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)

Jesus Calls the Rich Man to Practice Wealth Redistribution (And “Communism”)

Today’s Readings: Wis. 7:7-11; Ps. 90: 12-17; Heb. 4: 12-13; Mk. 10:17-30 (http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/101412.cfm)

On October 19th, 1998, President Barrack Obama speaking at Loyola University in Chicago said that he believed in wealth redistribution. In this campaign season, the president’s opponents have revived that statement and denounced it as “Marxist,” “socialist,” “communist” and “un-American.”  Opponents also characterized Mr. Obama’s words as inciting class warfare. Please keep that in mind as I speak.

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It is very difficult to understand Jesus’ words in today’s gospel about the impossibility of rich people entering the Kingdom of God as long as we identify that kingdom with an after-life “heaven.” If we do that, then Jesus’ words about the exclusion of the rich from God’s kingdom seem very threatening, punitive, and almost unfair – as though a severe and angry God were unreasonably excluding the rich from the eternal happiness they desire and sending them all to hell. We’re all too familiar with that understanding of God. Most of us have had enough of it.

But Jesus wasn’t a punitive person; he was compassion itself. And the focus of his preaching was never the afterlife. His reference to “heaven” in today’s gospel is a circumlocution Jews of his time used to avoid pronouncing the unspeakable holy name YHWH. The “Kingdom of Heaven” was synonymous with the Kingdom of God — a vision of what life on earth would be like if God were king instead of Caesar.

According to that vision, everything would be reversed in God’s realm. The rich would see themselves as poor; the poor would be rich; the first would be last; the last would be first. Jesus’ was a vision of a world with room for everyone – where everyone had a decent share of the pie. He knew however that getting from here to there would require wealth-redistribution and a kind of communism. Hence Jesus’ words to the rich man in today’s gospel, “Sell what you have and give it to the poor.”

Just think about what Jesus meant in Jewish biblical terms.  He was asking the rich man to join the poor in a “Jubilee Year” as mandated in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, in his world characterized by extortionist creditors and money-lenders, in his world of extremes of wealth and poverty that “Year of Grace” became the central point of Jesus’ message.

Recall what Jubilee was. It was a divinely appointed time of wealth redistribution. Such a year occurred every fifty years (i.e. after every “seven weeks of years,” or once in a person’s lifetime). During that special year, the land was to be left fallow, slaves were to be set free, debts were to be cancelled, and land was to be returned to its original owner. This was not voluntary; it had been central to God’s law since the time of Moses as recorded in Leviticus 25:8-18. In other words, this type of communism had been essential to the Jewish tradition from the very beginning.

Jubilee was also a critical part of Jesus teaching from the outset. That’s what he was talking about in Luke’s version of Jesus’ first preaching in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth (Luke 4:18-19). There, using the words of Isaiah 61:1-2, he summed up the program that would characterize his entire public life: to “…proclaim release to the captives…to set at liberty those who are oppressed…to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Jesus’ proclamation of Jubilee was sanctioned in the prayer he taught his disciples: “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

Of course the rich don’t want to enter the kingdom of wealth redistribution and debt forgiveness. So they enthusiastically or sadly but almost inevitably exclude themselves. They prefer the poor enjoying pie in the sky after they die rather than here on earth. The rich don’t like wealth redistribution; they have no use for communism. So they willingly walk away from Jesus’ utopia just as the rich man did in today’s gospel. They enclose themselves in their gated communities and from their verandas judge the poor as unworthy – as their enemies instead of as God’s Chosen People. And so it’s nearly impossible for the rich to enter the Kingdom — by their own choice.

Nearly!  That is, Jesus leaves hope. When his disciples object, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus answers, “What is impossible for human beings is possible for God.”  That is, without God’s help, it is impossible for the rich to redistribute their wealth.  Jesus’ joke was that it’s about as impossible as a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Someone today might say, a rich man’s opting for wealth redistribution or communal sharing is about as unlikely as Warren Buffett squeezing through the night deposit slot in the Chase Manhattan Bank. But with God’s help, Jesus suggests, even old Warren could find the strength to actually sell his goods, give them to the poor, and follow Jesus. Metaphorically speaking, even W.B. could actually squeeze through.

Once inside, Jesus promises, the miraculous occurs: to their surprise, the rich discover that in giving all away, they end up with unlimited wealth, houses and possessions. That promise reflects the experience of the earliest Christian communities as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. There they practiced a kind of Christian communism. Or in the words of Acts:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to any as had need.”  (Acts 4:32-36).

