The Canonical gospels in Asian Faces of Jesus
This paper examines the usage of the canonical gospels in four segments of Asian Faces of Jesus, edited by R. S. Sugirtharajah: "Christ and Buddha", by Seiichi Yagi; "Confessing Christ in the Islamic Context" by Alexander J. Malik; "The Crucified Christ Challenges Human Power" by Kosuke Koyama; and the interpretative sections by Sugirtharajah. The following questions form the framework for this inquiry:
1. How does the author see Jesus?
2. How does the author use the gospels?
Christ and Buddha
Yagi's stance is to show an essential unity or consonance between Buddha and Jesus. He does this by emphasizing the teaching role of Jesus and suppressing the cross and limiting his use of the gospels to interpretation of the parables. Generally he interprets them responsibly, with one notable exception.
View of Jesus
Jesus is a "founder" of a "great religious tradition" who "found and realized religious truth common to all humanity". (25) He "held 'arrogance' to be more sinful than any transgression of the law." (26)
Jesus is not successful as a teacher:
Jesus could teach for only a few years. His disciples were not highly educated. There was presumably no one who really understood Jesus sufficiently to succeed his leadership or his teaching directly. (31)
For this reason, they invented other roles for Jesus than teacher. He considers these roles invalid:
To the "sinners" at that time, the behavior of Jesus was decisive but not intelligible. They could not see how "sinners" could be justified before God. Possibly some of the "sinners" sought for an explanation that was intelligible to them and found it at last in their own interpretation of the inexplicable death of Jesus as atonement: He died for sinners so that they could be justified and enter the Reign of God. Not the teaching, but the man, Jesus, was decisive to them.
His assessment is not necessarily intellectually defensible, for the gospels are products of these "sinners" and contain both reflections about the man and digests of the message, thus both the teaching and the message were "decisive" to them.
Yagi asserts that to say that Jesus is God is merely to say that God can be seen through encounter with Jesus.
Jesus was the only human being, at that time and in that place, as far as the writers of the New Testament knew, in whom God was real. In this sense God was real nowhere outside Jesus, or God acted through Jesus and as Jesus....In this sense Jesus was God and God was Jesus. (35)
This allows Jesus to be parallel with Buddha:
Then, for Christians, Jesus is the realization of the secondary contact par excellence as Gotama Buddha is for Buddhists.(36)
Use of the gospels
Since Yagi only views Jesus as a teacher, he confines his use of the gospels to the teachings he finds there, most specifically the parables. He does not use such sayings as the Beatitudes or Woes, the expansions of the law in the Sermon on the Mount, or the Sermon at Nazareth; perhaps he does not consider such things to be teaching.
When he interprets the parables he uses a clear and reasonable method, neither overly specific nor overly allegorical:
"To the lawyer's question of who is the neighbor he should love in obedience to the commandment to love one's neighbor, Jesus' reply makes clear not how to think, but how to love: [the good Samaritan, Lk 10:30-37].
In another story, Jesus sees in nature not the universal Logos but the love of God very concretely at work: [the lilies of the field, Mt 6:25-29].
It is characteristic of the word of Jesus that it sounds so natural, though it is absurd to the discriminating intellect. This is the case with the Parable of the Lost Sheep. The reader thinks involuntarily, "Really who does not do so?" Yet, what shepherd would engage in such folly. Ninety-nine sheep are, economically, more valuable than one.
This article does have one noteworthy exception, however:
"We can say that the absolutized law, cutting the ego off from its real relation to other persons and making the ego the ultimate object of its own interest, absolutized the ego and grounded itself in the arrogance of worldly success. The following story illustrates the point: [the Pharisee and the publican, Lk 18:9-14a]" (27)
Here he has taken a parable that speaks about justification and repentance and attempts to make it a teaching about philosophical psychology and a critique of the law.
Confessing Christ in the Islamic Context
Malik's program is to appropriate the Bible's images of Christ and express them "in the thought form of Islamic religio-socio-culture." (79)
View of Jesus
Malik does not emphasize either Jesus teaching nor his acts, nor his passion and resurrection but deals only with the Christological formulations of the New Testament. He does this because it is not in the accounts of Jesus as a person that offend Muslim theology but the interpretation of his relation with God.
For example, Jesus is God's Son but:
The word 'Son' does not mean 'generation' in a physical sense. Therefore when Christians confess Jesus Christ as 'Son of God', it does not mean that God has "generated" Him in the physical sense.
The divinity of Christ requires careful interpretation:
Christ who was in the form of God, empties and humbles himself." (79)
Jesus is "divine" but is not another God besides God but in the "self-revelation of God."
Now the confessing of Christ is very meaningful here, that this recreating or regenerating or new birth is effected in man by faith in Christ. God has inaugurated a sort of new or second creation in the person of Jesus Christ. In fact, Jesus is compared with Adam in the Qu'ran (Surah 3:45). Adam and Christ are, then, so to speak, the representatives of two orders of creation: the first creation and the second creation.
