Christ Actually | Notes & Critical Reflections

Posted on February 18, 2017


James Carroll. Christ Actually: Reimagining Faith in the Modern Age. Penguin Books, 2014. (352 pages)

LA Times Review, ‘Christ Actually’ argues for belief through imitation by Scott Korb; America: The Jesuit Review by Kevin Spinale; Washington Post review by Kate Moos; Boston Globe review by Brook Wilensky-Lanford; NY Times Sunday Review, Jesus and the Modern Man; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, ‘Christ Actually’ asserts that Jesus is human, Jewish and divine by Mitchell James Kaplan; Salon, James Carroll on disarming the memory of Jesus: “America threatens the world with violence in ways that no other country does” by Michael Schulson;

INTRODUCTION: Christ Actually

Operation Spark

The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

What keeps gnawing at me is the question…who is Christ actually for us today? – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It was not the scale of bloodshed in these two manifestations that made Auschwitz and Hiroshima historic. … Rather, it was the character of Auschwitz and Hiroshima as related revelations about the past and future: the anti-Jewish heart of Western civilization, and the vulnerability of the human species to suicide. (3)

It was eventually impossible for me to avoid the harsh reality that, taken together, Auschwitz and Hiroshima had changed everything–except human ways of thinking and believing. A transcendent shift in moral meaning had occurred. Christians regard what the tradition calls the Incarnation as an interruption in history. But so was 1945. Looking back across the decades, it has finally become clear to me how the actualities of that year forced the question: Who is Christ actually? (3)


It is clear from the passage cited above that the traumatized German was groping for words to express what remained an unspeakable experience. The groping itself is his legacy and challenge. (5)

God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are without freedom and subjectivity. He is equated with the recent tyrants who with the help of terror try to transform everything into a mere object, a thing among things, a cog in a machine they control. He becomes the model of everything against which Existentialism revolted. This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control. This is the deepest root of atheism. It is an atheism which is justified as the reaction against theological theism and its disturbing implications. – Paul Tillich, The Courage To Be

“The history of faith,” as Tillich put it, “is a permanent fight with the corruption of faith.” (6)

…what is religionlessness? I locate this question, first, not in poll numbers or philosophical debates but in a deeply personal problem: having myself absorbed–and learned to take for granted–basic assumptions of the so-called Secular Age, what of my own religious inheritance can I believe without being dishonest? I am no fundamentalist, and the limits of religion, even its perversity, are fully apparent to me. If the faith continues to impose itself as a primal option it does so in my case despite–or is it because of?–the crises of 1945. What happens when traditional belief slams into the wall of the Holocaust? When it plunges into the abyss of Hiroshima? (8)

The expulsion of Jews meant the expulsion of Jesus–full stop. Only a realization of such magnitude could have then prompted the pacifist pastor’s enlistment in the conspiracy, to assassinate Hitler: “For Jesus Christ was a Jew.”

| Note that Bonhoeffer does not say, as Martin Luther did in the title of the first of his two tracts about Jews, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew.” Luther’s emphasis belongs on “was born,” since the whole point of the Gospel narrative, once “the Jews” rejected Christ’s teaching and sponsored his crucifixion, is that Jesus became something else–“the firstborn of the new Creation,” the first Christian. Bonhoeffer’s life-changing insight, in envisioning Jesus as one of those expelled–“Juden Raus!”–is surely what gave rise to the great question he then asked from prison: Who actually is Christ for us today? He had already provided the beginning of the answer, Jesus Christ was a Jew. (11)

Bonhoeffer’s personal reckoning sparks mine. I have outgrown a childish faith in Jesus, but he remains the one to whom my heart first opened when I became aware. What I grasped of him on my small knees before the crucifix in St. Mary’s Church, stripped by now of the dross of dogmatism, remains the pulse of my faith. This book is my attempt to say why Jesus has this hold on me, but the attempt requires a certain historical sweep, a theological scope. I will return to the New Testament, but, fully attuned to our contemporary struggles, I will read those texts through the lens of centuries of total war and corrupted power, trying to see how violence, contempt for women, and, above all, hatred of Jews distorted the faith of the Church I still love. (11)

Yet Jesus is elusive. If he were not, he would be useless to us. An ultimate paradox lies at the heart of Christian belief: Jesus is fully human; Jesus is fully divine. Best to say frankly right here at the outset: Jesus as God and Jesus as man are the brackets within which this inquiry will unfold. It will look at Jesus, the Scriptures, and tradition in the contexts of both history and theology. It will ask how the texts about Jesus were written at the start, how they were interpreted early on, and how they can be understood today. That means keeping in mind at least three distinct time frames–the lifetime of Jesus, the era some decades later in which the Gospels were composed, and the present Secular Age, when faith in Jesus and in the Gospels has become a problem unto itself. (12)

Jesus a Jew

…even beyond the most troubling verses…the entire structure of the Gospel imagination assumes a cosmic conflict between Jesus and his own people… (14)

As the Christian memory overwhelmingly shapes the story, Jesus is opposed not just to particular antagonists but to the whole culture into which he was born. (14)

As various historians and theologians point out today, the virtues of Jesus (openness, compassion, egalitarianism) are constantly displayed in the Gospels precisely by contrast with his corrupt Jewish milieu, which is rendered as exclusivist, unloving, legalistic, and mercilessly hierarchical. (14-15)

His being “Christ,” that is, worked against his being “Jesus,” because his elevation up the pyramid of what scholars call “high Christology”–from peasant Galilean to anointed Christ; then to apocalyptic Son of Man; then to favored Son of God; then to preexisting Logos, or “Word”; ultimately to second person of the Trinity, and “True God of True God”–had the practical effect of obliterating the single most cogent note of his identity as a man. (15)

Belief in the divinity of Jesus as usually propounded, that is, makes his authentic Jewishness not just unnecessary but impossible. (15-16)

…it can now be seen that Jesus in conflict with fellow Jews over just such questions was not anomalous, but typical. … The Christian mistake–mine–has ben to miss that context of intra-Jewish tension. Even today, what is more Jewish than the argument over what it is to be a faithful Jew? (17)

Our view of Jesus must come into focus around a new organizing principle: nothing we say or believe about “Christ actually” can be allowed to exclude the authenticity of his profound and permanent participation in the life of Israel. (17)

Jesus must not be imagined, in sum, as a pretend Jew, any more than he can be regarded as having been a pretend human being. If he preached the good news of love; of the trustworthiness of God, who is like a father; of the Kingdom of God present here and now, he did so from within Judaism, not against it. He preached not a New Testament God (of love) in opposition to an Old Testament God (of judgment), but one God: the God of Israel, pure and simple. (18)

But for Christians to actually accommodate such an adjustment in their view of Jesus, they would first have to confront the indictment of their own most sacred tradition that is made explicit in the catastrophe of Christian anti-Semitism. (18)

To actually change their understanding of Jesus Christ, that is, Christians would have to far more fully confront the Church’s own ancient and ongoing betrayal of Jesus, the one that makes such change necessary. (18)

Bonhoeffer’s death-row recognition was simple, and may yet prove timeless: if Jesus had been remembered across most of two thousand years as the Jew he was, the history of those millennia–and their climax in the crimes of the Thousand-Year Reich–would be very different. (20)

Against the assumption of most Christians today, the Gospel writers aimed less at facticity than meaning. (21)

…our contemporary way of seeing is bifocal based on the asupposition that all reality is oppositional. To see a thing wholly, for us, is to see its foil, too. (21)

[via: “polarities,” “dualities,” “zero-sum,” “opposition,” “bifurcated,” “two-tiered..”]

