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The Rev. Madison Shockley is a minister of the United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, Calif. and a regular commentator on religion, race, politics and popular culture....
The Truth About Jesus
“Blessed are you who are poor” did not seem like a rational view of life, yet it was foundational to Jesus’ worldview. Income inequality was extreme, to say the least, in the Roman Empire, and most of Jesus’ audience would have been poor. So he tells them that they don’t have to do anything to gain God’s favor and a place in the Empire of God. The poor are blessed because they belong to the Empire of God. This is the same Jesus who later preached, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). His consistent message is that money is an impediment to being in right relationship with God, or righteous.
Jesus’ message was a challenge to the rich, and many heeded his call to divest and sacrificed their wealth so that other members (the poor) of the Empire of God could have enough to eat (the second beatitude is “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled”). Most commentators assume that the sadness of the rich young ruler was because he was going to miss out on the Empire of God because he refused to sell all he had (Luke 18:18-24). But I believe his sadness was not because he was going to miss out on the Empire of God, but because he was going to miss his wealth. I believe he did sell all he had, and that was hard to do. It’s not supposed to be easy for the rich to get into the Empire. They have everything else easy. This message is for the poor. They are blessed because it is easy for them to enter the Empire of God.
Jesus’ teachings conferred this remarkable status of citizen of the Empire of God on the marginalized in the Roman Empire for whom citizenship was an impossible goal. His countercultural teaching welcomed those who had been excluded from polite society and mainstream life. Sickness, mental illness (read “demon possession”), gender, slavery, poverty or many other disqualifying qualities were exactly what Jesus “redeemed” in those who followed him. Jesus was the “way, and the truth and the life” (John 14:6) for those who had no life in the conventional worlds of politics and religion. His alternative Empire gave life to those who were being crushed by the Roman Empire and its vassals governing Judea and Galilee.
The Death of Jesus
His death was historically inconsequential—a crucified Jew in Jerusalem among many hundreds who were crucified during the riotous atmosphere that often surrounded the Passover observance. Passover, a celebration of Jewish freedom, was always an anxious time under Rome’s oppressive occupation. The elaborate accounts of Jesus’ trial before the Jewish authorities were shaped by an early Christian community that wanted to distance itself from a Jewish revolt in 70 A.D. that had provoked the wrath of Rome. Thus, the infamous cry to “crucify him” is put on the lips of the Jewish crowd, while the Roman governor of the province washes his hands of the whole matter. Given that Jesus lived before the Jewish-Roman Wars but the writing of the gospels exactly overlaps the wars, it is not surprising that they would manufacture the false statements that Jesus’ own people, and presumably his own followers demanded his death over the objection of the Roman rulers.
But if we look at the death in a pre-war context, Jesus’ preaching of an alternative empire would provide ample grounds for charges of treason, which was grounds for the death penalty and specifically death by crucifixion. We then can assume that the Romans needed no encouragement to “lift him up” on the cross. It makes sense. He was posturing as the one leading the “way” to this new empire that was breaking into the midst of the Roman Empire. As unarmed and nonthreatening as Jesus’ ragtag movement must have appeared, Rome was not in the business of accommodating any competition. Crucifixion was its easy and available answer.
With his death, however, his message, his meaning and his mission were now left to others to remember, interpret and continue. It all would have been so simple if Jesus had just written his sermons down. The most likely explanation about why he didn’t write his own Gospel is that Jesus probably was illiterate. But Jesus’ story proved quite malleable in the hands of the skilled editors who would later tell his story. Initially, a wide variety of remembrances, interpretations and continuations emerged from among those who had lived with the historical Jesus. The first to put pen to paper was Paul of Tarsus (later known as the Apostle Paul). Writing in the early 50s, his mode of communication was the letter. His letters were generally written to congregations that followed Jesus that Paul had established in Asia Minor. These letters were instructional to his primarily gentile congregations on how being baptized into this new faith/cult should impact the way they lived. Sprinkled with Paul’s original theology, his letters were as often pedantic (whether Christians should eat meat or be vegetarian) as they were esoteric.
Next, a group of writings emerged in the latter decades of the first century of the Common Era (a calendar era often used as an alternative name of the anno Domini era). They had a narrative framework that presented the story of Jesus in the “gospel” format. Gospels were familiar in the Roman culture. Gospels were written about many great men, including major political and military leaders. This group of Christian writings, generally known as the canonical Gospels, soon distilled into an authoritative corpus that the early church came to use exclusively.
By the third century A.D., only the four canonical Gospels were used in teaching and preaching in any broad way. The other gospels were deemed heretical, and many were lost to history. Letters from other early Christian leaders and others written in the name of early Christian leaders circulated and were ultimately extracted into an orthodox collection that has been held as the “real” Christian writings. At the time of the writing of these “heretical” documents, however, those who read them regarded them as legitimate expressions of what it meant to be Christian in that moment.
Though the documents that became the four Gospels bear apostolic names (Matthew and John) and two alleged companions (Mark was supposed to be a companion of Peter, and someone named Luke is portrayed as a companion of Paul in the second volume of the work written by Luke), they are each anonymous. These labels were added in the second century in order to add authority to the writings.
As literary competition proliferated, the early church began to list (canonize) certain documents as useful. All others were to become heretical. It wasn’t until the fourth century that the Christian “canon” was closed. During the pre-canonical stage, many writings, many writers and many Christian communities viewed themselves as authentically representing the words, ministry and mission of Jesus. The only way they could do this was if Jesus was still alive. So, they resurrected him.
The idea of resurrection was necessary if the movement gathered around the historical Jesus was to keep moving. Paul is the only “apostle” from whom we have an authentic written product. He, however, by his own admission, was a lesser apostle because he never knew the historical Jesus but was commissioned as an apostle (one untimely born) by the “risen” Jesus. Technically, Paul’s letters are the first to speak of Jesus’ resurrection. In each of his letters in which he addresses resurrection, it is evidence of God’s vindication of the mission and message of Jesus: that Jesus’ way of life had conquered death.
All of the Gospels in their final form and Paul refer to Jesus as much, much more than a Jewish sage, wisdom prophet and sometime healer and exorcist, however. But this “more” reveals the fluid treatment that the historical Jesus received at the hands of his biographers. It seems that they mapped his footsteps rather than followed them. Each created the Jesus they needed him to be for their constituencies. Matthew mapped a very Jewish Jesus for his Jewish Christian community. Mark mapped a martyr Jesus to encourage his besieged community facing the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish war with Rome. Luke mapped a Holy Spirit that inhabited Jesus to do the work of God and inhabited his church to be the embodiment of the divine presence. And John mapped a cosmic Jesus from the beginning of time to the end of eternity. All of this is evidence that the decades separating these writings from the life of Jesus were filled with theological imagination. It wasn’t until the creedal formulations and the authority of the Christian Emperor Constantine that orthodoxy quashed alternative interpretations of Jesus, and the Christian church would emerge as an international operation of culture and power with Jesus (the) Christ as its imperial head and the bishop of Rome as his vicar.
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