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One Class, One Day: From Jesus to Christ

How a man became God to his followers


Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

In the Middle Ages, Jennifer Knust’s students might have tried to burn one another at the stake. A theological collage of Christians, non-Christians, and wavering Christians, they could, at a modern political rally, wage a toe-to-toe, finger-wagging shout-fest. But in Knust’s From Jesus to Christ class, everyone respects all viewpoints as they ponder the question: how did a Jewish peasant come to be seen as the divine savior of the world by his followers in the two centuries after his execution?

Studying that death in a recent class, Knust, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of religion, distributes excerpts from the four Gospels, the earliest biographies of Jesus, describing the plot against him and his arrest. Make that “biographies” in quotes; the evangelists weren’t attempting a journalistic blow by blow, Knust stresses, but rather composed theological briefs about their crucified spiritual leader, all aimed at different audiences facing different historical situations and needs. An animated lecturer (at one juncture, she stretches out her arms cross-like to emphasize a point), she peppers her history of first-century Jerusalem with colorful details about life under the occupying Roman Empire. (“There’s a story about a Roman soldier mooning the Jews that were there for a festival.”)

Jennifer Knust, Boston University School of Theology, From Jesus to Christ

Photo by Cydney Scott

As historians, the Gospel writers, who penned their accounts decades after the crucifixion, “often do a lousy job,” Knust tells the class. But “if we want from them an explanation of the death of Jesus…that inspires followers 50 years later, they did a great job.” If this imbues the greatest story ever told with multiple stories rather than a single, factually historical narrative, “I’m not sure that’s as important to the first followers of Jesus as it is to Christians today,” she says.

This isn’t heresy; even the Vatican has given its imprimatur to Catholic scholars speculating on the nonliteralness of such doctrines as Jesus’ virgin birth. (“The infancy narratives are primarily vehicles of the evangelists’ theology and Christology,” writes Raymond Brown, while another Catholic, John Meier, says researchers don’t have the means “to reach a final decision on the historicity of the virginal conception,” both cited in the book Gospel Truth.) But in a campaign year that has seen presidential candidate Rick Santorum rallying admirers by charging Barack Obama with “phony theology,” respectful religious discourse can seem as miraculous as the Resurrection.

Jennifer Knust, Boston University School of Theology, From Jesus to Christ

Photo by Cydney Scott

“It’s kind of a difficult topic to wrestle with, but I think everyone’s pretty open and accepting of differing views, and it’s a very safe environment to exchange ideas,” says Rebecca Kreshak (COM’14, CAS’14). She’s a Christian and a church intern who believes Jesus was the Christ, the preexisting Word made flesh of John’s Gospel. Yet the course discussions give the class a feel “like family,” almost as if they were exchanging opinions over the dinner table. Besides, Kreshak doesn’t wilt when her beliefs are challenged. Studying biblical authors as people influenced by their history and social circumstances actually has strengthened her faith (she’s contemplating seminary after graduation). “There’s so much that I don’t know, and that’s so overwhelming, but it’s also exciting. Because of my Christian faith, I already believe the Christ part, and I feel like this class is helping me realize more the Jesus part, the human side of Christ. This was a person who was walking around.”

Knust herself is an American Baptist minister, but she says that she “can change my hat, or my stole as the case may be,” and put on her professor’s mortarboard, goading students to think critically within the necessarily nondivine confines of historical analysis. There’s no preaching or effort to shake student beliefs, be they devout or atheist. “We’re not going to be deciding whether Jesus really was the Christ. That’s not our job,” she says. “Our job is to try to understand how people argued that Jesus was the Christ.”

She sometimes nudges students to air their convictions fearlessly. When one prefaced recent remarks by saying, “I don’t want to offend anybody, but—” Knust says she jumped in with, “Look, we can offend each other. That’s OK. We’re going to be respectful, but we don’t have to agree.”

Jennifer Knust, Boston University School of Theology, From Jesus to Christ

Photo by Cydney Scott

Michael Lavallee (COM’14) took the class partly to help wrestle with questions he has about his Catholicism. “While I’m not 100 percent sold on everything and not sure I will always be a Catholic,” he says, “I feel that this class has helped clarify some questions I had and given me some factual insight into Jesus’ life.” Knust, he says, provides “a comfortable environment to discuss this question.”

If the course name sounds familiar, that’s because it is also the title of a book (and subsequent 1998 PBS series) written by Paula Fredriksen, a College of Arts & Sciences professor currently on leave, from whom Knust inherited the class. Fredriksen’s book is on the syllabus, along with scripture and American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, by Stephen Prothero, a CAS professor of religion, which documents how Americans have long cast the Nazarene according to their biases, be it ardent capitalist/environmentalist/soldier/pacifist.

That’s a big takeaway from the class. Then as now, says Knust, “the way Jesus is being situated is very much related to our own cultural expectations about who he can be.”

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

6 Comments on One Class, One Day: From Jesus to Christ

  • MIchael Zank on 03.05.2012 at 8:43 am

    I had a student who dropped my class to take Jenny’s. I congratulated her and said I’d do the same. Jenny Knust is fabulous! We’re so lucky to have her.
    Michael Zank (Department of Religion and Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies)

  • Ben Burns on 03.05.2012 at 12:21 pm

    I’m sure Professor Knust leads a wonderful discussion. I hope she includes the following comments:

    “All theology of the liberal type involves at some point—and often involves throughout—the claim that the real behavior and purpose and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood and misrepresented by His followers, and has been recovered or exhumed only be modern scholars. The idea that any man or writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous.”

    – CS Lewis, Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism, Christian Reflections

    “That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels. After two centuries of Higher Criticism the outlines of the life, character, and teaching of Christ, remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature of the his- tory of Western man.”

    – Will Durant, Civilization of the World

    • Amy on 03.05.2012 at 4:38 pm

      @Ben Burns: Thank you for your observations, but they are not germane to a history class. I’m one of the M.Div. students in the class. We’re addressing religious beliefs, philosophy and theology of the time (for Gentiles, Jews, and members of the Jesus movement) by way of understanding historical context, not to prove or disprove Christian doctrine or belief.

      • Ben Burns on 03.06.2012 at 12:10 pm

        Thanks for the reply Amy. As you address the religious beliefs, philosophy and theology of the time are those not ascertained through the historical writings of those religious communities, ie the gospels? If so, is a historical-critical method applied to those documents to confirm or deny their veracity? If so, then Lewis’ comments are very germane. Are the other historical sources you are reading to learn the religious beliefs, philosphy and theology of the time given the same historical-critical analysis given to the gospels?

        • Amy on 03.08.2012 at 10:25 am

          Of course the Gospels are important sources. We could not understand the historical context without them, among other sources (Josephus, Philo, the Hebrew Bible, and the Qumran corpus.) The same methodology is applied to all the sources.

          It’s a great class. If you get a chance to take it, you might be pleasantly surprised.

  • Katarina M. on 03.21.2012 at 7:43 pm

    Along with many other objectionable statements made in this article, I was especially struck by “…But in a campaign year that has seen presidential candidate Rick Santorum rallying admirers by charging Barack Obama with “phony theology,” respectful religious discourse can seem as miraculous as the Resurrection.” Excuse me but but let us stop with the political pandering to the Left and be fair. The first stone, amongst many, has been thrown by Obama and the Left towards Christians especially and next the Jews. And as for the “phony theology” statement , that was directed at Obama’s stance on global warming, nothing else and nothing to do with religion. Please get your facts straight.

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