Before ‘Big Bang’

Echoes of Jesus in the Faith of his Followers

by Rev’d Ian Wallis

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THE SCHOLARLY SEARCH for Jesus of Nazareth can be likened to a cosmologist’s quest for the origins of the universe.1 Billions of years ago, an high-temperature explosion of super-dense matter occurred, the so-called ‘Big Bang’, giving rise to all that exists.  The enormity of this split-second wonder makes investigation into its causes (if, indeed, there are any) extremely difficult.  What is more, those clues to date, black holes and the like, suggest a radically different order of things.

Two thousand years ago, another explosion of indescribable capacity took place, creating faith out of its absence, whilst launching one fading Galilean star into divine orbit.  Resurrection, the inauguration of Christian time.  But what of resurrection minus one?  Opinions vary, with many investigations abandoned on the grounds of impossibility or superfluity.  Impossible, because the search for the historical Jesus is like looking into the vortex of a supernova hoping to uncover its history; at best, it yields distorted or fragmented images.  Superfluous, because resurrection and Pentecost, the genesis of Christianity, are divine acts which can only be apprehended through faith and not proved (or disproved) through the canons of human inquiry.

For all that, to change the metaphor, the digging continues, with enthusiastic archaeologists, undaunted by previous frustrations, returning to well-excavated sites in the hope of fresh finds.  Participants in this latest wave of interest in Jesus set about the task of examining New Testament documents and other relevant sources with filters allegedly capable of sifting from the deposits of first century Judaism and the accretions of nascent Christianity the genuine artefacts of what Jesus did and said, as well as details of the circumstances surrounding his death.2 Then the business of reconstruction commences with various assemblies of ‘assured results’ generating sometimes widely divergent profiles.  Occupying the same library classification, these scholarly identikits are forced to keep company on the same shelf:  charismatic holy man, eschatological prophet, itinerant philosopher, social reformer, zealous freedom-fighter, anointed messiah, Galilean sage, to name only some.3 Confronting them en masse is like standing before a police identification parade without an eyewitness to single out the guilty man.  How do you choose between them?  Should we even try?

A new English translation of Albert Schweitzer’s masterpiece, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, reminds us of the pitfalls associated with trying to uncover the Jesus of history.  Returning to our opening allusion, star-gazing can readily deteriorate into navel-gazing, yielding an all-too-familiar Jesus who embodies the ideological predilections of the researcher’s time.  Schweitzer’s judgement on 19th century lives of Jesus remains salutary:

The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the kingdom of God, who founded the kingdom of heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never existed.  He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in a historical garb.4

Yet, warning heeded, many contributions to what has rather pretentiously become known as the ‘Third Quest’ (as if there has only been three!) do seem to be more self-aware and better focused than their predecessors, pursuing the task of locating Jesus within his historical context and interpreting his ministry in the light of the various expressions of Jewish faith and other influences evident in first century Galilee or Judea.  Nor does the ensuing galaxy of interpretations necessarily spell failure.  After all, why should Jesus fit comfortably into our categories and recognise our incompatibilities?  Or, indeed, why should he have possessed only one persona – we don’t, and few doubt he was infinitely more interesting than his biographers and researchers!  Perhaps, budding ‘questers’ could do with showing a good deal more humility in their achievements matched by a good deal more respect for the profound and multifaceted personhood that is the mystery who is Jesus.

But the questions ‘Is it possible?’ and ‘Why bother?’ continue to orbit.  In a recent book, Luke Johnson sets out to explode current attempts to uncover the Jesus of history behind the Christ of faith.  He claims the whole enterprise is misguided and doomed to failure because the only sources available to us are all written from the perspective of the resurrection.  The authentic Jesus for these authors is not a Galilean Jew, but the risen Lord who continues to be a powerful presence: ‘the real Jesus for Christian faith is not simply a figure of the past but very much and above all a figure of the present, a figure, indeed, who defines believers’ present by his presence’.5

However, Professor Johnson recognises the need to reach beyond the Big Bang in order to anchor the experience of the resurrected Lord in the ministry of someone who shared our time-space continuum.  And to do so in a way that is faithful to the early Christian witness and, whilst rooting faith in Jesus of Nazareth, steers clear of placing it at the mercy of historians.

It is not the facts of Jesus’ life that can find new expression in the lives of others, but rather the pattern of his existence.  Jesus’ existence is one of radical obedience toward God and self-deposing service towards others forms a pattern for all humanity that can be written in the heart by the Holy Spirit.6

Jesus’ ‘pattern of existence’ is the golden thread linking him to his followers.  But how can we be confident this is not also an expression of resurrection faith projected back onto Jesus for legitimacy and authorization?  Because, claims Johnson, the four Gospels, the letters of Paul, the Deutero-Pauline epistles, Hebrews and 1 Peter all bear witness.  But where did these authors acquire it?  This is surely the crux.  For we can only be confident that Jesus’ pattern of existence was normative for Christians after his death on the grounds that it was normative for Jesus’ first followers during his life, otherwise we should have no access to it.  And this brings us back to cosmology.

