Jesus, Not Christ
When Jesus Came to Harvard by Harvey Cox. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Adam Hilkemann | Spring 2006
In When Jesus Came to Harvard, Harvey Cox, currently a
Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School,
seeks to explain who Jesus is, and more importantly, His
significance in the world today. In a surprising collision of
faith and elite higher education, Cox asks what it would look
like if students at Harvard followed the teachings of this
man who lived 2,000 years ago. However, it is the subtitle,
standing firm on the brick pillars of Johnston Gate pictured
on the cover, which sums up the book best: “Making Moral
Choices Today.” Cox frames his exploration into the life of
Jesus by relating anecdotes from his very popular “Jesus and
the Moral Life” course at Harvard College. In his course,
Cox asked students of all faiths how they discerned right
from wrong and to look to Jesus for one example for moral
living in a post-modern world. Cox moves forward through
events in Jesus’ life using descriptions of his evolving
teaching methods and the subject matter of his course to
mirror changes in his own life.
Jesus is freshly presented in his Jewish context as a rabbi,
who, like other rabbis, taught through stories. For Cox,
stories provide us with the inspiration to do what we know
we should, and allow Jesus the rabbi to continue to speak
to our hearts. With great ingenuity and literary talent, Cox
describes most major events in Jesus’ life by showing the
reader how Jesus was consciously acting and teaching within
a pre-established Jewish tradition. This, Cox argues, is the
only way Jesus can be truly understood. As Cox then fleshes
out this Jewish tradition, he, like many others before him,
develops a method of looking at the Bible as a collection of
powerful but largely fictional stories that are based on true
principles. Following these principles, says Cox, is a way to
stop from falling into moral relativism.
Despite the benefits that can be derived from this
approach, Cox leaves the unique, messianic Jesus behind. “Christ,” “the Anointed One,” becomes subordinate to a
larger Jewish tradition. More specifically, Cox, following
the lessons of various rabbis throughout history whom he
praises, attempts to extend his version of God’s covenant
with the Jews to all of the Gentiles. Jesus is simply another
rabbi, albeit perhaps an especially radical and creative one.
No serious reference to Jesus as God or the Son of God
coming to earth to die for sinners is ever made. Christ’s
crucifixion is not even mentioned until well into the book,
and when it is finally mentioned in detail, Cox uses it as only
an opportunity for meditation. His resurrection from the
dead is left by Cox as relatively unimportant, possibly only
another helpful story. His unique teachings of salvation are
almost completely ignored, and Pelagianism, the idea that
man can make himself right with God through works alone,
is preached in order that the renewal of creation through
moral action might be effected. Cox even seems to support
an “easy” Pelagianism: “It [the kingdom of God] was for
‘sinners,’ for those who – mostly – tried their best to do the
right thing...” (pg. 258).
In doing so Cox creates a Jesus who is empty and deceitful.
Jesus claims, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No
one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Even by looking at this as part of a fictionalized story, such a
claim leaves little doubt in the reader’s mind as to the “true
principles behind the story.” Jesus leaves no other option for
his identity. Either he was who he said he was as recorded
by all four Gospel writers, or he was not. If Jesus was not,
then he was a liar or crazy at best—not exactly a moral
example for the ages. If he was telling the truth, it demands
a response. That the very Son of God would love humanity
enough to come and die a humiliating death, even death
on a cross, is scarcely conceivable let alone inconsequential.
It is more than just a “moral” example. It offers hope and
demands a faith unlike any other.
At one point where Cox does carefully look at what Jesus
was actually saying, he examines the now famous “Sermon
on the Mount.” Cox starts with what have come to be called
the “Beatitudes,” a series of blessings for the righteous,
which call for people to follow an extremely difficult moral
path to live life. One might even say impossible. Taking a
somewhat Kantian approach, Cox maintains that because
we should do what is set forth in these statements, we can.
Quite interestingly, Cox completely skips the next part
of Jesus’ testimony, where Jesus explains his relation to “the
Law” and “the Prophets.” He says, “I have not come to
abolish them [the Law and the Prophets] but to fulfill them”
(Matthew 5:17). One might think then that Cox would find
this essential to interpreting a Jesus working consciously
within the Jewish tradition. However, it is this claim— Jesus
as the Messiah foretold in the covenant with Abraham—
which Cox repeatedly denies. Cox does this fairly explicitly
in a conversation he describes with a friend of his who is a
distinguished Jewish scholar and rabbi. His clever twists of
wording and meaning in this passage render it inconvenient
for citation here, but, with some minor qualifications, Cox
agrees with his Jewish colleague in calling Jesus a “failed” Messiah and denies Jesus as Savior (on pages 218-19).
It is admirable that Professor Cox was able to draw
moral lessons from Jesus for the inquisitive students in his
many discussion sections. Nevertheless, in turning almost
to universalism, Cox fails to address the source of morality,
and more importantly, the role of the wholly undeserved
grace of God in salvation.The reader, like the many students
Cox himself describes, is left with more questions than
answers and a Jesus who brings plenty of beautiful moral
prescriptions, but frighteningly little hope. This “moral”
Jesus is not the Son of God, did not die for our sins on the
cross, and therefore cannot save us from ourselves. As St.
Paul wrote, “… if Christ has not been raised, our preaching
is useless, … [and] we are to be pitied more than all men”
(1 Corinthians 15:14-19).
Adam Hilkemann ‘07 is a History concentrator in