The most famous words ever penned about the historical Jesus would have to be the lyrical conclusion to Schweitzer’s classic, in which he demonstrated that Jesus was a deluded apocalyptic:
“He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words, “Follow thou me!”, and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.” (The Quest of the Historical Jesus, p 403)
High-profile scholars have tried to outdo Schweitzer by recycling this passage in support of their own view of Jesus. I know of three — Tom Wright, Dominic Crossan, and Dale Allison — all of whom stand at very different points in understanding Jesus. Let’s take them in turn.
“Schweitzer said that Jesus comes to us as one unknown. This is the wrong way around. We come to him as ones unknown, crawling back from the far country, where we had wasted our substance on riotous and ruinous historicism. But the swinehusks — the “assured results of modern criticism” — reminded us of that knowledge which arrogance had all but obliterated, and we began the journey home. But when we approached, we found him running to us as one well known, whom we had spurned in the name of scholarship or even faith, but who was still patiently waiting to be sought and found once more. And the ring on our finger and the shoes on our feet assure us that, in celebrating his kingdom and feasting at his table, we shall discover again and again not only who he is but who we ourselves are: as unknown and yet well known, as dying and behold we live.” (Jesus and the Victory of God, p 662)
Like Schweitzer, Wright thinks Jesus went to Jerusalem to die and bring in the kingdom. But his Jesus was victorious, his prophecies fulfilled in an unexpected way: via resurrection. Jesus’ bodily resurrection was the fulfillment of the kingdom of God in miniature, with the full eschaton being postponed to a later date.
“He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee. He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants living long enough at subsistence level to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution. He speaks about the rule of God, and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else. What, they really want to know, can this kingdom of God do for a lame child, a blind parent, a demented soul screaming its tortured isolation among the graves that mark the edges of the village? Jesus walks with them to the tombs, and, in the silence after the exorcism, the villagers listen once more. Earlier Jesus had received John’s baptism and accepted his message of God as the imminent apocalyptic judge. But Herod Antipas moved swiftly to execute John, there was no apocalyptic consummation, and Jesus, finding his own voice, began to speak of God not as imminent apocalypse but as present healing.” (The Historical Jesus, pp xi-xii)
Crossan rids himself of the Schweitzer-problem differently than Wright, insisting that apocalyptic expectations attributed to Jesus are unhistorical: Jesus broke with the Baptist’s vision and introduced the kingdom of God as a completely present reality. Interestingly, Wright and Crossan are flip sides of the same coin, Christian believers who need Jesus to be “correct” and legitimate their view of the world. Their Schweitzer-summaries are thus more Christologies than histories.
“He does not come to us as one unknown. We know him well enough. Jesus is the millenarian prophet of judgment, the embodiment of the divine discontent that rolls through all things. He sees those who go about in long robes and have the best seats in the synagogues while they lock others out of the kingdom. He sees the poor, the hungry, and the reviled, and he proclaims that the last will be first. He makes the best of a bad situation: things are not what they seem to be; everything will be okay. He knows that God promised never again to destroy the world through a flood, but he makes ready for the flood of the end-time anyway. His realism is so great that it must abandon the world, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. He knows that we, being evil, cannot fix things, that the wall cannot climb itself; but with God all things are possible. Jesus was wrong: reality has taken no notice of his imagination. And yet despite everything, for those who have ears to hear, Jesus says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only dream worth dreaming.” (Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, highly condensed from pp 217-219)
Allison is Christian, though he evidently doesn’t need Jesus to be “right” to the same degree Wright and Crossan do. He says: “From one point of view, Jesus was wrong, because he took apocalyptic language literally and expected a near end. But he wasn’t, from my Christian point of view, wrong in hoping for God to defeat evil, redeem the world, and hold us responsible. I continue to be amazed that we can’t do with the end what we do with the beginning. We have become very sophisticated in our understanding of Genesis as mythology. It still serves us homiletically and theologically even after we’ve given up the literal sense. Why can’t we do the same with eschatology? We can say that the writer of Genesis was mistaken about the beginning of the world — it didn’t take place a few thousand years ago, there was no Garden of Eden, etc — but he wasn’t wrong — God made the world, the world is good, but responsible human beings wreck things. I just want to do this with eschatology. I emphasize Jesus was wrong so that I can get to what he was right about.”
Well said. Whether or not we claim the Christian faith, we can take seriously the hope and despair embodied in a vision of God throwing cataclysm onto the world, righting wrongs, and ushering in a utopian paradise. Most of us can’t do without some kind of belief in a “good time coming”, lest we relinquish ourselves completely to despair. The apocalypse can be one of many mythological pointers to something better, and offer “hope without delusion” when interpreted non-literally. Jesus may have been deluded like all apocalyptics, but we needn’t keep repeating his error.
Jesus of Nazareth is known more through confessionalism (Wright) and revisionism (Crossan) than by acknowledging his failings and delusions (Schweitzer/Allison). Perhaps, in the end, that’s why he’s sure to remain the Unknown One.