Disclaimer: this piece is a bit more apologetic than practice-focused, simply because I believe Wright offers is a perspective that can shift an often-frustrating debate in a more constructive direction.
I often hear it asserted that Jesus never claimed much of himself, and that his followers have deified one who would never have accepted as much; haven’t seen the Da Vinci Code, but if it’s in any measure faithful to the novel, as the marketing suggests, I’m sure that this train of thought will resurface on screen, and become more common in popular discourse. The question follows of Jesus’ self-understanding, and whether he believed himself to be any sort of messianic figure. If so, why didn’t he just say it? That’s the way we tend to approach it, and Wrede’s messianic secret is among the most-disseminated scholarly opinions on a popular level. However, this presumes that Jesus’ context was akin to our democratic society, where a straight answer is expected, and where the consequences of honesty are, at worst, unpopularity.
Wright points out that a claim to messianism was a very politically charged claim in Jesus’ day, and that Jesus couldn’t just say, ‘yes, I am’ without arousing the rancor of an opposing king, in this case Herod (496). Hence, his discourse was cryptic, and when asked by John’s followers, Jesus pointed to the deeds he had done, alluding to Isaiah, rather than giving the ‘yes, I am,’ that, if it made its way beyond a small circle, would have prematurely led to his death. While Jesus didn’t say it outright, his activity was laden with messianic implications. We can see this throughout his recorded activity, and claim that Jesus possessed consciousness of a messianic vocation (hat tip to Wright and Ben Meyer), at least from his baptism onwards. After the resurrection and vindication of his person, reflection took place among his followers, and the necessary implication that ‘he was IT’ followed, eventually leading to Trinitarian discourse, which makes sense as more than a Constantinian power-play.
Religious conversation in popular discourse tends to be a mile wide and an inch deep, without much grounding in history; I’ll admit, I usually groan and say ‘it’s a waste of my time,’ and that’s what I dread about Ron Howard’s movie, anticipating that nonsensical questions and theories will be given leash, allowing us to indulge in fanciful speculation while a broken world groans for healing. Okay, off the soapbox…
Simply put, maybe the questions about Jesus’ self-understanding that conspiracy theorists offer up are a starting point for closer examination of the scriptures and illumination of the allusions within and their significance, as well as Jesus’ redefinition of Israel’s symbolic world, now centered around himself. What might actually emerge from this dialogue is a portrait of a Jesus worth following, particularly when we see him both with and against the currents of his day. From there, we can begin to think about his employment of direct and indirect speech, a practice which intrigues, yet baffles me, when it comes to appropriate timing and usage. When do we speak directly and prophetically, and when is prophetic speech to be veiled in parable? IMO, that’s a question worth sitting with.