Friday, March 20, 2009
The True Story of Jesus, a Jewish Radical from Galilee
[Note: This is my exposition of the life and death of Jesus, assuming he existed. It's based on actual historical data and current scholarly thinking. The main argument underwriting all below is that Jesus was neither more nor less than a Jewish dude whose story got picked up and sensationalized after he died.]
Even at the dawn of the Common Era, events and stories from the biblical past surround Nazareth, a peasant farming village in Galilee, Palestine. Lying in a basin and surrounded by limestone hills, Nazareth stands northward of the battlefields on the Great Plains of Esdraelon – where Barak, Gideon, Saul, Josiah, and the Maccabees all struggled against enemies. To the west lies Mount Carmel, where Elijah the prophet met the prophets of Baal. Nearby also is Naboth’s vineyard, the place of Jehu’s revenge upon Jezebel, Shunem, and the house of Elisha. Nazareth sits on “the Way of the Sea,” a Roman road connecting Damascus, far to the northeast in the province of Syria, with ports along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. To the south of the village, a road heads all the way to Egypt. Close by, a caravan route leads to Jerusalem. Across the hills and approximately five miles to the northwest, Sepphoris has been rebuilt into Galilee’s regional military and administrative center.
As a northern region in the province of Judea, Palestine, Galilee falls under the direct rule of the Roman Empire. However, local leaders and institutions have the charge to maintain law and order, collect taxes, and generally supervise the population. The Jewish tetrarch Herod Antipas, a son of King Herod the Great, rules Galilee and Jewish Trans-Jordan. He seeks the favor of Emperor Tiberius, and establishes a city by the sea that he calls “Tiberius.” He creates friction with Jewish population because of a royal palace containing decorative animal figures – a violation of the Jewish prohibition against graven images.
The Galilee is overwhelmingly Jewish and rife with social unrest and religious ferment. Most people in the Galilee toil in small villages as farmers, shepherds, or fishermen. They dream of worshiping God and surviving on the land He gave to their ancestors, to them, generation after generation. But the ambitions of the Roman Empire, the territorial princes, and the ruling classes entail building wealth and power. Ordinary families create the wealth of the empire because everyone taxes them – from the Romans to the local authorities. The poor have nothing but debt. The people also resent Roman rule because the governor appoints the High Priests in the Jerusalem Temple – the very house of God – retains custody of the High Priest’s vestments, and supervises Temple activities. Heavy taxes and the harsh, aggressive conduct of governors such as Pontius Pilate contribute to frequent unrest and riots. Jewish groups with revolutionary ideologies form and take hold – regarding any non-Jewish (that is, non-religious) government as unacceptable. These groups insist that they will serve God alone as their master, and they will not be as slaves to a king of flesh and blood.
A Teacher Emerges
During the governance of Pilate, from 26 to 37 CE, a certain rabbi and storyteller emerges from Galilee. Only about thirty years of age and blessed with extraordinary charisma, he has a reputation as a healer and dispenser of wisdom. His sayings echo and reference the biblical prophets and the sages of Jewish oral tradition. He speaks of honor for the lowly in spirit, healing for the mourners and brokenhearted, and a humble life undisturbed by the designs of proud and ambitious men. He also admonishes hypocrisy: speaking righteous words but not living in full accordance with them.
Who is this country rabbi championing the downtrodden and calling for individual purification? In his own hometown of Nazareth, his neighbors bear him little regard, perhaps for having been born without a proper father. He had grown up as the oldest child in a family of five brothers and two sisters. Like his adopted father, he was a woodworker. At Sabbath services and other occasions he had learned the Torah, prophetic teachings, and predictions. Unable to read or write, he had also heard the narratives of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, whose deeds served as inspiration for contemporary notions of personal piety.
He had been a disciple of one John the Baptist, a Jewish evangelizer calling for repentance before the imminent day of God’s judgment. John preached forgiveness to those who repented and accepted his baptism. In the Jordan wilderness with John’s group of ascetics, the young man from Nazareth learned of a life whose only obedience was to God. He internalized an unshakable commitment to following and explaining the will of God. He chose to remain unmarried, even though fathering descendants was generally considered a religious obligation of male Jews. Sometime after the young man from Nazareth left the Baptist sect, John was executed by Herod Antipas as a messianic pretender and political radical. Roman oppression produced plenty of similar prophets, but John had gained attention as a threat because he made charges of corruption in Jerusalem’s priestly aristocracy, which implied charges against Roman authority.
Breaking with John the Baptist, the young man strikes out on his own, developing his own sense of the Kingdom of God as something realized at meals in which all were welcome. He also gains skill in relating to people’s psychological and psychosomatic ailments. His ability to cure these afflictions usually attributed to demonic possession gives rise to the idea that the rabbi is successfully waging a war against evil spirits. He speaks in Aramaic, his native tongue, and weaves his message with parables and tales. In his talks and sermons, he draws images from the small agricultural village of his youth: sowers in the field, shepherds, birds, lilies, and mustard plants.
