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Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Chapter 3: The Historian's Jesus
Part 2

The other early source of conflict was Jesus' relation with his kinsfolk. Though his spiritual family, the disciples, sometimes coexisted harmoniously with his natural family (e.g., at Cana, and again before Pentecost in the upper room), there was also tension between them. To the relatives in Nazareth it seemed that they had lost their son and cousin to the new family of the Twelve. The Nazarenes would have regarded Jesus' kinship with their clan as giving them legitimate demands on his person. If, as seems natural to think, the account in Luke of Jesus' initial preaching at Nazareth. implies a space of time between a first enthusiastic welcome ("all spoke well of him," 4:22) and a subsequent rejection, the reason may be that the son of Joseph preferred now to work down at Capharnaum with the fishermen, whereas for centuries it was they, the clan of the Nazarenes, the Davidides, who had been divinely elected. The result was an open breach with his kinsfolk, and even an attempt at assassination (Luke 4:24). However, as we can see when his brethren tried to persuade him to go to Jerusalem for the feast of Tabernacles on the ground that he had disciples there also (John 7:3), some links were still maintained. John reports, though, that these brethren did not really believe in Jesus: they offered him their admiration and counsel but not their discipleship. Looking ahead, we can say that not till Calvary was the tension between the two groups the spiritual family and the natural family fully overcome. That was when Jesus gave his mother into the keeping of the "beloved disciple." By Pentecost, the families were united, Peter heading the Twelve and James, "the brother of the Lord," heading the clan. Paul records in 1 Corinthians 15:1-7 that the risen Jesus appeared precisely to these two leaders, one of whom became head of the universal Church, the other that of the Church of the Jewish Christians in Israel itself.

By the end of the first year of the ministry it was clear that Jesus' message differed from that of the Baptist in two respects. First, he placed less emphasis on the negative moment of God's judgment of Israel and more on the positive moment, soon to be realized, of her restoration. Second, he stressed the concomitant salvation of all the other nations for whom Israel was meant to be a light. In his public preaching, Jesus proclaimed God as not only judge but Savior. He spoke of salvation as not simply the result of human decision and effort but also as the gift of God. Indeed, he spoke of the human decision for salvation and the effort to gain it as part and parcel of that very gift. The only thing he asked was that this gift of salvation be accepted as a total gift in other words, in the most radical poverty of spirit, something which went against the grain of the Jewish religious parties in his day, who preferred to rely on their own works, and notably the observance of the Old Testament Law. This aspect of his teaching, exemplified in the parable of the two men who went up to the Temple to pray, would be especially well understood by Paul.

But what was this "salvation" that Jesus held out to his hearers, and saw his own preaching as inaugurating? He saw it as the coming of a new paradise, as is made clear by his sayings on marriage. Divorce is now prohibited, for the norm of paradise is restored, and this is possible because a cure for human hardness of heart (the problem that had led the Old Testament to allow divorce) is now to hand. Thanks to Jesus' presence and influence, the disciples are becoming changed people. The rigor of Jesus' ethical demands upon them (no hatred, no lustful thoughts) only makes sense on the understanding that human nature is being transformed, thanks to communion with Jesus.

That this was not self-delusion was shown in the miraculous signs of salvation Jesus worked. The exorcisms he carried out were meant to point to God's imminent triumph over evil, the dawning of his reign. The miracles of healing and such nature miracles as the calming of the storm and the multiplication of the loaves and fishes point to the restoration of physical nature, its harmonization with what is good for human beings, and a superabundant fulfillment for the life of the old creation.

The coming about of the reign of God, at which Jesus aimed in his public teaching and action, had, then, its cosmic aspect, but its center lay in the relations of persons to God. In his table fellowship with sinners, regarded by the Jews of the day as ritually unclean, Jesus reversed the hitherto normal biblical order by putting communion before conversion. Without acquiescing in the sins of these reprobate characters, Jesus first of all extended fellowship to them in the Father's name, and that turned out to trigger repentance and so conversion. His extraordinary freedom displayed itself not in an abstract criticism of accepted standards but in making himself accessible to those who needed him, regardless of conventional limitations. The meals he took with the disreputable he regarded as anticipation of the banquet between God and humanity at the end of time. That Jesus understood this offer of communion with God through him as including (eventually) the Gentiles is shown by the parable of the mustard seed which grows into a great shrub in which birds can rest. "Birds" was, at the time, a common metaphor for the Gentiles; "nesting" was a technical term for their eschatological assimilation to Israel. What can we conclude then on the basis of the public or exoteric teaching and actions of Jesus? That his proclamation of the reign of God was aimed at bringing about the actual communication of that reign as a new paradise in which, most importantly, human nature, thanks to his presence and influence, is transformed. Miraculous signs attest that this is actually happening as evil is depotentiated, human bodies and psyches healed, the maladjustment of natural forces to human happiness rectified, and the created order itself transcended in enacted symbols of ultrafruitfulness. The transformation of the human being by the grace of God is also symbolized by the offer of table fellowship, and Jesus predicts that his preaching, even though it sparked few conversions, will be the means for the entry of the Gentiles into the salvation promised in the first instance to Israel. We can add that, because this program necessarily involved the restoration and integration of the depressed elements in society the poor, the sick, the simple a later age whose own outlook was sociological and humanistic rather than metaphysical and religious could misconstrue Jesus as a social reformer.

