Portrait of the Historical Jesus

(This is the seventh 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.)

Keeping in mind previous installments of this series (and especially the “principle of analogy” in its positive and negative meanings), the historical Jesus who emerges from contemporary Jesus scholarship looks something like the following.

He was a Galilean peasant from an extremely poor background.  He was born in Nazareth of Galilee, a community perhaps as small as two dozen families. He was the son of Mary and Joseph conceived and born in the same way all humans are.

Nothing is known of Jesus’ life before something like the age of 30, except for a few legends often associated in the ancient world with “Great Men.” The first “historical” event in the gospels is Jesus baptism by John the Baptist. There according to legend, Jesus received a “divine revelation” regarding his vocation to continue the movement started by John the Baptist and cut short by John’s execution at the hands of Galilean King Herod. In that sense Jesus became a movement founder in the tradition of John and the prophets. However his movement was not to found a new religion but to reform Judaism.

Jesus was himself a prophet, in Israel’s long tradition of holy men and women defending the widows, orphans, and immigrants. Jesus also became a great faith healer, an extraordinary teacher, and a mystic. Jesus’ mysticism endowed him with a high degree of God-consciousness that told him of his capacity to appropriate the divine nature that is essence of being human. His roles as prophet and movement founder are what got Jesus into trouble with Rome.

Jesus’ prophetic message was not about himself, but about the Kingdom of God whose dawning he (and his immediate followers) mistakenly thought would occur in their own generation. As understood by Jesus, the Kingdom of God referred to what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. In God’s social organization, everything would be turned upside-down. The first would be last; the last would be first. The poor would laugh, and the rich would weep.  As such the kingdom was good news for the poor (“anawim” in the Jewish Testament). That news said that God was on their side.  It was in no way about the rich who are “poor in spirit.” In fact, the only way for the rich to enter the kingdom was for them to adopt the perspective of the poor, support them in their struggle against oppression, and to share their own wealth with the indigent.

In their efforts on behalf of God’s order, Jesus and his movement were involved with resistance to the Roman occupation of Palestine.  Nazareth’s geographical location and revolutionary context would also have brought Jesus into contact with Zealots. These were guerrilla rebels, assassins of Roman soldiers, and kidnappers whose campaign against the Roman occupiers championed a plan of agrarian reform and cancellation of debts based on the Mosaic Jubilee Year and Year of Grace. Jesus’ own program was certainly in agreement with the Zealots on many of these issues, especially his proclamation of a Year of Grace with its debt forgiveness, liberation of slaves, and return of properties to their original owners. This agreement would have attracted Zealot sympathizers to his movement. For instance, Simon “the Zealot” certainly belonged to the resistance movement (Lk. 6:15). Judas was also probably a Zealot. Additionally, Peter’s nickname “Bar Jona,” and the aliases of James and John (“Boanerges”) are seen by some as code names associated with the guerrilla movement.

Many women were prominent in the Jesus movement. Among them the foremost was Mary Magdalene, often defamed by jealous opponents (even among Jesus’ apostles) as a prostitute.  In reality, she was extremely close to Jesus, and may even have been his wife.

Jesus was not born to die according to some divine plan. Rather, he was killed by the Romans because of the revolutionary implications of his basic proclamation that the Kingdom of God was near or that “another world is possible.” Such revolutionary implications became especially clear to the Roman authorities after Jesus took part in a massive protest demonstration in the Jerusalem Temple against Jewish money changers, merchants and others seen as exploiters of their own people and/or as collaborators with the Roman occupiers. This “direct action” led to the Romans offering a reward for information leading to Jesus’ arrest. Soon Judas accepted that offer, and Jesus was captured in his garden hideout.  The Romans executed him with two other insurgents by means of crucifixion, a form of torture and death reserved for revolutionaries.