To acknowledge essential ignorance about how precisely those strangers took in reality, and expressed themselves about it, is the beginning of a new sort of understanding. That returns us to our initial and greatest oppositional set: the paradox of Jesus the human who is Christ the divine. (22)

[Jesus scholarship of the past two centuries is] perhaps the most thoroughgoing and sophisticated analysis of any set of texts in the history of human thought. – Diarmaid MacCulloch

Informed by such scholarship, I am attempting an instance of faith submitted to reason, which, in this era, means doctrine rescued from all that is doctrinaire. Therefore, the beloved Creed must be criticized.

[Every word of the beloved Creed] must be translated into the post-Copernican, post-Kantian, indeed post-Darwinian and post-Einsteinian world, just as former generations, too, had to understand the same Creed anew at decisive shifts of historical epochs. – Hans Küng

History shapes faith, which might seem the most banal of observations, yet in a tradition that long ago set itself against history, it is revolutionary. But the current epoch–shaped not only by Copernicus and company but by the moral challenge of which Bonhoeffer is an avatar–has forced the question anew. Critical belief is the only humane belief, a simple fact that follows from the endowments of mind with which our Creator showers us. (23)

The Gospel writers had what we might call a theological concern, but they were not doing theology. They had reference to received data from the past, but they were not doing history. The closest we can come to what those ancient authors were up to is simply to say that they were telling a story. (23-24)

Stories deserve to be thought about, yes–but mostly to be taken in. (24)

The Gospel is the story. What this work is doing, between the brackets of theology and history, is returning to the story. We are doing so if only because, as story, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has braced the human imagination in a way far surpassing any other artistic or intellectual creation. Its meaning for culture, its primacy in Western civilization, would be enough. Yet more than culture is at stake here. (24)

…the question is not the survival of belief as much as the survival of the human species itself. (25)

The faith we seek, the Jesus Christ we aim to retrieve, is the key to a new meaning of redemption, which is, for the first time in history, nothing less than the literal possibility of a human future. We look again for Jesus Christ because we need a reason now for hope. The end of this book is not threat, but promise. (25)

CHAPTER ONE: Personal Jesus

Where is God?

Where is He? Here He is–He is hanging here on this gallows.


What one makes of Jesus depends, first, on how one sees the world. (31)

[In his first confession, he says to the priest that he was sorry. In fact, he was more afraid of the fires of hell.] “…it hit me that, in my first Confession itself, I had lied.” (36)

Jesus alone could get God the Father to change His mind about me, from damnation to redemption. So, of course, I accepted at once. I took to Jesus as one drowning takes to air. (37)

God’s Legs

God’s coming to Moses not because God had seen the sin of the people, but because He’d seen their suffering… (41)

The Search for Meaning

I’ve left behind naive assumptions about reality irreparably divided between the material world and a separate spiritual world, the bifurcated realms of nature and grace, this life and afterlife. I don’t think that the Enlightenment’s closed system of mechanistic cause and consequence more faithfully renders reality than the spirit-filled world of miracles, but neither do I expect divine interference in history. I hold the faith not because religion can prove its claims for God, but because those claims can make a cosmos that includes self-knowing creatures more intelligible, not less. Proof is not the key; it is irrelevant. (42)

It helps to know how that hatred perverted the story of Jesus, starting with the very human conditions within which the New Testament faith first grew, coming eventually to the apocalyptic climax of 1945, and continuing to the Christian reckoning that has been occurring since then. The long, tragic drama includes unpredicted turns of history more than any will of God. And it shows that, just as the first intimate friends of Jesus betrayed him at his hour of greatest need–all fleeing, except the women–so, too, were the second and third generations of Jesus people treasonous when, however inadvertently, they remembered him in a way that set him against his own people. (43-44)

Even before that, was there perhaps betrayal when, in the phrase the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus uses of them, “those who first loved him and could not let go of their affection for him” stopped proclaiming the Kingdom of God, as Jesus had, and begin instead to proclaim Jesus himself as Lord? The primal texts are complex when it comes to this question, as we will see. But what Jesus never did–put himself in the place of God–the Church did, making his humanity deeply problematic. (44)

The quest for meaning is never finished. It is open-ended. It is shaped by the imperfections of human perception. Seeking the truth about Jesus can lead to mistakes about Jesus.

Once we have tasted the delight of meaning discovered or invented, our thirst will not be quenched. A personal Jesus is never enough. As much as he beckons, so he withdraws at our approach. Such contingencies, for better and worse, drove the faith forward into history, and still do. (44)

Christ actually was like us in all of this, yet for him the lasting anguish would have been, perhaps, in how his elevation as meaning itself, from Word of God to “God from God,” ultimately drew attention way from the only One to whom he ever wanted to point. That was his Abba, the God of Love who–this must be emphasized–always was and always will be neither an “Old Testament God” nor a “New Testament God,” but the God of the Jews, pure and simple. (44-45)

[via: אלהי יהודים]

CHAPTER TWO: The First Holocaust

The Jewish War

In 65 B.C.E. two generations before the birth of Jesus, the legions, commanded by the Roman general Pompey–Gnaeus Pompeius Magus–first swept into Palestine from Syria. Pompey, was popularly known as “the vulture.” (49)

Jesus’ life span was bracketed, that is, by savage Roman violence against unyielding Jewish troublemakers–of whom, finally, he would be only one. (50)

Lusius Quietus [Hadrian]. Kitos War. Rebellion of the Exile. Simon Bar Kosiba.

The Talmud says that the Romans “went on killing until their horses were submerged in blood to their nostrils.” (54)

[via: “Now they kept slaughtering [the Jews] until a horse sunk into blood up to his nose, and the blood would roll boulders weighing forty seahs until the blood flowed four mils into the sea.” Neusner, J. (2008). The Jerusalem Talmud: A Translation and Commentary. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers.]

Hitler killed one in three of all living Jews, a ratio the Caesars may well have matched. My purpose here is not to compare war statistics, but to emphasize the extreme human suffering–the evil–that formed the context within which both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism came into being. To read, as all Christians do, the Gospel portraits of Jesus Christ without reference to the Roman War that raged exactly as those portraits were being composed, and first revered as Scripture, is like reading Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison without reference to events unfolding outside his cell as he wrote. (54-55)

The Temple in Ruins

Quite simply, when Jesus is remember as describing in harrowing detail the events that will accompany the destruction of the Temple–“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars…nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another.”–he is not foretelling an apocalyptic end of the world. Rather, almost as an eyewitness, he is offering a journalistic description of precisely what happens when the Romans smash down on the Jews and when Jews themselves turn against one another. And “eyewitness” is to the point, of course, because though Jesus did not see such things, the author of the Gospel of Matthew, and the people to whom he was writing, surely did. (56-57)

Whatever actually “happened’ in the lifetime of Jesus, the momentous violence of the Roman War that was being indiscriminately inflicted on Jews even as the Gospels were written was enough to force the narrative into the form that it took–now with the “Jewish” enemies of Jesus getting what they deserved for rejecting him. The point deserves emphasis: the Gospels’ first purpose was to respond to the present crisis of those who wrote the texts and to whom the texts were addressed. (58)

The consolation offered by the Passion account had to be less a matter of Jesus as the substitute sufferer than of Jesus as the fellow sufferer. What befell Jesus is befalling us! (58-59)

The Temple as the Cause of the Gospel

It was truly the navel of the cosmos, axis mundi, the house of God. (61)

