Why Jesus’s most incredible claim gained widespread acceptance

No major religion has a founder who claimed to be God, though some small short-lived cults have had them. While there have been self-deceived people in history who have made divine claims, they never were able to make their assertions believable except to a tiny group. Why not? It is impossible to convince people you are God if you have any of the normal flaws of human character—selfishness, impatience, uncontrolled anger, pride, dishonesty, and cruelty. And there are invariably people who live closely enough to the divine claimant to see all those flaws and who are thus able to see through the illusion. And if you add to this the deep cultural and theological skepticism of Judaism, you see that it would be impossible to convince a critical mass of Jews that you were God—unless that were really the most sensible explanation of the facts.

Historical scholarship shows us that, after his death, a fast-growing body of people, insisting they were faithful to Jewish monotheism, nonetheless began to worship Jesus as the one True God. What kind of life must Jesus have led to accomplish what no other person in history has ever done—convince more than a tiny percentage of unbalanced people that he is the Creator and Judge of the universe? What kind of person must Jesus have been to overcome the profound resistance of Jews to such preposterous claims? The answer is, he would have to have been like the incomparably beautiful human being depicted throughout the New Testament.

—Tim Keller, Encounters with Jesus, pp. 48-49

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A seasonally appropriate metaphor for Jesus

Bread of Life. Living Water. Light of the World. Good Shepherd. The Vine. The Lamb. These are several well-known biblical metaphors for Jesus.

Here’s one you may be less familiar with: Jesus Christ the apple tree. It comes from Song of Solomon, a compilation of erotic love poetry traditionally read by Christian exegetes as an allegory of the love between Christ and his church: “As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste” (2:3).

In 1761 an anonymous poet teased out this apple tree metaphor and submitted the outcome to London’s Spiritual Magazine under the initials R.H. By 1784 the poem had been picked up by New England Baptist minister Joshua Smith and published in his popular compilation Divine Hymns, or Spiritual Songs. Since then several composers have set it to music: Elizabeth Poston’s 1967 setting is the most commonly performed today, but I prefer the more recent setting by Stanford Scriven (video below). Scriven, who was only twenty-one when his version premiered in 2009, said,

In my mind, the poet [who wrote “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”] is a simple, honest individual attempting to depict the wonder of the Son of God in a way that is understandable by all. Thus, I sought the same in composing this piece. I wanted to create a sense of peace and assurance in the music that could speak to everyone, even those who know nothing about music technically, because this is how I see the text.

It being the first day of fall—time for strolling those ripe apple orchards—“Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” is a fitting subject for meditation. The text by “R.H.” is as follows:   Continue reading

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Roundup: Liquor-store Jesus, Leviticus-inspired art, Hollywood actor talks grace, and more

What would Jesus do if he saw a stray shopping cart in a parking lot? Watch the video below to find out. Be like Jesus!


“111th Street Jesus” by Jim Hinch: This Image journal article from last year profiles muralist Kent Twitchell, who has executed several large-scale murals of Jesus, perhaps most famously his 111th Street Jesus, which was painted in 1984 on the exterior of a liquor store—punched through with bullet holes—in a gang-ridden section of Los Angeles (unfortunately, it was recently whitewashed by a new property owner). Hinch reports that a local Catholic priest, Father Dennis Berry, had recruited Twitchell to help beautify the neighborhood with the help of two former gang members who wanted to learn how to paint. As his model Twitchell used a young Hispanic man who had played Jesus in a local Passion play.

Jesus mural

Kent Twitchell (American, 1942-), 111th Street Jesus, 1984. Acrylic mural at Vermont Avenue and 111th Street, South Central Los Angeles, 14 x 50 feet. (No longer extant) Photo: François Duhamel.

“Q&A with ‘Captive’ star: ‘For me, Jesus is my denomination’” by Adelle M. Banks: Christian actor David Oyelowo, who played the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, plays a very different character in his latest film, Captive: Atlanta murderer and kidnapper Brian Nichols. In this interview he talks about grace, worship, and the book The Purpose Driven Life—which features heavily in the movie, now in theaters. (See the trailer below.)


“Contemporary Takes on the Self in a Manhattan Church” by Allison Meier: Through October 22, the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City is hosting an exhibition titled “On the Inner and Outer Self.” Many of the twenty-eight artists taking part have created site-specific works for it.

