Who are you? Who, who, who, who? -The Who, “Who Are You?”
Who was Jesus, really?
One of my favourite Christmas carols is by an English writer named William Chatterton Dix. The story goes that at age twenty-nine he wrote “What Child is This?” after suffering through serious illness and wrestling with deep depression. The lyrics we sing today echo a question people have been asking about Jesus for centuries: what’s with this kid?
I’ve noticed two spectacles that inspire wonder in people, and induce an almost hypnotic effect: campfires and babies. People are drawn to combustion and cradles; they share some similar traits. Both instill wonder and curiosity, both cause us to reflect on life and meaning, and both have the power to make us feel extremely uneasy. Fires and babies are unpredictable, keeping us on our toes. The baby Jesus has stirred similar sentiments in many over the years. He can inspire wonder, causing us to reflect on the deep matters of life. He can also tend to make us feel a little uncomfortable.
Few dispute Jesus existed. An immense amount of biblical and extra-biblical evidence testifies that he lived. We have reliable, historical documentation on Jesus that far outweighs our evidence for many other famous, ancient figures. Jesus’ historicity has been thoroughly tried and tested. Credible historians and scholars agree: Jesus lived, and obviously made a tremendous impact on the world. Two millennia later we’re still talking about him.
Most Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish and Sikh thinkers don’t discredit Jesus’ existence either. In fact, he’s revered in several of the world’s major religions. Christians aren’t the only people intrigued by Jesus. The Dalai Lama has great respect for Jesus, and even wrote a book about his teachings. Opinions concerning Jesus’ identity range widely. Muslims believe Jesus to be a great prophet, though they don’t agree we should worship him. Jewish scholars have numerous perspectives on Jesus; maybe he was just a prophet, or a superb teacher, or a heretic.
Weren’t you born in a barn?
Christians think differently about Jesus. They believe Jesus was more than human, but divine and human. They also believe he literally died on a cross, later resurrecting from the dead. Many today find that a bit of stretch. Here’s why.
First of all, the idea that there even is a God is very much up for debate. In some circles God’s coffin is already securely six feet under, so to speak. And, if there is a God, how can we be sure that “God” can be defined or understood? Some argue over whether or not we’re able to prove that walls exist. Where do we begin with God?
Second, to concede that a God-man walked the earth when Caesar Augustus did can feel antiquated. That Mary gave birth to Jesus despite being a virgin is also a leap for us. Every now and then we hear of women who go into labour and had no idea they were pregnant. These kinds of abnormal occurrences are hard to believe; yet they happen. A virgin having a baby is a whole other story—let alone a virgin giving birth to a divine baby.
These events and claims are miraculous and challenging to accept. A small, radical first-century gang may have propagated the divine-Jesus rumour at first, but that was some time ago. Jesus lived over two thousand years ago, and people looked at the world differently than we do now. A god-man wasn’t a stretch for ancient people, at least not theoretically. Despite this fact, however, Jesus’ way of life and claims about himself were deeply challenging for his contemporaries.
Some philosophers rejected the pantheon of gods worshipped by the masses, even though it may have landed them in hot water, but most people had no problem accepting supernatural ideologies. People were spiritual back then. Lots of us still are. If you asked someone in my neighbourhood if they were religious, there’s a good chance they’d say no. Quite a few, however, would agree that they’re spiritual.
That supernatural events occurred, and that the gods engaged somewhat with life on earth, was pervasive thinking in the days of Moses, Cleopatra and Cyrus the Great. There was more to the world, people thought, than met the eye. Natural and supernatural commingled in ancient thought.
Despite this merging, however, many ancient people thought of the gods as detached and generally unconcerned with everyday human life. Commingling occurred, but it usually revolved around divine self-interest. Belief that the gods intermingled with people (to put it tastefully) was also common. Half-gods or part-gods are all over the place in early lore; Hercules and Achilles are good examples from the Greeks. Sometimes rulers or kings were considered gods, like the Egyptian pharaohs. They built giant statues all over the place to keep people in line, and remind them who was boss.
The great Julius Caesar was deified (post-mortem). This worked out rather nicely for his would-be successor, Octavian (known better as Caesar Augustus, Rome’s emperor on the day Jesus was born). When Octavian had his eye on the empire, he used his relationship with Julius Caesar to his advantage.
His [Octavian’s] standing was considerably enhanced, for he could style himself divi filius, the son of a god. His supporters lost no opportunity to publicize his adoptive father’s elevation to the stars.
So what makes Jesus, a self-proclaimed God-man, unique? What separates Jesus from the mighty pharaohs, or Heracles, or the Caesars, or all the great prophets and thinkers of old? What makes him stand out from the rest? Why was Jesus’ life and message challenging for those who knew him?
Jesus is different because he wasn’t great. Jesus never led an army and never ruled a nation. Also, his friends didn’t claim he was just a great teacher or prophet. Nor did they say he was half-god, half-human, or mostly human with a dash of god. Jesus’ friends believed he was fully God (the only and one-true God, with a capital G) and fully human.
