There are probably as many understandings of Jesus as there are people who write, think or speak about him. If there was one historical Jesus, we approach that Jesus through four gospels, which suggests that even without including other gospels (so called non-canonical) Christians accept some diversity of images of Jesus. One Jesus of history produced many Christs of faith. Inside and outside Christian tradition, people bring their own agendas, influenced by culture, politics, social circumstances and even sexual orientation, to what they read. Marxists see a radical Jesus who challenged the status quo.
Some see a sexually libertine Jesus, some a homosexual Jesus, some a feminist Jesus, some think that Jesus was preoccupied with the end of the world, others that he had no concern about this. Some argue that Jesus taught a social ethic, others that he was only interested in saving souls for life in a future realm. Some argue that Jesus intended to lead an armed revolt against Rome. Others say that he was a pacifist. Some say that he was a good Jew who never claimed to be God, whose teaching had much in common with the Pharisees. Others argue that Jesus roundly condemned the Pharisees (Bennett, 9 –10).
Pelikan’s book Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture presents eighteen images of Jesus. He asks what it was that each “age brought to its portrayal of” Jesus? (Pelikan, 2) Language was an early reason why understandings of Jesus changed, due to cultural and historical context. Among the early Christians, the idea that a Messiah was expected who would usher in an era of peace or liberate Palestine from Roman rule had meaning. However, while Jews or some Jews were waiting for one or more Messiahs, Greeks and Romans had no such expectation.
The Gospels were written in Greek, although Jesus had spoken Aramaic and Hebrew, so a process of translation took place. All those who think about Jesus subsequent to the first generation of those who knew him must view him through translation. The Hebrew word for Messiah was translated as “Christ” (anointed). However, this word did not carry any special religious significance for Greek speakers, so soon came to be used as a “name”, as Bennett writes, “The Greek word ‘Christ’ became rather like a modern family name: ‘Jesus Christ’ as in ‘Clinton Bennett’” (74).
Christians often think that they know what Messiah means and are surprised to learn that Jews did not have a single concept but several concepts of Messiah and that Jesus did not meet any of their expectations. Here, from the perspective of Jewish identity and tradition, Jesus fails to fulfill any of the criteria for being Messiah. Subsequently, Christian thought did not spend much time clarifying Jesus’ Messianic status but focused on how he could be understood as God, or as God’s son. Cultural differences between what emerged as the Western Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church also impacted on doctrine.
All Christians recognized Jesus as savior of the world but how did Jesus save? Here, the West focuses on Jesus’ death, seeing this as a substitution or sacrifice for the sins of humanity. This is predicated on the idea that all people are sinners. In Orthodoxy, salvation is more closely linked with the beginning, not end, of Jesus’ life. Timothy Ware writes, “Where Orthodoxy sees chiefly Christ the Victor, the late medieval and post-medieval West sees chiefly Christ the Victim” (229). Orthodox thought sees the incarnation, God taking on human form, sanctifying the whole of creation as a victory.
This reunited humanity with God, “by uniting humankind and God in His own person,” Jesus reopened for us humans the path to union with God” (225). Ware says that unlike the Western church, the Eastern argued that “after the Fall” humans “still possessed free will and were still capable of good action” (225) thus doing what Jesus did takes priority over believing certain doctrines about him. East and West possess the same gospels but emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ life. They then formulated different views of the atonement.
One Jesus lies behind these understandings but cultural context results in differences. The fact that the East survived the collapse of the Roman Empire much longer may have encouraged the idea of “victory”, of a Christ who ruled through the Emperor from the new, Christian city of Constantinople. Rome’s fall in the West, followed by division and rivalry, may have encouraged a view of Jesus as a victim. When Christian missionaries began to preach across the globe, they often took with them a picture of Jesus that had become domesticated within European culture.
Jesus was a Mediterranean Jew, so was almost certainly dark, not light-skinned but became a blue-eyed, blond-haired European. Taken to an extreme, some Germans argued that Jesus was not Jewish but of European decent (see Bennett, 255). Racist lenses, applied to reading the Gospels, transformed Jesus into a European. This Jesus, though, was unappealing to many who heard the Gospel. In Africa, new images or ways of seeing Jesus made more sense than some traditional understandings. If “Messiah” carried little meaning when translated from the Hebrew into the Greek context, fewer Biblical titles carried meaning into the African context.
Thus, while theology in Europe concentrated on Jesus’ son-ship, on relations within the Trinity, on whether Jesus’ had one or two natures, Africans found “images of Jesus as healer, ancestor or as chief more relevant and meaningful” just as they asserted that Jesus could speak to them through their prophets and prophetesses (Bennett, 182). Schreite’s Faces of Jesus in Africa shows how African culture has influenced how Jesus is understood. In Asia, it was Jesus as the “only way” to God that attracted censure.
Hindus and Buddhists saw Jesus as divine, as a manifestation of God (an avatar), as a savior but not as the one and only savior. Is “avatar” acceptable as a translation of John’s “became flesh”? Keshub Chunder Sen set up his Church of the New Dispensation. He looked to Jesus as a “fully self-realized man” so said that to “worship Jesus was to worship humanity” (Bennett, 330). With others, he believed that a single universal religion would emerge which would adapt culturally to different contexts. In India, that religion would “wear Hindu dress”.
Pictorial images of Jesus as a yogi have been produced in India; the Trinity has been depicted as the Hindu trimurti – images of Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver) and Shiva (destroyer), clothing Jesus with Hindu dress. Buddhists have described Jesus as a Bodhisattva, and have pictured him in Buddhist iconography. Others insist on the blackness of Jesus, arguing that the Christian God became the God of slavery and oppression, so until whites hate their whiteness and embrace blackness, they fail to achieve full humanity. Cone writes, “What must I do to be saved?
Blackness and salvation are synonymous” thus supplying a different answer to the same question than either the classical Catholic or Orthodox responses. Cone’s emphasis on Jesus’ blackness is determined by his identity and cultural context. The kingdom Jesus preached is found wherever people suffer and die from want of dignity, says Cone. Language and context, including political context (are we oppressors or oppressed) contribute to how we understand Jesus. I agree with Bennett that all images need to be tested against what can plausibly be affirmed of the Jesus about whom we read, albeit usually in translation, in the gospels.
I am reluctant to insist that my Jesus must be everyone’s Jesus, leaving Jesus free to meet different human needs. Jesus is not mine to control, or to limit to my particular perceptions and experience. Bennett, Clinton. 2001. In Search of Jesus: Insider and outsider images. London: Continuum. Cone, James H. 1986. A Black Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis. Pelikan, Jarasov. 1985. Jesus through the Centuries: His place in the history of culture. NY: Harper & Row. Schreiter, Robert. 1991. Faces of Jesus in Africa. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis. Ware, Timothy. 1993. The Orthodox Church. NY: Penguin.