From jump let me say that what I believe about the man is not devotional. No remotely Jewish notion of God--and we do know that he emerges, in Christian texts themselves, wholly sprung from Judaism--can sustain the idea of human blood atonement for sin (or for anything else). Judaism quite early and decisively rejects human sacrifice for any reason when God's messenger explicitly forbids Abraham, wholly prepared to show obedience by slaughtering his son, from wielding the dagger.
I cannot imagine (nor can any Rabbi or biblical historian contemplate) any Judaism or any idea born of Judaism upending that paradigm. That Isaac-story is about ultimate loyalty to the Unseen and a thoroughgoing renunciation of previous ancient Near East norms, of any ideology remotely condoning human blood atonement or sacrifice for any purpose.
In other words, while Christianity may have been born of Judaism in a specific time and place, Judaism and Christianity, philosophically, could not be more distant from one another: for Jews, human blood atonement is a thoroughly pagan idea.
Yet, short of the divine, I am thoroughly comfortable with a Jesus of a remarkable immediate and historical presence, intellect, charisma, and of a wholly Jewish philosophical nuance.
Prophet? I don't know and I'm not sure it matters.
What I do know is that he grew up in an occupied Israel strangled by foreigners for hundreds of years and by, in his day, Rome, the most routinely voracious, brutal regime in western history before the Nazis.
--In Judea (southern Israel) alone, Rome records 50,000 Jews crucified in the fifty years after his birth. You can do that math and know how routine a sight the lined up nailed corpses were.
And that was the point: while crucifixion was used all over the empire, it was used in Judea daily precisely because Rome knew that it was a slap to the God and the Law of the Jews to allow a body to remain in the open after sundown.
--In the twenty years prior to and after Jesus' murder, hundreds, if not thousands, of miracle-men went out to the Judean desert, starved- themselves-silly, returned through the city gates ranting about the Coming and the Presence (and Rome's imminent, miraculous collapse)... nearly all cast off as lunatics by their own families and by the mob. (Jesus, too, the gospels relate, speaks about prophets being unwelcome in their home towns and rejection by their families.) We read of the more successful ones, magicians such as Honi-The-Circle-Maker, credited with mass- and random (distant and immediate) healings and feedings and many other good works before the Jesus of the gospels.
Historian Josephus even speaks of a man, Jesus (another Jesus), so loud in his messianic assurances to the sleeping city night after night, four years or so after The Crucifixion, that he was roughly taken up by those just wanting sleep -- that poor man was not heard from again.
And there was yet another messianic character with followers, three or so years after the gospels' Jesus, who threw rock after rock at well-armed Roman soldiers in the Temple Precinct, at the Passover. One Roman archer who couldn't take it any longer shot the stone-thrower from a Temple parapet, causing a panic in which 30,000 Jews and Romans were trampled to death in minutes.
What does this tell me?
If nothing else, it tells me that the gospels' Jesus was, without question, had to be, a stand-out among stand-outs, among the most spectacularly gifted men of his or of any generation. None of these others, not a one, gets the ink, anything remotely like the painstaking devotional-histories this man received.
And understand: in the ancient Mediteranean there was no history, no biography among the masses or the elites (even in oral literature) that looked anything like what we agree is biography. All biography was religious/devotional. Even the court biographers of the Roman Emperor Augustus/Octavian wrote of a miraculous winter solstice virgin birth a century before Mark's and then Matthew's gospels subverted traditional ancient literature's social class expectation by recording a miraculous virgin birth for a rural boy born in a shed for animals.
And this isn't to denigrate Jesus.
It is a metaphor, a measure of what must have been his overwhelming interpersonal power and philosophical vision in a radically anti-Roman, radically communitarian and very Jewish theological context that an almost certainly illiterate Gallilean carpenter's boy became the subject and object of this fierce reaction while he lived, as well as an object of post-death devotion, devotion to the point of closest friends' certainty that they saw and spoke with him (beginning with his friend, Mary) days after his murder.
He was a man who could lay out a convincing potential for a world free of oppression, full of decency..."it is all laid out here before you".... His is the very traditional Jewish idea that the Kingdom of God is here, is now, if people will only grab it, grasp it, through the (again subversive and action-inducing modeling-metaphors of all classes) eating at a common table, multiplying loaves and fish for the hungry, all through a desire for common uplift and not just that of the few...metaphors and modeling, performances that announce not a world of venal division enthrall to personal and cultural greed but one devoted to the Jewish God's Justice.
His is an essential vision about as powerful a personal and political and socioeconomic vision as you can find, and again, it's one wholly embedded in a communitarian Jewish Justice-tradition.
Consider the raw visceral and heady power this man must have had to convince so many in his own rather barbaric time and place, that Justice was possible, that Justice remains, possible.
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