The Character of Jesus
Any attempt to reconstruct the character of Jesus the Nazarene is hampered
by the paucity of information available.
The theologian Rudolf Bultmann went as far as to assert that it is not
possible to decide what kind of a man Jesus was. In his book "Jesus
and the Word" he states that:
Geza Vermes, however, writing in his book "Jesus and the World of Judaism" takes the opposite view:
I believe that the truth in this matter lies with Vermes rather than Bultmann. Even a casual reading of the Gospels shows a character of Jesus stepping out, as it were, from the written page, and the reading leaves us with sufficient material to tackle the task.
One factor which may well strike the unbiased reader of the Gospel record is the marked contrast in the character of the man who entered Jerusalem on what is now known as Palm Sunday, and the Galilean. Whereas the prophet and healer of Galilee is gentle, kindly and a pacifist, the Passion Week is characterised by behaviour which includes whipping the moneychangers out of the Temple, cursing fig trees and telling the disciples to buy weapons even if they have to sell their clothes to do so. I have dealt with this question in another article which I have called "Duality in the Gospels" and it will be sufficient to say here that I believe all the evidence points to the person who entered Jerusalem sitting on a donkey not being Jesus at all, but a rival claimant to the throne of Israel. Accordingly, in the following assessment of the character of Jesus I entirely ignore the events from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the point in Gethsemane on the night before the crucifixion at which the personality changes back - because, I believe, Jesus the Galilean returned and replaced the rival claimant.
There is a stereotype of the character of Jesus, just as there is a stereotype idea of his physical appearance, the latter based on the image on the Shroud of Turin and the assumption that this piece of cloth bore an image of Jesus. The character stereotype sets forth a Jesus who is very meek and mild, a rather negative, life-denying man. This attitude was summed up by the poet Swinburne,
We have tasted of things Lethean and drunk of the issues of death."
There is no mandate in the Gospels for this point of view. The figure of Jesus comes over rather as a man who enjoyed good parties and celebrations. He clearly liked a glass of wine, and with these propensities in mind his enemies accused him of being a "glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners." (Matthew 11.19.) Jesus responds by saying, in effect, that you can never win with these people. He points out that John the Baptist, who ate a very frugal diet and drank no wine, was regarded as mad, but when he (Jesus) comes enjoying parties and drinking wine, he is condemned for that! The point is a telling one.
The Gospel record also reveals Jesus to have had a sense of humour.
All in all, the personality of Jesus comes over as being that of a well-balanced character who had his periods of relaxation in what was otherwise a dedicated life of service. He had a conscience but not a morbid one. He did not, as many people do, allow conscience to rule him, producing a morbid psychological state in which personal considerations are set at nought rather than being given their proper place in a life plan. We ought never to lose sight of the fact that Jesus supported the old Jewish dictum that we should love our neighbour as much as we loved ourselves. (Matthew 19.19.) Not more, but as much. Perhaps it is impossible to love our neighbour unless we love ourselves, but it is certain that Jesus proclaimed self-love as a virtue - yet also requiring a dedication to the service of others.
Which brings me to the question of his dedicated life. It is clear
from the Gospels that Jesus was a descendent of the Royal House of David,
and as such was entitled to take the throne of Israel.
The healing ministry of Jesus fills a considerable part of the Gospel record. He may in fact have been a physician by profession. There is no solid evidence that either Jesus or his father Joseph were carpenters, the word used to so describe them can also bear the meaning "wise man" or "Sage." The healing record emphasises the compassion and gentleness of Jesus and reveals his caring nature. This compassion is also clearly seen in his attitude to the outcasts of society. He is at home with prostitutes and tax collectors, two despised groups in the morally rigid society of the time, and actually said on one occasion that these two despised sections of society would enter the Kingdom of Heaven before some of the so called "good" people. Incidentally, the reason why tax collectors were despised was the fact that they were acting for the occupying Roman forces and collecting their taxes, the equivalent of collaborators in occupied lands during the Second World War.