It was probably at Passover of the second year of the public ministry that news reached Capharnaum of the execution of John the Baptist, and Herod Antipas's fear that Jesus might be another John. The antagonism of the Herodians, the supporters of the puppet king, grew apace. Henceforth Jesus would avoid crowds and never remain too long in any one place. When the disciples, sent out in pairs by Jesus in the missionary extension of his preaching of the imminence of the kingdom, returned to base at Capharnaum, flocks of people wanted to see the Master with their own eyes, thus bringing new danger. Jesus accordingly took the disciples away in search of solitude, but when the boat turned in toward the fishing ground and the crowd caught up with them Jesus had compassion on them as "sheep without a shepherd" and began to teach them (Mark 6:34). It was here, in the lakeside spot now called Tabhga, that the first feeding of the multitude took place; it is recalled by a venerable Jewish-Christian inscription on a large slab of rock, visible today beneath the altar of the Benedictine chapel of the multiplication. The twelve baskets of bread and fish mentioned by the evangelists, and the way the people are made to sit in groups of hundreds and fifties, as their ancestors had been accustomed to do in the Sinai desert according to the Book of Exodus, point to this as a feeding of Jews rather than local pagans. This renewal of the miraculous feeding of the Exodus generated a religious and nationalist enthusiasm which found expression in an attempt to have Jesus proclaimed Messiah. He bundled off the disciples to safety in the less paranoid atmosphere of the lands of Herod's brother Philip, at Bethsaida, while he himself retired to the cave below the cliff where he was accustomed to pray in solitude to the Father. But that night one of the sudden fierce winds characteristic of the Sea of Galilee arose, blowing from the direction of Bethsaida, and Jesus, concerned for the Twelve, hurried down to the lake. This is the mise en scène for the walking on the water. Taking the shortest course to the land, the disciples and their Master made for Gennesaret, where, however, he was once again the target of the crowds, this time carrying their sick with them (Mark 6:54-55). So the group set off for the borders of a largely pagan country, Phoenicia, which lay outside the lands of the petty Jewish subkings altogether.

Here at the midpoint of his ministry, Jesus made a new opening to the Gentiles while at the same time becoming more distanced from the Pharisees. It was probably at the only city on his route, Gischala in northern Galilee, though the name is absent from the Gospels, that Jesus had a serious set-to with the stricter Pharisees. The topic was food laws; Jesus opposed a rigorist interpretation, for only what comes from within can make a person unclean (Mark 7:15). Mark interpreted this exchange to mean that Jesus declared all foods clean an unheard­of challenge to the authority of the Law.

This was the point at which Jesus would come to spend a lengthy period among Gentiles. Phoenicia represented an opening to the pagans. The meeting with the Syro-Phoenician woman, who besought him to cure her sick daughter, though he had been "sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt 15:24), appears to have greatly affected him. Did he think of the words spoken about the Suffering Servant of the Lord in the Book of Isaiah?

"It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back the preserved of Israel. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth" (Isa 49:6).

For Paul, as the "apostle of the Gentiles," such passages of Isaiah notably chapter 53, with its teaching that universal salvation would come through the redemptive death of the Servant of the Lord would be all-important (see 1 Cor 15:1-3; 2 Cor 5:14-21). It seems no accident that Mark describes Jesus as returning at this juncture to the Gentile Decapolis (7:31). The news of the cured demoniac had spread widely and an enthusiastic crowd of pagans awaited him on a hillside by the lake's eastern shore. In a second feeding of the multitude, this sign of the dawning of the messianic era, already worked for Jews, is now renewed for Gentiles who "praised the God of Israel" (Matt 15:29-31). The baskets were seven in number perhaps for the seven heathen peoples mentioned in the Book of Deuteronomy as having once inhabited the Land. The message is that the gates are now thrown open for all nations to enter God's presence.

The increasingly innovative nature of Jesus' behavior was a growing worry to other Jewish parties, and when he arrived back on the western shore of the lake, he was met by Pharisee and Sadducee representatives who asked him for a "sign," a legitimizing confirmation of his mission. He replied that none would be given except the sign of Jonah. In Church tradition this is taken to refer to the resurrection, for just as Jonah was three days in the living tomb of the whale so was Jesus three days in the living tomb of the earth. Originally, however, the "sign of Jonah" may have referred to the conversion, on the occasion of Jonah's preaching, of the pagan city of Nineveh. Jesus is saying that the conversion of the Gentiles will be the sign that the messianic kingdom has come.