At the time, both the Jewish world Jesus emerged from, and the Greek-speaking one in which his story spread, uttered a collective response to this claim: Huh? Wasn’t this guy born in a barn? Didn’t he die on a cross?
Many have shown that a human claiming to be the one-true God of the universe was quite odd, even for the ancient world, and especially for a human like Jesus. Ancient rulers had PR departments who would spin divine-nature stories with flare, and thus these leaders demanded submission. They also had swords, chariots and armies, which certainly aided in establishing control over their subjects. After all, aren’t gods meant to be strong?
No one had ever heard of a god or a king who lived with humility and chose to ask if you’d like to submit to him or not. Jesus’ life and message was as challenging to ancient people as it is to us today.
The stuff of legend.
Jesus hailed from a rural fishing village and probably worked most of his life as a tradesperson. He then garnered a minor following in a dusty corner of the Roman Empire plagued with uprisings and rebellions. Most of his followers bailed when he was arrested and sentenced to the cruellest form of capital punishment Rome dealt out. Jesus didn’t look good on paper.
A Jewish man named Paul was one of Christianity’s earliest and most important thinkers. The record of his travels, found in the biblical book of Acts, says he experienced a lot of opposition when he told people who he thought Jesus was. Once, at a spot in modern-day Turkey, an angry mob dragged Paul outside the city, stoned him, and left him for dead, all because he wouldn’t shut up about Jesus’ divinity. After regaining consciousness, he got up and went back inside to give it another go. Acts tells us people would follow Paul from place to place just to give him a hard time. Talk about dedicated hecklers.
Ancient people may have been more open to the supernatural than we in the West are today, but the first Christians’ claims (that Jesus was divine and literally resurrected from the dead) were no less disturbing. It sounded wacky.
Neither the mythic gods of Greece nor the historical rulers of Egypt hung around with regular folks, shared finger food at parties or climbed into boats for a snooze. They certainly didn’t strip down to their skivvies to wash a bunch of smelly fishermen’s feet either. This didn’t sound like something the great Achilles might list as a hobby. The gospel accounts say Jesus did all of these things.
Most ancient gods were fantastic. Stories about them are slotted into a literary category we call mythology. The Greeks had one of the more diverse pantheons in history. In reality their gods were just a reflection of the Greeks themselves. A scholar friend of mine says the gods generally looked like “Greeks on steroids.” This is why they’re as selfish and self-absorbed as you and me. They’re a reflection of us, just in high definition.
When Paul travelled to the city of Athens with his teachings about Jesus, he got the chance to chat with the most intelligent and powerful people in the city. His opening statement?
I can tell you guys are pretty religious, just look at all the statues of the gods you’ve got kicking around! You like to cover your bases, too. I noticed you’ve got an altar marked “to an unknown god.” Let me tell you about this God. He’s the one-true God of the universe. He made everything, doesn’t need you to bring him food, and he doesn’t live in a temple.
Paul’s experience in Athens was a good reflection of the broader ancient world. Sumerians, Persians, Greeks and everyone else under the sun back then wrote about and worshipped the gods. We’ve got lots of that writing. The thing is, they had a way of writing about them. We can still read about Greek perspectives on the character of the gods today, many of whom lacked any.
It’s the same with the Egyptians, other ancient Near Eastern peoples and later pagan European tribes. None of these gods, as far as we can tell, said and did the sorts of things that Jesus did. Most of them were only interested in power, control, or lots and lots of sex. Sound familiar?
In this world women were commonly treated like objects, and children were considered subhuman. People usually founded their belief of the god’s interest in them by how well the crops were doing and how many kids they had. The ancients didn’t wonder if the gods loved them. They either found favour with the gods (based on sacrifices, rituals and the like) or they didn’t. Love wasn’t the issue. People just wanted to keep the gods happy.
Mark’s gospel holds two stories, in close proximity to one another, which tell of two occasions when Jesus miraculously fed thousands of people. Mark tells us Jesus was teaching the crowds, but they ran out of food. In both stories he says that Jesus had compassion on the crowds. When Jesus looked at people in difficult circumstances, he felt deeply for them, and did something about their situation.
Mark says Jesus was able to take a little food that had been gathered up and turn it into a lot. You may or may not believe in miracles, but the supernatural content of the story isn’t what we need to focus on at this moment. The point is: Jesus’ first followers believed he was a kind, generous, others-focused person. Jesus loved, practically. The gospels are filled with stories of Jesus’ compassion and kindness.
Most gods in ancient mythology demanded something from their worshippers. These kinds of gods took. Jesus gave. His legacy was that he loved people; it was his defining feature.
Bob < Jesus.
When Jesus comes on the scene claiming to be the embodiment of the one-true God of the universe, he bases his teaching on what the Israelite people previously understood God to be like. The Israelites were a small, Semitic tribe who’d had their ups and downs over the centuries. In the grand scheme of ancient political and military history, the Israelites played a minuscule role.