It goes without saying that Jesus was a spiritual leader, and it is well worth while taking a look at his spiritual philosophy. He proclaimed the virtue of generosity, regarding worldly possessions as passing things, and seeing the helping of others as being of great importance. He believed in life after death, which was by no means automatic among the religious groups of the day in Israel - the Sadducees, for example, denied the existence of the human spirit and thereby denied immortality. In fact, on at least one occasion Jesus is reported to have acted as a medium. This was on the Mount of the Transfiguration when he conversed with the materialised spirits of Moses and Elijah. (Matthew 17, Mark 9, Luke 9.) This does not present any problem to me at all. I am aware of the orthodox arguments that mediumship is evil, that it is wrong to contact the dead, that the souls of the departed should be left to rest in peace. In reply to these I would say that I can see no logical reason why it is right to say goodbye to someone five minutes before he dies, but evil to say hello to him five minutes after his passing. Also, as I understand it, spirits do not have to come unless they wish to, so the argument which centres around the disturbing of the dead fails. I will just say in passing that I believe Spiritualism has made a great contribution to the happiness of the human race by seeking to prove the existence of the afterlife, thereby comforting many, and I see nothing intrinsically evil in its work or doctrine, but rather the contrary. This point will be dealt with more fully at a future date in my article on life after death.
Jesus had a great faith in the ability and willingness of God to intervene in human affairs. His Father in Heaven was always close, always on call, always reachable. (Luke chapter 11, verses 5 to 13, Matthew chapter 6, verses 25 to 34) The world invisible was at our feet, Divine power was always available. To Jesus the spiritual world was as real as the world of houses and stones and trees. There was no great gulf fixed between the two.
In reading the Gospels I have been impressed by the Buddhist ideas implicit in the philosophy of Jesus, especially with regard to his views on reincarnation. This is far from being a Jewish concept, but Jesus appears to have been a believer in a syncretistic religion which embraced tried and tested ideas and philosophies from other faiths. He appears to have believed in reincarnation. When the disciples ask him, concerning a blind man, whether the man himself or his parents had committed the sin which caused him to be born blind (John 9, 2.) we can see in the query a clear indication that the disciples believed in it also, for if the man was born blind as a punishment then the qualifying sins must have been committed in a previous life. It is surely significant that Jesus does not correct them on this point, although he does deny there, as in other places, that illness and affliction are punishments for sin. We should also not lose sight of the significance of the words uttered in Gethsemane, "They who take the sword shall perish by the sword." (Matthew 26.52.) This is manifestly untrue in terms of a one-life scenario. Many a lusty warrior expires peacefully in his bed. However, it can be understood if we see it in the light of the Buddhist doctrine of Karma, the idea that what a person sows he will also reap, possibly in another incarnation. It cannot be without significance that Jesus himself proclaimed that what we sow we reap. For him deeds were of paramount importance, there was no place in his philosophy for the fast track to Heaven, getting salvation purely because of what we believed, action was essential to spiritual growth. This point is emphasised in the story of the rich young man recounted in Matthew chapter 19.
There is a long-standing tradition which states that Jesus spent many years of his life in the east, this visitation taking place before his public ministry. It is true that we have to tread warily when venturing into the fields of legend for they are a veritable minefield, but the clear influence of eastern religious ideas in the philosophy of Jesus indicates the possibility that he may have had direct contact with the mystic Orient. In addition to his views on reincarnation we find in the teaching and beliefs of Jesus an emphasis on the power of thought and the value of good deeds in developing the spiritual side of personality. These also are concepts found most strongly in the east.
So far our delving into the personality of Jesus has been fairly straightforward.
We must now venture onto more difficult ground, and face up to some contradictions
in the historical record. These records seem at times to represent Jesus
as swinging from one point of view to its opposite, and this is very apparent
in his attitude to the Jewish Law. In the Gospel according to Saint Matthew
chapter 5, verses 17 to 19 we have the reported words of Jesus setting
forth an unequivocal support of strict obedience to the Law.
