Apropos of nothing, the Pool of Siloam, Jerusalem. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus healed a man who had been blind from birth. Jesus spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and spread the mud over the blind man’s eyes. He then told the man, “Go wash yourself in the Pool of Siloam.” So the man went and washed and came back seeing.
Fr. John Behr is Dean and Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary where he teaches courses in patristics, dogmatics, and scriptural exegesis. He is also a distinguished lecturer at Fordham University. More from the good father here.
The Christ who appears on the pages of the writings recognized as canonical Scripture, the Scriptural Christ, is always the crucified and risen one. By this I do not mean to undermine the historical specificity of the Passion (“once for all,” Romans 6:10; Hebrews 7:27), but to emphasize who it is that these texts describe. That they were all written after the Passion is obvious; that the proclamation, the kerygrna, that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord, so clear in the letters of Paul, is also at the basis of the depiction of Jesus in the canonical Gospels is equally evident.
And this orientation is vital. The Christian confession is not simply about who a figure of the past was, what he did and said, but rather who He is; the Christian faith confesses the living Lord: “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Similarly, whatever oral reports concerning the sayings and deeds of Jesus there might have been, stemming from those who had contact with him prior to his Passion, those have been recontextualized, in the canonical Gospels, in the light of the Passion and the proclamation of him as Lord and Christ.
Moreover, as we have seen, their presentation of Christ has been interpreted through the medium of Scripture, again, in the light of the Cross. The four canonical Gospels are not attempts to preserve accurate historical records, but are witnesses to and Scriptural interpretations, based upon the kerygma, of this person Jesus Christ. [This point is also clearly maintained by the canons of Orthodox Iconography, which, for instance, includes Paul with the other apostles in the icon of Pentecost. That the Passion is at the basis for the depiction of Jesus in the Gospels is also echoed in, for instance, the icon for the nativity, where the infant Christ is wrapped in bandages, lying in a manger (to be partaken of), and placed in a cave (as a corpse), following the suggestions of the infancy narratives themselves. Cf. R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1993), and, more briefly, An Adult Christ at Christmas (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1988). The same point could by made from hymnography (compare, for instance, the material for the pre-feast of the Nativity to that for Holy Week).]
There may well be authentic, historical material pertaining to Jesus in some of the non-canonical material such as the Gospel of Thomas or The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, but in these cases the Cross is almost totally eclipsed and the engagement with scripture non-existent. [A separate study would be needed to examine how, in some of the apocryphal material, the expansion of details seems to be based on the scriptural presentation of Christ but extended to other figures in the narrative, for instance Mary in the Protoevangelium of James and the various liturgical traditions surrounding her.]
In reverse, those attempts to reduce the diversity of the canonical witnesses to Christ to a unified “life of Christ,” such the Diatessaron of Tatian and On the Harmony of the Gospels by Augustine, might produce a coherent and harmonious account, but in so doing they have removed Christ from the canonical Scriptures to a world created, and restricted, by their own imagination.
It would, however, be wrong to separate the canonical material into two independent sources or traditions with two distinct subjects, the oral reports, on the one hand, concerning the “historical Jesus,” and, on the other, the kerygma, proclaiming the Christ of faith. The letters of Paul, the earliest writings of the New Testament, are certainly almost exclusively concerned with the proclamation of Christ and the formation of the Christian communities; almost, that is, because Paul clearly knows certain key features about Christ, [Paul knows that Jesus was a man (Galatians 4:4), descended from David (Romans 1:3); that he taught (1 Corinthians 7:10; 1 Corinthians 9:14) and interpreted his last meal in terms of his coming Passion (1 Corinthians 11:23-5); that was tried before Pontius Pilate (1 Timothy 6:13), abused (Romans 15:3), crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23 etc.), buried and rose again (Romans 6:4; 1 Corinthians 15:4-8).] and claims to preach the same Gospel as do the Palestinian witnesses to the risen Christ (Galatians 2; Corinthians 15:3-11).
On the other hand, the narrative depictions of Christ in the Gospels are no less concerned to maintain the centrality of the Passion. Indeed, in them the very identity of Christ is intimately connected with the Cross. At the very center of the synoptic Gospels, both a literary sense and as that to which they are themselves answers, is Christ’s question, “Who do you say I am?” When Peter replies, “You re the Christ” (Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20), [In Matthew 16:16, Peter gives a fuller answer, "The Christ, the Son of the Living God," to have Jesus point out that this was known only through a revelation of the Father, not by human intercourse.] Christ immediately begins to explain to his disciples how he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, to be killed and rise again on the third day.
When Peter then tries to put himself between Christ and his Cross, he receives the sharpest rebuke imaginable — “Get behind me, Satan!” Moreover, despite this instruction and the benefit of accompanying Jesus during his ministry, Peter still denied Christ, and is glaringly absent, along with the other apostles and disciples, from the crucifixion scene. It is the resurrected Christ who again instructs his disciples how, according to the prophets, it was necessary for the Christ “to suffer these things and to enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26). The structure of these narratives downplays the things said and done by Jesus prior to his Passion, as any kind of historical base for Christian faith.
