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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God

What child is this, who, laid to rest
On Mary's lap, is sleeping?



I have recently been having a discussion with a Muslim about the nature of the Holy Trinity, and in particular the identity of Jesus. He asked some very interesting questions from the standpoint of Islamic understanding and learning, and they have no easy, quick answer. A gulf exists in the understanding of the foundations of Christianity between Muslims and Christians, and until that Gulf is bridged and Muslims understand the true roots of Christianity, instead of what they are taught in Islamic schools, the two sides will be forever speaking across one another. This is my attempt at bridging part of that gap.

Understanding the true nature and identity of Jesus of Nazareth is a subject upon which many books have been written, and philosophers have debated for two millennia. Part of the problem is a lack of understanding within our human frame of reference to properly define the subject. We are like a group of blind men debating over the meaning of a rainbow.

What do we know of Jesus? Everything we know comes from the writings of Jesus’ closest followers, who recorded not only his words and actions while he was among them, but also their impressions and interpretations of who he was.  These are compiled into the New Testament of the Christian bible. 

In the few centuries after Jesus a population hungry for information about their savior created a cottage industry of religious fiction. People invented stories about Jesus out of whole cloth, spreading rumors and legends that had no basis in fact, and advertising it as legitimate scripture. This trend continues even two thousand years later, witness the market success of books such as The Da Vinci Code – an admitted work of fiction which some credulous people accept as history even today!

The council of Nicaea established the Canon of the Christian church in the year 325 CE, and in the process dismissed many apocryphal writings about Jesus as not in keeping with the traditions that were handed down from the original 12 apostles, or lacking evidence of authenticity. The books and letters that made the cut formed the Bible that we still accept today. At the same council, the Bishops of the Christian faith voted against the Arian position that Jesus was only the figurative son of God, the majority of the most learned men of the church understood the teachings handed down were that Jesus was the literal Son of God.

From these books we learn that Jesus was a man like us in all things but sin. We learn that he was the Son of the living God, and indeed he was God himself. All of these concepts are in the writings of those closest to Jesus.

Muslims have a strikingly different view of Jesus. Muslims believe Jesus was a mere prophet, no different from Moses or Elijah, or in the Islamic view, Muhammad himself. They do not accept that Jesus was the begotten son of God, or that he was God himself. To understand the roots of this belief, we have to understand the religious climate where Islam took root. Desert dwelling Arabs were by nature fairly mystical, and the Judeo-Christian tradition struck a resonant chord within the Arab heart. The stories of the Old Testament and Jesus of Nazareth were quite popular among the illiterate Arabs.

In the sixth century, the complex Arab language was just beginning to be transcribed, and most Arabs could not read or write. This didn’t mean that they lacked in language skills or weren’t intelligent. Like most other pre-literate societies, they had a rich and complex culture based on verbal tradition in the form of poetic stories. Poets were held in high regard as the composers and keepers of historical tradition.

As Judeo Christian religious stories filtered by word of mouth through Arabia, there was no way for the Arabs to discern the apocryphal tales from the canon accepted by the church. The Arabs had no choice but to lend all the stories they heard equal weight, and then select among the ones that seemed to make the most sense and reject the ones that made the least sense. Muhammad had a richer exposure to religious literature than most, as his travels during his time as a caravan overseer took him deep into Byzantine Christendom. Lacking the catechism that accompanies the traditions of the church, he failed to grasp the importance of mysteries of the divinity of Christ as accepted by Christ’s disciples. He rejected the idea that Jesus was the son of God or that Jesus was God as being too fantastic to believe in.

