Contextualizing Jesus

Churches and Sunday Schools teach the Old Testament, the New Testament, the description of the Temple, the differences between Sadducees and Pharisees, food, clothing, etc. But no mention of the Romans.

Jesus opposed those who didn’t follow the Jewish Law, and the Romans executed him

High school Ancient History teaches the rise of the Roman Empire and its acquisition of all the provinces around the Mediterranean. But no mention of Jesus.

This is like telling the story of Osama Bin Laden without mentioning the Americans – and then telling the story of the Western occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan without mentioning Islam or religious insurgents!

Historians are apparently scared of dealing with historical realities that bear upon the creation of religions; the talking snakes and virgin births and going up to heaven in chariots don’t mesh coherently with the sociopolitical narrative, so historians ignore them.

And priests and theologians are equally scared of contextualizing their stories, because the stories only make sense if they exist as detached fairytale bubbles. Their stories are self-referential, detached from reality, about a preliterate world where gods and angels walk the earth and perform magic, where demons are the cause of illness or misfortune, and where life will somehow continue after the body wears out and dies.

But Jesus was a person in a particular time and place. He was a religious Jew, an acknowledged rabbi, living under the military occupation of an idolatrous, pig-eating Western superpower – the Roman Empire. The Romans had been controlling, taxing (and sometimes looting) Palestine for a hundred years, in the face of major uprisings once a generation. When you view the words and actions of Jesus in this light, a fresh and powerful picture appears, clearly hostile to the Romans.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE ROMANS explores the life of Jesus within this historical context.

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Cannibals and resurrection

People have been playing games for thousands of years with some of the absurdity in the idea of a physical resurrection of a long-dead body. If a cannibal eats another person, so that the cannibal’s body is now made up of the other person, and the other person only exists in the body of the cannibal… then which of them owns the body that gets resurrected on the Day of Judgement?

Image result for cannibal's resurrection

A traditional way of handling “Excuse me, do you have a moment to talk about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?”

St. Augustine dealt with it, and so did John Donne, Voltaire, and Cyrano de Bergerac, and it continues to amuse writers of fantasy and science fiction. A man is eaten by a wild boar, which is then caught and eaten by other men… where is the first man now? Alternatively, what of the worms that eat a buried body, and of the things that then eat the worms? Or what of the cannibal’s sweat and piss and shit, as he disposes of parts of the person he ate?

Theologians dismiss these mind games as just that, and say that the individual will be resurrected regardless of the scattering of the original body. Why then do they pay so much attention to the care and burial of the body in the superstitious hope of physical resurrection? (Well, but of course there is a lot of money to be made from funerals…)

If you would like to read Cyrano de Bergerac’s take on things, I recommend you to the weekly online SF magazine Bewildering Stories, specifically this issue. 

The perfect Christmas gift!

The perfect way to honor and dishonor Christmas simultaneously – give a novel that recognizes the reality of Jesus without the fantasies of divinity. A novel that accounts for every bizarre action, every “miracle”, every lecture by Jesus, and makes sense of them all by contextualizing them within the Roman Occupation that he fought against.

 

Gospel According to the Romans

The perfect Christmas gift!

He chased 2,000 pigs off a cliff… why? Whose were they? What was important to him about the number 2,000?

He talked of the Good Samaritan. Why did Jews think of the Samaritans as bad? Why did Jesus want them considered good?

He talked of a son of man being dead and buried and resurrected on the third day… then he waited until the third day to “resurrect” Lazarus. (He himself was only buried for a day and a half before his body was taken from the tomb… Friday evening to Sunday morning.)

He “appeared” after his death, twice – the first time telling the disciples not to tough him because he wasn’t ascended, the second time insisting Thomas touch him although he still wasn’t ascended. Why the discrepancy?

“The Gospel According to the Romans” tells the story through the eyes of Matthew Levi, the Roman agent working as a tax collector (and therefore spy) for the Romans in Galilee. it tells what we know of Jesus’ partially Romanized childhood, of the uprisings in Galilee against the Romans, and of Jesus’ failed attempt to take over the Temple at Passover.

This is Jesus as the Jews and Romans of his time saw him. It is the perfect Christmas gift for the atheist, agnostic, or Roman or Jewish historian on your list!

Anti-Gay Referendum in Romania Fails

Religious groups are often (usually? nearly always?) behind homophobic legislation and similar initiatives. They certainly were in Romania’s referendum this weekend, which was intended to exclude same-sex couples from the definition of marriage. Despite poll forecasts of 90% support for the initiative, and the support of the powerful Orthodox church, and the unusual step by the government of extending the vote to two days instead of one… it failed.

Image result for www.bbc.com romania referendum

A combination of a boycott by gay rights groups, plus general anti-government feeling (the ruling Social Democrats had strongly supported the referendum; their leader, Liviu Dragnea, was due in court this week to appeal against a jail sentence of 3½ years for his involvement in a fake jobs scandal), plus apathy, kept the turnout to 20.4% – and 30% turnout was required for any result to be valid.

(However, in practice not much will change: Romania does not recognize gay marriage or civil unions.)

