Main Body

Chapter 11: “Who do they say that I am?”

Mark has a marvellous story about Jesus and a fig tree. He tells of a time when Jesus and the disciples are walking from Bethany to Jerusalem. Jesus feels hungry and “noticing in the distance a fig-tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it.” Since it is not the season for figs, there are none on the tree. Jesus is angered by the lack of figs and curses the tree: “`May no one ever again eat fruit from you!’ And his disciples were listening.” The group proceeds to Jerusalem where Jesus goes into the temple and, still angry, drives out the money changers, upsets their tables, turns over the seats of the pigeon sellers, and cleans out all commercial activities in the temple. He then teaches the crowd about the proper use of the temple. Early the next morning Jesus and the disciples are walking back toward Bethany when they pass by the fig tree. Peter says, “Rabbi, look, the fig-tree which you cursed has withered,” and indeed we are told, “the fig-tree had withered from the roots up.” Still later, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus uses the fig tree in a lesson to his disciples about the Endtime that is coming. “`Learn a lesson from the fig-tree. When its tender shoots appear and are breaking into leaf, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all this happening, you may know that the end is near, at the very door. I tell you this: the present generation will live to see it all.'”


First we see the fig tree in leaf. Then we see it withered and dead as a result of Jesus’ curse. And then it is used by Jesus as an example in a parable about the Endtime. A hungry Jesus has killed a fig tree because it had no fruit in a season when it could not have fruit. What kind of story is this? What does it tell us about this god-man? Here is the entry in The Interpreters’ Bible:[1]


It is well to begin any consideration of this story of the barren fig

tree with the frank recognition that it is the least attractive

of all the narratives about Jesus. Luke omits it entirely, possibly

because he already has a parable of a barren fig tree (Luke 13.6-9).

At any rate most scholars would applaud his judgment, as shown

by the omission. There are two main objections to taking the

story literally, as an exact record. The first is the unfavorable

light in which it seems to put the judgment, or common sense, of

Jesus; he could have had no rational expectation of finding figs out

of season. The second is that the miracle is quite “out of character”

with Jesus’ mind and with other miracles….Mark takes the story as

a proof of Jesus’ power, but that “proof” was on a level devoid of

moral and religious significance.


For teaching and preaching the church has taken the story as a

symbolic representation of the truth that life without fruit is

worthless. …The incident was taken by many in the early church as

an acted parable of judgment on the religion of Israel because of its

lack of ethical and spiritual fruit….(emphasis mine).


This kind of apology raises several interesting questions. Why should we applaud Luke’s judgment for omitting a story about Jesus? On the grounds that the story casts Jesus in an “unfavorable light”? The implication here is that any time we run into a story that casts the hero in an “unfavorable light” we are justified in omitting the story. And just what is an “unfavorable light”? Unfavorable from whose point of view? If what we are told by Mark is the “least attractive” of all the stories about Jesus, then how can that fact be justification for editing it out? These would be justifications only if we are presenting propaganda, or in today’s terminology, a media image. A deeper epistemological question arises: if the gospels are the source of all that we know about Jesus then on what other grounds can we make judgments about his attractiveness or lack of it? How can we justifiably pay attention only to those stories that match some preconceived idea of what an attractive hero looks like? Whose gospel is being proclaimed in a statement like the one about the church using the story for symbolic and didactic purposes? I will argue that misreading stories about Jesus is an industry. An industry that started with Paul. Mark gives us stories about Jesus and the message of Jesus. Paul gives us his message about Jesus.


Consider the fig tree from a literary point of view. Jesus teaches his disciples about Endtime: “`Learn a lesson from the fig-tree. When its tender shoots appear and are breaking into leaf, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all this [a set of eschatological signs] happening, you may know that the end is near, at the very door.'” Just as leaves signal spring and summer, so do the signs of darkened sun and moon, falling stars and celestial explosions signal Endtime, when the mighty Son of Man will arrive in “great power and glory” and “gather his chosen.” Jesus goes on to say, “I tell you this: the present generation will live to see it all. (Mark 13.30) Because Endtime is imminent he warns his disciples to `Keep Awake.’ The specific signs that Jesus says will be present right before Endtime also include these:


When you hear the noise of battle near at hand and the news of

battles far away, do not be alarmed. Such things are bound to

happen; but the end is still to come. For nation will make war upon

nation, kingdom upon kingdom; there will be earthquakes in many

places; there will be famines. With these things the birth-pangs of

the new age begin. (Mark 13.7-9)


