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Was Jesus a Liberal or a Conservative?


Ken Herman

San Diego, California


When we read the canonical gospels, i.e. the 4 gospels selected for the Christian Bible, we note that some of the controversies revealed in those documents revolve around the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. “Who do others say that I am?” is one question that Jesus asks of his followers, only to follow it up with “And who do You say that I am?” Was this man called Jesus just an itinerant preacher or was he a learned rabbi? Was he a prophet in the image of Amos or John the Baptizer? Was he the re-appearance of some former Biblical great such as Elijah of Jeremiah? Was he speaking a divine message or one of his own devising? Was his appearance the fulfillment of some prophecy?

And if these questions were hot topics during his life, how much more did they matter following his death? Many scholars see the questions about Jesus’ identity in the New Testament to be a mirror of actual debates within factions of the early Christian movement.

As religious liberals, it is tempting to cast the Jesus figure according to our own ideals and predilections. Like our fundamentalist cousins, we too can rummage through the Scriptures and piece together the texts and images that appeal to us. I am going to suggest another approach, one that is comprehensive rather than reductive.

My thesis is this: that the whole gamut of Jesus personae can be discerned in the canonical and non-canonical gospels, and that keeping all of them in balance is more helpful that a reductionism that fits today’s agenda. This is not, of course, a traditional Christian approach. Reductionism—also known as the press for orthodoxy—can be seen at work as early as the mid-second century. And by the time the Christian church was to become legitimate in the eyes of the Roman state (c. 325 C.E.), these pressures increased. For this emerging church, about to become the religion of the state and take on ITSELF characteristics of that highly organized and codified state, Jesus’ identity could neither be fluid nor multiple. Of greatest importance was the question of Jesus’ relationship to God. It was not enough for the bishops (all males, of course) who gathered at the Council of Nicea to assert that Jesus was favored by God, or that he was attuned to God’s will or that he was even a unique servant of the Most High. At Nicea, the Trinitarian solution prevailed, and Jesus was “begotten, not created”; “of one substance with the Father.” He was begotten before all of Creation: “light from light.” That Jesus taught, preached, performed miracles, rebuked and forgave sinners—all of this is found in the Scriptures. But these aspects of his person were not the required beliefs for Christian identity.

The Trinitarian definition held for the most part up until the time of the Reformation, when the more progressive minds of that movement began to question the 4th-century solution. Unitarians went back to the words of the New Testament, and finding no justification for the doctrine of the Trinity, rejected it in favor of a picture of Jesus that was closer to the N.T. texts. Soon the Enlightenment took a fresh look at Biblical sources, and a new mode of biblical criticism, the so-called Higher Criticism was born. By the time the 19th century rolled around, scholars and theologians were on the trail of what they called “the historical” Jesus.

From our vantage point of the early 21st century, we are fortunate that a lot of this unearthing has been done for us. The most recent trends in historical Jesus studies have posited him at opposite ends of the political/religious spectrum. In some liberal Christian and secular studies, the latest version of “the historical” Jesus is Jesus as political revolutionary. This is the Jesus who stormed the sacred precincts of the Temple courtyard and literally threw out the money-changers with whips and chains. He is the rabble-rouser who preached the overthrow of the oppressive Roman government and the Jewish toadies who carried out the will of Rome. He is the political threat that the Jewish High Priests dragged before the Roman ruler Pilate and proclaimed that this would-be usurper represented grave danger to Rome’s rule of this remote province at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. This Jesus had only political goals, and he was crucified for gathering an insurgency.

At the other end of the spectrum are scholars, some Christian and some Jewish, who recast the image of Jesus as the orthodox Jew. This Jesus remained an observant Jew his entire life, preached to his fellow-Jews about his Davidic mission to bring about renewal to Jews and light to the Gentile world—through a reformed Judaism. Like Jesus’ older brother, usually called James the Just, leader of the Jerusalem Church, this Jesus would not have been at all pleased with St. Paul’s relaxation of Jewish Law, notably the law of circumcision and the requirements of kosher food preparation and eating. This is the Jesus who, in Matthew’s Gospel, for example, says that he has not come to change even “one jot or tittle” of the Law, to use the quaint King James phraseology.

The 19th-century Transcendentalists preferred the picture of Jesus the teacher, the one who reformed and redefined the Divine teaching. This was the Jesus who began many of his proclamations with, “You have heard it said ... , but I say unto you.” This is the Jesus who was the liberal reviser, the one who—when confronted with his own followers’ failure to keep the Torah requirements of Sabbath observance, blithely retorted that the Sabbath was made FOR humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.

There was the 1970s Jesus of the clown and prankster, the one given his own musical “Godspel.” This Jesus confronted the establishment caught up in its own rules and piety; he wanted to let people be themselves and let their hair down, as he was doing and clearly enjoying. This is the Jesus of the New Testament who proclaimed with little concern for balancing his checkbook or keeping up the IRA contributions: “Consider the lilies of the field. They toil not, neither do they spin, yet their heavenly Father cares for them. Are you any less than these?”

Our Christian Science friends appear to have a stranglehold on Jesus the healer, the one who was the channel to divine healing over earthy ills and limitations. And no doubt you could fill out this list with many more examples.

My reading of the many gospels and other Christian literature tells me that pinning down one image or icon of Jesus is dangerous. Who knows when you may need one of the other ones? In truth, there is evidence for Jesus across the whole spectrum of liberal and conservative, from orthodox to rabble-rouser. He called for a righteousness “exceeding that of the Scribes and Pharisees,” yet broke all of the laws by talking with women in public as equals, healing Gentiles and members of their household, and having dinner with prostitutes and tax-collectors, among other things. He may not have known the extent of his own mission, but he followed his calling faithfully unto the end.

I had a high-school history teacher whose motto was “If you keep an open mind, people will throw a lot of trash in it.” Cute, but not helpful! I think in the case of a picture of Jesus of Nazareth, an open mind, and a receptive heart are the two main requirements for spiritual growth.



© 2006 American Unitarian Conference