One way of detecting black holes, putatively the ‘stuff’ of pre-Big Bang, is by the gravitational pull they exert upon neighbouring stars, altering their orbits.  What is opaque becomes discernable and open to investigation though its impact on other entities.  Could it be that we gain access to Jesus’ ‘pattern of existence’ through those with whom he shared it?  Could it be that we know about Jesus’ faith through the faith of his disciples, a faith they acquired in his company and under his tutelage?  No slight of hand is intended here for Jesus’ faith, as increasingly acknowledged,7 is what we are talking about and should be preferred to its substitute circumlocutions (e.g. pattern of existence, self-understanding, selfhood, etc.).8

Yet to talk of Jesus’ faith (or, indeed, Johnson’s ‘pattern of existence’) requires us to steer a course through a cluster of questions and difficulties.  For instance, according to Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus, like a phoenix from the ashes, rises to significance within the Christian proclamation where he is encountered within God’s dynamic word.  Believers were never interested in who Jesus was, but only in who he is – a living presence liberated from the constraints of history – and so ‘the kerygma does not permit any inquiry into the personal faith of the preacher’.9 But what if the personal faith of the preacher was the medium of the message and, as a consequence, of significance from the outset?  What if Jesus’ strategy for communicating the blessings associated with God’s presence revolved around inspiring his faith in others – faith which formed the divine life within him, defining and resourcing a particular embodiment of human being in relation to God and God’s world?  A faith which, like a master craftsman with his apprentices, Jesus exemplified personally and communicated to his followers, providing them with fundamental skills, insights and practices for discerning and disseminating God’s glory within the fabric of this spiritually ambiguous world.  Then we should have access to Jesus of Nazareth though the medium of faith.

This is the line of inquiry I pursue in Holy Saturday Faith,10 where I attempt to identify the constituents of Jesus’ faith – his habitus as I describe it:

  • the experience of forgiveness as liberation from all that makes God inaccessible and remote;
  • prayer as the gift of a new identity as a child of God, created for covenant and entrusted with the Father’s business;
  • wisdom as the art of discerning God’s presence in creation and learning to go with the grain of God’s creative purposes;
  • living joyously as a means of participating in the blessings associated with God’s presence and, in particular, extending hospitality in God’s name;
  • a radical exposition of loving God and humanity as an expression of being formed within the love of God;
  • the pursuit and embodiment of the vocation to be God’s go-between.

One of the remarkable characteristics of this habitus to emerge during my investigations is that, whilst always informed by theological beliefs, it is not limited to any particular creed.  In this respect, it can be compared to the function of grammar in language giving rise to a multiplicity of linguistic forms, or to the primal elements of the universe, possessing the innate capacity for diversification of life within certain constraints.  Thus, whilst Jesus practised his habitus of faith within the climate of one set of beliefs, Christians from the outset have been practising it – knowingly or otherwise – within others, inhabiting the habitus of faith through various theological articulations and so gaining access to Jesus’ embodiment of human being in relation to God.  ‘And here lies the genius – to locate the essence of faith within a generative core of insights, practices and disciplines readily transferable and capable of giving rise to seemingly limitless improvisation.’11

Consider, for example, Jesus’ way of praying encapsulated in what has become known as the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9b-13; Luke 11:2b-4; Didache 8).12 The fundamental significance of this formulation resides not so much in the meaning of the petitions as in the identity it bestows upon those who make this prayer their own.  Who, by inhabiting it, are able to share in Jesus’ filial consciousness as they begin to experience life as a child of God, embracing the blessings and responsibilities of belonging to God’s family and relating to God as Father.  This orientation towards God and, by implication, God’s people and creation, is one of the defining characteristics of Jesus’ faith and whilst, for instance, Paul does not mention the Lord’s Prayer in as many words (we do not know whether it formed a part of his own spirituality), it is clear that Jesus’ way of relating to God was not only a constitutive component of his own faith, but also a defining characteristic of Christian living:13

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.  And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ (Gal. 4:4-6 NRSV; also Rom. 8:14-17)

