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Chapter 5. A unique, trustworthy portrait

The only portrayal of Jesus I recall making any impact upon me when I was young was Epstein's huge 'Majestas' statue above the entrance to the choir of Llandaff Cathedral. In contrast to the bland and sentimental images in stained glass windows I knew, here was a powerful manly figure of noble, mysterious splendour. Yet, it was the same Jesus portrayed. Forty years after first seeing the 'Majestas', it still inspires me. It taught me that an image portrays more than a person's appearance. It also expresses an opinion about the subject, presented with a clear purpose in mind.


No likeness of Jesus was made in his lifetime, though there are legends about this being done. The tradition of depicting him with long dark hair and a beard goes back seventeen hundred years. The Gospels say nothing about his physical appearance. They just report his words and deeds, and the impact he had on people. The storyteller's art captures moments of importance and highlights occasional significant detail. The choice of words and incidents gives a view of Jesus from the angle which interests the narrator. In the same way, we use stories and pictures to tell others what we want them to know about us. A photograph album or a sketch book may give several portrayals of someone at a wedding, lazing on the beach, standing on a mountain top, or cuddling the children. We recognise them in different guises, which accumulate to convey a broader idea of who they are.


It is remarkable how similar are the portrayals of Jesus in each Gospel. So much so, that discrepancies are conspicuous. The first Christian story tellers dedicated their art to presenting Jesus. They didn't need to embroider the tale to impress their audience, it was already remarkable enough. The believers guarded jealously the memory of all that happened, and what Jesus taught. The testimony of the original eye-witnesses was their guarantee of authenticity. The New Testament letter writers had to experiment with words to express adequately what the life and death of Jesus meant to them. Old conventional phrases to exalt a religious hero were no longer adequate. The evangelists stress Jesus’ compassion and forthrightness. They understate the miraculous. Unusually, from the start, telling the story of Jesus is associated with restraint and creativity.


Sceptics see discrepancies between similar Gospel stories as evidence of unreliability, but this variety in the Gospels speaks more eloquently of attempts to tell the same story to people of different backgrounds in ways that will challenge them. There are obvious discrepancies which do not make sense, attributable to human error in text copying. Their relative infrequency testifies to the accuracy with which ancient scribes worked.


Inconsistencies between versions of Gospel stories due neither to copying error nor to adaptation by story tellers do exist, however. Some stories seem to have been left in a rather untidy form. Why? Communities may have preserved faithfully stories they received without being able to verify them. Some textual flaws may reveal a stubborn resistance to tampering with a story as received. I first encountered this tendency in obscure variations of folk song lyrics long before I ever grappled with biblical texts. A certain perverse pride can be taken in not changing what has been handed down, even when it doesn’t make sense, and needs amendment.


Eye-witnesses to events never tell exactly the same story. Each one notices things differently from their vantage point. There is no perfect picture of what happened. Go through the Gospels and note the parts that do not read coherently. Chances are that it has been like this since very early on in transmission, that a community preferred to let witnesses speak for themselves from an untidy text. This makes it difficult to grasp for a generation like ours with mathematical notions of accuracy.


When we consider the portrayals of Jesus in the Gospels, descriptions like 'honest' and 'faithful' are better than 'precise' and 'accurate'. We narrow and focus attention to observe and describe things scientifically. Terms like precision and accuracy matter in evaluating scientific efforts. Honesty and fidelity are criteria belonging to the more complex realm of describing human relationships. The Gospels show different aspects of who Jesus is. They introduce us to the kind of relationship we can make with him. St Paul states in his letter to the Romans, that faith comes by hearing the Gospel (Romans 10:17) the story heard awakens faith, and initiates a relationship with its subject. Despite anomalies and discrepancies, a trustworthy portrait of Jesus emerges.


The birth stories of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke do not give historically verifiable information about his origins and identity. Luke's historical background details do not cross-check with information from contemporary sources. Detailed accuracy, however, is not Luke's aim. He seeks to identify Jesus as a person with a special origin and destiny who does not appear from out of the blue, like a ghost or an angel. Although Luke's acquaintance with Jewish history is imperfect, he wants his readers to realise that Jesus truly a child of his generation, born at a specific time and place into an ordinary family. His life from conception onwards is marked by signs of divine presence and purpose. Luke proclaims the circumstances of incarnation of God's Son and its consequences for the world in a concrete way.


