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Images of Jesus

Written by Prof Johan Malan.

Abstract: In the historical Jesus invented by certain theologians the Deity of the true Jesus is denied.

The Person of Jesus Christ – his identity and position as a historical figure, his Deity and the way in which he is worshipped by Christians – is once again a hotly disputed subject in many circles, including theological faculties and seminaries. A strong movement has been built around the deceptive idea that the historical Jesus (the so-called real Jesus) is to be clearly distinguished from the mythic Jesus or cultic Jesus who is worshipped in the Christian Church.

A very shocking fact about the present campaign against Jesus Christ of the Bible is that many of the leading theologians in university faculties of theology are actively supporting it by questioning established ‘dogmatic’ views about Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. In the process of ‘discovering’ the historical Jesus they are stripping the preached Jesus of his Deity in an effort to reconcile the two images of him.

An evangelical Christian who takes a strong stand against this campaign is Dr. Douglas Groothuis. In his book Searching for the Real Jesus (1996) he says the following in Chapter 2, titled The Demoted Deity of the Jesus Seminar:

“Academics are not usually known for theatrics, but for scholarship. The ivory tower looks down on Hollywood’s endless antics of self-promotion, glamour, and propaganda. Or so we thought. A group of New Testament scholars calling themselves the Jesus Seminar has recently flooded the media with controversial views of Jesus. The group was formed in 1985 with the express purpose of educating the uneducated Christian concerning what ‘scholarship’ could tell us of the New Testament and Jesus. As seminar member John Dominic Crossan put it, the ‘search for the historical Jesus has started to reach out beyond scholarship and not just into the pew and pulpit, but into the popular press and onto the television screen as well.’ “The real Jesus, they assure us, is not the Jesus of traditional piety, but a counter-cultural figure whom the church must learn to take seriously. Robert Funk, the mastermind and leading advocate of the Seminar, says, ‘We want to liberate Jesus. The only Jesus people want is the mythic one. They don’t want the real Jesus. They want one they can worship. The cultic Jesus.’ Roy Hoover, another prominent member of the Seminar, cuttingly remarks that its mission is to ‘rescue Jesus from the spin doctors’ who composed the Gospels.”

Unisa’s contribution

Theologians of the University of South Africa (Unisa) have recently made a very strong contribution to the debate about Jesus. They adopted the approach of the Jesus Seminar in the USA in their efforts to construct an image of the historical Jesus. They either question, distort or disregard the Bible as a reliable source of information. Mostly, they exploited other sources of knowledge about Jesus. Research on this topic by Unisa’s Institute for Theology and Religion was co-ordinated in 1997 by arranging a conference about Jesus. The various papers were subsequently published under the title Images of Jesus, edited by Prof. C.W. du Toit, Director of the Institute. The following is a short review of some of the chapters in this book:

In Chapter 1, Prof. A.G. van Aarde (Univ. of Pretoria) refers to the Jesus to whom Christians pray as if they are praying to God. He says that church fathers such as Clement and Ignatius followed this practice but that the New Testament mostly has reservations in referring to Jesus as God. Van Aarde says that it is also problematic to call Jesus Christ. He quotes Den Heyer (Opnieuw: Wie is Jezus?, 1996) who describes Jesus as “the Messiah who didn’t want to be a Messiah.” It is alleged that Jesus didn’t regard himself as the Christ, the Son of man, the Son of God, or as God. Neither did his contemporaries do so. Van Aarde concludes that the writers of the New Testament, the church fathers, and the compilers of the 4th century confessions assigned all these titles to Jesus.

The chapter by Prof. C.W. du Toit is titled: Fictitious transfigurations of Jesus: Images of Jesus in literature. His point of departure is that it is impossible to really know the historical Jesus since the Jesus of history is confused with the Jesus of faith. Du Toit says that the Jesus of faith can’t take precedence over the historic Jesus. He doesn’t regard the traditional Christian theology as an important source about Jesus since it is restricted by dogma and confessions. The novel, on the other hand, is free and can pose critical and challenging questions which are of great value to theology, though they are uncomfortable to the God of dogma and confessions. Among the good examples of such presentations of Jesus he mentions the novel The last temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis. In many other novels Jesus is depicted as comrade Jesus who is a political activist.

