Chapter One


There have been many figures throughout human history who have exerted a profound influence on the world. No single figure has exerted more influence than the first century prophet from Nazareth called Jesus the Messiah, the Annointed One, the Christ. Even our calendar dating system (e.g. 2000 "Common Era") is based on Jesus' supposed birthdate at Bethlehem in Judea. Our task is to seek to unravel something of the mystery of this person in his own time and context and then to investigate the various ways in which Jesus has been understood from New Testament times until our own day.

To speak of the mystery of Jesus Christ is to acknowledge, first of all, that human life itself is mystery. Human beings are not just minds and bodies; they are also spirit. God is the supreme Mystery and, as St. Paul remarks, it is only 'in God that we move and live and have our being'. Mystery, then, invades every dimension of our lives including our knowledge of ourselves and our world. Mystery is at the heart of our relationships with others. If we ever get to the point where we say of someone that 'there is no mystery there', we can be sure that we are failing to appreciate the depth, the beauty, the pain, the reality of who that person is. We are effectively saying that 'God is not there'. This is why the more we come to know and appreciate another person, the more we become aware of the depth of mystery and the reality of God in that person.

The mystery of the person of Jesus is even more profound on account of the kinds of human faith-responses that he inspired in the disciples of his own day and in Christian believers throughout the centuries. Of course, people touched by the Jesus-story--then as now--respond in different ways and at different levels. However, it remains true that the story of Jesus continues to capture the imagination of people, to inspire new vision and hope. These people feel that Jesus somehow enables them to be more authentically human and to live their lives with greater openness to the divine mystery.

How is it, then, that this first century Jew from Palestine came to exert such influence on human beings and world history? Evidently, there is no simple answer to this question. In fact, the best answers are not expressed in words, but in the lives and deeds, the witness and testimony, of Jesus' followers. In other words, it is only by risking our own lives and entering into the mystery of the Jesus-story that we can begin to understand something of the profound meaning of his life, death and resurrection for us and our world.

Different approaches to the mystery of Christ

How then do we enter into the mystery of this Jesus-story? To begin, we need to situate ourselves within the living tradition of the followers of Jesus. For most, this means becoming part of an ecclesial community or Christian Church which celebrates the memory of Jesus in Word and Sacrament. In this way, the Jesus-story is brought to life again as people experience his reality at the centre of their lives and world. From earliest times, this was expressed by saying that 'Jesus is the Christ' (Peter) or, even more profoundly, Jesus is 'Lord and God' (Thomas).

The continuation of the Jesus-story throughout human history has been expressed in many ways: some have retreated to the desert, or at least to a monastery, to contemplate the mystery of Christ in solitude and prayer; others have chosen to live their Christianity in the market-place, inspired by Jesus' who heals the sick, defends the poor and upholds the rights of people against all forms of injustice. In these multiple testimonies to the power of Jesus Christ at work in the world, we can discern different ways of telling, embracing and interpreting the Jesus story.

From very early times in Christian history, it became evident that there are essentially two distinct approaches to the mystery and reality of Jesus Christ. One is called a christology 'from below' because the emphasis is on the events in the historical life of Jesus: the one who came among us as a great prophet to announce the kingdom of God and who, despite his untimely death, has been raised on high by God. The other approach is called a christology 'from above' because it begins by affirming the divine origins of Jesus who is 'God made man'.

These two approaches--sometimes called 'low ascending' and 'high descending' christologies--are meant to be complementary. However, throughout the centuries, it has been the 'high descending' christology that has held the most sway. More recently, the 'low ascending' christology has had a return to favour. Just as we can speak of trends in clothes or music, we might also speak of christological trends. The important thing is to realise that the mystery of Jesus Christ surpasses all our attempts to speak and understand. Moreover, it is only by entering the story in word and deed, that is by becoming followers of Jesus, that we can hope to understand who he is and what he means for us today.

