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Jesus: a gospel Portrait, Donald Senior, C. P. Ch. One: Knowing Jesus


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Jesus: A Gospel Portrait, Donald Senior, C.P.
Ch. One: Knowing Jesus
1. Nearly everyone knows “about” Jesus. “Knowing about” is not the same as “knowing” Jesus. The latter nearly defines the Church’s whole mission, for the purpose of transforming people’s lives.
Knowledge in this sense is synonymous with friendship and trust. The transformation occurs somewhere in the belief that Jesus shows “what it [really] is to be a human being”. Faith asserts that the presence of Jesus gives the believer the transforming power to be more human. The reality of transformation leads the Church to assert that Jesus is a living person, a real presence - felt in the peace of prayer, the power of forgiveness, the strength of another believer, etc.
2. On the other hand, the believer already “knows” Jesus, and it is quite normal when one knows and loves another to want to learn more “about” the other. “Knowing about” and “knowing” are not mutually exclusive. The two aspects relate and interpenetrate each other.
3. Most people have a portrait of Jesus – one often set in childhood but which should develop and deepens as we grow and learn more about Jesus. In Senior’s example about forgiveness: it is one thing for a child to know forgiveness for the kinds of things a child might need forgiveness for. When we get older, the kinds of things we might need forgiveness for are normally on a different level. In going to Jesus in the gospels to see about how he dealt with sin, we may get a deeper appreciation of certain depths involved, and come to a deeper appreciation of Jesus.


  1. Gospels as “Privileged Sources”




  1. The non-Xtian sources are there, but relatively sparse (Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny, Josephus)1. They’ll give us some information about Jesus, but not too much.




  1. The New Testament (NT) is the primary source for learning about Jesus. It is comprised of a variety of materials. However, even Paul (who has the largest share of actual writing in the NT) does not go into much detail on the narrative of Jesus’ life. His concern is with the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection.



  1. The Gospels and Xtian Faith




  1. The gospels are the part of the NT where we have any narrative about Jesus. However, gospels are not biographies - the way we think of biographies. What is a gospel then?




  1. Senior says that to know what one is, we have to first know how they came into being. He identifies a “three-stage process” of the coming to be of the gospels. [This was covered in the set of notes titled “Jesus and the New Testament”. You should know the details from there, as well as the other general things said about the NT.]

As “good news” a gospel is closer to a preaching than it is to a history. In all of these senses there is one key point about the gospels: They “came out of the church”. There was a church before there was a gospel. The gospels are in some sense the “Church’s Books”.


3. The final issue concerns “inspiration”. Senior notes this as a complex phenomenon ultimately requiring some kind of authoritative voice to say what counts as inspired scripture and what doesn’t. You should review your notes from the Marcion Paper for how this happened. Ultimately, the four gospels were recognized as the Word of God because people found that they were words from God, with their own power, and authority. They found something not unknown even to moderns – that the gospels are heard and read, but that they also hear and read. They are works where the question can be asked, “Am I reading them, or are they reading me?”
According to Senior, the gospel portrait of Jesus is found to be a “credible” one in that it “faithfully conveys to us who Jesus was and what he was about…[T]he portrait reveals the risen Christ who is with the church for all times and places”.
If all this is true, Senior gives one prudent warning: We should not look in the gospels for something that is not there. What is not there is “an account of Jesus separated from faith in Jesus”. We won’t find a Jesus “separated from his church”, as if he was some kind of abstract and isolated world-historical figure. There have been strenuous efforts in the last two centuries, for example, to locate a “Jesus of History” separate from a “Christ of Faith”. It is not that such and effort is not valuable. It is. Problems abound, however, when such a person discovered is thought to have actually ‘existed’ as a thing separate from church, where church includes everything from the first disciples to the subsequent centuries of tradition. That Jesus – the lone, isolated, teacher of wisdom who somehow appeared on earth as if some kind of mythological demigod – did not actually exist.

Ch. Two: The World of Jesus
[Much of this was covered in the run up to the first test. I’ll highlight the parts that were not stressed there.]
Jesus was a 1st c. Jew. He was born Jewish, lived as a Jew, and died as one. Once it began, his ministry was a “mobile arena of constant debate”, of crowds, friends, opponents, Jew and Gentile, including Rome. One reason to stress the above is to make a key point about Christianity as a religion compared to other ancient religions: Jesus was no Zeus, Apollo, or Mithras. He was not “a mythological God whose fabled life was played out in a timeless kingdom”. If he is divine, it is not in the way, for example, that the goddess Athena was said to be divine.


