Essays - Spring 2006

What Jesus Did

Forget about Christ as secular sage, historical figure, or even as Christian

By Garry Wills | March 1, 2006


In certain religious circles, the letters WWJD serve as a password or shibboleth. Web sites sell bracelets and T-shirts with the cryptic motto. Some politicians tell us this watchword guides them in making decisions. The letters stand for “What Would Jesus Do?” We are assured that doing the same thing is the goal of real Christians.

But can we really aspire to do what Jesus did? Would we praise a 12-year-old who slips away from his parents in a big city and lets them leave town without telling them he is staying behind? The reaction of any parent would be that of Jesus’ parents in Luke: “How could you treat us this way?” Or if relatives seek access to a Christian, should he say that he has no relatives but his followers? We might try to change water into wine; but if we did, would we take six huge water vats, used for purification purposes, and fill them with over a hundred gallons of wine, more than any party could drink? If we could cast out devils, would we send them into a herd of pigs, destroying 2,000 animals? Some Christians place a very high value on the rights of property, yet this was a massive invasion of another person’s property and livelihood.

Other Christians lay great emphasis on family values—should they, like Jesus, forbid a man from attending his own father’s funeral or tell others to hate their parents? Or should they go into a rich new church in some American suburb, a place taking pride in its success, and whip the persons holding out collection plates, crying, “Make not my Father’s house a traders’ mart” or “a thieves’ lair”? Would it be wise of them to call national religious leaders “whitewashed tombs, pleasant enough to outer appearance, but inside full of dead bones and every rottenness”? Are they justified in telling others, “I come not imposing peace, I impose not peace but the sword”? Or “I am come to throw fire on the earth”? Should they imitate Jesus when he says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but never will my words pass away”? Or when he says, “I am the resurrection” or “I am the truth,” or “I have the authority to lay down my life and I have the authority to take it up again”? None of those who want to imitate Jesus should proclaim that “I am the light of the world” or that “I am the path” to the Father.

These are just a few samples of the way Jesus acts in the gospels. They were acts meant to show that he is not just like us, that he has higher rights and powers, that he has an authority as arbitrary as God’s in the Book of Job. He is a divine mystery walking among men. The only way we can directly imitate him is to act as if we were gods ourselves—yet that is the very thing he forbids. He tells us to act as the last, not the first, as the least, not the greatest. And this accords with the common sense of mankind. Christians cannot really be “Christlike.” As Chesterton said, “A great man knows he is not God, and the greater he is the better he knows it.” The thing we have to realize is that Christ, whoever or whatever he was, was certainly not a Christian. Romano Guardini put it this way in The Humanity of Christ:

If Jesus is a mere man, then he must be measured by the message which he brought to men. He must himself do what he expects of others; he must himself think according to the way he demanded that men think. He must himself be a Christian. Very well, then; the more he is like that, the less he will speak, act, or think as he did; and the more he will be appalled by the blasphemy of the way he did behave. If Jesus is mere man as we are, even though a very profound one, very devout, very pure—no, let us put it another way: the measure of his depth, devotion, purity, reverence, will be the measure in which it will be impossible for him to say what he says. . . . The following clear-cut alternative emerges: either he is—not just evil, for that would not adequately describe the case—either he is deranged, as Nietzsche became in Turin in 1888, or he is quite different, deeply and essentially different, from what we are.

To read the gospels in the spirit with which they were written, it is not enough to ask what Jesus did or said. We must ask what Jesus meant by his strange deeds and words. He intended to reveal the Father to us, and to show that he is the only-begotten Son of that Father. What he signified is always more challenging than we expect, more outrageous, more egregious. That is why the Catholic novelist François Mauriac calls him “of all the great characters history places before us, the least logical.” Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor knew this when he reproached Christ for puzzling men by being “exceptional, vague, and enigmatic.”

It is true that Saint Paul tells us to “put [our] mind in Christ’s when dealing with one another.” But looking to the mind of Christ is a way of learning what he meant, on many levels. We can learn what he valued in the human drama as he moved among his fellows. According to the gospels, he preferred the company of the lowly and despised to that of the rich and powerful. He crossed lines of ritual purity to deal with the unclean—with lepers, the possessed, the insane, with prostitutes and adulterers and collaborators with Rome. (Was he subtly mocking ritual purification when he filled the water vessels with wine?) He was called a bastard and was rejected by his own brothers and the rest of his family. He was an outcast among outcasts, sharing the lot of the destitute, the defiled, the despised. “He was counted among the outlaws,” according to Luke.

