St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury

July 6, 2003


"Who did Yeshua think he was?"


For longer than I can remember I have collected cartoons.  What I notice is how widely the depictions of this or that celebrity vary from one cartoonist to another.  The similarities are there, but it's also apparent that each will highlight something understated by the other.


You find something like this in the gospels.  There are similarities in their depictions of Yeshua, but they are by no means identical.  Some folk find this unsettling.  However, the fact is that almost from the start people were seeing him differently, and hence depicting him differently.  The first five centuries look like one endless row over whose view will prevail.  Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in 325 to settle the matter (he thought!)  The outcome was a creed which is still considered the yardstick for orthodoxy.  




But who did Yeshua think he was?  This is not the same question as "Who does scripture say he is?" or "Who does the church say he is?"  We're asking who did he really think he was?  He would not have shared the view of the church fathers; that much is certain!  He would not have thought of himself as 'divine' (whatever that means).  No pious Jew would have thought that unless he was deranged.  Nor would he have thought he was flawless.  Remember his rebuke to the man who called him 'good master'?  "Why do you call me good?  Only God is good!" 


An episode that has bothered many, starting with the gospel writers themselves, is his baptism in the Jordan by his cousin John.  This was a ritual bath for those wanting to make a new start.  I was taught in theological school that Yeshua had nothing to repent about.  He was baptised to show his solidarity with sinful humanity.  Well, what's in the gospels?  Mark and Luke record the baptism without a problem.  Matthew introduces a little squabble.  He has John saying "You should be baptising me."  By the time of the fourth gospel you have Yeshua going to the river where baptisms are happening, but here's no record of his being baptised!  The story stops short of that.


What you see in those accounts is a growing problem in the movement with accepting the full-blown humanity of Yeshua.  They want to make him a flawless human being who never put a foot wrong even if he wanted to.  In fact, he could not even want to!  So, how did he see himself?  I invite you to consider three possibilities.




One is that he saw himself as a national deliverer, like the Maccabees.  Two centuries earlier, Mattathias Hashmon had led a revolt against King Antiochus of Syria.  His son Judas Maccabaeus (The Hammer) reconquered Jerusalem and purified the temple.  Another brother, Simon Maccabaeus, completed the process of securing national independence.  Among the stories young Yeshua would have heard from parents and elders, this would certainly have been a favourite.


As things turned out, the Maccabees' dream for a kind of theocratic state had been shattered when Herod married into their family and people were again under foreign rule, as part of the Roman Empire.  This would have been particularly galling to a lad growing up in the Galilee.  The Galilee region was not fond of being governed from Jerusalem in any case.  Having a foreign ruler would further aggravate this feeling.


There are hints in the gospels that Yeshua may have had more than a passing thought on how the nation could be delivered again.  In the story of the temptations, one is that he should raise up an army and win a following as a military hero: a sort of Che Guevara or Xanana Gusmao type.  This seems to suggest that the thought certainly could have crossed his mind.  And we're told that some of the people wanted to make him a national ruler.


What we do know is that Pilate the Roman governor believed Yeshua saw himself in these terms.  After all, he came from Galilee, where to be 'agin the government' was almost a family business.  The region was rather like Kelly country (in north-east Victoria) in the 19th century.  The mode of Yeshua's execution makes it clear that Rome thought he had it in mind to lead an uprising.


Scripture doesn't develop this, of course.  Paul and the gospel writers have decided for themselves who he was, and they're not too interested in how he saw himself.  This is especially true of Paul, for whom the words and deeds of Yeshua scarcely rate a mention.




A second possibility is that he saw himself as a wandering rabbi.  He seems to have been commonly addressed as 'rabbi', indicating that he was respected as a scholarly person qualified to teach.


Probably the most revered rabbi in Judaism is Hillel.  Like many other rabbis, he was a tradesman.  Many places, including Jewish centres at universities, are named after Hillel.  He was born about 70 BCE (BC) and died around the year 15.  Yeshua would have been about twenty-one when Hillel died.  Hillel's grave is said to be a few kilometres north-west of the Sea of Galilee.  It is entirely possible that his wanderings took him to the region.  But whether or not Yeshua met Hillel or studied under him, he would certainly have been familiar with Hillel's teaching.