The resurrection experience of the early Christian community was also rooted in insurrection.  That is, the idea of immortality drew on the Book of Maccabees.  In the aftermath of the Maccabees’ rebellion against the Greek occupiers of Palestine, the mother of the Maccabees insisted that her sons could not die – that they were immortal. Similarly, the idea of Jesus’ resurrection began with women, not with Paul or Peter.  The women followers of Jesus refused to reconcile themselves to the death of Jesus. They were the first to recognize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst,” and “Whatever you do to the least of the brethren, you do to me.”  Jesus, the women saw, had risen in the community of believers.

Though Jesus’ message was about the imminent arrival of a new social order in which God would be king instead of Caesar, his identity was changed by John and Paul in the Christian Testament. The titles emphasized there (“Lord,” “Christ,” “Son of God,” “Heavenly King”) raised the human Jesus to divine levels none of his followers perceived before the Easter event.

However the greatest transformation in the crucial passage “from Jesus to Christ” came in the 4th century, when the emperor, Constantine, attempted to harmonize Christianity with Roman religion, specifically with the cult of Mithra, the Sun God. In fact, there is much truth to the position that Constantine was the actual founder of the Church. He was the one who called the Council of Nicaea in 325. And Nicaea was responsible for canonizing an understanding of Jesus that was more Mithric than Christian.

That is the “Nicene Creed” ratified in 325 focused on Jesus’ life before his birth, and his life after death. The “middle” the part about his identification with and good news to the poor was left out. It was the Creed’s middle and the historical Jesus that were rescued by the movement called liberation theology.

Next week: Step Two in the Development of the Early Christian Tradition — The Resurrection

“Widow’s Mite” or “Don’t Put That Money in the Collection Plate!”

Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: IKgs. 17: 10-16; Ps. 146:7-10; Heb. 9: 24-28; Mk. 12: 38-44 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/111112.cfm

In the election season just passed, some politicians were pushing for a “flat tax.” They called attention to the “unfairness” of a tax system which has rich people paying more than everyone else. The asked, why not tax everyone the same?  That would be fair. Today’s gospel reading says something about that idea of fairness.

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About a month ago, the great theologian and spiritual teacher, Matthew Fox, passed through our town in Berea, Kentucky. Matt is an ex-Dominican priest who was forced by Pope Benedict XVI to leave the Dominicans and to cease publishing. Fox’s crime, like that of more than a hundred theologians in the past twenty years, was being too energetic in teasing out the implications of the Second Vatican Council for the world we actually live in. According to Matthew Fox, the anti-Vatican II stance of present church leadership places the present pope (and the one who preceded him) in schism. It’s the duty of Catholics, Fox says, to withhold financial support from the church until popes and bishops once again embrace the official teaching of the church, which remains the doctrine of Vatican II. Today’s gospel reading also says something about that.

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The gospel reading just referred to is the familiar story of “The Widow’s Mite.” Jesus and his friends are visiting Jerusalem for the Passover Feast during the final week of his life. They are in the Temple. On the previous day, they had all taken part in (and perhaps led) a demonstration there against the temple priesthood and its thievery from the poor. I’m talking about Jesus’ famous “cleansing of the temple.” Soon the temple priesthood and scribal establishment will offer a reward of thirty pieces of silver for information leading to Jesus’ arrest. Judas will soon find himself seriously considering collecting that reward.

In the meantime, Jesus continues instructing his disciples on the corruption of the Temple System. In the episode before us, he takes a position, Mark says, “opposite” the temple treasury. The treasury was the place where Jews paid the tithe required by the law as interpreted by the priesthood Jesus despises. It was a “flat tax” applying the same to rich and poor.

Ever class-conscious, Mark points out that “many rich people” somehow made it clear to all that they were putting in large sums. Then a poor widow came along and furtively put in a penny. Jesus calls attention to the contrast: “large sums” vs. “two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.”

“It’s all relative,” Jesus says.  “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Jesus then leaves the temple in disgust.

There are two ways for homilists to explain this incident in the context of today’s Liturgy of the Word. Remember, it began with a reading from I Kings and its story of the great prophet Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.

