This week we’ll explore the story of Jesus Christ as revealed in the four Gospels, beginning with the testimony of face-to-face encounters with him.
Jesus favoured indirect communication – appealing to the imagination/provoke thought. Asking questions without giving answers., using a range of styles (metaphors, similes, analogies, stories that mean what they say).
Also indirect communication via actions, and not just words, including symbolism in meals, action, riding in on a donkey, washing his disciples feet.
A common feature of indirect communication is creating a pause for thought between what is said and space for a realisation of what is meant.
Jesus does draw on the Hebrew Bible when talking with religious leaders, but otherwise “doesn’t engage in learned exegesis of Scripture”… otherwise used tales that were familiar to the world his hearers knew well… especially drawing on characters other than Kings – more regular ‘figures of authority’ that would have been meaningful to ordinary people in a rural context.
Narrative Parables: The stories were short, containing only what was needed in them to make the point, engaging, drawing their hearers into them – therefore popular. Let the story make an impact as a story, before seeking its message. Most are stories about the kingdom, rather than broad moral lessons or truths about God and the world
Aphorisms – short, tend to be skim read by modern readers, but are intended to be paused and pondered – and possibly memorised. Some are deliberately riddles/puzzles. All designed for an oral society – few off the cuff, but carefully prepared, repeated, and designed to be memorable. (Rote learning was common in the ancient world). As the gospels say, Jesus must have spoken at more length, but this is not what is recorded in the Bible (although a sense of this is given in the Gospel of John). He took every opportunity to teach and preach.
Jesus’ relationship with God ‘the father’ was core – God was clearly the God of the Hebrew scriptures. Jewish teachers constantly retold the story to bring out its relevance in the contemporary situation. Jesus = the start of re-establishment of God’s rule. He avoids direct reference to God’s action by using passive verbs, and although discussing ‘the kingdom of God’, never refers to God as ‘King’… likely because at that time, human kings offered oppressive rule. More frequent references to God as father gives more of an impression of a combination of authority and loving care (including loving correction). The importance of the word ‘Abba’ – typically used within Aramaic families from childhood to adulthood – evoking family intimacy, which Jesus is doing in his conversations to God… and then used by many non-Aramaic early Christians (whereas Jews had typically used YHWH). Note the compassionate face of Jesus, etc. does not remove the judgement of God – in fact his presence was testimony for the need to make a decision.
In Jewish tradition = 2 ways in which instructions on how to live were given. Interpretation of the law of Moses, or wisdom counsel on how to live. Jesus tended to offer radical interpretations … in answering which of the 613 commandments were most important = love God, love your neighbour (so 2 commandments), Loving ones neighbour was not the same as loving God, but loving God meant that one would love ones neighbour. Love is not emotional, but obedient… from the heart. In a conflict of laws, these 2 would be expected to override all (as demonstrated in the story of the Good Samaritan).
With an emphasis on oaths, Jesus was not banning ‘swearing’, but indicating that disciples should have no need to be ‘under oath’ to tell the truth, but should be telling the truth at all times. Even more challenging – do not retaliate. Jesus looks at motivation not outcome (e.g. murderous/adulterous/covetous thoughts). Pharisees were more concerned with ritual purity … at the expenses of moral demands. The Sabbath was to be a gift, not a burden – Jesus’ answer to an ongoing debate as to what work could be done on a Sunday. Many of these debates were not new, but Jesus exercised far more freedom in interpretation than other… and rarely argues but announces authoritatively. The integrity of the heart = the source of all true obedience to the law.
Jesus’ talking about current social structures/relationship – highlights a society in which the world’s current status/rank has no place… Fellow disciples become family … from which fathers are not listed, as fatherhood is reserved for God… Nothing (including feet washing) should be beneath a disciple’s dignity… the disciples were reduced to the lowest status, the ‘slave’ – none is more important than the others. To become like a child was not about trust, but about social status – as children had none… common thinking is subverted to do away with self-importance. Inviting the poor/destitute for meals, etc. was more than ‘generous charity’ but a well-recognised duty – treating as social equals. The beatitudes – the poor recognise their total dependence on God, whereas the rich feel self-sufficient. Jesus requires a day-by-day trust to ‘Give us this day our daily bread’.
