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Tuesday, May 21, 2019
History ... Religion ...

Last month was April, when the Christian celebration of Easter and the Jewish commemoration of Passover occur. On Good Friday, which was also the first evening of Passover, I was thinking about Jesus. If you know me or have read what I’ve said on this site about Jesus, you know that I subscribe to the view embraced by a number of important scholars that Jesus was an innovative, apocalyptic First Century Jew who gained a following based upon his belief that he had discovered God’s plan to redeem the tribes of Israel from the foreign domination and oppression that it had been living under for many centuries (during Jesus’ life, under the Roman Emperor Augustus).

According to Jesus, God was looking for a Jew who would inspire the commoners around him (and maybe even some of the Gentiles in the area) to live a highly ethical life involving the sharing of resources and equality; in return God would sweep away the Romans and even the corrupt upper-class Jews who were collaborating with them (including the Temple establishment, in which the Sauducees were prominent but even the Pharisees were represented). Once the oppressors were gone, God would appoint an earthly representative, a “Son of Man”, who would possess heavenly powers along with the authority to justly rule the good people who had earned their place. Jesus probably had an idea as to who could be appointed to the “Son of Man” role once the Kingdom had arrived — namely, himself.

I wondered that Friday evening, how did this fit in with the messianic expectations of the Jews, how did this relate to the Passover story of freedom from Egyptian oppression and slavery? OK, under Jesus’s plan, the Jews of Palestine would be set free from Roman oppression and taxation (and also from an overbearing and corrupt Temple establishment, the subject of Jesus’s demonstration outside the Temple against the coin traders). But Jesus’s theory was unlike the Exodus under Moses, as it did not involve the Jews rallying around a human leader as to start a secular nation, harking back to the kingships of Saul, David and Solomon. Under the messianic wishes of most Jews at the time, especially the rural traditionalist Jews, a day would come when they would once more rule themselves through their own chosen leaders; whereas in Jesus’s vision, they were going to be overseen by a remote God via an appointed local representative, the “Son of Man” arrangement that Jesus envisioned.

This, I think, is where Jesus began to significantly deviate from the shared heritage and traditional mythos of Judaism. The Jews historically longed for a wise and powerful leader to emerge from the people, unify them, lead them into battle against their oppressors, and then govern them wisely in their restored status as a free and independent nation; this sentiment was quite strong during Jesus’s lifetime. About 150 years before Jesus, the Maccabees had restored a Jewish monarchy, the Hasmonean Dynasty, overcoming the Seleucid empire based in Syria. For almost a century, the Jews once again had a state and a king. But that had ended several decades before Jesus’ birth. And only 30 years after Jesus, the Jews rose up in mass against the Romans and fought bloody and ultimately futile battles against the Roman Army. Jesus was unquestioningly addressing the common dream of national revival in his message and ministry. There’s no way that he could avoid it! But his approach to deliverance from foreign domination was quite different from what most of the Jews of Palestine before, during and just after his life had anticipated. The Jews envisioned armed warfare, in the tradition of the great battle stories of the Hebrew Bible.

Zooming back in time, the Maccabean insurrection started when Seleucid King Antiochus got involved with some intrigue regarding the High Priest of the Temple, wanting a pro-Seleucid Priest in charge. Antiochus soon followed up by enforcing a Hellenization policy against the Jews (i.e., a policy of promoting Greek values and customs). This helped to trigger an inner conflict amidst the Jews, between the rural traditionalist Jews and the more Hellenized Jews in the cities; obviously the former group was more incensed by Antiochus than the latter. The Maccabees rose from the traditionalists, and conducted a guerilla war campaign, first against the Hellenized Jews and later against the Seleucids themselves. As with ISIS in Syria and Iraq in the 21st Century, the Maccabees gained territory incrementally, and finally entered Jerusalem in triumph. The Seleucids agreed to leave them alone.

The Hasmonean Dynasty ruled victoriously for over 100 years; however, it was not very gentle with the cosmopolitan urban Jews who had enjoyed the sophistication of the Greeks. Many of them were forced unwillingly into lives of traditional Jewish piety. Internal divisions grew, until finally the Roman General Pompey arrived in Judea in 63 BCE during a Hasmonean civil war, assaulted Jerusalem, and within a few years turned the Dynasty into a Roman client state. A few decades later, the Hasmoneans were replaced by Herod as the Roman’s “client kingdom”. When Jesus was a child, the Herod family lost control of Jerusalem and Judea, although Herod Antipas continued to rule Galilee and other hinterlands. The core of Israel and its sacred city Jerusalem were now ruled directly as a Roman province by a governor (procurator). Pontius Pilate was appointed as the second governor in 26 CE.

