Each of the four gospels is concerned with Jesus’ identity. It may seem strange to us but his disciples take a time to grasp that he is divine as well as human. However, many Christians since have hesitated to recognise Jesus’ true identity.
In Sunday’s Gospel story, the disciples are asked to say what popular opinion about Jesus is (who do people say the Son of Man is?) and then they are asked for their personal answer (who do you say that I am?).
The disciples’ first attempt at defining popular opinion about who Jesus is has them placing Jesus in the highest categories that they know. Jesus is like (or even actually) one of the key people from Jewish history, Elijah, [Jeremiah], or one of the prophets; or he is like the famous, recently executed, John the Baptist.
The disciples are doing what we continue to do. Since the Renan’s Life of Jesus in the 1860s, scholars have been trying to find out who Jesus really was and what he was really like – what is known collectively as ‘the quest for the historical Jesus’.
Some have depicted Jesus as a rebel leader, trying to lead an uprising against the Romans. Others have defined him as a teacher inviting his followers to be pacifists. Recent scholarship has focussed on what first century Jewish life was like and, so, what Jesus, a first century Jew, was like. However, Schweitzer’s conclusion that all quests for the historical ended in the author seeing a reflection of himself is still persuasive.
Apart from the conclusions of scholars, we might ask about what ordinary people in the street believe. If we stopped people getting of the train at Nice station or arriving at the airport and asked who Jesus was, or how they rated him, I am sure that we would get a very wide range of replies.
Jesus would probably be compared to other great people, Ghandi, the prophet Mohammed, etc. Others would see him as a wonder worker, a great moral teacher, or as a man who did good deeds, or the most significant person ever to have lived (which with a third of the planet’s population claiming to follow him would not be an overstatement).
To help them answer, they might go to the bible. But that isn’t as straightforward as they imagine. Each of the Gospels emphasises something different. For instance, John’s Gospel calls Jesus ‘the Word made flesh’; in Matthew’s Gospel, he is portrayed as ‘the Son of David’, a great Jewish leader but the picture that we get in Sunday’s Gospel, Mark, is a bit different: Jesus is portrayed as ‘the Messiah’, the long-awaited ‘anointed one’ who would restore Jewish fortunes.
But Jesus moves the question from being a general one about public opinion to the personal one: “But who do you say that I am?” The general quizzing about popular opinion has simply been preparing the ground for the personal response.
esus’ disciples, apart from the impulsive Peter, hesitate. Then, Peter makes his declaration of personal faith: ‘You are the Messiah’.
In Mark’s Gospel, the narrative immediately proceeds to Peter’s denial. Jesus teaches that he will suffer and be put to death. Peter cannot accept this definition of Messiah. Jesus tells him to ‘get behind me, Satan,’ to follow him not the path of avoiding suffering that Peter favours (‘get behind’ means ‘follow’ not ‘clear off’).
So, there is a curious oscillation between understanding who Jesus and a reluctance to accept where this will lead.
Peter’s reaction is that of many Christians. Jesus is problematic to anyone who looks closely at his life and teaching. It is natural for us to want a simplistic, superhero: instead we find a suffering saviour. This puzzled and deeply troubled Jesus’ first followers and will have the same effect on us.