Who do men say that I am
Who Do Men Say That I Am? by Robert Sexton
As the Apostle Matthew would later record it, Jesus once put a question to his disciples that remains answered, and unanswered, to this day. Simon Peter provided the answer that stands today when he responded, while the others were still groping for it, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” It had taken some time for them to reach this level of understanding, but even now many cannot see the perfect sense of that answer.
That doubt abounds is readily evident. The "educational" cable channels devote many hours to programs such as Mysteries of the Bible wherein various biblical scholars expound at length on every historical detail to be gleaned from it. The emphasis is historical too, avoiding the theological implications of both Old and New Testaments. It is a modern approach, committed to the proposition that if the historical content can be verified, then the Bible is right. Of course, this ignores the problem that only the history will be right. That question our Lord put to his disciples and which Simon Peter so clearly answered will not be substantiated by an archeological expedition. It cannot be, yet it is at the core of the Bible itself. While it holds much historical content, it is not a history book as such. Bishop Kallistos Ware reminds us that "The Bible is the supreme expression of God’s revelation to the human race..."
Even so, there are those who persist in treating it as a story primarily because they cannot fully accept what Peter so clearly came to see. Nikos Kazantzakis struggled with the question and produced The Last Temptation of Christ as a result. Kazantzakis portrayed Jesus as an ordinary man struggling with the very question of his nature. In this telling, God is using him and he does not fully understand what is happening. This manipulation extends even to the writing of the Gospels. Matthew is depicted as following Jesus while recording the story dictated by a bullying angel, implying that the Gospels may be less than truthful. Despite all his doubts, it is a brilliantly written novel. Kazantzakis clear genius for prose shines through even in translation.
Another author with pretensions of novelizing the Gospel story is Norman Mailer. But his is more the take of an indifferent agnostic. Being the doyen of the postwar eastern literary set, his lackluster 1997 novel, The Gospel According to the Son, disappointed his many fans. It shares a common philosophical thread with The Last Temptation, assuming the inaccuracy of the Gospels. Mailer makes certain you don’t miss this point right from the beginning. In his novel, Jesus is speaking from heaven as it were and setting the record straight.
While I would not say that Mark’s gospel is false, it has much exaggeration. And I would offer less for Matthew, and for Luke and John, who gave me words I never uttered and described me as gentle when I was pale with rage.
Though Mailer portrays Jesus performing miracles, being crucified and rising again, (though he isn’t certain of the details) it is clear that he holds as dubious every detail of the Gospels. True, there are those who find such doubt intriguing but if the Gospel telling is not true, there is no reason to believe any other. To retell in different terms is to invite yet another telling on yet other terms. In the end there is no resolution. If it is not true, we might as well turn to other pursuits.
But there are novelistic treatments that do not start from doubt. In the classic novel Ben Hur, the subject of three outstanding cinematic treatments by the same name (in 1907, 1926 and 1959), Jesus is not the central character. As in Quo Vadis and The Robe, the story tells of an encounter with him that changes lives and history.
Better yet is the book Son of Man, by the late Russian priest and theologian, Father Alexander Men. Fr Men’s book is not a novel per se. Instead, it is a retelling of the Gospels with much historical background included. Begun in the dark, cold war decade following Josef Stalin’s death, the book was first published as a series of articles in the journal of the Moscow Patriarchate. First published in full in Belgium, it is so well regarded that it has been adopted as a textbook in Russian public schools. It is now available in English from Oakwood Publications.
And what did Fr Men attempt to do in this book? Consider first that this was a work of many years. Writing in the Soviet Union was a pastime potentially hazardous to your health. Religious writing was orders of magnitude more so. The Soviet authorities did not completely suppress all religious activity. Under Lenin, there was an initial wave of suppression, resulting in the death of many bishops, priests, monks and nuns. Stalin continued this, sending anyone with a religious taint to the gulags to provide labor for his ambitious projects. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in World War II, however, Stalin, alarmed that the Nazis were at first welcomed as liberators, cynically turned to the Church to rally the people to his side. The result was a continuing, if precarious, existence for the Church.
Though the Communists would exhibit varying degrees of tepid toleration, they never lost sight of the need to control the Church. Nor did they relent in their campaign to undermine religion through education. The public schools (there were no others) included heavy doses of materialist, anti-religious teaching designed specifically to eradicate religious thought. Religion was portrayed as superstitious nonsense made up of myths and lies. Fr Men sought to counter this in Son of Man.
In the book, Fr Men first sets the historical context. Though the Bible is not history per se, that context cannot be ignored to understand the impact of Jesus or the thinking of people of the time. Roman rule placed a heavy burden on the Israelites. The purpose of Roman conquest was, after all, to enrich Rome. The Roman system forced ambitious politicians to assume the governorship of a province or territory in order to raise enough money to fund a campaign for public office. Remember those circuses and gladiatorial shows? They were staged mostly as part of political campaigns. Even so, Rome must get its due and the governor had to add his share on top of Rome’s burden. Small wonder that to many Jews, the Messiah was expected to be a liberator.
Fr Men examines all this in wonderful detail, showing how Jesus patiently lead his disciples to that truth they must understand. By combining the story of the Gospels in one continuous text, he eliminates some of the confusion that can arise from the four separate narratives. He also fills in many of the blanks that the sparse narrative of the Gospels leaves. Son of Man is a superb accompaniment to Gospel reading and study. Small wonder that, in Russia, it is now a standard textbook.
Fr Men took great risks to write this book and his many other books and articles, even to the point of risking his life. The Communist authorities were well aware of him. He was often interrogated, going to the KGB offices daily as if to work. But there was something about the man which held the hand of his interrogators, keeping him out of the gulags. Throughout his life, he continued to write and teach. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he became immensely popular, a popularity which, ironically lead to his murder in 1990.
Son of Man is a record of Alexander Men's struggle to understand Christ's most compelling question. That he came to understand, with Simon Peter, so fully and completely is evident in the pages of this remarkable book.
This article was written for The Orthodox Reader, a publication of St. George Greek Orthodox Church of Fresno, CA. © 1999 Robert D. Sexton. Published here with Robert D. Sexton's kind permission.