The Person of Christ

The OCR AS Developments in Christian Theology course requires that you know what is meant by the terms Jesus of History and Christ of Faith. You need to understand what James Cone has contributed to this debate and understand what he meant by describing Jesus as the Black Messiah.

Jesus of History and Christ of Faith:

The terms 'Jesus of History' and 'Christ of Faith' are translations of phrases first used by nineteenth century German theologian Martin Kahler. In general, when theologians use these terms they mean the following:

  • Jesus of History: The historical person
  • Christ of Faith: The version(s) of Jesus promoted by the Church

There has been much debate as to what extent these are the same. Was the historical Jesus (the man who lived) identical in every way to the version found in the gospels? Did he actually do every single thing that the gospels say that he did? Fundamentalists would argue that there is no gap between the two - the Bible is inerrant thus the statements about Jesus are factually correct. 

However, many liberal theologians (including those writing before Kahler) thought that there is likely to be a significant difference between what the man Jesus actually said and did and the claims the later church has made about him. Questions like messiahship are central to this debate. Did Jesus actually claim to be and believe himself to be the Messiah (and if so, what type of Messiah?) or was this added later.

Who was the historical Jesus?

First Quest: c.1730-1900 resulted from post-Enlightenment thinking which led to new types of biblical scholarship that made use of reason to evaluate and challenge the stories.

Second Quest c.1950-1970 (sometimes called the New Quest). The first quest floundered when people began to suspect that the real Jesus was forever hidden. However, the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945 and Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 provided new information about the biblical world and encouraged scholars to try again to discover the 'real' Jesus. Many of those involved in the second quest tried to show that there was a degree of continuity between Jesus and the church's message about him.

Third Quest: 1970 onward involved a wider variety of disciplines (i.e. non Jewish scholars). In 1985 the Jesus Seminar was founded. This is a group of 150 scholars who study the different supposed saying of Jesus and vote on how reliable they are likely to be.

Sometimes the term 'third quest' is applied solely to theologians who try to show that there is continuity between Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith whist the term 'Renewed Quest' is applied to those who primarily aim to identify the differences between Jesus' message and the things later attributed to him.

Many liberal theologians have used various methods to try and identify the 'real' Jesus of history behind the gospel stories. This is often termed 'The Quest for the Historical Jesus' and it is frequently divided into different phases (first quest, second quest etc). One of the first 'questers' was Reimarus (1694-1768) who argued that the aims of Jesus were not the same as the aims of the disciples after his death. He believed that Jesus did not perform miracles and did not aim to start a new religion. He suggested that story of the resurrection was made up by the disciples who stole the body. His work was controversial and only published in full after his death. Reimarus belongs to the first quest. Fellow first quest theologian David Strauss suggested that Church interpreted Jesus' life in the light of Old Testament prophecies and invented things (like the virgin birth) to fit with his messianic status.

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) also thought that Jesus was very different to the Christ preached in churches. He held that Jesus had been an eschatological prophet who believed that the end of the world was near and his teaching was geared towards that. According to Schweitzer, Jesus went up to Jerusalem expecting God to intervene and his cry from the cross 'my God my God why have you forsaken me' was a genuine cry of despair as he realised his own failure.

One of the most prominent second quest theologians was Geza Vermes (1924-2013) (pronounced Ver-mesh!). Vermes argued that Jesus was trying to reform Judaism. He stressed Jesus' Jewishness and rejected the idea that Jesus encouraged his disciples to try to convert non-Jews. E.P. Sanders (b.1937) has posited that Jesus began his ministry as a disciple of John the Baptist who then separated from John. Sanders suggests that evidence from within the gospels points to hostility between the disciples of Jesus and the disciples of John).

Whilst many recent quest theologians have stressed Jesus' Jewishness, it is certainly not true that they all agree about exactly what the historical Jesus was like. There continues to be a lot of debate as to which of the sayings in the Bible attributed to Jesus were actually said by him. Thus, it cannot be said that the historical Jesus has been definitively 'found'.

