This year my Holy Week series features excerpts from Albert Nolan’s classic book Jesus Before Christianity. These excerpts will be accompanied by images of various cinematic depictions of Jesus. In many ways, such depictions serve as the most powerful (and often the most insightful) cultural responses of our day to the person and message of Jesus. Today's excerpt is accompanied by images of Jeremy Sisto as Jesus from the 1999 CBS mini-series Jesus.
Jesus is a much underrated man – underrated not only by those who think of him as nothing more than a teacher of religious truth, but also by those who go to the opposite extreme of emphasizing his divinity in such a way that he ceases to be fully human.
When one allows Jesus to speak for himself and when one tries to understand him without any preconceived ideas and within the context of his own times, what begins to emerge is a man of extraordinary independence, immense courage and unparalleled authenticity – a man whose insight defies explanation. To deprive this man of his humanity is to deprive him of his greatness.
It is difficult for us to imagine what it must have been like to differ radically from everybody else, past and present, in an age when group conformity was the only measure of truth and virtue. The immense learning of the scribes did not impress Jesus. He differed from them without hesitation even when they were far more knowledgeable about the details of the law and its traditional interpretation than he was. No tradition was too sacred to be questioned. No authority was too great to be contradicted. No assumption was too fundamental to be changed.
There is nothing in the gospels that would lead one to think that Jesus opposed everyone in a spirit of rebellion for the sake of rebellion or because he had a grudge against the world. He gives the impression throughout of a man who has the courage of his convictions, a man who is independent of others because of a positive insight which has made every possible kind of dependency superfluous.
There are no traces of fear in Jesus. He was not afraid of creating a scandal or losing his reputation or even losing his life. All the men of religion, even John the Baptist, were scandalized by the way he mixed socially with sinners, by the way he seemed to enjoy their company, by his permissiveness with regard to the laws, by his apparent disregard for the seriousness of sin and by his free and easy way of treating God. He soon acquired what we would call a bad reputation. “Look, a glutton and a drunkard.” He himself relates this with what seems to be a touch of humor (Mt 11:16–19). In terms of group solidarity his friendship with sinners would classify him as a sinner (Mt 11:19; Jn 9:24).
In an age when friendliness toward any woman outside of one’s family could mean only one thing, his friendship with women and especially with prostitutes would have ruined whatever reputation he still had (Lk 7:39; Jn 4:27). Jesus did nothing and compromised on nothing for the sake of even a modicum of prestige in the eyes of others. He did not seek anyone’s approval, not even the approval of “the greatest man born of woman.”
. . . His family thought he was out of his mind (Mk 3:21); the Pharisees thought he was possessed by the devil (Mk 3:22); he was accused of being a drunkard, a glutton, a sinner and a blasphemer but nobody could ever accuse him of being insincere and hypocritical nor of being afraid of what people might say about him nor of what people might do to him.
Jesus’ courage, fearlessness and independence made people of that age ask again and again, “Who is this man?” It is significant that Jesus never answers the question. There is no evidence that he ever laid claim to any of the exalted titles which the Church later attributed to him.
Many scholars have argued that the one title which Jesus did claim for himself was the title “Son of Man.” This is not true. Not because Jesus did not refer to himself as “son of man” but because “son of man” is not a title. . . . The evidence of the gospels would seem to show that Jesus nevertheless laid great emphasis upon the Aramaic term “son of man.” If we also keep in mind the emphasis which Jesus laid upon the dignity of human beings as human beings and upon the solidarity of the human race, we can submit the conjecture that Jesus’ frequent and emphatic use of the term “son of man” was his way of referring to, and identifying himself with, human beings as human beings.
. . . If people acquire their identity from that with which they identify themselves, then it can be said that Jesus’ identity is humankind, human beings as human beings or as the “son of man.” This, as I say, is a matter for conjecture. All that can be said with any degree of certainty is that, when Jesus made use of the term “son of man,” he was not claiming for himself a title, an office or a rank. In view of his explicit teaching about titles and honors [“You must not allow yourselves to be called rabbi . . . You must call no one on earth your father . . . (Mt 23:8–10)], it should come as no surprise to learn that he wished to be accepted without any titles at all.
– Albert Nolan
Jesus Before Christianity
Jesus Before Christianity
Images: Jeremy Sisto as Jesus and Debra Messing as Mary Magdalene in the CBS mini-series Jesus (1999). For some insightful perspectives on this mini-series, see Crystal’s post here.
Commenting on his role as Jesus, Jeremy Sisto told Entertainment Weekly Online that:
There's a lot of interpretations where Jesus is presented as this ghostlike figure who floats through life haunted and detached. But we wanted to show him with his family and friends, as a man who must struggle with this incredible calling he has to answer. He was flesh and blood. . . . By showing how hard the pain was to bear [during the crucifixion scenes], I think it shows just how much the man sacrificed.
NEXT: A Uniquely Liberated Man
For The Wild Reed’s 2010 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from Andrew Harvey’s book Son of Man: The Mystical Path to Christ), see:
Jesus: Path-Blazer of Radical Transformation
The Essential Christ
One Symbolic Iconoclastic Act
One Overwhelming Fire of Love
The Most Dangerous Kind of Rebel
Resurrection: Beyond Words, Dogmas and All Possible Theological Formulations
The Cosmic Christ: Brother, Lover, Friend, Divine and Tender Guide
For The Wild Reed’s 2009 Holy Week series (featuring the artwork of Doug Blanchard and the writings of Marcus Borg, James and Evelyn Whitehead, John Dominic Crossan, Andrew Harvey, Francis Webb, Dianna Ortiz, Uta Ranke-Heinemann and Paula Fredriksen), see:
The Passion of Christ (Part 1) – Jesus Enters the City
The Passion of Christ (Part 2) – Jesus Drives Out the Money Changers
The Passion of Christ (Part 3) – Last Supper
The Passion of Christ (Part 4) – Jesus Prays Alone
The Passion of Christ (Part 5) – Jesus Before the People
The Passion of Christ (Part 6) – Jesus Before the Soldiers
The Passion of Christ (Part 7) – Jesus Goes to His Execution
The Passion of Christ (Part 8) – Jesus is Nailed the Cross
The Passion of Christ (Part 9) – Jesus Dies
The Passion of Christ (Part 10) – Jesus Among the Dead
The Passion of Christ (Part 11) – Jesus Appears to Mary
The Passion of Christ (Part 12) – Jesus Appears to His Friends
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Why Jesus is My Man
Jesus Was a Sissy
The "Wild Gaiety" of Jesus' Moral Teaching
Jesus, Sex and Power
Jesus and Homosexuality
Jesus and the Centurion (Part 1)
Jesus and the Centurion (Part 2)
When Expulsion is the Cost of Discipleship
Christ and Krishna