Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Jesus and Institutional Religion


A friend of mine, who is a minister, recently made the following comment on his Facebook status update:
The more I learn about Jesus, the more I realize that His biggest problems weren’t with non-religious people, they were with religious people. That has major implications.
I agree with this position completely, and wanted to expand upon it by providing some textual discussion to back it up.


What does it mean to say that Jesus had bigger problems with religious people than non-religious people? As I noted in response to my friend’s comment, one must admit that “non-religious people” would have been virtually “non-existent” in 1st century Galilee, so it is not so hard to see that Jesus would have faced off against other religious people far more often (if not exclusively) than against non-religious people. The fact is, in the 1st century Jewish homeland, an atheist would have been essentially unheard of, and while some people would have been more or less pious than others, religion and religious traditions permeated every aspect of life – for the shallow and devout alike.

So the key is not that Jesus faced off more often with religious people, it’s that Jesus – as a religious person – was facing off against institutional religion. His beef wasn’t with religion itself, it was with how religion was being practiced around him. This antagonism between Jesus and institutional religion, in fact, formed the basis of Jesus’ entire life and message.

As many scholars have noted in recent years, one cannot understand the historical Jesus without understanding the Judeo-Roman context in which he lived and worked. As scholar J.D. Crossan has argued, Jesus’ message was a retaliation against the “violent normalcy” of Roman imperialism and commercialism in the 1st century Jewish homeland, and the collaboration with that Roman system by the Jewish religious and political elite.

Imagine a modern scenario in which a society with a very long-standing cultural heritage is overtaken by a new government structure. The new government begins to dramatically infringe on the traditions and rights of this old society. People are pretty upset. Imagine now that the primary and powerful religious institution of this old society not only does not fight against the new overlords, but instead collaborates with them in their oppression of the populace. Now people are even more upset, and are angry not just because of the upheaval in their ways of life, but also because they feel betrayed by their own leaders.

This is the scenario into which Jesus was born, and from within which he lived and worked. Jesus’ problem was not with Jews or Judaism. He was a Jew, after all, living and teaching from within Judaism. His problem was with Jewish leaders and their collaboration with the Roman overlords who governed their nation. In short, his problem was with institutional religion and how it was being practiced at the expense of the common Jew.

The four gospels of the New Testament continually illustrate this friction between Jesus and the Jewish and Roman elite.

With all that in mind, we will consider a few of the more famous sayings from Jesus throughout the Gospels.


From Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17; and Luke 20:25:
Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.
Many folks take this statement from Jesus as a command to pay one’s taxes and support one’s government. But when understood in context, this is a far more radical statement than that. Here, Jesus is saying that the pretty little coins with the offensive graven image of Caesar don’t interest him at all. Caesar’s coins, after all, represent the commercial oppression of the Jewish people. Caesar can keep his blood money. Instead, Jesus is concerned with what God wants.

Despite its common modern application to encourage Christians to support their political leaders, this statement from Jesus is actually a radical rejection of the political status quo and its oppressive greed.


From Luke 10:30-37:
Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite…But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds…Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
This parable of Jesus, found only in the Gospel of Luke, is every bit as radical as his statement about Caesar’s money. Among 1st century Jews, Samaritans were sinful half-breeds. They were descended from a group of ancient Jews who had intermarried with Syrian gentiles – thus making them unclean. They had their own Samaritan version of the ancient Israelite religion, which they claimed was the one true religion of Abraham. The Jews, of course, disagreed with this wholeheartedly and considered Samaritans not just as bad as gentiles, but actually worse because they were half-breeds and they followed what the Jews believed was a profane version of the Torah. They were heretics. The Samaritans even had their own holy mountain – Mt. Gerizim – which they claimed was the true location of God’s earthly home, as opposed to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In short, Jews detested Samaritans.

Typically, this parable is interpreted in modern sermons to encourage folks to care for one another, even strangers from different ethnic, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds. Though there is certainly nothing wrong with this interpretation, it often misses the true radicality of what Jesus was saying.

