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Jesus or Christ? It’s not either/or, says Ian Harris, both are central to Christianity.
At a progressive spirituality conference in Napier last year the keynote speaker, Dr Robin Meyers of Oklahoma City, ended his final address by asking: "Are you followers of Jesus, or worshippers of Christ?"
The question was well received. Many Christians today think following Jesus is quite sufficient, thank you, so are not drawn to worship Christ. This has led to a significant movement in some churches away from any serious contemplation of the Christ.
In those churches the emphasis is on living the Jesus way, which its adherents find both appealing and relevant. Jesus they can relate to, a good man, a superlative teacher, a sage — such a pity their religion is identified as "Christianity", a name derived from the Christ.
Game, set and match? Not quite.
I asked Dr Meyers afterwards what lay behind his question.
"Well," he said, "on the one hand you have the man Jesus and his teaching about bringing in the kingdom of God here on Earth, on the other a divine Christ who was born of a virgin, performed one miracle after another, rose from the dead, and ascended bodily into heaven."
I said I wasn’t enamoured of that either — but what if the Christ was rather Christianity’s archetype of love, grace and transformation, and therefore the inner dynamic for living the Jesus way? Dr Meyers said he had no problem with that at all.
Which left me wondering why he set up the alternatives in the way he had. After all, the gospels attribute all those stories about a virgin birth, miracles of healing and supernatural power, bodily resurrection and ascension, to Jesus, not Christ. So how come Meyers and others insist on dislodging them from Jesus and heaping them on to the Christ?
The title "Christ" is used mainly in the four gospels to refer to the leader Jews longed for, commissioned by God to free them from subjection to Rome, restore their unique identity as a people, and bring in God’s rule. That’s highly political and down-to-earth, not evidence of divinity and the supernatural. Some sleight of mind seemed to be happening here.
Actually, "Jesus" and "Christ" are both intrinsic to the New Testament as a whole. The significance of each individually is indelibly linked to the other, but they lose something when treated as if they were just alternative names for the same person. They need to be uncoupled, first to appreciate Jesus in the fullness of his humanity, and then to discern why his earliest followers found it appropriate to claim him as "mashiach" or messiah, or in Greek "Christ".
That happened primarily as they tried to make sense of their experience of Jesus, especially the shock of his crucifixion — and then, somehow, their continuing experience of him.
This was the earliest period of Christianity, when Jesus’ Jewish followers were still part of the synagogue and worship was steeped in the Jewish scriptures. That setting goes far to explain why they came to regard Jesus as their messiah. Their scriptures told them of others who had been "anointed" (that’s what "mashiach" means) to lofty tasks of leadership as kings or high priests.
There was even a foreign king, Cyrus of Persia, accorded the title. Nearly 600 years before Jesus’ time, Cyrus had freed Jews long held captive in Babylon and allowed them to return home. He was their deliverer, to Jews a messiah.
The apostle Paul had a prime role in developing the vision of Jesus as messiah. and today some see this as perverting Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God. Rather than promoting the kingdom as such, he preached Jesus as its harbinger, using the Greek word for anointed, "christos" or Christ.
It is a matter of historical fact that Christianity took root as a religion because Jesus and his teaching were conveyed more through the imaginative possibilities of a universalised messiah or Christ than the bare memory and wisdom of Jesus’ teaching. Some scholars surmise that without the Christ concept, the Jesus movement would have faded away by about AD500, like many other groups of his day.
Paul took Jesus and all he represented and projected them into the future through gatherings of people in which Jesus was felt to be dynamically present as the messiah or Christ. If psychiatrist Carl Jung’s term "archetype" had been around, Paul might well have used it, because that’s very much in tune with his thinking.
Such a link carries the Christ concept forward into our own day and age — more on that next time.
- Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.