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Beholding the man

Marcus Borg, Luke Timothy Johnson, Deirdre Good, Tom Wright, and John Dominic Crossan offer their personal responses to Jesus' question in Matthew 16:15.

'But what about you?' he asked.
'Who do you say I am?'

From the New International Version

TOM WRIGHT Jesus believed he was living at the climactic moment of history. He wasn't just a teacher of general timeless truths or even of a general political agenda that might be applied any time any place. He believed he was standing at the corner of history - the corner of Israel's history and hence because of Israel's calling, the corner of world history. He believed that it was his vocation to announce God's Sovereign Rule - God's Kingdom if you like - not just in the ordinary Jewish sense of God is going to be King or the Romans are going to get their come-uppance but in the much more specific sense that now at last God was going to be King of the whole world, everything was going to be different. And he believed that it was his calling to take Israel and hence the world around that corner once and for all time. And one of the words that got attached to that in various senses was this word 'Messiah' or 'Christ' but Jesus redefined that around himself. He drew upon himself the whole picture of Messiahship that different Jews in that period might have been sketching in different ways. And within that Jesus believed that he had the vocation to deal with the radical evil that had infected the world once and for all. And that is why he not only announced the Kingdom of God, he lived it, he enacted it symbolically, and ultimately he died for it. And that is at the heart of what it meant for Jesus to be the one who would bring the world to its great climatic moment.

JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN What's most important about Jesus, is that he didn't answer that question. Jesus didn't talk about himself. He talked about the Kingdom of God. The 'Our Father' is not a prayer to Jesus. It's Jesus' prayer about the Kingdom of God. So if I were to try and summarize it, Jesus is located in a situation that is terribly specific. It's in Lower Galilee, under Antipas in a time of Roman urbanization. And what Jesus said is this system as here represented is not the will of God. The Kingdom of God stands opposed to it. So if I were to put it in a sort of a soundbite, as a historian I reconstruct Jesus as 'a peasant with an attitude'. But as a Christian I consider and believe that that attitude is the attitude of God. Jesus is the one who asks you to live the Kingdom, to enact the Kingdom, and to live out of the Kingdom as he does. He is the one who invites you to take the Kingdom, to enter the Kingdom.

DEIRDRE GOOD First of all, Jesus is a Jew in the first century. But the Judaisms of the Second Temple period are quite diverse and so we need to say more about what it meant for Jesus to be a Jew - certainly one who practiced Judaism. He advocated paying the Temple tax and adhering to purity laws. So it's as a religious man primarily in which we can we look for Jesus' identity. The proclamation of the proximity of God's Kingdom is terribly important not so much as a guaranteed surety but rather as an invitation. The important thing is that Jesus doesn't proclaim the message of God's Kingdom once but in many and various ways. The message that the Gospels present us with - and they too are affecting who Jesus is - is that in the course of Jesus' life the meaning of who he is is to be worked out. In other words it's not a soundbite here and now, That's not the answer once and for all - the totality of his life forms part of the question.

MARCUS BORG My image of Jesus actually combines two images of Jesus in a dialectical relationship - an image of the pre-Easter Jesus and and image of the post- Easter Jesus. By the pre-Easter Jesus I mean of course, Jesus as a figure of history before his death. And I see my image of the pre-Easter Jesus that he has a spirit dimension to him, a wisdom dimension to him, a political dimension to him. And of those three the one that I highlight most in my own work is that he was a spirit person, that is one of those people with an experiential awareness of the sacred. A Jewish mystic if you will. But to return to the three, he was a God-intoxicated Jew who was a wisdom teacher and a social prophet. And then by the post-Easter Jesus I mean what Jesus became after his death. It's the Jesus of both Christian tradition and experience. Both nouns are important. By the Jesus of Christian tradition I mean the Jesus who emerges in the New Testament in the Gospels and ultimately also in the Creeds. And of Christian experience I mean the post-Easter Jesus is actually experienced as a living reality both then and now. And then in a nutshell my image of the post-Easter Jesus would be that he is the Son of God, the Wisdom of God, the Word of God, and ultimately One with God.

I begin with the belief that Jesus is a living person. So my response is that Jesus is risen Lord. And, as a living person, the images we have for Jesus are multiple, as multiple as the experience of Jesus that continues in the world. The sacramental experience of Jesus. The experience of Jesus in prayer. The reading of Jesus out of the pages of the Gospels. So, thinking about Jesus as a living person, I find it impossible to attach a single image. Jesus is as richly diverse and multifaceted as my wife Joy is - actually more than my wife Joy is. No offence to Joy but an honour to Jesus. When I first met my wife, I felt fairly confident about being able to say who she was. After twenty years of marriage I find that it's less and less possible to reduce her to a simple image or to a single story. She constantly reveals herself in new ways. And when I read the pages of the Gospels, I find the same multi-faceted rendering of Jesus. Each of the Gospels renders Jesus in different ways - Jesus as Prophet, Jesus as Revealer. If I were to say that there's some central governing image of Jesus in the Gospels that is the most telling, the most normative, I find it in the narrative rendering of Jesus as the suffering obedient Son of God who in radical obedience to God gave his life in loving service to others. That image of Jesus I find pervades the Gospels and the other early Christian writings and gives some kind of normative shape to the continuing experience of Jesus in the Church.

TW Can I jump in here? I think the biggest difference between what I'm saying and Dom and Marc are saying is that I believe Jesus understood himself to be living at a unique moment - the unique moment - in history. I don't think that's about simply a new experience of God or a new idea about organizing one's life which might apply at anytime. I think it's the critical difference between those who see Jesus standing at the turning point of all history and those who think he was simply a teacher of some sort who might in principle have been around at any time.

LTJ I think another difference is the degree of confidence that one has in our ability to say as Tom just did, that Jesus thought of himself in this way or that. My approach is to affirm strongly the experience of Jesus as resurrected Lord, but with a certain degree of caution about our ability to adequately comprehend him. I find it difficult to get inside Jesus' head historically. And I think it raises issues of appropriate historical standards.

JDC I would never consider I'm getting inside of Jesus' head, because I don't think I could get inside my own head very securely or anyone else's head. I can see what Jesus is talking about if he says, as I think he does, blessed are the destitute. I can figure out what he might mean by that. To get inside his head, I cannot do with Jesus, because I can not do with anyone in that sense. So it's not that I'm protecting Jesus with a sort of cocoon of unknowability. That really has to do with all of us. But we can see the program and I do not want to protect Jesus from history.

DG It might be that in fact we shouldn't choose between these alternatives but include as many other voices as possible in the conversation. In other words, from the point of view of the knowledge question, the totality of the interpretations is the beginning of the answer to the meaning of Jesus.

TW That may be so. I think the critical difference is whether we're trying to do psychoanalysis of a figure of the past - and I know that does happen in some pseudohistorical attempts. I agree with Dom, if that's what we mean by 'getting inside of Jesus' head', then none of us should be trying to do it. What we can do in principle with any figure of the past about whom we have reasonable information is to talk about their motivations, what so to speak 'made them tick'. Not at the level of Freud would understand, but at the level of 'What was he driving at? What was he getting at?'. So I think if we can keep that distinction, then we can ask those questions about Jesus and indeed I want to say as a Christian, we have an obligation to ask them.

This conversation is extracted from a longer teleconference that took place following the 'Jesus at 2000' email debate set up by Harper San Francisco back in 1996. The complete transcript (along with the earlier email debate) is available at