Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Question of Jesus and Christ: Part 2

My posting in this section a couple of weeks ago (I’m Down with Jesus, it’s Christ that Gives Me a Problem) drew immediate responses and a larger number of responses than anything I’ve written on HP to date – like twice as many. The nature of the responses varied greatly, from serious engagement with the questions I raised to doctrinaire chiding that I was attempting, through “over-intellectualizing” to deny the deity of Christ. Some were appreciative of the inquiry, others snarky to downright nasty. A number attempted to deny that Jesus was a “mere Jew,” which is somewhat astonishing to me.

A predominant strain in the critical responses was to quote Scripture to disprove what I was saying, even though I made it clear that my inquiry began with a commitment to distinguishing what we (and scholars and theologians) can reasonably agree are likely to represent Jesus’ actual words (what Jesus said) versus what others such as John, Luke, and the early Church Fathers wrote and attributed to Jesus (what others said Jesus said and what others said about Jesus). I think it is the failure to make this distinction that is at the heart of the difference between those who would describe themselves or be described as “fundamentalists,” those who are more or less in the mainstream of Christianity and those who are making a serious study of Christianity.

Fundamentalism in America is generally considered to have begun with the Niagara Bible Conference (1878–1897) and is based in what are called the "five fundamentals"
• The Inerrancy of Scripture
• The virgin birth and the deity of Jesus
• The doctrine of substitutionary atonement by God's grace and through human faith
• The bodily resurrection of Jesus
• The authenticity of Christ's miracles (or, alternatively, his pre-millennial second coming)

My post addressed the second, third and fourth of these (though not the virgin birth), and by distinguishing what Jesus said from what others said he said or said about him, the first by implication or assumption, and this is what seemed to strike a nerve amongst my critics. Somehow fundamentalists seem to be able to reconcile the “inerrancy” of Scripture with the massive contradictions that there are between different accounts of the supposedly same events.

Also, the notion of inerrant scripture is, to me, untenable based on transcription and translation. In his book Misquoting Jesus Bart Ehrman makes the point that Scripture began as oral transmission that was then written down. In the absence of printing or other means of consistent reproduction, it was copied by hand, with inevitable errors in transcription. Translation of the writing into languages other than those in which it originated also led to errors of translation and differences of interpretation, raising the question of “which scripture?”

Finally, there were clear political agendas in some of the translations – for example, the King James Version translates Matthew 26:28 as “For this is my blood of the new testament which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” Leave aside for the moment that the statement (at the Last Supper), if made by Jesus at all, would have been made in Aramaic but is rendered by Matthew in Greek. The Greek is “Touto gar estin to aima mou tēs diathēkēs to peri pollōn ekchunnomenon eis aphesin amartiōn” (This is my blood of the covenant which is shed on behalf of many for forgiveness of sins). There are two glaring differences here between the KJV “translation” and the Greek “original.” First is the substitution of “testament” for “covenant” διαθήκης (diathēkēs) can mean either and also “will” (in the sense of “last will and testament”) in Greek, but in English the two words have different meanings. A testament is a witnessing (cf “testimony”) or a statement of how one’s possessions are to be distributed after death. A covenant is a binding pact. The terminology “blood of the covenant” echoes Exodus 24:8 "So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people and said 'Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with these words.'”

More troublesome, though is not the questionable translation but the insertion of a word that is not there in the original – “new testament (or covenant)” for “testament.” By adding the word new and obscuring the reference to Exodus, the KJV translators drove a wedge into the already wide gap between Jesus and his Jewish roots.

I will say again that, in the teachings we can reasonably attribute to Jesus himself, there is nothing – not one thing – that contradicts or breaks with the Judaism of what came to be (thanks to the KJV) the “old” testament. In this most moving of statements of his legacy, Jesus tied the events of his life and imminent crucifixion to the seminal event of Judaism, the making of the covenant with God at Mount Sinai.

So as I said in my earlier post, I have no problem with Jesus. I’m just trying to understand the Christ event – the crucifixion and resurrection in the context of Jesus’ life and teachings as a Jew who never claimed to be anything but “the son of man,” a term which is not understandable except in the context of the time when that term (in Aramaic bein enosh) simply meant “a human being,” and was in common usage. It was not unusual for people in those times and that language to refer to themselves in the third person, and “son of man” was a common way to do this. The prophets use that term as did other people, and it manifestly does not mean “son of God.” Jesus may have been using the term to emphasize that, even as a prophet and teacher he was a human being among human beings.