Some of these warnings seem to relate to the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century of the common era, while some sound as if they warn of the end of history. Mark, of course, writes after the Second Temple destruction and would be in a position to know what was going to happen after the time period covered in the narrative. Prophesying after the fact is as good a “prediction” as one can get. In terms of valuable predictors these signs just will not do. They are too vague to pick out any particular time just because they pick out almost any time. What generation goes by without experiencing widespread wars, natural disasters, and famines? Taken as a literal prediction these words are just useless. But from a narrative point of view they function to warn us as readers of the impending doom of the final conflict in the life of the hero, Jesus. Such ominous signs are often found in works of art signalling a dramatic change in the fortunes of the hero. Shakespeare has celestial storms in Julius Caesar which work to heighten the tension in the play. Modern movies use thunder storms or lightening flashes whenever the bad guy is about to show up.


“Keep Awake.” Be prepared. Endtime is approaching. Learn from the fig-tree – not only that you can tell what season it is by the growth of the tree, but also learn from that specific fig-tree, that one which one day in leaf, was the next day dead. One day it was alive; the next day it was dead. The moment of death for each one of us also is unknown. We know that we will die but we know not the hour or the day.


The anger that Jesus exhibits by withering the fig tree and chasing the money lenders out of the temple unites him with Old Testament prophets. They too exhibited anger, whether it was Samuel chopping up Agag or Elisha killing forty-two boys for ridiculing his bald head. Jesus is cut of the same narrative material as Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, and Ezekiel. He performs miracles: he raises the dead, he casts out devils, he heals, and he feeds mul- titudes with very little food. Like Ezekiel he is called the Son of Man. As Mark’s narrative continues we see the climax of the cluster of images that have to do with the fig tree. Anger first exhibited when a fig tree did not have fruit on it for the hungry man-god to eat, will now be shown one more time in the scene at the place called Gethsemane. There Jesus asks Peter, James, and John to wait for him while he, overcome with “horror and dismay,” goes on a way up the path to pray. “Stop here, and stay awake” [emphasis God’s], he orders his disciples. Jesus goes on ahead and “threw himself on the ground” and asks for the hour to pass him by. He comes back to find his disciples asleep. In anger and disappointment he shouts, “Were you not able to stay awake for one hour?” And then orders, “Stay awake, all of you.”

Yet a second time he goes off to pray and when he returns they are asleep again. When asked why they could not stay awake, “they did not know how to answer him.”

The third time we sense a dramatic shift in tone. Upon his return Jesus says quietly, “Still sleeping? Still taking your ease? Enough. The hour has come.” (Mark 14.41)

Anger and frustration shown in the fig tree story, the temple story, and in the Gethsemane story are finally washed away by the prayer and by the act of accepting his own death. “The hour has come.” There is a quiet resolution in that sentence. Acceptance has replaced anger and now Jesus can complete his destiny. Until one has accepted one’s own mortality, accepted death in a per- sonal and lucid sense, one cannot live. Thus Jesus teaches us: there is life in death. Death, as the poet Wallace Stevens reminds us, “is the mother of beauty.”

Most contemporary scholars agree that the gospels were not written by eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus. Some would argue that the reason for this is that Jesus never existed.[2] The internal evidence is confusing and the external evidence is sketchy. We simply do not know who wrote them and when we speak of “Matthew,” “Mark,” “Luke,” and “John” we do so only for convenience (and because of tradition); the actual names of the evangelists are forever lost to us. The gospels were written in the period between 70 and 100, forty years or more after the crucifixion, and we believe that they originally circulated anonymously. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are usually called the synoptic gospels from the Greek, synoptikos – seeing the whole together. The relationship among the synoptic gospels is a complex one and 19th century scholars learned much of the pattern of inter-relatedness from a careful reading and comparison of the texts. B. F. Wescott, for example, calculated the percentages of shared textual material and suggested that the narrative material is distributed as follows:

Peculiar     Shared

Mark               7%             93%

Matthew       42%          58%

Luke             59%           41%

John             92%               8%


Comparing the synoptics on the same event can be revealing:


Then Jesus arrived at the Jordan from Galilee, and came to John to

be baptized by him. John tried to dissuade him. `Do you come to

me?’ he said; `I need rather to be baptized by you.’ Jesus replied,

`Let it be so for the present; we do well to conform in this way with

all that god requires.’ John then allowed him to come. After

baptism Jesus came up out of the water at once, and at that

moment heaven opened; he saw the Spirit of God descending like a

dove to alight upon him; and a voice from heaven was heard saying,

`This is my Son, my Beloved, on whom my favour rests.’ (Matt.