Those are the words of the Bible not of Marx or Engels. In other words the formula “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” comes straight from the Acts of the Apostles. Yet, those critical of President Obama’s statement about wealth redistribution speak as though Jesus were a champion of capitalism. It’s almost as if the passage from Acts had read:

Now the whole group of those who believed lived in fierce competition with one another, and made sure that the rights of private property were respected. They expelled from their midst any who practiced communalism. As a consequence, God’s ‘invisible hand’ brought great prosperity to some. Many however found themselves in need. The Christians responded with ‘tough love’ demanding that the lazy either work or starve. Many of the unfit, especially the children, the elderly and those who cared for them did in fact starve. Others raised themselves by their own bootstraps, and became stronger as a result. In this way, the industrious increased their land holdings and banked the profits. The rich got richer and the poor, poorer. Of course, all of this was seen as God’s will and a positive response to the teaching of Jesus.

On a world scale, most of us hearing these words are rich. Jesus’ advice to the man in today’s gospel is actually addressed to us. In order to enter the kingdom, we are called to somehow redistribute our wealth and support wealth redistribution programs. How are we to do that? Some would say by strictly voluntary “charity.” Jesus Jubilee proclamation suggests something more structural – something demanded by law.

Does that have anything to do with Warren Buffet’s idea of the rich and the rest of us paying our fair share of taxes? If used to improve the life of the poor rather than to fight wars against them, could progressive taxation represent the contemporary way of fulfilling Jesus’ injunction?

Ironically, is Warren Buffet trying to show us the way to squeeze thorough that night deposit slot? What do you think?

(Discussion follows)

Modern Scripture Scholarship and Its Search for the Jesus of History

What I call “modern scripture scholarship” refers to the essentially inter-disciplinary approach to the Bible that has developed over the last 400 years. To me it seems nearly criminal that the nature and results of this intense and fruitful study has been kept secret and not shared with the “faithful in the pews” who are perfectly capable of understanding its processes and conclusions.

In fact, not sharing this secret has driven many thinking people away from the church as they reject as fantastic and unbelievable the understandings of faith they accepted as children, but which seem incompatible with what they know about science and the world in general.

As our inroad to understanding this topic, let’s examine the distinction it makes between the Jesus of history and Jesus the Christ. “Jesus of history” refers to the prophet who was directly experienced by his community in Palestine for a short period around 30 C.E. (Common Era). “Jesus the Christ” refers to the identity Jesus assumed in the faith of the early Christian community, especially between the time of Jesus’ death (between 31 and 33) and the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.), when Jesus’ identity as the unique Son of God was defined. As we will see, the Jesus of history is quite different from the Jesus of faith. (By the way, there is a wonderful PBS film series on this topic that I highly recommend, “From Jesus to Christ:” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/)

For starters, let’s try to understand how modern scholars got to the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. It all began with the 17th century’s initiation of the Scientific Revolution. Galileo Galilei’s “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” set the tone. The letter responded to criticisms from the Vatican’s Holy Office of the Inquisition advanced in 1616 charging that Galileo’s theory of a heliocentric universe was “absurd in philosophy, formally heretical, and expressly contrary to scripture.”

In his response, the great astronomer argued that God is revealed in two ways, in Sacred Scripture and in nature. Sacred Scripture was written for simple folk, he said. Its statements are often ambiguous and metaphorical. They cannot be taken literally in every case. Even St. Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, and other master theologians, Galileo said, had recognized such truisms centuries earlier; they were not literalists. Galileo further reasoned that since it is frequently so difficult to ascertain the exact meaning of biblical passages, one must often resort to God’s revelation in nature to determine the truth. When God’s written word conflicts with natural revelation, the latter is to prevail, because it is clearer and less ambiguous.

Key milestones in subsequent biblical studies include the following (If some of the historical references are unclear, don’t worry, it’s not necessary to “get” them all; they are included here only for the sake of completeness):

–          17th century: Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, and Richard Simon question the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Jewish Testament).

–          18th century: The “higher criticism” movement emerges. “Higher” biblical criticism dealt with issues of authorship and original intent, and with literary forms and their meaning. It is contrasted with “lower criticism” which confined itself to close examination and comparison of texts.

–          18th century: Herman Samuel Reimarus applies critical methodology to the Christian Testament. He concludes that very little is incontrovertibly factual.

–          1870s: Julius Wellhausen examines the Bible as a human document.

–          19th century: Albert Schweitzer, David Strauss, Ernest Renan, Johannes Weiss and others embark on the “Quest of the Historical Jesus.”

–          1893: Pope Leo XIII condemns higher criticism in “Providentissimus Deus.” He establishes the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

–          1940s: Joachim Jeremias and C.H. Dodd identify layers in the Christian Testament attributable to (1) Jesus, (2) the gospel authors, and (3) the early church.

