Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Ministry of Jesus

On the messageboard where I debate religion and politics, a lot of people frequently assert that Jesus - aside from being a run-of-the-mill wisdom teacher - never really did anything earth-shattering or monumentally important. He taught some valuable lessons, although they weren't necessarily original, but all in all he wasn't much different than countless other inspirational people over the centuries.

That's something I disagree with profoundly, and recently I was asked to support my arguments that Jesus, in fact, broke a lot of barriers and attacked cultural conventions and norms in a way that was unique and not at all run-of-the-mill.

A traditional believer, of course, would simply point to that little old thing we like to call the resurrection. Pretty monumental and earth-shattering, no? But the debates I involve myself with on the messageboard tend to revolve around historical data, not metaphysical claims. So the response I'm going to copy here doesn't discuss metaphysical claims, but historical analysis of who the Jesus of history really was.

I was asked to give "5 points," so here they are:


1. Jesus challenged entrenched religious wisdom of his day.

Over and over again in our earliest accounts of Jesus' life, Jesus is seen attacking oppressive religious principles. Ancient Jews, for instance, followed rigorous dietary restrictions. Jesus challenged that. "What goes into one's mouth does not make him unclean, but rather what comes out of his mouth makes him unclean."

Dietary restrictions may seem innocuouse on the surface, but you must keep in mind the historical context. This wasn't 21st century North America. This was 1st century Palestine, and suggesting in that era that Mosaic dietary laws were nonsense would be like suggesting today that drugs should be legalized. This was a shocking and troubling sort of challenge for the conventions of the day.

[Perhaps better than the drug legalization analogy I used on the messageboard, consider someone in modern America asserting that guns should be outlawed - Jesus' message on dietary restrictions would have been received the same way by 1st century Jewish culture as gun bans would be received by 21st century American culture.]

2. Jesus challenged racism, xenophobia, and cultural exclusivity.

One of Jesus' most famous teachings is on the Good Samaritan. In 1st century Judea, Samaritans had the same status that Italians had in the U.S. in 1900. They were half-breeds. They were untrustworthy foreigners. They were unclean because they were half-Gentile. Jesus challenged his followers to look beyond cultural identity, race, and xenophobic fears by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. The story says that all people, regardless of culture, creed, or color, are capable of good and worthy of love.

Other examples exist too...for instance Jesus' tendency to associate with the "scum of society" - zealots, tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, etc. Jesus asserted that all of these people were worthy of love and acceptance, not just the powerful, the wealthy, and the pious.

3. Jesus reinterpreted deeply held "truisms."

Jesus is often depicted stating some bit of common knowledge from his culture, and then reinterpreting it. These are known as the "You have heard it said...but I say to you" sayings. "You have heard it said an 'eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, if a man slaps you on one cheek, turn the other to him as well. Don't resist and evil-doer."

Jesus was turning common knowledge on its ear. He was challenging the entrenched justice system of his day. He was advocating peace in a society of revenge and retribution.

[Imagine someone showing up at your pulpit and suggesting that one of God's own commands to humanity, given in a revered holy text - a command about personal injury and punishment - was all wrong and should be disregarded.]

4. Jesus broke with the patriarchal society of his day.

One of the things historians can know with relative certainty about the historical Jesus is that his group of followers and companions included a lot of women. We all know that women in the 1st century were second class citizens. This was especially true in Palestine.

Jesus, however, is continually depicted having close women followers. Women are universally agreed by the Gospels to have been centrally involved in the resurrection. One account tells us that women helped "finance" Jesus' ministry. Women are frequently mentioned traveling with Jesus.

This, like so many other things about his ministry, would have been shocking and scandalous in the 1st century.

[From a later post:]

I've heard many historians point out that the stories that we have of Jesus life come to us from within, and as a product of, that ancient patriarchal culture. When you take that into consideration, the likelihood is that the Gospels - if anything - actually downplay the role of women in Jesus' ministry and in early post-resurrection Christianity.