But where is God when God’s house is destroyed? (61)

But instead of simply disappearing, as so many peoples crushed by empire had and would again, the Jews, even as the Roman brutalizing continued intermittently for decades, retrieved from the tradition new meanings of old revelations, a fresh interpretation of the interpretations. They were able to do this only because once before, returning from Babylon six hundred years earlier, they had reinvigorated their religion around an equivalent experience of total loss. All first-century Jews, the followers of Jesus decisively included, were primed by an ancient tradition to transform that loss into a profound act of religious reinvention–spawning, ultimately, both Rabbinic Judaism and the Church. (61-62)

From now on, once the Temple was reconstructed, the Holy of Holies was to be left vacant–a numinous nonappearance that perfectly symbolized the new understanding to which the people had come. The God of Israel was seen as transcending place. A particular sanctuary defined by absence became the sacrament of God’s universal omnipresence. With that apophatic affirmation by means of negation, the imagination of Jewish religion sank its roots in paradox. (63)

Genesis made the astonishing primordial claim that the God of this people, no mere local deity, was the Creator of the universe, the God of all people. Only now, that is, was the God of Israel understood to be one God, transcending not only place but time. Monolators had become monotheists. (63)

Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai.

They were inclined, even before the Temple destruction, to emphasize observance of the Law and study of the Torah more than, say, the priests of the Temple, who, given their ritual role at the altar, would have placed prime emphasis on cultic sacrifice. But with the Temple gone and hte priests either killed or made superfluous, the rabbis insisted that to be a Jew now was to be focused more than ever on the Torah, study of texts, and close observance of the Law. Their attachment to the study-centered institution of the synagogue came into its own. When the tradition of priestly sacrifice was replaced by the metaphoric sacrifice of “a broken and contrite heart,” manifest in Law observance, Rabbinic Judaism was born. (65)

If we are, a priori, to take seriously Jesus’ character as a devout Jew, then his devotion to the Temple follows, and we should be very slow to imagine him as repudiating either the Temple itself or the transactions, like money changing, that would have been germane to it. There is every reason to believe that Jesus himself, as a devout Jew, was devoted to the Temple, and could not conceivably have repudiated it in total. If, as all four Gospels report, he committed a transgression there, it was more likely as a defense of the Temple than as an attack on it. The main evidence for believing that Jesus revered the Temple until the day he died is that his followers then continued to devoutly worship in the Temple as Jews for as long as the holy place survived. (67)

The war with Rome sparked civil war among Jews, and the Gospels are the literature of that civil war. (68)

The crisis of Temple destruction in 70 was enough for the Jesus people to put the Temple at the center of their explanations of his meaning–and they did. (68)

Wartime Literature

Humans are forever on the hunt for meaning, but brute experience can force radical breakthroughs into other orders of existence. (68)

Savage war generates, in reaction, new ideas. This principle undergirds the line of thinking here–that the Roman War against the Jews prompted radical shifts int he religious imagination of Jews (69)

The book of Daniel was sparked by an expression of enraged reaction to the Seleucid desecration of, yes, the Temple–“the abomination that makes desolate.” (70)

But at bottom, the apocalyptic vision was a mode of turning pure destruction into creative transformation. (70)

The vision was both realistic–acknowledging present violence–and hopeful, in that it insisted that the violence would not be vindicated in the end. The book of Daniel, usually dated to about 160 B.C.E., is the classic work of Jewish apocalypticism, searing the imagination of Israel across each of the two centuries before and after Jesus. Josephus, calling the figure Daniel “one of the greatest of the prophets,” said the book was hugely influential among Jews in that era. No surprise, therefore, that Jesus’ core meaning was constructed out of materials drawn from this work. (70)

The portrait of Jesus Christ given in the Gospels grows as much out of the stresses of war as did the already defining texts of Jewish religious understanding, from Jeremiah to Daniel. (70)

Yet Mark is rarely read in the context of the war raging outside the cell in which it was composed… (71)

The point to emphasize is that the author Mark was writing as the legion’s phalanxes closed in on Jerusalem, setting up the ring of crucifixes around the Temple Mount and slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Jews. (71)

Taking seriously the context out of which this text emerged leads inexorably to the thought that Jesus was rendered by Mark as obsessed with End Time traumas not only–or even mainly–because of literary influences from preexistent Jewish apocalyptic genres like Daniel, but because the catastrophic End Time seemed at hand as Mark’s story was told. (71)

Mark’s Apocalypse

That tradition nicely serves the primordial purpose of elevating Peter as the Church’s mythic first leader, as if something like the papacy already existed. But the tradition does not address the contradiction embedded in Mark’s overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Peter, which alone is enough to cast doubt on the idea that the Gospel represents Peter’s point of view. We will see more of this below. (73)

If the Gospel of Mark was addressed to a frightened, demoralized collective of Jesus people holed up in Galilee, to people threatened on all sides by marauding Romans, revenge-seeking Jewish Zealots, or Jews associated with rabbis who insisted that acceptance of the false Messiah Jesus threatened the survival of what remained of Judaism; and if those Jesus people, additionally, bore the burden of guilt at their failure to join in the anti-Roman resistance, or were tempted to believe the accusations of cowardice hurled at them by their fellow Jews; and if they had even lost faith in their Lord, whose rescuing return had yet to come about–well, what in the world would good news look like to such people? In this context, the message of Mark was straightforward: Do not feel guilty because you have faltered in the faith; do not feel disqualified because you have lost hope; do not count yourselves lost–because look! The most intimate friends of Jesus behaved in the exactly the same way, including, especially, the exalted Peter, whose name everyone reveres. What you need to hear in this time of grotesque tribulation is that Jesus extends his call not to heroes but to cowards, who fail him. An honest reckoning with such failure is the starting point of discipleship. (76-77)

The Lord knew precisely what sort of man Peter was, and chose him anyway. More than that, Jesus loved him. (78)

The mass violence inflicted by the Romans in 70 demanded this text. The catastrophe, centered on the destruction of the Temple, was forcing the Jesus people to look back on their memories, prayers, collected sayings, and stories in a new light. So illuminated, the people saw themselves as never before, because, as never before, they saw their Lord. Mark was first to shine that particular light on the figure of Jesus. It was light cast by the fires of war. (78)

CHAPTER THREE: The Jewish Christ

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. – L. P. Hartley

Low Christology

What began as memory and interpretation became proclamation, catechesis, and instruction. Gospel. (80)

Metaphysics turned metaphor.

A Foreign Country

The single largest obstacle to our authentic reimagining of Jesus Christ is the inability of contemporary thinkers to be at home in the truly foreign landscape of the ancient intellect–Greek and Hebrew, but also Babylonian, Egyptian, Sumerian, Canaanite, and the general intermingling of all these. Biblical and other sacred texts reflect such multiple influences to varying degrees–and can therefore never be fully understood by readers today as they were understood by those who wrote them, first read them, or heard them proclaimed. (85)

In general, the ancients saw a three-tiered universe: Earth bracketed by the dome-like firmament of the stars above and the unplumbed underworld below. (85)

…moderns make a mistake by dismissing the long-ago-conjured images of space, time, origins, personified forces, and fate as mere naïveté. An assumption of the superiority of our more critically considered worldview may lead us to miss the ingenious character of the old imaginings as sensitive penetrations to an impressive depth of the perennial mysteries of existence.

| Having insisted that the past is different, however, one must equally reckon with the way in which humans are united across eras and cultures. (86)

To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms–this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. … In this sense and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men. – Albert Einstein, “Living Philosophies.”

