Given our collective reluctance to believe anyone claiming to be the messiah, why have so many people over the last 2,000 or so years accepted the actual historical Jesus as the son of God? I decide it’s time: I have to go back and read every word Jesus said. It sounds like an enormous task. But, really it isn’t. All the dialogue he is purported to have spoken would fit in fewer than 100 pages if collected back-to-back and, by some accounts, would take a person about two hours if she were to perform it as an enormous, disjointed, and somewhat repetitive monologue. But it can’t possibly be exact quotes, can it? The words attributed to Jesus were written down 50 or more years after he died and, then, not necessarily by the original guys to whom he spoke them. After that, copies of the originals were made by hand until the printing press was invented and later the texts went through translations into modern tongues—all of which has created some distance between the source and us contemporary folks like some epic game of telephone.
I pour over the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—the books of the New Testament where the bulk of the Jesus story is told. It’s amazing what I learn. Again and again, Jesus lets others draw their own conclusions about his identity. He asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and they’re the ones who say “messiah.” He asks several times, “Who say the people that I am?” When rulers call him “King of the Jews,” he says, “If you say so.” I count about a dozen variations of an exchange like this one: “And he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou are the Christ.” I find it truly remarkable that I’ve gone through life thinking that Jesus went around saying, “I’m the messiah,” which has colored my impression of him despite his many good qualities. I’ve just bought what other people have said about Jesus as words he said about himself. On a few occasions he even warns against believing anyone who claims to be Christ.
I arrive at the church at noon expecting that I’ll go through the stations of the cross guiding me through the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life alone because the minister mentioned that they’ll be numbered and easy to traverse. I don’t really know what to expect. I picture a Halloween haunted house with little vignettes—some frightening, some merely creepy—set up around a series of darkened rooms. Here is a ghost that pops out at you; here is a bowl of ketchup and spaghetti that feels like human brains. Are you sufficiently terrified? Why, yes, I am. Thank you.
A small group of three older women and a man plus the minister is assembled near the altar when I walk into the sanctuary. I recognize one of the women; she sat next to me at the Sunday service. She has short white hair and the cute round face of a cabbage patch kid grown old. Today when she spots me, she smiles and waves me over. “We’re just getting started,” she says putting her arm around me and giving me a squeeze. As soon as my shoulder presses against hers, I realize how relieved I am to have companionship through this strange little journey. I wrap my arm around her.