Who was Jesus? Gerhard Lohfink on the Messiah

Mosaic with the image of Jesus Christ on the wall of the Church of the Holy Trinity, Yoshkar-Ola, Russia (iStock)

Totality occurred on Aug. 21, 2017, when the first total solar eclipse in the United States in 38 years swathed the country from Oregon to South Carolina. It was reported on by a media hungry for distractions. The event was rare and cosmic: Eyewitnesses described waves of light that mirrored the shape of the sun’s corona. Crowds of people witnessed the phenomenon together, and, where totality was clearly visible, many were deeply moved by the sudden darkness of the sun.

Jesus of Nazarethby Gerhard Lohfink

Liturgical Press. 391p $39.95

While reading Gerhard Lohfink’s Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was, I kept thinking of that word, “totality.” It seems to characterize Lohfink’s portrait of Jesus in several ways. First, Lohfink emphasizes that Jesus’ life is a historic event: visible and tangible, as dramatic and concrete as an eclipse. Second, Lohfink argues that Jesus’ life and the way he understood himself need to be interpreted through the totality of the canonical Scriptures, particularly the texts of the Old Testament.

Gerhard Lohfink emphasizes that Jesus’ life is a historic event: visible and tangible, as dramatic and concrete as an eclipse.

Third, the person of Jesus is wholly dedicated to the proclamation of the reign of God: “The reign of God—that means that God turns to human beings totally and without any reservation in order to bring divine abundance to the world. This self-gift of God is a historical event: it is happening now, in Israel and in the new community life Jesus is creating” (220). Lohfink writes only a couple of pages later: “Jesus is now [toward the end of his public ministry] about just one thing: proclaiming the reign of God. He travels through Galilee in a restless itinerant course, totally and utterly surrendered to God’s will and plan” (222).

Fourth, the totality of surrender to God’s will and proclamation of the reign of God comes with persecution. It is in Jesus’ symbolic actions in Jerusalem, his arrest, and his execution that the totality of the message of the reign of God draws the witness of religious elites, Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem at Passover and the Roman provincial authority.

Gerhard Lohfink’s work is big and wonderfully rich. So I have divided my introduction to the Catholic Book Club’s newest selection into three parts to align with Holy Week, Easter and the Easter Season. As we look back on the church’s commemoration of the suffering and death of Jesus, I first consider Lohfink’s chapters on the events of Holy Week, then consider his chapters on Easter (below).

Lohfink has no patience with scholars who attempt to fracture the totality of Jesus’ portrait and the radical unity of his divine witness. Jesus, it is clear to Lohfink, intended to teach by his actions. Three sign-acts take place in Jerusalem immediately before the passion. First, Jesus’ solemn entrance into Jerusalem constituted a sign of the reign of God entering Jerusalem embodied in the person of a humble king. Jesus, as Lohfink writes, “read his Bible [Zechariah 9:9-10] with an unfathomable sensitivity to what was essential” (247). Jesus enters as a poor, unarmed king but a king, nonetheless—and one ready to claim this capital city. Furthermore, because he embodies the reign of God breaking forth in history, Jesus rightfully intervenes in the business of the Temple. He enters the city as a king, intervenes in the Temple as a prophetic and legitimate religious authority and, later, at the Last Supper, offers the totality of his person—his body and blood—to renew the Sinai covenant.

Jesus’ actions, according to Gerhard Lohfink’s critical, scholarly expertise, emerge out of Jesus’ own understanding of himself and his proclamation of the reign of God.

None of these signs were projected onto Jesus by some later ecclesial redactor or community frothing with religious fervor. Jesus’ actions, according to Lohfink’s critical, scholarly expertise, emerge out of Jesus’ own understanding of himself and his proclamation of the reign of God. For one to interpret the synoptic portrait of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, his action at the Temple or his actions at the Last Supper as the ornamentation added on by later traditions is to misunderstand Jesus—to diminish Jesus. It is much more intellectually honest, in Lohfink’s assessment, to know the layers of Jesus’ symbolic actions and reject them outright, as the Sanhedrin had done, than to deconstruct those sign-acts as ahistorical. About the Last Supper, Lohfink concludes: “We may say that this is how Jesus celebrated his last meal, and this is how he understood it” (256).