Can we know what the historical Jesus was like?

A second issue for theologians studying Jesus is the question of whether it is actually possible to discover anything for certain about the historical Jesus (in other words, are the questing theologians doomed to failure!). Arguably, the 'real' Jesus is forever hidden as the gospels were written by believers who all had their own agendas and told the stories their own way. We cannot know how reliable they were as historians so we cannot know if what they say is true. Schweitzer argued that in many instances theologians found a Jesus who reflected their own values (i.e. they found what they wanted to find) rather than actually discovering the truth about Jesus. 

However, pro-quest theologians argue that it is possible to identify earlier sources, common themes etc within the gospels and thus it is possible to discover an authentic picture of the historical Jesus. Ernst Kasemann (1906-1998) contributed to the revival of historical Jesus scholarship and helped to start the second phase of the Jesus quest. He suggest that multiply attested sayings (things found in more than one source) were more likely to be reliable. He also hypothesised that sayings that did not fit with earlier Jewish beliefs nor with later Christian ones would also be likely to come from Jesus; their uniqueness made them reliable. However, the uniqueness criteria is problematic because it implies the assumption that Jesus was totally different both from his own Jewish background and the Church that was supposedly based on his teachings. There are many different criteria used by quest theologians to try to sort the fact from the fiction.

The question of the reliability of the gospels is obviously central to the quest. WE know that the writers did shape the material that they used but this does not necessarily mean that they are utterly unhistorical. Generally speaking, academic theologians regard John's gospel as latest (i.e. most recent), most redacted (shaped by its editor/writer) and least reliable. Mark's gospel is held to be the earliest and most likely to be reliable. Matthew and Luke are generally believed to have used Mark's gospel (copied parts, reworded parts, added bits) as well as another common source designated Q ('quelle' means source in German) and their own unique material.

Does it matter?

Finally, there is also the issue of whether or not it matters. Does it actually matter to Christianity if there are significant differences between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith? Again, different scholars have different views. Many people would be of the opinion that it does matter. If Jesus was significantly different to the way he has been portrayed then Christianity is based on a falsehood. St Paul himself wrote that if the resurrection had not happened then Christian faith is 'in vain'. Kaseman thought that without some degree of certainty about who Jesus was and what he did Christianity would be left based on a myth. However, others (including Martin Kahler) suggested that perhaps how Christians experience their faith matters more than the facts about a man who lived two thousand years ago. If they have religious experiences which convince them of the truth of Christianity now then perhaps the historical side is less important. Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) suggested that the Bible should be demythologised as only the central message (the kerygma) is important. Many Christians would accept that it does not affect the overall Christian message if the Gospel writers occasionally paraphrased Jesus or included the odd error provided the basic gist of the story is correct.

So, to summarise, we have three questions:

  1. Is there a significant difference between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith?
  2. Would it be possible to discover what the Jesus of History was actually like?
  3. Does it matter what the Jesus of History was actually like?

Cone's answer to these questions would be:

  1. There is a difference between the way white Christians have portrayed Christ and the realities of Jesus' existence, however the gospels are basically reliable and portray Jesus as he was.
  2. We can know the type of person Jesus was and the type of things that he did even if we cannot be certain about individual actions.
  3. Yes it does matter because without knowledge of the Jesus of History beliefs about Christ can be entirely subjective. Knowledge of the Jesus of History gives us a criteria to evaluate (and potentially to reject) different beliefs about Jesus.

James Cone:


James Cone was born in 1939 in Arkansas into a church-going family and felt called to be a pastor from an early age. He studied theology at university and gained a PhD in 1965. He has since taught theology and religion at several universities.

The town that Cone was brought up in had roughly 800 blacks to 400 whites and according to Cone the whites 'tried to make us believe that God created black people to be white people's servants.' When Cone was growing up segregation still existed in America and the civil rights movement led by (among others) Martin Luther King was in full swing. 