Use of the gospels
Malik states that "We have to go back to the Bible to find the real Christ" for the creeds "are the result of centuries of debate on his person." (79) It is important to note that he is not attempting to find the "Real Jesus", but the "Real Christ". Very little in the Synoptics deals with Christology in an evolved manner. The Christological assertions in the Fourth gospel are the main gospel materials which he brings into dialog with the Qu'ran:
Again, says St. John, "To all who receive him (Christ Jesus), who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13). Christians can rightly proclaim with their Muslim brethren Allah-O-Akbhar (God is great), who recreates "fallen" man--man who is unable to observe Shariah (Law) in the person of Lord Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. (82-83)
In general, he is making responsible, albeit minimal, use of the gospels in his theological task.
The Crucified Christ Challenges Human Power
Koyama shows a Jesus who as center give authority to the periphery through his sincerity.
View of Jesus
Koyama's understanding of Jesus is organized around the terms "sincerity" and "centrality" and the image of "wounded hands". These terms are used very differently from their common meanings in English; apparently they reflect the semantic dimensions of equivalent Japanese terms.
"Sincere" in English means:
sincere (sin-sir') adj. 1. Being in reality as it is in appearance; real; genuine; sincere regret. 2. Intending precisely what one says or what one appears to intend; free from hypocrisy; honest in one's action or profession; a sincere friend. 3. Obs Being without admixture; free; pure. 4. Obs Blameless. 5. Obs. Sound; whole. See synonyms under CANDID, HONEST.
When Koyama says that Jesus was "sincere" he is not merely saying that Jesus was what he appeared to be or that Jesus meant what he said. Rather Koyama says that:
- Jesus abandoned himself "to human dominance, even to crucifixion" in order to expose "human deception" with his "sincerity". (149)
- "Sincerity" means that he was "other-oriented". "By healing others and not himself, he established his authority" (150).
- This "sincerity" is symbolized by Christ's "mutilated hands". (151)
What he seems to be saying with this term is that Jesus' submission to the crucifixion proved a certain ultimate consistency and unity in his way of being that makes his way of being authoritative.
This "sincerity" is symbolized by Christ's "mutilated hands", contrasting with the "attractive hands" of "the world of efficiency", "a technologically efficient way of dealing with people." (151).
The images of central and peripheral have geographic and political meaning for Koyama. The important contrast is between Jesus' reign and the Japanese Emperor's. The Japanese emperor cult "placed the emperor at the center of the whole universe and...for the sake of the glory of the center it demanded sacrifice from the periphery....The crucified Christ affirms his centrality by giving it up for the sake of the periphery."
Christ is at the "center who is always in motion towards the periphery. In this he reveals the mind of God who is concerned about the people on the periphery." Jesus has "centrality" and "lordship" affirmed by "giving it up". (152) The periphery is those "whose lives are wasted". (157). For this reason the incarnation means "He dwelt among people to save them from wasting life."
He does not view the periphery only in economic terms but rather in terms of existential meaning:
In the crucified Christ the reign of God has come: the scars of Jesus challenge the power of the good that suffocates the best. (159)
Use of the gospels
Koyama's use of the gospels is multi-headed; he uses many different methods:
- He reacts against interpretations that he assumes his readers make.
- At times he appropriates the symbols of a text without considering any gap in time and culture.
- He sometimes uses texts as proof texts without attending to their grammar, setting, audience, or context.
- He uses allegorical interpretation.
- He sometimes generalizes the thrust of the gospels in very selective fashion.
Some of Koyama's work seems to be aimed at correcting folk interpretations or the interpretations of missionaries using an unusual hermeneutic. For example:
The passage, "Man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord," does not idealize poverty. It plainly tell us that humanity needs both bread and the word of God. (151)
presupposes that the common interpretation among Koyama's readers is that this passage means that poverty is good or that human economic needs are no business of a Christian. Such an interpretation itself is not a responsible usage of this passage (for one thing it completely ignores context). Again the passage:
"If a rich man says to the poor, "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God," he is gossiping." (152)
presupposes that the common interpretation of this beatitude is used to legitimize "pie in the sky" preaching.
Unfortunately, Koyama is not transcending the hermeneutic that he criticizes, but seems to be using the same method. This method seems to ignore historical setting and context and assumes that the text can be appropriated without interpretation. He assumes, for example, that the Japanese Imperium has a meaning parallel with that of basileia.
"His kingship does not work in the way that the Japanese empire worked and destroyed itself. "My kingship is not from the world." (John 18:36)" (155)
Contrawise, Koyama at times seems insensitive to the overt meaning of the gospel text. For example:
The demons were cast out. The reign of God came. "...If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons than the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Luke 11:30). (150)
There is a great difference between "The reign of God came" and "the kingdom of God has come upon you".