Nothing is presented in the Gospels about Jesus aged between twelve and thirty, when his ministry began after meeting John the Baptist. After this he neither lives nor teaches in isolation. He gathers a group of disciples, men and women. Due to the cultural bias of the storytellers, women are less evident in the story, but they are there (Luke 8:1-2 ; 23:55), indicating the revolutionary character of Jesus' ministry in a world where women were mainly confined to the domestic realm.


Jesus did not stay in one place and wait to be discovered. He travelled around with his disciples,  meeting people. They gave attention and healing to the sick, suffering and marginalized. They alarmed religious leaders by unconventional actions and attitudes springing from his teaching. Jesus was on a mission to announce that the reign of God was at hand, that the age of the Messiah had arrived. Messiah is a Hebrew word meaning 'anointed one' (the Greek equivalent is 'Christ'). It referred to one sent by God to save his chosen people from the misery and disgrace of colonisation and exile, and restore them to a golden age of significance and supremacy among the nations.


His words and actions as a healer aroused hopes that Jesus was the one sent by God. But, the way he lived and taught was radically different from how his contemporaries thought a Messiah should behave. They longed for the return of their nation's golden age of power. But he did not advocate the supremacy of any body of people. He spoke up for the value of everyone (regardless of gender, race, belief or achievement) under the non-violent, egalitarian reign of God. His cause was so radical that his disciples ever since have found it contentious. People he attracted eventually rejected him. He was a threat to Jewish religious leaders, so they conspired to have him killed.


He was betrayed by one of his own disciples, and abandoned by the rest when he was arrested without lawful charge. Allegations of blasphemy, carrying a death penalty, were laid against him, but he did not defend himself against them. His trial by Pontius Pilate, Roman Imperial governor of Judea, was a travesty of justice. Jesus was sentenced to die by crucifixion. A condemned murderer was released in his place by the acclaim of religious leaders and their crowd of supporters. Execution involved being nailed to, then suspended from a raised wooden cross in the heat of the day, until death from asphyxiation, exhaustion or blood loss intervened.


His mission lasted three years. Its end was a tragic exposure of the depths to which people can sink. He accepted his rejection, betrayal, abandonment and condemnation without any complaint or recrimination. In the face of anger, accusation, insult and torture he was silent and did not retaliate. His response to the evils heaped upon him was to pray that his enemies be forgiven. He endured the suffering inflicted upon him to the bitter end in a disgraceful death. In all this, he acted with great honesty and fidelity to his own teaching about relationships without domination and violence.

The Jewish Law commanded that retaliation for any injury be limited. Not more than an eye for an eye, or a life for a life. This was deemed as far as it was possible to go in the exercise of justice. Jesus declared that this was inadequate. Retaliatory destruction, however equal, breeds more violence and is contrary to God's will. To forgive as God forgives, Jesus claimed, was the key to moving beyond the vicious solution of trying to change things by force. It was this, as much as the contention that he is Son of God, that cost him his life.


However, the Gospels relate that death was not the end of him. Death did not end the spread of his teaching, but that is not the issue. It is rather, that death does not end Jesus' ministry. His story continued beyond burial and mourning, with accounts of his tomb found disturbed and his body nowhere to be found. Soon after, his disciples saw Jesus alive, still bearing the wounds of crucifixion, so that it was unmistakably him.


Contrary to all the expectations of those who had known him, he returned from the certainty of death to be with them again. He met and forgave those who failed him. He commissioned them to continue his mission. He finished teaching them and prepared them to act under his authority. It was the last thing anyone could have believed possible.


Christian evangelists assert that the resurrection of Jesus vindicated his self-sacrificial suffering. It revealed the way to overcome the power of evil, by endurance in love without recourse to violence. What happened to Jesus is beyond any human power to achieve or understand. Only the creator of life itself could raise him to life again. The New Testament declares that the resurrection is God's 'Yes' to the accomplishment of Jesus. He showed what people can do and become by trust in God's love. In his life and death he achieved something new. Is it true? What happened to convince his followers that he had been raised? What happened to make them willing to stake their lives on it?


