The “who question” about Jesus is key, Thomas A. Noble tells his students.
“I unpack all the rest of Christianity from Christology (the study of Christ),” says Nobel, professor of theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary of Kansas City.
Similarly, when professor Warren Carter of St. Paul School of Theology teaches New Testament classes, he asks students to think about two questions Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?”
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“I talk a lot about this in relation to particular texts we work on,” Carter says. His goal is to help them understand that “there wasn’t a monolithic understanding in the New Testament” about Jesus, and that church doctrine about him continued to develop after New Testament times.
Christians, however, aren’t the only ones thinking about Jesus. He’s also on the minds of adherents of many religious traditions. And their answers to Jesus’ questions vary widely. Here is some of what they say:
Muslims call Jesus Isa (variously spelled Issa or I’sa) and call him a highly honored prophet, though not divine. The Quran mentions Jesus many times and includes a story of his virginal birth. Islam believes Jesus was calling people to surrender to God, which is what the word “Islam” means. So they view him as a Muslim, even though he lived hundreds of years before Muhammad.
Although they believe Jesus performed miracles, they deny he was crucified. Rather, they say, God merely made it appear so to Jesus’ enemies. Muslims believe Jesus ascended bodily to heaven.
Syed E. Hasan, chairman of the Department of Geosciences at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a member of the Islamic Research Foundation, calls it “an absolute requirement of the Islamic faith to believe in him and the message he brought.”
But Hasan notes that “Islam rejects the concept of Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and emphasizes the oneness or unity of God.”
Jews acknowledge that Jesus is the personal historical connection between them and Christians. Jesus was a Jew, and his followers believed he was the promised Messiah of Israel, a claim most Jews who knew – or knew about – Jesus when he lived rejected.
Rabbi Alan Cohen of Congregation Beth Shalom in the Kansas City area says that not many years ago, “with the taste of persecution still very fresh in the mouths of many, Jesus’ very name was anathema to most Jews. Identifying him and acknowledging his existence would be to painfully give life to the accusations of ‘Christ killer’ and deicide that began in the early years of the church and continued to modern times.
“While today there is still no unanimity of views about Jesus within Judaism, there is certainly a much more accepting view. To many Jews, he was born, lived and died a Jew. Some would clearly identify him with an element of the rabbinic community of the first century and categorize him among the reformers of that community.”
The range of views about Jesus in Hinduism is quite wide. Some Hindus admire him so much they think of him as a yogi (a practitioner of yoga) and follow his teachings. But, as a rule, Hindus reject the Christian contention that somehow the incarnation of God in Jesus was unique. Hindus believe God also was incarnate in such Hindu deities as Krishna.
Anand Bhattacharyya, an active member of the Kansas City Hindu community, calls Jesus “a great seer of truth like ancient Hindu sages. He had extraordinary yogic power to communicate with God and revealed his messages to the followers. I am particularly overwhelmed by his message of love, kindness and compassion. He was a true Bhakti yogi.”
(”Bhakti” is derived from a root word that means “to be attached to God.”)
Sikhism emerged 500 years ago with no direct connections to Judaism or Christianity. But an indication of the respect with which some Sikhs view Jesus can be found in an essay by a Sikh on a British Broadcasting Corp. Web site, www.bbc.co.uk/religion/ religions , that describes various religions of the world. Nikky Singh writes that she sees Jesus “as a wonderful parallel with the person of Nanak, the first Sikh guru. There is no direct connection between Christ and the Sikh gurus … but when we look closely at them, they illuminate each other.”
There is no generally accepted Buddhist view of Jesus, but some Buddhists think of Jesus as a bodhisattva, one who, motivated by compassion, seeks enlightenment for everyone, including himself. Lama Chuck Stanford of the Rime Buddhist Center in Kansas City is among those who think that: “Many Buddhist teachers I know, and myself included, view Jesus as an enlightened being, a bodhisattva, whose message was not that much different than that of the Buddha’s. Jesus encouraged his followers not to harm others and to be kind, compassionate and to love others.”
Stanford notes, “Buddhism predates Christianity (by about 500 years), so there would be nothing in the teachings about Jesus.”
Adherents of the Baha’i faith believe Jesus was a manifestation of God but not the only one. Rather he was one of several messengers from God. The founder of Baha’ism, who took the name Baha’u’llah, called himself “a later manifestation” of God. In addition to Jesus, this line of messengers honored by Baha’is includes Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster and Muhammad.
As Warren Carter notes, it took traditional Christianity time to reduce its beliefs to written creeds to which church structures gave approval, but eventually those creeds declared the church’s historic view that Jesus is God’s fully human, fully divine son and one of the persons of the Trinity. Various other views (under such names as Arianism, Nestorianism and Monophysiticism) were expressed in early Christianity – and have continued to emerge in other times and places – but eventually were declared heretical if they disagreed with the Nicene Creed, which first was articulated in 325 A.D.
But faith communities with connections to Christianity have developed views in tension with traditional Christian beliefs. Among them:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with headquarters in Utah, calls Jesus the “Heavenly Father’s Only Begotten Son in the flesh.”
But the writings the church holds as scripture go beyond the Christian Bible to include the Book of Mormon, which tells a story of how, after Jesus was resurrected, he appeared to people in what is now known as America, taught them his gospel and formed his church.
The Book of Mormon says the people to whom Jesus appeared here were descendants of a prophet named Lehi, who the book says lived in Jerusalem about 600 B.C. and whom God commanded to lead a small group of people to the American continent.
Formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with headquarters in Independence, Mo., this group also holds the Book of Mormon to be holy scripture but has positioned itself closer to traditional Christianity than the LDS church.
Bruce Lindgren of the Community’s First Presidency’s office says the church believes Jesus is ” ‘God with us,’ the Son of God, and the living expression of God in the flesh. … Although we do not use creeds in our worship, we believe that our understanding of Jesus Christ is consistent with the ecumenical Christian creeds.”
In this tradition, Jesus is often honored as a wisdom teacher but is not considered divine and certainly not part of any Trinity, which Unitarians reject.
The Rev. Thom Belote, pastor of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, says that “if you ask a Unitarian Universalist if they believe Jesus was God, most would probably answer no. And it would be a tremendous mistake to interpret this reply as a negation, a rejection or a denial.
“We say that Jesus was fully human, no different than you or I, except that he made use of that humanity more fully than you or I ever will. … Jesus’ ministry did not so much point to a kingdom in a time to come. It said that the kingdom is already here.”
The founder, Mary Baker Eddy, expressed great reverence for Jesus as she created her unique views on healing.
– Alan Gomes, Unmasking The Cults
One tenet of Christian Science says in part: “We acknowledge that man is saved through Christ, through Truth, Life and Love as demonstrated by the Galilean Prophet in healing the sick and overcoming sin and death.”
Riley Seay of the Christian Science Committee on Publication for Missouri puts it this way: “We look at him as the savior of the world, as the son of God, as pretty much as he identifies himself as scripture. We look to him for guidance. He was the master Christian. Through healing we know we are on track with his theology. If we understand what Jesus was teaching, the byproduct is going to be healing.”
This faith community believes Jesus must always be distinguished from – and is subordinate to – God. The group’s Web site explains: “In every period of his existence, whether in heaven or on earth, his (Jesus’) speech and conduct reflect subordination to God. God is always the superior, Jesus the lesser one who was created by God. … After his resurrection, he continues to be in a subordinate, secondary position.”
That view differs markedly from this one expressed by the Nicene Creed: Jesus is “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.”