No one (well, almost no one) wants to die

The human desire to avoid death is instinctive, genetically programmed, and can only be overcome with great difficulty. People don’t think of actual “immortality”, of living “forever”, but they don’t want to die quite yet. Not this year. And if they are offered the option of somehow continuing to live on after death, in a nice place, and made young and healthy again, they will choose to believe it’s possible, unlikely though it might seem.

Rumors were always out there, inspired by hopes and dreams and visions, that there was a place on Earth where you could live forever. Maybe Dilmun (now Bahrain) where Gilgamesh sought out Utnapishtim the Faraway, survivor of the Flood… Maybe in the West, where the sun goes, beyond the Gates of Hercules, the Isle of Avalon, you can get there from the Grey Havens…

And others (more primitive in their thinking, or more advanced) say No, when you die you get put in a hole in the ground or your body is burned and that’s the end. In the time of Jesus, that was the Sadducees’ position. As wealthy and influential collaborators with the Romans, they didn’t like the idea of any Egyptian-style afterlife and assessment of their morals. But the Pharisees expected a resurrection of the body, so that God could manifest his essential justice and reward the good and punish the evil, and balance out their otherwise unfair lives.

Religious Jews of Jesus’ time certainly thought resurrection of the dead was possible. There are three stories in 1 and 2 Kings of people being restored to life: one an intervention by God after Elijah prayed; one a raising from the dead by Elisha; and the third being a dead man who was thrown into a tomb and came back to life when his body touched Elisha’s bones.

Raising the dead was therefore a good indicator of a prophet. Jesus not only claimed to have brought back the daughter of Jairus, and a young man in his own funeral procession, and his friend Lazarus, but he commanded his disciples to raise the dead (as well as heal the sick). Peter and Paul were each said to have raised a dead person on different occasions, as recorded in Acts.

And at the moment that Jesus died, Matthew records that the earth shook and tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people were restored to life. (They were a little slower than Lazarus, because Matthew also says that they didn’t come out of their tombs until Jesus’ own resurrection, a day and a half later, when they went into Jerusalem and appeared to many people.)

So not all these stories are coherent, let alone credible, but that’s not the point. The point is that humans want to believe that they aren’t going to die. In fact when you offer a belief in the afterlife to someone for the first time, they rarely assess it on grounds of logic, but they choose what to believe regardless.

Modern thinking about an ancient problem

A classic example is the story of Radbod, ruler of Frisia from about 680 to 719. He was nearly baptized a Christian, but then refused when he was told that he wouldn’t find any of his ancestors in Heaven after his death, because they hadn’t been baptized. He said he would rather spend eternity in Hell with his pagan ancestors, than in Heaven with his enemies – especially the Franks. He chose not to be a Christian because he preferred the idea of the Germanic afterlife to the Christian one. Or because his family loyalties were more important than the wishes of God. Or because he couldn’t really tell the afterlife ideas apart, and feasting with Woden is more fun than sitting around on a cloud singing hymns of praise.

The pagan afterlife party (until it all ends in Ragnarok) is one version; the Muslim paradise for believers is another; Hindus and Buddhists see you coming back to life in a different way; Taoists and others let you keep on living as long as your descendants keep on looking after you – buying and burning the things the priests sell, paper money, paper houses.

And as science slowly puts an end to all this wishful thinking, is it any wonder that we start looking to science for genetic intervention and rejuvenation, with the fallback of cryonics as a sort of ambulance to the future if we die before the medical miracles are fully developed?

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The Miracles, 2 – Feeding 5,000 and feeding 4,000

Jesus mostly avoided the big cities, and instead held his mass rallies in the countryside where he was free of interference from the Romans and their Sadducee collaborators. He became a wanted man, and was constantly on the move: “The birds have their nests, and the foxes their dens, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Jesus looks for pricing on a bulk volume deal.