He had a lower-class upbringing, as a cabinetmaker’s son. That was a trade usually marginal and itinerant in his time. He chose his followers from the lower class, from fishermen, dependent on the season’s catch, or from a despised trade (tax collection for the Romans). There were no scribes or scholars of the law in his following. Jesus not only favored the homeless. He was himself homeless, born homeless and living homeless during his public life: “Foxes have lairs, and birds have nests in air, but the Son of Man has nowhere to put down his head,” as Jesus says in Matthew. He depended on others to shelter him. He especially depended on women, who were “second-class citizens” in his culture. He was not a philosopher. He wrote nothing for his followers in a later age. He depended on his uneducated disciples to express what he meant. First Corinthians says he knew that the Spirit moving them had no need of men with Ph.D’s or with grants from learned foundations.

His very presence was subversive. He was born on the run, fleeing Herod. As the Anglican bishop N. T. Wright puts it, he “came into the world with a death sentence already hanging over him, as the paranoid old tyrant up the road got wind of a young royal pretender.” Jesus would later move through teams of men setting traps for him, trying to assassinate him, to crush his following, to give him the same treatment given the beheaded John the Baptist. As the gospels tell it, he had to “go into hiding.” He was in constant danger—of being kidnapped, of being arrested, of being assassinated, of being stoned for his irreligion, of being thrown off a cliff. Herod Antipas, who killed John the Baptist openly, plotted to kill Jesus secretly.

Jesus was called an agent of the devil, or the devil himself. He was unclean, a consorter with Samaritans and with loose women. He was a promoter of immorality, a glutton and a drunkard, a mocker of the Jewish Law, a schismatic. He was never respectable. In fact, he shocked the elders and priests of the Temple when he said, “In truth I tell you, tax collectors and whores are entering God’s reign before you.” Even when a Pharisee was well disposed to Jesus, he was afraid to be seen with the radical by daylight. Jesus seemed to prefer the company of the less-than-respectable, since he said that his Father “favors ingrates and scoundrels.” I am reminded of the journalist Murray Kempton, who relished the company of rogues. A political leader once said that Murray would have liked him if only he had a criminal record—though I am sure Murray liked him anyway, from the way he used to tell me good-bye by saying “God bless you,” as if we would never meet again.

For two years, Jesus slipped through all the traps set for him. He moved like a fish in the sea of his lower-class fellows. He kept on the move, in the countryside. If I think of a music to be heard in the background of his restless mission, it is the scurrying agitato that opens Khachaturian’s violin concerto. He went into cities as into alien territory. He was a man of the margins, never quite fitting in, always “out of context.” He sought the wilderness, the mountaintop. He gave the slip even to his followers. The puzzled disciples trotted behind, trying to make sense of what seemed to them inexplicable, squabbling among themselves about what he was up to. It would never have occurred to them to wear a WWJD bracelet.

Jesus ghosted in and out of people’s lives, blessing and cursing, curing and condemning. If he was not God, he was a standing blasphemy against God. The last thing he can be considered is, in Charles Wesley’s words, a “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” To quote Chesterton again:

We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is, I venture to repeat, very nearly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heartbreaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts. But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters. . . . There is something appalling, something that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of having a statue of Christ in wrath. There is something insupportable even to the imagination in the idea of turning the corner of a street or coming out into the spaces of a marketplace, to meet the petrifying petrifaction of that figure as it turned upon a generation of vipers, or that face as it looked at the face of a hypocrite. . . . [The gospel story] is full of sudden gestures evidently significant except that we hardly know what they signify; of enigmatic silences; of ironical replies. The outbreaks of wrath, like storms above our atmosphere, do not seem to break out exactly where we should expect them, but to follow some higher weather chart of their own. The Peter whom popular Church teaching presents is very rightly the Peter to whom Christ said in forgiveness, “Feed my lambs.” He is not the Peter upon whom Christ turned as if he were the devil, crying in that obscure wrath, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Christ lamented with nothing but love and pity over Jerusalem which was to murder him. We do not know what strange spiritual atmosphere or spiritual insight led him to sink Bethsaida lower in the pit than Sodom.