In the latter part of the second year of his ministry Jesus visited Jerusalem for the feast of Tabernacles. In the courtyard of the Temple, stimulated by the stirring symbolism of the feast the water carried from the Pool of Siloam for ceremonial lustration of the altar of burnt offerings Jesus spoke of himself, of his own heart, to bystanders in exalted terms as a source of water for all who believe in him (John 7). Naturally, such statements only increased the anxiety of the Sadducee and Pharisee leaders.

Back in Galilee, amid encouraging reactions from pagans, but deepening suspicion from the Jewish movements, Jesus took the disciples on a tour intended for their reeducation. It led them into the subalpine north of Galilee, where the mount of the transfiguration would be the climax of the program. The expedition, which began with a sea-crossing from Caphamaum to Bethsaida, seems to have originated in Jesus' awareness both of a mounting confusion among his disciples and of a resultant thinning out of their ranks. In the discourse on the bread of life, which following the miraculous feeding in John 6, many of the disciples sorrowfully go away. Mark may be alluding to this when he remarks of the beginning of the expedition north that the disciples had forgotten to bring bread save for the one loaf in the boat namely, Jesus himself. At the heart of the reeducation lay concepts of messiahship. The route took them past both Tiberias, a city founded by the Herodians in the honor of the Roman emperor, and, at the opposite pole of the political spectrum, Gamla, seat of the Zealot movement, itself founded by the extreme Pharisee Jehuda of Gamla in A.D. 6. The idea of the Messiah in this northern section of the lake was indeed colored by revolutionary militancy, which explains Jesus' extreme reluctance to allow the disciples to acclaim him as Messiah. He now proposed to enlighten them in a suitably gradual fashion as made clear by the symbolic action of healing a blind man, at Bethsaida, in stages (Mark 8:22-25).

For alongside his public, exoteric teaching lay a private, esoteric message delivered to the disciples alone. The turning-point, beyond which Jesus begins a deeper and more mysterious-sounding instruction of the disciples, is Peter's confession of Jesus' messiahship at Caesarea Philippi. In his response to Peter, Jesus defines his aim as the messianic task of building a living "temple," as on rock, secure against decay, the temple of the last days. He was referring here to the eschatological temple which, in the Hebrew Bible, symbolized the final meeting-place of God and humankind, the site of their definitive communion. In the symbolic thinking of the period, this temple was conceived as miraculous, everlasting, the center of a new heaven and a new earth, the goal of pilgrimage for all nations. How did Jesus understand his role in creating this permanent divine-human communication? As the final revealer of God's will and the agent through whom that will was to be realized, the construction of this temple fell to him personally, but he could not achieve it until first he had become victorious over the anti-God powers at work in the world sin and death and thus been enthroned at God's right hand. At his trial, Jesus was accused of having said, "Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days" (Matt 26:61). Why should that particular statement have been taken as blasphemy? In an oracle from the Second Book of Samuel, God is made to say of the future messianic king:

"He shall build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his reign forever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son" (2 Sam 7:13-14a).

"Forever": originally this was deliberate hyperbole, court rhetoric, but Jesus treated it literally. Unless he had referred to himself as an ever­living or eschatological Messiah, we cannot understand why his disciples, after the first Easter, took the resurrection appearances as proof that their crucified teacher had turned out to be the Christ of Israel, the "once and future king." At his trial before the Sanhedrin, we shall see Jesus refusing to conceal his messianic character for fear of implicitly abandoning this eschatological claim. In any case, now helpless in his enemies' hands, the title "Messiah," "Christ," had lost its liability to political misinterpretation: Jesus would become a suffering Messiah, a Messiah of the Cross. Yet to claim to be Messiah, albeit forever, would not itself be regarded by other Jews as blasphemous. Something more was involved. The last line of the oracle suggests what it was: "I will be his father, and he shall be my son."

Jesus understood his eschatological messianic sonship in a sense entirely his own. He spoke of himself as "the Son," absolutely or unconditionally, and so uniquely. When speaking with the disciples he was always careful to say "my Father and your Father." "Our Father" was what he told the disciples to say, not what he said with them. Part of his unique sonship, as Jesus understood it, was a sharing in the divine prerogatives vis-à-vis creation. From the moment of Peter's confession onwards, we find the two themes of Jesus' messiahship and his cosmic enthronement joined together. In these contexts he often spoke of himself in terms of the figure called the "Son of Man," that angelic representative of suffering Israel, described in the Book of Daniel as receiving glory and power from God to triumph over the forces hostile to his people. This constellation of ideas reoccurs at the climactic moment of Jesus' trial:

"Again the high priest asked him, 'Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?' And Jesus said, 'I am; and you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.' And the high priest tore his mantle and said, 'Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy'" (Mark 14:61-62).

It was as a messianic pretender who also claimed to share in the divine attributes that Jesus was condemned for blasphemy.