It happened at this time that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee

and was baptized in the Jordan by John. At the moment when he

came up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn open and the

Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice spoke from

heaven: `Thou art my Son, my Beloved; on thee my favour rests.

(Mark 1.9-11)


During a general baptism of the people, when Jesus too had been

baptized and was praying, heaven opened and the Holy Spirit

descended on him in bodily form like a dove; and there came a

voice from heaven, `Thou art my Son, my beloved, on thee my

favour rests.’ (Luke 3. 21-22)


Looking at these passages closely we see that Matthew and Mark can agree against Luke, and Mark and Luke can agree against Matthew, but Matthew and Luke do not agree against Mark. In Matthew and Mark Jesus came from Galilee, but this is not mentioned in Luke. The voice from heaven says, `Thou art my Son, my beloved, on thee my favour rests’ in Mark and Luke, but `This is my Son, my Beloved, on whom my favour rests’ in Matthew. As far as the order of events in the narrative is concerned Matthew and Mark can agree against Luke and Luke and Mark against Matthew, but Matthew and Luke never agree against Mark. This pattern is observable throughout the gospels and leads to the hypothesis that the gospel of Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke have both used it as a source. In addition sections of Matthew and Luke are so close verbally that they must be using a common source, but that source cannot be Mark since he does not have these sections. Compare for example:


When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for

baptism he said to them: `You vipers’ brood! Who warned you to

escape from the coming retribution? Then prove your repentance

by the fruit it bears; and do not presume to say to yourselves, “We

have Abraham for our father.” I tell you that God can make

children for Abraham out of these stones here. Already the axe is

laid to the roots of the trees; and every tree that fails to produce

good fruit is cut down and thrown on the fire. (Matt. 3.7-10)


Crowds of people came out to be baptized by him, and he said to

them: `You vipers’ brood! Who warned you to escape from the

coming retribution? Then prove your repentance by the fruit it

bears; and do not begin saying to yourselves, “We have Abraham

for our father.” I tell you that God can make children for Abraham

out of these stones here. Already the axe is laid to the roots of the

trees; and every tree that fails to produce good fruit is cut down

and thrown on the fire.’ (Luke 3.7-9)


This common material is almost always “teaching material.” The constant appearance of parallel passages in Matthew and Luke has led to the conclusion that they have a source in common in addition to the gospel of Mark, a source consisting of mostly “sayings” material. In addition they each have special material unique to each writer. The common sources for Matthew and Luke are thus believed to be Mark and some unknown manuscript called simply “Q”.[3] Each of Matthew and Luke have special material that is unique to it. In addition each writer can make a unique contribution by the way he chooses to tell the story. One branch of biblical criticism (redaction criticism) suggests that we should emphasize the contribution made by the final writer. Look again at Mark 1.9-11 and Luke 3.21-22. In Luke’s version all the emphasis is on the descent of the spirit on Jesus. His baptism has become one of the three circumstances (a general baptism, his baptism, the fact that he was praying) that set the stage for the descent of the spirit, whereas in Mark the baptism and the descent of the spirit are equally significant.


Or, again, notice that Mark and Matthew mention the thieves who were crucified with Jesus, but say nothing of one of them being saved and one being damned. Luke, however, tells us that one of the thieves asserts his belief at the final moment and is saved. This has become the story most of us remember. Luke’s editorial emphasis has significantly changed the material presented in Mark and repeated in Matthew.