The monotheism that Muhammad synthesized out of his knowledge of Christianity contained equal parts apocryphal and canonical writings, since Muhammad had no way to tell the difference. Since Muhammad claimed that he was in communication with God himself, his theology had to be consistent and not expose him to uncomfortable questions to which he couldn’t give a coherent answer. The mystery of the divinity of Christ is one of those questions, and so had no place in Muhammad’s theology. Much easier to deny the whole thing than to try to explain the inexplicable. What Muhammad the poet failed to grasp was that the written source documents hold a greater authority than the word of mouth transmission of oral tradition. He held that the belief of Christ the Son or Christ as God was the opinion of some Christians, and in error. He didn’t know that the source documents of Christianity, penned by those closest to Jesus when he was on earth, were the source of those opinions.

So what was Jesus? Son? God? How could he be both?

To properly answer this, we have to compare and contrast Jesus to others, and discover how he was the same, and how he was different.

First of all, Jesus was not a prophet. In all of our accounts of prophets, even Islamic accounts of Muhammad, it’s clearly recorded that God spoke to the prophet in question. The prophet heard and responded to the voice of God, or in Muhammad’s case an angel that he identified as Gabriel (Note that Muhammad is the only case of a prophet being spoken to through an intermediary. All of the Hebrew prophets heard God directly). There is no record in any of the Gospels that Jesus heard the voice of God or was instructed by God in what to do or how to act. There are references in the New Testament that may suggest he was a prophet if taken out of context. These cases fall into two categories: either someone has identified him as a prophet (John 4:19, 6:14, 7:39, 9:17, Luke 7:16, Matt 21:10, 21:46), or Jesus has made an observation about prophets that are also applicable to him (John 4:44, Luke 4:24, Mark 6:4, Matt 13:56 ). Indeed, Jesus can not be a prophet, because “out of Galilee arises no prophet.” (John 7:52).

Even Islamic scripture identifies Jesus as the Messiah, which translated to the word “Christ” in Greek, the anointed one. But Muhammad and succeeding Muslims misunderstand the depth of meaning of this word and the implications it held to the Hebrews. The Hebrew history resonated with the kingship of David, who forged the tribal lands of the Hebrews into a nation among nations. The Messiah was to be the restoration of this exalted monarchy, a King among Kings, the final arbiter and ruler of mankind. 

The key thing to remember when comparing Jesus to God is the logical postulate that a difference that makes no difference is no difference. Jesus was a man, but how was he different from God? If you say that Jesus was just a man and therefore could not be like God, then you’ve neglected that God made Man in his own image (Gen 1:26). 

Jesus was a creation of God, not a mere man who found favor with God in his majority. Prophets were uniformly recognized as such after being called by God and answering his call after they had reached adulthood. They were often introduced in scripture as being men who walked in the ways of the Lord when the Lord called them.   Jesus, by virtue of his being conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin ( Luke 1:34-35, Quran, 19:20), was the son of God. What are the implications of this? A Son inherits the estate of the father. Since God is infinite, there would be no inheritance in human terms. Is Jesus to spend eternity as a pauper, or will he reign at the right hand of the father? Christian tradition tells us that he will reign with God.

But is Jesus merely a son? He had the full personality of God, the compassion, the anger, the patience, the frustrations, and above all the overwhelming love for his creation. Jesus spoke with the full authority of God: Whatever Jesus willed was as if God had willed it. Given that Jesus was able to command this authority, is there anything that God could do that Jesus could not? Is there anything that Jesus wanted to do that God did not? Is there anything that God wanted to do that Jesus did not? The answer to all of these is no. For all intents and purposes, if you had met Jesus, you met God. Jesus confirmed this when he was asked “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us”, to which he replied "Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, 'Show us the Father'?” (John 14:7-8)

How can we differentiate Jesus from God? We could have touched Jesus. We could see him. In a certain way he was more real than God in heaven, to our limited senses. But is that a difference worthy of differentiation? Very few people who read this will ever hear my voice or touch me or even see me. The sole tangible evidence that I even exist to you, dear reader, is the words in front of you. Are they different from me? No, when you read my words, you are experiencing me in a small way. So it is explained in the first chapter of John, that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Then in chapter two we are told that the Word was made flesh and walked upon the earth.   Jesus was the Word of God incarnate. In a very real sense, he was God.  