The Gospels as privileged sources

It is also true that if we are to understand Jesus at all we need to locate him in the first stories that were told about him. These stories are called 'Gospels' (a name meaning 'Good News'). They were written by the early followers of Jesus in the decades after his earthly life. We need to realise that the Gospels are faith-stories rather than biographies. The Gospel-writers were not out to prove anything, but to provide an account of the wonderful ways that God was present to them in the life of Jesus the Nazarene. The Gospels, then, are 'privileged sources' because they witness to the earliest experiences of faith in Jesus the Christ, the special messenger of God.

This does not mean that the Gospels are unhistorical. They tell us much about the Jesus of history and the events of his historical life. The Gospels are based on eye-witness accounts which, however, are first of all told in stories before they are committed to writing. In fact, it is some thirty to sixty years after Jesus' death that the Gospels are written in their final form. This means that we can identify three different layers of tradition underlying the Gospel stories: the original words and deeds of Jesus; the oral proclamation of the apostles; and the written words of the Gospel-writers. Consequently, we can say that the Gospels are a complex set of documents that combine history and theology, facts and faith, events and interpretation. Each of the Gospels does this in a unique way (in much the same way an artist depicts a scene according to his or her own 'way of seeing things').

If the Gospels are works of art rather than straight histories, this is not to reduce their truth-claims but to enhance them. Each of the Gospels is seeking to answer the same fundamental question that Jesus put to Simon Peter: 'Who do you say that I am?' Yet, each evangelist (Gospel-writer) is struck by a different aspect of the mystery of the person of Jesus. This means that the four Gospels present us with different portraits of the same Jesus.

The Gospels of Mark and Matthew are especially concerned to situate Jesus within the framework of Jewish faith and life. For Mark, Jesus is the suffering Messiah; for Matthew, he is the new Moses and teacher of the new law. In the Gospels of Luke and John, Jesus is seen as the Saviour of all people within and beyond the world of Israel. The Lukan Jesus is identified as the one in whom the Holy Spirit is specially present; the Johannine Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. These represent different approaches to the one mystery of Jesus the Christ:

Differing in culture, geography, time and emphasis, these various writers make clear that from the beginning there has been more than one christology in the Christian community. All confessing the same faith, they articulate this in a pluralism of ways. Taken together, their writings form the Christian Sciptures, foundational to doing christology now since they carry the remembrance and witness of the inspired early communities. [ Elizabeth Johnson, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 6f. ]

The living Jesus tradition

The Gospels, then, are our privileged sources for understanding the mystery of Jesus the Christ. However, without the ongoing history of interpretation--the living Jesus tradition--, neither the Gospels nor Jesus would still claim our attention today. This means that history or tradition is another important source for our knowledge of Jesus Christ. Moreover, this tradition of interpretation, enshrined in the doctrines of the Church, witnesses to two thousand years of continuing faith in the mystery of Christ. We are heirs to that tradition as we seek to reinterpret our faith in Jesus Christ today.

To stand within this 'living Jesus tradition' means that we must attempt to reinterpret his meaning for us today. Our interpretation must be both faithful to the Gospels and the ongoing tradition of faith while also being creative in the way that we re-express our Christian faith today. It is, if you like, up to us to keep the Jesus-story alive through faithful yet enterprising discipleship and interpretation. It is not adequate to merely repeat the past--as if the tradition was dead--, but we must also reinterpret the mystery of Christ from within the faith-tradition that he has inspired. This is what it means to be part of a living tradition or an ongoing community of believers.

We face the mystery of Jesus Christ with our contemporary twenty-first century eyes. Accordingly, we will develop our christologies with reference to the issues and questions that are part of our world and experience. We could not do otherwise. Consequently, what we will be exploring in the following pages can be described very much in terms of a dialogue between our contemporary world-situation and the Jesus-movement as it began some two thousand years ago. We are exploring this reality because we believe that Jesus, a first-century Palestinian Jew, somehow holds the key to the meaning and significance of our lives and the world in which we live.

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