Was Jesus Deceived?

Author: Robert Moynihan


Robert Moynihan

For Christianity, in the end, there is only one ultimate question: who was Jesus of Nazareth? Was he the promised Messiah of Israel, Son of God, or not?

Of course, this question is, for Christians, settled: Jesus was and is "the Messiah," which means "the Anointed One," or, as the Greek has it, the "<Christos>"—the Christ. If one is born a Christian, "Jesus" is "Jesus Christ"; there is nothing more to be said.

But how does, one persuade a non-Christian of that I fact?

How does one persuade a Jew, who, if he is religious, is still awaiting the Messiah, and thinks of Jesus as, at best, a good man who was mistaken about his identity, at worst, an evil imposter who attempted to deceive his people?

How does one persuade a Muslim, who sees Jesus as no more than a prophet?

How does one persuade an ordinary, thoroughly secularized modern man, who believes that Jesus was either in bad faith (i.e., a magician, a charlatan) or—and no one should be shocked at this, for the accusation was made even during Jesus' lifetime, and is recorded in the Gospels—a madman, one "possessed."

Terrible questions, these, for one who believes.

But also terrible for one who would reach out to those who doubt, to those who mock, for what words, what arguments, can persuade the doubter, the mocker?

This is the crux of the matter: if the 21st century is to be Christian, then there must be a great re-evangelization, and that re-evangelization must return to the heart of the matter: who was Jesus?

It is in this context that one must read an editorial on the identity of Jesus which appeared in the November 5 issue of the authoritative Jesuit fortnightly, <La Civilta Cattolica> (Catholic Civilization).

(Note: As we stated last month, the contents of <Civilta Cattolica> are reviewed prior to publication by officials in the Vatican's Secretariat of State. This means that the positions the journal takes—particularly positions taken in an editorial—are "authoritative" without being "official.")

The editorial begins by noting that there is no doubt about the fact that Jesus proclaimed himself both Messiah and Son of God (that he did so was the subject of an editorial earlier in the year).

"Jesus, therefore, had full and clear consciousness that he was not an ordinary man, but the Messiah promised to Israel and, still more, the Son, that is, to have with regard to God a relationship of sonship, sufficient to be able to call him '<abba>' (Father)," the <Civilta Cattolica> editorialist writes. This fact, the author continues, raises two questions. "The first: was Jesus being honest when he said he was the Messiah and the Son of God? Can we, in other words, show that he, in making such statements, did not wish to deceive his hearers, passing himself off as someone he was not, but that he was convinced he was who he said he was?

"The second: granted that Jesus was being honest in what he said and thus that he was convinced he was the Messiah and the Son of God, can we show that he was not deceived, that is, that he did not believe himself to be that which he was not? Put another way, if Jesus was not a liar, may he not have been a fanatic, a megalomaniac, who believed he was the Messiah and Son of God?"

"Was Jesus Honest?"

The answer to the first question—"Was Jesus being honest when he proclaimed himself the Messiah and the Son of God?"—is "yes" with "absolute certainty," the editorialist says.

"What stands out most about the personality of Jesus is his frankness, and what he despises the most is hypocrisy and lies," he writes.

Even Jesus' adversaries agreed on this, he notes. "Teacher," some Pharisees said to him, "we know that you are true, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men, but truly teach the way of God." (Mark 12:14)

Thus, Jesus unmasks and denounces hypocrisy wherever he finds it: those who pretend to be honest and are not (Luke 20:20); those who do good works only to be seen and admired by others (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16); those who would seek to remove the speck from another's eye and not be aware of the beam in their own (Matthew 7:4, Luke 6:42), who "strain at a gnat and swallow a camel" (Matthew 23:24).

"Thus, Jesus sees in hypocrisy and falsity the greatest evils, because they lead to spiritual blindness and hardness of heart," the editorialist writes. "It would seem unthinkable that he himself would have fallen into what he so harshly condemned."

He adds: "Furthermore, his adversaries accuse him of breaking the Sabbath, of eating and drinking with Publicans and sinners, of blasphemy because he pretends to forgive sins, arrogating to himself a prerogative that is God's alone; they accuse him of being possessed by the devil and of performing miracles because of the power that Satan grants him, but they never accuse him of falsity and hypocrisy. On the contrary, they acknowledge that he is 'true' and does not have regard for persons (Mark 12:14)."

The case for Jesus' honesty is strengthened by his behavior.

