(Continued from Part 1, posted yesterday)
Jesus as Social Radical
In certain respects, Jesus held conservative views regarding the Law, such as his positions on divorce and oath taking. How could such a conservative teacher that advocated the love of one’s enemy and infinite forgiveness be condemned to death by Romans as a subversive? But Jesus was not just a teacher of love. Jesus was a social radical who challenged those in power. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. One cannot serve God and mammon. While clearly speaking from Jewish society and law, Jesus’ approach to life and his teaching were extraordinarily creative, and threatening to the social elites.
Jesus was a complex Jew. There is evidence from multiple attestation in multiple literary forms in the Gospels that Jesus supported one of the centers of power in Israel—the operations of the temple. He offered his support in various ways—visiting the temple, celebrating Passover, acceptance of the temple tax, sending those he healed to the priests, and so forth. Yet, while supporting the temple, he did not agree with the leadership of the temple or everything the priests did. Jewish sources tell us that the High Priest, Caiaphas, had moved the business part of the temple (the selection and selling animals for sacrifice) from the nearby Garden of Gethsemane to the temple compound in the face of popular opposition. [Correction: The last sentence should read: “…from the nearby Mount of Olives to the temple compound . . .” ] The temple also served as a central Jewish bank in which (among other things) various currencies were exchanged into the currency acceptable for the temple.
Jesus’ disruption of this commerce (the cleansing of money changers and those who sold sacrificial animals in the temple compound) may have been the act that sealed his fate on the cross. If the Romans were nervous about Jesus’ popularity, Caiaphas would be in no mood to defend Jesus after creating such a bold attack on his policies and administration. But it was the Romans who executed Jesus for political reasons.
The most threatening teaching of Jesus was the apocalyptic prediction of the utter destruction of the temple. Even the evangelists tried to soft-pedal and spiritualize the prediction.[i] The threat of large crowds that Jesus attracted, the cleansing of the temple, and the prophecy of the destruction of the temple as the center of Jewish life and banking were enough to seal his fate as a potential revolutionary.[ii]
Jesus was crucified under Pilate’s command. Pilate was known for his brutality. In a letter, Philo complained about Pilate’s cruelty and his senseless executions without trial. Josephus tells us that Pilate was eventually relieved of his position by Rome because of large scale and unnecessary executions. Clearly, the Gospels portray Pilate in a much too favorable light. Jesus, along with many apocalyptic teachers, Messianic figures or revolutionaries of his time met their fate on a cross or at the point of a sword in the first century.[iii]
Jesus was thoroughly Jewish. But he was also creative, complex and difficult to understand. Even his Christian followers did not know what to make of him:
“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Compare me to something and tell me what I am like.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘You are like a just angel.’ Matthew said to him, ‘You are like a wise philosopher.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.’ ”
(Gospel of Thomas 13:1–4, written sometime between 50 and 200 CE)[iv]
These comments by a baffled follower of Jesus must have been a typical reaction from some who chose not to follow him, as well. Jesus, like most of us, cannot be put in a box of predictable form.
This search for Jesus the Jew may be helpful. But in the end it is as confusing as Albert Schweitzer’s original quest for the historical Jesus. In his quest, Schweitzer set aside the easy and the false Jesus of liberal theology with its insistence on the purity at the meal of love and light. He found, instead, a difficult Jesus, a Jesus as apocalyptic prophet who died with prophecy unfulfilled. But his followers did not give up on the coming of the Kingdom. How can we follow an executed leader, this experiential guide to the Divine, a man that we admire, but apparently cannot quite know?
“He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”
(Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus)
On this celebration of his birthday, we all share the longing of Mormonism to restore anew the clear voice of Jesus the Jew. It is more than nostalgia. In Jesus, we place our longing to find the fundamental symbols of survival and compassion which he so gracefully manifested: “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36)
Who does not long for that hammer that will break the chains of death, guilt, and meaninglessness? Who does not await at midnight for the pouring of the water of hope into the apocalyptic mix of our social and environmental collapse? While we keep searching texts, while we listen for His voice in the silence, perhaps we have enough on this day to choose and to celebrate what he was, and still is:
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud —
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says “I burn.”
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
[i] Mark 13:1-2, 14:58, 15:29, Matt. 24:2, 26:61, 27:40, Luke 19:44, 21:6, John 2:19, Thomas 71, Acts 6:14. The prophecy proved untrue. One wall of the temple still stands—the wailing wall.
[ii] E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin Books, 1995) pp. 249-276.
[iii] See John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).
[iv] Stephen Patterson argues that this saying is independent of the synoptic tradition.