    1. The Origin of Jesus.

1. Senior means where Jesus came from. The gospels all give different accounts of this. Mark (the first gospel) has Jesus appear on the scene fully grown and beginning his ministry. Lk and Mt tell the story of Jesus’ birth, but not the same story, and they give different genealogies. Jn’s Jesus is “The Word”/Logos who was before the universe, before creation and time.


There are also commonalities for the gospel writers. First, for each one Jesus’ birth or appearance is not an “accident of history”, as if he just happened to show up and become an exceptional person. His appearance is part of a divine plan, a design – God’s plan. Second, he is not a “disembodied spirit”. He comes “dressed and ready for work”. He is human. This is how people saw him. They only began to get hints that there might be something different about this person as things move on, and never really finally until after the death and resurrection.


    1. The Land: Jesus’ Israel was roughly 150m long X 60 miles wide (New Jersey). Jesus grew up in the north, Galilee. Senior notes how the land would have shaped him. He knew its rhythms and feel, its scenery, its jobs, its sorts of people. Jesus takes his images in parables from the place. He did not have a special imagery accessible to him from across the globe. He had what he knew to draw on. This shows something about what the Church means by Incarnation. There is a particularity to the man – even including his home town and region – that is united to the divine.

1. Of geographical note: In each Gospel there is a journey to Jerusalem. There is symbolism even in the course of the journey, but the main thing is that Jesus ends in Jerusalem. That is where a prophet would end, or a King, or a Priest. He “goes up” to Jerusalem - as the people of God, and as symbolic representative of them, would literally and metaphorically ‘go up’ to Jerusalem. He “sets his face” towards Jerusalem in a kind of fateful act of courage and mission.


Even so, most of his ministry was in Galilee. We can imagine a difference as that between Ohio or Kansas, where Jerusalem would be New York City.


    1. The Politics of Jesus’ World

[We reviewed much of the background to this in class. Senior picks up with Alexander and the Greek influence, and moves forward from there. This would include the political divisions of Palestine in Jesus’ day, especially the fact that Herod Antipas was the ruler of Galilee, but that Rome ruled Judea (and Jerusalem) directly, in the person of Pontius Pilate. Make sure that you read what he says as well as the class notes.]


It is worthwhile thinking about Jesus in the midst of everything. He is both calm and composed, and the center of all conflict and debate. He is paradoxical. He is moving. He is headed somewhere. He drives the action, even as things happen to him. We are allowed to ask, as they seem to have asked, ‘What kind of man is this? Who is this man? What is the explanation of him?’ At times, he seems like he could be any person. But do we ever really meet such people like that? What kind of a person is it who is at once a kind of marvel, and then a person people want to kill? He is a strange sort of man. He is the everyday person that you just don’t meet everyday. He is as ordinary as could be, but so extraordinary that some people broke social, religious, or judicial conventions just to touch him, or speak with him, or follow him, or crucify him.


Chapter 3-7
Who is Jesus? What is he about? These chapters all revolve around the Christological Question, approached from different angles. The idea is that Jesus is revealed, but in different aspects. If we want to know someone, we can ask who they are in relationship with (and how they are), what they are saying or teaching, what they are doing, and finally what their legacy is. Thus, chapter three looks at Jesus in his relationships (with disciples, the marginalized, women, and those who oppose or misunderstand him), chapters 4-6 look at what he says and does – his Words, Works, Death and Resurrection, and chapter 7 introduces what could be called Jesus’ legacy – the Church.
Besides Jesus being revealed, Jesus is also revealer – of both God and humanity. The Church teaches that the God of Israel, the God of all the history going back to the creation of the world, is best revealed in the life and death and resurrection of a carpenter who lived in 1st c. Palestine. The Church teaches that humanity – what it is to be a full, real, perfect person – is also revealed through Jesus of Nazareth. In a great mystery, Christians are to be like Christ, and Christ will be in them and in the Church, and in that way carry on his mission. Christians are supposed to be something like a sign, leaven, light, or revelation for the world.
A central theme that runs through all of the chapters is the idea of the Kingdom of God (God’s rule or reign). The roots of this idea are in Israel’s religious history: From Genesis (Creation) through Exodus (Freedom) through the various kingdoms (David) through all of the trials and tribulations of Israel. There is the hope that God will finally vindicate Israel and the Covenant, that it will be completed and fulfilled. The reign of God carries with it the idea of freedom in a double sense: from both oppression and sin. There was a keen sense in the Jewish world of the negative consequences of sin (individual & corporate). In a way, “sin” is and always has been the problem. It is something outside of us, and inside of us. It is what is wrong with the world and also whatever it is in us that keeps us from being our best selves or true selves. It’s that which makes us do what we should not do, or not do what we should do. It’s a global problem, and a local one. It’s unsolvable - except that the Church teaches that Jesus somehow solved it by defeating it. If the ultimate evil is death, then the resurrection, the Church will say, really did usher in a Kingdom of God where death and sin no longer hold sway.
We get some sense of the drama, then, of Jesus’ proclamation that this work of God was already “breaking into the world” in his own person and through his own works. For Jesus the proclamation of the kingdom is related to the establishment of it. This seems to happen in two ways:
1) In his own person: He carries a kind of authority in word and deed. This authority is based upon who/what he is in relation to his Father (Abba), with whom he seems to have a unique relationship. It should be noted that when we speak of Jesus’ actions, one of them is prayer – a stepping away from the everyday to be in relationship to his Father (to pray, reflect, etc.).
2) In his relationships: This is what Senior is essentially saying in chapter 3. God’s Kingdom has to ‘break into the world’ in some way. It turns out that Jesus is not going to lead an army, but something closer to a banquet. This is not a trivial image, because the conditions required for the kind of banquet Jesus has in mind, means the overcoming of all the brokenness in people and the world that prevents such a thing from happening in the first place.
Chapter 3 looks at who Jesus is in relationship to, and how is he relates to them.