What about Jesus’ position on Jewish political issues of the day? Again, indirectly. Protested at the markets in the Temple because the focus was on profit, which was hindering access to God’s presence, especially for the poor. The debates were religio-poltiical rather than fully political.
The story of the forgiveness of debt … the king demonstrated astonishing mercy, but the slave didn’t take the opportunity to change his world, but chose to remain where mercy is unknown – therefore the king retracted his mercy. The dark side is the seriousness with which Jesus warns of destruction for those who take the mercy and compassion of God but don’t own such extravagant generosity. The judgement therefore becomes self-imposed.
CRITIQUING Baukman – Eyewitnesses of gospel history – authoritative sources and guarantors of the traditions of Jesus.
‘The historical Jesus’ – relies on accessible material. If we don’t trust that material, how can we trust the gospels? Many have addressed these by seeking external verification to support (etc) the Gospel narratives… but can this substitute for the Gospels themselves as a way into the ‘reality of Jesus’.
The importance of testimony – to be trusted, not uncritically, but nor solely dependent upon independent verification. All history essentially relies upon testimony, and this a value and unique way of accessing historical reality. The Gospels were written within living memory – Mark early on, and the others were captured before they could be lost.
Papias – deliberately using the terminology of historiographical practice – the ‘living and surviving voice’, part of the ‘oral tradition’. He was more concerned with the voices of those who had directly connected with Jesus, rather than the collective memory of churches. Important to understand whose voices, and which names are used – what is the significance of those to ‘trust’ in the material. Evidence of commonly used names, but expected Biblical names were rare (e,g. Moses, etc.) as would have been seen as presumptuous to name ones child such. Names of the 12 disciples often given in a particular order – discrepancies across the Gospels possibly down to the way that distinctions between common names were made amongst the disciples.
Material relating to different writing devices by each gospel writer, and why some characters would need to have remained anonymous for their own safety. (especially within the early church). There are questions about what oral tradition look like, and how that helps us understand their veracity.
“Rather, given memorisation, possibly the use of writing, and the presence of eyewitness testimony, the (isolated) traditions underwent a particular kind of formal control in their transmission.”
When these eyewitnesses started dying out ‘the Gospels will have stepped into the
role of the eyewitnesses … functioning as the guarantor of the traditions, as the eyewitnesses had in their lifetimes, and as controls on the tradition’.
Maurice Halbwach – collective memory…
In other words, ‘social memory or oral tradition has to be constantly negotiating the relationship of the present to the past. In this negotiation the past has a voice that has to be heard. It cannot be freely invented’.
Eyewitnesses would have been remembering inherently memorable events, reinforced and stablilised by frequent rehearsal soon after the event – therefore implicit reliability.
A particular focus on the Gospel of John, which appears to have been sidelined, highlighting the links between Prologue and Epilogue, showing connections.
Highlighting 2 types of discipleship – active service (Peter), and perceptive witness (John, the beloved disciple). Gospel’s interpretative nature appropriate for the subject matter. In a modern individualistic society, we need to understand more in communal or inter-subjective terms… Testimony invites trust, whereas modern historical methods come from a position of doubt… this is linked to how we can trust e.g. testimonies from the Holocaust – giving ‘truths’ in a way that other sources can’t. .. but access it as testimony.
Session 4.1: Jesus of the Gospels
‘The Word Became Flesh’ … 4 Gospels (see screenshot).
Lots of similarities, but different target audiences
- Matthew – Jewish brethren, quotes Old Testament and how Jesus was the fulfillment of this, and the Jewishness of Jesus
- Mark – shorter – action account, uses the word ‘immediately’ a lot. Stories revolving about Peter’s experiences. Focuses on Romans (see customs and words are explained/translated)
- Luke – the Dr – travelled with Apostle Paul. Used many sources and researched carefully. Draws particularly on Mary (mother of Jesus) stories. Focuses on reaching the Greeks. Emphasis on healing ministry ofJesus.
