That He May Be One

Over the last few years, whenever I told friends that I was working on a book on Jesus, they invariably laughed. The most common responses were (in order of frequency) “Ha!” “Well, that’s a small topic!” and “Oh, I’ve heard of him!” But one response stuck with me: “So, are you writing about the Jesus of history or the Christ of faith?”

Unfortunately, those two approaches are often seen as contradictory, when they are in fact complementary.


Most America readers know the distinction: In “historical Jesus” studies, scholars attempt to explain as much as we can know about the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. Books and articles about the historical Jesus focus on topics like religious customs in first-century Jewish culture in Palestine, the socioeconomic realities of living under Roman rule and the ways that a carpenter would sustain his family in a small village in Galilee.

Such research helps us better understand Jesus within the context of his times. One quick example: In one of his parables, Jesus spins the tale of a steward who is given care of his master’s “talents.” If you know that a “talent” was an immense sum of money, equivalent to 15 years of wages for a day laborer, you’ll have a better understanding of Jesus’ reason for using that term in his story. You’ll understand the parable—and therefore Jesus—better.

Historical Jesus scholars use all the tools available—our understanding of first-century cultures, knowledge of the local languages, even archaeological finds in the region—to understand his life and times. Such studies are often aligned with a “Christology from below,” which attempts to understand Jesus by beginning with his humanity. The starting point is Jesus as a human being, again, the “Jesus of history.”

Books and articles on the “Christ of faith,” by contrast, focus less on the details of his time on earth and more about his place in the Christian faith. These writings consider topics such as the Resurrection, how Christ saves us and the nature of his relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit. These studies usually begin with the divinity of Jesus Christ, and are aligned with a “Christology from above.” Here the starting point is Jesus as Son of God.

The two approaches are complementary, not contradictory, and both sets of questions are important. If we lose sight of either perspective, we risk turning Jesus into either God pretending to be a man, or a man pretending to be God. To fully meet Jesus Christ, the believer needs both to understand the Jesus of history, the man who walked the earth, and to encounter the Christ of faith, the one who rose from the dead.

Yet many books on the historical Jesus downplay or ignore such essential topics as Jesus’ “works of power” (his miracles) and the Resurrection. Likewise, many books on the Christ of faith set aside “merely” historical considerations like life in first-century Palestine. The division is unfortunate and can lead to an incomplete picture of Jesus Christ.

It also waters down the Resurrection. For the person who rose from the dead on Easter Sunday was Jesus, not another person. In his commentary on John’s Gospel, the late Stanley Marrow, S.J., said that the risen Lord had to be “recognizably and identifiably Jesus of Nazareth, the man whom the disciples knew and followed.” He continues:

For him to have risen as any other than the Jesus of Nazareth that they knew would void the resurrection of all its meaning. The one they had confessed as their risen Lord is the same Jesus of Nazareth that they had known and followed. Showing them “his hands and his side,” which bore the marks of the crucifixion and the pierce by the lance, was not a theatrical gesture, but the necessary credentials of the identity of the risen Lord, who stood before them, with the crucified Jesus of Nazareth whom they knew.

So the answer to my friend’s question about whether I would write about the “Jesus of history” or the “Christ of faith” was, “Both.”

Otherwise, as Father Marrow understood, and countless believers know, what’s the point?

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Bruce Snowden
4 years 9 months ago
Father Martin’s “That He May Be One,” is another inspiring meditation helpful to better know, love and serve the Lord Jesus, who is also Friend and Brother. I was taken especially by paragraph 3, dealing somewhat with the “historical Jesus” versus the “Christ of Faith” succinctly stated by Fr. Barron as “What’s the point?” which the meditation pointed out. . The “historical Jesus and the “Christ of Faith” are one and the same! If you don’t get it, you don’t get it, but that doesn’t negate it! Of great interest too in paragraph 3 was Fr. Martin’s mention of St. Joseph, who as a blue collar worker, a manual laborer, the chosen earthly Father of “the One to come” and husband of the Queen of Heaven and Mother of the Church and of Perpetual Help, and my Confirmation Patron, holds a prime place in my veneration of the community of saints. Of course #1 is the Blessed Virgin Mary, then St. Joseph, followed by my patrons Paul the Apostle and Ambrose as Baptismal and birth names. Also ever since subscribing to AMERICA I have grown in love and admiration of St. Ignatius of Loyola, so he’s also on my list of “specials." Regarding Paul as my name, it’s because the baptizing priest told my parents there was no Saint Bruce, so on his own decision baptized me first Paul then Bruce. Thus my Baptismal Certificate lists me as Paul Bruce, whereas my Birth certificate simply says Bruce. So, according to birth record I guess I’m “non natus” still waiting to be born? Something like St. Raymond Nonnatus, given that last name as his was a cesarean delivery. Incidentally, my baptismal priest was mistaken as I later discovered Bruce, also Brice, are derivatives of Ambrose. So then, exactly why this post? It’s all about Joseph linked somewhat to “the socioeconomic realities living under Roman rule relative to the way a carpenter would maintain his family in a small village in Galilee.” If I have it right the actual word describing St. Joseph’s occupation is “construction worker” which would include carpentry. As a construction worker Joseph would also be capable of road construction and repair and home building. So he was a skilled artisan and quite able to provide income, lodging clothing and food for Mary and education for Jesus, all of this for his other children as well from a previous marriage if that misty tradition is accurate following the death of his first wife. Most of this must have been well in place when Joseph married Mary, the love of his life . That Joseph was skilled in husbandry and child rearing, in a word family responsibility, seems a perfect reason why the Heavenly Father would choose him to care for Jesus and Mary. If he were unskilled and unable to adequately care for the Son of God and the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, it makes abundant sense to me that the Heavenly Father would not choose him for such a tremendous and unique task. Nor was he poor living from paycheck to paycheck so to speak, as so many do, a family reality my wife and I know well before retirement (after too!) partly because we opted to provide our children with Catholic School education. Was Joseph a rich man? Well, he certainly wasn’t poor, upper middle class probably. Divine Providence took care of that when the Magi brought the their gifts of gold and other expensive commodities. I’m sure Joseph made careful use of those Gifts, probably over time cashing them in for talents one talent worth the equivalent of 15 years of pay for a day of labor, interesting info from Fr. Martin. Along with his daily income as construction worker, he could supplement the family income using the Magi’s nest egg. Did Mary add her two cents, more than that, by doing embroidery, or other ladies home work for sale? I think so. There’s much more to say about St. Joseph, but this post is long enough. Thanks Fr. Martin for giving the chance to explain a little about St. Joseph my friend, as I see it
Dan Hannula
4 years 9 months ago
The Church must teach both! As a young undergrad in the sixties a brilliant Jesuit introduced me to the historical Jesus, which kept me from my plan at the time of leaving the Church. Unless Christians know the Jesus of history, our world view, formed with contemporary ideas of science, human nature, etc., will end up sabotaging our understanding of the Jesus of faith as no more real than (forgive me) the Easter bunny.


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