    1. Disciples (followers) [There are 12 apostles. The apostles are disciples, but not all disciples are apostles. The 12 (standing for the 12 tribes of Israel) are a statement about Jesus’ mission, Israel, the kingdom, etc.]

a) The apostles stand for the 12 tribes, but they also stand for all disciples. They are ordinary people. They are called. Their response is immediate. Whatever else it is, their following is a commitment of top priority. The relationship to Jesus shown in the NT has a permanency about it. Disciples do not ‘graduate’. Jesus is an atypical teacher in this regard – a teacher who calls his ‘students’ to a life, a way of life.


b) The disciples share in the work/mission. If Jesus preaches, heals, casts out demons, etc., so are they charged to.
c) Jesus’ followers thus have a position of privilege. They are insiders. On the other hand, they are not idealized characters. You might think they would be since, in a way, they wrote their own story. But we often find the opposite in the gospels, written a full generation after Jesus died. They don’t “get it”. They abandon Jesus at the end. They seek power and prestige. They have different ideas of the kingdom than Jesus.
On the other hand, they finally do “get it” after the resurrection. A major part of the story is that they are forgiven, reconciled. This extends to the mission and task of the kingdom. Jesus, then, is the kind of person who is able to do such things (forgive, reconcile, mission, etc.), and also the kind of person who actually does that. He can do it and he will do it and he does it. He does not resurrect in condemnation or recrimination, but in forgiveness. The Messiah who came in weakness and rose from the dead in glory is the same person who then asks for help in taking his mission to the whole world.


    1. The Marginalized (the poor, the sick, widows, strangers, the unclean…)

There are people who are marginalized, and so there must be marginalizers who no doubt thought the marginalized would be marginalized for good reason. Who is Jesus? He is one who does not see it that way. In fact, he sees it the other way.


He has two massive problems: bringing back the marginalized, and taking care that whatever it is that leads to marginalization. Whatever the kingdom is, it is a kingdom and a God that, far from marginalizing, goes out to the marginalized to get them back in. The marginalized are not just brought in. They are placed at the center. They are not idealized or sentimentalized, but they are placed at the center and we have to deal with that fact – which tends to overturn many received assumptions about the world and about ourselves. We can almost understand a lot of the opposition to Jesus coming from this area. It is certainly not only the marginalized that Jesus cares about, but the fact of the marginalized - even if they are the ones who marginalized themselves - and the whole human/worldly system involved in it is what concerns him.



    1. Women

Women are “notable” in the gospels first by the fact that they appear in the gospels in the central way that they often do appear. Ancient society was patriarchal (the Israel of Jesus’ day perhaps even more so than in times past). Women were “inferior” domestically, publicly, and religiously.


Yet the gospels present several women of note: Jesus’ mother (Mary), Mary Magdalene, Martha and another Mary. There are women who Jesus converses with, heals, follow and support him. A woman anoints Jesus before his death. Women try to anoint him after his death, being first at the empty tomb. Often women seem to “get it” where the male disciples and/or opponents of Jesus do not. As with the marginalized, women are not idealized by Jesus. Like everyone, they are taken as facts. Still, some women were “faithful” even to the cross, where the apostles generally abandoned Jesus. That such potentially embarrassing episodes were not airbrushed out of the gospels by the time they came to be written is one indication of the gospel’s authenticity.