The Old Testament takes the Hebrews through the Red Sea into the wilderness and finally to the promised land, while the New Testament takes the individual from baptism into the wilderness to the resurrection. The New Testament attempts through its stories to universalize the nature of God while at the same time making the necessary covenant sign of baptism an individual and not a societal agreement. For the Old Testament Hebrews there was the wilderness and the promised land of milk and honey. For Paul and the first Christians there were hell and heaven as the two conditions promised for those not chosen and those chosen. The four gospels proclaim the constitutive rules of the new religion, each with a different emphasis, but all asserting the basic proposition of a man-god, crucifixion, and redemption, in some form or another. John provides us with a mystical interpretation of the new religion and emphasizes the fulfillment of the prophesies in the Old Testament by using or alluding to some twenty-five quotations from the early books. Mark is the most apocalyptic in his presentation of the last days insisting more than the others that all will occur within his generation. Matthew emphasizes the church as the living institution through which God is calling the peoples of the world to repentance and faith. For him Jesus is the final agent of mediation between the divine and the vulgar. Luke and Matthew provide us with birth narratives for Jesus while Mark has none. A committee probably wrote John. Luke is a compilation of material from many sources but probably written by one writer. Luke opens with the Zechariah and Elizabeth story, which no one else reports. It is a parallel to the Elkanah and Hannah story that we read in Samuel. John will play Samuel to Jesus’s Saul in the story told by Luke. The cleansing of the Temple which is the last straw for the leaders of Jerusalem and the next to last angry act of Jesus in Mark’s story is placed at the beginning of Jesus’s career in John. John’s work comes out of a Hellenistic world view and unlike Mark John offers a reading which says that the judgment is not something that has already fallen, nor is it something that will come in the last days, but it is what occurs to an individual in the moment that individual makes the decision of faith in Jesus the Son of God. For John history has been internalized and judgment has been transformed to the present moment of “decision” of faith. John’s Jesus says “I am the resurrection and I am life,” and “I am the good shepherd,” and “I am what I am.” Mark’s “who am I?” has be- come “I am…”. John’s Jesus is not really a historical figure at all, but “lives” in a context of eternity, while Mark’s story is of a man on this earth. John’s Jesus says “Now my soul is in turmoil, and what am I to say? `Father, save me from this hour.’ No, it was for this that I came to this hour. Father, glorify thy name.” Mark’s Jesus says, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; take this cup away from me.”


Matthew presents the story especially addressed to the Jews in an effort to prove that Jesus was the Messiah whom they had expected while Luke aims his text primarily at the Greeks and Romans, and John argues that Jesus was not only the human Messiah expected by the Jews but also the divine Son of God, the redeemer not only of the Jewish peoples but also of the fallen world. His doctrine of the Logos or Word is established in his prologue. John’s reinterpretation and rearrangement of the events in the other stories is aimed at showing that the Word in the Old Testament is fulfilled in the Jesus as redeemer myth. He uses “scripture is fulfilled”, “scripture says”, and “in order that it might be fulfilled” as introductory phrases time after time.


One good reason to read Mark first is that there are good reasons to believe that Mark’s gospel was written several years before Luke and Matthew wrote. Another good reason to read Mark first is that he creates a new literary form: the gospel. Like other new genres, the gospel both builds on existing forms and strikes out in new directions. Mark is obviously influenced by the apocalyptic writings of the first century B.C.E., writings which describe in symbolic language the coming of divine power to cleanse the earth of corruption and to restore the “kingdom” to the chosen people who had been faithful to the covenant. Mark makes it clear in several places that the imminent power of the divine is about to explode into history. In fact, it is hard to see how Christianity could have survived the generation for which Mark wrote without the interpretive work done by Paul and published in his letters. Mark’s Jesus says clearly that all will come to pass within a short time. As Kee puts it, “the reality of Jesus Christ was to be sought in the church’s preaching, not in the historian’s reconstruction of who he was.”[4] In other words, Christianity has from the beginning depended upon an interpretation of a story, a reading of a life.


Mark’s story may be, as Kee says, “a propaganda writing produced by and for a community that made no cultural claims for itself and offered its writings as a direct appeal for adherents rather than as a way of attracting the attention of intellectuals or literati of the day.”[5] But it is also a sophisticated and well-crafted work. Although it does not present argument for its proclamations it does present the proclamations with the authority and credibility that comes from the literary devices employed. Mark’s story sounds true. Read it aloud; you cannot miss the”back to the wall” truth-telling tone. It is there in the first line, “Here begins the gospel of Jesus….” It is there in the transitions: “It happened at this time”, “After John had been arrested…”, “Very early next morning…”, “that evening after sunset…”, “When after some days he returned…”. It is there in the “facts”: “John was dressed in a rough coat of camel’s hair…and he fed on locusts and wild honey.” “So they opened up the roof over the place where Jesus was, and when they had broken through they lowered the bed on which the paralyzed man was lying.” The first gives us particulars that identify John and fix him forever in our literary history. The second draws upon an intimate knowledge of the beds and houses of that time and place. Mark also tells us that Jesus’s sanity was questioned, that he was misunderstood, dismissed, and ridiculed. What better way to convince readers of his overall veracity than to be specific and concrete with his examples? If this is propaganda let it be understood as first rate propaganda. Mark is an artist. Look at the beginning and ending of his story: the first image is one of flocks of people coming to John at the Jordan to be baptized, and the last image is the empty tomb. He opens with hundreds of people looking to be “saved,” searching for some meaning in their lives. And he ends with the promise signalled by the empty tomb. Could this image have within it the answer to the needs expressed by the flocks of people at the beginning? Mark gives us the hint, the mystery, and the fear: “They said nothing to anybody, for they were afraid.” The perfect ending for his story. But, of course, someone has added verses 9-20, the resurrection stories, to ruin the artistry of Mark with the didacticism of the official line.