In Jesus’ parable, notice that the two men who pass by the injured stranger are both Jews. One is a priest, which specifically refers to a priest of the Jerusalem Temple who offers sacrifices to God on the great altar. A very powerful person in the Jewish hierarchy. The other is a so-called “Levite.” The Levites, unqualified to be priests because they came from the tribe of Levi instead of the priestly tribe of Aaron, instead became assistants to the Temple priests, singing the sacred hymns, keeping the Temple and the sacred utensils clean, performing the ceremonies of opening and shutting the temple gate, and so on. They were, essentially, junior priests.

The point here is that the two men who passed by the injured stranger were not just ordinary Jews, but specifically Jewish leaders in the Temple. By saying that the priest and the Levite passed by the injured man (who is also a Jew), Jesus is illustrating his contempt for the Jewish leadership and its collaboration with Roman oppression. The injured man represents the common oppressed Jew; the passing priest and Levite represent the Jewish leadership who, in Jesus’ opinion, and to put it frankly, don’t give a damn. More specifically, their regulations about cleanliness prevent them from helping someone who needs help. Jesus found this abominable. It was a systemic evil imbedded in the institutional religion of 1st century Judaism, and Jesus railed against it.

Rather than the powerful priest and Levite, the hero of this story is, of course, the unclean Samaritan. The half-breed. The sinner. The enemy of the Jews and, therefore, of God. A modern parallel might be “non-Christian.”

Indeed, the parable of the Good Samaritan is radical and shocking in myriad ways.


From Matthew 15:1-14:
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition…? Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him unclean, but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him unclean.”

Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

He replied, “…If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
The gospels, of course, are replete with stories about Jesus bickering with, and sometimes even openly insulting, the Pharisees. Scholars generally agree that much of the antagonism depicted in the gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees is more a reflection of Christians versus Jews in the late 1st century than it is a reflection of the historical Jesus versus the Pharisees in the 20’s and 30’s C.E. Still, there is little doubt that Jesus had run-ins with these powerful Jewish teachers.

The Pharisees were a very prominent Jewish sect during the time of Jesus. Modern rabbinical Judaism, in fact, is derived from the traditions of the Pharisees in the 1st century. The Pharisees were well-educated and influential people who provided sweeping interpretations of the Jewish scriptures. In modern parallel, they were the preachers and teachers of their day, wielding enormous influence on Jewish and even Roman leadership.

Often times, Jesus’ antagonism against the Pharisees is interpreted as a rejection of Judaism. In fact, Jesus wasn’t attacking Judaism so much as he was attacking the traditions and teachings of the Pharisees in particular. The story quoted above from Matthew is a prime example. The Pharisees had come up with countless rules and regulations, based on their reading and interpretation of Jewish scripture. Jesus wasn’t rejecting scripture when he stated that “what goes into a man’s mouth does not make him unclean.” Instead, he was rejecting Pharisaical interpretation of scripture that insisted that one was unclean, and therefore sinful, if they ate without washing their hands. For Jesus, the hate, malice, and evil that comes out of people’s mouths is what makes them unclean and sinful, not the dirty-hand tainted food that goes in.

This passage, of course, can create problems for the modern reader. Washing your hands before eating, after all, is a smart thing to do. But the reasons the Pharisees had for washing their hands had nothing to do with germs, because neither the Pharisees nor Jesus nor anyone else in the 1st century had any idea that germs cause illness. The Pharisees argued about hand washing because it was, as the passage says, a long-held tradition. It may be worth noting that there is no commandment in the Jewish scriptures (our Old Testament) about washing one’s hands before eating. Hand-washing instructions in the Jewish scriptures are few and far between, and are only in reference to Temple priests handling sacrifices, a time when they are also required to wash their feet (see Exodus 30:17-21).

In Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees, he is not attacking Judaism, nor is he attacking Jewish scripture. Instead, he is attacking the traditions, doctrines, and dogmas of institutional religion. He is providing an alternate interpretation of God and scripture, over against the common and well-known and widely-accepted interpretations and sacred traditions.


A Biblical study of Jesus shows us time and again that Jesus’ message was one of love and compassion, peace and acceptance, mercy and forgiveness. This message stood in radical contradiction to the religious traditions and political scenarios of the Jewish homeland in the 1st century. Jesus lashed out against Roman imperialism and commercialism, and the Jewish religious leaders and cultural elite who collaborated with that system. He faced off against prominent religious teachers who were more concerned about tradition and doctrine than love and acceptance.