But, the Muslims gleefully point out, Jesus prayed to God! Yes he certainly did. Many times he demonstrated to his apostles how to pray. Jesus led by example. He taught the Apostles not to pray in repetitious prayer, and not to make a big deal out of praying in public (both lessons the Muslims missed) (Matthew 6:1-8). He taught that God knows what you are going to pray for and knows what you need. Then in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed to God for strength and supplication that he might be spared the agony and death he was about to experience. He knew that he had to suffer and die. He knew that from the start, for that was the mission on which he had been sent, to redeem the sins of man, to demonstrate by his example that nothing – no sin - is greater than God’s love for us, not even his beloved son. This was to close the circle with Abraham, who was willing to offer his most beloved son to show that nothing was more important to him than God.

Jesus knew what was coming, better than anyone else, and petitioned God that if there was a way, that he be spared. As a man, he was terrified of pain and death. But as God he knew what must be done, and ended his prayer in the devotion “Not my will, but yours be done.” God in the form of Man subordinates himself to the desire of God in Heaven, from whence he came and to whence he would return. Muslims should note that all Jesus had to do was start walking, and he would have escaped his fate. Any other man – including Muhammad – would have done just that.

Does this conflict with what I said earlier, that God and Jesus wanted the same thing? No, because God did not want to sacrifice Jesus any more than Jesus wanted to be sacrificed. In just the same way, Abraham didn’t want to sacrifice Isaac any more than Isaac wanted to be sacrificed. How could God withhold his hand from an act that his servant Abraham was so willing to perform for him? God is not less than Abraham, and as the superior party in the covenant, could not stay his hand and treat the intent as good as the act, as Abraham was allowed to do. For this and many other reasons, Jesus had to suffer and die to fulfill prophecy.

Muslims point to Jesus’ final petition from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani?”. . . “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46, Mark 15:34) as something that Jesus would not have said. They ignore the many other things Jesus said from the cross that no one but Jesus would have or could have said: The petition to forgive his executioners (Luke 23:4) and the charge of John to henceforth care for Mary as his own mother(John 19:26-27). This particular statement was made to fulfill prophecy made hundreds of years before in Isaiah 49:14 and a thousand years before in Psalm 22:1.

Muslims claim that Christians pray to three Gods. This is patently false. The concept of three Gods implies three personalities, three motivations, three separate individuals, each with their own particular quirks and foibles. In a polytheistic theology, various Gods are not equal, and being of different minds, can be separated by men and singled out for special petitions, special responsibilities. But the trinity has none of these characteristics. The Father, the Son and the Spirit move as one, indistinguishable from one another in intent, method, power, authority, and identity. The only differentiation is the method by which mere mortal man perceive the Word that is God. The Father, who created all, the Son, when God walked among us, and the Spirit that guides the hearts of all men who chose to accept Him.   All God, indivisible.

Can God duplicate himself, in the flesh? Muslims say no. Again, I marvel at the Islamic inclination to limit God, and say what he can and cannot do. God can do anything he wants! Which brings the thorny question: If God duplicated himself, would he be two, or one?   Again a difference that makes no difference is no difference! If I pray to God the Father or to God the Son, how is one different from the other? Would I achieve results from one and not the other? Would the answer to my prayer be different from one to the other? Would one hear my prayer, and the other not be able to? Would I be able to pit one against the other? When God and Jesus move with one mind, act with one intent, have the same power and authority, and there isn’t an iota of difference between them, then how are they not one? One in action, one in intent, one in experience. There is no difference. When you petition Jesus, you petition God.

Confusing, hard to understand? No harder than the blind man’s perception of the rainbow. When regarding the God of Abraham, we are all blind men. This is one of the big distinctions between the God of Abraham and Allah. Allah is not beyond the comprehension of mortal man. Indeed, from all accounts, he’s comfortably subordinate to the preconceptions of man. This should bother anyone who professes that such a deity is the author of the universe.