Elijah was hungry. He encountered a single mom gathering sticks to make a fire to eat her last meal with her son. They were starving, and she had only a handful of flour and a few drops of oil to make some bread before she and her son would die of hunger. The prophet asks that instead she make him some food. Obediently, she does so. And strange to say, after feeding Elijah, the widow discovers that her flour and oil never run out. She somehow has an endless supply. She and her son are saved.

Then in today’s second reading, Jesus is contrasted with the temple priesthood. The temple priests, the author of Hebrews says, were required to repeatedly offer sacrifices in the Temple year after year. In contrast, Jesus entered the heavenly “Holy of Holies” but once, offering there not the blood of bulls and lambs, but his own blood. Jesus is the true high priest.

The standard way of treating these readings would run like this: (1) The widow of Zarephath gave the Holy Man all she had to live on and was materially rewarded as a result; (2) the widow in the Temple donated to the temple priests “all she had to live on” and was rewarded with Jesus’ praise; (3) follow the examples of the widow feeding Elijah and the widow giving her “mite;” (4) donate generously to your priest (a successor of the Great High Priest in Hebrews) and you will be richly rewarded either here, in heaven, or in both places.

That’s a standard treatment we have all heard. However, it has severe problems. To begin with, it ignores the liturgical response to the Elijah story taken from Psalm 146. That excerpt from Psalms sets a back-drop for the entire Liturgy of the Word and provides a key for interpreting not only today’s readings, but the entire Bible. The psalm reminds us that the poor are God’s Chosen People. God’s concern for the poor is not with their generosity towards God but with God’s securing justice for them. As the psalm says, God gives food to the hungry, sets captives free, gives sight to the blind, protects immigrants, and sustains the children of single moms. God loves those concerned with justice for the poor, the Psalm says. God loves prophets like Elijah and Jesus. On the other hand, God thwarts the ways of the wicked – those who, like the scribes and high priests, exploit God’s favored poor.

All of that represents a “red thread” running through the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. It offers us a key for interpreting the story of Elijah as well. It changes the emphasis of the story from the widow’s generosity, to God’s provision of food for the hungry and God’s concern for the children of single mothers.

With that key in mind, we are alerted to circumstances in today’s gospel story that summon us to interpret it differently from the standard treatment.

We are reminded that the episode takes place in an elaborate context of Jesus’ assault on the temple system. In effect, the context is Jesus’ symbolic destruction of the temple itself. Yes, there was that “cleansing” I referenced. But there was also Jesus’ prediction of the deconstruction of the building itself. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (13:1-2). Then there was that strange incident of Jesus cursing a fruitless fig tree as he was entering the temple precincts (11:12-14; 20-24).  The fig tree was the symbol of Israel. Here again Jesus pronounces a judgment on an entire system that had become corrupt and forgetful of the poor who are so central to God’s concern.

That judgment is extended in Jesus’ teaching immediately before the episode of the widow’s mite.  Again, Jesus takes a position “opposed” to the temple treasury and says, “Beware of the scribes . . . They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” As scripture scholar, Ched Myers points out, Jesus was probably referring to the practice of turning over to scribes the estates of deceased husbands. The surviving wives were considered incapable of administering a man’s affairs. For his troubles, the scribe-trustee was given a percentage of the estate. Understandably fraud and embezzlement were common. In this way, religion masked thievery from society’s most vulnerable.

With Jesus’ accusation ringing in their ears, a case-in-point, a poor widow, arrives on the scene. She pays her tithe – the flat tax – and leaves penniless. Jesus can take no more. He leaves the temple in disgust.

According to this second interpretation, Jesus is not praising the generosity of the widow. Instead, he is condemning the scribes, the priests, the temple and their system of flat taxation. Jesus’ words about the widow represent the culminating point in his unrelenting campaign against hypocrisy and exploitation of the poor by the religious and political leadership of his day.

We would do well to keep today’s gospel in mind when evaluating “Christian” politicians calling for a “flat tax” in the name of the “fairness” of taxing everyone at the same rate.

