Jesus as a Friend

Many members of the Religious Society of Friends love the ambiguity of the term friend as it shifts between companion and Quaker. That same ambiguity tells us much about Jesus. Many Quakers see the risen Jesus or Christ as George Fox did, as divine friend and companion, the Light that enlightens everyone. At the same time, historical Jesus scholarship, which attempts to recover the human being, Jesus of Nazareth, discloses Jesus embodying Quaker testimonies centuries before Quakerism developed as a movement. This should not be surprising, for Quakerism arose in a Christian context, and its founder, George Fox, was an inspired reader of the Bible, especially the New Testament.

Many Quakers’ favorite gospel is the Gospel according to John. However, most historical Jesus scholars think John’s Gospel does not portray Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, they think it reflects the spiritual experiences of early Christians that they interpreted as encounters with the risen, divine Jesus. Certainly, the early Church was experiential: the first generation of Christians believed they encountered Jesus after his death (Luke 24), spoke in tongues (Acts 2), felt the Holy Spirit rush into their midst like a mighty wind (Acts 2:2), and practiced spiritual healing (Acts 3:1-10; 5:12-16).

They interpreted their experiences according to concepts current in their culture. Because the first Christians were Jewish, they construed their experiences of Jesus after his death as encounters with a resurrected human being. Through the Dead Sea Scrolls, we know many Jews expected the end to come soon, and with it the advent of two Messiahs: a Davidic warrior-king and an Aaronic priest. The warrior Messiah might be a heavenly figure, living with God above the blue vault of the sky, only to descend with bands of warrior angels to end the present age. Paul transformed Jesus into a similar figure, a divine being ascended to heaven, soon to return to end the age (1 Cor. 15). The Gospels, written after Paul’s death, give Jesus a Davidic lineage (Matt. 1:1-17; Luke 1:27), and the Letter to the Hebrews gives him a priestly one (5:1-10), both in accord with Jewish messianic expectations.

Within a generation or two after Jesus’ crucifixion, the nascent Christian movement became predominantly Gentile. Romans considered their emperors human-divine figures, assuming full divinity when they ascended to live with the gods after death. Their divinity made their living sons the sons of Roman gods. Roman Christians replaced their concept of the emperor as son of a Roman god with Jesus, son of the Jewish God. Mark based his passion narrative on the triumphal procession of a Roman emperor who is about to become a god, a motif prefigured in Paul (2 Cor. 2:14).

Greek philosophy spoke of a Logos, a word for a creative force that was less than the high God was, but which created the world according to God’s design. Two centuries before Jesus, the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek had already introduced this Greek concept into Jewish Scripture, so early Christians, who used the Greek translation as their Bible, easily conceived of the ascended, heavenly Jesus as the Logos.

The early church explained the experiences it interpreted as the risen Jesus with these culturally available concepts: Messiah from the Jews, imperial Son of God from the Romans, and Logos from the Greeks. These were all living concepts in Christian culture, vibrant to express the ineffable spiritual experiences of early Chris-tians. Yet, they do not adequately characterize Jesus as friend, as companion. They are too exalted to be friendly and too far removed from our experience and our culture for us to assimilate them readily.

Indeed, they do not communicate our spiritual experiences, as we wait quietly in meeting, listening inwardly for the word of God to us, looking toward the Light that enlightens us all. At least, they do not encapsulate my experience. I do not believe in a heaven above the blue vault of the sky where God sits enthroned and to which Jesus ascended, or in the end of the world tomorrow with the arrival of angels, or in emperors as divine, or in the Logos. To capture my spiritual experience within my Christian heritage while inhabiting a scientific and technological culture, I find myself turning to the historical Jesus scholars to discover Jesus of Nazareth. These scholars have shown me Jesus the Friend, who may also be our friend.

The historical Jesus scholars think the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), read critically, reveal Jesus of Nazareth. Although these scholars disagree about many things—for the Gospel evidence has many lacunae and is often ambiguous—they all agree on at least five points about the historical Jesus.

First, the scholars agree that Jesus was a Jew and that he grew up in Galilee, where he began his ministry. Jews in the 1st century C.E. were an oppressed minority living under the hegemony of Rome. Moreover, they suffered traumatic divisions among themselves. The contending factions engaged in internecine wars for two centuries. Rebellion against Rome complicated by simultaneous Jewish civil war led to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem almost 40 years after Jesus’ death.