After Peter's confession, Jesus' esoteric teaching became an initiation of the disciples into the meaning of his suffering and death. As the Messiah, whose enthronement, itself stunningly supernatural, transcendent, would not come about without his own violent death, he had the power to (as he put it) "ransom" the mortal and the dead. The Son of Man had come "to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45), which is a Semitic way of saying for all not just for a remnant of Israel, but for all Israel; and not just for all Israel, but for all the world. His death and subsequent enthronement would purify the world from sin, and by thus overcoming its alienation from God the Creator give it entry into a new life.

It was under the lee of Mount Hermon, the northernmost point of their journey, that Jesus had thus begun to teach the disciples his understanding of messiahship, entailing as this did identification with a Son of Man who could only be glorious if he was first humiliated and killed (Mark 8:31-32a). Their amazed and negative reaction, vocalized by Peter, was followed by the experience of Christ's transfiguration on the mountain's summit. The disciples were able not only to see their master as belonging to the company of the greatest figures of Israel's history, Moses and Elijah, but also to glimpse something of his deeper mystery. But even after further discussion of his coming passion (Mark 9:31), the whole trip ended up with a debate among the Twelve as to which of them was the greatest, a depressing upshot which prompted Jesus' saying on the necessity of service and of spiritual childhood (Mark 9:35-36). Only serving their fellow human beings and particularly those disregarded by others, the "little ones," would give the Twelve a share in his work and lead to their being honored by the Father who had sent him.

In the discouraging aftermath of the transfiguration, Jesus soon decided to abandon Galilee. He was deeply disappointed with reactions in Korazin, Bethsaida, and Capharnaum, in which he had invested so much hope and energy (Matt 11:20-24); despite admiration, there was little true obedience. His efforts at dialogue with the moderate Pharisees (his friends Simon and Nicodemus were doubtless in this camp) had come to little: these pious men with their insistence on the traditions of the fathers could not accept his interpretation of the Torah. Gradually, the Pharisees at large began to see his popularity as a danger. Likewise those in the northern townships under Zealot influence soon realized that he was no candidate for the kind of messiahship in which they believed. It was easy for them, therefore, to form an unholy alliance with the Herodians to move him on (Mark 3:6). Jesus did move on to Batanea, Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan (cf. John 10:40-42), from where he paid one more visit to Jerusalem, for the feast of the Dedication of the Temple, the last visit before his death. We are now in the last winter of Jesus' life. As during the autumn trip for the feast of Tabernacles, Jesus was moved by the exploitation of the great symbols of the Scriptures in the Temple liturgy; notably, at Hanukkah, the symbolic lights with which the Temple and its precincts were set ablaze led him to declare himself personally identical with the light of the divine glory to which they referred (John 12:1). Once again, the consequences (namely, mounting hostility from the Jewish leaders and their theologians) were entirely predictable. There was a threat of stoning for blasphemy; however, Jesus extricated himself and returned to Bethany beyond the Jordan which was to be his last home.

The Gospels locate three events in the life of Jesus at this Bethany: a controversy, an urgent personal summons of what proved to be a lethal kind, and what we may call a lyrical intermezzo. In this politically peaceful region, ruled by the unambitious tetrarch Philip, Pharisees and Essenes differed on a major socioreligious theme: marriage (the former permitted divorce, the latter did not). Mark, who records Jesus' adjudication in favor of the Essene position, also speaks of the "house" where the disciples pursued this topic further (10:10). We know from the tenth chapter of Luke's Gospel that Jesus had earlier visited the sisters of Lazarus not at the Bethany in the Jerusalem district, where we otherwise find them, but at Bethany-beyond-the­Jordan. It is conjectured that this house, then, was the summer residence of Jesus' friends. This would explain how, from their city home near Jerusalem, they knew of Jesus' hiding place and so could send him the message, "Lord, the one whom you love is sick" (John 11:35). Here we come to an event the raising of Lazarus which, more than any other, set into motion the wheels of enmity against Jesus, bringing him to his death. The hostility of the supreme spiritual authority of Judaism, the high priesthood, which Jesus was soon to incur stands out all the more sharply by contrast with the idyllic scene at Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan word-painted by Matthew and Mark: Jesus blessing children.

The raising of Lazarus this spectacular and well-attended miracle focused the antagonism of the Sanhedrin who resolved to be rid of Jesus. He returned with the disciples to a village, Ephrem, in the desert area some twelve miles north of Jerusalem. From there, according to John, he would make his final entry into Jerusalem. The Synoptic Gospels have Jesus set out from Jericho, further down the valley, as he begins this final journey. The fourth evangelist's account converges with the Synoptics only when they come to describe Jesus' entry into the city, thus leaving those of his readers who knew one or more of the Synoptics to conclude that Jesus and his disciples went down from Ephrem to Jericho. There was indeed a Roman road between the two, making possible a relatively easy ascent from the Jordan valley into the hills where Jerusalem stands. As Jesus passed through Jericho he healed the blind beggar Bartimaeus (and one other, unnamed): beggars would have lined up at this point where the pilgrim routes from north and east converged. Luke tells us how crowds of pilgrims and curious citizens thronged around Jesus so that a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, had to climb a "sycamore" (actually a mulberry­fig) to get a glimpse of him, its dense foliage (the species still flourishes there) concealing him from those beneath. Jesus called him down and invited him to his dwelling with the gripping words, "Salvation has come today to this house" (Luke 19:9a).