In fact, this is reflected in much that Yeshua is said to have taught.  The sayings that are regarded as the most authentic include the so-called "Sermon on the Mount", much of which echoes Hillel.  Hillel was revered for his humility and his patience, as much as for his wisdom.  He was liberal in his interpreting of the Torah, revising parts of it to fit with changing circumstances.  His best remembered saying is this one.  A non-Jew said if Hillel could teach him the whole law standing on one leg he would convert.  Hillel replied, "Whatever is hateful to you, do not to you fellow man.  This is the entire law.  The rest is commentary!"


This Yeshua certainly didn't see himself as a national deliverer.  Nor did he see himself as one destined for a martyr's death to redeem the world from sin.  He saw himself as a wandering teacher, sharing his stories and observations with whomsoever had ears to hear.




However, it does seem that he believed some catastrophic upheaval was imminent; that in some way God was about to act decisively in history to inaugurate a new order.  Hence the idea that he saw himself as herald of the end time.  He is reported as saying the kingdom was 'at hand'.  He said that the germ of this was already to be found among his hearers.  Geza Vermes, one time head of Judaic Studies at Oxford, says that Yeshua always felt the end time was near but at a moment known only to God!  Hence the note of urgency in his message.


A former colleague of mine in the university chaplaincy and today minister with St Aidan's Uniting Church, Lorraine Parkinson, pursued in her doctoral research the theory that Yeshua either modelled himself on Elijah or perhaps even thought he was the vehicle in whom Elijah had returned.  There is in Judaism an enduring belief that the return of Elijah will herald the coming of Messiah.  Did Yeshua see himself as 'herald of the end time' in the style of Elijah?  Parkinson makes out a strong case for this.


As it was with Elijah, the message of Yeshua is uncomplicated.  It is in essence a summons to turn back from false gods to the One who is full of grace and more than ready to forgive and reinstate the wayward.  Parkinson argues that the entire message of Yeshua is packaged in one story; namely, the parable of the prodigal son.  Her contention is that most if not all of the parables are not meant to be applied to the individual, but to the whole people.  Hence the delinquent son who grabs his share and ends up eating pig swill is Israel the whole people.  As herald of the end time, Yeshua summons the nation to turn from the shallow and short-lived satisfactions of the casinos, the massage parlours and the sleazy tours; to repent and return to that all gracious One who is running out to embrace them.


What seems fairly plausible is that there was a process of change, in which Yeshua felt driven to a more and more radical position.  In the early stages he was much in the mould of a wandering rabbi with little thought of a large following, much less of confrontation with Rome.  But as the need became clearer, the people more insistent, and the holy whispers within him more compelling, he saw himself more and more in the prophetic line, calling the people to turn around and ready themselves for the day of the Lord.  Maybe what we call the Transfiguration, where close friends are said to have seen him in conversation with Moses and Elijah, points to the shift in his sense of identity.


As his utterances became increasingly marked by the call to repent, and conviction that God was about to intervene in history, those who were keen to shed Roman rule would have seen him as their hope.  It's not unlikely that some with a more explicit political agenda would associate themselves with his movement, to some extent 'hijacking' it.  And so, more as a victim of circumstances than from conscious choice, Yeshua finds himself being seen as the alternative ruler to Pilate.  He could not back out.  In Gethsemane he prayed "Let this cup pass from me", but the die was cast.


What stands out in this whole process is his listening on one hand to the insistent needs of humanity and on the other to the holy whispers within.  In this respect he is the archetypal 'godly' person.  No wonder the centurion said, "This man was truly God's son!".




Philippians 2:5-11   Paul's very 'exalted' view of Yeshua

Mark 8:27-30    Not everyone saw Yeshua the same way


An address delivered at St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury, by the Rev Dr John Bodycomb

on Sunday, July 6, 2003.            MAY BE REPRODUCED WITH ACKNOWLEDGEMENT