I teach ancient Greek political philosophy for a living. Plato and Aristotle are the main characters. Along the way I point out that the classical Greek virtues, wisdom, courage, self-discipline, and justice, are only half the story of Western civilization. The other half comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition: justice is necessary, but the Western tradition is also about love. The Western tradition needs both Athens (reason) and Jerusalem (love) to be complete. This is Christ’s great contribution.
According to Harold Bloom in Jesus and Yahweh, “Yahweh’s love is Covenant-keeping, no more and no less.” (p. 164) This does not seem a fair account of The Hebrew Bible (Tanakh). It is not much of a stretch to read The Song of Solomon as an account of a love affair between God and His people. What Jesus adds is the idea that God would allow himself to become man, suffer, and die in order to share in humanity’s suffering.
Yet, something about Christ’s love is frightening. If Jesus is God, then it makes no sense to think of His love as comparable to human love. I’ve never thought it made any sense to talk about taking Jesus Christ as my personal savior. There is something terrifyingly stark and other about Jesus. And there should be. He is man, and not man. Many Christians prefer the Gospel of Luke because in it Christ seems most “humane.” But if one thinks about Christ seriously, that is a category mistake. Christ is not humane because He is not human. One does not have to be a Docetist (representing the view that Jesus only appeared to be human) to believe that.
Consider the words of Christ in John, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” ( 8.58) Bloom argues that this is a direct allusion to God’s self-definition to Moses, “I am that I am.” (Exodus 3.14) John is busy “subverting” the Hebrew Bible (p. 75), implying that Jesus was before Moses, before the Hebrew Bible was written. I think this is a fascinating literary interpretation of the relationship between what Christians (in another subversion) call the Old and New Testaments. But I think Bloom is mistaken when he writes about Rudolf Bultmann that
I cannot conceive of a weaker misreading of “Before Abraham was, I am” than Bultmann’s retreat into “faith,” a “faith” in the “pre-existence” of Jesus. (p. 76)
From a Christian perspective, Jesus’ relationship to the patriarchs takes place not in historical time, but eternity. There is no way to read Jesus’ astounding statement other than as a statement coming from the perspective of eternity. If, that is, one takes the perspective of faith, a reasonable attitude when reading the Bible.
I can imagine following Jesus, but not imitating Him, for that would be to imitate God. Before continuing I should note that I am writing about Jesus Christ as He is portrayed in the gospels, not the historical Jesus, about whom I know almost nothing.
Love not taught in a loving way
There is something disturbing about the love taught by Jesus. It is not taught in a loving way. Jesus is an angry man. Referring to his return, Jesus says
All the peoples will be gathered before him (the Son of Man), and He will separate them as a herdsman separates his sheep from his goats. He tells those on his right to enter into the reign of eternal life. For when I was hungry you fed me, I was an alien and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me. And the vindicated will ask Lord, when did we see you in need? And the Lord replied “Whenever you did these things to the lowliest of my brothers, you were doing it to me.” And then the Lord turned to those on his left hand, and tells them that because they did not do these things to the least of my brothers, you did not do them for me. And they will go off to eternal punishment. (paraphrase of Matthew 25.31-46)
Jesus makes a similar comment in Mark, the earliest gospel, when commissioning the disciples.
Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16.15-16).
At least in Matthew people are being judged on the basis of how they treat the poor. The Markian Jesus would condemn people on the basis of belief, while at the same time trying to hide his message from them.
And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” (4.10-12)
This passage leaves me stunned, even as one can read Jesus’ explanation elsewhere as regret that some will never understand (Mark 4.33-34). But in Matthew 13:10-17, Jesus is again asked why he speaks in parables, and his tone is less about regret than anger at those who will not hear.
Is this an attitude that exemplifies love? Are there no second chances? Does love not leave room for error and forgetfulness? Does not love forgive even the blind?
How to understand Jesus’ angry love
One way to understand Jesus’ angry love is that it is the same love God displayed in the Hebrew Testament, in which God “repented of the evil which He thought to do to his people” (Exodus 32.14). God is not humane, unless one thinks God’s repentance (nacham) makes him more human. I don’t. I think this is how humans understand a God to whom human categories of loving goodness do not apply. Certainly this is the lesson of the Book of Job. Above all, God just is. But who is He? That depends.
The God of the Hebrew Scriptures is emotionally labile, quick to anger, capable of repentance, and easily distracted. In short, a real character. After charging Moses with the delivery of his people from Egypt, God suddenly decides to kill Moses because he is not circumcised. Only the intervention of Zippo′rah, said to be a wife of Moses, saves him when she removes her son’s foreskin and touches it to Moses’ genitals, a symbolic circumcision. (Exodus 4:24-25) God abruptly turns to other matters.
I understand Christ’s angry love as a reaction and response to Yahweh, about whose love even Jesus cannot be sure. No wonder Christ was angry at those who did not believe. For an eternal moment, at the very end of his life, Christ himself doubted God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani.” (Matthew 27.46; Mark 15.34) One might say that God doubted God. Perhaps so.
God and man, but not always at the same time
I always thought I was a humanist, one for whom Christ’s teaching of radical love was the central message of the Greek Testament. I still think so, but I cannot ignore the anger with which this message was delivered. The teaching of the Nicene Creed, that Christ is of one substance with God, is not the whole story. Jesus is occasionally a wrathful God, and for a moment a doubting human. I doubt that this clarifies who Jesus is, but it certainly makes Him more interesting. He is someone whose teachings we can choose to follow, but we cannot follow in his footsteps. He is too other for that conceit.
Note: Jesus in the Gospels uses two Greek words for love, phileo and agape. Some make a distinction between the two. The first refers to friendship, the second to a self-emptying love, always giving, never expecting anything in return. However, since Jesus uses both terms when asking Simon Peter if he loves him (John 21.15-17), I don’t think the distinction is terribly important. Others differ.
Harold Bloom, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.