To Jesus, the religious institution had become bloated with rules and regulations, interpretations of scripture that served the few at the expense of the many, and religious traditions that were silly and no longer made any sense in what was to Jesus the “modern” world.

As my pastor friend noted, all of this should have major implications on what it means, today, to be a Christian and a follower of Jesus on the Way.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Take Up Your Cross

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." Mark 8:34
Perhaps one of Jesus’ most familiar sayings, the instruction to take up one’s own cross has been repeated throughout Christian history to encourage the faithful and call unbelievers to salvation.

Recently, a Christian acquaintance of mine gave his own interpretation of this verse:
My personal theory [about taking up one’s own cross] entails this key phrase: “You must be born again.” This is the beginning of faith. You have to believe that he went to the cross and [was resurrected]. Lots of nice folks go to church…and never are “born again.” Now I am not putting these people down in any way, shape, or form, but the born again experience has to be “experienced” before the kingdom of God is revealed to anyone.
My perspective on Jesus’ instruction to “take up your cross” is somewhat different. Before I get to that, it’s instructive to consider the phrase historically.

The saying first comes to us in the Gospel of Mark, written around 70 C.E. It was later copied by Matthew and Luke, who used Mark as a source. Matthew changes the wording somewhat, but sticks with Mark’s general theme. Luke copies Mark word for word, but makes one slight change, saying that people must take up their crosses “daily.” This slight change seems intended by Luke to ensure that no one misunderstands Mark to be suggesting that Christians should martyr themselves like Jesus – in other words, Jesus is speaking metaphorically; he’s not commanding people to martyr themselves. One has to wonder if perhaps members of Luke’s target community weren’t encouraging one another to martyr themselves because they thought Jesus had commanded it.

In any case, we also find this saying in the Gospel of Thomas. The Thomas gospel is contentious because scholars disagree on when it was produced. Many believe it is a product of the 2nd century – relatively “late” as Christian scripture goes. Others date it around the time of the four Biblical gospels, and still others suggest that in its original form, it pre-dated the Biblical gospels completely and was written around the time of Paul’s letters, perhaps the 50’s C.E. Regardless of one’s own perspective on the correct dating of the work, many (perhaps most) experts agree that it is independent of the four gospels of the New Testament – meaning that its author was not familiar with those texts and was not using them as source material.

This is important because one criterion that historians use to judge the historical reliability of Jesus’ sayings is the so-called “independent attestation.” If a saying shows up in two or more early texts that are independent of one another, the likelihood is higher that the saying goes back to the historical Jesus. If a saying only appears in one text, or if it appears in multiple texts but those texts are not independent of one another, the saying still might be authentic, but there is less certainty about it. For instance, if a saying appears in Mark and also shows up in Matthew and/or Luke, that still only counts as one attestation because we know Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. Since Take Up Your Cross appears in both Mark and Thomas, it passes the criterion of multiple independent attestations.

This one criterion, however, does not necessarily give the entire story. Historians must also consider whether a saying fits in with historical context. In the case of Take Up Your Cross, this becomes an issue. Obviously, we know that Jesus’ life ended when he was arrested by the Jewish authorities, handed over to the Romans, convicted of sedition, and executed on a Roman cross. Before any of that happened, it is unlikely that followers of Jesus, or even Jesus himself, would have thought to make a religious metaphor out of a Roman execution device. Thus, this saying does not seem to pass the criterion of historical context. It seems far more likely that this saying was produced by post-resurrection Christians, thinking back on the life and death of Jesus. He was crucified on the cross; therefore we, as Christians, must also take up our own crosses.

Some might argue that since Jesus was God in the flesh, and since he routinely predicts his own death in the gospels, and since the gospels themselves are the infallible Word of God, Christians must accept on faith that Jesus, in fact, made this statement. To deny that may seem to some Christians as lack of faith at best, and blasphemy at worst. Indeed, such a position is faith-based, and faith-based beliefs are outside the realm of a historian’s work. I tend to agree with scholar and theologian Marcus Borg, who argues that one can believe on faith whatever they want, but what matters most is what it all means for us as Christians. Believe what you will about the nature of the resurrection, for instance, but what does it mean for you if you are a Christian?

