historical Jesus’ be, once and for all, abandoned; or should funds be raised and another expedition sent out?  If so, where would you send the expedition and what should they take as supplies?  If not, what else should New Testament Scholars do with their time?”

Needless to say, not everyone at the exams that day saw the humor in this, but I have always believed that one of the marks of a healthy and mature faith is its ability, at least occasionally, to laugh at itself.

But back to “the real Jesus.”  Vermes’ most important contribution to the ongoing study of the historical Jesus has been his uncompromising loyalty to the Jewishness of Jesus, as reflected in his landmark work, Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels.  A Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies and Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College in the University of Oxford, Vermes believes that the only way to a true understanding of the historical Jesus is to understand him as a Jew within the Jewish culture and religion of his time.

In Vermes’ view, Jesus was an innovator within Judaism and not the founder of a new religion.  Indeed, in his brief life Jesus didn’t even have time to start a new religion.  Christianity came later, and is much more accurately described as having been founded by St. Paul.  Like James Carroll in the morning’s reading, Vermes is well aware of the roots of anti-Semitism in the Christian view that Jesus was somehow opposed to Judaism and that Jews were ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus Christ.  Vermes has spent his academic career countering this view and in making the case that Jesus can only be understood in the context of his Jewishness.  Amazingly, his view is still met with consternation by many believing Christians.

Writing in an essay entitled “The Changing Faces of Jesus,” Vermes writes that, 

Today the Jewishness of Jesus is axiomatic whereas in 1973 the title of my book, Jesus the Jew, still shocked conservative Christians.  To accept that Jesus was a Jew means not only that he was born into the Jewish people, but that his religion, his culture, his psychology, and his mode of thinking and teaching were all Jewish.  Over the last 50 years, Christian and Jewish scholars have worked together and a significant dialogue has developed between enlightened Christians and Jews.

And what are the fruits of that dialogue and of Vermes’ scholarship?  Not so very many, though perhaps a more accurate understanding of the Jesus of history is continuing to evolve thanks to Vermes placing him squarely within his cultural and religious milieu.  A quick summary of Vermes’ conclusions goes as follows (for the full detail, read the book):

What is known about Jesus?  Very little. . . .  One fact is clearly established: he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea between 26 and 36 CE.”  He was “a Galilean.”  Little is known about his childhood. 

“Do we know anything regarding his family and his social circumstances?  He was poor and [apparently] unmarried.  He lived for 30 years in the townlet of Nazareth with his parents, Joseph and Mary, his four brothers and at least two sisters.”  (This latter fact, confirmed in the Gospels, always comes as a surprise to those Christians who have never actually read the New Testament.)  It seems pretty obvious that Mary wasn’t a virgin.  Jesus had a “tense relationship” with his family, including his mother Mary, whose later role in the Church has nothing to do with the texts of the New Testament.  The family apparently even discouraged Jesus from accomplishing his mission.

“What was Jesus’ education like?  He was a builder or a carpenter, but his vocabulary and the images he employs make one think rather of a countryman.”  Jesus, writes Vermes, “was a simple and modest man.  He was a prophet in the tradition of the prophets Elijah and Elisha of the Bible.”  Like them, Jesus “was endowed with outstanding charismatic power.”  He was a healer, an exorcist, and a wonder worker, none of which made him extraordinary in the Jewish culture of his day.

“When did Jesus start to preach?  The beginning of his public career coincided with the ministry of John the Baptist, which is dated by Luke to the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius, in 29 CE.”  In other words, his public ministry was extremely short.

“Who formed the audience of Jesus?”  Along with his chosen 12 apostles and 70 disciples, “. . .He delivered his message in the streets, in various places, on the shore of a lake.”  He apparently encountered “much success.”

“What was Jesus’ message?  Jesus was an eschatological prophet who proclaimed the arrival of the Kingdom of God in the near future, as it were tomorrow.  Hence he demanded a total devotion to the cause of God, a renunciation by the faithful of all material possessions and even the abandonment of their families.”  His message, “. . . which was directed towards Jews alone, was centered on the Law of Moses, which he aimed to renew internally by insisting on its spiritual significance.”

“Do we know why Jesus died?  Jesus was arrested on the eve of Passover by the Jewish authorities, and was subsequently delivered to the Romans and was crucified.”  Vermes continues, 

The only event that can explain his arrest by the Jewish authorities of Jerusalem is the upheaval he caused when he attacked the merchants of the Temple.  This happened in the midst of the preparations for Passover with a surcharged atmosphere of the city which was under Roman occupation.  Although he was not a political rebel, he incited trouble during a revolutionary period.  The provocative attitude he displayed before the priestly authorities . . . did not help the situation.

As Vermes puts it succinctly in several places, “. . . Jesus died on the Roman cross because he did the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  His death was ultimately at the hands of the Roman authorities and not of the Jews. 

“How can the resurrection be explained?”  As Vermes writes in another essay, “Crucified, dead, and buried, Jesus rose in the hearts of his disciples who loved him, and so he lived on.”

And finally, “Did Jesus think that he was of divine nature?”  Vermes believes that the deification of Jesus “was progressive,” beginning with his being called a “Son of God,” a phrase “synonymous with ‘Son of Israel’ or ‘a Jew very close to God.’”  It was the later Christian Church which proclaimed Jesus to be synonymous with God.  As the Rev. Dr. Roger Booth writes, “The change from Jewish stress in God-serving behavior to Gentile pre-occupation with qualifying beliefs about the person (status) of Jesus arose after his death.”

So how might the “real” Jesus be summed up?  Vermes writes, 

He was not meek and mild.  He could be impatient and angry. He displayed the strength, iron character and fearlessness of his prophetic predecessors.  He loved children, welcomed women, and felt pity for the sick and miserable.  He sought the company of the pariahs of Jewish society.

As Richard Gilbert wrote so movingly in the morning’s reading” 

Obscured by centuries of violence,
Clouded by countless creeds,
Dissected by a thousand scholars,
Preached from a million pulpits,
Mouthed by a billion lips,
Crucified by willful distortion
And innocent ignorance.
I hope he’ll be remembered
In simple, unadorned humanity.

And that is all pretty much all we know about Jesus, for now at least.  Amen. 

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Readings: from an interview with James Carroll in the winter 2000-2001 Bostonia magazine about his book, The Cross and the Sword; a poem by Richard Gilbert from his sermon, “What Have They Done to Me? An Interpretation of Jesus 1995.”

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1 Comment »

  1. Thank you for this enlightening sermon regarding Jesus’ identity, But what about his relationship with Mary Magdalene, whom contemporary witnesses say he kissed often upon the mouth, was the first apostle; indeed, an apostle to the apostle, and who unlike Peter, stood steadfast with Jesus throughout his entire ordeal, including his crucifixion, burial and “resurrection?” This according to Episcopal theologian and priest, Cynthia Bourgeault in her book entitled, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene,” Bourgeault believes that Jesus had a physical and intensely spiritual relationship with Mary Magdalene, and presents a compelling case for her views.

    Comment by Roberta Wallace Coffey — April 8, 2013 @ 2:12 pm | Reply


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