As he expounds a uniquely personal message – forged out of the time, place, and circumstances of his birth and youth, as well as out of his refocusing of John the Baptist’s spiritual-political preaching – the rabbi nevertheless remains committed to reverence of the Torah and agreement of the Jerusalem Temple as the true House of God on Earth. The rabbi wishes not to discredit or subvert Judaism, but he articulates a vision of returning to the Judaism that God Himself had delivered to the people at Mount Sinai and taught to Moses. He reminds all that authority comes from God; he calls upon this authority to praise the poor, laud humility, preach total pacifism, and urge reliance on God alone rather than even family or tradition. All of these teachings allude to antecedents in biblical texts and the sayings of the Jewish sages. Distinctively, however, the rabbi also promises that those who join him in his vision of God can know a life beyond death, like angels.
The rabbi gains followers and notoriety. A small community emerges around him. Some of these consist of the downtrodden and the rejected, including tax collectors and prostitutes, who give faith in the prospect of sharing in God’s kingdom. They give faith that perhaps this rabbi is the messiah who will restore Jewish self-rule and liberate all Israel to lives that unify Torah teaching and Torah observance. In the rabbi’s teachings, the Kingdom of God entails an ultimate liberation from the evils of sickness and an institution of a new Jewish political and social order – with the rabbi and his disciples having jurisdiction over all. This kingdom, with its New Jerusalem and its restored ten lost tribes, will soon be at hand. The rabbi himself exudes the idea that God will soon keep His promise to redeem the world to its rightful order. The rabbi speaks out of the conviction that his mission is to interpret God’s law in God’s name. He addresses God as Abba, Father, a term of intimacy and affection; indeed, the strange suggestion seems to be that God and His children are practically one and the same.
During the Passover holiday, always a tense time for the Roman authorities and their allies in the social hierarchy, the country rabbi arrives to a Jerusalem already swollen with celebrants. Deliberately staging his actions to reference messianic passages in biblical literature and other sources, he proclaims to the Jewish people and their leaders the need for repentance. In the Jerusalem Temple, he overturns some of the tables of the moneychangers and traders. This action dramatizes his criticism of the existing order and his conviction in the coming of a new Temple. It also marks him as a political and social radical at a time when the authorities can little afford or tolerate a troublemaker. Later, some will say he had declared himself to be the king of the Jews. Others will say he had been falsely labeled such. Despite the truth, the presumptuous rabbi has the attention of the Temple High Priest.
Joseph Caiaphas, the Temple High Priest, owes his position to Rome and his willingness to work within Roman rule. The activities of the Galilean rabbi in the Temple cause concern on several fronts. Left unchecked, the rabbi and his followers could lead to bringing down Rome’s wrath against both the Temple and Palestine’s Jewish population. A rabbi with a following and a message of social and political change are also unwelcome at a festival celebrating liberation from bondage. Most of all, Caiaphas fears that the rabbi might do something else to disrupt the feat or provoke Roman intervention – which might then spell disaster for all Israel. The rabbi is arrested some time before the feast and interrogated before Caiaphas and possibly two other high priestly advisors. The rabbi speaks boldly enough to convince the men he is a threat, and they deliver him to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, on the charge of stirring up the people.
Pilate had been governor of Judea since his appointment in 26 CE. He had come from the Roman elite, and his family was well-connected. He had also shown himself to be dismissive of Jewish customs, as when he used monies from the Jerusalem Temple to fund the building of an aqueduct. For years, Pilate’s enthusiastic support of the cult of the Roman emperor has made for an uneasy relationship between the ruling class and their allies among the people. As governor and the empire’s representative in the province, Pilate exercises considerable power to enforce Roman interests and defend the hierarchical social order. He applies military, political, social, judicial, and economic control, often in exploitative and harsh ways, for the benefit of the elite. When a troublesome peasant rabbi from the country shows up before him, he and he alone has the authority to make a life and death decision. Pilate has no difficulty sentencing the rabbi to crucifixion, a typical imperial punishment designed to make an example of those in the lower classes who threaten the Roman social order: runaway slaves, those who attacked the property of the powerful rich, those who committed treason by claiming power and rule not authorized by Rome.
The rabbi had been supremely confident in his mission, in himself, and especially in God his Abba. Yet he had never aspired to be king of the Jews. When he is arrested and later sentenced by Pilate, he still believes wholeheartedly that at the right moment God will turn the wheels of justice and institute His Kingdom. The rabbi’s disciples have all fled Jerusalem. Later, they exalt his memory and wonder about the meaning of his death. Although the rabbi’s crucifixion and death seem to falsify his claims of the coming Kingdom of God, his followers vividly remember and believe in their teacher’s promise to be with them. They feel his charismatic presence in their hearts and believe that his spirit has survived. The community that had formed around him when he was alive now discusses his teachings. They talk about his survival in their hearts. Some of his followers purportedly drive out demons in his name. Some reportedly perform miracles similar to his. Others even claim to speak on his behalf, and assert the authority to deal with problems in their communities. The mission itself, the charisma of the rabbi who had articulated and embodied it, and the growing body of stories about him sustain the community as they hold out faith that the truth of their teacher’s words will soon be divinely revealed to all in Judea.