Leviticus art exhibition: Through December 6, the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill, New York, is showing a series of terragraphs by Hermann Nitsch inspired by Leviticus, a book of the Bible that lays out the rituals and ceremonies practiced by the ancient people of Israel. Christians value the book, among other reasons, for its explanation and picturing of atonement, a state of reconciliation between God and man that we consider as having been accomplished once and for all by Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. (For more on Leviticus, see the excellent video overview put out by The Bible Project. 4:23 starts the bit on Yom Kippur, which Jews will be celebrating this Tuesday and Wednesday.)

Leviticus by Hermann Nitsch

Hermann Nitsch (Austrian, 1938-), Leviticus, 2010. Book of terragraph prints opened to Leviticus 7:2-10, which describes the proper priestly distribution of the guilt offering.

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It Is Finished by Anthony Falbo

Anthony Falbo’s sense of humor is one of the qualities that endears me to his art. He frequently paints religious subjects but not with the stilted piety of much of today’s (what passes as) Christian art—instead, he approaches his subjects with a spirit of play.

Crucifixion by Anthony Falbo

Anthony Falbo (American, 1953-), It Is Finished, 2004. Oil and charcoal on paper, 24 x 18 in.

In his painting It Is Finished, Falbo employs a pun in the title: “it is finished” refers to one of the Seven Last Words of Christ but is also an affirmation that yes, despite appearances, this artwork is complete as is.

I showed this image as part of a presentation before a small group of friends on the Crucifixion in contemporary art, and when they saw the title—before I even said anything—a few chuckled out loud. (It was the only one of the images that invited such a reaction.)

But what I love about Falbo is that his humor is not gimmicky; his paintings may elicit a smile or a laugh, but they do far more than that—they actually provide substance to sink into. Let’s look at this one, for example.   Continue reading

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A Prayer for Migrants

The Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in the heart of London, issued a statement yesterday on the migrant crisis, concluding with the following prayer:

Wilderness God, your Son was a displaced person in Bethlehem, a refugee in Egypt, and had nowhere to lay his head in Galilee. Bless all who have nowhere to lay their head today, who find themselves strangers on earth, pilgrims to they know not where, facing rejection, closed doors, suspicion, and fear. Give them companions in their distress, hope in their wandering, and safe lodging at their journey’s end. And make us a people of grace, wisdom, and hospitality, who know that our true identity is to be lost, until we find our eternal home in you. Through Christ our rejected yet risen Lord. Amen.

Neo-Coptic icon

Isaac Fanous (Egyptian, 1919-2007), Flight to Egypt.

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Jesus as the New David

Cassiodorus's "Commentary on the Psalms": Christ/David, second quarter of the 8th century. 42 x 29.5 cm (Durham Cathedral Library, MS B.ii.30, fol. 172v).

Christ/David, from Cassiodorus’s Commentary on the Psalms (Durham Cathedral Library, MS B.ii.30, fol. 172v), second quarter of the 8th century. Image size: 42 x 29.5 cm.

This illumination is from an eighth-century copy of Cassiodorus’s sixth-century Commentary on the Psalms. (The manuscript is sometimes referred to as the Durham Cassiodorus because of the cathedral library that houses it.) Created in the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, it shows a haloed, cloaked figure holding a spear in one hand and in the other an orange disc (halo?) that encircles the name David. The figure stands on a snarling two-headed beast, a reference to Psalm 91:13: “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.”

Although this figure is labeled as David, he is also meant to be read—as Cassiodorus tells us in his commentary—as Jesus Christ. His pose and attributes evoke the then-widespread iconography of the Resurrection, which showed Jesus trampling the twin beasts of sin and death—a motif sometimes referred to in art historical literature as the super aspidem motif.

Here Christ is presented as the New David, the warrior-king from whom he descended.

In the book Anglo-Saxon Art, Leslie Webster writes that the dual nature of the Christ/David image spoke both to the Anglo-Saxon taste for riddles, verbal and visual, and to the Anglo-Saxon cult of the heroic Christian warrior-king.

For more on the typological parallels between King David and Jesus, see Jonathan Edwards’s “Types of the Messiah” (starting with “There is yet a more remarkable, manifest and manifold agreement between the things said of David in his history and the things said of the Messiah in the prophecies. . . .”).

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Niño Jesus

Jesus as a child

Niño Jesus, 18th century. Unidentified artist. Carved and painted wood and metal, 34 x 14 x 11.2 cm. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

From the Smithsonian’s website:

“Devotional figures of the infant Jesus became popular in Puerto Rico during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. . . . An unknown craftsman carved this small figure in the act of benediction, or blessing, with an orb in his left hand to symbolize God’s dominion over the Earth. The three flame-like shapes around the child’s head represent the three parts of the soul [as delineated by Saint Augustine]: memory, understanding, and will.”

The other, more obvious allusion of the three rays is to the Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit.

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