Saturday, January 10, 2015

Why Are There So Many Different Perspectives About Jesus?

Question: Why does the person of Jesus lend itself to so many different interpretations, which are often contradictory? It seems like someone can just get Jesus à la carte, depending on what one wants to believe. Is that right?

AP: The answer is because the Gospels are also contradictory and only a sketch of the person of Jesus is found therein . . . sometimes anyway. The Gospels themselves are already reinterpretations of Jesus through reading the Bible that they had at that time, namely the Septuagint (i.e., LXX, the Hebrew Bible translated into Greek). The authors of those Gospels made every possible connection that they could find between the LXX and the life of Jesus. In fact, later Christians did the exact same thing.

I have published a book containing the various views of Christians about Jesus from the first century to the seventh century A.D. They are extremely diverse and contradictory: Jesús de Nazaret. El hombre de las cien caras de Jesús (Madrid: Edaf, 2012) 349 pp. ISBN 978-84-414-3096-9.


TWH: I do not think the four canonical Gospels are contradictory at all. Do their authors present Jesus in thematic ways at times that are distinct? Of course. One example is how Jesus is brought to the wilderness after his baptism. Matthew says that he is led, like you would expect a king to move from one place to another. Mark, on the hand, says that Jesus was cast out to the wilderness, using the same word that is found in exorcism passages. Is that problematic? Not in the least for me. Maybe that one is an easy one, though. What about passages that present Jesus as being so gentle that he could walk past a dimly burning wick and it would not go out? Doesn't that contradict passages that show Jesus angry and making a whip? Of course, the examples that I've given above show the literary presentation can change depending on an author's intent and that Gospels can show Jesus experiencing a full-range of human-divine emotions. But what about who Jesus actually is, theologically-speaking? In each of the four Gospels Jesus is presented as human and in possession of divine attributes. Is there a full-blown treatise on the essence of God and relationship of the members of the Trinity? No, but the Gospels are clear that Jesus is God. They are clear that he took on human flesh. I'll just leave you with those examples.

Now, it is true that there are a plethora of different interpretations when it comes to the person of Jesus. This is attributed not to the variance found in the Gospels. Rather, we can attribute these to different approaches to the biblical text. That's what we call hermeneutics. The grid by which we interpret the Word of God has to be right. We have to have the right principles for interpreting the Word of God. If you ask me, we can attribute the different interpretations primarily to the variance in principles for interpreting the Bible.


  1. I'd say that sometimes we forget that we people are not made from one piece but we are poliedric. I remember the original cover of one of AP's books, Ciudadano Jesús (Atanor, Madrid, 2012) in which the Jesus' s portrait is made from polygons, which I found very suggestive.

    On the other hand, in my opinion AP's Jesús de Nazaret, el hombre de las cien caras, shows mainly the different approaches of ancient and modern authors to Jesus according to authors' expectations (and biography, as for instance the late Casey showed for some new mythists) rather than contradictions as such.

    1. J.P., you are correct about Antonio's book. That book is not so much an evaluation of the Gospels, but an evaluation of people's evaluation of the Gospels. But can the wide-ranging variance really be attributed to perceived contradictions in the canonical Gospels? I don't think so. We can't say that there are plethoras of different understandings of who Jesus is because the four Gospels present Jesus in variable (or contradictory) ways. First, they are not contradictory. Second, how people interpret the Gospels, right or wrong, is not caused by the Gospels themselves. Third, we cannot attribute the variance to a perceived incompleteness or (non-exhaustiveness) on the life and ministry of Jesus. The Gospels were not designed to be exhaustive accounts of Jesus' life, no different really than bios throughout history. The Gospels are intended to serve as discipleship resources, given to the Body of Christ for the edification of its members and given to the world for the message of life that is contained within them.

      Are the Gospels "reinterpretations" of the life of Jesus? I don't think so. I think they are historically accurate presentations of select portions of Jesus' life and ministry. Are they individually distinct? Yes. But "reinterpretation" has a connotation that I am not willing to ascribe to the corpus of divinely inspired texts.

      I appreciate your comments. I'd love to know what you think about my follow-up.

  2. Hi, Thomas.

    I think that the follow-up you are carrying out of AP's blog is very interesting and refreshing. As I think you know, in AP's blog sometimes discussions are too hot (and I'm to blame of that too). In my opinion, the topics and fragments you are selecting shows AP's thinking very clearly and accurate. What I think it's the most interesting is the contrast between your position and AP. And I'd say that your comments are not only appropiate but I find that you are making me to think again on the topics discussed already in AP's blog and some things I took for granted and closed. When I started to study the NT, I have to recognize that I was very skeptic, even I didn't think that Jesus was a historical figure! But it was the comparison with other bios, as you say in your comment, I did realize that I eas wrong. Besides, although I am not convinced that all what is in the Gospels is historical, but I do think that the Gospels as a whole deserve more credit from historians than they are granted currently. I'm not convinced anymore that a radical hermeneutic of suspicion is the most appropiate tool to study the Gospels from a historical point of view. Just an example, AP said in a radio-aired interview that Gospel of John Jesus is not plausible since he doesn't speak in parables, but then what about Mk 4:10-12? So I think is legitimate to think that John's intention was not an accurate register of Jesus's words, style and deeds but to explain the doctrine (something like 1Cor 3:2). And it is very suggestive to put this verse in relation with Judas' betrayal and the accusations of blasphemy.