Jesus knew of the antagonism among his contemporaries and condemned it. He said things like, "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies." (Matt. 5:43-44) In the extant Jewish literature, only the Essenes command hatred of enemies. Jesus directed this saying against the Essene faction that preached hatred of enemies and waited in the desert for God’s war to vindicate them and destroy their enemies, both Jewish and Roman.

The Hebrew Scriptures commanded Jews to love their neighbors (Lev. 19:18). When asked who that neighbor might be, Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). He was speaking to Judeans who hated Samaritans as religiously schismatic and ethnically impure, while admiring priests and Levites. The story shows the Samaritan favorably while depicting priests and Levites negatively. Jesus sought to decrease enmity among the contending Jewish factions by raising the lowly and deflating the respectable, portraying people as more equal than they were willing to believe.

Second, historical Jesus scholars agree that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist, and John baptized people for the remission of sin. John’s behavior was anti-Temple and anti-Torah, for the Torah said to sacrifice in the Temple for the forgiveness of sins (Lev. 5). When Jesus broke away from John’s movement to begin his own, he retained John’s message that forgiveness did not require sacrifice in the Temple. Indeed, Jesus forgave sins without demanding any rites, including baptism, for he thought God forgives without them.

Third, scholars agree that Jesus angered the Temple authorities to the point that they summoned the power of Rome to rid themselves of him, and Roman appointees had him crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem.

The Temple was the richest in the Greco-Roman world and functioned as Judaism’s central bank. It represented the power structure of Judaism. Jesus was against existing power structures. Much of his teaching involved overturning them, saying the last will be first, the meek will inherit the Earth, and the poor shall banquet while the rich remain outside (Matt. 19:30, 5:5; Luke 14:15-24).

Fourth, Jesus was an itinerant. His homelessness placed him among the poorest of the poor, presumably by choice, for his father was a worker in wood, and the building of the cities of Sepphorius and Tiberius in Galilee, as well as the mending of farm implements, would have provided plenty of employment. Moreover, Jesus spoke and acted against family. He rejected his own nuclear family in favor of his disciples (Mark 3:31-35), failed to penalize adultery (John 8:3-11), and did not marry and raise a family himself.

In Jesus’ day, family, land, and power were intertwined. Jews organized themselves by tribes of kin. Families owned land, kin inherited land, and land was socially extolled wealth. To be an itinerant was to reject power in all its forms. Jesus’ repudiation of it is captured symbolically in the narrative of his temptation in the desert (Matt. 4:1-11).

Jews praised God’s power. Yearly, they celebrated God’s supremacy as a warrior, leading them safely out of Egypt, drowning the pursuing Egyptian army, and fighting for them as they invaded Canaan and destroyed the population (Exod. 13:17-14:31; Josh.). They also conceived of God as the mighty creator of the universe (Gen. 1).

Yet, Jesus did not draw on such images when talking about God. The historical Jesus scholars agree that much of Jesus’ message was about the reign of God here on Earth. Jesus envisioned God’s reign as hidden, like yeast in dough or a treasure buried in a field (Matt. 13:33, 44).

Jesus thought that some who en-counter God’s reign dislike it. He told of vineyard workers, some hired early in the day and some late. The owner pays the first-hired their agreed wage, and then pays the late-hired the same amount (Luke 20:1-16). For Jesus, the bountiful payment of the late-hired was a sign of God’s generosity, a munificence the early-hired protested, despite losing nothing by it. This is the same God who sends rain on the unrighteous as well as the righteous (Matt. 5:45) and who forgives the Prodigal Son, much to the conscientious elder brother’s consternation (Luke 15:11-32). The same message comes in the parable of the righteous, law-abiding Pharisee praying in the Temple who congratulates himself while condemning a repentant sinner. Jesus commended the sinner (Luke 18:9-14).

Apparently, Jesus knew Jews from various factions who were certain their faction knew the truth and kept God’s laws correctly and were also convinced God condemned the other factions. The Dead Sea Scrolls show this attitude swarming through the Essene community. The Essenes would have found the idea that God sends rain on the unrighteous or forgives the Prodigal repugnant. They did not worship a God who was generous to enemies, but a powerful, punitive one, generous only to themselves.

Jesus condemned this outlook in the figures of the elder brother, the first-hired, and the righteous Pharisee. Jesus saw God as hidden, not coming with great signs; as generous, not vindictive; as bountiful, a giver of banquets. God, Jesus said, is a gentle and generous parent, not a warrior—a lover of enemies, not a slayer.