Rather, on the basis of faith in the living, crucified and risen, Jesus Christ, the Gospels present the words and deeds of Christ as addressed now to the believers, just as the miracles reported in the Pauline proclamation are those worked now amongst the Christian communities in which Christ is portrayed as crucified (Galatians 3:1-5).
It is in the Gospel according to John that the narrative depiction of Jesus is most thoroughly united to the proclamation of the risen Christ as Lord. Unlike the Synoptics, where the narrative is always told from the standpoint of the Resurrection, but where Jesus has yet to be glorified, John depicts Jesus as the exalted Lord from the beginning: He is the one from above, he is always in control, he suffers no anxiety in the garden, and needs no transfiguration for us to see his glory.
Yet this is far from being an incipient docetism [In Christian terminology, docetism (from the Greek δοκεῖν/δόκησις dokein (to seem) /dókēsis (apparition, phantom), according to Norbert Brox, is defined narrowly as "the doctrine according to which the phenomenon of Christ, his historical and bodily existence, and thus above all the human form of Jesus, was altogether mere semblance without any true reality." Broadly it is taken as the belief that Jesus only seemed to be human, and that his physical body was a phantasm. The word docetai (illusionists) referring to early groups who denied Jesus' humanity, first occurred in a letter by Bishop Serapion of Antioch (197-203), who discovered the doctrine in the Gospel of Peter, during a pastoral visit to a Christian community using it in Rhosus, and later condemned it as a forgery]
In some ways, Jesus is depicted here as being even more human: only in John does Jesus cry, for his friend Lazarus John 11:35), indeed, only in this Gospel is Jesus said to have friends whom he loves (John 11:5, 11) and some more than others (John 13:23, etc), and asks for the same in return (John 21:15-17). [A point made by L. Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus]
More to the point, John’s depiction of Jesus ultimately has an anti-docetic thrust, emphasizing that the revelation of God in Christ takes place in the flesh and on earth, when interpreted correctly. John stresses the total identity between the humiliated Jesus and the exalted Christ. In fact, for John, the moment of humiliation on the Cross is the moment of exaltation and glorification (John 3:13-14; 12:27-36), and in this the work of God is completed or perfected (John 19:30), just as for Paul the word of the Cross is the definitive revelation of the power, wisdom and glory of God (1 Corinthians 1-2).
The answer to Jesus’ question, given in the Synoptics, “You are the Christ” (Matthew 16:16, etc.) immediately relates Jesus to the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets: Jesus is the Anointed One, the Messiah, the chosen representative of God. Likewise the name “Jesus” itself is already an interpretation of who he is (cf. Matthew 1:21): the victory or salvation of God, the one who will lead the people of God to salvation, just as the other Joshua led his people through the Jordan to the promised land.
In the Gospels, Jesus works all the messianic signs: He heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, feeds the people in the wilderness, calms the waters, forgives sins, and raises the dead. Moreover, he does these things in his own name, so provoking the question “what manner of man is this” that can do such things (cf. Matthew 8:27)? The Gospels attribute to Jesus what in the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets, belongs to God alone. He is certainly divine, yet he is not the one God of Israel.
When Peter further confesses “You are the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), this designation “Son of God,” in the light of Jesus’ divine actions, must be taken in a stronger sense than the manner in which it is applied to Adam (Luke 3:38); Adam was a representative of God on earth, created in the image of God, but only Christ, the last Adam (1 Corinthians15:45), the man from heaven (1 Corinthians15:47), is the image of the invisible God (Colossians1:15), so making Adam a “type of the One to come” (Romans 5:14).
However, just how Jesus is the Anointed One of God is not revealed simply through the wondrous deeds he wrought, not even by placing these deeds within the context of the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies. In fact, Christ warns against trusting messiahs and prophets who work wonders (Matthew 24:23-5), and also suggests that signs such as one arising from the dead are not sufficient grounds for belief if Moses and the prophets are not heard (Luke 16:3 1).
Rather, once Jesus is recognized as the Messiah, what distinguishes his Messiahship, as he himself explains, is that he must be crucified (Matthew 16:21) to enter his glory, as the prophets have already announced (cf. Luke 24:26). Christ was clearly not the nationalistic or political messiah hoped for by some (cf. Luke 24:19-21; Acts 1:6); he died the most shameful death imaginable, not only death, but death on a Cross (Philemon 2:8), becoming a curse for our sake (Galatians 3:13, cf. Deuteronomy21:23). But through this, the idea of Messiahship was brought together with the image of the Suffering Servant, subverting expectations and revealing the strength and wisdom of God in the weakness and folly of the Cross (1 Corinthians1-2).
The Gospels describe Jesus Christ with practically every scriptura image possible. Jesus is the Teacher and the Prophet, bringing God’s Word, which he himself is, as well as being the Wisdom of God, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians2:3). He is the Savior, bringing us the knowledge of God, in which alone is eternal vial life (John 17:3). He is the Life of those who live in the Light which he is, seeing all things and knowing how to walk according to the ways of God; he is the Author of life (Acts 3:15) as well as the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6).
