Step One in the Five-Step Development of the Christian Tradition: The Human Jesus

(This is the sixth in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

Through the application of the method described so far in this series, the story of Jesus takes on an intensely human character unfamiliar to most. Such unfamiliarity especially arises when the principle of analogy comes into play. As already indicated, that principle holds that: We must not ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what is assumed or proven to be impossible in the present. The application of this largely negative standard leads scholars to explain away the miraculous in the ancient world in general and in the Bible in particular. In the Christian Testament, the principle is applied to reported events from the virgin birth to the resurrection, with events like the feeding of the 5000 and raising of Lazarus in between.

But there’s also a positive side to the principle of analogy. This positive side is especially important for uncovering the often neglected political and economic dimensions of Jesus’ life.  In its positive formulation I would express the principle of analogy in the following words: We must ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what routinely happens to human beings in the present.  Put otherwise, at their most basic levels human beings are highly similar across time and place. This similarity includes the interaction between the rich and the poor, and between oppressors and the oppressed.

That is, apart from local collaborators, the colonized usually resent the presence of occupation forces in their country. Workers generally resent being underpaid and exploited. They are critical of the rich whose extravagant lifestyle peasants perceive as based on their underpayment. They find interesting and can easily relate to those who criticize the rich and foreign occupiers and to descriptions of a future where such oppression is absent. Meanwhile the rich and powerful find such criticism threatening and normally try to suppress it if it mobilizes the masses.

The application of the principle of analogy in this positive meaning allows (especially politically committed Third World) scholars to connect the alleged words and deeds of Jesus to circumstances of Roman imperialism and first century Palestinian poverty, and to draw conclusions about the historical Jesus that do not generally occur to those living outside circumstances of imperial oppression. Such conclusions based on the principle of analogy assume that Roman imperialism was the most significant element of life in first century Palestine. That imperialism must therefore be kept prominently in mind when analyzing texts within the Christian Testament.

It is at this point that something called the “hermeneutical privilege of the poor” comes to the fore. The adjective “hermeneutical” refers to interpretation – of texts or of life itself. “Hermeneutical privilege of the poor” means that people living in circumstances of poverty similar to those of Jesus and his friends – especially under the violent realities of imperialism or neo-imperialism – often have a better understanding of texts about those circumstances than do those living more comfortably. Today’s uneducated poor might even have a better understanding than contemporary intellectuals and scholars.

To be more concrete . . . . We know that Palestine was a province occupied by the Romans. The rich Sadducees, the temple’s establishment of priests, lawyers, and scribes, as well as the court of Herod in Galilee were collaborators with the Romans. Jesus came from the Galilee, a section of Palestine that was a hotbed of resistance to Rome and of resentment against Jews collaborating with the occupiers. Jesus was born around the year (4 BCE) when the Romans finally destroyed Sepphoris, the capital of the Galilee. Sepphoris was located just 3.7 miles from his home in Nazareth – less than an hour’s walk. In that year of uprising, rebellion, and slaughter, Jesus’ parents gave him a revolutionary name – Yesua (=Joshua) the general who conquered the land of Canaan now occupied by Rome. Jesus’ brothers also bore significant names in terms of Jewish nationalism and ownership claims to Palestine. James was named after Jacob, the last of Israel’s three great patriarchs. Joses bore the name of Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son.  Simon (= Simeon) and Jude (= Judah) both were named after fathers of one of Israel’s 12 tribes.

On top of that, Jesus’ Mother, Miryam, is remembered by the evangelist Luke as a woman of revolutionary conviction. In her “Magnificat” poem (1:46-55), she praises the God of Israel as one who “has scattered the proud . . . brought down the powerful from their thrones . . . lifted up the lowly . . . filled the hungry with good things . . . and sent the rich away empty.”

In the light of such circumstances, and given Jesus’ evident commitment to the poor, it becomes highly likely that Jesus not merely shared the anti-Roman and anti-Jewish establishment sentiments of his family and neighbors. It also becomes likely that Jesus’ family was involved in the Jewish resistance at the very time of Jesus’ birth. After all, circumstances like the siege of a nearby town by foreign occupiers generally find everyone local somehow involved. (In fact, occupiers routinely assume such involvement and retaliate accordingly, both then and now.)

And there’s more.  The fact that nearby Sepphoris was under siege in 4 BCE carries implications about Jesus own conception.  It means that the surrounding territory including Nazareth must have been crawling with Roman soldiers at that time. Under such circumstances, the principle of analogy tells us that many Jewish girls would have been raped by those soldiers. After all, rape is a standard strategy for occupiers in all wars from first-century Sepphoris to twenty-first century Kabul. This realization makes more interesting the tradition that surfaced in the 2nd century with the pagan author Celsus. He alleged that Jesus’ “virginal” conception was the result of Miryam being raped by a Roman soldier called Panthera. (By the way, according to scripture scholar Ignacio Lopez-Vigil, the term “virgin” was snidely applied in first century Palestine to unwed mothers and victims of rape.)

(Step one will be continued next Monday)

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

4 thoughts on “Step One in the Five-Step Development of the Christian Tradition: The Human Jesus”

    1. Thanks, Jim. I’m currently reading a three volume work on the historical Jesus by John P. Meier. His scholarship, documentation and explanations are entirely amazing — three volumes, the middle one 1118 pages long! However, it is equally amazing that he dismisses so easily the theology of liberation. His lengthy list of sources include none by Third World scholars. And his book has an imprimatur — in 1991 when the Vatican and CIA war against liberation theology was at its height. For me the imprimatur in that context almost disqualifies the book from consideration. However Meier’s credentials are impeccable. I’ll be writing something on that soon.

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  1. Mike- This is all so interesting. Do you have the entire series available in booklet form? I am missing some of them. thanks! On Nov 4, 2012, at 8:11 PM, Mike Rivage-Seul’s Blog: . . .about things th

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    1. Sorry for not responding sooner. Somehow this note just got to me. For the missing parts of the series, got to “The Historical Jesus” under the masthead of my blog site. I’ve checked; they’re all there. Thanks for your interest in the series.

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