Christianity is the Enemy of Humankind (Reflections on the Historical Jesus)

To the least

Last night I concluded a Lenten series of classes on the historical Jesus. As always, the course had its ups and downs. But it was faithfully attended by about 25 soul mates who, like me, remain fascinated by and somehow in love with Jesus of Nazareth.

At last evening’s final meeting, one of the participants – a fierce unflinching seeker of truth, asked the question in the back of everyone’s mind. “So what?” she asked. “If, as we have learned here, Jesus has been distorted beyond recognition by the early church (and especially by Paul and Constantine) why should we believe any of it?”

What a good question! It has forced me to pull together (for myself!) what I have learned from this latest round of studies of the historical Jesus. Let me express them in as clear an unvarnished a way as possible both positively and critically.

First of all, my positive learnings . . . . The study forced me to face the fact that the historical Jesus, un-obscured by later developments is the touchstone for authentic Christian faith. That is, the Jesus of history (vs. the Jesus of later doctrines) trumps all other conceptualizations in terms of being normative for Christian faith. The teachings of the historical Jesus were extremely simple: God is love. God is bread. Salvation consists in sharing food – bread and wine. A world with room for everyone (the Kingdom of God) is entirely possible. Empire is the anti-thesis of love and sharing. It uses religion to enslave. It finds Jesus message of liberation abhorrent. Empire is the enemy.

Second of all, my critical learnings . . . . If anything the Christian Testament makes it extremely difficult to locate the normative historical Jesus. In fact, the canonical gospels often contradict the basic revelations of Jesus. When this happens, those contradictions have to be faced, learned from, and set aside as merely illustrative of the way history and religion are routinely distorted by the rich and powerful. It is evidence of what people either used to believe before Jesus’ revelation, or what they came to believe when the faith of Jesus subsequently interacted with and was domesticated by other cultures and times.

More particularly, examination of the gospels makes it abundantly clear that following the destruction of Jerusalem in the Jewish-Roman War (66-73), the Jesus of history increasingly receded from Christian perception. In his place a Jesus of faith came to prominence. The two are at odds with each other. The Jesus of history strove to liberate the poor. The Jesus of faith became the servant of empire and the rich who run it.

The Jesus of history was a mystic, prophet, teacher, healer, and movement founder. He was intent on reforming Judaism whose leaders had sold Judaism’s soul to the Roman Empire transforming it into a religion of laws, rituals and obedience to the powerful. This Jesus called himself the “Son of Man,” not the “Son of God.” He was perceived by the poor as a “messiah” who would deliver his people from Roman domination. He proclaimed a new social order which he referred to as the “Kingdom of God.” There Rome’s domination model of social organization would be replaced by a sharing model. In God’s kingdom everything would be reversed: the rich would be poor; the poor would be rich; the first would be last; the last would be first; prostitutes and “the unclean” would enter the new order before priests, the rich and the famous.

And although he shied away from accepting the conventional messianic identity associated with “The War” (against the Romans), Jesus’ program of “Good News for the poor” along with his healings and exorcisms confirmed that identification in the eyes of the marginalized and oppressed. It did the same for the Romans and their collaborators to such an extent that they ended up executing him as an insurgent.

The memory of this Jesus of history was preserved and celebrated by the Jerusalem community called “The Way” before its eradication in the horrendous Roman-Jewish War of 66 to 73CE. In obedience to Jesus, they adopted a communal life where food, drink, and material possessions were shared and held in common. Following Jesus’ death, some were even hoping for his “second coming” in their own lifetimes to complete the task of empire-destruction his execution had prevented him from fulfilling.

This prophetic Jesus was replaced by the Jesus of faith who emerged in the post-war world after the Jerusalem church and its leadership had been slaughtered by Rome. At this point, “The Way” (Jesus’ version of reformed Judaism) was replaced by “Christianity.” This religious movement was non-Jewish. It derived from the teaching of Paul of Tarsus (in Turkey) who never met the historical Jesus, and who thought of him in terms of God’s unique and only Son. Paul was a thoroughly Romanized Jewish rabbi intent on acquainting non-Jews with the Jesus he experienced in the visionary psychic experience recorded as his conversion on the Damascus Road.

By ignoring the Jesus of history, Paul’s experience and subsequent preaching laid the foundation for an understanding that centralized a Jesus understood as God’s only Son – a divine being who would have been (and was!) completely unacceptable to the fiercely monotheistic Jews. At the same time, this domesticated Jesus was not threatening to Rome. In fact, he was completely familiar to Romans resembling the “dying and rising gods” of Roman-Greco culture who offered “eternal life” beyond the grave rather than an anti-imperial Kingdom of God in the here and now. In other words, the Jesus of history was co-opted beyond recognition by the Roman Empire.

So what’s the take-away from the study of the historical Jesus? I think the following extremely important lessons:

1. History is unreliable. It has been distorted and manipulated by the powerful to suit their own needs. (If taken seriously, this in itself is an invaluable lesson.)