Jesus lived during a “smoldering period” relative to the dream of freedom. The Hasmonean experiment ended in shambles, and a stronger foreign power than the Seleucids (i.e., the Romans) took charge. There had been some anti-Roman activity under Judas of Galilee when Jesus was a child in 6 CE (this was in response to a Roman census, as a prelude to increased taxation). But for most of Jesus’ life, things were calm, although still tense.

However, in 66 CE, three decades after Jesus, the Jews rose up in armed rebellion against the Romans. Even before then, tensions between the Jews and Romans started to increase; by 40 CE, riots had broken out in Alexandria and Jamnia. By 48, insurgencies in Galilee had to be stopped by Roman soldiers. But in 66, tax revolts escalated into a full armed uprising, with the Romans initially routed from Jerusalem. However, the Romans assembled 4 legions under general and future emperor Vespasian, who invaded Galilee and then worked south towards Jerusalem. The Romans burned and destroyed the Temple in 70, and the last Jewish holdout in the desert at Masada fell in 73.

Despite Masada, the Jews were not finished yet. In 132 CE, another anti-Roman revolt began under the charismatic Jewish leader Simon Bar Kokhba. This revolt was better organized, and an independent Jewish state in Judea was proclaimed; but two years later, 6 Roman legions arrived and crushed the rebellion. As a result, Jews were barred from Jerusalem by Rome.

However, the Pharisees had laid the foundation for the continuation of Judaism as a religion and a culture by promoting a distributed communal Judaism that was independent of Jerusalem and its Temple sacrifices. Study of the Torah would now become the core of Jewish identity. Local rabbis and synagogue communities were given teaching authority, allowing the Jews to maintain their identity despite their distribution and dissolution into the greater Mediterranean world. This was the ultimate Jewish adaptation to external oppression, an adaptation that would serve them well during continuing bouts of oppression over the next two millennia.

Jesus had a more spiritual solution in mind – but at the same time, a more Roman solution, quite ironically. In the wake of the failure of the Maccabeans (as well as the long history of division and ultimate fall of Jewish nations as told in the Bible), it’s not surprising that Jesus would have decided that even if the Jews could once again muster enough military might to turn back their foreign enemies, they would once again fail in the task of ruling themselves justly. No earthly messiah, however wise and powerful, was going to be able to reverse the tide of history. You couldn’t blame Jesus for thinking such thoughts, and thus not buying into the “zealot” philosophy of preparing for violence.

As to the Romans, Jesus would no doubt have seen that despite their moral faults, they were extremely intelligent and powerful. They were well organized and had a system that seemed to work. It had taken over most of the world, as far as any people living near the sea could tell. It seemed to be based around a distant and unknown Emperor (unknown to those in the provinces), whose will was carried out by local procounsels and governors.

Hmm. The one thing that Jews did seem to have going for them, Jesus might have thought, is that throughout their history, they had a direct connection to God — whether through Moses, the Prophets, the Temple priests, or through the eyes of any good person. The Romans had their idols, but the Jews had a mighty and living God, a transcendent force that they could speak to and negotiate with. To the Jews, God was a power and protector, whose will could be discerned and followed to great advantage by the wise.

Well then, why not see God the same way that the Romans saw their Emperor? Perhaps the answer to the Jewish problem, Jesus might have thought, was that God was calling certain wise men to rule the people IN GOD’S NAME, not in their own name. Akin to the way that the Emperor appointed his governors and procounsels to govern in his name. As with the Emperor and his legions, God could be counted on to send forces to protect the people of his earthly province – i.e., what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God”. But God’s intervention could happen only if the Jewish people truly wished to join that “Kingdom”. Jesus spent the last few years of his life trying to convince as many people as possible to join up, to start acting as though the Kingdom were already here. I.e., start acting and living in a Godly way. Show God that we’re serious about this fast approaching Kingdom (“the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news“, Mark 1:15).