That is clear enough, yet in the same Gospel (12.1) Jesus happily breaks the Law by encouraging his disciples to pluck corn on the Sabbath day. Again, the problem arises frequently in his healing ministry, for many of the healing miracles are reported as occuring on the Sabbath, a violation of the Law unless the issue was a life and death one, and those performed by Jesus on the Sabbath were not. In is worth noting at this point that Doctor Leslie Weatherhead in his book "Psychology, Religion and Healing" maintains that Jesus broke the Law whenever he healed, irrespective of what day of the week it was, because the Jewish faith at the time regarded sickness as sent from God as a punishment for sin, and any attempt at therapy was therefore a violation of the Divine plan. We may also consider the impact on the hearers of the words of Jesus "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." (Mark 2.27.)
This utterance has become so familiar to us that familiarity has bred contempt, and we fail to appreciate the tremendous horror with which this would have been received by the hearers. Nor do we readily comprehend the great courage of Jesus in saying it. All in all, Jesus seems to have a somewhat contemptuous attitude towards the Law, seeing value only in those parts which had a beneficial outcome for mankind if they were applied, and regarding as nothing those rules which were purely ritual. Put in another way, Jesus was a pragmatist, a point which I shall return to later in this article.
One passage in the Gospel of Mark provides a possible clue to the problem. In the seventh chapter of that Gospel Jesus is challenged because he did not take part in the ritual handwashing. His reply is to the effect that this is a law of man, not of God. Bearing this in mind, it is possible that Jesus distinguished between the genuine Law and that which had been added by human hand and ingenuity, but I cannot see how he or anyone could have so separated the Laws into these two categories, so I am not happy with the explanation.
Geza Vermes, in the work referred to above, also takes up the problem of apparent contradictions in the ministry and personality of Jesus. He points out the undeniable fact that Jesus is at times a Universalist and at others is xenophobic.
be judged to tally with the contempt for tax-collectors and Gentiles apparent in the advice, 'If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If (your brother) refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.'(Matthew 18, 17.) The same man, in such a brief period of teaching, cannot have been responsible for both these remarks."
I am not at all happy with that last comment of Vermes. It has been my experience that people's views can change with remarkable rapidity, and if the ministry of Jesus lasted, as Saint John portrays in his Gospel, for a full three years, then there is ample time for mental development and the opinion changes which can accompany that process. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that some of the words ascribed to Jesus were xenophobic and intolerant. Faced with the prospect of giving spiritual healing to a child from a non-Jewish race, Jesus refuses, and does so without grace. His immediate response is reported in the seventh chapter of Mark's Gospel to have been, "It is not good to take the food from the children and to give it to the dogs." This is in stark contrast with his first sermon delivered in the synagogue at Capernaum (Luke, chapter 4) in which he praises the faith of non-Jewish nations and peoples - a message which almost resulted in his execution there and then! On another occasion when called upon to heal a sick person he praises the faith of the Roman soldier who had initiated the healing process (Luke chapter 7, verses 1 to 10.) I cannot explain these discrepancies. My role at the moment, as in many other places in these articles, is merely to identify and point out the problem.
I find another difficulty when faced with those passages which depict Jesus as what we would call in our day and age a Hell-fire preacher. There are many instances where he is supposed to have spoken of people, or rather their immortal souls, being thrown into Hell, and these contrast terribly with the Gospel of a loving, caring, forgiving God which formed such an important part of his ministry. See as examples Matthew 5,29, Mark 9, 43, and Luke 16,23. It may well be that the Gospel writers, putting pen to parchment some time after the events which they record took place, coloured the incidents with their own prejudices and opinions. If so, then this would be an example of the Lord Man making God in his own image, something the later church made a habit of, but we cannot say for certain, or even with a large degree of confidence that this is what actually happened. Once again a mystery remains, and once again I identify and point out but cannot explain.