"He did not seek success, power, glory and, least of all, money," the author writes. Had Jesus wished to serve his own interests instead of the will of the Father, he would have acted far differently than he did, he argues.

First of all, he says, Jesus could have exploited the success he had with the crowds at the beginning of his preaching ministry: "It would have been easy for him to proclaim himself the Davidic Messiah that the people were expecting and in that way obtain political power and success. Instead, he doused the enthusiasm of the crowds and his disciples by going up off by himself."

As John writes: "When the people saw the sign which he had done [the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves], they said, 'This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!' Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself." (John 6:14-15)

Indeed, Jesus is so little inclined to seek his own personal success and fame that he tells those he heals or liberates from the power of Satan that they must not speak of what he has done for them.

"Here arises the problem of the secrecy that Jesus imposes both on the persons he heals and on the disciples," the author writes. "This imposition of secrecy with regard to things that could have made Jesus not only a famous person, but, above all, have made him held by others to be the Davidic Messiah (which was the greatest honor that could be attributed to a man in the Jewish world) would have been inconceivable if Jesus had sought popularity, success and power. It was his honesty and truthfulness that led him to impose this silence with regard to his messianic identity."

Why so? Because "the hearers of Jesus, and his disciples as well, had a 'political' conception of the Messiah: the Messiah would be a descendant of King David... and would have had to free the people of Israel from the Romans by force of arms... The idea of a Messiah who suffers and dies to liberate his people, not from political servitude, but from the enslavement to sin and death, was absolutely foreign to the Jews of Jesus' time and therefore also to his disciples."

The author sums up: "If Jesus, to please the Jewish people, had accepted the idea of a political and glorious Messiah, he would have won the crowd's favor... but he would have been deceiving them, presenting himself as someone he knew he was not and accepting a conception of the Messiah that he knew to be false."

Jesus' Failure

But this is not all, the editorialist writes.

"Jesus' honesty leads him to the apparent failure of his mission and to death," he argues. "At the beginning of his ministry, the crowds run after him: they are fascinated by his words and above all are attracted by the miracles that he performs, healing the sick, freeing those possessed of evil spirits, multiplying the loaves of bread. But very soon there is seen a profound lack of understanding between him and the crowds which follow him. Through his preaching, Jesus wishes to invite the people to conversion and repentance: he does not perform miracles with the aim of eliminating physical miseries, like disease and hunger, but with the aim of showing that he is the One Sent by God, sent by Him to call men to be converted. But the crowds do not accept his invitation to convert and expect from him only material benefits. There is, therefore, a total misunderstanding of his mission among the people."

This explains the final phase of Jesus' earthly mission.

"Thus, at a certain moment, Jesus withdraws himself from the crowds that gather around him, disappointed by the fact that he does not correspond to their expectations, to dedicate himself to the instruction and the formation of the few disciples who remain faithful to him, but among whom there is also a certain sense of disappointment, which at a certain moment turns into complete abandonment."

The mission of Jesus culminates in the presence of Caiphas and the Sanhedrin. When Caiphas asks Jesus whether he is "the Christ [i.e., the Messiah], the Son of the Blessed," Jesus could have remained silent or have responded evasively, saying "neither yes nor no," and in so doing "he could not have been condemned to death as a blasphemer," the author writes.

But Jesus answered (here the author cites the Gospel of Mark): "I am; and you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven." (Mark 14:62)

"Never in his life had Jesus affirmed with such clarity that he was the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed, that is, the Son of God," the writer continues. "He had spoken of it only with hints and allusions: he had accepted that his disciples recognized him as the Messiah, but had forbidden them to speak of it in public. Now, however, at the most solemn and dramatic moment in his life, when he is called to respond no longer to the anonymous crowds or individual persons, but to the official leaders of Israel, he cannot remain silent or be evasive or ambiguous in his words. His duty is to speak in an extremely clear way, in order that all Israel may know who he really is. Jesus doesn't care that what he says will be interpreted as blasphemy and thus will be the motive for condemning him to death. What is decisive for him is that he 'give witness to the truth.'"

But Could He Have Been Mistaken?

The question then arises: "If Jesus was absolutely honest and if he did not have the slightest desire or intention to deceive, can one affirm with certainty that he had not deceived himself, believing himself to be the Messiah and the Son of God, while in reality he was not? Can one, that is, exclude the possibility that Jesus was a religious 'fanatic,' a person affected by religious megalomania, as so many have been in the past, and as so many are today?"

