Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Jesus and the Kingdom: Three Paradigms (Part 2)

Paradigm 1. Jesus as the proclaimer of the kingdom.

One line of thought holds that Jesus is the key messenger who proclaims the kingdom in life and deed. He might, for example, be best understood in the mode of a Hebrew a prophet. Like Amos, called away from his farming gig, Jesus receives a specific prophecy that may not have much to do with his personal characteristics or previous vocation. In his prophetic vocation, Jesus' message points beyond the messenger to a greater, more encompassing reality, whether that reality is understood primarily in ethical, socio-cultural or eschatological terms. The message itself is what matters; the messenger, not so much. So too if Jesus' significance rests exclusively in his roles as preacher and teacher.

Anonymous Cynic Philosopher

Though this attempt to draw a strong distinction between message and messenger seems fairly marginal in the history of Christian thought, such accounts have been more frequent since the Enlightenment. A fairly straightforward and dramatic example of this approach would be Thomas Jefferson literally snipping out the miracle stories from the Gospels and retaining what he understood to be Jesus' core ethical teachings. Recent years have seen new, revisionist proposals for interpreting Jesus primarily in terms of his example, teaching and praxis. John Dominic Crossan, a leading voice in the Jesus Seminar, provides a fascinating and provocative portrayal of Jesus as a radically egalitarian, counter-cultural and peripatetic teacher analogous to a wandering Cynic sage. My interest here is not in that portrait per se but rather in Crossan's clear rejection of the notion Jesus proclaimed himself as the gateway to the kingdom: Crossan sees Jesus' kingdom as a radically anti-institutional and anti-hierarchical form of liberated human social existence available, in principle, at any time or place. He writes:
The Kingdom of God was not, for Jesus, a divine monopoly exclusively bound to his own person. It began on the level of the body and appeared as a shared community of healing and eating -- that is to say, of spiritual and physical resources available to each and all without distinctions, discriminations, or hierarchies (p. 113).
Further, Crossan writes, anticipating my typology beautifully:
The historical Jesus was a peasant Jewish Cynic....And lest he himself be interpreted as simply the new broker of a new God, he moved on constantly, settling down neither at Nazareth nor at Capernaum. He was neither broker nor mediator but, somewhat paradoxically, the announcer that neither should exist between humanity and divinity or between humanity and itself.
Now, Crossan's unwashed peasant agitator may seem a far cry from Jefferson's enlightened moralist, but what interests me here is the formal similarity vis-a-vis how Jesus relates to the kingdom. Whatever form it might take, if we accept this paradigm -- we might call it, following Kierkegaard, "Jesus as small-t teacher" -- most traditional christological problems simply dissolve in its wake. Accessing the meaning of such a Jesus doesn't require us to wait for Constantine to convene the bishops at Nicea.

From the standpoint of historical scholarship, the question becomes: How does the interpreter account for the personal veneration Jesus himself receives throughout the New Testament witness and subsequent history of Christian belief and worship? Rudolf Bultmann offers the classic formulation of this hermeneutical problem: "He who formerly had been the bearer of the message was drawn into it and became its essential content. The proclaimer became the proclaimed--but the central question is: In what sense?" (p. 33). Crossan and other like-minded scholars who make liberal use of the hermeneutic of suspicion tend to read the development of ideas of Jesus' dignity and uniqueness largely as a process of wish fulfillment that occludes and distorts the Nazarene's original radically socio-political message. However one sorts out these challenges, it is clear that constructive christology has much more than a merely historical interest riding on them.
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Works Cited:

Bultmann, Rudolf, Theology of the New Testament: Complete in One Volume (New York, Prentice Hall, 1970).

Crossan, John Dominic, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994).

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