One of the more confusing features of the gospels is the odd back and forth relationship Jesus seems to have with the question of his identity. It’s a matter confusing enough for the early Church that seven ecumenical councils have to be held in order to iron the question out and even today many people with only the dimmest awareness of what the gospels say (due, among other things, to the fact that 60% of Americans can’t even name the four gospels) have internalized the vague notion that Jesus was a nice guy who went around saying wise things, doing kind stuff for poor people, championing women’s rights, speaking truth to power about gays and minorities and the Sacred Feminine, but who then ran afoul of The Man and was executed for it, just like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Sophie Scholl (if Americans knew who Sophie Scholl was).
If his story had ended with him safely and securely dead (suppose an increasing number of Westerners) things would have been great. He’d be another do-gooder whose deathiversary might make for a national holiday and a barbecue. Somebody we could reflect on before getting back to Real Stuff (by which we mean money, sex, power, and honor). But unfortunately (so the narrative goes) Jesus had the enormous bad luck to have hand-picked the dumbest and cleverest band of sociopathic hallucinators on the planet and they managed to both totally misunderstand and pervert his simple message of love and convince themselves he rose from the dead. Then, with even greater improbability, they sold that yarn to lots of people two thousand years stupider than us.
Then, in an even worse stroke of bad fortune, a crazy epileptic rabbi named Saul of Tarsus flipped out, became convinced the dead sage was not only alive but was God, and single-handedly invented a religion about Jesus. Shortly thereafter, (because three centuries passed a lot more quickly in olden times than time passes today) Constantine made that religion official and killed 50 bazillion herbal healer women as witches and invented the papacy and banned sex and ordered the death of Galileo and the destruction of the library at Alexandria and issued rulers to nuns for rapping the knuckles of children in Garry Wills’ third grade classroom.
So, as the saying goes, we should honor Jesus and get rid of religion or, as it is also known, the Church. Jesus never intended any Church say the people who know nothing about the Church. That’s all just legend accreted to his memory by chroniclers who never knew him, say the people who can’t name the chroniclers and have never read what they wrote. And since then, the Church has pretty much managed to completely mess up everything and has no idea who Jesus is, say the people who have no idea who Jesus is. If you want that true knowledge, it is pretty much a scientifically settled fact that you need to go everywhere but to the people who study the only sources of information we have about him, have thought about him for centuries, and actually know what they are talking about.
Instead, you should consult the nearest Random Crank with a Theory to discover the TRVTH that
• Jesus was a woman
• Jesus was a space alien and is buried in Japan
• Jesus survived the crucifixion and is buried in Kashmir
• Jesus was a Buddhist
• Jesus was a Muslim
• Jesus was a Mormon
• Jesus was a magician
• Jesus was a Gnostic
• Jesus was the son of Mary and a Roman solider
• Jesus never existed
• Jesus was never executed
• Jesus was married and had children
• Jesus was a social revolutionary when he was not a mere Mediterranean peasant
• Jesus was an itinerant visionary whose real teachings exist only in distorted, fragmented form
• Jesus was insane
Still and all, despite this expert historical inquiry into the early Church from the Culture that Retweets the Thoughts of Justin Bieber 150,000 Times Every Day, it turns out that we can know rather a lot about Jesus from the gospels. That’s because the gospels, in fact, conform to the conventions, not of myth, but of ancient eyewitness testimony and historiography from people who actually knew Jesus and witnessed his passion, death, and resurrection and then died for that testimony in horrible, terrifying, and gory ways rather than recant what they saw or plea-bargain or rat each other out like Watergate conspirators.
Now the irony of all this is that the people who tell the story of what they saw and heard, so far from being two thousand years stupider than we are, turn out to be much of a muchness with us intellectually. They were pretty much as smart as we are and possessed of the same capacity for common sense. So we discover that two thousand years ago, when Jesus asked for the results of the latest Gallup survey on his identity, his followers were just as aware of the diversity of opinion then as now:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matthew 16:13-14)
And then, as now, those with a more informed view gave a more informed opinion:
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:15-16)
What is most notable, of course, is Jesus’ response. On the one hand:
Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17)
Which, being translated, means not “Whoa! You are a monomaniacal fanatic getting carried away and you have totally misunderstood my message, Simon Bar-Jona!” but instead means “Give that man a cigar! Absolutely correct! And that was not just a lucky guess, but divine revelation!” Moreover, Jesus goes on from there to tell Simon something else:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)
In short, yes indeed, 1) Jesus does intend to build a Church and do all those other religiony things people say he never intended to do; and 2) Simon is being renamed “Peter” or “Rock” (the nickname was actually “Kefa” in Jesus’ Aramaic but the evangelist renders it in Greek for the sake of his audience).
Now names and re-naming are always a Big Deal in the Jewish tradition. When God tells you his Name (Exodus 3:14), or changes “Jacob the Deceiver” to “Israel the One Who Struggles with God” that’s always a “Pay Attention, Stupid” moment. Here, Jesus is just about as clear as he can be that he is not just a guy wandering around spouting aphorisms to the birds and any random passerby who will listen, but is rather possessed of a very robust sense of creating an institution that will follow him and preserve his teaching, not screw it up and totally forget it.
So, yes, the whole “Jesus acknowledges he is God and even founds a Church and appoints the first Pope and gives him authority to act in his name” thing is all in there. And despite the modern assumption that this is all some Petrine Power Grab Text, the interesting thing is that this passage only exists in Matthew, a gospel written, not by Peter’s right hand man to lord it over the Church, but by and for the community in Judea, all the way across the Mediterranean from the Roman Church Peter winds up governing. As a piece of institutional whitewash, it’s weird because it’s in the wrong gospel and written for the wrong community, if that’s what it is supposed to accomplish.
