Yes, We Believe
On May 20, 325 CE (common era), the Roman emperor, Constantine, called the bishops of Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor together to settle a controversy that had long been raging in the Christian community. The controversy concerned the nature of Creation and the Person of Christ. In its final declaration the Council of Nicaea issued what has become known as the Nicene Creed. That creed begins:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.1
Today we repeat that affirmation. There is no other God than the One who made all things. Furthermore, we believe that this One God has uniquely revealed himself as Jesus Christ (Deuteronomy 6:4; John 10:17, 30). Jesus is the first, the full and the eternal self-disclosure and self-manifestation of the One God (John 8:58; Philippians 2:6-11).
Jesus — A Historical Personage
There is no longer any question but that Jesus was a historical personage. Not only does the entire New Testament canon testify to this, but countless other documents and numerous other witnesses have confirmed the historical existence of Jesus.
In 1945 two shepherd boys, watching their family animals near the village of Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt, found an earthen vessel full of codices or books. While a few documents were lost, most of the manuscripts were preserved, sold to antiquity dealers from Cairo, Egypt, and eventually housed in a special library in the United States. The codices include extracanonical accounts of Jesus, dating nearly to the age in which he lived. These and other surviving Gospels and Gospel fragments now have been published in English as The Complete Gospels.2
In 1947, in a related development, an Arab herdsman of the Taamireh tribe was looking for a stray goat on the cliffs overlooking the Qumran Valley, just 10 miles east of Jerusalem. When he saw an opening among the rocks, he discovered a cave that proved to contain earthen vessels filled with linen-wrapped manuscripts. This initial finding led to the discovery of additional caves containing manuscripts apparently hidden during the first Jewish war between 66 and 70 CE. This collection of documents, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, contains the earliest copies of all the books of the Old Testament but one — the book of Esther. Noncanonical documents included in this collection further illuminate the times and culture in which the historical Jesus lived.3
Jesus — History and Interpretation
Not surprisingly, the wealth of material that has come to light over the last 50 years, relating to the historical Jesus, has sparked enormous interest in his life and times. All are agreed that there is no longer any question but that Jesus was born, lived, ministered, suffered and died in first-century Palestine. However, none of the existing manuscripts relating to Jesus represents solely a historical account of his life and ministry. Since all revelation necessarily involves disclosure to human perception and understanding, all the documents necessarily include interpretations of Jesus’ Person, life and ministry. The documents therefore reflect the various understandings of the early disciples, of those who subsequently communicated the early oral traditions, and of those who finally reduced the Jesus traditions to writing (Luke 1:1-4; John 20:30, 31). These different understandings exist because they represent different witnesses with differing perspectives. Yet these understandings, while varied, all reflect a recognition that the historical Jesus actually rose from the dead, to the utter dismay of both Jews and Greeks (Matthew 28:4, 11-15; Acts 17:32).
Given the differing interpretations of the historical Jesus, recorded in the extant Gospels and Gospel fragments, we can take several approaches to our further study of Jesus. One approach is to imagine that we can strip away all the interpretive layers embedded in the various Gospel accounts and arrive at an understanding of who the historical Jesus “actually” was. This approach has been attempted by numerous Bible scholars over the last two centuries. Intensive study using this approach has been conducted by the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar. However, in arriving at their conclusion that Jesus was simply an illiterate, itinerant Jewish peasant, a peasant teacher/philosopher, or a local Jewish revolutionary, these scholars have imposed their own perspectives, understandings, assumptions and presuppositions on the historical Jesus.4 They have largely failed to recognize that any revelation of who Jesus actually was must involve the perceptions, understandings and presuppositions of those who are the recipients of revelation. As J. Deotis Roberts recognized, “No neutral thought is possible.”5
Another Approach to Understanding the Historical Jesus
For this reason we believe that it is time to take another approach to understanding the historical Jesus. This approach is to attempt to recover the original perspectives and interpretive framework that the early followers used to facilitate their understandings of the Jesus of history. If we can learn how Jesus’ disciples came to their understandings and interpretations of the Christ in their time and culture, we might discover how we may better understand the meaning and significance of that same Jesus today in our own time and culture.
The question is simply this: What perspectives or framework did Jesus’ contemporaries use in their perceptions, understandings and reception of God’s revelation in Jesus? To answer this question we must go back more than 4,000 years and attempt to recover the ancient worldview common to mankind soon after the dawn of human consciousness.
As long as man (male and female) remained in “the lost paradise of animality,”6 human awareness was limited to what one could see, hear, smell, taste and touch. However, emerging consciousness greatly extended human awareness to a cosmic environment that mankind interpreted to be “the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth” (cf. Exodus 20:4). Mankind reached this conclusion of a three-level universe from:
1. An awareness of the necessity of death, burial and return of all living things to the “underworld”;
2. An awareness of the incessant change, accident and uncertainty (contingency) of existence on an earth confronting natural catastrophe, animal predation, and human crime and violence;
3. An awareness of stability, predictability and constancy in the starry heavens, which mankind imagined to be the source of self-existent life and direction for the universe.
Once mankind settled on the idea of a three-level universe, all objects and events were interpreted in relation to this universal framework.7 Heaven was the abode of God (Acts 2:34-36; John 8:23), earth was the habitat of man, and the chaotic waters beneath the earth were the place of dragons, Behemoth, and the seven-headed serpent, Leviathan. In this model heaven was believed to be sacred, earth was regarded as profane, while the underworld was considered demonic.