    1. Those who oppose Jesus

These are the scribes, Pharisees, Priests, King, the Governor…but also Peter, the disciples, the “people” (one day welcoming him triumphantly into Jerusalem, and a bit later crying in unison for him to be crucified). There are clear foils in opposition to Jesus in the gospels (the leaders/elite), but the gospels also show that Jesus was abandoned by nearly everyone. If Peter, who was closest to him, denied even knowing Jesus, could anyone say with confidence they would have done better? The gospel stories invite the asking of such questions, and Jesus himself gives the classic answer to that in us that wants to judge others and prop up ourselves: ‘Let the one without sin cast the first stone’. That stone never came.



Chapter 4: Jesus Speaks
Israel/The People of God are a covenant people. There is a question of which kingdom one seeks, desires, or believes will come about – as well as the question of how God will bring it about. In his teachings, Jesus is at the same time a question, a point of division, and a cause for opposition from both opponents and disciples. He is also an answer - ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life…’, etc.


    1. The Kingdom of God




      1. Jesus’ Ministry is the start, the “breaking in” of the kingdom. It is ‘already’ here, but ‘not yet’. It is not complete, but that day is coming (Mk 13:33; Lk 17:20-21).




      1. Although the timing and manner of the kingdom are uncertain, the time of decision is not. It is now. The gospels are not only narratives telling stories about people in the past who had to make a decision. They are written for people already a generation or two removed from events. Any decisions to be made are to be made also by those who hear and/or live the gospels in their own times and places.




      1. The basic call is to repentance, belief, following (from Mark1:15, "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"). The word repent (metanoia) has the sense of ‘turning around’, of changing one’s heart and mind. It means to stop what one is doing and change one’s attitude or perspective on things - to see oneself and the world as God does, and so do God’s will.




      1. The kingdom is top priority. Anything that could get in the way of it is a problem – a scandal (Scandalon translates as “obstacle”). To mark the seriousness here, Jesus uses hyperbole – ‘If your eye [is an obstacle], pluck it out.’ Merely plucking out an eye might be easy compared to removing something in our or the world’s minds, hearts, or ways of acting – that mysterious and impossible thing we sometimes refer to as sin. Jesus locates the central problem, and begins to point to a solution: God. Not any God in general, but the God of Israel, the one Jesus experiences and refers to as Abba.




    1. The God of the Kingdom




      1. Abba translates as Daddy, Papa. This is a God to whom Jesus is obedient, and to whom one should be obedient. The gospels have a radical notion of obedience. It is not a limitation on freedom, but a condition of true freedom. Obedience to this God is a calling out of a bondage (to sin), and a restoration up from a fallen nature to a true nature. If obedience is experienced as a burden, it is only because the world has things backwards and is unaware of it. Obedience to God is a limitation in the sense that gravity is. Gravity does not limit movement as much as make it possible at all. Obedience to God, then, is what allows us to be truly human. If to see Jesus is to see the Father, then to be like Jesus is to be truly human, in the image and likeness of the Father.

The doctrine of the Incarnation for Christianity states that Jesus is truly/perfectly human and divine in one person. It means that we find out what God is like by finding out what humanity is like, and we find out what humanity is like – what its true nature is – by finding out what Jesus is like. The church teaches that Jesus is like us in every element of human experience. He has every characteristic we do except one – “alienation from God”, or sinfulness/sin. Alienation from God, then, is “not genuinely human in the first place”. Jesus is “fully human” in the way that humans are supposed to be human, but are not. In hearing and seeing Jesus, we see and hear something deep in ourselves – something lost, forgotten, paralyzed, or incomplete. There is something compelling and comforting and also unsettling and frightening about Jesus.




      1. Still, Jesus was a regular person who learned about God and about life in the normal way: in the family, synagogue, Torah, Prophets, prayer. The God he finally came to know was a God who is intimate, loving, sustaining, creating, and present. It’s the God from the parable of the Prodigal Son – a God surprisingly, outrageously lavish, and indiscriminate in giving.




    1. Jesus as Teacher




      1. Jesus teaches with Authority. (Besides this being something people say about him, he also speaks authoritatively: ‘You have heard it said that…But I say to you that….’; or ‘Amen [truly] I say to you that…’ being two typical forms of that speech.). In those instances he is not taking questions from the panel, or part of a research team doing critical analysis. He just says, in effect, ‘This is what some of you think is the truth or the case…but this is what I tell you…’




      1. Jesus teaches about God and the Kingdom of God not only in words, but also in his life and actions. If he is where the Kingdom of God is, then following him is to enter the door into the kingdom, and opposing him is to block entrance to that door.