We would do well to keep today’s gospel in mind – and the example and words of Matthew Fox –  when the collection plate passes in front of us on Sunday or when our pre-Vatican II priest urges us to follow the example he finds in the story of the widow’s mite.

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)

The Highest Mystical Truth: We and Our Neighbors Are Identical with God

Readings for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time: Dt. 6:2-5; Ps. 18:2-4, 47, 57; Heb. 7: 23-28; Mk. 12: 28b-34 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/110412.cfm

The focus of today’s liturgy of the word is the Hebrew prayer called the Shema. The prayer was the centerpiece of both morning and evening prayer services for the Jewish community throughout its history. It was taught to children as their bedtime prayer. The dying were encouraged to make it their final words as they shed their bodies to leave this world. In the King James Version the Shema’s beginning exhortation reads:

“The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.”  

Today’s first reading details the origin of the Shema. The legend goes that Moses himself taught the prayer to the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai. It was a thanksgiving prayer for their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Of course, the Exodus was the first experience the ancient Hebrews had of the God they came to know as “Yahweh.” Their response to Yahweh’s signature blessing was to be complete love and commitment.

In today’s reading from Mark’s gospel, Jesus quotes the Shema in response to the scribe’s question about the greatest of the commandments. What is the greatest commandment the scribe asks? Jesus’ answer:

“The first is, ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

 While many of us might be unfamiliar with the term “Shema,” its concept is certainly familiar enough for us. It’s what many of us learned from our catechism or Sunday school lessons.  The first commandment is to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and with all our strength. The second commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves.

What’s especially noteworthy in Jesus’ response is his linking of love of God with love of neighbor and love of self. That is, the Shema itself identifies love of God as the greatest of the commandments. It stops there. Jesus’ contribution was to connect love of God with love of neighbor and self, which was not part of the prayer Moses taught in this morning’s Deuteronomy reading.

True enough, Moses had given the command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” in Leviticus 19:18. But that was not part of the Shema. By connecting the two, Jesus was following the rabbinical practice of “equal category.” That practice had rabbis linking identical phrases from Sacred Scripture and according them moral equivalency.

Here the phrase in question is “You shall love.” It appears both in the Shema and in the Leviticus reference I’ve just made. The bottom line here is that Jesus is placing love of God and love of neighbor on equivalent levels.  For Jesus, love of God and love of neighbor are morally the same. That’s a radical teaching.

But so is the inclusion of “self” in the equation. In fact, the inclusion of “self” is the key to uncovering the meaning of Jesus’ new teaching.  In his response to the scribe, Jesus equates God, neighbor and self. God deserves all our love. Our neighbor is somehow equivalent to God. But so is our very own self.

In this teaching, Jesus reveals his identity as the great Hebrew mystic he was. Mystics, you’ll remember, are those spiritual teachers and practitioners who recognize the presence of God in themselves, in others and in all of creation. In fact, mystics teach that God is our real Self, and what we identify with our names, birthdays, gender, nationalities, and the work that we do are only our “apparent selves” – the way the Great Self has chosen to manifest itself in the world. Our apparent self will die one day and be entirely forgotten in a generation or two. The Great Self will never die; the Great Self is God.

All of this means that God, we and our neighbors are one. In loving God (the Great Self) we love our Self and the Self of our neighbor all at the same time. In hurting our neighbor we not only offend God, but we deeply hurt ourselves. When we kill our neighbor in war or in capital punishment, we are actually committing a form of suicide. This is the highest mystical truth there is. Indeed, the mystics teach, there is nothing else to know in life.

But there’s more. Mark does not want us to miss the point about what the mystic Jesus considered most important in life.  So he has the dialog between Jesus and the scribe continue. After Jesus references the Shema, the scribe says, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself.’ – this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” That is, the scribe specifically places love of God and neighbor far ahead of formal worship.

And Jesus agrees with him. Mark says Jesus admired the wisdom of the scribe’s answer. He says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

So what we’re doing here in church is of only secondary importance. So is what we believe about God — doctrines and articles of faith. Those are means to an end. The end, today’s readings remind us is love of God, neighbor and self. All three are one.

