On today's post, Father Steve explores a review of recent scholarship in regards to Jesus as presented by Adam Gopnik in the The New Yorker magazine. He comments on the relatively new tendency to project our own historical assumptions onto early biblical texts.
When I began my bibilical and theological studies many years ago I was encouraged to understand the presentation of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark as an example of a low Christology. A low Christology is a representation of Jesus that places a high priority on his human nature. This emphasis is contrasted with a high Christology that stresses his divine nature. For those who are unfamiliar with the Church’s understanding of Christ, we believe that Jesus is the singular example of a divine and human nature sharing communion in one divine person. Thus, Christ is both God and human, and the relationship between the divine and human natures in Christ is “without confusion or change, division or separation.” Despite Chalcedon’s insistence that we not confuse or separate what God had joined, there is a perennial temptation to do precisely this, placing one nature over against the other.
I soon realized that the emphasis on Mark’s alleged low Christology was part of what I can only describe as an ideological construal of the presentation of Christ in the New Testament. According to this system of convictions, a low Christology was the more authentic expression of the so called “Jesus movement”- which meant those earliest of Christians who predated the Church and its later doctrinal and liturgical formulations. To further make this case, Mark’s version of Jesus was placed in contrast with the elevated understanding of Jesus presented in the Gospel of John, which we were told, was written much later, and therefore represented ideas about Jesus which were not normative for the earliest disciples and would have likely been unknown to Jesus himself. Given all this, it seemed that the contemporary believer was faced with a decision: Was the real Jesus, that is, the Jesus of history, the human figure of Mark’s Gospel or the divine representation of John’s narrative? What was at stake was more than just a preference, but living with the fact that there just could be a rupture between the so called Jesus of history and the Christ proclaimed by the Church. The strictures of Chalcedon could no longer hold, Jesus could not be “both/and”, he had to be “either/or”.
Unless, perhaps, if the premise underlying the whole presupposition regarding Mark’s Gospel was incorrect.
Mark’s Gospel is presented in modern scholarship as the earliest of the four canonical Gospels. Because of its early composition it is often presented as being closer to the truth about the real Jesus than the other three, a privileged route of access to the historical Jesus that has not been obscured by the later doctrinal interpolations scattered throughout the other three Gospels. Therefore, it seems, at least according to the standard of its apparently more ancient provenance, we can take Mark’s presentation of Jesus with greater seriousness in terms of its historical reliability. This preference for Mark’s Gospel is exhibited by Adam Gopnik in his May 24th article entitled, “What Did Jesus Do: Reading and Unreading the Gospels,” published in The New Yorker
Gopnik’s article is meant as a review of recent books about Jesus, all of which share in common an attempt to not only retrieve for us a historically reliable portrait of the man from Nazareth, but to cast shadows of doubt over the Christ proclaimed by the Church. This review requires eight pages and surveys at least eight books about Jesus all of which share the conviction that the Christ of faith obscures the real man. As far as the reasons for this predicament, let the readers themselves discern, but the conclusion we are encouraged to reach in this regard is that the faithful have been deceived. The truth is out there so to speak, as long as we heed the advice and warnings of these scholars and avoid the mistake that the Church has made in its insistence that real Jesus is curiously and wondrously, both God and man.
Back to that underlying presumption concerning what is considered to be the most ancient of the Gospels and therefore the most reliable: the Gospel of Mark. What about its so-called “human” Jesus and its “low Christology"?
Gopnik begins his review with a consideration of Mark’s description of the Baptism of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel haunts his whole piece. He takes Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ baptism, as many scholars do, as an indication of its low Christology. The scene is interpreted as presenting to Jesus an identity that would have caught him completely by surprise. And despite the revelation that Jesus is God’s beloved son, one need not presume that this means the Son
, that is, the second person of the Trinity. Perhaps. But I don’t buy the assertion that this scene in particular, or Mark’s Gospel in general, has anything at all to offer in terms of a “low” Christology. Yes, what we have is a very human Jesus, but this human Jesus is speaking and acting much like the God described in the Old Testament, a startling fact that a careful reader of both the Old and new Testaments might pick up if invited to read the Gospel in relation to the theological culture which gave rise to Mark’s narrative. Mark’s Jesus is the “one whom the winds and the seas obey” and who leaves those who meet him “amazed and afraid.” The primary actor in Mark’s drama is the God of Israel who also happens to be Jesus.
The Gospel begins with an announcement that Jesus is God’s beloved Son, and there is no reason to believe that this revelation was for Jesus, but was to clarify his relationship to the God of Israel to the one who baptized him, and as such, to Israel. And as the narrative of the God’s beloved Son progresses, we come to the conclusion that what Mark presents here is a theological interpretation of how the messianic expectations of Israel come to be fulfilled in an extraordinary way, not simply by the man Jesus, but by the God of Israel, who has done something entirely unexpected- become human himself. As far as Mark’s stark conclusion with Jesus’ cry of forsakenness, and the proclamation of the Roman centurion which attests to Jesus’ divinity, all this makes the story of this odd messiah stranger still. The God of Israel dies and is buried, and though rejected and unrecognized by his own people, a Gentile can see what Israel could not or would not see.
No need for a “low” Christology here or even a contrasting “high” Christology. What we have in Mark’s Gospel is precisely the point that would be made centuries after it was written by Chalcedon. In other words, I would say that it is much more likely than not that the earliest followers of Jesus saw no rupture between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. That rupture came later- much later. It is our predicament and we have been projecting it back into the Gospels for at least a hundred years. The books presented by Gopnik, and I gather from his commentary, Gopnik himself, are caught up in this invented dilemma. Instead of presenting to us the “real” Jesus, they present the ambivalence of modernity in regards to the Church’s testimony about who Jesus really is.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.