      1. His teachings are sometimes difficult (trust God for everything; love your enemies; change your ways, etc.), but they are ultimately centered in love: love of God and love of neighbor. Loving God and loving neighbor is his Great Commandment, the summary of the Law and the Prophets together. The unity of the two is vital. Jesus teaches that there cannot be one without the other. But who is the neighbor? In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10) it appears to be everybody – literally. Friend or foe does not matter. Thinking about love (the sentiment of it) is one thing; but the doing of it, the being of it, or the reality of it is altogether another thing. The Samaritan should not have been the good one in that story, but he was. Love is realized in actual forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion, avoidance of judgment, etc. (Mt 7: 1-15). Peter asks if he should forgive 7 times – probably thinking that this showed extraordinary virtue on his part. Jesus tells him he should forgive 70 x 7 times – in other words, an unlimited number of times or always. To see how hard this is, imagine forgiving a roommate 490 straight times if they stole from you or gossiped about you for example. Who could do such a thing? The thing about the Jesus presented in the gospels is that he seems to be the kind of person who could and would and did. It is just that quality that led people, on reflection, to believe that there was something more than human in the very human Jesus.



    1. Jesus and the Law (Torah/Instruction)




      1. Much of this suggests why Jesus could be also a center of conflict and opposition, especially with those in leadership. Jesus was not against Law. He came to fulfill it. But he was concerned about legalism – when the ‘laws of men’ get in the way of God’s Law. He was more interested in the spirit of the law than the letter we might say. This would include such things as purity laws, the teaching about the Sabbath, the meals with tax collectors and sinners, etc. The authorities seemed to sense that something in the social/political/religious fabric was in danger of being unraveled. We might even sense here why the crowds turned on Jesus at his trial at the end. A mob might want to rebel, in general, but if they had to live Jesus’ law of love in doing so, they might rather rebel against Jesus - and this seems to be what they did.




      1. Is Jesus then against rule, regulation, ritual, order? According to Jesus, he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He does not seem to have been about exalting vague spiritual feelings, but about real religious feeling, thinking, and acting. In the end, the teaching(s) of Jesus can never be separated from the cross and resurrection. Jesus is said to be the revelation of God, but for Christians the central locus of that revelation is always the cross and resurrection. Only with those events do all or any of the other teachings come into sharp focus and gain their full meaning.

Ch. 5: Jesus Heals
In Jesus, the Kingdom is “breaking in”. He speaks and acts with authority. The gospels do really show a tame, meek and mild Christ, but a person of power, conviction, judgment, and love. In this chapter, Senior looks at Jesus in respect of the miracles he performed, and the kinds of things they say about him and God.


  1. Types of miracles: healings, exorcisms (casting out evil spirits or demons), and nature miracles (water into wine, multiplying loaves and fishes, walking on water, etc.). These are all somehow part of his journey and his message. In general we could say that ‘things are put right’, things are restored to the way they are supposed to be – and that this is a sign or foretaste of the Kingdom of God. People are supposed to be able to see, and so sight is restored. People are supposed to be of sound mind and spirit, and so evil spirits are cast out with a word. People are not supposed to go hungry, and so they are fed.




  1. The Modern vs. Ancient Mindset about miracles: The idea of a miracle challenges the modern reader and believer. The modern mindset is broadly speaking scientific. We look for the causes of things in the material aspect of things. We presuppose that the physical laws of the universe are there and cannot be broken, that there is nothing else really there that could break a physical law. Matter is its own cause. One way to put this is to say that for the modern mind, the natural explains itself.

The ancient world did not have science as we know and think of science. Its way of thinking about and seeing the world was not scientific like ours. They understood that there was a material world, a natural world. But in their view, it was not the natural world that explained itself, but the supernatural explained the natural. Anything was what it was in relation to the divine or supernatural. We say that rain is the result of evaporation and condensation. The ancient Jewish mind could say that God sends or withholds rain as he chooses because he is the ultimate explanation or cause of it.


In that world, then, miracles would have been amazing, but not necessarily surprising. They were not surprising because the miracle simply restored things to the way they were supposed to be, and because YHWH designed things the way they are supposed to be. Note, however, the kinds of miracles in the NT: No one is floating above the Great Pyramid upside down, or flying around on carpets. It’s not a magic show. Rather, people are sick, and people are healed. People are possessed and demons are expelled. Nature threatens and storms are calmed.


