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Rev. James Martin, S.J. Headshot

Who Is Jesus?

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"Jesus: A Pilgrimage," published today by HarperOne, is a retelling of the life of Christ by James Martin, SJ, a Jesuit priest, author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and "Official Chaplain" of The Colbert Report. This excerpt, exclusive to Huffington Post Religion, is the beginning of his new book.

Jesus is walking with his friends to Caesarea Philippi, a town roughly 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. The story comes midway through the Gospel of Mark. Out the blue Jesus asks, "Who do people say that I am?"

His friends seem caught off guard. Perhaps they are embarrassed, as when someone mentions a taboo topic. Perhaps they have been discussing that very question furtively, wondering who would be forthright enough to ask Jesus about his identity. Maybe Jesus had even overheard them arguing over who he was.

The disciples offer halting responses: "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah," they say, "and still others, one of the prophets." That's probably a fair summary of popular opinion at the time. Herod, the first-century ruler of Galilee, thought that Jesus might be John the Baptist come back to life. And the comparison to a prophet like, say, Jeremiah seemed sensible because of similarities between the prophet and Jesus. But the disciples are careful to avoid saying what they believe.

So Jesus asks them directly, "But who do you say that I am?"

Who is he? Why another book on this first-century Jewish man? Why have I spent years studying the life of an itinerant preacher from a backward town? Why did I spend two weeks traipsing around Israel under the broiling sun to see places where a former carpenter lived and sites that he may (or may not) have visited? Moreover, why have I committed my life to Jesus? The answers turn on the question of who I believe Jesus is, so it's fair to tell you before we begin our pilgrimage.

My starting point is a classic theological statement: Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. This is one of the first things that Christians learn about their faith.

But what does it mean? To begin with, Jesus of Nazareth, the person who walked the landscape of first-century Palestine, wasn't God pretending to be human. He was a flesh-and-blood, real-life, honest-to-God man who experienced everything that human beings do.

Jesus was born and lived and died, like any human being. The child called Yeshua entered the world as helpless as any newborn, and just as dependent on his parents. He needed to be nursed, held, fed, burped, and changed. As a boy growing up in the minuscule town of Nazareth, Jesus skinned his knees on the rocky ground, bumped his head on doorways, and pricked his fingers on thorns. He watched the sun rise and set over the Galilean countryside, wondered how far away the moon was and asked why the stars twinkled.

Jesus had a body like yours and mine, which means that he ate, drank and slept. He experienced sexual longings and urges. The adult Jesus felt joy and sadness, laughing at things that struck him as funny and weeping during times of loss. As a fully human being with fully human emotions, he felt both frustration and enthusiasm. He grew weary at the end of a long day and fell ill from time to time. He pulled muscles, he felt sick to his stomach, and maybe sprained an ankle or two. Like all of us, he sweated and sneezed and scratched.

Everything proper to the human being--except sin--Jesus experienced.

Jesus's humanity is a stumbling block for many people, including a few Christians. Incidents in the Gospels that show Jesus displaying intense and even unattractive human emotions can unsettle those who prefer to focus on his divinity. At one point in the Gospel of Mark, he speaks sharply to a woman who asks him to heal her daughter. The woman is not Jewish and, as a result, Jesus seems to dismiss her with a callous comment: "It is not fair to take children's food and throw it to the dogs."

That is a stinging rebuke no matter what the context. When the woman responds that even the dogs get crumbs from the table, Jesus softens. And he heals her daughter.

Why did Jesus speak so sharply? Was it because he was visiting what Mark calls "the region of Tyre," a non-Jewish area, where he was presumably not expected to perform any miracles? If so, why didn't he respond to the woman more gently, rather than using a term that was seen in his day as highly insulting? Was Jesus testing her faith, challenging her to believe? If so, it's a harsh way of doing so, at odds with the compassionate Jesus that many of us expect to meet in the Gospels.

Perhaps, however, Jesus needed to learn something from the woman's persistence: his ministry extended to everyone, not just Jews. Or maybe he was just tired. A few lines earlier in the Gospel, Mark tells us, "He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there." Perhaps his curt remark indicates physical weariness. Whatever the case (and we'll never know for sure) both possibilities--he is learning; he is tired--show Jesus's humanity on full display.

But there is another part of the story: a healing. Jesus says to the woman, "For saying that, you may go--the demon has left your daughter." She returns home, says Mark, and finds her child lying on the bed, "the demon gone."

"Fully human and fully divine" means that Jesus of Nazareth wasn't just a great guy, an inspiring teacher and a holy man. Moreover, the charismatic carpenter wasn't merely a clever storyteller, a compassionate healer or a courageous prophet.

In response to Jesus's question "Who do you say that I am?" Peter finally answers, "You are the Messiah." But Jesus is divine--far more than Peter could comprehend even while identifying him as the Messiah.

Jesus performed astonishing deeds, which the Gospel writers called either "works of power" or "signs." Today we call them miracles--healing the sick, calming storms, raising people from the dead. Time and again the Gospels report that Jesus's followers, no matter how long they have been with him, are "amazed" and "astonished" by what he does. "We have never seen anything like this!" says the crowd after Jesus heals a paralyzed man in Mark's Gospel. After he stills a storm on the Sea of Galilee, Matthew writes, "They were amazed, saying, 'What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?'"

Even his detractors took note of his miracles, as when they castigate him for healing a man on the Sabbath. The miracles are an essential part of the story of Jesus as are the other signs of his divinity. So is the Resurrection.

If Jesus's humanity is a stumbling block for many, his divinity is even more so. For a rational, modern mind, talk of the supernatural can be disturbing--an embarrassment. Many contemporary men and women admire Jesus, but stop short of believing him to be divine. Despite the proportion of the Gospels that focus on his "works of power," many want to confine his identity to that of a wise teacher.

Thomas Jefferson went so far as to create his own Gospel, by focusing on Jesus's ethical teachings and (literally) scissoring out the miracles and other indications of his divinity. Jefferson preferred his own version of Jesus, not the one he found in the Gospels. Like many of us, he felt uncomfortable with certain parts of the man's life. He wanted a Jesus who didn't threaten or discomfort, a Jesus he could tame. After studying Jefferson's edited version of the Gospels, the New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders noted in his book The Historical Figure of Jesus that the Sage of Monticello created a Jesus who was, in the end, "very much like Jefferson."

But humanity and divinity are both part of Jesus's story. Omit one or the other, scissor out the uncomfortable parts, and it's not Jesus we're talking about any longer. It's our own creation.

From Jesus: A Pilgrimage by James Martin, SJ