Saturday, March 15, 2008

Spartacus Died For Your Sins

Along with the Gay Magician, the image of Jesus that most infuriates New Testament scholars is that of Jesus the Revolutionary.

Many, I suppose, would deny that they’re furious about it, but as with the Gay Magician, the notion that Jesus was a political rebel produces both intemperate rhetoric and inaccurate claims by those trying to refute it. S. G. F. Brandon, for example, was the target of many attacks by his colleagues for allegedly portraying Jesus as a violent insurgent. (As with Morton Smith, Brandon’s work was also misread by laypeople who liked the way they misunderstood it.) His book Jesus and the Zealots was widely taken to be saying that Jesus was a Zealot – that is, a member of one group of the Jewish insurgents who fought against Roman control of Judea and Galilee around the beginning of the Christian era – when Brandon was really trying to establish the spectrum of politics in which Jesus lived and worked, and to situate him in it. He did think that one of Jesus’ followers, called Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13), was or had been a member of the Zealot party, but not Jesus. Brandon went so far as to publish a correction in a major scholarly journal in 1970, but it did little good: I’ve seen the accusation repeated into the late 1990s at least.

Brandon had his own biases, of course. I often suspected that underneath his careful research he imagined Jesus as a Sabra, a modern Zionist soldier. But so many of Brandon’s critics were German scholars of a certain age that I was suspicious of their preference for a quietist Jesus who wouldn’t resist the Roman Reich. (See, notably in this regard, Martin Hengel’s pamphlet Was Jesus a Revolutionist?, published in English in 1971.) On the other hand, Brandon took plenty of flack on the subject from his fellow Brits, and from Americans too. There is certainly something odd about the widespread scholarly assumption that a wish to drive out foreign occupiers of one’s land was always discreditable, so that Jesus had to be kept as far distant from such politics as possible. It never seemed to occur to Brandon’s critics that quietism is itself a political stance – or that politics and religion in Jesus’ day were no more neatly separable than they are today.

So there have been a lot of books written on the subject, by specialists and popular writers alike, and the issue isn’t likely to be settled soon, if ever. Scholars are prone, often despite their best efforts, to try to reconstruct a Jesus compatible with the Christ of orthodoxy, and especially with a respectable institutional version of Christianity. Popular writers – those who aren’t piously orthodox – tend to go for the scandalous. Both approaches sell prodigiously: everybody, orthodox or not, wants and imagines a Jesus they can relate to, so such books will go on being produced into the foreseeable future.

Today at Counterpunch, Jesus is again being trumpeted as an insurgent, by one Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D. (beware of people who routinely sign themselves with their doctorates):
Here is seen the prostitution of religion and politics for purposes of power and entitlement. Ironically, the historical Jesus was a Jewish prophet not a Christian savior. Like other Jewish insurgents of his day, he was crucified for seeking to liberate the Jewish people from the Roman Empire's brutal occupation of their country. He did not die on a Roman cross for "the sins of the world" but to rid the Jewish world of the imperialistic sins of the Roman Empire. (See Alberts, "Jesus, The Theological Prisoner of Christianity," Counterpunch, Aug. 25/26, 2007).
Contrary to the New Testament record, no resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples shortly after his crucifixion and told them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you." (Matthew 28: 16-20). This traditional Christian belief in The Trinity was a theological doctrine that actually took the early Christian Church centuries after Jesus' crucifixion to formulate. It is not really about Jesus but about hierarchical and bibliarchical imperialistic-minded Christians claiming "all authority in heaven and on earth" for themselves "in his name." It is about gaining power over people not empowering them. It is about controlling not enabling people.
If it were really about Jesus, his cross would be the oppression from which any individual or group is seeking to liberate himself or herself or itself. His steeple would be the aspirations of all people. His altar the common ground on which everyone walks.
This is rousing stuff, but it’s hogwash, except for one detail, to which I’ll return in a moment. If Jesus really sought “to rid the Jewish world of the imperialistic sins of the Roman Empire,” and Matthew’s claim that the risen Jesus had been given “all authority in heaven on earth” is a “theological doctrine that actually took the early Christian Church centuries after Jesus’ crucifixion to formulate,” why does it appear in a gospel written about fifty years after Jesus’ death? St. Paul’s letters were written even earlier, and there is no sign of the politics Albert wants, but a surprisingly fully developed theology with Jesus as a supernatural, quasi-divine figure. (This was a point that Brandon stressed, correctly, in his work.)

Paul’s Jesus was alive and present as a spirit that possessed Christians, especially Paul himself. Paul emphasized Jesus’ crucifixion, but not with any apparent political dimension: rather, the crucifixion was a supernatural event that had set Jesus free from the Jewish law, as it would free his followers, until Jesus returned. It’s certain that Paul had his differences with Jesus’ original followers – the letter to the Galatians is prime evidence – but these differences were not about politics: they were over the relevance of the Torah for Christians.

Alberts is mixed up about other things. To be a “prophet” was not to be an insurgent; in fact, the classical Hebrew prophets sometimes sided with Israel’s enemies – Jeremiah, for one, claimed that Yahweh commanded Israel to submit to Babylonian rule. Why should Jesus even have an altar, let alone one that would be “the common ground on which everyone walks”? For that matter, if Jesus was a Jewish insurgent fighting against Rome to free Israel, he was a narrow nationalistic figure – not a bad thing in itself, but hardly a universalistic “common ground” for “everyone.” Nor would a revolutionary Jesus necessarily be against hierarchy. Like the Jesus of the gospels, he might have envisioned himself as the Viceroy of Yahweh on Earth. Or maybe not; Alberts doesn’t know any more about it than anyone else, since by his own claims we know nothing about the historical Jesus but his gruesome death.

That historical ignorance doesn’t keep Alberts from pontificating that “Religion should humanize people. Enable them to live together. … To love their neighbor as themselves. Yet the very prophet who taught this humanizing commandment is himself entombed in heaven by many of his followers….” How does he know? That “humanizing commandment” came from the book of Leviticus (19.18), not from Jesus. Its importance, even according to the Gospels, was recognized by Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries. And if Jesus was an insurgent, then he was at least as interested in division and disharmony as in these pretty platitudes.

That one troublesome detail? Jesus was crucified by the Romans, and it’s likely that they saw him as one who claimed to be “King of the Jews”, as all four gospels agree with rare unanimity despite minor differences in the wording. The Romans would not have executed a man for “teaching love” or even for being a faith healer and exorcist as the gospels depict Jesus, though we know they executed other wonder-working miracle workers with "political" ambitions at around the same time. Notably, none of those messianic pretenders became the focus of posthumous cults; if Jesus was different from them in this respect, maybe he was different in other ways too. Maybe he was like Simon Magus, another reputed miracle worker whose cult reached as far as Rome. He was important enough as a competitor to rate an attack in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 8.

It wasn’t necessary, in other words, to be an “insurgent”; just stirring up the rabble would do. But if that’s so, we have no idea what Jesus did or taught during his lifetime. There’s no need to blame the later Church for this, because the process of forgetting was evidently complete among his followers within a few years of his death.

If you want to be an insurgent, a freedom-fighter, you don’t need to look to Jesus as a model. There’s Spartacus, for one, though he failed too. You could choose any of the thousands of Jews, or others, that the Romans crucified for resisting their imperium, though they failed too. The only reason to fasten onto Jesus is the prestige of the church that arose after his death, but Alberts regards that as illegitimate. Jesus is too ambiguous -- though that may be the source of his appeal: Jesus can be whatever you, or anyone, wants him to be.