Why did Jesus make this detour via Jericho? It may have been to end where he had begun. There at the Jordan his ministry had started. Where the Baptist had been his forerunner, coming to an untimely death as a witness to God's commandments, Jesus would imitate him in his own violent death. In the desolate solitude of the mountain wilderness he had renounced Satan who had offered him "all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them" (Matt 4:8). He could look to the right and left of that road and again see the mountain where he had chosen the way now leading to his death, a death that would also inaugurate God's kingdom, whose glory would outshine those worldly realms. The pilgrims who joined him would be his witnesses as to how he had entered Jerusalem poor and with his majesty unrecognized yet implicitly declaring himself the Messiah of the coming divine reign. Following the Roman road, Jesus climbed over the crest of the Mount of Olives and down into Bethany. We must suppose that the pilgrim crowds learned he would be following their number the next day: many would come out to meet him waving their palm branches in acclamation. Mounting an ass at Bethany, when the worst of the ascent (from a mounted animal's viewpoint!) was over, Jesus descended into the awaiting city. Somewhere on the route, with its wonderful vista, Jesus, "seeing the city, wept over it" (Luke 19:41). The anointing by an unnamed sinner (later identified with Mary Magdalene) is placed by Mark and Matthew after the entry into Jerusalem.

As the Passover approached, Jesus made arrangements for celebrating it with the disciples; it was the last such celebration of his life.

The Death-and beyond

Jesus must have had many friends and admirers in the city, so the choice of venue was an embarras de richesse. His instructions to the disciples on how to find the house he selected were cryptic: he sent two disciples ahead with the words,

"Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you: follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the householder, 'The teacher says, "Where is my guest room [refectory, katalyma] where I am to eat the passover with my disciples?"'

And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready" (Mark 14:13-15). Probably Jesus did not wish Judas to know the site till the last moment, so as to avoid any early warning to the Sanhedrin, whereupon he might be arrested. The water-carrier was in all likelihood a servant sent to fetch fresh water from the Pool of Siloam, by way of substitute for the cistern water in normal domestic use. Eventually, the upper room of Zion, where the disciples gathered on returning from the Mount of Olives after the ascension, came to be regarded as the scene of this Last Supper.

Then, on the last evening of his life, Jesus announced the solemn beginning of a new covenant between God and the world, a covenant made in his death, with his life offered up as a sacrifice of expiation along the lines of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:12, his soul "poured out unto death" for "the sins of many." A crisis stage was coming: an ordeal that would mean Jesus' own death but also the persecution of his followers; intensified suffering for Israel which had, in the main, rejected the public offer of salvation; and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The crisis was to be resolved, however, in the triumph of the Son referred to by Jesus as "the day of the Son of Man," a phrase that is probably the counterpart in the private teaching of the term "the reign of God" in the public proclamation. To anticipate such an exaltation, Jesus must have supposed for himself, after his ordeal, a stupendously transcendent condition, which would be constituted by, on the one hand, his resurrection and ascension, and on the other, his final parousia, the second coming. The two were evidently telescoped in his awareness. The moment of the parousia was, to his consciousness, extraordinarily close. By his work, he was the bearer of God's lordship over time. The whole time of the redemption was as it were concentrated in his person, since where he acts the terms on which the salvational future will proceed are already laid down. During his disciples' missionary journeys, he had seen "Satan fall like lightning from heaven" (Luke 10:18), even though that final victory remained to be accomplished. The disciples shared something of Jesus' consciousness in this regard. Their confidence in the imminence of his return coexisted perfectly happily with their knowledge that Jesus had established an "apostolic succession" for his Church, and had promised to intercede with the Father, so that the Spirit, in whose power he had worked and taught, might come to counsel the apostolic fellowship, both defending them against the last, peculiarly vicious death-throes of the evil powers in their antagonism towards the Church, and leading them into all truth, bringing to mind all he had said to them (what we now call the "development of doctrine"). To ordinary consciousness it would be contradictory both to expect the final outcome of history and to provide for an indefinite future but the disciples did not by now have an ordinary consciousness. They had, instead, begun to share in Jesus' consciousness.

At the Last Supper, Jesus ordered his disciples to celebrate the new covenant, to be made between God and humankind in his blood, by a sacramental re-presentation of his sacrificial death. Equipped with this rite, for as long as the ordeal lasted they would themselves be the eschatological temple in its earthly aspect, the house built on rock, which the power of Hades would try in vain to overcome. The Church, which the disciples constituted in relation to Jesus, would be the mystery of the kingdom, the reign of God, the day of the Son of Man, insofar as that kingdom, reign, day, are already manifested in time. Until the definitive ingathering of the saved at the end of time (the plenary coming of the new heaven and the new earth) the redemptive purposes of Jesus would be incorporated and continued in this community.