So the very “unmodern” theologies and mythologies of the ancient world are responses to demands and values that endure, and that is why we still measure wisdom by the ancients, even as we insist on their otherness. (87)

…awareness became aware of itself. (87)

The human capacity for mimetic contemplation, going from the form of things to the substance of their ideal, is what enables humans not just to imitate divine being but to participate in it. Mindfulness is holy. (87)

That the gods were conceived of so anthropomorphically suggests a profound demystification. (88)

The One God?

What did those who thought in these divergent ways about keeping faith with Israel think when they thought about “God”? (89)

Indeed, as the -ism suffix suggests, the word was coined only in the Enlightenment era, and the idea of mono, emphasizing a numerical value, may entirely miss the actual meaning, in the ancient mind, of God’s “oneness.” (89)

…the Bible rejects the crude idolatry of figurines, but it still assumes the existence of the transcendent powers, even deities, for which the figurines stand. (90)

The stereotype that pagans “worshipped” their little carved statuettes is crude. It is far more likely that such objects were revered because they made God present not in themselves but in the minds of those who beheld them. God’s presence to the mind was the point. (91)

The Son of Man

Many Israelites at the time of Jesus were expecting a Messiah who would be divine and come to earth in the form of a human. Thus the basic underlying thoughts from which both the Trinity and the Incarnation grew are there in the very world into which Jesus was born and in which he was first written about int he Gospels of Mark and John. – Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels.

…some belief in Jesus’ divine status, far from coming much later in the world of Hellenism, began not with the first followers of Jesus, or even with Jesus himself, but with hopes that had already seized the Jewish imagination before Jesus was born. “Many ancient Jews simply accepted Jesus as God,” Boyarin writes, “and they did so because their beliefs and expectations had led them there.” (The Jewish Gospels) (96)

When Christians stopped reading the text with a Jewish eye, especially once a “sonship” theology of the Trinity developed later, these “Son of God” references were taken as signals of divinity. But a return to a Jewish reading of these verses brings the surprising flip: “Son of God” means human; “Son of Man” means God. (98)

Wars define. (98)

The divine one in the clouds, Jesus was saying, is no longer a figment of future expectation, but is right here in front of you. (101)

Against the overwhelming weight of much historical Jesus scholarship, it was not that “Hellenized” followers of Jesus, coming long after him, invented a new idea of divinity–“Christ”–and shoehorned the Galilean peasant into it, but that, as “Jesus,” his story naturally fell into the tropes and rhythms of a profoundly Jewish narrative, as “Christ,” that had been there to be embodied before he came along. (102)

Recognizing this should mark the end of the debates between those who see “Jesus” as human (and Jewish) and those who see “Christ” as divine (and universal). The understanding of Jesus as a somehow divine Messiah figure, the man-God already firmly rooted in Jewish thought, almost certainly marked those who responded to him at the start. (102)

This revised understanding should mark, also, the beginning of the end of the idea that the split between Christians and Jews was the result of some action of God’s. (102)

Your Resurrection

Whether Jesus described himself by drawing on the imagery and religious meaning of Jewish apocalypse is disputed by scholars, but it is clear that Jesus was understood from an early date in such terms by his followers (108)

The vision Daniel offered, that is, had a coherence and a totality that led their thinking forward. Not only was Jesus “Son of Man,” favored of God–and perhaps, even, in some way God himself. He was also the agent of God’s wondrous intervention in history, bringing it to a climax. This was larger than the Davidic restoration of the kingdom of Israel, a political victory over Rome under a militant Christ. It was a decisive completion of a cosmic destiny, transcending politics and making of Rome a side story. To conceive of Jesus as the zealous revolutionary, a figure favored by Jesus historians, is to profoundly underestimate his meaning in this new context. Indeed, according to this other vision, his purpose was the renewal of the human condition itself, the fulfillment of the life principle that beats in every human heart. Such an outcome could be signified only by Jesus’ personal victory over death, which could only take the form of his personal Resurrection. To follow the lead of the book of Daniel was to follow a chain of logic that led directly to the empty tomb. That, in turn, was a renewal of the promise that the End Time was near. Very near. (108-109)

But in reading, the abrupt ending of the Gospel, with its bald but unelaborated declaration that “He has risen, he is not here,” is full of implication. The verses efficiently make the connection to the vision of Daniel. That the story seems unfinished is fitting, since the finishing was going to happen not on the page, but int he lives of the followers of Jesus. (110)

The Resurrection of Jesus, the author of Mark is telling his readers, will be manifest in you. (110)

Precious Disappointment

Disappointed expectation is the single largest experience that shaped the religious imagination of Jesus people–and it did so not once, or twice, but constantly, across the decades after Jesus died. And that experience is uniformly overlooked by believers today as we try to understand where our faith came from. (111)

As the first expectation was disappointed by the Roman execution, in 30 C.E., the second expectation was disappointed by the passage of time. A decade after the death of Jesus, in about the year 40, his failure to have returned by then in glory was the source of a demoralizing crisis of faith among Jesus people. (111)

The meaning of the problematic failure of Jesus to return was changed by finding a presence of Jesus in the community of those gathered to tell and hear his story. Where is he? He is here, in the Gospel itself. (112)

The Gospel invited them to change if not what they believed, then what it meant. (113)

The Jesus people, that is, had already been living as though what they saw in Jesus of God were true. And reflecting on that experience, they began to come to the recognition that the way to make Jesus present, and GOd’s realm actual, is to live as though it were true. As though the Kingdom, long expected there and then, were, in fact, here and now. The absence of Jesus is the mode of his presence. (114)

The courage, steadfast faith, and radical trust that defined how Jesus had died–and every account strikes those notes–brought into the open the full meaning of how he had lived. Only in the way his death enabled his followers to recognize something new in his life was it somehow “saving.” All at once (an “instant” that might have taken years to unfold), the way Jesus died brought out the meaning of the way he’d lived. That meaning defined the Resurrection, and, as Paul insisted, without the Resurrection, the faith of Christians was in vain. (115)

Ethics, in Paul’s vision, preceded doctrine, for only in the behavior of the baptized could the truth of the faith be seen. (116)

Instead of merely longing for a fulfilling (and peaceful) future, Christians were called on to find the reign of God in the present (even tormented) moment. They were encouraged to shift their gaze, from the other world to this one. Eternal life is not what happens then, but what happens now. “Afterlife” and this life are inextricably intertwined. Such rejection of temporal oppositionalism–then versus now–amounts to a transformation of the meaning of time. “Eternity” is an opening of human perception, not an endless stretch of hours, days, eras, and eons. Eternity is not time without end; it is not “time” at all. A vertical conception here overtakes a horizontal one. The call is to find the sacred in the depth of life, not the breadth or length of it. (117)

CHAPTER FOUR: Gospel Truth

Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions. – Joyce Carol Oates

The Meanings of Jesus

Skepticism flourishes less because science has been so good at debunking religion than because religion has declined to embrace scientific insight. (119)

…evidence can never define the whole of belief. (119)

One of the goals of digging into the past is to construct a satisfying faith that complies with modern history and science. (119-120)

How people live out what they claim to believe–that constitutes, for religion, the evidence that matters most. (120)

Historical consciousness is distinguished from the so-called classicist worldview in its very attitude toward the character of human experience. The former takes for granted that change through time is constant, contingent, and random; the latter assumes that the world is complete, ordered, and in harmony with God’s unchanging purpose. Historical-mindedness begins with the situated, and seeks meaning; classicist thinking starts with abstract principles and applies them to situations. (120)

Bernard Lonergan.