In archaic times and beyond, mankind universally believed that the three levels of the universe were connected. For example, earth and the nether world were thought to be connected by an opening or “navel.” The Egyptians believed that this navel was at the bottom of the Nile River just south of Elephantine Island. For the Israelites the navel was first situated in the Garden of Eden. From this navel a river was believed to emerge, divide into four branches, and thus water the earth (Genesis 2:10). In the book of Job, God is represented as referring to the navel when he says, “Behold, Be’hemoth, which I made as I made you. . . . Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook . . . ?” (Job 40:15; 41:1, RSV).
Earth and heaven also were believed to be connected — by a sacred mountain. To the Babylonians located near the flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, this sacred mountain was the ziggurat. To the Egyptians near the Nile, the sacred mountain was the pyramid(s). To the children of Israel, the sacred mountain was Sinai. Regardless of its identity, however, every sacred mountain was the place of union between heaven and earth. It thus was the place of meeting between God and man’s representatives, whether priest or prophet. These “summit” meetings always took place at what was regarded as the sacred or timeless moment of eternity — the moment of first Creation. Here God gave to the priestly or prophetic representatives of mankind the timeless laws and original models, patterns or archetypes of eternal reality. Only when these laws and archetypes were conveyed to mankind, gathered at the foot of the mountain, could man himself experience reality and successfully survive in a profane world.
There are many examples from both ancient mythology and Hebrew history of the encounters on the mountain between God and mankind’s representatives. In the Hebraic tradition there is Abraham’s call to Mount Moriah and God’s command to the patriarch to sacrifice his son, Isaac, there (Genesis 22:2). Later, Moses was called to climb Mount Sinai to confer with God for 40 days and nights and then receive the stone tablets with the commandments engraved on them (Exodus 24:12-18; 34:27, 28; Deuteronomy 4:10-14). Moses also received the archetypes or patterns for the earthly sanctuary or tabernacle on the sacred mountain (Exodus 24:18 – 25:9). Joshua called the children of Israel to hear the blessings and curses from Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal (Deuteronomy 11 :29). Elijah climbed Mount Carmel to challenge the priests of Baal and then to pray for rain (1 Kings 18:20-46). Later, he fled to the Sinai Desert and climbed Mount Horeb to encounter God as “a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:8-12). Still later, the prophet Isaiah entreated his people, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings . . . ” (Isaiah 40:9, RSV). The sacred mountain was thus the place of God’s presence. It was the meeting place of God and man, the intersection of time and eternity, the place of Creation and restoration and the union of man with the sacred archetypes.
Understanding Jesus in the Framework of His Early Followers
It then should not be surprising to us that those who walked, talked and labored with the historical Jesus, and who recognized him as the Risen Lord, should understand him in their perceptual framework as the priestly Representative of mankind. Neither should it be surprising for the Gospel writers and communities to emphasize Christ’s ministry on the “mountain.” It was on the mountain that Christ delivered his Sermon and uttered the Beatitudes, which superseded the commandments engraved on stone (Matthew 5:1-8:1). It was on the mountain that Christ fed the 5,000, thus proclaiming himself to be the Bread of Life (John 6:3-14, 48). It was on the mountain that Jesus and three disciples met with Moses and Elijah in the Transfiguration experience (Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:16-18). It was on Calvary’s mountain that the cross was raised with its axis pointing to the heavens and its foot penetrating the netherworld (Luke. 23:33). It was on that mountain that Jesus proclaimed, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Here was the ultimate meeting of divinity and humanity. Yet again, it was on the mountain that Christ appeared to 11 disciples in Galilee upon his resurrection (Matthew 28:16, 17). And it was on the mountain that he ascended to the heavens with the implication that it was to that same mountain where he would one day return (Acts 1:9-12).
In terms of the ancient framework of interpretation familiar to his followers, the Jesus who had been among them, who had died, risen and ascended to the heavens, was not merely an itinerant peasant teacher. No, Jesus had climbed the mountain.
Therefore, holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession. . . .
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us . . . hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, . . . encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. — Hebrews 3:1; 4:14; 10:23-25.
Toward a Mature Understanding of the Historical Jesus
This does not mean that we should limit our understanding of the revealed God to the metaphor of priesthood in an ancient three-level universe. However, it does mean that we might yet modify some ancient limitations and misunderstandings relating to the revelation of God as Jesus. Furthermore, it does mean that contemporary perspectives might yet expand our understanding of the Christ. But finally, Lord, we still believe.
- See, for example, Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), p. 111. See also Wikipedia — The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Nicene Creed,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicene_Creed. (go back)
- See Raymond E. Brown, “Recent Contributions to Our Knowledge of the Bible,” in The Great Ideas Today: 1982 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1982), pp. 121, 123, 124; Robert J. Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1994). (go back)
- See World Book Encydopedia, s.v. “Dead Sea Scrolls”; Encyclopedia Americana, s.v. “Dead Sea Scrolls”; Brown, “Recent Contributions,” pp. 118-121. (go back)
- See, for example, Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994). (go back)
- J. Deotis Roberts, A Philosophical Introduction to Theology (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991), p. 5. (go back)
- Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1954), p. 91. (go back)
- See ibid. (go back)
This article was originally published March 1996 under the Destiny imprint.