The author says: "To resolve this problem, we must examine the state of health, physical and mental, of Jesus."

With regard to Jesus physical health, the author says that "the Gospels do not speak of it directly," but that "the enormous amount of apostolic work that he carried out during his life, in conditions of extreme physical and spiritual difficulty... eating and sleeping where he could and sometimes in the open air, suffering heat and cold, sometimes passing the entire night in prayer after an entire day of intense work" suggests that Jesus had "a healthy and robust physical constitution."

But, asks the author, "can one say the same about Jesus' mental health?"

He continues: "On this point as well, the Gospels do not furnish us with any direct testimony. We have, however, many indirect pieces of evidence that lead us to conclude that Jesus enjoyed perfect mental health." The author notes that Jesus has few mystical experiences or visions—only two, he says, one at his baptism, the other when he saw Satan fall from heaven like a lightning bolt —and that his religiosity is "intimate" and "profound," not "fanatical."

"But what best demonstrates the mental health of Jesus is his realism," a dreamer. He has his feet firmly planted on the earth. For this reason, he has no illusions about himself, nor about the success of his preaching, nor about his final end, which will be death."

The author then asks whether there may not be some kind of morbid "death-wish" behind Jesus' recognition that his ministry will end in death.

"To respond to this question, one must emphasize that it is not Jesus who seeks death, but death that is imposed upon him: he does nothing, certainly, to avoid it, but also nothing to provoke it," he writes. "Therefore, it is not a morbid desire for death that sets Jesus on the way toward Calvary, but rather the painful but generous acceptance of the Father's salvific will."

But then, did not Jesus preach the imminent reign of God and of the end of this world? And in so doing, was he not perhaps deceived?

"First of all, Jesus announced the imminent coming of the kingdom of God, but he added that its full realization would come at the end of time," the editorialist writes. "The kingdom of God, therefore, 'has come' and 'will come'... Jesus, therefore, was not deceived when he preached the coming of the reign of God.

"Second, Jesus announced this world (this '<eon>,' Jesus called it) will end (but no one, except the Father, knows when) and that God is preparing for his elect a new world (the '<eon>' to come), in which they will participate in its endless felicity. But Jesus made this proclamation using a particular literary genre, called 'apocalyptic,' in which events even very far in the future are spoken of as near and imminent."

Jesus spoke of the end "to warn his disciples against false messiahs who would appear from time to time in the course of history, and to invite them to be vigilant."

The author concludes: "From what we have said thus far, only one conclusion is possible: Jesus, in affirming that he was the Messiah and the Son of God, was, first of all, sincere: he did not wish to deceive his hearers, but told them what he considered to be the truth about his person. Second, throughout his life he showed himself to be neither a fanatic nor a megalomaniac, but a person psychologically healthy, of great realism and capable of not deluding himself: incapable, therefore, of attributing to himself qualities he did not have, of deceiving himself about his own person. Therefore, he was not deceiving himself when he said he was the Messiah and the Son of God.

"Was Jesus, therefore, really the Messiah and Son of God? As incredible as it may seem, we have valid reasons for saying yes... They are serious reasons, reasons which demonstrate that the free act of faith is reasonable, and founded on valid motives, which an honest person cannot reject as unreasonable or perhaps even foolish motives. They are provocations to believe."

The article ends by saying that these reasons received "a confirmation of absolute value" when "God raised Jesus from the dead saying through this act his 'It is so' to Jesus' words," and that the resurrection will be the subject of a future <Civilta Cattolica> editorial.

The Problem of the Historicity of the Scriptures

The arguments made in the <Civilta Cattolica> article can only have force, however, <if the sources drawn upon are themselves reliable with regard to who Jesus was, what he did and what he said.> This raises the question, once again, of the historical reliability of the Gospels, their truthfulness.

It is this issue which, for many months now, has concerned the editors of a small Roman bulletin, <Si Si No No>, published by Lefebvrists but read by many in Rome who are <not> Lefebvrists—including many in the Curia.

The series of articles maintains that modern Catholic biblical criticism has caused the "ruin" of Catholic exegesis, and criticizes the Pope and Cardinal Ratzinger for not doing more to restore order in the field of exegesis. We will pursue the debate in coming months.

This article was taken from the December 1994 issue of "Inside the Vatican."

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