by Patrick Lafferty
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.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.
Atop the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. you’ll find (now that the light bill will be paid through September) a perfectly surreal rendering of George Washington, by Greek-Italian artist, Constantino Brumidi. Entitled The Apotheosis of George Washington, the massive fresco depicts our first president sitting, as if in session among the clouds, surrounded by Roman gods and goddesses who typified features of our national existence—science, mechanics, agriculture, war, and commerce.
As the word apotheosis means the elevation of someone to divine status, Brumidi was successful in according the man Washington with all the supernal glory his nation would gladly ascribe to him. Yet I suspect Washington himself would prefer to be known as only a human who made necessary sacrifices. That’s part of the reason we esteem him. He would’ve likely blanched at having his persona embellished with heavenly regalia.
When I was in college and considering Jesus and His gospel with any scrutiny for the first time, C.S. Lewis’ helpful “tri-lemma” simplified my task. As Paul Settle quoted him last Sunday, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.” Lewis’ logic struck me then, and now, as airtight.
Yet there was one other option for how we understand Jesus that seemed both possible and consequently troubling to me. What if Jesus had undergone the same kind of apotheosis Washington had? That is, could history and admiration for the human Jesus have embellished his persona with such significance that it took on a divine quality? Could the celebration of Jesus’ heroic sacrifices have transformed perceptions of this Jewish son so that he became a He?
In fact, that’s precisely what one of Washington’s esteemed colleagues, Thomas Jefferson, believed. So much so he edited a copy of the New Testament by removing every reference to the supernatural, leaving a purely ethical rendition of Jesus’ life and teaching. Gone were the miraculous signs and wonders, the allusions which, to Jefferson, were impingements on the true value of Jesus. The episodes of exorcism, healing—even resurrection—now littered Jefferson’s floor, excised from his bible and his thought. Jesus was a sage to be reckoned with, Jefferson acknowledged, but not as one of heavenly origin or title.
Jefferson’s logic remains a prevalent view among many. It’s a view derived mainly from the Enlightenment’s uneasiness with the category of the immaterial. But it’s also premised on a particular view of how the New Testament was compiled.
We know that before the gospels were written their content was first transmitted orally; sayings, episodes, dialogues were told and retold within and between church communities until the early church saw the need to put these verbal remembrances into written form. Scholars who, like Jefferson, bracketed the supernatural from their thought concluded that the written accounts of Jesus’ life necessarily underwent such massive reshaping over time that what we have in the gospels is so embellished as to be unreliable.
But in recent decades, scholars like that of Richard Bauckham have revised the conventional view of how the gospels were compiled. His most recent book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, argues that numerous features of the events recorded in the gospels reveal language consistent with a particular category of ancient historiography aptly called “testimony.” The presence of names, vivid details, and often embarrassing inclusions in the accounts indicate that what we have in the gospels is more likely attributable to eyewitness testimony (or associates of the eyewitnesses) than to the product of communities reshaping oral memories of Jesus for their own purposes. Both the content of the accounts and their style establish testimony as their most plausible source.
To illustrate with a modern equivalent, Bauckham draws a delicate analogy between the testimonies of Holocaust survivors and the gospel accounts. The “exceptionality” of what transpired at Auschwitz or Buchenwald ensured a far more accurate transmission of its record due to the effect it had on those who lived to disclose it. Similarly, the unexpected and unprecedented nature of what occurred in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus adds to the credibility of their vivid description of events because those who compiled the accounts would be just as interested in preserving and promulgating their exceptional content. They had seen or heard what had happened and couldn’t be silent about it, while those who compiled the accounts would be scrupulous about including only what could be considered trustworthy testimony (cf. Lk 1:1–4).
So the portrayal of Jesus’ glory in the gospels is no work of artifice. They are interpretations of His life and words, to be sure, but not an apotheosis of a mere—albeit influential—man.
Believers in the full divinity of Jesus may balk at Jefferson’s radical recasting. They may find efforts like Bauckham’s just a rehash of established doctrine. But we shall always run the risk of making a subtle Jeffersonian shift in the way we think of Jesus, in at least two interrelated ways.
One, we stop praying. We may respect His sagacity and wisdom, but we can insensibly begin to ignore that He sits at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us (Rom 8:34) and inviting us to commune with Him in prayer. Jesus knows we may sometimes find it a struggle to pray (cf. Mk 14:36–38), but God is one with whom we share our heart, not just an idea upon which we reflect.
We also shift Jefferson’s way when we start seeking to embody Jesus’ virtue without appealing to His supernatural help. Jefferson relied upon his own aptitude and fortitude to manifest Christ’s rectitude. But if the transformation Jesus sought to bring us could be found within us why would He have to die for us? Because what we most need is not of this world. Denuding Jesus of His divinity makes your hope of holiness as realistic as Brumidi’s fresco.
You might never have thought of Jesus as anything less than divine, but have you unwittingly undergone a Jeffersonian shift?