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Interpreting Jesus, in the New Testament and Now

March 11, 2011

What is the New Testament if not the record of interpretations of Jesus Christ by people of the first century? Even Christians who take Jesus seriously, one way or another, often seem to look to the New Testament in fairly narrow ways.  Some look mainly at the Gospels for inspiration and guidance from the words and deeds of Jesus as recounted there. Some look more to Paul’s epistles with a focus on how the divine savior he emphasizes provides for spiritual transformation and eternal salvation.  (The Gospel of John has a similar emphasis, seemingly influenced by Paul or by similar sources and forces, or by the combination.) 

Among the former, Paul is often not much respected or liked, along with being largely ignored. Among the latter, Jesus matters intensely, but the focus is mainly on his miracles, his death seen as a sacrifice (theologically), and his resurrection.  His own emphases on the vital matters of interpersonal and business ethics, orientation to money, to government, etc. are paid relatively little attention.  Of course there are variations on these two general orientations, with many unique interpretations of who Jesus actually was and what was his main purpose for being on earth.  What is your own interpretation of Jesus? Where does it come from? How have you arrived at it? And most importantly, what does it lead to in emotional and practical terms in your life? (Or is it mainly intellectual interest?)

While you are pondering this and how you might contribute to a conversation here, not leaving it a monologue by me, I’ll elaborate briefly.  I began on the New Testament… it is almost our only source on Jesus, at least of real substance and reliability.  At the same time it is crucial to recognize its literary designs and purposes, and rightly treat it in relation to that.  For example, the Gospels are very little like our modern biographies and clearly have community-support (somewhat localized) and overall polemical purposes.    

Now, what is often overlooked by all types of Jesus-interpretations is that understandings of Jesus and his teachings and role are variously understood within the pages of the New Testament itself.  Also we find there many references to additional interpretations of Jesus (I John is a clear example).  Why do these various interpretations appear so quickly after Jesus’ death? (Paul, from his earliest writings around a mere 20 years later, very emotionally takes on those who contentiously follow various leaders and “gospels” different from his concepts. These strongly appear to include Peter and probably the views of the original disciple group).  It is not as simple as merely saying that heresies quickly arose over against the “true” teachings or proper understanding of Jesus.  Just where is there a clear and authoritative statement of what that understanding might be?

I fully realize that even raising such questions can be unsettling for many followers of Jesus.  We all, and some more than others, like to have things clear and simple if at all possible.  Out of that felt need, we tend to do just what I believe people in the first century (and following) did: either go along with the understanding of the group we are in or rapidly arrive at our own, tailored heavily to what our views of the world and our position within it already are. 

Do you agree with me on this: that the above can work o.k. as long as people don’t take their interpretation as The Truth? And with this, making those who disagree with them as wrong and perhaps evil? (Again, read or re-read I John to see a good example of strong condemnations indicating serious in-fighting, highly emotionalized.)  What are your thoughts on one or more of these questions?

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