In the chapter From Galilee to Hollywood: Jesus on the screen, Prof. J. Engelbrecht of Unisa discusses the life of Jesus as a film star. He refers to various films about Jesus such as King of kings, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, The last temptation of Christ, and Jesus of Montreal. The public outrage against the unbiblical and blasphemous nature of some of these films is answered as follows by Engelbrecht:

“Many of the findings of the Jesus Seminar and other scholars are denounced by churches, and will either not be heard in churches or be heard only by way of dismissal… In my view, the Jesus film has more than one role to play. First, in a secular world where the church and the Bible no longer have the importance in many people’s lives that they had a generation or two ago, the story of Jesus on film may again introduce audiences… to the Man of Galilee. But then we should not frown upon modern or contemporary interpretations of him. Second, present-day interpretations of him might aid in freeing modern-day sceptics, as well as fundamentalists, from the literal approach to the Bible, and the Gospels in particular…”

Jesus in the world religions is the title of a chapter by Mr. G.A. van den Heever of Unisa. He says that the ‘constructed’ figure of Jesus Christ is quite at home in the world of religions as it bears resemblance with the mediator mythologies of other religions. Jesus is compared with Buddha, Zoroaster and Krishna, and the conclusion is made that his experiences and claims are repetitions of those encountered in other religions. One of the paragraphs in this comparative study reads as follows:

“In Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity there is a powerful belief that God visits humankind in a human body. Both Buddha and Jesus are believed to have a pre-existence. In both traditions there is some uncertainty as to the finality of Sakyamuni and Jesus – in Buddhism we find a belief in Buddha Maitreya who is yet to come, while in Christianity there is the belief in the second coming of Christ. Both the Buddha and Jesus are reputed to be of royal lineage and are also supplied with long genealogies (which have strong analogies). One outstanding feature of Buddhism is its concern for the salvation of the entire human race and its missionary zeal in spreading the dharma throughout the whole world, a feature mirrored in Christianity with Jesus’ missionary charge to his disciples and the missionary zeal of Christianity itself. The universalist view of Christ’s relevance for humankind is in agreement with the Buddhist view that Buddha became incarnate for the salvation of the entire human race.”

Van den Heever ends his contribution with a strong plea for a multi-religious consideration of the position and role of Jesus, which may be a logical conclusion of a book of this nature:

“If it is true that the ‘construction’ of Jesus in early Christianity is similar to that of Buddha, Zoroaster and Krishna, then one needs to give an answer to the question of what possible gain there could be in a comparative venture such as this… Encountering early Christianity and its ‘constructed’ saviour in its strangeness as an Oriental religion must surely open Christians to new and often unexpected ways to ‘construct’ Jesus Christ. This is especially relevant in the debate about contextualising Christianity in the African context. But more than this, it should encourage Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus towards a healthier, more tolerant interchange on the cultural and religious front. However much we like to believe in our own uniqueness, we drink from the same wells.”

The real Jesus

The real Jesus is not the historical Jesus of modern scholarship who is stripped of all the aspects of His divine being and reduced to an ordinary prophet without cross or gospel. Neither did He deny that He was the Son of God and left it to his later followers and worshippers to proclaim Him as such (see Mt. 26:63-64; Jn. 5:17-18). By degrading the Jesus of faith to a mortal man who shunned his divine mission, the modern-day scribes are siding with their first-century peers who almost unanimously rejected the claim that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God. By so doing they fulfilled a prophecy referring to the spiritual ruin of the adversaries of Jesus: “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against.” (Lk. 2:34)

Groothuis (op. cit.) says, in reaction to a similar campaign by the Jesus Seminar:

“Jesus is not an ambiguous ink blot upon which we project our pet theories, hopes, or fears. He is a living reality who can be mastered by no one, since He is the Master of the universe. He challenges every counterfeit with His genuineness, every distortion with His veracity… The cross remains a fact of history, and the gospel continues to be the only means of setting people free. (Jn. 8:31-32)”
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