–          1943: Pope Pius XII endorses the new biblical scholarship (“textual criticism”) in “Divino Afflante Spiritu.”

–          1st half of 20th Century: Protestant theological giants, Karl Barth and Rudolph Bultmann conclude that the quest of the historical Jesus had reached a dead end. Almost nothing can be known of the historical Jesus, they claimed. They and their followers concentrate their analysis and theology on 1st century post-resurrection proclamations about Jesus (kerygma).

–           1945: Apocryphal gospels (i.e. gospels other than Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) are discovered at Nag Hammadi (Upper Egypt).

–          1948-1956: Discovery of Dead Sea Scrolls in Palestine.

–          1970s: Discovery of Gnostic Gospels in a cave in Egypt. The texts date from the 2nd century.

–          1965: Second Vatican Council publishes its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (“Dei Verbum”) embracing interpretations of Scripture that centralize the original author’s context and intent.

–          1968: The Latin American Bishops’ Conference meeting in Medellin, Colombia adopts liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor” as a central tool for interpreting Sacred Scripture and as a guiding commitment for church practice.

–          1990s: Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and other members of “The Jesus Seminar” develop criteria for identifying the actual words of Jesus as opposed to the inventions of the gospel authors and/or the early church including: (1) multiple attestation from independent sources;  (2) dissimilarity i.e. words or deeds attributed to Jesus that would be embarrassing to the early church [e.g. Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John and (especially) the crucifixion]; (3) coherence with acts or statements otherwise identified as authentically attributable to Jesus; (4) Semitisms; (5) sitz im leben (context) reflecting the circumstances of Jesus rather than of the early church, and (6) vividness of description.

Next Week: the significance of the events in the above timeline (P.S. I would love it if readers would submit questions concerning any of this. It would give me direction for future posts on this topic.)

Jesus Was against Machismo Not Divorce

Today’s readings: Gn. 2:18-24; Ps. 128:1-6; Heb. 2:9-11; Mk 10:2-16 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/100712.cfm

I shared Tammy Wynette’s award-winning song “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” because it captures the pain that more than half of married people go through when they decide to divorce. Tammy’s opening words, “I want to sing you a song that I didn’t write, but I should have,” as well as the way she sings capture the very sad experience that divorce is for couples who all started out so full of love and hope. As all of us know, divorce is often characterized by regret and feelings of failure especially relative to the children involved. The irony is that many divorced people will come to church this morning and find their pain compounded by today’s readings and no doubt by sermons they will hear.

However today’s liturgy of the word is surprising for what it says about Jesus and his teachings about divorce. The readings tell us that Jesus wasn’t really against divorce as we know it. Instead as the embodiment of compassion, he must have been sympathetic to the pain and abuse that often precede divorce. As a champion of women, he must have been especially sensitive to the abandonment of divorced women in his highly patriarchal culture.

What I’m suggesting is that a sensitive reading shows that what Jesus stands against in today’s Gospel is machismo not divorce as such. Relative to failed marriages, he implicitly invites us to follow his compassionate example in putting the welfare of people – in his day women specifically – ahead of abstract principles or laws. Doing so will make us more understanding and supportive of couples who decide to divorce in the best interests of all.

By the way, the gospel reading also tells us something important about scripture scholarship and its contributions towards understanding the kind of person Jesus was and what he taught on this topic.

First of all consider that scholarship and its importance relative to the topic at hand.

To begin with, it would have been very unlikely that Jesus actually said “let no one” or (as our translation went this morning) “let no human being” put asunder what God has joined together. That’s because in Jesus’ Palestine, only men had the right to initiate a divorce. So in prohibiting divorce, Jesus was addressing men.  The “no one” or “no human being” attribution comes from Mark who wanted Jesus’ pronouncement on divorce to address situations outside of Palestine more than 40 years after Jesus’ death. By the time Mark wrote his Gospel, the church had spread outside of Palestine to Rome and the Hellenistic world.  In some of those communities, women could initiate divorce proceedings as well as men.

Similarly, Jesus probably did not say, “and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Such a statement would have been incomprehensible to Jesus’ immediate audience. Once again, in Palestine no woman could divorce her husband. Divorce was strictly a male right. Women could only be divorced; they couldn’t divorce their husbands.

So what did Jesus say? He probably said (as today’s first reading from Genesis puts it) “What God has joined together let no man put asunder. “ His was a statement against the anti-woman, male-centered practice of divorce that characterized the Judaism of his time.

And what was that practice?

In a word, it was highly patriarchal. Until they entered puberty, female children were “owned” by their father. From then on the father’s ownership could be transferred to another male generally chosen by the father as the daughter’s husband. The marriage ceremony made the ownership-transfer legal. After marriage, the husband was bound to support his wife. For her part however the wife’s obedience to her husband became her religious duty.