Having instituted the sacrificial meal of his own memorial, and sung a hymn, the Messiah went out with his friends onto the Mount of Olives (more precisely, into a garden just across the Cedron, on its lower slopes, an olive orchard where the Gethsemani church stands today). After his agony, endured while the disciples largely slept, noises and lights announced the arrival of the betrayer. Tradition locates the betrayal in the grotto on the edge of the garden, possibly where the eight waited, and the three together with Jesus returned when' Judas and the guards approached. Whereas Mark and Matthew give the impression that the high priest and the elders had merely collected a motley crew with "swords and staves" to apprehend him, Luke and John make it more official: they were Jewish temple police, though John uses a Roman military term. Jesus was taken for a preliminary private hearing of the case against him before the high priest Annas, father­in-law of the reigning high priest of the year, Caiaphas. Only in the morning could a proper judicial sentence be passed by the Sanhedrin, and that in the Temple precincts. In the courtyard of the high priest's house, however, there took place an event recorded by all the evangelists: Peter's denial that he knew Jesus, and his subsequent tears of repentance.

The Sanhedrin condemned Jesus for blasphemy, but in order to win over Pilate stressed the political menace implicit in a Jewish Messiah. As the superscription on the cross "The King of the Jews" shows; Jesus was condemned as a rebel against Roman rule. The hearing took place, and judgment was given in the praetorium either the procurator's palace (originally built by Herod the Great) or the Antonia fortress (also Herodian) where the Via Dolorosa begins today, close by the Franciscan monastery of the scourging of the Lord. According to one tradition at least, it was on the forecourt of the Antonia that Jesus was shown to the people: "Behold the Man!" There he was judged, mocked, crowned with thorns, and scourged while Pilate ceremoniously washed his hands. Though Pilate was seemingly far from convinced that Jesus deserved the death penalty, he swallowed his scruples under the combined pressure of the religious authorities, the ever-hostile tetrarch, Herod, whom he consulted, and the Jerusalem crowd, anxious, in all probability, for their economic position (largely dependent as that was on the employment and prosperity generated by the Temple, whose supersession Jesus had predicted). In the account given by John, the timing of Pilate's judgment is significant.

"In condemning Jesus at noon, the very hour when the Passover lambs began to be killed in the Temple precincts, Pilate fulfills at the end of the Gospel the word spoken about Jesus at the beginning by John the Baptist, identifying him as the lamb of God who would take away the world's sin."[11]

He was led out to Golgotha, the "place of the skull." During the time of the two Jewish wars, the memory of this place essentially an abandoned quarry would be preserved. The emperor Constantine cleared away the pagan temple erected over this "cave of the Redeemer" and built there the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which later excavation shows to have been surrounded by rock tombs. Today within the walls of the Old City, in its own time Golgotha was outside the city wall but close enough for people to see, and reflect upon, the crucifixion victims. The date was, in all probability, Friday, 7 April (14 Nisan) of the year 30 of what would eventually be called the Christian era.

Crucifixion was a widespread penalty in antiquity; among the Romans it was used chiefly on slaves, violent criminals, and the unruly elements in rebellious provinces. Valued for its deterrent effect, it was also an expression of sadism and the lust for) revenge. The public display of a naked victim in a prominent place was linked in the Jewish mind with human sacrifice; hence the horror expressed in Deuteronomy 21:23 at the very thought of such a victim. In this context, the crucified Messiah was a lived demonstration of the solidarity of the love of God with those tortured and put to death by human cruelty.

As we have seen, the significance of that death in Jesus' own mind was strictly salvational. It had absolutely nothing of the character of political adventure. Jesus uses the political significance of his situation, and the possible political consequences of his actions (e.g., the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, mounted on an ass), so as to secure his rejection on his own terms. Only such rejection could set him free to be the Messiah according to the very truth of God's self-revelation. He had foreseen this outcome, and, though dreading it in itself, also welcomed it as the crucial turning-point in the ushering in of the reign of God.

Jesus' body was laid in a "new tomb" by Joseph of Arimathea, a figure otherwise unmentioned in the Gospels. Though privately buried, the corpse of Jesus, which, according to Israel's sacred law was accursed, could not be allowed to contaminate other corpses in a family grave. Given the need for speedy burial before the Sabbath, the choice of a hitherto unused tomb, close to the site of the execution, was understandable. It appears to have been a shaft tomb of a distinctive first­century type. The body was laid in an antechamber, wrapped in linen sweetened with spices. Jesus' corpse was anointed royally, according to John, for he has Joseph and Nicodemus use a simply enormous quantity of myrrh and aloes. Apparently, though, Joseph ran out of time for the full process of embalming; this was noted by various women disciples who looked on, the Twelve having scattered. The tomb was sealed by a circular stone. The spot would eventually be cleared, and the rock cut away to allow access and, not least, scope for building; by the late third century the actual tomb would be wholly encased in a round church of its own. But this would dignify no sacred remains. For, in all the Synoptic accounts, on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene and some other women went with fresh embalming materials to the tomb of Jesus and found the stone rolled away. A young man (or two, sometimes presented "angelogically" as a divine messenger or messengers) explained, "He is raised; he is not here."