Koyama also sometimes uses gospel texts as proof texts in ways that seem only loosely connected with the plain meaning of the text and must represent the final conclusion of unstated theological reflection on the texts:
The church believes that Jesus Christ is the center of all peoples and all things. "He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made" (John 1:2,3). (153)
Jesus was the center person laid in a manger "because there was no place for them in the inn" (Luke 2:7). He "came not to call the righteous [respectable] but sinners [outcasts]" (Mark 2:17). Jesus Christ is the center becoming periphery. (154)
The people who are rich must be emancipated from their enslavement to wealth. Life must not be wasted. "Behold Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold. And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house." (Luke 19:9) (157)
"Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves..." (Matt. 10:16). Immediately we think that we are sheep and the other people are wolves. We seldom stop and think that we can be rapacious wolves eating up sheep. (152)
"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14) to show the supreme importance of people in the mind of God." (158)
"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" means that the coming of Jesus Christ eliminates this facelessness. He creates community rather than mass. He is against "wasting life" in all life contexts. (159)
These interpretations may be defensible, but there needs to be a great deal more argument than he provides to legitimize such interpretations as equating sinners with "outcasts" in Mark's gospel or than creating a new concept "the supreme importance of people in the mind of God" from "the Word became flesh".
Commenting on Matt 5:23-24 he uses a sort of allegorical interpretation:
You must come to the altar "twice." The first time you come, the living spirit for which the altar is an institutional expression will make you aware of what this "coming to the altar" means. There you will remember that "your brother has something against you," not that you have something against your brother, because the altar stands for the judgment upon egocentric perspective. Then you must take a side trip, as it were. "First be reconciled to your brother." Then come back and continue your act of offering your gift at the altar. Practice what the altar stands for. (160-1)
This may work as a homily, but it is not literally connected with the plain reading of the text.
Despite the central image of the mutilated hands, there is no reference to the only episode in the gospels where this minor image appears.
Koyama also seems to be a bit selective in his perspective. "He shared his life with the poor and needy". (150) Jesus also shared his life with wealthy tax collectors, middle-class Pharisees, and was loved by people rich enough to spend a years wages on ointment to pour on him. I suggest that the general thrust of the gospels support an image of Jesus as center nourishing the entire structure, from center to margin ("I am the true vine") rather than Koyama's image of the center involving and authorizing the periphery (only!).
The bulk of Sugirtharajah's picture of Jesus is found in his epilogue. As editor he seems to have refrained from presenting any great arguments himself. It is in his introduction, though, that he makes his most general and most unarguable assertion: "Jesus is the paradigm and promise for Christians." (7)
View of Jesus
Sugirtharajah sees Jesus as a social activist and interprets the cross as punishment (by the government?) for taking the side of the poor (against the rich?).
"Jesus takes the side of the poor and champions their cause. It was this cause that led to his rejection, humiliation and, even more revealingly, to the scars and wounds on his body. Following Jesus inevitably involves a lifestyle that reflects his identification with people, his weakness and vulnerability." (261)
Although not an uncommon assertion in Liberation Theologies as well as certain theological circles in the US, this stance does not represent the interpretation of any of the evangelists. This is to say that there is no overt interpretation offered in the gospels that states that Jesus was killed in retribution for siding with the poor against their exploitation. Rather the evangelists speak of the dei of the crucifixion, the opposition by the religious authorities to challenges to their interpretation of torah, blasphemy, and claims to kingship.
At the same time, he acknowledges the tendency to consider Jesus as a founder of a social movement and discusses the dangers of this approach in an Asian context at length. (259-60)
He also considers the image of Jesus as sage: "Jesus as a wisdom teacher may be a means to appropriate him in a religiously pluralistic milieu." (263) It is unclear whether he would distinguish between sofia, nomoj, and dikaiosunh, but if he does acknowledge such distinction he does not justify discarding Jesus' role as teacher of torah and of righteousness.
Use of the gospels
Sugirtharajah does not overtly use the gospel texts in these materials. He correctly notes the methodological fallacy of proof-texting: "It is possible from gospel records, depending on what text one chooses, to construct almost any picture of Jesus one wishes." (259) He does not, however, set forth any corrective for this problem. Apparently he is willing to entertain any picture without any attempt to norm that picture against a view of the whole of the texts:
The most challenging approach would be to accept these multiple images as a gift, scrutinizing their diversity and probing their meaning, purpose and function, and above all, celebrating the gift. (259)
He does not include scrutinizing their intellectual honesty, or faithfulness to the texts. One may, of course, discard the texts as norms for faith. At the same time, however, one abandons all pretense to be working within the tradition of historic Christianity but is now dealing with a different religion.