“Who Do You Say That I Am?”
Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1999).1
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples,Who do men say that the Son of man is?And they said,Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.He said to them,But who do you say that I am?— Matthew 16:13-15, RSV.
In the conclusion to The Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus, Thomas Cahill states:
“ . . . [T]he image of Jesus haunts our civilization in exceedingly persistent ways. Everyone knows who he is; everyone knows what he looked like; everyone knows what he expects of us. This consistency, this transultimate reliability, is found in the four original gospel portraits and has persisted through the ages. As the ancient liturgy of Easter says of him: ‘Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega — his are the seasons and the ages.’ Or, far less triumphally, as a Jewish woman confided to me recently: ‘I love Jesus. Don’t get me wrong: I have no interest whatsoever in Christianity. But I love Jesus; I feel he belongs to me.’
“At the turn of the new millennium, it may be time for everyone to reassess Jesus. I hope that the process of Jewish-Christian reconciliation will soon have progressed far enough that Jews may reexamine their automatic (and completely understandable) fear of all things Christian and acknowledge Jesus as one of their own. . . . For Christians, it may be time to acknowledge that we have misunderstood Jesus in virtually every way that matters. As Raymond Brown was fond of remarking, if Jesus were to return to earth, the first thing we would do is crucify him again.
“But whether we are Jew or Christian, believer or atheist, the figure of Jesus — as final Jewish prophet, as innocent and redeeming victim, as ideal human being — is threaded through our society and folded into our imagination in such a way that it cannot be excised. He is the mysterious ingredient that laces everything we taste, the standard by which all moral actions are finally judged. As one poet, W. H. Auden, echoing centuries of others, says affectionately and without regard to dogma or creed:
‘He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
‘He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
‘He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.’”3
In an earlier chapter entitled “The Word Made Flesh: The Jesus the Beloved Disciple Knew,” Thomas Cahill compares the Synoptic understandings of Jesus with those developed by John.
Jesus in the Synoptics and John
“ . . . [T]here is a continuity between the earlier theologies of . . . the Synoptics, on the one hand, and the more developed reflections of John, on the other. Whether earlier or later, Jesus is seen to be human — made of flesh — and not the ghostly apparition of the Gnostics; he is raised from the dead and given supreme status over the universe; he is the culmination of all God’s purposes, his definitive revelation. But if God can so reveal himself in flesh, Jesus must be God’s self-revelation and, therefore, of God in a far more integral and essential sense than any previous (and merely human) prophet. It is this last thought that forms the bridge between the early theologies and the grand Christological assertions of the second century; it is John’s Gospel more than any other document of the New Testament that gives us a picture of this bridge as it is being built, almost a snapshot of this novel theology in the process of construction. By the . . . [beginning] of the second century, Ignatius of Antioch, one of the first of the great bishops, will speak without equivocation of ‘our God, Jesus Christ.’
“Are we observing, in this theological development, the dismantling of monotheism, Judaism’s most precious possession? Certainly rabbinical Judaism in its articulated form would see it so. But, once again, we are throughout the course of the first century watching the two branches, rabbinical Judaism and Christianity, grow out of ancient Judaism — at first entwined, then gradually defining themselves against each other into separate entities. For Jews of the evolving rabbinical tradition, no modification of God’s Oneness is tolerable. For Christians, God’s Oneness is not denied but startlingly reaffirmed — and made more palpable — in Jesus, who can ultimately be understood only as God incarnate: ‘I am,’ proclaims John’s Jesus, deliberately echoing the formula of God’s own self-descriptions in the Hebrew scriptures. As he declares his eternal existence, prior to all Jewish history, to the scandalized worshipers within the precincts of the Temple itself: ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ As he reminds Martha and Mary: ‘I am — the Resurrection and the Life.’ As he teaches his disciples at the Last Supper:
‘I am — the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
No one can come to the Father save through me.
If you know me, you will also come to know my Father.
Henceforth you do know him —
For you have seen him.’
“Who sees him sees the Father; who hears him hears the Father; who touches him touches the Father. As the author of John’s Gospel will say elsewhere (in the first of the three Johannine letters): the ancient reality ‘that has existed from the beginning, that we have heard, that we have seen with our own eyes, that we have observed and touched with our own hands, the Word of Life — this is what we have to say.’ In other words, Jesus himself is the Gospel.”4
Thus, “humanity is redeemed by humanity — by the human suffering of Jesus issuing forth in even the last effusions of his human body.”5
- Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus, is available from Barnes & Noble at www.barnesandnoble.com/w/desire-of-the-everlasting-hills-thomas-cahill/1100619389. (go back)
- See “The ‘World of the Journey,’” Outlook (Prequel 1999.3). This is a summary of Thomas Cahill’s The Gift of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Doubleday, 1998). (go back)
- Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1999), pp. 318-320. (go back)
- Ibid., pp. 261-263. (go back)
- Ibid., pp. 296, 297. (go back)