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FRAMING JESUS May 11, 2012

Posted by wmmbb in Peace, Philosophy, Social Environment.

Jesus of Nazareth has an extraordinary story. The same is true of Buddha. Both narratives have been enhanced by mythical constructs, but that is the nature of story telling. The historical case for Buddha seems to have been better established.

Some of the elements of the Jewish story are intriguing. Here is a person who travels about 120 kilometres (80 miles) presumably by donkey to reach Jerusalem. Once he arrives there, he goes to the Temple and drives out the money changers who are profiting from animal sacrifice. He is also the bloke that counsels his followers to love your enemies, an injunction lost in translation due to its’ inherent difficulty in practice. Experience shows it is far easier to fire up the amygdala allowing it to hold sway with anger and fear. And then there is a subtle story about human sacrifice.

Howard Bess is a Baptist who is concerned with the role of the Christian Right in American politics. He contends that there religious doctrine is diametrically opposite to the teaching of the founder of Christianity. He looks to the historical and other research to understand the social and political context of the time.

He writes:

The idea that Jesus was a universal sacrifice for the sins of the whole world was a theological construction of Paul, who never knew Jesus and had little knowledge of his life. Indeed, in Paul’s many writings, he never indicates any awareness of the life of Jesus or his teachings.

Instead, Paul said he had an experience of the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, and he developed a theology to fit his experience and his background in Judaism (with its emphasis on sacrifice, not forgiveness).

Despite Paul’s lack of contact with Jesus during his days as a teacher (and Paul’s strained relationship with Jesus’s disciples), Paul became the early church’s theologian, a brilliant thinker with unbounded energy. He was literate and wrote voluminously.

By contrast, Jesus’s disciples were not writers and none of the gospel writings can be traced to them. The gospels that we have in the Bible are collections of oral traditions reduced to writing and enlarged by unknown writers two generations after the death of Jesus.

So who was the historical Jesus, the reputational rabbi who grew up in Galilee in Northern Palestine? We have few verifiable facts of his life and it was not until the early 20th Century that the search began in earnest when Albert Schweitzer wrote The Quest of the Historical Jesus.

Schweitzer acknowledged that his quest was unsuccessful, but it kicked off a search that has never stopped. We are now in the third wave of the quest of the historical Jesus, with new research tools that have allowed a clear picture of Jesus to emerge.

The methodology of the third wave is interdisciplinary. Historians, archaeologists, sociologists and anthropologists — along with Biblical scholars — have been enlisted in the effort to construct a context in which to understand Jesus. The context that has been developed includes politics, economics and social structures.

The First Century historian Josephus has been a bonanza of information that has helped construct this context for understanding Jesus as a person, someone who emerged from the advanced agrarian society in which he lived. Jesus was influenced by the growth of aristocratic empires in the First Century as well as the power and presence of Roman rule.

New attempts also are being made to understand the Judaism of the First Century and the complex relationship between Temple leaders and Roman rulers. The Temple practices of Jews were tolerated by Roman rulers as long as Temple leaders controlled their people. Though Temple leaders did control the Jews of southern Palestine, they were not able to control the Jews of Galilee, where Jesus lived.

Even the Romans could not control Galilee, which has always been a special place in the social, religious and economic life of Palestine. The Romans built Sepphoris and Tiberius to extend their power, but Galileans despised the two cities, which were known for the unjust rulers and greedy aristocrats who lived there.

Galileans avoided contact with the two cities and there is no record that Jesus ever went to either one, even though Nazareth was a mere four miles from Sepphoris.

Rural Galilee also was a hotbed of the Zealots, who made no secret of their contempt for Roman rule and advocated reestablishment of the nation of Israel through violent overthrow. They despised Jews who were cooperators with an evil empire.

The dominant influence of the Zealots among the poor of Galilee is a key part of the context for Jesus’s life. The gospels identify Peter as a Zealot, and a Zealot of Galilee was always armed with a weapon, typically a sharpened knife. By tradition, Jesus told Peter, “Put away your sword.”

There you have it. Of course, it depends on who gets to tell the story and what the song lines through which the narrative is refracted. But on this reckoning,Jesus was one of those benighted, weak people, those pacifists, who won’t fight, and who don’t believe in the redeeming inspiration of violence – and eating meat. So how come the Roman Consul sentenced him to death, yet his followers and his message survived, whereas the Black Block were rounded up in Masada to die heroically?

So does it matter whether or not, Jesus was a historical person, or a mythical story? John Dominic Crossan, a New Testament scholar,  says it does. He is quoted by John Blake, The Jesus Debate: Man vs Myth (CNN):

Crossan says Jesus’ existence matters in the same way that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s existence mattered.

If King never existed, people would say his ideas are lovely, but they could never work in the real world, Crossan says.

It’s the same with an historical Jesus, Crossan writes in his latest book, “The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus.”

“The power of Jesus’ historical life challenges his followers by proving at least one human being could cooperate fully with God. And if one, why not others? If some, why not all?”

I suspect that when scientists and religious people are debating are at cross purposes, because they have not a common source of reference or practice. Then the idea of God is a very expansive concept. I am sticking to atheism, which unfortunately beyond materialism and tangible evidence, both direct and indirect, leaves each life meaningless, and in the long term worthless. So it seems that human consciousness will reach its epiphany by destroying itself and everything about it. At least it can be said we are tracking in the right direction, aided and abetted by organized and established religion and its absence.

Of course, politics  is often underpinned by different constructs of meaning  and violence often accompanies threats to meaning.John Dominic Crossan  get down to the politics of  the rabble rouser, Jesus Christ in the context of the Roman Empire:

Another account is provided by Michael Nagler.