    1. J.P., thanks for the feedback and the very kind words. My own response to what you wrote about the Gospel of John and parables is this: Did Jesus always speak in parables? Couldn't John be recording what Jesus said at times when he was not speaking in parables (e.g., the "I am" declarations)? I know that some people would say that the Synoptics share parabolic discourse because they shared material from one or more Gospel (or, as some think, a hypothetical source such as Q). However, could it not be true that they are accurate records of Jesus' teaching, style, and works and, with regard to parables, they each chose to include significant portions of this type of discourse in their presentations? John recognized that Jesus had done and said many things not recorded in the Synoptic Gospels and near the end of the first century, through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, began to record a fourth and final Gospel. In it, he concentrated on the last night of Jesus' life, whereas the Synoptics focused on the last week of Jesus' life. And he gave us information about Jesus' teaching and works that confirmed what the Synoptics had already shown with great proof–namely that Jesus is the Messiah and he is in his essence God. The four Gospels are what God intended for the church to have in this time prior to the return of Jesus Christ. They give us four historical, contemporary records of Jesus' life. Beyond that, because they are inspired by God, they carry elements of God's attributes that are important for understanding the nature of these texts, such as their inerrancy and veracity.

      I think it is more reasonable to think that John's presentation of Jesus' teaching is an accurate presentation of how and what Jesus taught. I actually think Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. And no one comes to the Father except through me." I don't discount the Gospel of John because John's Gospel does not conform to the standard of uniformity. I know that I myself have a wide range when it comes to discourse and communication. We all do. We ought to expect the same from Jesus.

      J.P., let me share one little additional feature that I think you might find interesting. I've read a number of scholars say that Luke 6:40 is not original to the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (1) because it is different than the more well-known likeness passage (i.e., "A slave is not above his master . . . .") found in Matthew and John, and (2) because there is no record of it in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). Instead, some have said, it is more likely that Jesus said what we see in Matthew and that Jesus said it at that point in his ministry. As I have pointed out in my website a couple of times, is it really unreasonable to see sayings of Jesus repeated in different historical settings during his ministry? I mean, after all, there were no iPads or iTunes or radio podcasts back then. Jesus would have repeated his sayings occasionally throughout his ministry in front of different audiences. And he would have repeated principles that were important to him, especially things that were proverbial. My own mentors have done the same thing.

      J.P., so glad that you read the blog. And thanks for chiming in via comments. Very insightful.

  3. Thanks, Thomas. Of course, regarding my thoughts about John, I'm not intending to say that everything in John was John's invention. I think we can take for granted that Jesus had different preaching styles according to the audience (for instance, I think plausible that Jesus could preach in Greek if required) and although the general opinion is that nobody registered his sayings (see today post in AP's blog), I don't think it's wise to discard completely that somebody, somehow, managed to "record" some of his sayings and not only by memorising.

    I agree also with the repetition of sayings. Teachers, professors, speakers sometimes use the same anecdotes and jokes in all his speachings and writings. A paradigmatic case in Spain is the Catholic priest and conservative theologian J.A. Sayés: I listened to some of his conferences, TV interventions and read some of his books and he always uses the same jokes, examples and comments to show his points. He even warns that when he began to use an example to show a topic that I can't remember now, he started many years ago with 100 pts (old Spanish currency) but now he uses euros (European and Spanish current currency). And think he is a rather good speaker, communicator and disseminator if the occasion requires it, adapting himself to other theologians or to ordinary people and youngsters. (Although maybe I disagree with him in some points.)

    Thanks again and keep up the good work!

    1. Excellent points! And I know that you weren't saying that everything was John's invention. No need for that clarification. I follow.

      On a related matter, the whole issue of ipsissima verba/vox is important to the discussion. For me, I would allow the least amount of flexibility in transferring non-Greek discourse into Greek as the receptor language. Or, to put it another way, I believe the Holy Spirit would have guided the authors of the Gospels in such a way that whatever non-Greek discourse that made it into the Gospels in Greek would have been translated in the absolute best possible way, something each author would have wanted and worked toward as well.

      Shoot me an email sometime. Thanks again for your feedback.