Israel and Jesus happened. Therefore, precisely in upholding those beliefs for a new era, both traditions should welcome investigations of history as what they have become in the modern era: a scientific discipline. (121)

There is evidence to be tested, but in accounting for belief, there is also testimony that comes with its own authority. (122)

The retrieval of a sustainable faith for our time and place–the aim of this book–must reckon with the prime fact that the times and places of the early Jesus people are what shaped their faith. Twenty-first-century Christians, therefore, make our first mistake when we go in search of the meaning of Jesus Christ, because there are meanings. (125)

The second mistake, in reading the invented meanings of Jesus, is forgetting that they are invented. The largest point is that the empirically identifiable Jesus, focus of historians’ quest, and the interpreted Jesus of the Gospels, focus of theologians’ contemplation, are not the same Jesus. … Furthermore, the later readers of the Gospels, not intimately acquainted with the Gospels’ mode of composition, went on to attribute meanings to the Gospels that the Gospel writers did not intend. (125)

The single most obvious–and damaging–instance of this sort of transformed meaning across generations is the portrait of Jesus, drawn in the thick of intra-Jewish civil war, as a man in religious, and even ontological, conflict with “the Jews,” as if he were not one of them. (126)

Symbol of God

Ancient people, on the other hand, were at home with what we call metaphor in ways that we moderns (or postmoderns) are not. … We know the benefits of living after Copernicus and Galileo, but here, surely, is an impoverishment. (127)

While the writers and first readers of the New Testament texts knew what was “real” as well as humans ever do, they took for granted the way in which “reality” was spacious enough to accommodate what we would call the symbolic. The “real” and the “symbolic,” that is, were neither contradictory nor condemned to exist in different–oppositional–orders.

| Thus, those who crucially portrayed Jesus, with images drawn from the book of Daniel, as flying through the air, a figure coming and going on clouds, knew very well that the realm into which Jesus had been “lifted up” was not “the sky.” They might not have known Newton’s law, but the effects of gravity were as fixed in the deep past as they are now. (128)

All religious language is symbolic language. A symbol is not identical to the thing symbolized, but neither is it apart from it. A symbol both is and is not what it points to–a complexity of relatedness familiar to Catholics whose religious imaginations glory in sacramental symbols. (130)

The point, for a modern reader, is not to debunk miracles, but to enter into their meaning. (131)

It is fruitless and misleading to measure them against any kind of scientific standard. The miracles live in the realm of poetry, not of science. The main mistake Christians make, though, is in clinging to Jesus as some kind of wonder worker, with his capacity to break the “laws of nature” being proof of divinity. Divinity had nothing to do with it. Ancient Jewish cosmology allowed for the attribution to some charismatic but wholly human figures of the power to heal and work wonders. For such figures, miracle working was not exceptional, but typical. Once again, Christian amnesia on this point wrongly separates Jesus from his Jewish milieu. (132)

Jesus’ act of healing and curing, whatever else they were, were signals of the kind of God he was preaching, a God who opposes misery and, ultimately, will end it. The “miracles,” therefore, were important not in themselves but as symbols. Every symbol points beyond itself. More important, the symbols of religion–and here is what skeptics and zealots alike miss–participate in the transcendent reality of what they point to. Meaning is itself an opening to God.

| In thinking of Jesus, perhaps the retrieval most urgently needed, for that matter, is of the fact that, in his lifetime, Jesus pointed to God, not to himself. (132)

Jesus-centeredness has defined the essence of Christian piety for most of two millennia, with innumerable benefits. But it was not that way at first. (132)

The first-century air was full of Jewish harmonies that carried the notes struck by Jesus–all of it the music of the God of Israel. (135)

Camera in the Tomb

This positive after-the-fact invention of new meaning became perverted when Christians began to imagine that God had wanted–or needed–the crucifixion in the first place. God became reimagined, then, as a heavenly sadist who could turn in rage against the humanity He had created, and as a heavenly legalist whose offended divinity could be appeased only by a divine sacrifice. The redemption of the fallen world could thus be accomplished only by using the tormented body of His beloved son as a ransom paid–not to the devil, as the first Christians had it, but to God himself. Critical history, which shows how far this is from the God preached by Jesus, is the antidote to such poisonous theology. (136)

Taken as belonging for all time to the open future, the Gospel was written first for a troubled present. There is no such thing as timeless faith. (137)

Tradition, meaning, and relevance to life are my three touchstones. If my readers live in a post-Easter world, within a post-Temple religion, and in a situation defined by the physical absence of Jesus Christ–so did Mark’s readers. That means we and they, for all that separates us, stand on the same ground. (138)


Scholars inescapably fashion the Historical-Jesus in their own image and likeness…Any presentation of Jesus–scientific or otherwise–must therefore acknowledge that it is a ‘reconstruction,’ and open up its critical methods, rhetorical interests, and reconstructive models to critical inspection and public scrutiny. – Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza

The year was 135. By Hadrian’s order, as we saw, the name of Jerusalem was deleted from all maps, to be banished from history. From then on, the restored–we would say ethnically cleansed–city was to be called Aelia Capitolina, honoring Hadrian’s family name, Aelius, and the Capitoline Triad of gods; Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. As noted, Hadrian ordered that a statue of himself be erected on the Temple Mount. The city, lavishly reconstructed, was repopulated with Greek-speaking pagans. Jews, including Jewish Christians, were forbidden to return.

| This elimination of the Jewish center of the Jesus movement, and the final breaking of the physical link to the Jewish homeland, meant that, in the dispersed communities devoted to the memory of Jesus, the roots of Jewish memory, of Jewish interpretation, ultimately of Jewish meaning–not only of “Christ” and of “Jesus” but of “Gospel” itself–were cut. Without nourishment from those roots, the vital categories of understanding within which Jesus and the first three generations of those who followed him had lived were bound to wither. (145)

[via: “generational amnesia.”]

As Hellenized categories of philosophy moved thinking about Jesus form practice (love) to doctrine (creed), a theology of Christ was invented (Christology). … As the defining note of salvation, the “faith” of believers came to outweigh the “faithfulness” of Jesus–a momentous misunderstanding of the content of Paul’s teaching. Then came the world-historic mutation: the understanding of Jesus himself shifted from his being the Jewish-biblical “Son of Man,” whose undefined but real divinity could be affirmed without violating the oneness of God, to his being the fully Hellenized Trinitarian “Son” of the Father, “begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.”

| Jews and Christians alike forgot, in sum, that Jesus Christ–raised from the dead, Son of Man and Son of God–had ever been fully Jewish. (146)

The Roman war against Christians ended when the empire became the Church. (146)

CHAPTER FIVE: Jesus and John

Eternal Thou

Jesus has no real need of people, which is lucky, since everyone in his life proves to be unreliable. (147)

[via: Which only confirms my penchant for introversion. :-)]

We are twenty-first-century people considering a first-century man, but our perceptions, whether knowingly or not, are inevitably colored by the seventeenth-century’s hyper-elevation of the individual above the community. (148)

All real living is meeting. – Martin Buber

…”the fundamental reality of human existence is to be found not in conceptual abstractions, but in concrete human relationships.” Not in “I think, therefore I am,” but in “How are you?” But for Buber, the human encounter points beyond itself, which is its grandeur, for only by meeting fellow humans can a person meet God–“the eternal Thou.” (150)

The biblical religion is emphatic in asserting that God’s covenant is with the collective, and individuals find their meaning only within that collective. (150)