1. jefferis - May 11, 2012

Thanks for the link. Just want to point out that the Baptist pastor, supposedly conservative, you quoted, is just plain wrong. The Gospel of John talks about Jesus dying for the sins of the whole world, as does Hebrews, which was not written by Paul. The letters of Peter also talk about the strips of Jesus healing us all. Aside from that, the book of Acts talks about Paul’s time with the apostles and Barnabas, who was an early disciple. If he had not the knowledge from seeing Jesus himself (and persecuting his followers in Jerusalem), he would have learned the history from the rest of them.

2. pk - May 11, 2012

It’s sure too bad all those other books have no more authority than Paul’s books, a few of which are forged.
Really terrif, I’ll read more. See how much more I have too.
I can’t help loving, and following to some extent, the idea of Jesus anyway!

jefferis - May 11, 2012

If you are interested in an historical argument, I wrote a long piece about the behaviors of the apostles that don’t make sense if Jesus had not been raised:
http://scholarscorner.com/content/my-fellow-jews2 (part2)

That letter was written in response to Mark’s questions when I explained Jesus’ ministry in a Jewish context in http://scholarscorner.com/content/my-fellow-jews

But the first one is an historical analysis of the recorded actions. The problem with proofs of the resurrection is that people try to apply the scientific method to an event that is not reproducible or testable. However, historical arguments are better viewed in a legal context of evidence, motive, actions, eye witnesses, etc., as one would decide “truth” or “guilt” in a court of law.

3. wmmbb - May 11, 2012

Thank you for your comments.

I will leave the biblical research for the biblical scholars. To me Jesus, assuming the case, is a more interesting person understood in his historical context. That understanding has been distorted by the desire to control the narrative, and thereby control the text.

The proposition to love your enemy seemed like a radical idea – although I am told it is not a religious idea. I was saying I was an atheist. The rejoinder was the divine was within, and that you do not have to be afraid of us. If it it possible to engage in open, non defensive and non hostile way debates can be productive and instructive.

There would be appear to be some support for idea, advanced for example by George Fox and the Quakers, that Jesus was an advocate of nonviolence. I recall the assertion by the Quakers that they do not wear side arms. At least to me, it is interesting how the difference between using violent tactics can be seen in the US Civil Rights Movement and now again in Occupy.

The context to this story is relevant to the development of European history and the Jewish Diaspora prior to and at 70AD which are relevant to the recent past and present.

4. mikey - May 16, 2012

Atheism is a wonderful, liberating way to live life. Life is not meaningless – it is all we have, the culmination of everything our billions of ancestors have achieved, all we can try to experience ourselves in the seemingly infinite cosmos. I don’t need some imaginary friend to tell me what is right or wrong, that I’ll be punished or rewarded when I’m dead. Evolution, civilisation and society are constructed and advanced on the principles of cooperation, respect for others, improving the quality of life. No religion has a monopoly on ethics, they are mere constructs to guide those who cannot comprehend more than their own problems. We are but tiny specks of stardust flickering in and out of life in the expanding time/space continuum, each one unique, fascinating and precious.

There’s no physical evidence of Jesus, no historical documentation of him at the time he is said to have lived. There are dozens of Mediterranean legends of Christ-like demigods scattered throughout history. Jesus seems to be a mish-mash of ideas presented as a single human story that enables Christianity to be a dominant world religion. It doesn’t matter that religious history doesn’t make sense under scrutiny because they’re for people who can’t make any sense of their lives anyway.

Having said that, Jesus represents noble ideas that are no less important as coming from a real person or otherwise. The perversion of those ideas is a travesty.

wmmbb - May 16, 2012

In general, I agree.

I like to imagine that when we die, we might be reincarnated on another planet in another galaxy. It is as good a proposition as any, although I don’t know I believe it. We will have to wait patiently for the evidence.

The Jesus story has coherence within the historical context in which it took place. The tendency remains to impute special qualities to exceptional individuals and that is still true. The same process can be seen in the Buddha story. Remember we are dealing with a mostly illiterate population, similar to the middle ages in which stories, songs and painting are the media. Then again as a crossroads, Palestine, is meeting place of diverse and different religious ideas, which merge with the Jewish invention of monotheism.

mikey - May 16, 2012

Who cares what happens when you die? I mean, do you care as much about what happened to you before you were born?

This is life, it is all you have and all you can share. Marvel the sheer scale of the cosmos, the resilient history of life, the achievement of civilisation! That you have your life is an incredible thing. Compare this to theology… I will quote The Incredible Hulk:

“Puny god.”

I understand the historical context is important and context remains important today. Most people still seem unable to function without a deity guiding their existence. It’s particularly necessary for those who don’t comprehend how morality works. Religion may impede the ascent of civilisation but it’s also important in preventing its collapse. Poking at the holes might be dangerous.

5. wmmbb - May 16, 2012

Death is nevertheless a big deal for consciousness human beings. Death is associated with grief and loss, and raises questions about meaning of each and every life as well as how consciousness fits into the matrix of energy, matter, living and evolution.

We can observe that the lights have gone out, and we can conclude that the person has gone to sleep, gone forever, or moved on.Can we constructively speculate about things that we cannot directly observe? Well that is the difference between the natural philosophies represented by Newtown and Einstein.

To take the side of those who opposed the ascent of rationalism, beginning with Descarte and continuing through the Reformation, the Enlightenment and Industrialization, they were arguing against a reductionist view of the human being. For example, this is expressed in the Taylorist model of human worker as a cog in the organizational machine.

And such people, have made a significant contribution to modern life. The example of Thomas More, although his role in the burning of heretics is unsavoury, established the defence of conscience in law. As well, basing their practice on their understanding on the Jesus teaching and their own individual inner light, the Quakers have had an influence far beyond their numbers, not only in the abolition of slavery in the British Empire and in other aspects of colonial policy, and model that was provided for some time by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

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