Please think about that. (Discussion follows)

Mini-Class on the Historical Jesus: Early Development of the Christian Tradition

(This is the fifth in a series of Monday postings 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.)

The modern scripture scholarship we’re exploring here has discovered that there were five stages in the unfolding of the tradition we encounter in the Christian Testament. Understanding these stages is important for grasping the difference between the Jesus of history this series is attempting to explain and the Jesus of faith who has come to dominate our understandings of the prophet from Nazareth.

The five stages I’m referring to include (1) the actual life of Jesus, (2) his disciples post-crucifixion “resurrection experience,” (3) the first proclamation of the disciples’ post-resurrection faith (called “kerygma,” a Greek word for proclamation), (4) a long period of oral tradition, and (5) the production of written reflections on the believing community’s experience of Jesus including his response to problems he did not himself encounter during his life. At each of these stages the Jesus of history recedes further from the Jesus of faith.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll devote a column a week to briefly exploring each one of the stages just referenced. This week I’ll  begin with some observations about what we’re able to say about the life of Jesus by applying the criteria for discernment I tried to explain last week. You’ll recall that those criteria were:  (1) Multiple attestation from independent sources, (2)  Dissimilarity from the apparent immediate interests of biblical authors , (3) Semitisms, (4)Content reflecting the circumstances of the early church rather than of Jesus, (5)Vividness of descriptionand (5) Coherence with acts or statements otherwise identified as authentically attributable to Jesus. Additionally, relevant scholarly insights are derived from the modern disciplines of linguistics, archeology, textual criticism, comparative religion, history, psychology, economics, physics, biology, medicine, etc.

Application of these criteria uncovers a Jesus who is:

(1) A teacher of unconventional wisdom: Jesus’ teachings largely deviated from those of the rabbis of his time. In contrast to them, we would say he was extremely liberal in his interpretation of the Jewish tradition and especially of its laws. Law was not a priority for Jesus. In fact we might say he understood himself as fulfilling the Law by breaking laws and teaching others to do so. His priority was a Higher Law which put positive response to human need ahead of legal requirements. Jesus method of teaching such values was parable and story.

(2) A faith healer. Jesus was more than a miracle worker. As scholars point out, miracle workers in the first century of the Common Era were “a dime a dozen.” All “great men” – including emperors and kings – were expected to work miracles and were remembered as doing so. It would have been remarkable had Jesus not been identified as a miracle worker. Instead, Jesus was a faith healer of extraordinary power. His presence and words were able to evoke the healing powers present within all human beings.

(3) A prophetic critic. Jesus was not a priest or a king. He was a prophet. Prophets were social critics. So Jesus addressed the problems of his day including Roman imperialism and the collaboration with that system of exploitation on the part of the religious “leadership” of his day – its priests and kings.

(4) A Jewish mystic. Mystics are spiritual practitioners and teachers who believe that: (a) a spark of the divine resides within each human being; (b) humans can know that divinity and live from that place within them; (c) it is the purpose of life to do so, and (d) once that purpose is realized, the enlightened human perceives the spark of the divine in all of creation and lives accordingly.

(5) A movement founder. Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew. His purpose was to reform Judaism. His specific interest was to proclaim a Jubilee Year which included debt forgiveness and land reform on behalf of the poor.  Following his death, Jesus’ Jewish reform movement evolved into a “church” overwhelmingly composed on non-Jews.

Next Week: Step One in the Development of the Christian Tradition: A portrait of the Jesus of History.

How Do We Know What Jesus Actually Said and Did?

(This is the fourth in a series of brief articles 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.)

