“Knowing” Jesus

I started Ben Witherington III’s The Christology of Jesus.  In this post, I’ll highlight some things that Witherington says on pages 24-25:

“As B. Malina points out, the way people were presented in antiquity was almost never by offering a cradle-to-grave picture of personality development, much less a psychological profile of what made this or that individual tick.  Rather, a portrait was painted by relating certain things the person said or did, or by focusing on certain relationships that person had.  It was believed that one can judge the tree by the fruit it bore.

“Malina convincingly argues that moderns in the West operate with a different model of personality than was the case in first-century Palestine.  In Jesus’ day, personal identity was established and grounded in one’s religious, ethnic, social, familial and economic group.  Thus, it was widely believed that a person could be known chiefly through his or her interpersonal behavior, that is, through speech, actions, and forms of interrelating.  For us this might seem to be an indirect was of knowing someone, especially if it amounted to presenting many sayings in which the speaker does not speak directly about him- or herself.  But in some ways the best way to get to know someone is by listening to his or her indirect testimony that is not self-conscious.  I suspect that one reason for the modern counsel of despair—-that we cannot know anything about how the historical Jesus viewed himself—-is because we too often come to the Gospels with our modern paradigms of how we may come to know something about a particular person.  These paradigms are overly influenced, however, by modern psychological theories about human individuality.”

This passage clarified a lot for me.  Whenever I’ve heard evangelicals get on their high horse and claim that they “know” Jesus, while criticizing people who supposedly don’t “know” Jesus, questions have arisen in my mind.  How does one “know” Jesus?  Do I “know” Jesus?  I’ve read the Gospels, and I have rarely felt in reading them that I “know” Jesus.  The Gospels present a man (maybe more than a man) who goes around doing miracles and rebuking the powers-that-be.  I feel as if I’m missing something, as if there is some veil between me and Jesus.

But, as Witherington states, the Gospels do not present us with a deep psychological profile about the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of Jesus.  We have Jesus’ actions.  We have words that Jesus spoke.  Even here, though, I wish that the Gospels gave us more information about what Jesus was like.  How did he interact with his family?  Instead, he largely heals people, and he gives religious lectures.  In reading the Gospels, I feel as if I’m missing something.  Granted, Jesus’ healings and teachings tell us stuff about Jesus—-about his benevolence, his desire to reach out to people, his moral standards, his commitment to social justice, etc.  Those are things that I can try to imitate and follow.  But I don’t think that being aware of those things alone is the same as “knowing” Jesus.

And then there’s the fact that many who claim to “know” Jesus do not know much about Jesus’ historical context—-to use Witherington’s phrase, Jesus’ “religious, ethnic, social, familial and economic group”—-when the ancients thought that knowing this was how we know someone.  So how exactly do people today “know” Jesus?  Do they know Jesus, or merely some version of Jesus that is in their heads?  Or can the risen Jesus or God reach out even to people today, in our contexts, bringing us to knowledge of him?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to “Knowing” Jesus

  1. Kevin says:

    You raise some good issues here. Knowing Jesus is in some ways like trying to know any figure from antiquity, there are limitations. Yet, there is a great deal that we can learn about Jesus from the Gospels, for example from the gospel of Mark 3:20-34 we see an interaction with Jesus and his family, and this is followed by a redefinition of family in the ancient context, those very parameters used to define a person that you mentioned. I think some of what needs to happen is that we need to read the gospels much closer and know more of the first century context, this will only go so far. I am convinced that prayer is an other avenue to knowing God, but that is a different conversation


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    That could be. Even when plowing through books on the historical Jesus, though, I feel something’s missing.


  3. Kevin says:

    In a sense, knowing the historical Jesus is akin to trying to know your parents at age 16, from the historical record. While you can find out some specific information it is not like being with them when they are 16. Jesus is risen, and lives, so the focus on the historical Jesus is never something that will be satisfying in a relational sense. However, knowing more of the context in which Jesus ministry took place will greatly impact your reading of the gospels, it will help to contextualize and comprehend the original setting of Jesus teaching and action.


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