The Jesus of the gospels is scandalous, and one of those scandalized was Thomas Jefferson. He was so offended by the miracles and the curses, by the devils assailing and defeated, that he created his own more acceptable Jesus, excising all those parts of the gospels that he considered unworthy of a wise man’s story. The result, cleansed of all the supernatural hocus-pocus, is the tale of a good man, a very good man, perhaps the best of good men—therefore a man who would not pretend to work miracles, to wrestle with demons, or to have unique access to God the Father. Jefferson’s revised New Testament is not only much shorter than the real one but much duller. Nothing unexpected occurs in it. There is, for instance, no Resurrection. Jefferson’s Jesus is shorn of his paradoxes and left with platitudes. He is a man of his time, or even ahead of his time, but not outside time, whereas the Jesus of the gospels is both temporal and above time. As Chesterton concludes:

There is more of the wisdom that is one with surprise in any simple person, full of the sensitiveness of simplicity, who should expect the grass to wither and the birds to drop dead out of the air, when a strolling carpenter’s apprentice said calmly and almost carelessly, like one looking over his shoulder: “Before Abraham was, I am.”

Needless to say, that verse (John 8:58) is excised by Jefferson. His mild humanitarian moralizer is not allowed to say anything shocking, challenging, or obscure. Devils and miracles are not the only things to go. So are passages like this:

“Think not I come imposing peace on earth. I impose not peace but a sword. I bring conflict between a man and his father, a daughter and her mother, a wife and her mother-in-law—a man’s foes will be found in his own home. One who loves father or mother before me does not deserve me. One who loves son or daughter before me does not deserve me. And anyone who does not take up a cross and tread in my footsteps does not deserve me. The man protective of his life will lose it, but the one casting life away on my account will preserve it.” (Matthew 10:34–39)

Jefferson’s extraction of the “real” gospel from the traditional one— a task he called as easy as “finding diamonds in dunghills”—has been taken up in recent years by a team that finds the task more difficult, but productive of much the same result. This team of scholars calls itself the Jesus Seminar, and it prints a Bible that sets apart by different colors the “authentic” sayings or deeds of Jesus and the sayings invented by the evangelists or their sources. Though these experts use linguistic and historical tests for qualifying the diamonds in their dunghill, they work from a Jeffersonian assumption that anything odd or dangerous or supernatural is prima facie suspect. That disqualifies the Resurrection from the outset. The Seminar’s founder, Robert Funk, agreed with Jefferson that Jesus was “a secular sage,” and the team trims the gospels even more thoroughly than Jefferson did. One whole gospel, John, has no authentic saying (Jefferson liked quite a lot of John). Most of Mark (usually counted the most authentic gospel, since it is the earliest) also falls by the wayside, along with the last three and a half chapters of Matthew. Luke, as the most “humanist gospel,” comes off best, but overall the Seminar retains fewer than a fifth of the gospel acts of Jesus and fewer than a fifth of his words.

This is the new fundamentalism. It believes in the literal sense of the Bible—it just reduces the Bible to what it can take as literal quotation from Jesus. Though some people have called the Jesus Seminarists radical, they are actually very conservative. They tame the real radical, Jesus, cutting him down to their own size. Robert Funk called Jesus “the first Jewish stand-up comic”—which is not as far as it might at first glance seem from Jefferson’s view of him as the last sit-down Stoic sage.

Of course, the sayings that meet with the Seminar’s approval were preserved by the Christian communities whose contribution is discounted. Jesus as a person does not exist outside the gospels, and the only reason he exists there is because of their authors’ faith in the Resurrection. Trying to find a construct, “the historical Jesus,” is not like finding diamonds in a dunghill, but like finding New York City at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. It is a mixing of categories, or rather of wholly different worlds of discourse. The only Jesus we have is the Jesus of faith. If you reject the faith, there is no reason to trust anything the gospels say. The Jesus of the gospels is the Jesus preached, who is the Jesus resurrected. Belief in his continuing activity in the members of his mystical body is the basis of Christian belief in the gospels. If that is unbelievable to anyone, then why should that person bother with him? The flat cutout figure they are left with is not a more profound philosopher than Plato, a better storyteller than Mark Twain, or a more bitingly ascetical figure than Epictetus (the only ancient philosopher Jefferson admired). If his claims are no higher than theirs, then those claims amount to nothing.