After abandoning Jesus to his fate, his disciples were stricken with guilt and grief, as well as terrified at the thought of exposure and reprisal. Why should they have lied to themselves and others? That would inevitably bring them back dangerously into the public eye. They had every reason to hide. The Gospels suggest that they even attempted to do so. Yet, they soon became bold and spoke out. What happened to change them? Were the disciples subject to some deep psychic and spiritual experience as some commentators and interpreters of the text suggest?


There is great candour in some of the Gospel resurrection stories about the possibility of a collective hallucination or vision. It is raised but then dismissed, as conviction grows that something utterly different had occurred. Jesus really was alive from the dead. What happened was unexpected, causing only bewilderment at first. The witnesses struggled to comprehend, let alone explain it. They hardly believed their own eyes. They needed to be drawn back into their familiar relationship with Jesus before they could admit the impossible. It took time for them to grasp the implications.


The story of the empty tomb, and the consternation it raised, appears first. Matthew gives an account of a cover up attempt by the Jewish authorities and Pilate. The possibility that trickery might be involved was not avoided by the story tellers. There is uncomfortable honesty about the disciples' fear. The dread that he might be a ghost is admitted when he appears, before the relief of realisation dawns. He accepts food from them. In another story he prepares food and eats with them.


He offers his wounds for inspection and invites them to touch as well as look at him. Their mood changes from terror to astonished joy. Jesus is physically alive, but he is not exactly as he was before. Now he appears and disappears at will through locked doors. His body is not subject to the ordinary laws of space and time, although to all intents and purposes, it is the same body that was crucified.

All reasonable assumptions about the reality of the world we live in are challenged by the resurrection stories. It is inconsistent, we may say, that God having created and ordered the cosmos, should then act in a way that contradicts his own ordained laws of creation. All things must finally end in death, even the cosmos - why this exception?


Knowledge of the material world is based on observation. However comprehensive our grasp, we do not see the whole: our minds are not the mind of God. Despite the illusion that modern science and technology give us of controlling our destinies, the matter is finally out of our hands. God alone  comprehends and rules over all. Our sense of what is reasonable and logical is bounded and partial.


In Christian thinking, God as sovereign creator is free to act outside the limits of any criteria we may invent, however noble and consistent we think them to be. This is not to say that God acts arbitrarily. God is love, and out of love enters creation through the incarnation of his Word in Jesus. There is a consistency and an authenticity to God's action in love which defies human logic. The raising of Jesus to life from death is an unique expression of God's creative power to make all things new. It is born of his unlimited love for all human beings.


The raising of Jesus' broken and dead body was the key issue for the witnesses and the evangelists, a tough one which they did not avoid. The raising of his soul and spirit would have been understandable, ideas influencing Judaism from the Greek world. But from the ancient Hebrew viewpoint, a human being is a body; physical form expressing soul and spirit. A bodily resurrection meant the whole person of Jesus was subject to God's action. Under the influence of pagan thought, the physical body was commonly considered to be inferior matter, only a container for the soul. The value given to the body by the resurrection of Jesus comes from God made known in his flesh.


After the resurrection, the traumatised and disillusioned disciples become bold and fearless in testifying to what they experienced. It had an immense impact upon them, and affected what they did with the rest of their lives. Whenever they told the story of Jesus it had a transforming effect upon many of their hearers. Those who were not eye-witnesses participated in the same life-changing experience and spoke of being raised to life through Jesus Christ. The resurrection, though absent from historical record, has had in impact on more people's lives than any other event in human memory.


A complete understanding of what happened is impossible. Its meaning and implications keep unfolding. Christians speak of the resurrection 'mystery', not referring to an unsolvable puzzle. Mystery exists where we are taken to the limit of what we know and understand, then find there is more to find. This applies just as well to understanding human consciousness, or to the discoveries of the sub-atomic and biological realms, or to the vast reaches of the cosmos, and the mathematical forms reflected in them all. Out of mystery, the uncountable riches and variety of the created order continually pour, evoking awe and wonder in all who open themselves to discovery.


For Christian faith, the resurrection and its meaning is the 'mystery' which provides the reference point for the spiritual path of discipleship to Jesus Christ the Son of God. This can and must be debated fully. It is far more than a collection of undeniable propositions. Our spirituality, our ethics, our philosophy of life all have to be reckoned in relationship to who this man is.

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