The narrative-historical method reduces the significance of Jesus, which creates an obvious problem for traditionalists. Perhaps “reduces” is asking for trouble. Let’s say that it refocuses our understanding of the biblical figure of Jesus, though the sharper perception comes at the cost—or benefit, depending on how you look at it—of a restricted depth of field. Here’s what I mean, roughly….
The birth of Jesus
Theological tradition says that God became flesh in the birth of Jesus for the sake of all humanity, if not the whole cosmos. From a historical point of view that is a later theological reading—or misreading—of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, and probably also of the Prologue to John’s Gospel.
Matthew and Luke make it clear that the conception of Jesus was miraculous. But the meaning of the miracle is not that God and man are conjoined in the person of Jesus. It is that the extraordinary circumstances of his birth mark it out as a prophetic sign.
Just as the birth of a boy named Immanuel was a sign to Israel that God was with his people at a time of crisis, both to judge and to save, so the birth of a boy named Jesus is a sign to Israel at a time of great crisis that God is again present with his people, both to judge and to save (Matt. 1:21-23). Luke perhaps has superimposed on this the later Isaianic theme of the birth of a Davidic ruler (Is. 9:6-7; Lk. 1:31-35).
But doesn’t John say that Jesus is the Word become flesh?
Yes, he does, but he does not say that this happened at Jesus’ birth. The Word is more closely identified with God in John’s Prologue than is Wisdom in Jewish tradition—the Word was not only with God but was God or was divine. But the thought is much the same: the creative power of God has entered into the world to bring about something new. Since this entrance into the world is framed by the account of John’s testimony, it seems to me that the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us at the baptism of Jesus, when the re-creative ministry of Jesus is inaugurated.
The birth of Jesus, therefore, in the New Testament is not the supra-historical coming of God—or of the eternal Son—into the world but the beginning of a God-driven undertaking to deliver his people from their enemies and establish a new Davidic king. The “world” is little more than an astonished spectator at this great act of salvation.
The humanity of Jesus
Orthodoxy rightly asserts that Jesus was fully human, but this is usually taken to mean that he was the ideal human being or Everyman. The Jesus we encounter in the New Testament, however, is a first-century Jewish, presumably heterosexual, male. He was not a woman, he was not black, he was not old, he was not gay, he was not married, he was not a father, he was not disabled, he was not a lot of things. He is a second or last Adam only in the sense that he was the first of many to experience resurrection and acquire a “spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:45-49).
We also hear it said that he knows our every weakness, has been tempted in all ways as we are, has experienced our afflictions. He knows what you are going through because he’s been through it himself.
To be sure, we read something along these lines in the letter to the Hebrews, but the point is really quite narrowly made. We have a great high priest who “has passed through the heavens.” That is, Jesus was opposed, arrested, tortured, executed, raised from the dead, and exalted to the right hand of God as a priest-king after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 4:14). Therefore the writer exhorts his readers to hold fast to their confession—to stay true to their vocation through to the end, no matter how long it takes, no matter how much they must suffer.
It is specifically in this regard that Jesus is able to sympathise with their weaknesses, for he “has been tempted as we are, yet without sin”—he “endured from sinners such hostility against himself” (Heb. 4:15; 12:3). The weaknesses that the risen Jesus understands are those which are exposed by opposition, rejection, and the threat of death. For the writer of the letter this Jesus is not the ideal man who has known the totality of human frailty; he is the ideal Jewish martyr, the pioneer of their faith in the world that was coming (Heb. 12:2).
The ministry of Jesus
The life and ministry of Jesus has generally been of little interest to orthodoxy, which requires only that he was incarnated somewhere in the middle of history, that he died for the sins of the world, that he was raised from the dead, and that he will come again in person right at the end to wrap things up.
More recently Jesus has been co-opted as the paradigm for progressive Christian action on account of his antagonism towards the self-righteous and complacent religious leadership of Israel and his clear bias toward the poor and marginalised.
With more justification he has been adopted as the standard for incarnation-missional leadership, but again the historical context drops from sight. Jesus does not establish a general pattern of missional practice for his church throughout history. The most we can say is that he established a pattern of missional practice for his immediate Jewish disciples for the period leading up to the war against Rome.
The mission to the Gentiles, which gives rise eventually to the church as we know it, is conducted on quite different terms. Paul shows no interest in, and little knowledge of, the pattern of Jesus’ earthly ministry. If anything, he expects people to be disciples of himself and the apostles. The post-resurrection dynamic is directed not towards the earthly Jesus in Galilee and Judea but towards the exalted Lord at the right hand of God in heaven.
The death of Jesus
Jesus’ death in the New Testament is not a great meteorite that falls from heaven into the boundless ocean of human history, sending waves of redemptive energy travelling forwards, and perhaps backwards, through time. It is a rockfall, caused by a localised storm and flood, into the river of Israel’s history, dramatically changing its course in the first century.
According to the majority New Testament witness Jesus died for the sins of Israel. This is the scope of the saying about the Son of Man coming “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). I think it highly likely that Jesus had in mind the words of Isaiah 53:11-12: the righteous servant will make many to be accounted righteous, he will bear their iniquities, he bore the sin of many. But it is Israel alone which benefits from the redemptive suffering of the servant. He was wounded for the transgressions of Israel, he was crushed for the iniquities of Israel (Is. 53:5).
An unexpected consequence of his death for Israel, however, was that Gentiles were caught up in the flow of that river, and in this narrative-historical sense I can say today that Jesus’ death made it possible for me to be part of God’s story despite my sins. But this is still a far cry from the rationalising theological paradigm, which makes no reference to the existential crisis faced by first-century Israel.
The exaltation of Jesus
The Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty, and will come again to judge the living and the dead. It is good that the apocalyptic language has been retained, but it is again the case that the historical reference of that language has been allowed to fade from sight.
The central conviction of the early church was that a disgraced and executed demagogue from Nazareth had been given the authority to determine the real future of Israel and his followers. The heavenly status of Jesus was a matter of pressing historical significance. Whereas in the past it was God who came to judge his people and the enemies of his people, the belief of those who had come to know the living Lord was that Jesus would “come” on YHWH’s behalf to execute judgment—first against Israel, then against the hostile pagan nations of the Greek-Roman world. The eschatological outlook of the New Testament was much more limited than our own.
It’s not all bad
The effect of this refocusing has been to reconfine Jesus to a particular historical setting and outlook after centuries of theological liberation. People will complain, but my defence would be two-fold. First, the “historical” Jesus still impacts the life of the church today—on the one hand, he changed history and we gain from that; on the other, he remains our living Lord, seated at the right hand of God for our sakes, until the last enemy, death, has been destroyed. Secondly, we make room for the God of history to take centre-stage again at a time when we are facing, as his servant people, a historical crisis of biblical proportions.