The struggle between Saul and Samuel, which was the struggle between king and prophet, is repeated in the suggested struggle between John and Jesus, but is resolved in the figure of the character Jesus. He is a merging of the kingly figure and the priestly figure. Jesus has the authority and charisma of David, the super natural powers of Samuel (who also returns from the dead), and the mission and focus of Elisha. He, like Moses, is a composite character who embodies the virtues of the leaders from priestly and monarchic traditions. Add to that the frustrations and anticipations of a people once more under the power of conquerors with different gods and the time for Endtime is ripe. The story is familiar to us: a people is under the oppressive power of a rich and powerful nation; their god is challenged by another divine figure who has earthly power, they desperately need a leader to take them out of their slavery, to deliver them from evil. But now it is the Romans, not the Egyptians, who have brought their god into Palestine n the form of Caesar. The Hebrews anxiously await the next chapter in the covenant story.


Mark’s Jesus arrives as one of the multitude of people seeking baptism from John. The Red Sea, which separated the Hebrews from the Egyptians, is replaced by the River Jordan, and baptism becomes the sign of the new covenant. Water, to wash away the sins of the past, is the perfect image for conversion with its cleansing, life-sustaining, and purifying powers. While Saul was picked out of the crowd by being a head taller than everyone else, Jesus is picked out as special because he is ordinary. John recognizes him as special in the story, and the specialness is shown by the image of the descending dove and the voice which speaks to Jesus in a private word from the heavens: “Thou art my Son, my Beloved; on thee my favour rests.” These signs serve the same narrative function as did the burning bush in the Moses story, the ladder in Jacob’s dream, the fire in the Samson story, or the small still voice that Ezekiel hears: they identify and empower the hero. Known only to the prophet (and the reader) these signs indicate to the individual a connection with the Other and the beginning of a special quest. These private signs (the call) will now be- come public in the narrative form of miracles which are the authenticating images of the authority given to the hero. The result will be shown in the response of the immediate audience which serves as witness to the events, and who will attest, “Never before have we seen the like.”


What is unique about this hero’s story? He shares much with earlier heroes. He performs healing miracles, but so did Elisha. He can control natural forces, but so did Moses. He can change water to wine, but Elisha could change putrid water to potable water. Jesus feeds multitudes, but others have done that also. He comes back from the dead, but Samuel was called up from the dead earlier. He teaches in parables, but Nathan did that too. Jesus walks on water; Elisha made an iron axe float on water. The miracles performed by Jesus are of a kind with those performed by other prophets. He is the word incarnate, but so was Ezekiel. He will be raised to heaven, but so was Elijah. He is thought to be out of his mind, but Samuel was often in a state of rapture. What then is unique about Jesus? Mark tells us nothing of his birth, does not mention anything about a supernatural birth at all; and though Matthew and Luke do provide birth narratives, these too are familiar to us from the birth of Isaac to the birth of Samuel. Two of the most dramatic healing miracles in Mark are found in the giving of sight to the blind man from Bethsaida and later to blind Bartimaeus. In both cases these stories come at a time when Jesus has been trying to explain something to his obtuse disciples. He asks them to recognize the truth in a story he tells them, to read his sayings as he intends them, and they fail miserably as readers. But how does one read the intention of the gods? That is the story of these stories. Jesus asks his disciples to recognize truth in his stories and they fail. After each failure a blind man is suddenly given sight and can see. “Do you still not understand? Are your minds closed? You have eyes; can you not see?” are questions Jesus asks his disciples in frustration when they are unable to understand what his mission is, what knowledge he has that they cannot recognize. One’s sympathy is with the students here. The lesson is not all that clear.