2. Hard work is required to find historical truth – not just about Jesus but about what happened yesterday!

3. Empire is the enemy. It is a system of robbery whereby the rich and powerful steal resources from the poor they oppress. It is entirely contrary to the will of God (the Principle of Life). It represents a “preferential option” for the rich and powerful. It is absolutely ruthless in its eternal war against the world’s poor and in falsifying history for its own benefit.

4. Those who resist empire can expect to be tortured and assassinated. Nonetheless, from time to time courageous and insightful prophets arise from the non-rich and non-powerful with Good News for the poor. Their very simple message: fullness of life is to be found not in empire, but among the poor and simple of the world (God’s people). Salvation, these prophets teach, consists in sharing the simple realities of bread and wine. In effect: God is Bread.

5. Among the west’s best known prophets of Jesus’ God are Moses, Jesus himself, Gandhi, Bartolommeo de las Casas, Karl Marx, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, and the nameless martyrs (so many of them women!) inspired over the last fifty years by liberation theology.

6. Most people are in denial about these simple facts. They are powerfully assisted in their denial by politicians, scholars, priests, and the media who make the teachings of the prophets extremely complicated. They have transformed the prophets’ message about sharing bread and fullness of life in the here and now into “religion” and a promise of life after death. As such, religion is the enemy of humankind. Christianity is the enemy!

7. Those who accept these learnings should leave institutionalized “religion,” band together, internalize the teachings of the historical Jesus and change the world!

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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.

7 thoughts on “Christianity is the Enemy of Humankind (Reflections on the Historical Jesus)”

  1. It seems to me these “special” folks are moved by the situations they face to make decisions resulting in their ultimate sacrifice . Gandhi started out as a lawyer and family man, Dorothy Day was anything but the innocent female yet became an example to women in how to make a difference in the world.
    As I am sure you realize, I fully concur with you conclusions. My hope is you will find the hunger to move forward with item 7.
    Thank you for being brave enough to say what so many of us are already thinking.
    Peace, mary

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    1. Mary, always good to hear from you. I can’t tell you how grateful I was for your attendance at our Lenten Program, and especially for the invaluable contributions you made to our discussions. The question you asked that final evening was so important. Gracias!

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  2. Greetings Mike! You appear to miss the fact–that that the historical -Jesus(Joshua)can be extracted from serious study of the hebrew and greek scriptures! The Messiah himself said “This is everlasting life their knowing you(Jehovah) the only true God and Joshua Messiah whom thou hast sent” Hope the above attachments helps you to find the historical Joshua as revealed by holy writ! Regards………..Thomas Original Message —– From: Mike Rivage-Seul’s Blog: . . .about things that matter To: thomasrad42@optusnet.com.au Sent: Thursday, March 28, 2013 11:06 PM Subject: [New post] Christianity is the Enemy of Humankind (Reflections on the Historical Jesus)

    Mike Rivage-Seul’s Blog posted: ” Last night I concluded a Lenten series of classes on the historical Jesus. As always, the course had its ups and downs. But it was faithfully attended by about 25 soul mates who, like me, remain fascinated by and somehow in love with Jesus of Nazaret”

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Thomas. I agree with you that knowledge of Yeshua can indeed be extracted from serious study of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. That study shows that the term “Messiah” centralized in the quote you’ve shared had nothing to do with the elevation of Yeshua to “only son of God” status. Such an understanding would have been impossible for the Jews of Jesus’ day (or any day for that matter) to accept as anything but blasphemy. “Messiah” for Jesus’ contemporaries was inextricably connected with resistance to the Roman Empire. Don’t you agree?

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  3. Dear Mike,

    I’m going to disagree a lot with this one, starting with your final take-away lesson.

    You wrote: “They have transformed the prophets’ message about sharing bread and fullness of life in the here and now into “religion” and a promise of life after death. “7. Those who accept these learnings should leave institutionalized “religion,” band together, internalize the teachings of the historical Jesus and change the world!”
    I BELIEVE YOU are throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. To me we don’t just need a world we all are fed, etc. We also need a world with a transcendent personal God! To me both/and is so much richer and more coherent than either/or. Would you say that you are more socialist than Christian? More an evolutionist than a Theist? I’ve looked hard at both socialism and evolutionism and find both very lacking!

    You wrote: “the canonical gospels often contradict the basic revelations of Jesus.”
    I DON’T FIND this. I do find that the distorted interpretations of Scripture in Church teachings since the Constantian Shift often contradict the basic revelations of Jesus. One does have to look hard to detect the trickery!

    You wrote: “examination of the gospels makes it abundantly clear that following the destruction of Jerusalem in the Jewish-Roman War (66-73), the Jesus of history increasingly receded from Christian perception. In his place a Jesus of faith came to prominence. The two are at odds with each other. The Jesus of history strove to liberate the poor. The Jesus of faith became the servant of empire and the rich who run it.”
    MY UNDERSTANDING IS that the Jesus of History receded from Christian perception to be largely replaced IN CHURCH TEACHING (NOT in the New Testament in the original languages) with a Jesus as a servant of empire NOT just after the Jewish-Roman War but only when the Constantinian Shift occurred in the fourth century.