With certain religious figures, the original story that reaches us does not begin with literal facts that are later “embellished,” as the Seminarists put it. The first reports spreading from such figures are all a blaze of holiness and miracle. That is as true of Saint Francis as of the Baal Shem Tov. It is their impact on the faith of others that makes these men noticeable in the first place. Miracles, as it were, work themselves around such men. Jesus is the preeminent example of this. The fact that he seems like other wonder-working holy men (Apollonius of Tyana, for instance) does not mean that he is an imitation of them. Rather, they are a reaching out toward him. They are a hunger and he the food. They are an ache, he the easement. As Chesterton said, his story resembles the great myths of mankind because he is the fulfillment of the myths. When someone said that other stories tell of God’s voice coming from heaven, and so does the scene of Christ’s baptism, therefore his story must be just like the other ones, Chesterton asked, “From what place could a voice of God come, from the coal cellar?”

In the case of Jesus, the first blaze of wonder and miracle is registered in the letters of Paul, which preceded the gospels by a quarter to half of a century. The Seminarists treat the gospels as if they were just a distortion of the “real” sayings of Jesus that preceded them. But what preceded them in fact was the testimony of Paul, who already preached the divinity of Christ, his descent from the Father, his saving death and Resurrection. Nor can we say that he invented something different from the gospels, as if they were already in existence. He is passing on what was given to him in the Christian community. We know this is the case because he quotes hymns of the community that preceded his letters, including this one:

He, having the divine nature from the outset,
thinking it no usurpation to be held God’s equal,
emptied himself out into the nature of a slave,
becoming like to man.
And in man’s shape he lowered himself,
so obedient as to die, by a death on the cross.
For this God has exalted him,
favored his name over all names,
that at the name of Jesus all knees shall bend
above the earth, upon the earth, and below the earth,
and every tongue shall acknowledge
that Jesus is the Lord Christ, to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2:6–11)

The proclamation of divinity is not something “added on” later. It is the very thing to which all later explanations are added. The gospels, following on this profession of an active and shared faith, trace the theological implications of that faith, and cite Jesus’ words only in the context of that belief, the only context that exists for them. What Jesus meant is conveyed to us by what the gospels mean. There is no other Jesus but the Jesus of faith. The “historical Jesus” does not exist for us. Romano Guardini put the matter well in his book on the psychology of Jesus:

Were we in a position to disregard all [later] accounts and gain an immediate impression of Jesus Christ as he was on earth, we would not be confronted by a “simple” historical Jesus, but by a figure of devastating greatness and incomprehensibility. Progress in the representation of the portrait of Christ does not mean that something was being added to what was proclaimed; it means that we are witnessing the unfolding step by step of that which “was from the beginning.” . . . If we could get back to the “original,” that is, if we could work our way back to the picture of Christ as it existed before it had been turned over in the apostles’ minds or elaborated by their preaching, before it had been assimilated by the corporate life of the faithful, we could find a figure of Christ even more colossal and incomprehensible than any conveyed by even the most daring statements of St. Paul or St. John. . . . The statements of the apostles are guides to him which never quite do justice to the fullness of his divine-human natures. The apostles never state more about the historical Jesus than he actually was; it is always less.

To accept the gospels as an authentic account of what Jesus meant should not make us revert from the new fundamentalism to the old one, treating everything in the gospels as literally true in a later sense of historical truth. The gospels express the ineffable in the language appropriate for the task, a language inherited from the Jewish scriptures. Luke’s gospel, for instance, spells out the meaning of Christ’s Incarnation in the poetic forms of divine birth, because he and his fellows knew that this is what the Christ event meant. To believe in the gospels is to take everything in them as meant, though at various levels of symbolization. This is a task for faith, a reasoning faith, one hopes, and reasonable—what Saint Anselm called “faith out on quest to know” (fides quaerens intellectum)—but faith all the same. There is no other way of knowing Jesus.

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