I’ve been reading Bart Ehrman’s book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, over the last few months. I’m taking my time. It is a book that I think people who identify as Christians should most certainly read. It took Ehrman, a NT scholar, eight years to research and write. The main purpose of his book [to quote Ehrman] is to explore how an apocalyptic prophet from the backwaters of rural Galilee crucified for crimes against the state came to be thought of as equal with the one God Almighty, Creator of all things.
The book leads the reader through the history of thought about divine beings and humans who became divine beings—focusing of course on Israel and Palestine and the time periods relevant to the writings in the Hebrew Scriptures [OT] and the New Testament Scriptures. Jesus, according to Ehrman, was transformed from a human prophet to the Son of God exalted to divine status at his resurrection. But this transformation happened because of how other people defined Jesus over the centuries. The closest followers of Jesus did not recognize him as divine until well after his death. And if you read the Gospels closely, not even all the writers were sure about Jesus’ divinity.
This could be a discussion for an entire year…or for a lifetime.
I recommend that you give this book a chance. At the very least, it will open your mind to the possibility that most of what you have been taught or what you have learned about Jesus comes strictly from your particular church traditions, denomination, pastor, or some creed.
People in the Gospels tried to define Jesus—all of them had different ideas. People in the 2nd, and 3rd, and 4th Centuries tried to define Jesus. Creeds again.
And after that, more and more people defined Jesus’ identity. The Middle Ages. The Reformation. Liberation Theology. Missional Theology. It never ends!
And so, here is the thing I want you to do. Just ask yourself this question, and answer it honestly, okay? Don’t let someone else or a denomination or a church or a pastor answer for you.
Who is Jesus to you? And why?
Think about that.
Identity [and not just Jesus’ identity] is really at the heart of the Gospels of the NT. Matthew and company all tell stories about Jesus of Nazareth, but in different ways; they all paint a unique picture of this man of Galilee. This is what I like about the Gospels, actually. There is not “one” tried and true definition of who Jesus was and is. The Gospels are more interested in telling the story of how communities formed around the teachings and life of this Jesus, and how people’s identities were formed. Think less about doctrine and more about formation.
Who is Jesus is not about a creed or a doctrine that is “right.”
Who is Jesus relates to who am I and who are we and what shall we do in this world?
Specifically, in Matthew’s story, identity is not just about who you are but who is around you. There is collective identity that goes hand and in hand with your own identity. Jesus was clearly preaching such a message. If someone knew who his/her neighbor was, then he/she had a chance to know themselves better.
And for Matthew’s community, they formed identity in a certain time and environment. We can never forget that those who followed Jesus of Nazareth were living under the Roman Empire. The Roman occupation of Israel was on everyone’s minds.
Would Jesus be the political leader to overthrow the Romans?
Would he restore the Israelites to power over that land?
None of that actually happened, did it? Jesus died. The Romans still had power. The predictions of God coming back to save and restore a new kingdom did not happen. People’s definitions of Jesus as king did not come to fruition.
This should not sound unfamiliar to us.
In this place and in this age, do you notice how empires still rule over us? Ancient empires like Rome did indeed fade away, but new ones with different names are imbedded in society. Armies and political structures exist, things we ignore or accept blindly as reality. We are placed in social levels, given categories and boxes into demographic stereotypes. Empires can trick us; they can tell us that we are not worth much, and neither are certain others around us.
That’s how Empires oppress; they mess around with our identities.
They run in with SWAT teams and heavy armor and guns.
They hurl tear gas at peaceful protestors.
They criminalize people based on skin color, nationality, or religion. They silence truthful voices. They push back justice-seekers. They favor the materially wealthy and powerful.
And empires use fear to cause apathy, to calm passion, and to push us to forget who we are capable of being.
In Ferguson, MO and all over this country some people call the “land of the free,” young Black men are killed. This is not about criticizing all women and men who are police. This is about telling the truth. Young Black men are targeted, arrested, and sometimes even dealt with violently or fatally. We cannot ignore this.
In Gaza, children die because of bombs. These bombs are funded by the U.S. and other countries that have political and economic interests in Israel and Palestine. We cannot ignore this.
In Iraq, soldiers, drones, and heavy military presence of the U.S. and others continue. People are dying. And people of particular religious traditions or cultures are being pushed out of Iraq or even killed. We cannot ignore this.
Just like we cannot ignore the identity question.
Who are we?
Are we Christians?
If so, what part of the Jesus message moves us to identify with others who suffer?
Which part of that message helps us to be more human as we are?
Does our faith/spirituality inspire us to be love/mercy for others?
The I AM of Jesus and the I AM of all of us is about deciding who we are willing to be. Are we willing to stand up against injustice, no matter how uncomfortable or unpopular? Are we willing to tell the truth and lift it up, even when others do not want to hear it and seek to hide it? Are we willing to take a risk and befriend someone, even love someone who thinks differently or looks differently, because we simply value their humanity? Are we willing to be real about society’s evil empires, the prejudice embedded in them, and our sometimes apathetic response?
Are you willing to answer this vulnerable identity question with action?
Who do you say you are?
Who are you willing to be?
To close, if you haven’t seen this, watch it.
Orlando Jones’ take on the “ice bucket challenge” speaks loudly.
To listen without prejudice;
to love without limits;
and to reserve the hate.