Meanwhile, even after marriage, the husband could retain as many lovers as he wanted provided he also able to support them. Additionally the husband enjoyed the unilateral right to demand divorce not only for adultery (as some rabbis held), but also according to the majority of rabbinical scholars for reasons that included burning his food, or spending too much talking with the neighbors. Even after divorce, a man’s former wife needed his permission to remarry. As a result of all this, divorced women were often left totally abandoned. Their only way out was to become once again dependent on another man.

In their book Another God Is Possible, Maria and Ignacio Lopes Vigil put it this way: “Jesus’ saying, ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ is not the expression of an abstract principle about the indissolubility of marriage. Instead, Jesus’ words were directed against the highly patriarchal marriage practices of his time. ‘Men,’ he said, should not divide what God has joined together. This meant that the family should not be at the mercy of the whimsies of its male head, nor should the woman be left defenseless before her husband’s inflexibility. Jesus cut straight through the tangle of legal interpretations that existed in Israel about divorce, all of which favored the man, and returned to the origins: he reminded his listeners that in the beginning God made man and woman in his own image, equal in dignity, rights, and opportunities. Jesus was not pronouncing against divorce, but against machismo.”

Here it should be noted that Mark’s alteration of Jesus’ words is far less radical than what Jesus said. Mark makes the point of the Master’s utterance divorce rather than machismo. Ironically, in doing so and by treating women the same as men, Mark’s words also offer a scriptural basis for legalists who place the “bond of marriage” ahead of the happiness (and even safety) of those who find themselves in relationships which have become destructive to partners and to children.

Traditionally that emphasis on the inviolability of the marriage bond has represented the position of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. It is very unlikely that the historical Jesus with his extremely liberal attitude towards law and his concern for women would have endorsed it.

Instead however, it never was Jesus position that any law should take precedence over the welfare of people. In fact, his refusal to endorse that precedence – his breaking of religious laws (even the Sabbath law) in favor of human welfare – was the main reason for his excommunication by the religious leaders of his own day. In other words, Jesus was the one who kept God’s law by breaking human law.

So instead of “Anti-Divorce Sunday,” this should be “Anti-Machismo Sunday.” It should remind us all of what a champion women have in Jesus.

Sometimes feminists complain that Christian faith finds its “fullness of revelation” in a man. But as one Latin American feminist theologian put it recently, the point of complaint shouldn’t be that Jesus was a man, but that most of us men are not like Jesus. Today’s Gospel calls us men to take steps towards nullifying that particular objection.

Don’t miss tomorrow’s posting about modern scripture scholarship and the historical Jesus.

Who Was the Historical Jesus? Introduction

Let’s face it: there is no God “up there.” “Up there” is simply a metaphor for the transcendence of the divine, which is found within, around, above and below all of us. What St. Paul said is true:  God the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Moreover, that God did not “send” some pre-existing Second Person of the Blessed Trinity to die on our behalf. Like all of us, Jesus was not anxious to die; nor did the God of life want him sacrificed. Rather, the Romans killed Jesus because as colonial occupiers of his homeland, Palestine, they (correctly) perceived his words and deeds as a political threat. Those words and deeds centered neither on himself, nor on life after death but on the Kingdom of God – a very this worldly reality, that would change the condition of the poor, who are God’s chosen people.

The point of Jesus’ “miracles” was to demonstrate that choice; they were basically either faith-healings or entirely symbolic creations of the early church.

In fact symbolism and metaphor are so central to the fundamental message of the Bible and to human thought itself that it would be more accurate to treat most of Sacred Scripture metaphorically rather than as factual. This includes any references to hell, angels, and devils, which turn out to be poetic inventions. Over the history of the church those inventions have been cynically manipulated as tools of “conscience control” (especially of women) by a basically Caucasian, rich and patriarchal religious establishment that in practice has come to regard Jesus’ actual teaching (about the kingdom, poverty and wealth) as “heretical.”

To get back to the authentic teaching of the historical Jesus, believers need to acquaint themselves not only with another Jesus. They need another God to replace the one before whom they are called to be atheists. Despite formidable obstacles placed in our way by our pastors and others, meeting and embracing that other God is entirely possible. It is indispensable to save our species, our world and ourselves.

These are basically the findings of modern scripture scholarship and the theologies based on that research. And, of course, they can be shocking to conservative Christians encountering it for the first time. However, for those truly interested in developing an adult faith, the shock must somehow be absorbed.

In an attempt to assist in that process of absorption, the Monday series to be posted here will attempt to organize and unify the disparate concepts in question and to re-present them as an aid to understanding and disciplined discussion. Next week’s posting will review key events in the history of biblical interpretation.