I’ll get to the meaning of the Take Up Your Cross saying in a moment, but for the present, there is one more historical issue to consider. I have noted that while Take Up Your Cross passes the criterion of multiple independent attestations, it does not seem pass the criterion of historical context. However, there is at least one other aspect of historical context to consider.

Put simply, Jesus wasn’t exactly the first Jew to be crucified on a Roman cross. Nor was he the first Jew widely considered by other Jews to have been crucified unjustly. By the time of Jesus’ death, the Romans had been in charge of the Jewish homeland for nearly a century, and countless Jews had suffered martyrdom and persecution under their Roman overlords. This imperial oppression, in fact, was the primary impetus for Jesus’ entire life and message. You can’t possibly understand Jesus without understanding the Roman-Jewish context in which he lived and worked. Jesus’ message was prompted by resistance to the systemic evil of Roman commercialism and oppression, and Jewish high priestly collaboration with that oppression, in the first part of the first century C.E.

The point to be taken here is that plenty of pious Jews had been unjustly executed on Roman crosses long before Jesus ever came on the scene. In that sense, it is not difficult to imagine that Jesus may have used cross imagery in some of his teachings – such as the Take Up Your Cross saying at issue in this essay. If that’s the case, then this may indeed be an authentic saying of the historical Jesus, but I would argue that Jesus was likely referring to these pious Jewish martyrs, and not necessarily to his own future death. It only became about his own demise after he was executed.

So we have seen that Take Up Your Cross passes the criterion of multiple independent attestations, and might also pass the criterion of historical context. If it passes both, then I would be inclined to argue that this saying likely did come from the lips of the historical Jesus. But that second criterion is, for me, tentative at best, and I am more inclined to argue that Jesus probably never made this statement. The strength of the metaphorical cross imagery is simply too strong, too perfect, to imagine that it goes back to Jesus himself. As I noted above, only after his execution would the image of the cross have provided a powerful religious metaphor for Christians. Prior to that, a Roman execution device would hardly have been seen as religiously powerful, earlier Jewish martyrdoms notwithstanding.

As I alluded to above, all of this deals with the mode of the story: is it historically accurate – did it come from the lips of the historical Jesus – or was it created by Christians attempting to understand Jesus in light of his execution and their belief in his resurrection? I’ve given my own, albeit tentative, opinion on this, but what matters most is not the mode, but the meaning. What does the Take Up Your Cross saying mean for us as Christians?

I quoted my friend’s opinion above, and I noted that my own perspective was different. For me, Take Up Your Cross is an instruction that encourages Christians to follow Jesus on the Way. The Way was the euphemism used by early Christians to describe the Christian lifestyle – the path of God’s kingdom as illuminated by Jesus of Nazareth (“Narrow is the gate and difficult is the Way” as Jesus says in Matthew 7:14). In modern English translations, the euphemism is frequently lost because the word is often translated as “road,” giving the implication of a physical street. (Consider the story of blind Bartimaeus from Mark 11:46-52. After being healed of his blindness, many modern translations tells us that Bartimaeus “followed Jesus along the road” as he made his way to Jerusalem. What that passage really says is that Bartimaeus, after being made to see by Jesus, “followed Jesus on the Way” – in other words, he became one of Jesus’ disciples, “taking up his cross,” as it were, and following him to Jerusalem).

“The Way” is Jesus’ lifestyle of compassion and selflessness, love and mercy, openness and togetherness, acceptance and grace. It is a path diametrically, but nonviolently, opposed to the status quo and the powers that be, opposed to the systemic evils of the world, evils that oppress people and mock God’s desire for social justice. It is a nonviolent resistance to oppression and domination, cruelty and coercion – in short, the status quo of human civilization.

This is what “take up your cross” means for me. It means following Jesus on the Way, a path opposed to civilization’s violent and oppressive normalcy of power and greed, revenge and malice, self-interest and avarice.