Modern individualism, then, but also an incipient postwar correction to it, are the bifocal lenses through which we see the first century. Christians might have long thought of Jesus as an isolated figure, yet the Gospels show him as essentially social–quintessentially personal–both in how he spent his days…and in his purpose… (151)

It is not too much to say that Jesus, from infancy forward, came into his “selfhood” through his relations with others–beginning with the smile he surely had from his mother. (151)

“autos” and “nous,” and the Delphic oracle surely spoke to the ages with its exhortation “Know thyself.” Indeed, philosophy begins in the quest for just such knowledge–the self-awareness that undergirds all behavior, all choice, and the moral consciousness on which every religious impulse stands. But to the ancients, such purposeful interiority, however described, was arrived at by means of bodily encounters through which the soul became whole. (152)

Friend or Foil

Within recent memory, those who had openly protested such conditions had been efficiently–brutally–dealt with. It was to such a demoralized population that John’s message of personal change by means of religious awakening rang with power: Your repentance will bring about the intervention of God! (157)

The first thing to say about Jesus’ relationship to John, in other words, is that Jesus, far from going through the motions of a scripted prelude to his own drama, was personally drawn to John as the solution to his own problem of absolute dispossession and the despair that threatened to come of it. John enabled Jesus to embrace his first idea of himself. John, therefore, was a source of meaning for Jesus. And the meaning was structured around John’s preaching of the apocalypse. (159)

Time and End Time

World-ending combat between forces of light and dark was a Mesopotamian idea before it was biblical, and Hellenistic thought was rife with apocalyptic myth. From oracles and sibyls all over the Mediterranean, prophecies of what we might call millennial expectation were common in Jesus’ time. (160)

The Bible, from its creation story forward, proposes something very different–a linear conception of time that actually has a beginning: “In the beginning, God…” If time starts, then time ends. The past is never repeated in the future. The future is the locus of fulfillment, so in the present, fulfillment is by design elusive. Experience is a flow from event to consequence, with moral events defined by human choice. This flow is called history, and while humans are actors in it, they are not characters in a play scripted by God. Their agency is decisive, which makes history purposeful. Meaning comes not from escaping history, but from engaging it. We live in a limited, conditional world. There is no escape from it–or from the “prison of the body.” To be alive to this structure of time is to be ever on the lookout for its conclusion. Yet the conclusion of history, while ultimately an act of it sCreator, depends in part on human struggle toward that conclusion–which is the point of responsible engagement. Agon is not to be escaped, but taken on.

| But this very structure of experience is revelatory, for humans quickly learn that to find the meaning of anything in time requires an appeal to, or a gift form, something timeless. (162)


Whatever the future implications of a longed-for “Day of the Lord,” the prophet’s role, in widely varying circumstances, was always to remind the people that they were already and still the elect of God, and that their one duty was to act like it. Not “then,” but “now.” (169)

When it comes to the bounded human condition, the ultimate limitation is prison, the very essence of restricted space and time. (172)

The point for us is that, in relationship to John the Baptist came the beginning of Jesus’ rejection of brute force–no matter the justification. Here is what makes Jesus the Prince of Peace. All that Jesus could offer to John was the invitation to change his attitude about his circumstance. All that Jesus could offer to anyone was a new way of thinking–the way of thinking he himself had come to.

| Having learned from John who he was in relation to God, that is, Jesus here learned who he was in relation to Rome. From one point of view, John’s peril had confronted Jesus with his own impotence. (173)

The Commissioning Death

CHAPTER SIX: Thou Art Peter

Be Not Afraid

All subjects of totalitarian systems are convinced by their very subjugation of their unworthiness. (179)

No one goes around saying, “Be not afraid” unless there are mighty things to fear… (180)

For Jesus, “Be not afraid” was not a magic refrain, a cheap exhortation akin to whistling past a graveyard. The precondition of the fearlessness he preached was the terrifyingly brutal circumstance of Rome’s lethal capriciousness, and he knew about fear from his own experience–dating back to the Roman legions’ rampages through the territory in which he was raised, climaxing in the cruel fate of his mentor John the Baptist. And there’s the point. “Be not afraid” was corollary, for Jesus, to “You are my beloved Son”–the transcendent affirmation that came to him in John’s presence. Having been spared from fear himself, Jesus understood what that release was like. (181)

To preach fearlessness in the face of a brutal regime that cynically depends on the fear-ridden subservience of a broken people is a profoundly political act… (182)

Not I, Lord

Peter emerges as the captain of trepidation–a surprising characteristic, perhaps, for a man who made his living on the sea. (183)

Peter Stood

…the Peter story shows that moral failure is a mark of the insiders as much as of the outsiders. (187)

The commonwealth of God stands upon forgiveness, but in order for it to be real, forgiveness has to be arrived at through a reckoning with the full horror of what is being forgiven. (188)

The solidarity of God’s commonwealth is the mutuality of failure forgiven. (188)

Peter, aware of his own guilt, is prepared to announce the offense of others precisely because the burden of that offense has already been lifted. In the currency of God, judgment and mercy are sides of the same coin. (191)


Chronology Matters

Along with a party of fugitive Pharisees–collected, as we saw, in Yavne, near the coast, and soon to be known as the rabbis–the Jesus people were one of two main groups who had not fully thrown in with the rebellion. This was the only reason the two groups survived–the only reason, that is, that two new religions, Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, survived to rise out of the ashes of Second Temple Judaism. …these two groups of Jews shared one urgent question: What is it to be a Jew without the Temple, which for the thousand years since its construction by King David’s son Solomon had made the Lord God present to His people? (194)

Luke’s adjustment, that is, stamps the Christian imagination with a new dread: the enemy is within. (196)

God Suffers with You

Paul was the avatar of that kind of faith, proof that you needn’t have known Jesus in the flesh to be transformed by him. (197)

…what Paul saw everywhere he went was the suffering of its underclass. Perhaps as much as 40 percent of the population of the Roman empire was enslaved… (199)

Hardship was ubiquitous, and Paul made a point of persona identification with it. Not incidentally, the place where his Gospel was received with greater enthusiasm than anywhere else–Ephesus–was the main slave market outside of Rome.

| If Paul’s message caught fire especially among the lower classes, its simple content tells why: God suffers with you! Critics who denigrate this expressly Christian consolation of suffering as nothing more than a kind of cosmic therapy entirely miss not only the theological urgency of faith but also the psychological sacredness of therapy itself. (199)

In Jesus, God suffers with you! (200

What God did for Jesus in turning crucifixion into Resurrection, God does for you. (200)

Paul and Rome

…by the time of the Temple destruction, which set in motion the separation of “the Jews” from “Christians,” Paul was dead. That is why it is absurd to imagine that he himself caused the separation. (201)

…it is anachronistic to regard Nero’s targeted “Christians,” as the Roman historian Tacitus calls them, as independent of Judaism. The Jesus people were still an emphatically Jewish sect. (203)

At least since the time of Julius Caesar (reigned 49-44 B.C.E.), and probably because Jews had supported Rome against the Seleucids in Syria beginning in the Maccabean period, Jews of Rome had been granted the privilege of “living according to their ancestral laws.” That meant exemptions from requirements of emperor worship, military service, and other obligations. (204)

As the author of Luke was writing his Gospel to Jesus people in Rome, the discreet and careful group to whom it was addressed were witnessing the construction of Rome’s first great triumphal monument, the Arch of Titus. It stands to this day, near the southeast corner of the Roman Forum, beside the ruins of the Colosseum, and it, too, like the coins, evokes modern Germany and makes one wonder what monument to Jewish humiliation would stand in Berlin today had World War II gone another way? (205)