The resultant resurrection faith is linked to the events of the ministry for two reasons. First, it confirms the claim of authority made by the pre-Easter Jesus, and second, it reveals the latter's unity with God, and so God's unique presence in him. After his death, and counter to all natural possibility, Jesus' disciples experienced him as returning to them. At the first Easter they encountered him with all the characteristics of a real human being, only now he was beyond the common frontiers of human experience as though in a new life. They felt obliged to regard his personality as somehow continuous with that of God himself, and, though strict monotheists (believers in one God alone), worshipped him with the titles "Lord" and "God." For his part, he finalized their instruction on continuing his mission until the Easter encounters ceased with the overwhelming spiritual experience of Pentecost: the pouring out of the Spirit of God, now experienced as the Spirit of both Father and Son.

The Christian religion thus began when, all human hopes, enthusiasm, and comradeship annihilated, the disciples of Jesus were involved in certain events on the morning after the Sabbath of his entombment in a garden outside Jerusalem, and either concurrently or at some subsequent point by the Sea of Galilee, in an upper room in Jerusalem, and on the road to an unimportant Judaean village called Emmaus. The Catholic Church, as a reality that may be studied by the historian, began with an empty tomb. Whatever construction the historian may put on the fact, it started with an extraordinary transformation of the broken and distraught friends and disciples of the crucified. They were changed into men and women blazing with confidence that God, in a manner beyond the gropings and imaginings of the human spirit, had "visited" (i.e., acted upon) history. It began with some such words, reported by the eyewitnesses, as "I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen as he said" (Matt 28:5-6); "Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen" (Luke 24:5). The truth-claims of Catholic Christianity are those of an interpretation of history. We are invited to say of this history which the Church lives by repeating it in preaching, in the sacraments, and in the prayer whereby she communes with her risen master whether it is based on a mistake or is just an insoluble enigma, or whether the career of Jesus was in fact extended, by the grace of a power thus disclosed as the Spirit of his Father, into a new and limitless future with God, a future in which our human nature has at last found its hidden meaning, thus making superfluous all humankind's other faiths and ideologies.

To the critical reader the discrepancies in the scriptural accounts of the appearances of the risen Jesus have sometimes seemed as notable as their points of contact. Yet without straining the evidence, some kinds of order may be introduced into the apparent chaos. For instance, all the gospel accounts narrate the same basic sequence of events, though they differ on their location. The same elements are always there: a situation where Jesus' followers are bereft, an appearance of Jesus, his greeting, their recognition, his word of command or mission. Moreover, the geographical complexity of the appearances Galilee or Jerusalem is not so off-putting as it might seem. The Jerusalem appearances, so Père M. J. Lagrange suggested, were chiefly intended to convince and reassure the disciples. The Galilee appearances were principally meant to link their minds to memories of the past. For the risen Christ is the glorified earthly Jesus, just as the earthly Jesus was the one destined to be the glorified risen Christ. There is no contradiction between the historian's Jesus and the Church's Jesus (whom we shall be contemplating in a moment).

If the majority of the resurrection appearances took place in Galilee, why then did the apostles return to Jerusalem? Because as observant Jews, they would naturally have gone up to the holy city for the next pilgrimage feast, "Weeks" or Pentecost. It was in Jerusalem, on that feast, that there took place an overwhelming manifestation of the Spirit they had received from the risen Christ. Now the Twelve through Peter began to proclaim the good news they perceived in faith. God had fulfilled his promises to Israel in Jesus whose crucifixion was not a defeat, for God had raised him and thus stamped his message and life with the seal of divine approval.

An ultimate agnosticism about the resurrection requires one to consign to the realm of the inexplicable the origins of the major transformation of the Greco-Roman world whose heirs we are. If we are not prepared to countenance the Church's own account of her beginning, with the reversal that turned Jesus' disciples, that smashed and headless group, into missionary apostles, we shall be hard pressed to make sense of the new Christian element running like quicksilver through the Mediterranean basin and beyond. Some would have it, with Goethe, that "They are celebrating the resurrection of the Lord for they themselves are resurrected." But what "they" (the disciples) in fact experienced was fear and doubt, and what awakened joy and jubilation was something other than themselves. They were the ones marked out by death, but the crucified and buried one was alive. We can put it like this: Those who survived him were the dead; the dead one was the Living.