One consequence of all this is that there is nothing incompatible or incoherent about sharing Jesus’ habitus of faith whilst also believing in him.14 On the contrary, this seems to have happened quite naturally from the outset.  Few New Testament books possess a clearer appreciation of Jesus’ uniqueness in relation to salvation than the Letter to the Hebrews (1:1-4; 8:1-7; 9:11-28; 10:11-18) and yet Jesus is also recognized as the definitive exemplar of faith (12:1-2; cf. 5:7-10).  In Revelation, the sacrificial Lamb who is worthy of our worship (5:6-14; 7:9-17; 12:10-12) is the same Jesus whose faith we are exhorted to embody (2:12-17; 14:12).  For all Paul’s rich christological reflection, the example of Jesus remains normative for Christian living (Rom. 12-15; 1 Cor. 11:1; Phil. 2:1-11; 1 Thess. 1:6–7).  The canonical Gospels present very different portraits of Jesus, but a strikingly consistent understanding of discipleship as the challenge to embrace his vocation and continue to exercise it in his authority.  We could also cite 1 Peter, the Pastorals and extra-canonical works, including the remarkable image found in the Shepherd of Hermas of believers clothing themselves in the faith of the Lord (e.g. Vis. 4.1; Man. 9; Sim. 6).

Significantly, it is the impact of later Christology which drives a wedge between sharing the faith of Jesus and placing one’s trust in him, the incarnate Word, the Son of God.15 Thomas Aquinas, pursuing a similar line to the champion of Nicene orthodoxy Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, maintains that whilst the incarnate Son of God possessed and taught every moral virtue, he could not have exercised faith without compromising his divine nature:

The field of faith is divine reality that is hidden from sight …  Now, a virtue, like any other habit, takes its character from its field of action.  Hence, where divine reality is not hidden from sight there is no point in faith.  But from the moment of conception Christ had the full vision of the very being of God, as we will hold later on.  Therefore he could not have had faith.  Hence: (i) The reason faith ranks higher than the moral virtues is that it deals with more important affairs than they do.  Yet it handles these affairs with certain limitations.  Now Christ suffered no such limitations.  And so, even though he did have moral virtues he could not have had faith. (Summa Theologiae, 3a.7.3)

As I have suggested elsewhere, Jesus’ faith remains the unanswered challenge to classical two-natures Christology.16 To parody another theological conundrum:  If Jesus exercised faith, how can he have been divine?  If he was divine, how can he have exercised faith?  If he exercised faith whilst being divine, in what sense Incarnation?  How these issues are resolved has tended to depend on whether you start pre or post ‘Big-Bang’.  If your point of departure is the risen and ascended Christ, then the divine nature remains in the driving seat throughout Jesus’ life; if you begin with the Galilean Jew from Nazareth, then faith fuels his ministry and substantiates his being in relation to God.

Yet, perhaps these are not as mutually exclusive as has often been claimed.  It is true, if the resurrection as traditionally conceived is the birth of faith, then we can know little of Jesus’ own practice.  But if Jesus’ own practice of faith precipitated an evolving process of christological reflection among those with whom he shared it and who, through doing so, increasingly came to place their trust in him, then his habitus becomes both the medium and the motivation for the continuing exploration of Jesus’ theological identity and significance.  Who is this Jesus whose faith makes Israel’s God, long experienced as absent, present and rich with blessing?  This line of thinking may seem alien to us now, but not so in the first century.  Faith as embodied belief rather than abstract formulation was the currency of the day, with the great figures of Israel’s past joining forces with contemporary counterparts to be a source of inspiration, example and, if necessary, coercion.

It is for this reason that Paul, when attempting to communicate Jesus’ enduring capacity to make God accessible, identifies faith as the lynch pin.17 For the apostle, Jesus’ faith finds definitive expression in obedience to the point of death on the cross.  An act of faith so radical as to transcend the alienating dispensation of being-in-sin-under-the-law, so that the promise of faith, of living in wholesome relationship with God, entrusted to Abraham may find universal fulfilment in him.  For Paul, Jesus Christ is not the object of faith, but its source and living embodiment.  All faith flows from his faith and in him all humanity discovers that quality of existence which faith, through the Spirit, is able to form within us.  Evidently, this was Paul’s own experience, both personally and through his ministry, and it is one which leads him to ask, who is Jesus Christ in relation to God that, though he was crucified, yet lives and brings others to life?

