Tag Archives: Jesus of Nazareth

Who Knew?

Reading about Jesus is an occupational expectation for an editor of biblical studies. Not that this is anything new for someone who grew up thinking of him constantly. One of the issues often raised about the son of Mary and Joseph is what he did during his childhood. There are apocryphal gospels that address that question since the canonical ones don’t, other than a Lukan visit to the temple in Jerusalem where the professors were stumped by the student. A query that’s pondered from time to time is why nobody thought to write down the early years. A related question is less often asked: who knew in the early days that Jesus would amount to what he did? It’s pretty much accepted that the tales of a miraculous birth were borrowed from the common stock of quotidian cultural heroes of the day. Anybody famous had to have had a spectacular start. If they knew from the beginning, however, that he was going to be great, why didn’t they write his story?

Unless, of course, they didn’t know. Jesus was born, according to the best that we can reconstruct, in a working class family. He had brothers and sisters, according to the gospels, and since Joseph disappears from the story rather early, he was likely raised in by a single mother. Who pays attention to such mill-fodder as this? One of the common people who will, more likely than not, come to nothing? A statistic to make great the egos of Herods and Caesars. Who bothers to write such things down? It’s only after fame that we become interested. What made him so? How did his meteoric rise get started? Before then, who really cared?

Stuck here in the middle of Lent, it’s easy to forget that even Jesus started life as a nobody. Many who start life privileged end up obscure. There’s perhaps a cosmic balancing act taking place here. The fulcrum—and who thinks of the fulcrum while riding on the teeter-totter?—the fulcrum is the common person. Fame may ease the path to halls of power. Cronies will fall over themselves to kiss the hem of any robe headed toward the Oval Office. Those who claim such rights will do so on the back of a guy so occluded we don’t really even know where he was born. Or what he did before he was thirty. And had he lived out his life like the rest of his neighbors we wouldn’t be asking the question even now.

Capital Carol

The idea of exchanging presents on a holiday emerges from the impenetrable veil of time. We don’t know when the practice began—the idea of copying the Zoroastrian wise men in Matthew is a bit of a stretch and the date of Christmas wasn’t settled until much later in time. However and whenever it started, giving gifts at this time of year has become one of the defining features of late capitalism—it’s almost as if Jesus of Nazareth was born for this. An economy that measures self-worth in terms of money is just the place to have God-incarnate celebrated by giving lavish gifts. Those of us who make no money off the holidays can’t deny that it feels good to give someone something. People like, in general, to make each other happy.

This year my wife asked for a non-material gift. We made our way to the McCarter Theater in Princeton to see their acclaimed performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A gift of a memorable family time and a truly spectacular play. Seeing this story in 2016 felt especially important. Dickens was a famous advocate for the poor and was well aware of how they suffered at the hands of the wealthy. Indeed, those with too much money lose their humanity almost completely. The story is focused around Christmas, but the message is needed for every day, especially in over-long years such as this. Capitalism is a form of social evil. Anything that lowers humans to mere ciphers on a page is the very definition of sin.

christmas-carol

We all know how the story goes, but to see accomplished actors undergoing conversion is nevertheless a strangely hopeful experience. As the story makes abundantly clear, it requires so very little to make others happy. The point of having money, after all, is to use it for the good of others. Seeing one man facing his own mortality only to realize that he has isolated himself from the care of others is a powerful experience. As we move forward into the long and dark days ahead, there is a reminder here that we need to keep close to our hearts. There may be fewer presents under the tree this year, but we are all the richer for it. This is the kind of gift that we need to share with the entire world.

When under Rome

ZealotA question that has no answer: who was Jesus of Nazareth? Well, no single answer, anyway. When Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth came out, there was uproar. (Something, by the way, that publishers love.) How could someone suggest that not only do the Gospels disagree, but that they’re not even literal when they do? For those of us who’ve studied the Bible academically, there’s nothing too surprising here. Aslan’s perspective is often refreshing, even if he makes some basic errors (those of us who study the Hebrew Bible are pretty forgiving). For me, having the social circumstances of the New Testament spelled out in terms of the intense unrest of the first century explained a lot. It was a period of unremitting violence and frustration on the part of those coming to grips with life under Rome. Jesus was born and came of age when any outré idea could easily get you crucified. When it happened in his case, it was, as the Gospels point out, fully expected.

