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Who was king of the Jews?

Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Our three synoptic gospels, (Matt., Mark and Luke) have 50-year-old memories of Jesus saying, “You’re doing the talking.” Or perhaps a better translation: “Those are your words, not mine” (Matt. 27:11). In other words, Jesus was not saying “yes.” But John’s gospel which was written 70 years after the event, insists that Jesus responded, “You’re right in saying that I am a king.” (John 18:37 NIV) So, what did the historical Jesus say?

The problem is, of course, who heard Jesus say what? Was somebody standing next to Pilate taking notes? Or did Pilate relate this confidential information to Christians later? Or did Mark simply make up this whole scenario and the other three copied and edited? Or finally, did God whisper all this into each evangelist’s ear, but spend a bit more time with John?

Why is any of this important? It’s important because this is the only time Jesus claims any kingly title for himself. Jesus spent three years traveling among his fellow Jews talking about the kingdom of God. He said, it’s coming. It’s here. It’s inside of you. He made up over 30 parables to explain this new kingdom. Kingdoms have kings but the king of this kingdom was Yahweh, not Jesus. Jesus never portrayed himself as Yahweh. Except in John’s gospel.

John’s gospel was written around the year 110 when the divinity of Jesus had become a part of the Christian belief. The author of John’s gospel (I don’t believe it was the Apostle John), could not have been a Jew; a Jewish Christian who believed in the divinity of Jesus could never say that Jesus was Yahweh. Son of God, yes, but whoever wrote John’s gospel had no trouble coupling Jesus to Yahweh: “before Abraham was born, I AM” (Ego Eimi, John 8:58).

The “I AM” statements which appear only in John’s gospel mirror the encounter Moses had with God in the bush (Ex. 3:15). Moses asks for a name to give to Pharaoh and the voice from the bush says, tell him, “I am who I am.” And this is where we get the sacred name Yahweh (He is). In the mind of every Jew from that moment on, nobody but God himself can claim that name.

The great Old Testament theologian, Dr. Walter Brueggemann, helps us to understand how the early Christians could “improve upon” the texts that were written before them. He calls it “historical imagination” in his fascinating book, “The Bible Makes Sense.” He says each succeeding generation takes the traditions they have been given (the historical part) and adds their own imaginations (pg.33).

There is no doubt the second century Christians (John’s gospel) added their own imaginative pieces to the historical puzzle they inherited. Their pieces were influenced by their Greco/Roman culture which celebrated many divine/human heroes which had been anathema to the Jews.

So, when Pilate asked the historical Jesus if he was the king of the Jews, the answer could have been non-committal (the three synoptics), but never an enthusiastic “yes” (John). There could have been no indication of divine kingship coming from the lips of the Jewish man named Jesus. Yahweh was the King of the Jews. Jesus was not Yahweh.

I am always amazed by biblical literalists. For them, there is no such thing as historical imagination, no growth possible in Christian faith over the years as the gospels were being written and translated. For them, the writers were all eyewitnesses of the events and stories they recorded, and they immediately translated the Aramaic words of Jesus into Greek, without error.

In his new book, “Eternal Life: A New Vision,” John Shelby Spong says, it’s hard to be a biblical literalist is one actually reads the Bible (pg. 58).

Contact me: drc@billcummings.org.

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