August 19, 2011

John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah

I have been reading Mike Bird's excellent Are You the One Who Is to Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question recently, and have thus been thinking about Jesus' identity as the Messiah. For those who don't read much academic theology, it may come as a rather jarring surprise to know that the dominant current in Jesus studies over the last century has largely rejected the idea that Jesus considered himself to be the Messiah, or at least held it with great suspicion. This is especially surprising since it is one of the dominant themes of all four gospels. But regardless, this denial of Jesus' own Messianic consciousness has been wide-spread, and is relatively close to a consensus view among many mainstream academics. Bird, in his book, sets out to make a sustained case for Jesus' Messianic role and Messianic consciousness through explicating his teaching and actions. And I've found his presentation both helpful in understanding Jesus and his aims better and also quite convincing in its overall argument that Jesus was self-consciously Messianic.

But one area that Bird doesn't address very fully (it's a relatively short 170 pages of text, so it is obviously a rather "trim" treatment of what could be otherwise voluminously investigated, so this isn't a criticism so much as a proposal) is Jesus' relationship with John the Baptist, in what seems to me to be a pretty solid piece of evidence for Jesus' Messianic consciousness. John's role as the forerunner to Jesus is prominent at the outset of all four Gospels, and his message is quite consistent as one of repentance, coming judgment, and expectation of one who will follow/come after him. Though I don't think John ever explicitly names this coming one as the Messiah, many aspects of his preaching seem to fit well with this type of expectation. And where I think this plays into Jesus' consciousness in that even though John and Jesus had close ties, Jesus possibly even starting out as one of John's disciples and certainly holding John in high esteem, there is a fundamental difference in their preaching and eschatological posture: John preached a message of expectation and preparation, while Jesus focused on a message of arrival and fulfillment. It seems clear that Jesus saw the kingdom coming decisively in his ministry and person, and this fundamental difference between Jesus and John points pretty clearly toward a self-conscious decision on Jesus part: otherwise, why wouldn't he maintain the forward-facing posture of John? Instead, Jesus ministry was typified by gathering the outcasts, healing the broken, touching the poor, and announcing God's judgment as centered around people's response to him. Where I admit weakness in my argument is on the question of the exact parameters of Jesus' self-understanding: does this demonstrate a specifically "messianic" self-consciousness, as opposed to a kingly or prophetic one. I believe it does, but I need to investigate more fully. But I'm pretty sure there is some promising areas for study here.

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