In the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke, Jesus was praying alone with his Disciples when he asked what people thought of him. They answered according to Matt 16:14, “Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets,” with Luke 9:19 adding he might be, “one of the old prophets [who] is risen again.” He then asked what they thought, and one of his chief Apostles Peter answered boldly that he was the Christ of God (Luke 9:20) with Matt 16:16 adding “the Son of the living God.” Peter essentially was claiming that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah come down to save Israel. There was no rebuke, but an acknowledgement by Jesus that is exactly who he was, and praising his spiritual insight as coming from God. Considering the violent ending of those who claimed the Messianic mantle, Jesus warned them the same fate was coming. Peter rebuked him for saying such negative expectations, and Jesus rebuked back that Satan inspired rejecting the path he was destined to walk.
Who do men say that Jesus is? Today the question is no different than when Jesus and his Disciples walked the dusty road of Jerusalem. What might be surprising is the answers. They go from the mundane of lucky preacher who gained literate followers to the traditionally religious grandiose God and Savior of the world. Like the days of his life and death, he is both mocked and praised. It could even be said that while there is a sizable world wide number of believers in his Divinity, he is slowly becoming obscure or irrelevant. This is opposite the rival religion of Islam and some other Eastern faiths. The Western views that kept Jesus “alive” have changed over the last few centuries. He is in metaphorical fragments.
It wasn’t always like this. During the first great upheaval of arguments over his identity, the questions asked exactly how divine was Jesus in relation to God. The answer more than a millenium ago, that remains the cornerstone of most modern definitions of the Christian faith, proclaimed he was God in a different form. During his life, he was likewise both fully Man and fully God. The creed of Jesus was set and a catholic church dominated, until what came to be known as the reformation sprouted Protestantism. Despite serious disagreements, for the most part Protestants shared the same creed as the church they left. Whole countries developed around particular Christian identities and churches, defending and fighting among themselves for dominance. For centuries Jesus was a driving force for both good and evil actions of history.
That began to change a century after the “enlightenment” when people started to focus more on the mind than on the spirit. For the past two centuries views of who Jesus is and was began to be questioned in ways never before taken seriously. The answers have become so mixed and branching that one method employed actually used voting over a color scheme to decide the truth about Jesus. The colors represented the probability of what Jesus did or said, ultimately to determine who he was. Most likely these new questions and the modern views they inspire came from the relatively recent Western culture of skepticism. Answers have become less important than questions about history, authority, and existence itself. Science and academics, positive as they have been, is the new religion with scientists and professors the theologians; politicians the Priesthood authority. Jesus is quickly, to the ecstasy of many, becoming sidelined.
Preacher or God
The most famous example of the direction views on Jesus have gone is what Thomas Jefferson did to the Bible. He read the New Testament and struck out any mention of miracles or Jesus’ proclamations of divinity. Words and saying of a moral or philosophical nature remained. The holy and spiritual were ripped out. Islam didn’t even go that far when the Koran kept Jesus a Holy figure. At least the Jefferson Jesus remained a person of importance that had something to say of worth. He became a preacher of historical significance who taught wise council.
Jefferson’s predecessors have been less kind. Militant atheists do not claim any good from Jesus’ words. They want him to go away, or at least have those who believe in him to be cloistered away in homes and churches. Anyone who dares speak of him in public are sneered at and provoked. It is not enough to relegate him to the position of wise preacher. Jesus has to be wiped out with an asterisk in the history books.
There are believers in the Divinity of Jesus Christ in large, but shrinking, numbers. The political and news reporting class call them fundamentalists like some sociological category. They plead and beg to take Jesus Christ seriously again, but Western society has for the most part abandoned the foundational faith all Christians used to hold. Pop culture and politics have replaced God and Eternal Salvation. Shrinking mainstream churches, including may Catholics, lean toward Jefferson than St. Paul. His status as Son of God and Savior is defended by a few brave souls that can’t get along with each other. This bickering and infighting helps critics question why Jesus is any use in a large and connected world. Protestants, Catholics, and yes Mormons need to develop a united front no matter other differences if they don’t want the watered down Jesus to prevail.
Prophet, Nationalist, Eschatologist, or Savior
Scientific and critical developments expanded views of Jesus far beyond Jefferson’s striking out portions of the Bible. Analysis of the text combined with studies of the historical and cultural context of his time and place, creating new interpretations. The results have been mixed as different schools of thought developed to try and capture the man and his teachings. Like the trajectory that has been going on for some time, Jesus has mostly been stripped of his Divine attributes. Such beliefs are considered “outside scholarly inquiry” and therefore ignored or rejected.