…so much gold had been looted from the Jerusalem Temple that the world market for the precious metal was flooded, and gold’s value plummeted throughout the Mediterranean. In recent years, archaeologists have discovered evidence that the construction of the Colosseum itself was funded by spoils from the sacking of Jerusalem. (205-206)

For us, the point is that, exactly as this anti-Jewish contempt was being marbleized in the great arch, the author of Luke addressed his Gospel to the Christians of Rome. There can be no surprise, therefore, that we find in his text evidence of a fresh determination to separate Jesus from “the Jews,” and to insist that Jesus never violated Roman law. (206)

Jesus had been no enemy of Rome then, the logic went in 80, nor are his followers enemies of Rome now. The Christian problem, of course, was that the single most indisputable, and unforgettable, fact of Jesus’ life story was that he had been executed by Rome in a way reserved to anti-Roman insurrectionists. To overcome that datum of the past, an ingenious reinterpretation of events was required–not a theological reinterpretation, like Paul’s, but a historical one. And the Gospel writers created it. (206-207)

One can imagine a follower of Jesus in Rome, as the Arch of Titus is being constructed precisely to demonize the Jewish enemy, reading the Lukan account with relief. Caesar won’t bother us! From then on, more and more Christian Gentile would feel just such distance from the Jews whom Rome despised. By the time the Gospel of Matthew was written, not long after Luke, the legal innocence of Jesus–along with Jewish venality–was being rendered even more emphatically, with Matthew’s added detail of Pontius Pilate’s ordering a basin of water to be brought to him on his balcony high above the crowd of Jews. (207-208)

Not a Christian

Here is the point: the contrary–and typically Christian–reading of Paul’s meaning is entirely colored by unknowingly looking back at him and his writing through a lens darkened by the destruction of the Temple in 70, an event that Paul neither experienced nor anticipated. As we have seen and seen again, that interruption in history resulted in the replacement of a multifaceted set of Judaisms–diverse parties, each with its distinct emphasis, coexisting within Israel–by a mutually exclusive split between the only two groups of surviving Jews. That split became increasingly defined by the either-or of an unforgiving religious polemic. Paul knew nothing of the conflict between the rabbis and the Jesus people over a post-Temple Jewish identity simply because, for him, the Temple had been the permanent center of faith for as long as he’d lived. It cannot be emphasized too much: Paul died before the Temple was destroyed. (211)

Paul never blames the Jews for the death of Jesus or ascribes the founding of the Church to God’s wrath against the people of the old covenant. Indeed, he does not attribute Jesus’ demise to the Jews at all–an extraordinary datum in light of the reports of the trial and execution of Jesus in the canonical Gospels. – Jon D. Levenson

The Fate of Carthage



Peter and Paul were alike in being elevated, across the decades, as founding heroes of the Christian movement–ultimately, the Church. But in truth, neither man could rise in the estimate of the faithful until another figure declined, and that figure was a woman. (220)

Contempt for women and denigration of Jews are related. Both are symptoms of the larger disease referred to earlier as oppositionalism: no positive assertion without some negative contempt. (221)

The community was the person of Jesus carried into the future, and Jesus took reciprocity and equality for granted. (224)

Unconditional respect marked Jesus’ encounters, including–if not especially–those with women. … That the Church forgot that, despite numerous Gospel passages highlighting the place of women, was a curse not just on Christendom but on Western civilization, which rose from it. Present denigrations of women–still no female priests in Roman Catholicism; still no female autonomy over reproduction; still, for that matter, no equal pay for equal work–begin here. (224)

Discipleship of Equals

Something changed in the fundamental structure of power in the Church–when it became the Church and was no longer the Jesus people, a widely dispersed, loosely connected aggregate of the faithful. (225)

The “discipleship of equals,” evident in the first century, morphed in the second century into the kind of hierarchy that generally structured patriarchal organizations in the Roman Empire. (226)

Schüssler Fiorenza terms a “Kyriarchy.”

Paul’s authentic letters come before that year (since he died in the 50s); all of the pseudo-Pauline writing, with its misogyny and hierarchy, comes after. It is possible that the viral effects of the mega-violence of the Roman War against the Jews showed itself, once again, in the way women came to be regarded in the Christian movement? The morals and meaning of the Jesus movement in relation to “the Jews” were demonstrably corrupted by that war. Did something similar happen with regard to women? (227)

Men at War

If brutality, or even cruelty, is recorded, it is always with a view to justification. (228)

Raping “the nation’s women” completes the emasculation of the nation’s men. A mass dishonoring of females shames the males, rubs their faces in defeat, shows them to be incapable of their primordial duty–as protectors of “the weaker sex.” The nation is not destroyed, that is, until the women are fucked.

| Nor is the insult merely a matter of the transient horror of forced intercourse, because an even more drastic and lasting demonstration of the impotence of the defeated comes with impregnation, which carries the conquest forward to childbirth, a future-tense vanquishing of ethnic purity. (230)

Dishonoring Her

With this full ontological divinizing, Jesus took on the aura of a figure apart from–and above–the human condition. Thus, Christians began to understand Jesus over against not only traditions of Jewish religion and culture, but over against everything human. (234)

The official New Testament was not promulgated until the Council of Carthage, in 397. (235)

One need not read the story of Jesus through a feminist lens to retrieve a sense of his humane attitudes toward women. All one need do is restore women to their actual roles in his life–especially a figure named “Mary,” who may–who knows?–have been his wife. (235)

Rome’s defeat of Jews is pictured as the mauling of a Jewish woman. Ironically, one of the extended negative effects of this Roman dishonoring of women seems to have shown up as the impulse among males in the Jesus movement to recast the place of women, allowing those otherwise disempowered men to subjugate women in a way that Jesus never did. (236)

Mary of Magdala

There is no such thing as history undistorted. Decisive transformations of meaning occurred, and are occurring still. That knowledge points toward the permanently incomplete encounter not with one to be fully possessed or completely known, but with one who ever beckons as a final object of desire: Christ actually. (243)

CHAPTER NINE: Imitation of Christ

Compared to Him

Here is the irony: if Jesus was not God, he was not even Virgil., or Socrates, or Dante. His greatness cannot be measured on the scale of exceptional intelligence, imagination, or even courage. Indeed, if greatness adheres in Jesus, it does so as much because of what was made of him as because of what he was. (245)

To Jesus, the saints whom we have considered were not saints, which is the revelation. (246)

If to himself Bonhoeffer was a sinner, who are we to say otherwise? For us, what matters is that his discipleship was routed precisely in the thick of mortal wickedness. That complexity, not some vague ethical purity, is what makes him our interpreter of Christ par excellence. (257)

The first of the interpreters, though, were the contemporaneous friends and followers of Jesus, even if they would not have called their unselfconscious initiating reaction to Jesus an “interpretation” at all. They responded to Jesus not with doctrine but with what they called discipleship, not with “believing” but with doing, not with theology but with imitation. Because, through the normal vicissitudes of history, doctrine and theology preempted imitation and stopped being tested against the remembered actualities of Jesus Himself, the church lost its way. Eventually, the church embraced the very values against which Jesus defined himself, and which killed him – imperial power and the violence needed to uphold it. (247)

But in the beginning, Jesus was more to be imitated than worshipped. He was, in the Gospel’s supremely simple word, to be followed. “Come follow me” was the first and defining invitation offered by Jesus to his disciples. (248)