The triumphant return to life of the Lord Jesus has been deemed "not proven" by many who have approached it with an historian's eye. Yet the faith-account handed down in the living witness of the' Church of all generations remains a plausible construction of the evidence. Moreover, the kind of event that faith-witness depicts is, importantly, one open to public scrutiny, one that would submit to falsification. The discovery of the skeletal remains of Jesus along the lines of a celebrated novel by Piers Paul Read-would surely falsify (i.e., disprove) the Christian faith. It is, on an orthodox view of that faith, an intrinsic feature of the divine sacrifice by which the Father sent his Son on his mission of liberation that God freely made himself vulnerable to human beings, even in the very truth-claims of his own self-revelation.


There was once a man, within historical times, who, as a child of the Jewish people, knew only of one God of heaven and earth, of a unique Father in heaven, and stood in reverential awe before this heavenly Father; a man whose meat was to do the will of this Father, who from his earliest youth in good and bad had sought and loved this will alone, whose whole life was one prayer; a man, further, whose whole being was so firmly united with this Divine will, that by its omnipotence he healed the sick and restored the dead to life; a man, finally, who was so intimately and exclusively dedicated to this will, that he never swerved from it, so that not even the slightest consciousness of sin ever oppressed him, so that never a cry for penance and forgiveness passed his lips, so that even in dying he begged pardon not for himself but for others. And this man from the intimacy of his union with God could say to afflicted mortals, "Thy sins are forgiven thee." And it was this holy man, utterly subject as he was to God throughout his whole life, absorbed as he was in God, awestruck as he stood before him, who asserted, as if it were the most natural and obvious thing in the world, that he was to be the judge of the world at the last day, that he was the suffering servant of God, nay more, that he was the only-begotten Son of God and consubstantial with him, and could say of himself, "I and the Father are one."[12]

The mystery of Jesus is so deep that it has taken a number of New Testament interpretations of it to constitute the New Testament canon, to satisfy the Church that she has in the Scriptures an adequate written basis for her future. Theologians, mystics, poets, and artists down the ages have all made their attempts to plumb Jesus' mystery. Of course, part of Jesus' elusiveness comes from the fact that we today do not share the dominant ideas and symbols of the particular culture in which he was born. But if a redemptive incarnation were to take place at all, it had to happen in some particular culture, and so there had to be a risk and more than a risk, a moral certainty that with distance in space and time the form of the redemptive incarnation would become harder to identify with and, so to understand. The role of the Paraclete or Counsellor, promised by Jesus, is to overcome this problem by leading the disciples into all truth, which means first and fore­most all the essential truth about Jesus Christ.

To the Catholic Christian, the Jesus Christ of the Church's dogma is this infallible portrait of the incarnate Redeemer, an interpretation of the New Testament materials made under the leading of the Holy Spirit, so that the community of the kingdom, constructed on the basis of the Holy Eucharist, will appreciate the essentials of that person who is the kingdom's center and really present in its Eucharistic feast. The Christ of dogma, the Christ of the Church, is an unerring interpretation of what was given in and with the Jesus of history We seek the history, therefore (using the tools of scholarship), in the context of the Church's tradition, just as we also seek the personal origin of the Church's tradition within scholarly history. If we differentiate the two it is only for the purpose of revealing more clearly their interconnection.

Once ... we accept the faith perspective of the authors of the New Testament and the judgement of the Church which has canonized this apostolic faith response as a witness guaranteed by God, a new avenue of knowing the reality of Jesus is opened up for us. This faith is then pursued not merely as a safeguard against reducing the figure of Jesus to pre-fabricated clichés, but as a positive hermeneutical tool which can answer the question raised by the quest for the historical Jesus: who is this man? We also begin to understand that it is not a great tragedy for us in fact it might be providential that we do not have personal writings by Jesus himself (or transcripts of his discourses for that matter). God's intention was to bring a community of faith around Jesus so that the understanding of Jesus would become inseparable from accepting the witness of this archetypal community. In fact, the reality of Jesus, "who he was and what he intended," or more precisely, who he was in God's plan of salvation and what God revealed to us through his person, deeds, and words, becomes accessible to us only through the divinely guaranteed documents of the apostolic Church, that is, the New Testament. If Jesus wanted to reach all humankind through a community whose faith, life, and ritual are to continue the faith, life, and ritual of this archetypal apostolic community, then the fact that Jesus himself authored no book or letter makes complete sense. If Jesus' reality could be reached without the faith response embodied in the documents of the apostolic Church, an individualistic relationship between isolated individual believers and Jesus would become a distinct possibility. Then our faith would not necessarily be an ecclesial faith.[13]



11. R. Brown, The Death of the Messiah (London, 1994) 1.34.

12. K. Adam, The Son of God (New York, 1934) 203.

13. R. Kereszty, "Historical Research, Theological Inquiry, and the Reality of Jesus: Reflections on the Method of J. P. Meier," Communio 19 (1992) 595.

Copyright ©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 27th April 2010

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Fr Aidan Nichols

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