There is great consolation here for us. Lohfink bolsters our faith in these most meaningful events that anchor our worship of God. Furthermore, Lohfink, in his discussion of the Last Supper, assures us that Jesus was teaching through his words: “This is my blood, [the blood] of the covenant, that will be poured out for many” (254). By these words, Jesus interprets his own death in the light of the totality of Israel’s experience: “Now in his words of interpretation over the cup, he makes his own life and death the place of atonement for Israel” (256).

Jesus interprets his own death as atonement. Atonement—a theological term absolutely fraught with the notions of transaction and ransom and bloodlust—is elegantly defined by Lohfink. Here is his logic:

[I]n Israel all ‘atonement’ proceeds from God, as God’s own initiative. ‘Atonement’ is a new enabling of life given by God. ‘Atonement’ is the gift of being able to live in the presence of the holy God, in the space where God is near, despite one’s own unholiness and constant new incurring of guilt. Effecting ‘atonement’ means not appeasing God or making God amenable to reconciliation but allowing ourselves to be rescued by God’s own self from the death we deserve.
Israel knew that human beings cannot work off their own guilt and that both ‘atonement’ and forgiveness must come from God. ‘Atonement’ like covenant and the forgiveness of sins, is God’s gracious order, into which the human being can only enter. In all this, biblical thought—at least as regards the power of distinction—is clearly different from the [other] religions. (266)

So why crucifixion? Why crucified love?

The answer is: if I say ‘God forgives everything on condition that I acknowledge my guilt,’ the reality is too quickly covered up. The consequences of sin are not really taken seriously. Sin does not just vanish in the air, even when it is forgiven, because sin does not end with the sinner. It has consequences. It always has a social dimension. Every sin embeds itself in human community, corrupts a part of the world, and creates a damaged environment.... So the consequences of sin have to be worked off, and human beings cannot do so of themselves any more than they can absolve themselves. Genuine ‘working off’ of guilt is only possible on a basis that God himself must create. And God has created such a base in his people, and in Jesus he has renewed and perfected it (266-267).

Lastly, Lohfink concludes:

If love is genuine, it therefore not only forgives, but takes responsibility for the consequences of what the other has done. And that costs something. It cannot happen without sacrifice, and it can only succeed if many work to heal the consequences of others’ guilt (267).

Lohfink offers profound insights into Jesus’ prayer in the Garden, his arrest, his confrontation with the Sanhedrin and the charges they bring to Pilate to act upon. He analyzes all the elements of the crucifixion and even offers insights into the burial of Jesus. But it was the notion that Jesus interpreted his own death as atonement that I held in my mind and heart over the commemorations of the Easter Triduum. Atonement is the dramatic, cosmic reorientation that arises from the institution of the Eucharist and the death of Jesus on the cross. Atonement is from God. It is not directed at changing God but changing God’s creation. Atonement involves sacrifice because it works—out of love—to reverse the consequences of sin. Lastly, atonement involves the many: It is social; it involves our relationships. The totality of God’s revelation in Jesus always involves the many: human beings and their human relationships.

Questions for reflection:

  1. Were you at all captivated by the notions of atonement that Lohfink offers, originating in Exodus 24:4-11? Or does atonement remain a dangerous, abstruse theological concept?
  2. From the opening pages, Lohfink emphasizes the importance of the ongoing interpretation of Jesus in a community of believers. Does it make sense, then, for Lohfink to claim in turn to have some insight into Jesus’ interpretation of his own words and actions immediately before his death? Are such Christic interpretations accessible to scholars? To us?
  3. What other aspects of Lohfink’s presentation of the passion and death of Jesus enriched your prayer?
  4. What of the notion of guilt (286-287)? Who is guilty? Does the unbelief, the skepticism, the indifference and the rage of the Jewish religious elites against Jesus constitute their guilt? What, at the heart of it, obstructs their understanding of Jesus? It seems that they would be the most qualified religious figures to interpret the signs that emanate from Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God.