God uses divine power to uplift, to give, to forgive, and to heal. Jewish factionalism led to a self-righteousness and vindictiveness Jesus condemned. Or, perhaps, self-righteousness and vindictiveness led to a factionalism that Jesus condemned. We, Jesus suggested, should imitate God as Jesus did.

So, a gap opens between the historical Jesus of Nazareth and the interpretation of the risen Jesus the early church fostered, which rested on cultural icons of the age—Messiah, imperial Son of God, and Logos. Messiah, imperial Son, and Logos were cultural concepts, living concepts in Jesus’ day, but now no longer alive for us, partly because earthly, regal courts and their heavenly counterparts vanished from our culture long ago, and partly because the concepts do not capture Jesus as friend, as companion.

In contrast, the historical Jesus is a Friend, living in ways that, centuries later, became Quaker testimonies. This Jesus, the man from Nazareth, is the figure George Fox discovered and followed by inspiration, without needing the techniques of modern biblical scholarship to find him.

The central Quaker testimony, from which others follow, is that all people have that of God in them. Jesus’ way of saying this was to proclaim that God sends rain on the unrighteous as well as the righteous—there are no elect in God’s eyes; all are favored. Jesus declared God in all people, not merely the rich, when he spoke of the rich man going to hell and beholding in heaven the poor man who once begged for a scrap, sickly and in vain, at the rich man’s gate (Luke 16:19-31). The parable is about the psychological and literal gate/chasm the rich erect against the poor, not about life after death. In telling it, Jesus appealed to the divine compassion he believed his rich hearers possessed, stirring it so they might tear down the gate/chasm and help the poor. He showed all people have a spark of the Divine when he told of the hated Samaritan acting as neighbor to a Judean. Jesus even praised a Roman soldier for his faith (Luke 7:9). He, too, had that of God in him.

Another Quaker testimony is simplicity. In having few possessions and no permanent home, in leaving his family, and in his speaking style, Jesus lived out this testimony, too. Indeed, the simple sayings and parables recorded in the synoptic Gospels, so different from the lengthy discourses in John, serve as a main clue for the historical Jesus scholars that the synoptics capture the historical Jesus better than John does, for short sayings and pithy parables come from oral culture, Jesus’ culture. The long discourses John places on Jesus’ lips are literary and stem from literate strata of society, unlike Jesus’ circle.

Speaking truth is a third Quaker testimony, probably the one for which Jesus died. He angered the Temple authorities when his words and actions pronounced sacrifice unnecessary. He angered the rich, Jewish and Roman alike, when he preached the salvation of the poor and called on the rich to be generous as God is generous. Jesus inhabited a world where people considered riches a sign of God’s favor. He turned that world upside down, infuriating those whose sense of self-worth arose from their wealth. In a world where kinship counted so heavily, his exaltation of friend above kin did not endear him to the powerful, either.

Another Quaker testimony speaks of equality. Jesus dined with all, including outcasts, in a world where men sought to dine with their superiors and women dined separately. Jesus consorted with women in a world where men did not speak to women in public. He praised as models of faith a Samaritan and a Roman while deflating the usual Jewish exemplars—the Pharisees, the Temple authorities, and the rich. Each of these actions declared the equality of all people.

Peace is another Quaker testimony. Given Jewish factionalism and anger at Rome in Jesus’ day, it appears that one of Jesus’ main messages was peace through forgiveness and reconciliation, even as he denigrated the human quality that makes peace impossible—the belief that one group knows the truth about goodness and God and that another group behaves sinfully and follows false concepts of God. When Jesus preached directly against the Essenes waiting in the desert in war camps for God’s final slaughter of enemies to begin, he spoke against their way of viewing the world. They thought of themselves as sons of light, true interpreters of Torah, dining with angels, to be vindicated in the final battle, and of their enemies as sons of darkness, rejecting God’s ways, ultimate bearers of God’s vengeance. Jesus roundly rejected this worldview. His stories of God’s reign were of forgiveness and generosity so great they angered the law-abiding, like the elder brother, the early-hired, and the Pharisee at prayer.

Because the historical Jesus of Nazareth followed Quaker testimonies, we might readopt him into the Religious Society of Friends. Such a Friend can again be our friend, our companion.

Paricia A. Williams

Patricia A. Williams, a member of Charlottesville (Va.) Meeting, is a philosopher of science and philosophical theologian. This article is based on her book ,Where Christianity Went Wrong, When, and What You Can Do about It (2001). She lives in a solar-powered house she built in the mountains of Virginia.