The Israelites did hold to a firm moral and religious code, however. This code was clear on how women and children should be treated, and often differed from the way they were treated in some of the other surrounding cultures. The Bible says that Jesus was an Israelite, so he grew up learning and practicing this code. We see in the gospels that he didn’t objectify women or overlook kids. In fact, he stood up for them on numerous occasions. He treated women and children as whole human beings and welcomed them into his inner circle.
On one occasion Jesus told a child to stand in the middle of a large crowd that had gathered around him and said: “You guys need to be more like this kid”. That’s high praise for children, given the Greco-Roman view of them in the first century. Jesus also invited women to learn alongside men, which was a big no-no in his day and age. He was both morally and ethically progressive for his time, cared for degraded “dispensable” people, and instructed his listeners to reject a low view of human value.
Part of the code the Israelites held to taught, “Don’t murder each other”. Jesus took it further. He said, “Don’t hate each other”. Jesus knew that murder is hate embodied. Murder is in the heart before it’s in the hands. We must deal with the attitude and then behaviour, Jesus taught. Jesus was also said to have hung around and healed lots of sick people, fed the hungry and constantly befriended cultural outcasts. His philanthropic impact on the world certainly puts him in contention of being the most influential human rights activist ever.
Jesus seems like a solid guy, but I know lots of solid guys. I’ve got friends who feed and clothe the poor and care for the sick too. Some generously donate thousands of dollars year after year to help needy people who live in desperate countries they’ll never even visit. There are many wonderful humans hanging around. You and I know lots of them.Take the time to think of one right now. Who’s the best human you know? Write their name on this page if you want. Now, write Jesus next to their name. Here, I’ll go first:
Bob | Jesus
As awesome as your friend is and as much as you love them, do you think they’ll leave a mark on the world the size that Jesus did? Don’t get me wrong; Bob’s great! He spends lots of his time serving at the local hospice. Bob’s a good person, but as much as I respect and admire him:
Bob < Jesus
That Jesus was a good person is not what people like to debate and question, even though he was. The questions we ask surround his claims of divinity, as recorded in the gospel accounts. These claims are, as we’ve noted, a little wacky. Who walks around acting like God himself, even if he is super nice?
Jesus didn’t eat bacon.
The gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) tell us Jesus claimed he was God. Unlike lots of ancient literature on the gods, the gospels don’t read like mythology. We don’t read about Jesus angrily throwing thunderbolts; he’s too busy touching lepers, giving sermons, and cleaning mucky feet. No miracle he performed was self-serving. If the gospels are attempts at mythology, they’re poor ones. Compared to the cast of storybook characters we discover buried in antiquity, Jesus makes for one tragically disappointing god.
Over hundreds of years of academic scrutiny, many have shown that the gospels are different from everything else kicking around back then that dealt with supernatural subject matter. The gospels are written like historical documents, or eye-witnessed events, not like folklore. This is why Jesus is different. This is why he’s important. This is why so many people are fascinated and inspired by him. Jesus doesn’t look or act like Zeus, yet he claims to be the God who made everything.
What if, you might ask, Jesus is just a part of Jewish lore? The gospel stories could just be an Israelite version of mythology, couldn’t they? This is possible, but highly unlikely.
Jesus’ claims were arguably stranger to the Jewish mind than they were to the Greek one. First-century Israelites believed, unlike the rest of the Greco-Roman world, that there was only one-true God. No pantheon, no half-gods, just one God. They held firmly that this God had made everything, and was unparalleled in power and majesty. The Israelites revered this God and called him holy. They believed that seeing God would kill you. Even writing or speaking God’s name was risky. His name garnered immense respect. Refusing to adhere to the legislative commands they believed God had given them was, in some cases, punishable by death. Strict rules about creating physical repre- sentations (idols) of their Spirit-God were honoured for centuries. Their deity was not to be made into matter.
So, when Jesus arrives on the scene saying what he says and doing what he does, it’s odd. This would seem to be the last place, the last culture, the last people to produce an individual who thought it plausible he’d be warmly received as God made of matter. A guy like that may have done better with a bag of tricks somewhere in Greece a few hundred years earlier.
Considering the first-century Jewish culture Jesus grew up in, his declarations are staggering. It is strange that this man and his teachings grew so popular when we think about where he came from. But this is what Jesus is said to have claimed: I’m God in the flesh, and I can prove it. When you study his life in the gospels, you wonder why people kept inviting him to parties; there must have been something to him. You also wonder how he didn’t get himself killed sooner.
That’s one big “IF.”
Much has changed since the first century. We do share a few things in common with ancient people, however; one of which is the mystifying question of Jesus’ true identity. When faced with Jesus’ claims, much of the world still says: Huh? Wasn’t he born in a barn? Didn’t he die on a cross? Jesus is different from the rest of antiquity’s mythic personalities and every religious figure before and after him.
If his first followers were wrong, as C.S. Lewis famously wrote, Jesus was either a liar or a lunatic. If he was telling the truth, it changes everything. Jesus’ claims invite us to scrutinize his story.
What if he was telling the truth?
What if the baby in the hay was God?
What does it mean for babies?
What does it mean for hay?