He is the image of the invisible God (Colossians1:15), the impress of his Father’s hypostasis [vocab: with regards to the hypostatic union, where the term is used to describe the union of Christ's humanity and divinity.] (Hebrews 1:3), and in him the fullness of the divinity dwells bodily (Colossians2:9); in him we see God, and it is in him that the glory of God is revealed (John 1:14), shining in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6), the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians2:8).
Another aspect of the scriptural Christ is described by applying to him the imagery surrounding the temple and worship. Jesus is the High Priest who makes expiation for the sins of the people (Heb 2:17 etc.), yet does so as the one who is offered, the Lamb of God (Isaiah 53; Jeremiah 1:29; Acts 8:32; 1 Peter 1:19; Revelations passim). He is our Pascha, sacrificed for our sake (1 Corinthians5:7). He gives his life as a ransom for main (Matthew 20:28; 1 Timothy 2:6), reconciling all things to God, making peace by the blood of his Cross (Colossians1:20), bringing hostility to an end by the Cross (Ephesians 2:16).
All this is achieved by the “one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 2:5) who has mediated for us a new covenant (Hebrews 8:6, 9:15, 12:24) Christians who are crucified with Christ (cf. Romans 6:6, Galatians 2:20) buried with him in baptism (Romans 6:4), are now the temple of the living God (2 Corinthians 6:16), those in whom God dwells (1 John 4:12).
In another cluster of images, Christ is depicted as the Good Shepherd (1 Peter 2:25, 5:4), who leads his sheep through the door, again Christ himself, to salvation (John 10:7-15). He is the one whom God exalted as Leader or Prince (Acts 5:31), the Ruler of the kings of the earth (Revelations 1:5), the Lord of lords and the King of kings (Revelations 17:14, 19:16).
As the Power of God working salvation, he accomplishes the victory of God: by voluntarily undergoing death he destroys the power of death, manifesting life as the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:18); becoming a curse (Galatians3:13), he empties the curse of its power and brings instead the peace and blessing of God; becoming sin, yet not knowing sin, he opens to us the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
That all the terms and imagery used to describe Christ and his activity are derived from Scripture, emphasizes the point that Christ is from God (John 8:42), from above not below (John 8:23), that he has come down from heaven to do God’s will (John 4:34, 5:30, 6:38-9), that in him God is at work, and in him alone we see God (John 1:18, 14:9; Matthew 11:27, etc.), just as he alone has revealed to us the meaning of the Scriptures, which again is Christ himself (Luke 24:27; John 5:46). He is the one seen by Isaiah (John 12:41), about whom Moses wrote (John 5:46), and who is before Abraham was (John 8:58); with God in the beginning (John 1:1) he is eternal: “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
The overall effect of applying all these descriptions, from alpha to omega (Revelations 1:8), to Jesus Christ, is to arrive at a figure quite distinct from the possibilities within any one of the elements which have contributed to the overall description. There is, as we have seen, a transformation of meaning that takes place in the light of the Passion and the subsequent proclamation of him as Lord and Christ. Whatever Jesus might actually have said about himself, and whatever his followers might have thought of him, any oral reports that preserved such information were sifted and re-presented through the medium of Scripture, interpreted on the basis of the kerygma.
Similarly, application of all the different scriptural titles to Jesus, on this basis invests these titles with new meaning, reinterpreting them: not only is Jesus the Messiah, but he is so as the Suffering Servant; not only is he the son of David, but he is David’s Lord (Matthew 22:45); as son of David he could not be a priest, so he is proclaimed as the High Priest par excellence. Not only is he a son of God, as was Adam, and himself God, in the sense of Psalm verse which proclaims “I said you are gods, sons of the Most High” (Psalm 81:6 LXX), a verse used by Jesus to legitimate calling “gods” all those to whom the word of God came (John 10:34-5), but he is the Son of God, and as divine as God is himself.
Through this process of selection and reinterpretation, there is a general tendency towards a particular interpretation of Christ, who he is and what he has done. It would be misleading to suggest that this is evident from the pages of the New Testament itself, just as it would be erroneous to suppose that the collection known as the “New Testament” was always a given; but it is clear from the theological discussions, and especially the canon of truth, which precede the appearance of the New Testament as a book.
Nor is this to suggest that any particular element of the New Testament mosaic of Christ is submerged or lost; each remains vitally important for understanding Christ and what God has wrought in him. But it does help to understand why, although no particular explanation of the salvific work of Christ has ever been “canonized” in a creed or definition as being the only or exclusively acceptable model, there has been a claim, which became increasingly dominant and exclusive, that there is one right way of understanding who and what Jesus Christ is: the Son of the Father, the Word of God incarnate, both God and man.
This is not simply a Greek philosophical approach to the revelation of God in Christ, but is rather a continuation of what is happening within each of the New Testament texts, the continuing reflection, on the basis of Scripture and the kerygma, about who Christ is, a reflection which has already reached canonical shape, in the canon of truth, by the time that the New Testament is recognized as such.