What might bother many readers is that Aslan doesn’t accept the story at face value. Jesus wasn’t unique as a healer, revolutionary, or messiah in first-century Palestine. In fact, Rome’s appointed rulers grew tired of such sons of gods that thousands of people were nailed up to warn others of the costs. Still, unlike the others, Jesus remained in contention even after his death. The belief in the resurrection didn’t hurt. Since Aslan is writing history, he can’t judge whether the resurrection or the healings actually took place. The traditions, he notes, are strong. He is surely correct that the Gospels aren’t attempting history. Written well after Christianity was already established, the writers had theological templates at their disposal. Not only that, they also had Paul.

Something I’d never considered was the dispute between Paul and the Jerusalem church. Yes, I’d noticed the stark contradictions between the letters of Paul and the one of James, but seeing the underlying conflict of those who knew Jesus personally (James, Peter, John) and Paul just never occurred to me. Paul doesn’t dote over the historical Jesus. His Jesus is divine from the start, and those who try to preserve Jesus’ words get in the way of the theology he’s developing. His letters express anger at those who teach what Jesus said over who he was, spiritually, anyway. Only with the destruction of Jerusalem was the way cleared for Paul’s gentile Christianity that eventually won out over Jesus’ teachings. It’s all very interesting, but I can’t buy it all. There are too many convenient connections here, and history abhors neatness. Nevertheless, Zealot is well worth reading. It tells an old story from a new perspective. And even if your Jesus is different from Aslan’s you’ll find something profound here that will only make your image stronger.

Whence Jesus?

Either he did, or he didn’t. Exist, that is. Jesus of Nazareth, I mean. When a friend sent me a link to a conference on proof of the non-existence of Jesus, I had to look. Such claims have been made before, but new documents are being found all the time and I supposed that I had been too busy commissioning books on religion to find out what was happening in religion. After all, the Gospel of Judas emerged, reversing, for a while, the idea of Judas’ good-guy/bad-guy polarity. A Coptic fragment suggested Jesus had been married. Maybe something new had come along. The story on PR Web announces that Joseph Atwill will unveil his new discovery later this month, proving that Jesus did not exist. While the article doesn’t give too many specifics (why would anybody come to the conference if it did?), the initial hype seems overblown. The gist of it is that the Romans invented a peaceful messiah to try to calm the foment to rebellion that constantly plagued the borders of the empire. Is he onto something?

Perhaps what Atwill has unwittingly stumbled onto is the truth that proof derived from ancient written documents is notoriously difficult to verify. Historians have criteria for determining whether ancient documents are “historical” or not. Their methods, while not foolproof, have rescued some great lights of human thought from the netherworld of fiction: Socrates, Solomon, and Gilgamesh, a shaky consensus holds, were historical characters. Of course, each of them has their detractors. No one is perhaps as contentious as Jesus of Nazareth, although, all things considered, his historical place is fairly secure. The Gospels are not eyewitness accounts. Paul seems to have been misinformed on some points. No authentic, contemporary documents describe Jesus. If, however, he was an obscure figure until some thirty years after his death, we would not wonder at such lack of attestation.

What does it mean to be a historical person? I used to pose this to my students. Each of us in the classroom knows we exist. There are records to prove it. How many of us, however, will make it into the history books? After the zombie apocalypse occurs, and civilization collapses, written records may be destroyed. Are we, Guy Montag-like, destroyed with our papers? Historical existence is something determined by others long after we are gone. Most of us don’t stand a chance of making it into the twenty-second-century’s history books. We simply will have been. But what of Mr. Atwill’s proof? Well, we don’t have it yet. Even if he has a letter from Caesar Augustus or Tiberius saying “let’s make up a story of a baby born in a manger,” it is pretty certain that the historical importance of Jesus will remain secure. If you can drive through any one-horse town in this country without finding a church of some kind or another, perhaps I may be wrong. In another century or so, I won’t be in the history books, but I will be history.

Come listen to a story 'bout a man named Josh... (photo credit Ricardo André Frantz, WikiCommons)

Come listen to a story ’bout a man named Josh… (photo credit Ricardo André Frantz, WikiCommons)

Au Fait in the Manger?