Is the “lesson” not clear because Jesus is not a good teacher? No, he is usually patient and repetitive, only rarely chastising his students with the lash of rhetorical questions: `Are your minds closed?’ `Can you not see?’ What teacher has not used these very questions of frustration? Shortly after restoring the sight of the blind man at Bethsaida Jesus asks his disciples “Who do men say that I am?” and after getting several answers – John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets – he asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replies: “You are the Messiah.” Peter’s eyes are opened. He can see. The narrative reveals in its form a “truth” that it wants to proclaim: the true identity of the hero, who in most hero narratives is of humble birth, a king hidden as a commoner. All of the ocular imagery in the story functions to serve the idea of seeing the “truth” which is hidden behind or under some appearance or other and must be pierced by sight or in-sight in order to be understood. The hero must be recognized. Secrecy, one of Mark’s main themes, must be pierced at some point in the story and the hero recognized for who he really is – the recognition scene announced by Peter is consummated in the transfiguration where Jesus appears on a mountain top with the spirits of Moses and Elijah. The voice, private at the river, is now public, “This is my Son, my Beloved; listen to him.” Peter, James, and John, we are told, are witnesses to this scene of the confirmation of the hero by the divine. Those who might think that Jesus is Moses are shown to be wrong for there he is with Moses. Those who might think he is Elijah are shown to be wrong for there he is with Elijah. In typical Markan strategy the truth, hidden in secrecy, is revealed to a small audience, and in the telling of that story, revealed to us as readers. This literary strategy reveals also a perception about the nature of truth. It says truth is hidden behind appearances, sometimes revealed, objective, god-given, magical, and beyond unaided humans. Jesus, who like Ezekiel, embodies the Word or Logos, is the messenger of God’s word, bringing glimpses of another level of reality to his disciples. There is a tension in Mark between this supernatural messenger and the developing man-character called Jesus. The interesting side of Mark’s Jesus is his human side: changing, frustrated, seeking, loving, talking, teaching, human Jesus. It is here that we find his uniqueness; it is here that we “see” his lesson.


But, of course, this reading is not the official line. Believers have from the gospels on proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ, the son of God, sent to establish a new covenant with the people who will believe and be baptized. He is proclaimed to be a god. But that is not unique. Every Caesar was also so proclaimed. Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Dionysus, and Mithras all died for the sins of the people. They also had cults which grew around them which included ceremonies like baptism to symbolize rebirth, and communion to symbolize unity with the redeemer-god. They also talked of redemption and a pain free life in the future. One cult grew up around Attis and Cybele. Its followers celebrated a Day of Blood in the month of March each year. At that time they hanged Attis in effigy to a tree where he bled to death. Then they took his “body” into a burial place and for several days mourned his passing. At the end of the mourning period the proclamation was made that Attis had risen from the dead, and the people rejoiced and celebrated this victory over death. Redeemers and saviour-gods were not unique to the time. Jesus is unique; Christ is not. Dr. Crane puts it this way:


Jesus taught that we should love our enemies; Christ walked on

water. Jesus taught that we should not judge others, should forgive

them; Christ turned water into wine. Jesus taught that the kingdom

of God is within us; Christ raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus

taught that we should not lay up treasures for ourselves on earth;

Christ fed the multitude with a few loaves and fishes. Jesus was a

charismatic human being; Christ is a saviour, a messiah – an ancient

idea. Created by humanity.[6]


There is a sense in which Jesus is a model for human beings to follow. He was a man of his time who held the assumptions and beliefs of his era. He is portrayed as a charismatic man who lived with intense purpose and drive, who had an existential thrust to his life, who cared deeply about human beings, and who wrestled with profound questions of ethics. The stories that grew up around him have affected the world for two thousand years and have touched the deepest parts of our humanity with their simplicity of image and their promise of “salvation”.


Several years before the gospel stories were written down another hero appears on the scene to spread the gospel and to deal with the many questions of meaning asked by the early Christians. This “first Christian” is Paul. He provides us with the only written documents about Christianity for the period between 30 and 70 BCE. His letters provide a reading of the spiritual life and teachings of Jesus and are extremely important in establishing the doctrines of early Christianity. Like Moses before him, Paul is a hero who comes from the inner circle of the “enemy”. While Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s household only later to find his call in the desert experience with Yahweh, Paul is a Roman Jew who is working with alacrity to wipe out Christianity when he has his conversion experience on the road to Damascus.


Meanwhile Saul was still breathing murderous threats against the

disciples of the Lord. He went to the High Priest and applied for

letters to the synagogues at Damascus authorizing him to arrest

anyone he found, men or women, who followed the new way, and

bring them to Jerusalem. While he was still on the road and

nearing Damascus, suddenly a light flashed from the sky all around

him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, `Saul, Saul,

why do you persecute me?’ `Tell me. Lord,’ he said, `who you are.’