Last week we considered seven conclusions drawn from the biblical scholarship that has emerged since the “Enlightenment” of the eighteenth century. As far as the Christian Testament is concerned, one of the most important discernments of that scholarship is the difference between the pre-resurrection “Jesus of history” and the post-resurrection “Jesus of faith.” How do scholars tell the difference?  For example, how do participants in “the Jesus Seminar” decide what Jesus actually said as opposed to words put in Jesus’ mouth by the early church? They do so by applying the following half dozen criteria.

a)      Multiple attestation from independent sources: If a saying or event is supported not only by the canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, but also by newly discovered texts like the Gospel of Thomas, or of Mary Magdalene, then the saying or event  probably belongs to the historical Jesus.

b)      Dissimilarity: If words or deeds attributed to Jesus would be embarrassing to the early church, they were probably included because the words were actually said or the deeds performed. An example of such inclusion would be Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John.  This event diverges from the underlying and evident intentions of the Gospel authors. That intent was to present Jesus as the fullest revelation of God (and eventually as God himself). But being baptized by John suggests that Jesus was John’s disciple. It implies John’s superiority to Jesus. So having Jesus baptized by John is counterproductive – or “dissimilar” from the authors’ purposes. The Gospel authors, however, point it out anyway, indicating that the baptism actually took place; that everyone knew about it; and that it had to be explained away. The rationalizing explanations take the form of having John say, “I am not worthy to loose the sandals of this man” (Mk. 1:7). Or “I should be baptized by you. How is it that you come to me for baptism?” (Mt. 3:14). Dissimilarity also applies to the radical nature of Jesus’ teaching. When Jesus is presented as doing or saying something that radically departs from accepted rabbinical teaching (dissimilar to it), that’s probably the historical Jesus surfacing. For instance, when Jesus pardons the woman caught in adultery, and says, “Neither do I condemn you,” that’s probably Jesus’ voice. The immediate addition, “Now go and sin no more,” is probably the voice of the author who is still influenced by conventional rabbinical teaching and is scandalized by Jesus’ “liberalism” (Jn. 8:11).

c)       Semitisms: The Gospels were written in Greek. When Aramaic words (the language of Jesus) are included in the text (and immediately translated by the Gospel author), that’s good reason to believe that the Aramaic words were remembered as actually spoken by Jesus. For instance, in the cure of the daughter of Jairus, Jesus is remembered as saying “Talitha cumi” (Mk. 5:41).

d)      Context reflecting the circumstances of the early church rather than of Jesus: This is a negative criterion. It means that words and/or deeds that reflect the circumstances of the early church [e.g. about church leadership (Mt. 16:13-20); about resolution of disputes within it (Mt. 18:15); about divorce and remarriage (Lk. 16:18)] were probably not spoken by Jesus. Similarly, words and/ or deeds attributed to Jesus that do not accord with his historical context or with the overall thrust of his teaching are to be identified as inauthentic. For example if God is presented as punishing and vengeful, the presentation probably represents the voice of the authors who still could not break away from the traditional way of thinking that Jesus himself revised and rejected.

e)      Vividness of description. Inclusion of vivid details indicates a memory closely associated with Jesus’ actual words and deeds. For instance when Jesus is described as spitting on dirt and making a paste to cure a man’s blindness (Jn. 9:6), that’s probably what happened.

f)       Coherence with acts or statements otherwise identified as authentically attributable to Jesus: Words or deeds that accord with those established as authentic through application of the previously mentioned criteria qualify as probably belonging to the historical Jesus.

Next Week: The Five Stages in the Development of New Testament Tradition

Women Show the Way to Fullness of Life (Not to Heaven)

Readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 53:10-11; Ps. 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Heb. 4: 14-16; Mk. 10:35-45 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/102112.cfm

Marcus Borg, the great Jesus scholar, talks about his list of the “Ten Worst Contributions of Religion to Human Culture.” Topping that list, he says, is popular Christianity’s belief in the afterlife. When asked about the other nine, Borg says he can’t remember what they are. . . .

Second on my own list (perhaps even first) would be the idea that God has designated men to be rulers of the world and church, while women are to be seen and not heard. Today’s liturgy of the word addresses both of those items in Religion’s Worst Ideas.