The impetus for discovering Jesus’ theological identity, therefore, may well reside in his habitus of faith which continues to be accessible to us precisely because he made it so – Jesus inducted those around him in the art of faith, believing it was the vehicle through which his vision for the coming of God’s kingdom would find at least partial realization before God intervened decisively to bring it to fulfilment.  Thus, although Jesus’ intention here was to extend access to God and to the blessing associated with God’s presence, those who made his practice of faith their own and who, through doing so, began to experience God afresh, found themselves asking searching questions about Jesus and his relation to God’s salvific plans as discerned in the Scriptures.  Poignantly, this process is reflected in our canonical gospels whose very existence confirms that Jesus’ ministry prior to his death was considered indispensable for his enduring significance.  In many respects, the three Synoptic Gospels are very different from one another and yet they share the conviction that access to Jesus’ identity is a destination reached by those who become his followers and allow his faith to form within them.  Rarely is Jesus the object of belief in the first three Gospels (cf. Mark 9:42 par.; 15:32 par.); rather, in his presence faith comes to life (cf. ‘You faith has caused you to live’; Mark 5:34 par.; 10:52 par.; Luke 7:50; 17:19) and finds authoritative expression through him (cf. Matt. 17:20; Mark 11:22-4 par.).  Only at the end, when Jesus’ faith has been tested through suffering to the point of death are those who have kept his company able to appreciate his worth.  By contrast, the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel invites belief in himself as God’s liberating presence from the outset, but not as an alternative to following his example.  For those who believe in him are commissioned to continue his mission to the world and to perform even mightier acts of God.18 In this respect, John’s Jesus is not a different Jesus from the one we encounter in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but rather a Jesus whose theological identity has become clearer to those who continue to feel the impact of his life upon theirs – who experience resurrection as Jesus’ lively presence inhabiting the habitus of faith.

Our intergalactic explorations must draw to a close and it is time to return to base.  We haven’t uncovered any fresh Jesuses to supplement the ever-burgeoning scholarly identity parade; but, there again, this was not our intention.  Rather, whilst the search for Jesus of Nazareth behind the phenomenon of the resurrection continues, we have attempted to identify at least one ‘shuttle’ capable of making the journey – a particular embodiment of faith evident in those who, whether before or after the crucifixion, allowed his life to impact upon theirs: embodying forgiveness, learning to call God ‘Father’, becoming wise, living joyously, loving wholeheartedly, pursuing God’s kingdom.  Here is a vehicle capable of putting us in touch with Jesus and, as we embark, we too – like millions before us – will find ourselves transported into his company where we shall be able not only to engage with the mystery of his identity, but grow into the mystery of our own.


1. I write as an interested layman when it comes to cosmology.  Hopefully, I have understood the insights referred to in the following pages; but, in case I haven’t, I offer my apologies in advance!

2. See, for example, J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1991), pp. 167-195.

3. Ben Witherington offers an up-to-date overview in The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 1995).

4. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (trans. London: SCM, 2000), p. 478.

5. Luke T. Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 142;  author’s italics, here and elsewhere.

6. Johnson, The Real Jesus, p. 149.

7. For example, Gerhard Ebeling, James P. Mackey, Piet Schoonenberg, Jon Sobrino, Wilhelm Thüsing and Geza Vermes.  To be fair to Johnson, he would also acknowledge this.  In relation to identifying his ‘pattern of existence’ in Paul he can write: ‘Galatians 2:20 therefore shows us a tiny piece of narrative concerning Jesus that Paul regards as powerful and normative for himself and his readers.  Paul has been crucified; he lives by the gift of Jesus’ faith and Jesus’ love toward him.’ (The Real Jesus, p. 159; also ‘Rom. 3:21-26 and the Faith of Jesus’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 44 (1982), pp. 77-90).

8. See James P. Mackey, ‘The Faith of the Historical Jesus’, Horizons 3 (1976), pp. 155-74.

9. R. Bultmann, ‘The Primitive Christian Kerygma and the Historical Jesus’, in C. E. Braaten & R. A. Harrisville (eds.), The Historical Jesus and the Kerygmatic Christ (trans. New York: Abingdon Press, 1964), p. 34.

10. Holy Saturday Faith: Rediscovering the Legacy of Jesus (London: SPCK, 2000).

11. Holy Saturday Faith, p. 156.

12. In a sense, it does not matter whether Jesus coined the Lord’s Prayer or not; what is significant for our purposes is that it characterizes his spirituality.

13. George J Brooke, ‘The Lord’s Prayer Interpreted through John and Paul’, Downside Review 98 (1980), pp. 298-311.

14. I discuss this point together with the supporting evidence in The faith of Jesus Christ in early Christian traditions (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1995); also in Holy Saturday Faith, especially chapter 5.

15. Also, ‘Jesus the Believer – A Fresh Approach’, Modern Believing 36 (1995), pp. 10-17.

16. The faith of Jesus Christ, especially, chapter 6.

17. The significance of Jesus’ faith for Paul continues to be hotly debated; see my The faith of Jesus Christ, chapters 3-4, and the literature cited there, together with James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1998), pp. 379-385.  Although discussion has tended to centre around a cluster of constructions linking faith with Jesus Christ, whether they should be interpreted as subjective (‘faith of Christ’) or objective (‘faith in Christ’) genitives (Rom. 3:22, 26; Gal. 2:16 [x2], 20; 3:22; Phil. 3:9), the underlying issues are fundamental for understanding the apostle’s Christology and soteriology.

18. On this, consult Andreas J. Köstenberger, The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples according to the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998).


The article originally appeared in Theology 106 (2003), pp. 12 – 19.

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