On Friday CNN ran a story about the Pope’s new book “debunking” myths surrounding Christmas. The headline certainly looked intriguing, but it turns out that the “myths” debunked are those of a very dim magnitude. Is anyone surprised—gasp!—that Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25? And, guess what—those cows you’ve always seen in the manger? The Bible doesn’t actually mention them! Angels aren’t at the manger either! What kind of Christmas will this be? A biblical one, it sounds like. I haven’t read Jesus of Nazareth—The Infancy Narratives, but it really doesn’t sound like I need to. The Bible is very spare on stories about Jesus’ birth; nobody knew he would be a Lloyd Webberian superstar at that point, so we have a few loose traditions that tell of humble origins in an obscure setting. Not very good for commercial interests, however, and besides, the average person doesn’t read the Gospels to find out about Christmas. There are far too many television specials to be bothered with “Lo, there were in the same country…”

Christmas was not a big deal until relatively recent times. Now, don’t get me wrong—I’m not a grinch who believes the holiday shouldn’t be celebrated. I see nothing wrong with people giving things away, even if it is to pretend that they are celebrating an ancient Roman-occupied Judean birthday. This is the essence of what being religious should be all about; holidays should be occasions for thinking about others before one’s self. In my lowly opinion anyway. We’ve built an entire economic cycle on it, however, otherwise Black Friday might just be a free day to spend with family and friends instead of being trampled to death at Wal-Mart. Perhaps if society could find a way to distribute wealth more equitably every Friday would be in the black.

The Pope’s new book is an attempt to make the Catholic tradition appear up-to-date with scholarship. Plans are for the book to be published in an entire Septuagint of languages with a print-run the envy of nearly every academic editor in New York. The problem is there is no real news here. News should be, by definition, new. A book by the Pope declaring the true equality of all people, throwing open full sacerdotal participation to women as well as men, and the distributing of papal wealth to the poor—that would be a Christmas present worth the waiting! Instead, when you pull the shiny paper off this book on December 25, you’ll only discover that you’ve received it on the wrong date and there will be no angels singing. The cattle will be lowing, however, if you can use your imagination.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Latest Temptation

It would be a rare day indeed when I claimed to be the first to see, read, or watch something. Caught up between constant obligations (part-time jobs can be more demanding than their full-time facsimiles) I often find my mind awhirl for a semester at a time, only to discover that inter-term courses start just two or three days after the current term ends. If there’s a great movie out there that everyone’s commenting on, I am lucky to catch it before it leaves the theater. Sometimes I even miss the DVD version. So it was that yesterday I finally got around to watching The Last Temptation of Christ, the 1988 Martin Scorsese movie. This film came out right after I finished seminary, while I shared an apartment with a seminary friend who was an irrepressible movie buff. Together we missed it and, despite teaching in a seminary for a decade and a half, I still missed this one by twenty years and a few. At last I can feel caught up with the late eighties.

I’m not a big fan of Jesus movies. Movie makers shooting such films portray an eminently likeable guy getting beat up and tortured to death with such contempt that it is wrenching to watch. Yes, I know that’s how the story goes, but must we be brought into the Schadenfreude? As a life-long religionist raised in the Christian tradition, however, I feel a professional obligation to see popular portrayals of the foundation stories. The first one I recall viewing was Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 Jesus of Nazareth, a movie so reverently rendered that it is frequently cited as the best ever. The eponymous Jesus by Peter Sykes and John Krisch came out in 1979 and claims to be the most watched movie of the genre. I saw Jesus Christ Superstar in college, but even Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music couldn’t remove the depressing aspect. Then, of course, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in 2004. All of them have left me depressed. Perhaps that is their intended purpose.

The Last Temptation was laden with controversy in its day. I was anxious to see why (okay, so not terribly anxious, but I was curious). So yesterday I got to satisfy an ancient itch. Despite the caveat at the opening of the film, many critics jumped on the portrayal of an indecisive Jesus who has a rather chaste love scene with Mary Magdalene in a “last temptation” vision while on the cross as irreverent. Perhaps two decades and countless movies later this criticism has been calmed, but I found Last Temptation to be a typical Nikos Kazantzakis introspective, full of self-doubt and deluded penance. Kazantzakis’ work is a man’s struggle against his personal demons. Do dream sequences count as theological fodder? The movie suffers from pacing issues and at times contrived dialogue. The best scene is where Jesus meets and dresses down Paul only to have Paul declare himself the true bearer of the message. Even that is in the dream at the end.

In 2004 a Fundamentalist atmosphere pervaded Nashotah House. Newly appointed “theologians” on the faculty easily bought into Mel Gibson’s theatrically distorted view of their faith. By the end of that academic year it was clear that the evangelical leadership had decided on a new victim for the sake of facile Christianity, but that is a story that can wait another couple of decades before being told.