Jesus the Good Chieftain: The Historically Contingent Nature of Religious Language

In a certain medieval Christian document, we find an account of Jesus' life. His birth, we are told, coincided with a "decree from Ft. Rome." The decree stated that "all warrior heroes were to return to their assembly place, each one was to go back to the clan of which he was a family member by birth in a hill-fort." His parents Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem, the "hill-fort" which had been once ruled by David, who was "earl of the Hebrews." There the young Jesus is born in a "fodder-crib." After he grows into an adult of great reputation, he attracts disciples. He is referred to throughout the document with titles such as "the good Chieftain," "the Chieftain of mankind," and the "Chieftain of clans."

At one point in the story, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray in the following way:

Father of us all, the sons of men
You are in the high heavenly kingdom
Blessed be Your name in every word
May Your mighty kingdom come
May Your will be done over all this world--
just the same on earth as it is up there
in the high heavenly kingdom.
Give us support, each day, good Chieftain,
Your holy help, and pardon, Protector of Heaven,
our many crimes, just as we do to other human beings
Do not let loathsome wights lead us off
to do their will, as we deserve,
but help us against all evil deeds.

Sometime later, one of his disciples named Judas leads an "enemy clan" ("the Jews") to Jesus and "his warrior companions" so that they might arrest them. Another of his disciples, Simon Peter, who is called a "very daring Thane," tries to protect Jesus by pulling a sword on those who have come out against them. His efforts are futile, for Jesus is indeed arrested and sentenced to death. His death is not a tragedy though, for the text concludes: "All of this was just the way He wanted it and had predetermined beforehand for the benefit of mankind, the sons of men."

The story contains far more episodes than those that are included above, but they are sufficient to set the stage for this discussion. These likely familiar narrative snippets come from a little known Old Saxon epic poem from the ninth century known as The Heliand (lit. "savior" in Old Saxon). It is clearly related to canonical accounts of Jesus' life, probably filtered through a later text that harmonized the New Testament gospels into one account. In the examples above, we see allusions to the Gospel of Luke's story of the Roman census that coincided with Jesus' birth, the Lord's Prayer that is given in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and Jesus' arrest, which is reported by all four New Testament gospels.

Despite its colorful language, this ninth-century text unfortunately does not tell us anything new about the historical Jesus' life. Even if it were to report an unheard of episode of Jesus' life, there is no reason to assume that it would be historically accurate. Yet even so, it tells us a great deal about the transition of Christian ideas into medieval Europe, and in doing so, it acts as a cautionary tale for using historical documents as clear windows onto the world of the past.

The clunky transition of Christianity into Europe has been smoothed over by many authors. For instance, in The Life of St. Martin, its author Sulpicius Severus tells us about the renowned Martin, who spread Christianity throughout regions that are now modern France by, on one hand, doing miracles, and on the other hand, destroying pagan shrines and other important sites of indigenous worship. The text gives the impression that Christianity systematically and effortlessly displaced pagan beliefs and practices. The Heliand, however, tells a different story. It witnesses to the clear effort to creatively combine cultural elements that existed among the local peoples with the new ideas in Christianity. It portrays Jesus in terms that reflect the indigenous language that would be most valued by its readers/listeners. For instance, as given above, the cities of Rome and Bethlehem are referred to as a "forts," language that would have been most appropriate for a central and important settlement in the ninth century. Important men are "chieftains," "earls," or "warriors." Even God is addressed as the "good Chieftain" in The Heliand's version of the Lord's Prayer. When we read this text, it is absolutely clear that, far from displacing the indigenous culture of pre-modern Europe, the story of Jesus' life has been filtered into the world of ideas on the ground there.

Kilmorie Chapel, Scotland 8th-10th century

How does this version of Jesus' life act as a cautionary tale for using historical documents as clear windows onto the world of the past? Its seemingly out-of-place language constantly reminds us that it is just that: a version (one might even call it a translation) of the life of Jesus into the medieval period. We easily catch those odd features of the account, because they stand out to us. But this should encourage us to wonder which features of the earlier accounts of Jesus' life functioned similarly in the first century. That is, we should ask: which concepts and terms made perfect sense to people in the first century but may stand out as "out-of-place" to a modern reader?

Scholars of Christian origins can recite numerous examples. Let me list just a handful. The famous phrasing "Word (Logos) of God" that the author of the Gospel of John especially loves to employ resists a simple meaning, both in the modern and the ancient contexts. The word logos in Greek has numerous translations, and it is not at all clear what the author of the Gospel of John means when he describes Jesus as such. Another example is the term "grace" that Paul often uses in his letters. Modern Christians (especially Protestants) have a very particular understanding of this term, but Paul uses it in a far more flexible fashion, even casually in his letters' opening greetings. A final example, perhaps the most famous example, is the notion of divine sonship. Modern Christians are absolutely comfortable describing Jesus as the singular son of God. Yet this identification would have resonated in many other ways in the ancient world, in particular, inviting a comparison with Greek and Roman stories of "sons of God," as well as subtly challenging the Roman emperor, who was also a divine figure and savior by some accounts. The ancient nuances of concepts such as "word of God," "logos," and "son of God" are usually lost today, because they don't translate well to contemporary contexts.

Jesus as the Sun God, 3rd century: Out of place today?

What is the takeaway from considering such historical documents as The Heliand and its version of Jesus' life? In short, there is no timeless, neutral report of the life of Jesus. All texts are rooted in their historical and social contexts, as we would expect them to be, and they use language that resonates with those contexts. To put it another way, ancient texts weren't written for modern readers. Texts from other time periods are not automatically incomprehensible to modern readers, but their ancient meanings can be better understood by exploring the world of ideas that ancient readers and listeners would have accessed to interpret them.