    1. Miracles in the NT are also especially symbols or signs. They are signs pointing to the Kingdom of God – that it is here, and what it will be like when it is fully here. They are signs about Jesus – and who he is, what he can do, and wants to do. They are signs for the disciples and/or those who oppose Jesus – that they might believe, and understand the kind of God Jesus is revealing.




    1. The matter of Faith: 1) With Jesus, the performance of a miracle, even its possibility, depended to some extent on what one was capable of seeing, on one’s faith or lack thereof. In the miracles, a mystery is revealed the having of faith is something like the believing in a certain kind of mystery to be real notwithstanding the fact that it is mysterious. For a miracle to happen, some amount of faith is need that it could happen. 2) On the other hand, even to say that a miracle did happen is also a matter of faith. Take an example from the gospel of John. A man who is blind has his sight restored. Jesus uses a kind of spittle and mud mixture in the process, and then the eyes are washed in a pool. Let us say that the man was blind and the man then saw. What laws of nature were broken, or could have been seen to have been broken? What would an optometrist be able to say here? He could check the eyes before and after, and confirm that there was blindness before, and everything was working as it should after. He could explain in two ways, which would not necessarily be contradictory. He could say it was a miracle. Or he could say that damaged retinal nerves were working properly because of some natural physical process that must have happened. There is a judgment of faith either way.

However, the Church contends that bringing in the kingdom of God was never something as simple as healing everyone of whatever particular infirmity they were presently suffering from. If it was that simple, it is hard to see how God, human life, or the world would be what they actually are. They’d be something else. The issues of real concern run at a deeper level in every aspect (God, creation, humanity). Whatever human beings are, they are not the kinds of things over which magic wands can be waved so that all problems are solved. We don’t live in that world, and we aren’t made that way. Thus, miracles in the NT are more than relatively uncomplicated matters of healing. They are signs that refer to something beyond the specific case.




  1. The NT understanding of miracle really starts with Creation. God created the world and it was good. It is disordered because it is fallen – a result of human sin. Thus, Senior points out that it was disease and disorder that was the exception, and not the restoration to health or sanity. The ‘properly ordered thing’ was ‘normal’ in the sense that it was as it should be. The disorder needed an explanation and one general view was that all of it had something to do with sin. The reverse side of that mentality sees the healthy, the rich, or the powerful as being specially blessed by God. Maybe they were better people. Maybe they were holier. Maybe they were better because they were holier. In that respect at least, the ancient mind may not be very different from the modern mind. In any case, Senior notes that Jesus does not subscribe to that idea simply stated.

What seems to be closer to Jesus’ view as depicted in the gospels is something like a frank acknowledgment of evil and its tragic consequences (especially that it leads to the ultimate evil, death), but a power over it and a call out of it back to the way things are supposed to be. The Christian tradition teaches that the first fault is sin, and that all manner of other disorders flow from that primary one. We are back to the cross and resurrection. If there be a final victory for God’s kingdom, it would be the victory over death. The miracles of Jesus, then, are signs of power that point to a final victory – victory over the evil that somehow enslaves, binds, distorts, disorders, and kills. They are signs of love and the power of love relative to the power of evil. They are signs of forgiveness, reconciliation, of being in lasting covenant with the God of the covenant. Reconciliation and restoration may be the major themes of the miracle stories. That is the miracle we might miss. And that is often what happens in Jesus’ miracles. We can see the restoration to health or sanity. We might miss that with restoration there is also reconciliation, a bringing persons back into right relationship with community or family. It might even be the case that reconciliation of that sort is the bigger miracle. Those who are healed are happy, and others are happy for them. The community/family is healed, to a degree, in the healing of one.




  1. It is true that in the NT, Jesus struggles with Satan. However, the temptation stories give us a vital key to NT miracles in general. The battle with evil is cosmic but waged in the real world. A demon possesses a young man who is therefore dispossessed from himself and his family. Jesus restores him to himself and his community and his world. That is where the real fight is – with me and you and people we know and love.


Chapter Six: Death and Victory (The Passion story)


  1. Facing Death”: If we take seriously that Jesus was human, we have to imagine that he faced the prospect of death as any human would. There is the mental and emotional anguish we see in the Garden of Gethsemane - and the hurt at being taken by force, and feeling the hate, and the powerlessness and weakness of the whole thing. There is a heightened tone of foreboding as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, and the fact that his teaching becomes more pointed and urgent as he moves toward the cross. On the other hand, there is his faith in his Father, a calmness, serenity, hope and trust also present. He must have been fearful, sad and anxious. But he was not overcome by them, not dominated by them. He must have been sad even about leaving his friends, and they him. He seems to have understood that it had to be that way, but that doesn’t necessarily make things easier.