From that perspective, it’s not so hard to discern Jesus’s vision. God was calling Jesus to sign people up for the Kingdom, to start getting the Jewish nation ready. Once enough had been called, God would show his power and cast aside the Roman oppressors, as well as those Jews who were working together with them. Jesus had not fully thought out just how this would happen, but he knew that it was NOT going to happen through a Jewish army or a mob armed with knives and stones and spears. According to the Scriptures, God sometimes does directly intervene through mighty miracles; e.g., Moses saw the Red Sea part just in the nick of time. So why shouldn’t Jesus, as a later day Moses, have faith that God would figure out the details of driving the Romans and their cohorts out of the promised land?

And once that happened – well, God was obviously not going to be there on the ground, making decisions and issuing laws on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps God once did that for Moses (i.e. the 10 commandments), but further audiences were not to be anticipated. Instead, God would do what the Roman Emperor does – appoint a governor to rule in his stead. That was “the Son of Man” that Jesus referred to. And it seems pretty clear to me that Jesus anticipated being the first appointed governor of the K of G, once it arrived in force.

And hey, what could be a more perfect time for all this to occur than on the Passover?

OK, now let me admit something — a lot of scholars disagree that Jesus was referring to himself in the “Son of Man” references in the four Gospels. Some of them believe that Jesus was talking about himself, but using the term in its most humble interpretation, i.e. “me, a mere human”. A “humble” use and interpretation of “Son of Man” is found in various places in the Old Testament. However, about 600 years before Jesus, the book of Daniel referred to “one like a Son of Man” in a more powerful, apocalyptic context. Daniel 7:13 describes a human-like figure who would come “with the clouds of heaven” and be given “dominion, glory, and kingship, so that every people, nation, and language should serve Him”. Although most modern scholars would probably disagree with me, I think that this is what Jesus had in mind in referring to himself as “Son of Man”. And in substituting himself, just another adult human being, for one “like” a human who is sent by the Ancient of Days in a heavenly cloudbank, Jesus crossed a line, especially with the more rural non-Hellenized Jews.

This point of view, of God as Emperor and Jesus as Pilate, helps me to understand why the Jews did not and still cannot totally embrace Jesus; and why Christians could never go back and become dominant in the lands from which they originated (another example of the phrase “you can’t go home again”). And also why the followers of Jesus lost their Jewish identity so quickly, and why the Jewish people could never take Rabbi Jesus back (although anti-Jewish oppression by Christians over many centuries certainly worsened the estrangement). From this point of view, it also makes sense that the Church of Jesus would feel comfortable basing itself in Rome, the situs of the oppressor of Judea (and for several centuries after Jesus, an occasional oppressor of the evolving young Church). And that the Church would attract a lot of followers throughout that Empire, mostly non-Jews. And it makes sense that the Roman Empire would eventually adopt Christianity as its official religion. A lot of puzzle pieces fall in place for me by using the “maximum strength” interpretation of Jesus as “Son of Man” in the context of Roman governance.

Still, I agree with the modern historical scholars who emphasize Jesus’ Jewishness. I believe that Jesus did honestly believe that his vision was the answer to the historical longings of Judaism, even if it did fold in some external ideas. And hey, Jesus wasn’t the first Jew to co-opt ideas from other cultures; a lot of Jews at the time were adopting Greek ideas, recall Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish philosopher who was contemporary with Jesus. Philo tried to blend Hebrew mysticism with Greek philosophy, and his works influenced early Christian apologists such as Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen. Some scholars speculate that Philo may have influenced Paul and perhaps even the authors of the Gospel of John.

But perhaps Jesus went one step too far with the Jews, especially the more rural Jews who rejected the cosmopolitan ways of the Romans and Greeks, by replacing the expected Messiah with a more Roman arrangement — even if God Himself was to be the Emperor! As to the Hellenized urban Jews who might have accepted this vision — well, they were the ones who in large part joined the Jesus movement and remained with it even as it drifted apart from traditional Judaism.

I believe that Jesus is worthy of study and understanding by all of the world’s religions. In a major way, he was wrong; there was not going to be a Kingdom of God here on earth, and neither Jesus nor any other human would reign victorious as the appointed governor of this holy Kingdom. And yet, what Jesus taught is certainly still relevant to anyone of good faith who wants to see a world that’s at least closer to the land of righteousness, peace, justice and love that Jesus dreamt of.

I’m not sure how Christianity will resolve itself if and when it comes to accept a “real Jesus”, and releases its fierce grip on the myth of a Christ-man sent once and directly by the Father to redeem the world. But whenever that does happen, Jesus will still deserve a religion that focuses at its core around his life and his teachings — and his dream.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:03 pm      

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