The voice answered, `I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But

get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you have to

do.’ Meanwhile the men who were travelling with him stood

speechless; they heard the voice but could see no one. Saul got up

from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could not see; so

they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. He was

blind for three days, and took no food or drink. (Acts 9.1-9)


Saul, the persecutor of Christians, will now become the “chosen instrument” to spread the story of Christianity to the nations and the kings and the people of Israel. Saul of Tarsus, converted to the very doctrine he had been attempting to stamp out, is now renamed Paul, baptized in the name of Christ, and sent out to spread the “good news” which he took on that day on the road to Damascus. And as we have seen so many times in these stories the change of direction in his life is signalled by a change in name. The conversion story is an important introduction for this hero and as we might expect it is told more than once. A bit later (Acts 22.6-10) Paul tells the story in first person:


I was on the road to Damascus, when suddenly about midday a

great light flashed from the sky all around me, and I fell to the

ground. Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why do you

persecute me?” I answered, “Tell me, Lord, who you are.” “I am

Jesus of Nazareth,” he said, “whom you are persecuting.” My

companions saw the light, but did not hear the voice that spoke to

me. “What shall I do, Lord?”


As we have seen so often before when reading about heroes in the biblical stories, the details in the two versions are different. In one the fellow travellers see the light but hear no voice, in the other they see nothing but hear the voice. The importance to the story of this experience, however, is clear: Paul is authenticated as a hero by a conversion experience with the divine force which speaks to him and gives him a task to perform in the midst of great danger. It is puzzling why the writer, presumably Luke, did not make the necessary changes to the text to provide consistency. One possible explanation is to speculate that the first person account was extant in a letter and thus could not be changed, while Luke at the same time could see the problem with the first person account. That is, in Paul’s account if the light blinded him then why did it not blind the observers who witnessed the light? But whatever the case, part of the resolution of the problem comes from a realization that this is a story and that it follows certain patterns and images. Paul is blinded. How does that function in the story? He is blinded to the old ways, and after a period of time (three days) he is brought back whole, and with a new commitment to Christianity. One of the other fascinating “meanings” present in the conversion of Paul story is the example it establishes: if one who is perse- cuting Christians can be converted and saved then clearly anyone can be converted and saved. The form of the story carries the content of the doctrine of universality.


Paul is a Jew born in Tarsus, raised in Jerusalem, educated under the tutelage of Gamaliel, a Pharisee, and a Roman citizen. He died, according to tradition, in Rome under Nero in the early 60’s. He never read the gospels, did not meet Jesus, and never once in his writings refers to Jesus’s miraculous birth or to his miracles. Paul represents Jesus as the second Adam (Acts 5.12-19), concentrates on the spiritual side of the man-god, and argues for three important constitutive rules of the new religion: (1) monotheism, (2) universalism, and (3) grace. Paul is perhaps best considered as the first Christian missionary, if not the first Christian. He is interested in the spread of the new religion from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, Syria, Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and finally all the way to Rome. While the Jewish Christians continued to believe that Jesus was the long promised Messiah, whose ministry, death, and resurrection signalled the beginning of the final age of history, Paul concentrated his efforts on converting pagans to the new religion. He emphasizes the resurrection of Jesus above all else, and his mes- sage is one of the imminence of the new age with the urgency for spreading the good news obviously increased by not knowing exactly when the return of the Lord will occur. For the Jewish Christian Jesus was a human selected by God to be the Messiah, while for Paul Jesus was divine from the beginning.


Paul’s letters give a picture of a dedicated missionary who travels all over the middle east to proselytize for the new religion. But he does much more than proselytize, he also establishes rules for the religion as the need for them arises. Time after time he proclaims and stipulates what the new religion will be, often in answer to specific questions or problems raised by a specific congregation. He addresses the congregation in Corinth with a letter which appeals to them to stop their bickering and squabbling about who is the first among the missionaries:


I appeal to you, my brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ:

agree among yourselves, and avoid divisions; be firmly joined in

unity of mind and thought. I have been told, my brothers, by

Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is

this: each of you is saying, `I am Paul’s man,’ or `I am for Appollos’;

`I follow Cephas’, or `I am Christ’s.’ Surely Christ has not been

divided among you! (1 Cor. 1.10-13)