Take for instance the authentic letters of Paul. There are about 7 of them, perhaps 8 or 9. At least 3 letters attributed to Paul in the NT were almost definitely NOT written by Paul. In these authentic letters of Paul, you never hear negative female stereotypes typical of 1st century culture.

Instead, women are treated as though they are on equal footing with men. Women are named as apostles (missionaries), deacons, church leaders, letter-bearers, even prophets. At the end of Romans (for instance), Paul greets 16 or 17 different people, almost half of which are women, and the letter itself was apparently carried to Rome by a woman missionary.

That demonstrates that even 3 decades after Jesus' death, women were still playing a vital role in Christian communities, leftover from their important role in Jesus' ministry.

Later, in the last few decades of the 1st century, the role of women began to fall prey to the dominant patriarchal culture. Letters like 1 and 2 Timothy, written in Paul's name, suddenly assert strict restrictions to what a woman can and can't do. Early church fathers make clear that only men are in charge of the emerging Christian religion. Scribes begin adding phrases to some of Paul's authentic letters making it sound to us today like Paul was a misogynist (such as the out-of-place and contradictory passage in 1 Corinthians suggesting women can't speak in church - even though in the same letter Paul had earlier talked about women prophesying in church!).

It was during this same era - the late 1st century - that most of our accounts of Jesus' life were written. So they no doubt were influenced by the diminishing role of women in Christianity.

Despite that, they still show a fairly obvious high involvement of women in Jesus' life. Again, that indicates that if anything, our stories of Jesus' life actually
downplay the role of women, and this is why you frequently hear historians assert that not only did Jesus have female followers, but that women may have even been honest to God (excuse the pun) disciples of Jesus, among his core group of companions.

And it makes perfect sense within the greater context of his ministry to the outcasts and rejects of society.

This is one reason why I don't have a shred of respect for any modern congregation that disallows women in ministry roles. It's not only offensive from within a modernist perspective, it's obscenely inconsistent with Jesus and earliest Christianity.

5. Jesus negated norms and conventions in society.

The society of Jesus' day said that the wealthy were blessed. Jesus asserted that it was the poor who were blessed. Society said the strong would conquer the earth. Jesus said the meek would conquer the earth. Society said the warlike emperor was the son of God. Jesus said the peacemakers were sons of God.

Jesus was an intinerant preacher. He lived in a rural area that was experiencing massive urbanization and commercialization by the Roman empire. What had once been regarded as God's land, caretaken by the Jews, was now being overrun by Roman commercialism. In Jesus' first 20 years of life, for instance, the Romans cities of both Tiberias and Sepphoris were built in Galilee, in Jesus' backyard.

Jews saw their ways of life ending. Jesus, in particular, would have seen enormous rises in poverty and destitution among peasant Jews whose livelihoods could no longer continue under the growing commercialism of Rome. Landowning Jews were becoming landless laborers and ultimately out-of-work laborers. Jesus no doubt came from that group of people, and he used his ministry to call people into newness of life. All the conventions and norms of the old life were passing away. Jesus preached a message of hope to those whose hope was gone, to those who had lost everything, to those who were the outcasts and rejects of a society whose very systemic nature demanded a class of expendables.

[I've heard one historian note that Jesus' rather infamous teaching about "hating" one's mother and father, spouse and child (Luke 14:26), was not so much directed at those who still had families to lose, but rather to those dispossessed who had already lost their livelihoods, families, etc.]


In short, Jesus was a radical liberal. J.D. Crossan calls him a "radical egalitarian." His was a message of world-negating. He saw a world of systemic evil, and he fought it and challenged it.

He didn't worship a holy text; he challenged it. He didn't acquiesce to the religious conventions and traditions and dogmas of his day; he attacked them. He didn't quietly accept the status quo of society; he negated it through his actions of communal teaching, eating, and healing.

Jesus challenged practically every epistemological aspect of his culture and society. That, in my opinion, makes him profoundly unique for his time, historically important, and spiritually relevant.

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