The religious rejection of gay marriage amuses me because two of the most revered figures in the monotheistic world had gay relationships: King David, whose love for Jonathan “was beyond the love of women”, and the unmarried Jesus, whose youngest disciple John was “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, i.e. in a category fundamentally different from his love for the other disciples.

jesus-with-sinners

But I guess there has always been an underground awareness of this…

There’s no “hell” in the Bible!

Michael Burch, a poet, creator of The HyperTexts and reformed fundamentalist Christian, has written the most detailed exposition I have ever seen on the issue of whether “hell” is a concept that should be accepted by Christians. The exposition has a mercifully short and clear introductory section that covers the key points – and then, for those who want to consider every possible aspect, continues at length.

Hell fantasy

Hell, as imagined by Hieronymus Bosch

Personally, as a skeptic, I find the idea of hell simply ludicrous. As Omar Khayyam says scornfully to God (in FitzGerald’s translation):

Oh Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin
Beset the Road I was to wander in,
Thou will not with Predestin’d Evil round
Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to Sin?

(“Gin” meaning “noose of hair or wire for snaring wild birds alive”… which might be the origin of the drink’s name, I suppose.)

Hell is hardly a logical product of an all-powerful Creator, unless that Creator is by nature a sadist. Rather the word that has been so often translated as “hell” is “sheol”, meaning “a grave” or “the place where all dead people go”… which is why, in Psalm 139:8, King David could say that if he made his bed in Sheol, God would be there with him.

Forget hell. It’s a stupid idea.

Chapter 9, Notes

Jesus shows an interesting approach to the Sabbath. He leads his disciples through a ripe field of grain, and they pick and eat kernels. Challenged by religious leaders for working like this on the Sabbath, Jesus brushes it off as unimportant (although elsewhere he upholds the idea that every “jot and tittle” of the Law must be fulfilled), and references a time when David and his companions, being hungry, entered the Temple and ate the consecrated bread that was only for the priests.

Jesus makes an error

Jesus makes a mistake

However, in citing the event, he makes an error in who the High Priest was at the time. He says is was Abiathar (Mark 2:25-26), whereas the scriptures state it was Abiathar’s father, Ahimelech (1 Samuel 21:1-6). This creates enormous problems for Christians who want to believe that every word in the Old Testament is true, and also that Jesus never lied or made a mistake. It can be fun to watch them tie themselves in knots over the “Problem of Abiathar”. We, who don’t suffer from their convulsion compulsions, can just assume that Jesus wasn’t quite as learned as he pretended, and move on.

Jesus also questions whether it is always wrong to do any work on the Sabbath, by asking whether it is wrong to work to help people in need. He then appears to heal a man with a withered hand. Street magicians can do this by having an accomplice in the crowd who pretends to have a deformed hand, and then have it behave normally. Or perhaps they may use more elaborate props…

Chapter 8, Notes

Chapter 8, “Matthew as Host”, takes the dinner event described in Matthew 9:10-13 and uses it to introduce almost all the main characters on the Jewish side of the novel: not just the rest of The Twelve – describing them and grouping them by their probable religious sect – but also Mary Magdalene and the key figures of Lazarus and his sister Mary of Bethany. jesus-with-sinnersMy reading of the Gospels leads me to believe that Jesus’ closest friends were, for very different reasons, Lazarus, Judas and John – and that’s how they will play out in the novel. (That would be John in front of Jesus in the illustration.)

The dinner also provides an opportunity to see Jesus turn water into wine – delight the others, get their buy-in, and see what Matthew thinks of it. As we have already seen how wine is mixed at a Roman dinner, neither we nor Matthew need be impressed.

When the neighbors show up to complain about Jesus and his disciples partying with “publicans and sinners” (tax collectors and whores), Jesus answers with both philosophical observations and the presence of his heavies.

Jesus only addresses one person in the Gospels as “friend” – and that is Judas. Rather like the 17th century Quakers, the 1st century Zealots saw only God as an authority, and therefore all people were essentially equal in importance. Like the Quakers, they addressed each other as “friend” – not that different from Communists’ use of “comrade”. Jesus’ use of the word “friend” to Judas reinforces the idea that Judas was a Zealot, and also that Jesus was sympathetic to them.

As for the Quakers, there is a charming anecdote of William Penn and Charles II, published by the Religious Society of FriendsOne of the most enduring examples of Quaker egalitarianism can be seen in a meeting between William Penn and King Charles II of England. Summoned into the presence of the King, Penn refused to remove his hat. When Charles II asked why, Penn replied, “Friend Charles, we do not uncover for any man, but only for the Lord.” Upon hearing this, Charles removed his own hat. “Friend Charles,” Penn asked, “why dost thou uncover thyself?” “Friend Penn,” Charles II replied, “in this place it is the custom for only one man at a time to keep his hat on.” This pragmatic attitude towards Quaker egalitarianism and “hat honor,” however, was comparatively rare for the time.

As with Charles, Jesus doesn’t have to have been a Zealot himself to use the term “friend” – only to have been sympathetic to and respectful of the ideology.