After Schweitzer

Respect for everyone he met. The preference of service over power. The rejection of violence. Israel–its Law and worship–as the primal source of meaning. The Holy One’s nearness, the readiness to name the Holy One as God, and the recognition of God as Father. Forgiveness as the response to the inevitability of failure. Suffering understood as part of life. Trust as the other side of anguish. A permanent thankfulness. Communion over loneliness. Death not an end, but a beginning. At home in the absolute–and absolutely unknown–future. (248-249)

Theology is for the elite and mythology is for the masses. – Terry Eagleton

Quality of Suffering

Yes, because faith must be tested by reason, theology is necessary. To know what Christ means, we must know what he meant, and so critical history is necessary, too. The Church keeps a kind of memory of Jesus alive, and scholars separate memory from myth. But finally, dogma and debate are not enough. True study, in her phrase, is embodying and enacting in one’s own life the example of Jesus. “We do it,” Dorothy Day said, “by seeing Christ and serving Christ in friends and strangers, in everyone we come in contact with.” (255)

Now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that He speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers and children that He gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers, and suburban housewives that He gives It is with the feet of soldiers and tramps that He walks, and with the heart of anyone in need that He longs for shelter. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ. – Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day, for all her irascibility and even rigidity, was a living example of the capacity to see more in Jesus Christ than is before our eyes, which is simultaneously a capacity to see more in every person than even the person knows is there. (256)

Yet the simple, but mostly forgotten, fact is that there would have been no post-Resurrection recognition of Jesus as Christ, Logos, Word; no troubling to interpret him in Son of Man terms drawn from the book of Daniel; none of this, if the disciples had not already experienced some kind of transcendence in Jesus, in his life, his message, his ministry. (256)

God came to the people, Yahweh explained to Moses, not because He saw their sin, but because He saw their suffering. [Exodus 3:7-8] (259)

The Bible tells the story of power and conquest–but from the point of view of the victim. (259)

The Left Cheek

In the Cloud

The key to the actuality of Christ is precisely in the imitation of Jesus: the study, in Dorothy Day’s phrase, of our life conformed to his; the following, as Bonhoeffer put it; what Schweitzer called the stepping in to help in Jesus’ name. Why? Because what was revealed in Jesus–what made others eventually see him as Son of Man, Christ, Logos, God–was that his capacity for transcendence (transfiguration, resurrection, call it what you will) was exactly a capacity that lives in every person. Not just in those we designate as saints. That is why the profound ordinariness of transcendence as beheld in him was essential–it was ordinary enough for each one of us to match, with our fears, irascibility, vanities, and doubts; also our hopes, gifts, desires, and strengths. Acting fully as who we are, the imitation of Christ is the way to actualize in ourselves what makes Jesus matter. (265-266)

Thus, consciousness and self-consciousness–the unbounded scope of which were not fully grasped until the Secular Age–have come to be recognized as modes of the supreme consciousness known in the tradition as “God.” (272)

Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world–and defines himself afterwards. – Jean-Paul Sartre

Th I AM of God, of Jesus, is the “I am” of every person, and it consists in every person being aware of herself or himself. And that awareness points beyond itself. Consciousness leads to self-consciousness leads to self-transcendence. Homo erectus leads to Homo sapiens leads to Homo sapiens sapiens. “I know” leads to “I know that I know” leads to “I know that I am known.” Here is what we mean by the image of God in which we humans are created. “image” and “imitation” are linguistic variations on I AM. (273)

If we can no longer live the great symbols of the sacred in accordance with the original belief, we can, we modern men, aim at a second naiveté in and through criticism. – Paul Ricoeur

CONCLUSION: Because God Lives

It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt. – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Future of Jesus Christ

Because of perennial pressures and recent ones, a changed view of Jesus, it turns out, is the most authentic way of remaining faithful to Jesus. (278)

Surely the depths of Christian revelation are inexhaustible and always yield new convictions in new situations. Globalization and current religious dialogue and conflict have thus yielded a new awareness of the implications of what has been revealed in Jesus Christ. – Roger Haight, The Future of Christology

Because, finally, faith is not timeless. And, in fact, both relativism and secularism can shed light on a reexamined faith without swallowing it. (278)

A Simple Faith

Leaving us with? A simple Jesus. An ordinary Christ. One whom the simplest person can imitate, the most ordinary person bringing Christ once more to life–day by day, word by word, bread by bread, cup by cup. In all of that we see divinity, which, paradoxically, is what makes Jesus one of us. Whatever sort of God Jesus is understood to be, it must be the God who is like humans, not different. If that seems impossible, then what we think of God–and of humans–must change. (279)

So we are here less to believe in Jesus than to imitate him. (281)

— via critical reflections —

James Carroll is one of my favorite authors, someone who writes, not just with erudition, but with passion. But it is not passion in the sense of “exuberance” or “excitedness,” but rather in the sense of “suffering,” that one can feel the strain in the pages, a yearning, a hope, a lamentation, and a vision for what ultimately could become from this variegated mess we have inherited in our religion.

Christ Actually is, in my opinion, extremely apropos and relevant to our current socio-political context, a time when there is a phenomenal sense of a loss of the Way of Jesus in the blur of people fighting for the “truth” of Christianity (which is really no “truth” at all). And because Carroll grounds his writing in the historical, Jewish understanding of suffering and the world, the visceral aspect of faith is reclaimed and validates Christianity within the context of bloodshed and injustice.

I have only two critiques:

On page 127, he writes

The post-Enlightenment concentration on discernible fact, empirical evidence, and the reductionist methods of rationalism have hollowed out the imagination in all sorts of ways. A naive belief in supernatural powers has been dispelled, thankfully, but scientific naturalism has proven incapable of accounting for a whole range of human experiences, from simple self-awareness to love.

Anytime an argument splits naturalism and imagination, you formulate potential problems down the road should there arise explanations currently unknown to us. This is a form of the classic fallacy, “god-of-the-gaps,” and should be avoided at all costs. Not because it is potentially undermining of one’s argument, but because it is both false, and a line of reasoning that is not supported in the biblical narrative. The authors of the Bible exist in the realm of spiritual rhetoric, not philosophical ontology. In the paragraph above, the next stage of work that is being tackled is on human consciousness (i.e. “self-awareness,”) and others have suggested several possible naturalistic explanations for “love.” (e.g., Daniel Dennett’s Cute, Sexy, Sweet, Funny)

On page 200,

Privileged people, too, could rejoice to find themselves gathered with those who, otherwise so different, were alike “in Christ.” Gathered where, as Paul put it, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” These verses are often read by Christians as a formula of universalism, deleting all particularisms, including Jewish, but that is wrong. Note that this obliteration of distinction climaxes in Paul’s affirmation of an all-inclusive, primordial distinctiveness on which even the identity “in Christ” stands: “And if you are Christ’s,” he goes on to say in the next verse, “then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” You are Jews.

I see a several problem with this. First is the identifier “and” between male and female. The original Greek does not say “male nor female,” but rather “male and female,” (ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ) which is a clear hearkening back to Genesis. Many have suggested the implication that it is an obliteration of the particulars. Second, Paul lists “jew” in the categories of his argument. To then conclude that “you are Jews” is contradictory. Finally, Abraham was not a Jew. He was an Aramean. Paul appears to be hearkening back to a further grounding from which the particulars grew, which is more a covenantal statement, than a categorical one. I think I may understand what Carroll is saying here, as the “Jews” were the covenantal people of God, but to maintain consistency, one should continue the line of vocabulary that Paul himself deploys in the Galatians passage, and simply say, those categories (particulars) do not exist.

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