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?

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