Lohfink’s Jesus of Nazareth: Reflections on Easter

Toward the end of his book, Lohfink analyzes five essential New Testament texts that represent some of the earliest credal statements of the primitive church: Acts 2:36 (we hear this verse at Mass on the Tuesday after Easter), Matthew 28:18 (Trinity Sunday), Romans 1:3-4, John 1:1-18 and Philippians 2:6-11 (Palm Sunday, Exaltation of the Cross). His conclusion underscores his claim that Jesus represents the totality, the definitive disclosure of God in terms of Old Testament-Jewish forms of thought:

[Each of these texts] say, on either the eschatological or protological level, that Jesus is the final word and conclusive action of God, definitive of creation, definitive of all history. He is the Lord. In him God has fully uttered God’s own self. This conviction lays the groundwork for the confession: ‘Jesus: true human and true God’ (342).

The earliest communities of the church understood that “God himself had spoken and acted totally and in unsurpassable fashion in Jesus” (335). Lohfink argues that this is indeed how Jesus understood himself, how he (though discreetly) spoke of himself and how his companions, particularly the eschatological unit of the 12 apostles, experienced Jesus. Lohfink does not pull punches. Jesus is totality—as cosmic and dramatic and concrete a reality as a total solar eclipse. The difference being that eclipses reoccur.

“Definitively.” This remarkable word salts Lohfink’s claims about Jesus throughout this book about Jesus of Nazareth.

Lohfink addresses the state of the post-Easter church and its ecstatic expectation of the eschaton in a way that should stir us to reconsider the urgency of our own response to the Christian message. Lohfink writes:

I would never say that Jesus and the earliest church were misled or disappointed in their imminent expectation. Jesus was profoundly certain that God was acting now and acting with finality in unsurpassable fashion. He was certain that in that action God was expressing God’s very self in the world, totally and without reservation. This ‘totality’ and ‘finality,’ are, however, faced with the fact that human beings normally reject such a ‘totality’ insofar as it applies to themselves and their own response. They do not want to commit themselves definitively but prefer to delay their own decisions and leave everything open for the time being. So there arises a deep discrepancy between God’s ‘already’ and the human ‘not yet.’ But because God has expressed God’s self wholly and absolutely in Jesus there is no time left for ‘delaying the decision.’ Jesus’ hearers and the apostles had to decide now, in this hour. And they had to decide not only for God’s sake but also because of Israel’s need and the immeasurable suffering of the world (306-307).

“Definitively.” This remarkable word salts Lohfink’s claims about Jesus throughout this book about Jesus of Nazareth. He wrings the word out of historical critique of texts, from the Torah to the Apocrypha and the New Testament. Jesus is the definitive word of God who gives himself totally to proclaiming the reign of God and to renewing God’s covenant with Israel. This is Easter faith—not a faith projected onto the earliest church but a faith experienced concretely at Easter.

Lohfink’s reflections on Easter can serve to enrich our worship and personal prayer in the weeks ahead. I remind you here of several points that emerge in Chapter 18:

  1. The disciples and followers of Jesus most likely fled to Galilee immediately after Jesus died. Yet, not all of them fled. A group, mostly of women, remained in Jerusalem.The risen Jesus appeared to the disciples—not in their imagination or in their unconscious minds—in Galilee, principally to Peter.
  2. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was not interpreted through the notion of a rapture or the revival of a suffering servant. It was understood in the eschatological framework of the resurrection of the dead at the end of time (1 Cor 15:20, Col 1:18).
  3. The disciples returned to Jerusalem before Pentecost because Jerusalem was the city where the “conclusive gift of salvation would emanate” (298).The empty tomb is not an illusion.
  4. In the eschatological atmosphere before Pentecost, Matthias was elected to round out the 12. Such an election never occurred again.
  5. The Spirit of God arrives in the Pentecost event as an aspect of the end-time breaking forth.The consequence of the Easter experience and Pentecost is an apostolic mission. Rather than dwelling on their own imminent resurrection and eternal happiness, the apostles go out and proclaim their experience of Jesus Christ.

These last sections of Lohfink are indeed stirring; however, many questions arose in my own reading of the Easter events and the experience of the early church.

Questions for reflection:

  1. Is it enough simply to dismiss the concerns of the Enlightenment and its descendants as not being able to grasp Easter as an “irritatingly unique” event (346)? Would Lohfink’s historical analysis be enough to win anyone to the Easter faith, whether it be your suspicious son or daughter or your atheist colleague?
  2. Is Lohfink’s work directed at bolstering the Easter faith of those who already testify to such belief? Is the work strong enough to rouse a believer out of his or her complacency?