Cone's Christian faith (and his faith in the methods of Martin Luther King) were challenged by another black activist called Malcolm X. Malcolm X rejected Christianity as 'Christianity is a white man's religion.' Although Cone took this challenge seriously (he described himself later as having been 'within inches' of leaving Christianity), ultimately he was not willing to abandon his faith. Cone took it upon himself to reform Christianity along lines that allowed it to be part of black emancipation rather than an implement of white oppression. He wrote:

'For me, the burning theological question was, how can I reconcile Christianity and Black Power, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s idea of nonviolence, and Malcolm X's "by any means necessary philosophy?"'

James Cone, Preface to Black Theology and Black Power

Cone's first book - Black Theology and Black Power - was published in 1969 and was quickly followed by A Black Theology of Liberation in 1970. Since then he has written many books on black theology. Among these God of the Oppressed (1975) is probably one of his best known works and The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011) is his most recent.

Method of theology:

Cone believed that all theology is contextual:

'Theology is not universal language about God. Rather, it is human speech informed by historical and theological traditions and written for particular times and places. Theology is contextual language - that is, defined by the human situation that give birth to it.'

Cone A Black Theology of Liberation 

Quotations from God of the Oppressed.

For Cone, theology is dialectical. It comes about through the conversation between scripture and experience. Since Cone believed that God is revealed in history as well as in the Bible, the experiences of people themselves become a relevant basis for theology. He encouraged people to 'read the Bible through the lens of the black tradition' and rejected the idea that it could be viewed as the objective word of God. By making use of older African religious traditions and by drawing on more recent experiences Cone thinks that it is possible to create 'a black religious tradition unique to North America'.

The Black Messiah:

'Messiah' means 'anointed one'. It is a Hebrew word which means that it comes from within Judaism. As a verb (to anoint) it could be applied to a variety of people. In the old Testament kings are anointed as a sign of their kingship. Priests too were anointed as a part of their ordination. 'Anointed' could be used symbolically to mean 'chosen one'.

'The Messiah' was also a term applied to a specific person that some Jews believed that God would send to save (either politically or religiously) the Jewish people. There is a lot of scholarly debate about the extent of messianic expectation in first century Israel.  We do not know exactly how widespread it was. However, there do seem to have been a couple of main ideas. Some messianic expectation was focused around the idea that the Messiah would be a descendent of King David who would overthrow the occupying Roman Army and restore a Jewish-ruled kingdom. Others awaited a priestly Messiah from the Jewish Levi tribe (the tribe of priests) who would reform worship and belief and revitalise the covenant.

In addition to debates about the form that messianic expectation took, there are also debate as to what extent Jesus actually thought of himself as the Messiah. Wilhelm Wrede, for example, argued that Jesus did not claim to be Messiah and that the idea developed after his death.

However, traditional Christian teaching is that Jesus was the Messiah, sent by God to bring about salvation by being an atoning sacrifice for sin. The Greek word Christ a translation of the Hebrew word 'Messiah' so Christ and Messiah mean the same thing.

Central to Cone's theology is the idea of the Black Messiah.

Gospel evidence:

Cone argued that if you read the gospels, the overwhelming impression is that Jesus sided with the weak and the oppressed. In fact, he did not just side with them he was one of them. Born to an unmarried mother in a working class family he became a wandering homeless traveller. Criticised by the religious elite (the pharisees) he was eventually rounded up, tried by a biased court, humiliated and abused by his captors and ultimately put to death by those in power as a victim of hate and mob violence. 

God incarnate (God made human):

First watch this video on the relevance of the crucifixion to the black experience. 

For Cone, the significance of this is that if Jesus was God incarnate (Cone said 'He is the Revelation, the special disclosure of God to man...In short, Chris is the essence of Christianity') then this means that God chose to become oppressed. God chose to become incarnate not as a rich person with privileges but as one of the underclass.