I believe that Jesus’ message was what he said it was – asked what was most essential in God’s teachings, Jesus replied “to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your power,” which is the verse in Deuteronomy at the heart of the Shema(“Listen Israel, the Lord, your God, is unity”) and to love your neighbor as yourself. As to the Christ event, whatever happened there, the message seems clear to me – never lose hope.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

I'm Down with Jesus, It's Christ that Gives Me a Problem

As a Jew it took something for me to come to terms with Jesus the Jew. For the past several years I've made an avocational study of Jesus and his followers in their historical context, namely the two hundred years from 100 BCE to 100 CE, with particular attention to the question of what we can reasonably think Jesus said versus what others said he said or said about him. That study led me to the conclusions that (a) the teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, was a Jew and never intended to be anything but a Jew; (b) as a thinking Jew of his time, he took the view that what would become known as the "Hebrew Canon" (the Torah, writings, and prophets) was a starting place for interpretation and application, not the limit of thinking. In this he was consistent with the Pharisees, the Essenes, and, a bit later, the Tanaim, the Rabbis who created the Talmud and what is today Normative Judaism.

Viewed in this light, I have asserted that Jesus was the first Reform Jew - in his view of the Law as subject to interpretation, he anticipated the Pittsburgh Platform of 1899 that founded the Reform (or Liberal or Progressive) movement and in his radical approach (e.g. "it is not what goes into your mouth that makes you unclean, it is what comes out of it") the revision of the 1899 platform in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1999 that is the source document for the modern movement.

As a result, as Jew, I have no problem presenting myself as a follower of Jesus in the tradition of the ekklesia of James in Jerusalem around 50 CE. I endorse Jesus' extension of the Law in the so-called Antitheses and find that, in my own being it rings true that if I hate in my heart, that is the equivalent of committing murder, and that if I lust in my heart, that is, in principle, adultery. I find Jesus' messages of love, charity, caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and the prisoner consistent with the Judaism I grew up in, and his insistence on God's egalitarian love for the just and unjust consistent with my read on the essence of Judaism, Buddhism, and what Huxley called the Perennial Philosophy.

So far, so good. I can be a Jew who follows the teacher Jesus as easily as (or more easily than) I can be a Jew who follows, say, the Lubavitcher Rebbe or the teacher A. J. Heschel. I can easily avoid the troublesome question of messianism - the term has been blown out of proportion not by Jesus' words but by the likes of Luke, Paul, and the early Church for reasons that seem suspiciously political to me, so I choose not to deal with it, and I avoid what I consider the simplistic "Jews for Jesus" or so-called messianic Judaism problem.

Unfortunately as I study theology, and particularly the works of Christian theologians I respect, from C.S. Lewis to Walter Wink, say, there is an issue I cannot avoid so easily. This is the issue of what these theologians call "the Christ event," the resurrection and post-resurrection activities attributed to Jesus in all the Gospels and by Paul in his account of the event on the road to Damascus.

If I hold to a strict rule of only giving credence to what we can reasonably attribute directly to Jesus, the Christ event is not a problem, and neither is the Messiah question. By this standard Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah and never concretely referred to his bodily resurrection. In short, Jesus never claimed the title Christos (the anointed one, the messiah), it was attributed to him. But both as a psychologist and as a student of history I cannot escape the thought that something must have happened. Like the parallels between the story of the Biblical flood and other myths, e.g., Gilgamesh, the similarities are too great to be coincidental. Oh sure, we can say that the Gospel writers colluded, but that's a bit too Oliver Stone for my taste. There is too much evidence in a comparative reading of the Gospels that the writers did not always give the same account of events and often blatantly disagreed - why collude in this one area?

So what happened? On the one hand if Jesus was crucified, entombed, and that was the end of him (except for a putative incident of grave robbing), then Christianity is the greatest fraud in the history of the world - one that has taken in billions and cost the lives of millions. On the other hand, if Jesus did rise on the third day, and then simply continued to teach what he had always taught (but with the added authority of having risen), what does that mean to us?

By any pre-Christian definition of the Messiah, it does not mean that Jesus was the (or even a) messiah. The messiah of the times was a political leader, a revolutionary who would break the yoke of Gentile rule over the Jewish nation - clearly that has not happened yet and certainly did not happen then. If we accept the latter-day postulate of an eschatological messiah - one that will usher in the end of times and the kingdom of God, when "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war anymore," when "the lion will lie down with the lamb," then Jesus fails this messianic test as well, the the doctrine of the "second coming" seems like an explanation that is both post hoc as well as tautological.

So if we assume that something happened and ask "what does it mean," I think that intellectual honesty and rigor requires that we attempt to answer that question in the light of Jesus' teachings, and in that regard I believe that his teachings regarding the "kingdom of God" are particularly relevant. Jesus preached a particularly strange eschatology - he taught that "the kingdom of God is (within/among) you" and that access to this kingdom (or to heaven, if you will) lay in how we treat each other in this world, now. He not only taught these principles, by all accounts he lived them. If we take his teaching at face value, and we look at his teaching methods - parables, stories, metaphors, mostly hyperbolic in the Near Eastern tradition, it is absolutely consistent that he would return from the dead to emphasize that it is in this world that his (God's) work must be done; if we take the Christ event as given, then God incarnated in Jesus not once but twice - what better way to communicate that God's work is to done here, among us, if the kingdom of heaven is to be realized?