So what? So this: when Peter’s right hand man, Mark, tells the same story, he does it this way:
And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he charged them to tell no one about him. (Mark 8:29-30).
Mark, Peter’s secretary, doesn’t include any of the stuff we normally think of when we think of that story. He blasts right from Peter’s confession to Jesus’ “Shhhhhhh” without any mention of the renaming and the Church built on the Rock and the Keys of the Kingdom.
Is this because Mark, being the earliest gospel, is writing before corruption of the memory of the merely human Jesus has set in and he is trying to warn us that the merely human rabbi of Nazareth denied his deity and Matthew mucked up the story?
No. Because Mark also records this conversation just a few chapters later:
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:61-62)
This is the ultimate double entendre of human history and Mark is fully aware of it—as is Peter, who is the source of Mark’s gospel. Jesus’ “I AM” is not merely an admission that he is the Christ: it is the Divine Name of God from Exodus 3:14, applied to himself. The earliest gospel—Mark—as much as the latest one—John—tells us that Jesus very deliberately claimed to be God. It is, in fact, the reason he was condemned by the Sanhedrin and not because they had an irrational dislike of wandering sages who went about saying “Niceness is nice” and helping little old yentas across the street.
Okay, so if Mark does not mean to deny that Peter’s confession was accurate, why the shushing by Jesus?
Here is where things get interesting: Basically, the answer is not that Jesus denied he was the Messiah, but that he denied he was what most people assumed “Messiah” to mean. That is the great paradox of Peter’s confession and you can see the problem Jesus faces arise in the very next moment. For contrary to the modern assumption, Jesus was not a total moron blind to the fact that his closest disciples were prone to misunderstand what he was talking about. On the contrary, he immediately begins to tell them what the job description of a Messiah really means and they immediately begin to balk at this in favor of the job description their culture had taught them it meant:
And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.” (Mark 8:31-33).
Remember: this is from Mark’s gospel: the one that gives us the gist of Peter’s very own preaching. If there is any story (besides that of Peter’s denial) that would be less likely to be recorded by a professional whitewasher bent on making Peter look really good, I can’t think of it.
Nonetheless, there it is. And it is there because Peter wants us to see that Jesus in fact, took great pains to make sure that his apostles understood that their idea of what “Messiah” means absolutely had to be conformed to his idea of what “Messiah” means and not vice versa. Indeed, much of what the gospels are about is an account of Jesus doing exactly what moderns imagine Jesus failed to do: correcting his followers’ false ideas about him and teaching them what he really means about himself and his mission.
For the truth is, not only were his followers not two thousand years stupider than us, we are not two thousand years smarter than them. Because we still do exactly what they did: we look for saviors who tell us not that we need saving from our own sins, but that we are awesome and perfect and that it is only Those People Over There who need to be saved and that we, at best, need to be saved from Those People Over There. In short, we love to repent of other people’s sins, not our own.
First-century Jews (including the apostles) wanted to repent the sins of the Romans. They conceived of the Messiah as a conquering Davidic king who would kick Roman backsides, then turn and tell Jews how awesome and faithful they were and establish a political and economic powerhouse of a kingdom that would rule the world. The dream was that, when the Messiah came, God would finally come to his senses and satisfy his people’s hunger for money, sex, power, and honor. When Jesus instead pointed to rejection, suffering, and death as the real way to the real kingdom, Peter responded, well, just like we do: he chewed Jesus out.
Ostensibly, he meant, “This shall never happen to you” but really, of course, he meant “This shall never happen to me.” Jesus, tellingly, looked at his disciples before he in turn rebuked Peter. Why? Because so far from being a detached mystical dumbbell with no grasp of the fact that his disciples were plotting to found a religion in his memory, he was extremely conscious of the fact that this conversation was going to be remembered forever by the Church he was founding on the Rock.
That’s because Jesus knew the temptation to repent other people’s sins and reshape him in our image and likeness would be with us forever too. And so it has been. From Bar-Kochba (the failed Messiah whose revolt led to the utter destruction of Jerusalem in 135 BC) to the latest Lightbringer, what we look for in a savior is not somebody to tell us we are wrong and call us to repent and die to ourselves, but somebody to reflect our faces back to us. Communists discovered a Bolshevik Jesus here to save us from capitalism. American capitalists discovered he was an American capitalist here to save us from insufficient health and wealth. Nazis discovered he was an Aryan here to bless German arms. Terence McNally discovered he was gay and here to save us from the Religious Right. Dan Brown discovered he was straight and here to save us from the evil Catholic Church. The Moral Majority discovered he was a member of the Religious Right and here to save us from liberals. And so on.
That is why Paul warns against false prophets who tell us what our itching ears want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3). A Jesus who constantly tells you that you are great and Those People are the real trouble is a false one. The early Church really was surrounded with enemies, both Jew and Gentile. It could even point to the very real fact that a genuine conspiracy of Jewish and Gentile leaders, together with a fifth columnist in the apostolic ranks and even demonic powers at work had successfully pulled off the worst murder of all time in the crucifixion. And yet what marks the gospels is their insistence that the main issue for Jesus is the sin and unbelief of his followers, not his enemies. Instead of teaching his followers to wring their hands about external threats from Those People Over There, Jesus puts the focus almost entirely on us and demands that we live holy lives with an almost blithe disregard for whether it gets us killed. So to a Church in far more physical danger than ours, he says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). That’s a stiff drink for Americans worried that being Catholic may mean we don’t get invited to sit at the Cool Kids’ Table. But it’s true all the same.