The human propensity for quarreling is manifest here. One man fights with another over which person baptized him, or over the ranking of the officials within the church. The residue of thousands of years of belief in the divisive doctrine of “chosenness” is impossible to erase. Although Paul is certainly a monotheistic universalist himself, the proclamation that all shall be welcome into the new religion is met with opposition and concern by the newly converted. The strong belief that one’s tribe has been chosen by the “true” god for some manifest destiny rings out across the centuries, and it often rings out from a killing field where the proclamation is tested, where the gods of one’s fathers must meet in combat to determine who is chosen. (Any so- lution to the deep conflicts in the Middle East today seems highly unlikely as long as the religious claims of all participants are based on the strongly held belief that each is the chosen representative of the only true god.) Paul’s first letter, “The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians” allows us to draw certain conclusions about the problems that were arising in the congregations some twenty years after the ministry of Jesus. A big puzzle for all was what was to happen to Christians who die before the return of the Lord. How were they to become apart of the new covenant, the new order? It was a problem, one imagines, because the second-coming was not on schedule, was not as quick as expected. Paul assures the congregation in the letter that the Christian dead will rise and join the other Christians “up in the clouds.” As we have seen in Mark there is a strong belief in the impending return of Jesus as divine ruler of the new kingdom. Another set of problems faced by Paul also have the second-coming as their source: if Jesus as Messiah/Redeemer is returning to the earth to redress injustice and bring about the new order, and if this occurrence is imminent, then why should anyone continue to pay attention to the matters of the world? Why, indeed, should one work or plan for the future in any way at all? Paul is uncertain about the time of the Parousia[7] saying only “the Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night.” But he is certain about how one must conduct oneself while waiting for the second coming. “You must abstain from fornication,” he says, and “you must learn to gain mastery over your body.” In a second letter to the Thessalonians[8] Paul orders that “the man who will not work shall not eat,” an injunction which suggests that many were not working but “idling their time away” while waiting for Godot.


     Romans, as the headnote in the New English Bible says, “contains the fullest and most balanced statement of his [Paul’s] theology.” And what is the centre of this theology? In a word grace. It is by means of God’s grace, Paul argues, that righteousness and eternal life enter in to the sinful world. “God’s act of grace,” he writes, “is out of all proportion to Adam’s wrongdoing.” The wrongdoing of Adam brought sin and death, but the grace of God brought Jesus the Messiah who brings acquittal to all of humankind. Believe and you will be saved. Paul emphasizes the importance of love in the life of the Christian, and insists upon the doctrine of grace. He attempts to upset the idea of a chosen people, not by arguing, as I would, that its consequences are disastrous, but by proclaiming a different point of view as true. “For God has no favourites,” he writes, “so my gospel states.” No circumcision is required; no special dietary rules are proscribed in this new religion. These are external marks and the true circumcision, Paul proclaims, “is of the heart.” His new religion will embrace those Jews who will be baptized and will also reach out beyond the tribes to all the peoples who will listen and believe. Paul’s story is one of a man driven by a religious call to spread the news to all of the peoples of the region in order to assure that they will be aware of the new dispensation from God. But Paul, like Mark, seems to believe that the Endtime is right around the corner, and that the return of the Lord to rule the world is imminent. That belief in the imminence of the second coming is the constant throughout Christian history. How Christianity continued to flourish past the first century CE is a puzzle to non-believers and a testimony to the power of the institution called the church and the irrationality of human beings as soon as they enter the arena of religion.


The Jesus of the synoptic gospels is comprised largely of “snapshots.” We see him through the lenses of three different artists, each with his own set of intentions and his own sense of audience. We see him during about one hundred days of his life, performing miracles, healing, and teaching. We know almost nothing of him outside of the New Testament stories; we cannot say with any certainty that he even existed outside of those stories. What we read of him in the gospels is quite different from what Paul tells us through his letters. In a sense the Jesus of the church or churches is a Pauline fabrication: the living, feeling, shouting man of Mark’s stories, who can destroy a fig tree, clean out a temple, and throw himself to the ground in despair, has become a spiritual and conceptual isolate in Paul’s theological discourse. The Old Testament begins with “In the beginning…” and the New Testament ends with “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” as a hopeful reply to the last voice in the narrative, that of the character, Jesus, who speaks “Yes, I am coming soon!”


From beginning to end we have lingered in these stories for some time; their power will continue to serve them, and you, well, in the ongoing human story.

[1] The Interpreters’ Bible Abingdon Press, New York, Volume 7, page 828.

[2] See, e.g., the excellent debate between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew in Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? – The Resurrection Debate, edited by Terry L Miethe, Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1987.

[3] “Q” probably comes from “quelle” the German word for “source.”

[4] Kee, page 33.

[5] Kee, page 138.

[6] “The Limitations of Christ,” John Crane, from Reflections on theNature of Things, Volume IV, Number 9, Jefferson Unitarian Church, Golden, Colorado.

[7] The future coming of Christ.

[8][8] There is some debate about whether Paul actually wrote 2 Thessalonians. The theme and style do not strike all scholars as similar enough to be genuine Pauline writing.



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Reading the Bible: Intention, Text, Interpretation Copyright © 2018 by Robert D. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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