Since the 18th Century, three quests for the historical Jesus have taken place. Through it all there has come the shared conclusion that Jesus did exist, no matter what theories there is about him. Beyond that, the only agreements about his life are that he was born, baptized by John the Baptist, and died by the command of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. All other studies have found him to be the last Jewish prophet, charismatic preacher, passive-aggressive defender of Israel over Rome, social crusader, apocalyptic or eschatological teacher, healer magician, or Jewish Messiah. Very few scholars see him as all of those things. The most recent quest asked less about Jesus and more how likely the Scriptures are to historical accuracy. This is what brought the “Jesus Seminar” together with its provocative color scheme that decided what to accept or reject about him, with his Divinity stripped. What they did has faded into history, but not without effecting some influence. Popular acceptance of the “Gospel of Mary” and “Gospel of Judas” pseudepigrapha comes from the idea that whatever is written about him is up for consideration.
Probably what has been the most successful modern interpretation and use of Jesus is developing economic theories from his teachings. The original question of who is Jesus has been reduced to if he was a capitalist or a socialist? There is the much maligned by both traditional and liberal Christians “prosperity gospel” that teaches monetary blessings come to those who have faith in Jesus as Savior. It is perhaps the most recognized use of Jesus as an economic indicator. The teaching is based on the idea that those who have faith in Jesus will gain health and wealth in this life along with salvation in the next. Most of the people who believe in this belong to non-denominational mega-churches where the leader teaches less about money and more self-actualization through faith.
They are not the only ones to focus on what Jesus has to say about finances. There are two schools of thought competing against each other. One side points to Mark 10:17-27 where a rich man comes to Jesus and asks what he should do to be saved in the Kingdom of God after following the Commandments. He responds, “go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.” With his Apostles astonished by this, Jesus then tells them it is impossible for a rich man to enter Heaven save through the power of God. Socialists have grabbed on to this among other teachings to lambast having any riches. They seek to distribute the wealth to those less fortunate. Anyone who argues against doing that are called uncharitable and haters of the poor.
Capitalist minded Christians read Matt 25:15-30 and Luke 19:27, among others, to support the idea that buying and selling for profit is not against God. In this story a capitalist gave out his money (or talents) to servants while he was gone to do with it as they see fit. Once the capitalist comes back he gathers up the money of the servants to see who has earned him the most profit. He is pleased by what he finds, except for one who buried the talent and didn’t gain anything. The capitalist, expressed approvingly by Jesus, took the coin from the man and “distributed” to the most wealth creating of the group. Socialists are seen as going against free will and using the State as a forced charity organization taking the place of God.
Roman leader Constantine reported to have seen a vision of a crucifix before going into battle, and then proclaim by that sign would his army fight. They were able to declare victory to start the process of turning Christianity into the state religion. During those years wars of theology were fought to determine who Christ was in relation to God. The final product of orthodoxy claimed Jesus was fully man and fully God during his life, and a different incarnation of the same Eternal Father. From then on anyone who questions this, no matter if he is considered the Divine Savior, is called non-Christian. This marks who is “us” and who is “them” among most Christians. Heretics cannot exist because there cannot be any heretical teachings and still be called part of the religion. Apparently, there is “another Jesus” that exists for some people if orthodoxy is not adhered to exactly.
Orthodox Christianity are not the only ones that use Jesus as a way to put others down. Artists use his image, particularly the crucifixion, to mock Christian believers. The most famous example is the glass jar of urine that holds an icon of Jesus hanging on the cross. Calling it art doesn’t dismiss what a majority of Christians would consider offensive and an affront against what they believe. The once Catholic musician Madonna has also presented scantily clad sexual depictions of the crucifixion. Her successor, the so called Lady Gaga, had continued this tradition of making a mockery of the Jesus Christ image.
Atheists equally demonstrate how much they hate Jesus, picturing him as a pretend superhero. He is to them no better than the fictional Superman (who ironically is often depicted as a Christ figure). One sign that was recently put up said that Christmas doesn’t need Jesus, without any hint of irony. However, when Christians fight back against these attacks, atheists will call them “un-Christian” as if holding some kind of authority they don’t even recognize as valid.
The modern view of Jesus is more fractured than it has ever been since the Second and Third Centuries of what used to be known as the Christian Era. Orthodox Christians continue to hold on to very specific and traditional views, while more people reject Jesus of any kind all around them. Many who leave the orthodoxy of faith don’t cling to newer versions of a Savior figure, but reject any divinity. He becomes a wise man and homily speaker rather than serious religious authority. Even then the majority who lose faith in the Christian denominations simply reject Jesus as of any importance, or perhaps an impedance to them. In this modern world, asking who Jesus is has become a serious issue with no sure outcome save it be to the faithful. The so-called war on Christmas is an extension of the war on Jesus.