The question of creating God in our own image brings me to a comment on a phrase which has come into popular use in recent times, especially in the Unitarian church. This is the phrase "Build your own Theology." Study groups and seminars have been held under this title, and in them attempts have been made to construct a theology acceptable to the people present. This is a nonsense. Anything which ends in the suffix "logy" is, by the very use of that term, committing the participant to find out the truth and take on board as opinion the facts revealed by the search for truth. An astronomer would not contemplate for a moment building his or her own astronomy, which might involve, for example, inventing a set of planets circling a nearby star which had the characteristics which he or she believed were desirable. No, the astronomer is committed to sift the evidence and arrive at a conclusion which is in no way based on the desire of the observer. A biologist cannot make up statements about the nature of life which suits his own belief-pattern, but must accept the evidence which revelation brings. To build our own theology is likewise a nonsense. The theologian, or, as I would prefer to call the devotee of this science, the theonomist, for I regard theology as a discredited term which needs to be dropped, must sift the evidence and let the science build itself.
Geza Vermes, in the same work to which I have referred above, also makes an interesting comment on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, pointing out that the wise ones were in fact cunning and selfish, refusing to share their stock of oil with their less fortunate sisters. Correctly, he sees this as standing in stark contrast to the teaching of Jesus on kindness and generosity, and also with his teaching on the effectiveness of prayer. This story is recounted in the tale of the Passion Week, to which I have already referred, so for me the difficulty disappears as the story was given by the alternative Messiah and is quite in keeping with his attitude, while being completely out of harmony with the philosophy of Jesus the Nazarene.
I refer to just one other example of this contrast, and it relates to
the ideas which Jesus expressed about the coming of the Kingdom of God.
In one place he says, when sending out the disciples on a mission,
Some people have found great difficulty with what I will call the extreme
positivism of Jesus. He often makes statements about the efficacy of prayer
and the certainty of the intervention of God in human affairs that to
us of lesser faith seem extreme and unbelievable. We may sympathise with
the reaction of Doctor Leslie Weatherhead to this passage in Psalm 91
describing the author's confidence that God would always protect His own
in war or other danger,
However, I am inclined to take a personal view somewhere between the attitude of extreme rejection and that of blind faith. I do not discount the existence of miracles, I do not believe that all the stories about Jesus healing the sick are merely myths. Rather do I believe that if a spiritual attitude to life is adopted and if Divine forces are brought into play, a great deal is possible which is beyond our present comprehension. Man does not live by bread alone, a purely materialistic attitude to life is not a full one. There are sufficient accounts of "miraculous" healings in our own time to justify a spirit of faith, and the sceptic is being unfaithful to the true spirit of science if he allows his disbelief to prejudice consideration of the evidence on the other side. However, I cannot accept the view that all things are possible - that simply does not square with the observed facts or with experience.
I am drawing towards the end of what I have to say on this subject,
but there is one other feature of the character of Jesus which I would
like to point out. He was a pragmatist. It is clear from a reading of
the Gospels that the calling of the disciples had been pre-arranged, for
it is an entirely unacceptable idea that Peter and James and John would
have left their fishing boats on a moment's whim just because a stranger
came up and said "Follow me." They must have been waiting for the call.
From hills of Galilee.
The vision fades in ancient shades,
How can we follow Thee?"
There is some truth in this. Yet through the mists of time it is nevertheless possible, I believe, to catch an accurate glimpse of the lively, strong, courageous, loving and caring Galilean who dedicated his life to the service of mankind. The Jesus I see there is not the Jesus of theology but someone immeasurably greater. I believe that by looking for the true character of the Galilean we do not in any sense diminish his greatness, but rather we expand it. Such an enterprise forces us to see Jesus in all the greatness of his character, and may perhaps make us move away from the gentle Jesus meek and mild of Christian tradition in favour of facing the frighteningly challenging words of the Master. What can we make of one who said to his followers "You shall do greater things than I do" and challenged the world to adopt a way of life that placed sharing and giving on a pedestal? His Gospel lived out might transform the world, his example followed by all would bring about a social revolution. But instead of seeing Jesus as the one who gave us a prescription for shaking off our own sins and taking on board a more generous way of life, we have made him into a mystical saviour who magically wipes out our sins. Jesus was tough, and his Gospel is tough. We do no service either to Jesus or ourselves by watering it down.
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