Final notes from Father Kevin Spinale, S.J. (May 27, 2018)

I have been impressed with the depth of conversation among the members of the Catholic Book Club. Thank you for your participation in this ongoing project and its new Facebook format. Today, I want to begin to wind down our look at Lohfink’s Jesus of Nazareth by reasserting two aspects of Lohfink’s work that hearten my faith.

First, throughout his work, Lohfink emphasizes Jesus’ unquestionable integrity and single-hearted, religious striving to serve the Father. Jesus, the human being, “travelled throughout Israel with his disciples in an unstable, itinerant fashion, totally surrendered to whatever the situation of the approaching reign of God demanded at any particular time. Jesus had no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58)” (76). In Chapter 13, Lohfink understands Jesus of Nazareth to embody the commitment of the protagonists of two parables about the discovery of and the joyful devotion to the Reign of God in the pearl of great price and the treasure buried in a field: “Jesus does not live for himself but is totally and exclusively surrendered to the cause of God” (236). Perhaps, as the Church celebrates Trinity Sunday this weekend, we can contemplate Jesus’ total commitment to revealing the goodness of our God. For, it is by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that humanity gains the gift of the Holy Spirit and a glimpse into the dynamic inner nature of our triune God.

Second, Lohfink emphasizes the legitimacy of the apostolic and evangelical (gospel writers) witness as well as the thoughtful interpretation of this witness in the community that is our Church.  I find myself returning to four paragraphs from the initial chapter:

[T]he 'place’ that is the church...is not something that has been prepared for [Jesus] after the fact; it surrounds him from the outset. It is around him as the space belonging to the people of God, into which Jesus was born and in which he grew up, in which one day he followed the Baptizer to the Jordan to be baptized. Jesus comes out of Israel, and without the traditions of Israel he is unthinkable and cannot be understood. (18)

The men and women who were healed and unburdened and fed by the incarnate God in Jesus during his life first interpreted the man from Nazareth through the collective religious experience of Israel. After the Ascension, Jesus’ disciples interpreted the reality of Easter and Pentecost:

The very first words of Jesus that were handed on, and the first accounts and stories that told what Jesus had done, were shaped within the ‘space’ of the church. The Jesus tradition is grounded in the interpretive community that is ‘church.’ (18)

And lastly, Lohfink’s most reassuring conclusion that, again, points to the fidelity of Jesus to his mission of revealing the Reign of God and the legitimacy of the apostolic witness:

We have seen that there is no such thing as pure fact. Every fact that is told is already interpretation. Without interpretation, no event in our world can be understood. And when we are talking about the history between God and the world – still more, when the subject is the culminating point of that history, the fidelity of Jesus to his mission even unto death, which set into motion a history of freedom that overturns everything – how could such an event be grasped and told without interpretation? We could also say: how could it be grasped and understood without faith? (18)

Lohfink’s Jesus is eminently human, and Lohfink’s academic scholarship is eminently humane. Yet, neither Jesus’ humanity nor Lohfink’s humane reasoning stems from a corrosive struggle to discover the historical Jesus washed of ecclesial murk. Lohfink’s Jesus of Nazareth, the man we intend to meet by our modern, critical apparatus, cannot be met but through thoughtful interpretation of the Jesus of the Scriptures revered and interpreted through the experience of Jesus within the Christian community of faith. Jesus of Nazareth emerges from the Gospel witness, not from some careful separation of that witness from the person to whom it testifies. Jesus of Nazareth is risen, his spirit animates the Scriptures, and the totality—every sinew and striving—of his life reveals the love of our God.

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Bruce Snowden
1 year 9 months ago

I just read Jesuit Priest Kevin Spinale's masterful explanation of Gerhard Lohfink's ""Who Was Jesus," and for me it was like walking on the road to Emmaus, heart burning within! The walk was spiritually, intellectually and emotionally satisfying, even though I did not understand everything. Did you ever walk into bursts of light and in the brilliance become blinded to things around? This happened to me but wow, just walking in the light was illuminating. In a word that's what Lofink's inner-sights produced LIGHT and more LIGHT, Illuminating LIGHT! Next step, Get the book, a must read. P.S. Got the book! Quicker than expected and I'm into it. A Blessing!

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