His message was always the same: the unity of the Jewish people, the need for purification and submission to the will of God. And he made his points by stories (parables) and by vivid events (stage-managed miracles).

When he preached in the countryside he could attract crowds of up to 5,000 people. Obviously he didn’t just start talking, and have that many people show up spontaneously. These were publicized events. As at an outdoor event like Woodstock, some people would have brought food and drink with them, and others wouldn’t. But here there was nowhere to get food if you needed it.

Having preached to a large crowd, he would have a small boy come up and offer to share food – “five barley loaves and two small fishes”. He would praise the spirit of the boy, and ask everyone to sit down where they were, and for those who had brought food to share with whoever they were next to. They were all Jews, they were all God’s children, they were all one family. Jesus and the disciples and the whole crowd would share food between them as a communal celebration for one large family, and reinforce his teachings and their bonds as a single chosen people.

The miracle was in getting 5,000 people to share their food with strangers.

(And it was all done without rock music or recreational drugs.)

Who were the Twelve?

Jesus attracted a wide range of Jewish followers, both men and women. Inasmuch as he was trying to get all Israel to turn away from foreign influences and back to the Mosaic Law, he was talking to all parts of Jewish society.

It would be reasonable, then, for his closest followers to include representatives of the various philosophies and social classes, and to be a cross-section of Jewish male society. When Jesus debated with “the Pharisees”, for example, there is no reason to think that they weren’t members of the Twelve.

Jesus and the Twelve

In “The Gospel According to the Romans” I identify the Twelve in this way:

    • The fishermen James and John, and Andrew and Simon Peter – illiterate, unaffiliated with a particular philosophy, but anti-Roman
    • Judas Iscariot (or “the Sicariot”) and Simon Zealotes (“the Zealot”) as Zealots – part of the armed resistance to the Romans
    • Little James and his brother Judas Thaddeus as Essenes who avoided Romans
    • Philip and Bartholomew, Pharisees who argued about correct attitudes regarding the Law and the Romans
    • Thomas, a Sadducee willing to make allowances for the Romans
    • Matthew, a foreign-born Greek-educated Jew who had worked for the Romans – a lost sheep who was returned to the flock

This covers the range of Jewish men. Jesus also had a diversity of  women among his followers, such as the three who lived in Tiberias at Herod Antipas’ court: Mary Magdalene; Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza; and Susanna. A couple more, Mary and Martha, were sisters of Lazarus, close associates of Jesus, and assistants at the resurrection of Lazarus.

The Four Philosophies

Judaism in the time of Jesus was monotheistic, but not monolithic. Josephus famously divided Jewish thought in four: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and “the fourth philosophy”. They all awaited the Messiah, or Anointed One, a leader anointed by God who would reunite the Jewish tribes and, perhaps, rule them as King of Israel directly descended from David. How the Messiah would appear – born as a child, or descending from Heaven – was not certain. (But he would be a man, not a God or some Son of God.)

Sadducees - the pro-Roman philosophy under the Occupation

The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection. With no real sense of an afterlife, let alone a Day of Judgment, they were inclined toward what was presently available. They were comfortable working with (or for) the Romans, and therefore were the religious and political ruling class among Jews.

The Pharisees believed that, God being just, all people would have to be resurrected so that they could be appropriately rewarded. This sentiment was more attractive to the lower classes than to the rulers, and the Pharisees were stricter than the Sadducees about social justice, adherence to the Law and not collaborating with the Romans.

The Essenes sought purity by withdrawing from everything to do with the Roman occupation – they didn’t like the idolatrous coins, let alone having to pay taxes, so they lived in isolated communities away from the cities.

And the Fourth Philosophy was that of the military resistance to the occupation: the Zealots. Heroes and patriots, or robbers and murderers, depending on your point of view, they led province-wide insurrections about once a generation for a period of 200 years – from the time the Romans occupied Palestine, until the Romans finally massacred, enslaved and deported almost the entire Jewish population.