Take that first one about heaven and hell. Borg sees belief in the afterlife is so harmful because it has led to a law and rule-based Christianity that centers on “going to heaven” as a reward for “keeping the commandments.” Such quid pro quo thinking, he says, is a complete distortion of Christianity.

Borg reminds us that the afterlife is not at all the focus of Christian belief – nor of Jewish “Old Testament” faith for that matter. In fact, ideas about life after death didn’t surface in Judaism till well after the Babylonian Exile six centuries before the birth of Jesus – probably as a result of contact with the Persians.  And the first unambiguous biblical reference to meaningful survival of the individual after death comes only in the book of Daniel which was written about 150 years before the birth of Jesus. That means that Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and none of the prophets were motivated by desire for heaven or escape from hell. Those ideas were simply not part of their mental landscapes.

Instead, for those tribal people, faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was about land – the Land of Canaan which was celebrated as God’s gift to his favored People. The word “salvation” then meant a Palestine free from occupation by imperialists, be they Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, or Romans.

With that in mind, consider today’s readings and their references to “long life,” “fullness of days,” and “greatness” for the “Suffering Servant” who is “crushed” and loses his life on behalf of others. The words are reminiscent of Jesus’ pronouncement that sacrificing one’s life was the way to save it. Conversely, trying to “save one’s life” was the sure way to lose it.

Those are mysterious words. What might they mean: by giving one’s life for others, one actually achieves long life and fullness of days? How can one have long life and fullness of days when he or she is dead? (You can see how that question would lead subsequent generations of Christians to adopt the “afterlife” hopes of Greco-Roman, Persian and Egyptian cultures to answer that question.)

Given Jesus’ centralization of God’s Kingdom, the answer of Jesus (and that of Second Isaiah) seems to have been that self-sacrificial non-violent resistance to all forms of imperial domination provides such a powerful example and inspiring force that the community rises with new energy, life, and fullness of life when the suffering servant is inevitably killed by imperial forces.

For Mark’s community, that had proven true in the case of Jesus; its members experienced Jesus’ presence more intensely and more meaningfully following his execution than before. For us, we can see the same truth illustrated in the cases of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, and Rachel Corrie and Karen Silkwood. After their deaths, and arguably because of their deaths, they exercise more influence on us today than they did while they were alive. That’s the mystery Jesus gestures towards in today’s reading.

What can this mean for us? For one, it calls us to recommit ourselves to non-violent resistance of the anti-kingdom forces among us. That’s our political task as we live out our lives in the belly of empire’s beast here in the United States.

But Jesus’ words about servanthood show us that such resistance should permeate our lives at the domestic every-day level as well. (And here’s where the point about women comes in.)  In both cases, the political and domestic, the kingdom is not brought on by exercising the kind of “power over” that characterizes empire, and that apparently motivates the request of the Sons of Zebedee in this morning’s Gospel. The Zebedee boys have a typically patriarchal approach; they’re asking Jesus to let them exercise “power over” others.  This typically male idea sees force and violence as the solution to most problems.

Instead, the approach of “servanthood”—of putting the needs of others first – is typically feminine. And in Mark’s Gospel from beginning to the end it is women who are referred to in servant language. In the beginning of Mark (1:31), the first act of Peter’s mother in law upon being cured by Jesus is to serve food to her benefactor and his companion. And at the end Mark (15:41) Mary Magdalene along with another Mary and Salome are identified beneath Jesus’ cross as “those who used to follow him and provide for him when he was in Galilee.”

All of that suggests, as scripture scholar Ched Myers has said, that Jesus here is proposing the notion of “servant leadership.” It suggests that the practical content of that concept is typically embodied not in men, but in women.

In fact, I think, it suggests that in a patriarchal system like ours (politically, domestically, and in the church) the only ones fit to exercise leadership are women. Typically, they are the ones who shed light on the meaning of “servant-leader” and of fullness of life. And they do so in ways that those bad ideas of heaven and “power-over” simply cannot.   What do you think?

(Discussion follows)