If the question is “Why was Jesus killed?” we have to look at those who opposed him. The opposition reaches its climax in Jerusalem, and an unlikely alliance is formed between some of the Jewish leaders and the Romans. Senior lists five general reasons for the opposition to Jesus:




    1. His association with sinners and outcasts which was somehow a threat to the religious and social order of things. Perhaps this is a challenge to the authority of those whose role it was to guide the people, perhaps it was the way Jesus’ associations were a challenge to the Law, and therefore a subversion of it. As Senior puts it, a threat was perceived to the whole idea of what “fidelity to the God of the covenant” meant. Jesus was, in that sense, perceived as a challenge to the very self-identity of “Israel”.




    1. His critique of the Law. His putting love and the person above “legalism”.




    1. His “teaching with authority”, his “intimacy” with God. This could have appeared close to blasphemy – especially to claim an authority that was attached to his very person. The fact is that blasphemy was the charge against Jesus and the judgment rendered by the High Priest (Caiaphas) in the Sanhedrin.




    1. The “Temple Incident” (‘cleansing the Temple’, the turning over of the tables, etc.): This went to the very heart of social, economic, and political stability. Not only Jewish leaders, but Roman leaders would have noted any major disturbance in the Temple area. The place itself could be a flashpoint for rebellion.




    1. His welcome into Jerusalem: He is welcomed as a King, a liberator, a Messiah. He is literally paraded through the gates. If the Romans were noticing anything, they would have noticed this.




  1. Jesus as Prophet and Suffering Servant: In the Christian imagination, Jesus is both prophet and servant. What does this mean?



    1. The terms are Jewish terms. We emphasized that Jesus was Jewish because to really understand what is happening in the gospels, that dimension has to be grasped and appreciated. The Passion stories, for example, are especially full of Old Testament allusions in both words and actions. Senior notes at least a dozen instances, the two most frequent being allusions to Isaiah (the prophet who wrote about the suffering servant of Israel; see Is 53) and the Psalms.




    1. Second, there had been no great prophet in Israel for 500 years. This was significant in popular imagination and piety. The questions then were, “why?”, “when would God break his silence?”, and “how”? Jesus inserted himself into that climate of expectation and questioning. He took on the mantle of prophet, and even attached the attributes of prophet to himself in such a way as to be the “final word” from God. To accept or reject him was to accept or reject God.




    1. Third, he also attached both the symbol and role of Suffering Servant (from Isaiah) to himself. In Isaiah, the servant may have stood for Israel. But in the gospels, everything gets narrowed down to Jesus – so that he stands for Israel and the whole world. The gospel writers are implying that the weight of an entire history and a people is somehow being borne on Jesus’ shoulders as he carries his cross to Calvary. At the Last Supper (remember, this supper was a Passover meal) he makes the link himself – he will be broken as the bread is broken, but at the same time this brokenness will lead to ultimate victory.




  1. The Crucifixion is another extended allusion to many of the major themes from Jewish history. Senior notes the myriad of such things on p. 136.




  1. It is worth remembering the Jesus who started out in the gospels, the kind of person he was, what he did and said, who he traveled with, etc. It is that person who hangs on the cross. That is cause for reflection in itself.




  1. Jesus was faithful to his call until the end, even as he calls out to God in agony and defeat. He is very real, very human – so much so that it is extraordinary. It was a just man who went to the cross. And he died trusting God’s promises even through death. That is not a small thing.




  1. Jesus was a revelation of God, and also a revelation of humanity. Therefore, the fact of the cross also reveals something about human beings: whatever else we are, we are the kind of beings who nail people to crosses, sometimes literally, sometimes spiritually, or socially, or symbolically. When Jesus says from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”, the message is directed at all of us too. In a way, this is his final teaching. He is telling us something about the general problem that inflicts humanity: that we often do things we shouldn’t do, and do not really know what we are doing as we do them, and that forgiveness is part of the solution.




  1. Resurrection: Victory over Death




    1. The resurrection is that event, the “frame” that “gives meaning to the whole gospels”. Without the resurrection, the story of Jesus is not what it is and is probably never even told.




