Posted by: Dan | April 23, 2006

Jesus as "Prophet": Part IV

Jesus as Charismatic Prophet: Vermes, Dunn, Twelftree, Rivkin & Borg

Within this section we will examine scholars who argue that Jesus is better understood outside the categories of “apocalyptic/oracular” and “social/leadership”. Instead, these scholars prefer to present Jesus as a prophet that more closely resembles our contemporary understanding of charismatic prophets. We will begin by looking at the work of Gaza Vermes, before moving to James Dunn's comments. We will then briefly examine the writings of Graham Twelftree and Ellis Rivkin before commenting on Marcus Borg's model of Jesus (which fits this category, albeit awkwardly). Finally we will conclude with some critical reflection upon this perspective.

Gaza Vermes: Jesus the Hasid

Gaza Vermes, who began his career as a scholar as a Christian but later on converted to Judaism, argues that Jesus, as a first century prophet who performed healings and exorcisms while proclaiming forgiveness, belongs within the stream of charismatic Judaism. Although there were other exorcists and healers, notably magicians, Vermes argues that Jesus does not follow their prescribed rites, methods and incantations. Rather, Jesus' spontaneous and unscripted actions parallel those of the “holy men” known as the “Hasidim”. Thus, Vermes compares Jesus to two other notable Hasidim of Second Temple Judaism: Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the Cirle Drawer. The Hasidim were charismatics who performed miraculous deeds because of their intimacy with God, and the greater their healing power, the greater their intimacy with God. The Hasidim were able to perform healings through their prayers because the devil was believed to be at the root of sickness and sin, and so contact with God would drive the devil out. Vermes argues that the Hasidim were so intimate with God when they prayed that they referred to God as Father, and this is one of the marked characteristics of Jesus' prayers. Thus, Vermes concludes that Jesus is the paramount example of the early Hasidim and the heir of the prophetic tradition.

James Dunn: Jesus the Spirit-Inspired Prophet with Authoritative Charisma

James Dunn argues that because Jesus' words were inspired by the Spirit to effect forgiveness, and because his acts were inspired by the Spirit to effect healing, Jesus is naturally a charismatic figure. However, Dunn recognises that “charismatic” is a rather broad term and so he seeks to put it into its appropriate context. Dunn argues that Jesus had a reputation as a miracle worker, and this reputation comes to us in “explicitly charismatic terms” for the working of dunameis (might deeds) belonged to the charismata, and the dunameis authenticated the doer of those deeds as a person of the Spirit. Thus, Dunn describes Jesus as a charismatic because everything about Jesus was inspired by the Spirit.

Furthermore, what was true of Jesus' deeds was also true of his teachings and his presence, and so there is a charismatic nature to Jesus' authority in general. In his ability to provoke respect and awe, Jesus, Dunn argues, must have possessed a divinely appointed charisma (with charisma fitting the more standard definition as the ability to inspire fear, awe, confidence, trust, or hostility). Thus, Jesus was a charismatic in the sense that he manifested a power and an authority which were not his own but were given to him by virtue of God's Spirit upon him.

In exploring Jesus as a charismatic of this sort Dunn distances Jesus from other first century charismatics by arguing that Jesus was not an ecstatic — evidence that would support the notion of Jesus as an ecstatic simply does not exist within the Gospels and the early Jesus tradition. By distancing Jesus from the ecstatics Dunn paints a portrait of Jesus as a missional and ethical charismatic prophet. As he concludes, “As [Jesus] found God in prayer as Father, so he found God in mission as power… [and] in this two-fold experience of Jesus we see clearly interwoven both the ethical and the charismatic”.

Graham Twelftree and Ellis Rivkin: Jesus as Exorcist and as the Charismatic of Charismatics

In addition to the works of Vermes and Dunn, Graham Twelftree has highlighted the exorcisms and placed them at the core of Jesus' work as a charismatic prophet. However, he is careful to distance Jesus from the other first century Jewish exorcists by arguing that Jesus closely linked eschatological significance with the exorcisms he performed. Demons were cast out, not simply because Jesus was close to God, but because the kingdom of God was at hand.