Much like Gutierrez, Cone thought that God is not impartial when faced with injustice. God does not ignore injustice but sides with the oppressed. 

For Cone, in his own environment and situation, this meant that God was not colour blind. God's willingness to side with the oppressed against the oppressor means that God sides with the blacks against the whites.

Ontologically black:

Consequently, Cone things that Jesus can be described as symbolically black. Cone uses the term 'ontologically black' which means that in his essence - in his inner being - Jesus is black. This does not mean that Cone thought that Jesus was actually literally black (though he did point out that Jesus would not have been the blue eyed Caucasian that western Christians tend to depict him as). The point is not Jesus' literal colour, but what he stood for. By choosing to enter into the world in such a way that he himself experienced oppression, God chose to identify with black people. This means that their struggles are his struggles and - importantly - his eventual triumph will be their triumph.

'In Christ, God enters human affairs and takes sides with the oppressed. Their suffering becomes his; his despair, divine despair. Through Christ the poor man is offered freedom now to rebel against that which makes him other than human...When black people begin to hear Jesus' message as contemporaneous with their life situations....Christianity becomes for them a religion of protest against the sufferings and afflictions of would seem that the message of Black Power is the message of Christ himself.'

Cone Black Theology and Black Power

A lynching is a form of mob violence in which a group of people kill (often by hanging) another. Sometimes the mob claim to be taking the law into their own hands and taking revenge for some crime (be it real or imagined) but often lynchings entail some aspect of discrimination in which the lynched and the mob belong to different groups.

Correspondence of terms:

Cone draws parallels in particular between Jesus' crucifixion and the types of violence experienced by black Americans in the twentieth century. Between the end of the nineteenth century and the mid years of the twentieth century around 3,500 black Americans had been lynched in America - mostly in southern states. Jesus' crucifixion, whilst done at the hands of the Roman authorities, has some similarities with a lynching. Supposedly the crowds chanted 'crucify him, crucify him' forcing the Roman governor Pilot to accept their demands or face a riot.

If the method of his means of death reinforces his status as one of the oppressed then his resurrection is a promise of hope for a better future. For Cone, part of the significance of the resurrection is that the oppressed one triumphs.

Michael Wilcockson (writer of the AS text book) summarised what is meant by the term 'Black Messiah' in an article in the magazine Dialogue. He writes:

''Blackness' as we have seen is a summary of a God who is active in human oppression, who is both a God of judgement of the Old Testament and a God of love of the New Testament. A theology which claims that God is only to be understood as love, fails to add that God also demands justice. God does choose sides; he is not impartial; those who are racist are not equally loved by God and should never be given to believe that what they do is condoned.'

'That is why Cone can add a new Christological title to the range given in the New Testament. Not only is Jesus the Son of God or the Son of David, he is also Black Messiah. Historically Jesus is 'black' because he sides with the oppressed (by being baptised he acknowledges his place with sinners) but as the Black Christ, the Church preaches and recognises that his resurrection marks the triumph of justice over oppression. Black theology argues the necessity of combining the Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith.'

Link between Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith:

The importance - for Cone - of linking the historical figure (Jesus of History) with current belief (Christ of Faith) is apparent in the following quotation from God of the Oppressed

'This Jesus of the biblical and black traditions is not a theological concept but a liberating presence in the lives of the poor and their fight for dignity and worth.'

If Jesus was just a 'theological concept', if he were only the historical figure then his story would be interesting, but ultimately irrelevant.

If only the Christ of Faith matters then beliefs have no basis in fact - people could believe what they like about Jesus.

For Cone, the Jesus of history represents the basis for belief. His life becomes the standard for evaluating Christological beliefs. The Christ of white Western Theology (meek pacifist teaching people to turn the other cheek and encouraging the oppressed to patiently accept their suffering) fails the authenticity test when compared to the Jesus of History (as found in the Gospels). 


Quotation from A Black Theology of Liberation.