    1. The resurrection is ultimately a sign of God’s power, and God’s victory. This is the breaking in of the Kingdom in a new way even from the way it was presented in the life of Jesus. There, victory over sin and death were seen as vital elements of the kingdom. Here that victory happened. The Kingdom of God would have to involve freedom from oppression and from sin, or the power of evil (death being the ultimate evil). Here is the paradox: The Christian teaching is that God, in Jesus, defeated evil by letting it defeat him. It is as if God allowed evil to do its worst, and then God outdid evil, or overturned it, in the resurrection.




    1. The resurrection is a happening, but it is not an “event” like other events. This is because there is a sense of “beyond history” and “beyond time and space” in the resurrection appearances of Jesus.




    1. About the resurrection and what followed Senior notes four themes that all of the gospels share, even though they do not all tell the identical story:

1) The disciples were disillusioned and fearful. Understandably. Their attitude changed dramatically to one joy, and courage, and really tremendous energy if we look at what they proceeded to do long term – to ‘go out’ everywhere, to be the exact types of persons of whom we would say, ‘They are on a mission’. They were.


2) The Risen Christ is Jesus of Nazareth. He is really there. He is the same person.
3) But he is also different. This resurrection is not a resuscitation. It is something else - more like a transformation, or re-creation. There are new powers and new possibilities attached to this kind of life. Among other things, although Jesus eats, and has a physical presence, he is not constrained by the normal material limitations as the rest of us are.
4) The witnesses to the resurrection are restored to their former discipleship (in abandoning Jesus at the end, they also abandoned their following of Jesus). All of that is returned to them, and they are re-missioned. Whatever else that is, it is true reconciliation. They are given a job to do. If you think about it, giving someone a job to do, relying on them (or being given a job, being relied upon) is really true, very practical forgiveness and reconciliation and restoration. Isn’t this true? When we’ve done something wrong the greatest ‘forgiveness’ is to be given trust again, to be given something to do again. The resurrected Jesus does not hesitate to do this, nor recriminate. Peter, who denied him three times, is three times asked if he loves him (point for point wiping out the denials), and then asked to do something – ‘Feed my sheep’, Jesus says. Is that kind of forgiveness spiritual? Or is it down to earth practical? The kind of forgiveness Jesus offered was always both.

Chapter Seven:
There are only a few points I want to note from this chapter, because we will be talking about the Church and its history for the rest of the semester.


    1. Where Jesus left off, the Church begins” – That is how Senior first describes the Church. If we want to answer the question, “What is the Church?”, part of the answer would be that it is that thing that had its beginning in Jesus, and that continues to try to do the sorts of things Jesus did – being related to its world, speaking, teaching, healing, exorcizing evil, even somehow up to the end on the cross as Jesus did.




    1. What the apostles did (most of them), what the disciples did (many of them), is they “went out”. They really did go to the ends of the earth (or such ends as they could conceive). That part of “being Church” has never stopped. They didn’t all go, of course. But some of them did, and preached the gospel, and established communities, etc. In other words, part of what they were about was “conversion”. However, conversion is not the kind of thing that happens just because you “go out”. It is not guaranteed. One of the things about the gospel then, and I think the gospel now, is that it appealed to people. It really was received, where it was received, as Good News. There is a difference between news and information. What the disciples had was news, and they were telling people about it (as one does with news). The Church teaches that any appeal is really Jesus himself, living and present, who is the magnet, the one who attracts, the one who still somehow remains the center of the swirling mass of things.




    1. The last point is that Foley’s first chapters are what should be read along with this chapter. There was no church “building” early on. There was a synagogue perhaps, but mostly there were homes – and the people who lived in them and in their respective cultures or societies. The early church is sometimes called the “primitive church”. Calling it that might be a mistake. That is almost like saying there was a primitive Christ. However, Senior, and Foley at least imply that there is an opposite kind of mistake that can be made as well – thinking that the Church could not, or would not, or should not develop. If Jesus was right about the Kingdom breaking in, then develop and grow and be ‘historical’ was the one thing it should do, and has done.

A great challenge for Christianity has always been balancing all of the tradition that goes back to Jesus (retaining the central “primitiveness” of Jesus’ life, and his death and resurrection, and the early Church that followed so close on Jesus), and allowing it to grow. It’s almost an impossible task, but the Church teaches that it is possible and actual because Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is at the center of the thing always.


Today’s world is what it is, partly because of the historical fact of Christianity. Today’s Christianity is what it is because of what it has been going back to Jesus himself. It doesn’t really have a choice of not carrying the centuries upon centuries along with it as “tradition” – any more than a place like Villanova has a choice of being founded last week instead of last century, or than you or I have of being born yesterday.


1 You could look these up in either Senior or Portier. Check the index for pages.





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