Ellis Rivkin, like Dunn, picks up on the notion of charisma as the ability to gather and hold a crowd. In this regard, Jesus was the “charismatic of charismatics” and it is this that inevitably leads to Jesus' death. Rivkin argues that Jesus was nonviolent and largely apolitical in his mission or message — but Jesus was politically dangerous because he attracted crowds that could become quite unpredictable and violent. Thus, Jesus was executed because of the potential, although unintended, political consequences of his teaching and popularity.

Marcus Borg: Jesus the Spirit-Person

Finally, this section concludes with a comment on the work of Marcus Borg. Borg, like Crossan and even more like Thiessen, is difficult to fit into the categories used to structure this paper. He is a member of the Jesus Seminar and sees Jesus as a subversive sage, but he also argues that Jesus was a radical social prophet and movement founder who espoused a fully here-and-now approach to eschatology and apocalyptic. However, Borg argues that all of these ideas about Jesus are firmly rooted in the notion of Jesus as a Spirit-Person, and this becomes the fundamental paradigm that he applies to Jesus. Thus, as a Spirit-Person Jesus was a visionary mystic, a channel through which God's Spirit flowed to others, a healer, and a person with a deep personal relationship with God. Borg also highlights the fact that this notion of Jesus as a Spirit-Person also fits well with the charismatic experiences that abounded in the New Testament church. Finally, as a Spirit-Person, Borg's Jesus is incredibly compassionate, and thus Borg's focus on Jesus as a charismatic is used to downplay the moral teachings of Jesus.

Critical Reflection

Scholars within this category have made two particular valuable contributions to the study of Jesus as prophet. They have shown how Jesus' mission and teachings were inextricably linked to the working of the Spirit, and they have also highlighted the intimacy that Jesus has with God the Father. However, there a few criticisms that must be mentioned.

First of all, Vermes' notion of Jesus as an Hasid faces several challenges. The Hasidim were known as “ultrapietistic” and “ultrastrenuous” observers of the law, and the Jesus of the Gospels (or Borg's charismatic Jesus, for that matter) does not sit comfortably within either of those categories. Secondly, the miracles effected by the Hasidim, and first century charismatics in general, was linked to rigorous, painstaking, and prolonged prayer, and this does not fit well with the healings performed by Jesus. Thirdly, although the Hasidim expressed intimacy with God, Jesus is unique in proclaiming God as “abba”. Fourthly, as noted by Twelftree and by the scholars who see Jesus as a social prophet, Jesus' miracles carried eschatological significance and this sets him well apart from the first century charismatics. Fifthly, like Dunn, Gunther Bornkamm argues that charismatics tended to appeal to ecstatic states and visions for legitimation, but Jesus hardly does this at all. Sixthly, as a charismatic, Jesus would have had difficult gathering a large popular following, and would likely have been held in greater suspicion, and be seen as more deviant, by the crowds. Finally, it should also be noted that these scholars also tend to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith, and tend not to see Jesus as divine, or put much weight in the resurrection narratives.

Therefore, although there is some plausibility in seeing Jesus as a charismatic prophet, this type is not without its problems. However, the greatest problem with this perspective is the fact that it is altogether too vague and leaves out too much material. Therefore, we can conclude this section in agreement with Ben Witherington who (rather graciously) writes:

While it is accurate to call Jesus a Spirit person, a charismatic holy man, or an exorcist, this is only a partial explanation of the gospel evidence about Jesus… Interpreters must avoid the pitfall of mistaking the part for the whole in attempting to portray Jesus.

Thus, those who participate within the contemporary charismatic prophetic movement, who are correct to emphasise the ongoing significance, and miraculous workings, of the Spirit and the Fatherhood of God, would do well to fill out their understanding of the prophetic by becoming more firmly rooted in the apocalyptic and social approaches to the prophetic.

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