    You wrote: “Following Jesus’ death, some were even hoping for his “second coming” in their own lifetimes to complete the task of empire-destruction his execution had prevented him from fulfilling.
    “This prophetic Jesus was replaced by the Jesus of faith who emerged in the post-war world after the Jerusalem church and its leadership had been slaughtered by Rome.”
    I BELIEVE THAT Jesus “returned” symbolically in the Roman-Judean war in a “Day of the Lord.” The Old Testament makes references to other “Days of the Lord” and indicate that a “Day of the Lord” is a reference to God bringing judgement on a Nation (not vengeance for God’s benefit, but discipline – albeit severe – for humanity’s benefit). The whole NT I believe was written before AD 66 (not withstanding the over-confident claims of modern Biblical scholarship). The warnings contained therein ( http://www.tentmaker.org/books/BibleThreateningsExplained.html ) relate to the coming decimation of the Jewish nation and dispersal of the Jewish survivors and the necessity of Christians to not side with the Judaist but to flee when they saw the signs. I understand, although not I admit from original sources, that history records that the Christians fled to neighbouring Pelegra and were preserved. And that therefore there was no change of the leadership as you suggest. http://www.tentmaker.org/books/Fulfilled_Prophecy/AppendixA.html

    You wrote: “At the same time, this domesticated Jesus (Paul’s version – JW) was not threatening to Rome.”
    I UNDERSTAND THAT Rome continued it’s persecution of Christians (on and off) until Constantine came to power about two and a half centuries later. The orthodox Jews were fanatical about trying to kill Paul (Acts 21:31, 23:12) because the values and faith he espoused were the same as Jesus’ (though his teachings filled in various discontinuities between Old and New Covenants) and implicitly deconstructed not just empire but nation. Paul wrote “repay no-one evil for evil” and claimed the Gospel brought down the dividing wall between (all classes of people).

    PEACE!

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    1. Dear John: I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your close reading of the stuff I write. I’m honored. And your critique is very welcome and causes me to reevaluate my own thinking. Briefly, however, here are some thoughts:
      1. Yes (as you say) we ALSO need a world with a transcendent and personal God. But your “also” is important. A world where people are fed, healed, educated and housed comes first — at least for most.
      2. No, I wouldn’t say I’m more socialist than Christian. However, I would say that Christianity is more compatible with socialism than with capitalism.
      3. With you, I believe that the shifts away from the teachings of Jesus did take a giant step in the 4th century. But evidence of toning down the radicalism of Jesus words and deeds seems to be there in the N.T. texts. For instance Mark’s “You are my beloved son” becomes “This is my beloved son.” His “Blessed are you poor” becomes “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” etc.
      4. Don’t you find Mark’s Jesus quite different from the Jesus of Matthew and Luke — and especially of John?
      5. It’s not at all clear to me how John and Revelation could be written before 66 C.E. — Mike

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      1. Dear Mike,

        You wrote: I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your close reading of the stuff I write.

        IT’S MY PLEASURE and privilege since you are one so few that I know of blogging seriously on and around the main stumbling blocks for the West – namely violence and injustice by the West.

        You wrote: A world where people are fed, healed, educated and housed comes first — at least for most.

        Hmm. SO YOU DON’T believe Jesus’ words, “blessed are the poor”? I see that so many people live spiritually and relationally richer lives in the Majority World, while in the West we are often aimless or driven, neurotic or violent.. I believe this earthly life is part discipline of the human race (for us to learn faith, for our own benefit, to enable us to enter into mutual relationship with God) – It is a difficult time preceding later bliss in the hereafter, ended by the release and relief of death. Those who die young are truly blessed! For me death is only difficult for the bereaved – yet it’s can be so mellowing and instructive for us if we let it be! For me, the greatest poverty in the world is the spiritual poverty in the West. For me, the spiritual side must be more important. It is spiritual enlightenment in the West – knowing the Transcendent and Personal God in truth – that is what will bring relief to the very pitiful plight of the poor in both East and West.

        You wrote: 4. Don’t you find Mark’s Jesus quite different from the Jesus of Matthew and Luke — and especially of John?

        YES, BUT DIFFERENT people see and emphasise different things in relating their experience of any person. To impute a profound significance to difference per se seems to me like tithing the mint and cumin, academically speaking. Yes, let’s look at the higher criticism and learn from it. But to repeatedly trust the best guesses of modern scholarship over a simple receiving of the tradition seems to belie a basic acceptance of the thesis against a personal God who has revealed Himself to us. I’m more interested in the origins and meaning of this basic thesis than the conjectures of modern scholarship.
        I can’t prove my theological position regarding Scripture any more than liberal scholarship can prove theirs. Either is credible if one accepts their starting assumptions. Same with the Evolution vs Creationist positions, IMO. How shall we decide starting assumptions?: Two tests come to mind: Which leads to less convoluted explanations (Ockam’s Razor principle)? Which produces the most life-giving fruit?

        Nice conversing with you Mike.

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