- John – 3 generations after other 3 gospels are written. Language shift – less focus on the Kingdom of God, and more about Jesus’ offer of eternal life. Jesus IS the gospel.
Session 4.2: Jesus: Face to Face
Jesus has many face-to-face, one-on-one meetings – it’s not all big mountaintop stories. They touch us because they are venues where we can also come face to face with Jesus.
JOHN 3 (NICODEMUS) – It doesn’t matter where you are born, where you come from – be born again – new life. Jesus is more than a ‘good teacher’, but the Son of God.
John 4 (Photini) – Meeting with the Woman at the Well –crossing lots of social boundaries. Evangelised, using her witness within Samaria until (probably) murdered.
John 20 – (Mary in the Garden) Mary Magdalene receives the revelation of Jesus in a garden (righting the wrongs of Eden).
John 21 (Peter on the beach) – ‘Do you Love Me?’ ‘Feed my sheep’. “I have a job for you to do” – qualifies him as a disciple and the one who would lead the story into the book of Acts.
Session 4:3 Jesus – Words of Life
‘The Sermon on the Mount’ – an introductory sermon for those who wanted to know what his core teaching was – his idea/revelation of the Torah. All of the law/prophecy – come into focus on Jesus.
The first half of each Beatitude = related to Jesus’ crucifixion, whilst the second half gives a glimpse of the resurrection. Bring into daily discipleship – what does it mean to take up your Cross daily and follow daily? What does it mean to die on the Cross but continue to live? Essentially in the Beatitudes (Matt 5-7) – not only ‘how to become a good Christian’ but how to become human. Gandhi said if we could but take up the Sermon on the Mount and live it .. many of the problems of the world would be solved. The fine print of our Covenant with Christ – our sins are totally forgiven, and we are given the Holy Spirit as we continue on the earth.
The story of the Prodigal Son has been called the microcosm of the whole gospel. All who have wandered away are invited back – not to a retributative God, but to a welcoming God, with no need to jump through hoops for redemption. The story of the Good Samaritan is also key. Jesus picks up the broken – takes them to the Inn (church) – Jesus asks us to look after similar? If echoes today, maybe that’s a little what salt and light look like in the modern day.
Session 4:4: Jesus,: Works of Love & Power
Works of Love
John 8 – forgiving sin (woman caught in adultery) – challenging Jesus – will he obey the law of Moses or not? Law came through Moses, but grace and peace came through Jesus. (Jeremiah – writes in the dust). “Go and sin no more”, not an instruction or I’ll rescind, but because she’s been offered a fresh start (life of transformation)
Luke 8 – The demon removed from the man = a healing of his soul, not just a demon removal.
Works of Power
The miracles (signs) – including raising from the dead, healing, resurrection, calming the storm, etc.
The passion (the cross) – Matthew, Mark, Luke – seen as a humiliation/defeat until the resurrection, although John treats the Cross as the glorification of Christ at that stage.
The resurrection = at the heart of our gospel.
Session 4.5: Jesus & Beliefs
Who is Jesus? What did the church come to in the end? By the end, of Jesus’ ministry, he was seen as the Messiah, the Son of God. Fully man and fully God.
The early church – agreed on the Nicene Creed. Divine identity language – God brings everything together… God enfleshed in human form.
Dr Bex Lewis is passionate about helping people engage with the digital world in a positive way, where she has more than 20 years’ experience. She is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Visiting Research Fellow at St John’s College, Durham University, with a particular interest in digital culture, persuasion and attitudinal change, especially how this affects the third sector, including faith organisations, and, after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2017, has started to research social media and cancer. Trained as a mass communications historian, she has written the original history of the poster Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster (Imperial War Museum, 2017), drawing upon her PhD research. She is Director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint, and author of Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst (Lion Hudson, 2014; second edition in process) as well as a number of book chapters, and regularly judges digital awards. She has a strong media presence, with her expertise featured in a wide range of publications and programmes, including national, international and specialist TV, radio and press, and can be found all over social media, typically as @drbexl.