One of the most controversial elements of Cone's teaching is that he believed that liberation should be sought through 'any means necessary'. He justified this on the basis that black people exist within a society which is geared against them (he compared their situation to that of Jews in Nazi Germany). He said 'white appeals to "wait and talk it over" are irrelevant when children are dying and men and women are being tortured.' Whilst his contemporary and fellow Christian black activist Martin Luther King advocated non-violent methods, Cone associated himself with the Black Power movement which was willing to use violence to achieve its goals. Cone disagreed with King (who thought that Jesus' preaching about agape and love of neighbour meant that the focus should be on reconciliation without bloodshed). Cone thought that the end justified the means and argued that certain teachings were only appropriate in the relevant context. He advocated revolution, calling upon people to:

'participate in God's revolutionary activity changing the political, economic and social structure'

Cone God of the Oppressed

He went on:

'To be reconciled with white people means fighting against their power to enslave, educing masters to the human level, thereby making them accountable to black liberation.'

Any white/black reconciliation which was possible was to be done on black terms. White people needed to ask for forgiveness and 'become black' - i.e. identify with the oppressed and experience oppression before reconciliation could be achieved. Cone was exceedingly critical of white churches which had not done enough to oppose racism and segregation. He argued that their lack of action meant that they were unchristian as they had failed to stand up for what Jesus really stood for. He described white churches as the antichrist and wrote:

'Racism is a complete denial of the Incarnation and thus of Christianity. Therefore, the white denominational churches are unchristian.'

Cone Black Theology and Black Power


1) One way to evaluate Cone is to consider whether his reading of Jesus is accurate. Do the gospels predominantly present Jesus as one siding with the oppressed and opposing the oppressors or does he come across as one who shows equal love to all people?

  • The evidence is mixed, however there are certainly numerous examples of Jesus criticising the religious elite (pharisees) and the rich. Perhaps even if Cone over-exaggerates the extent to which Jesus 'took sides' it is still useful for readers to be reminded that Jesus did expect people to live by high ethical standards.
  • Consider whether you think a fair God should show greater concern for those who suffer more. Would it be fair for him to treat all people equally and love those who hurt others as much as he loves the victims?

2) Another aspect to consider is whether the title 'Black Messiah' is useful. What is the value of creating new Christological titles and what are the dangers associated with it?

  • Perhaps it helps show the relevance of Jesus' life by showing the parallels between it and a contemporary situation. 
  • Perhaps a new Christological title helps the reader to think about the role of Jesus without falling into old stereotypes. Have we become so familiar with the old titles that we no longer think about what they mean? Are others too obscure for us to understand (e.g. 'Son of Man'). Perhaps we need titles that are relevant to us.
  • On the other hand, the title 'Black Messiah' seems exclusive. Can white people be saved by the Black Messiah?

3) Thirdly, one could question the ethics of Cone's approach. Are his criticisms of society fair? If structural sin exists then is it justifiable to use whatever means necessary to change it? You could compare his ideas to that of Martin Luther King. Should a Christian always be pacifist or can they fight under certain circumstances? If they can fight, then what should be the conditions under which violence is permitted? Is Cone's theology divisive

4) Finally, from a theological perspective we can ask whether his interpretation of the crucifixion and the resurrection are too reductionist to be useful. Does he place too much emphasis on people liberating themselves and not enough of God liberating people from sin. Does he focus on this life at the expense of the afterlife? (Many of the criticisms of liberation theology are relevant here).

Relationship to liberation theology:


  • Contextual theologies
  • Use hermeneutic of suspicion to challenge traditional readings
  • Focus on the ethical/liberative message
  • See the bible as a record of God's action in history
  • See Jesus as a champion of the oppressed
  • Oppose structural sin and advocate revolution/structural change
  • Focus on praxis as an important part of religion
  • Focus on the poor and oppressed


  • Liberation theology uses Marx - Cone does not
  • Liberation theology focuses on economics/class as the root of the problem, for black theology the root of the problem is racism