Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Slums of Jerusalem?

I just read Arundhati Roy's new book, The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and Annihilation of Caste (Haymarket Books, 2017), about the debate on caste in India between Mohandas Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar, an important Untouchable activist educated at Columbia University and the London School of Economics, who wrote the Indian Constitution. 

There's a lot of history and politics to assimilate from Roy's account, and I don't feel I can comment on most of it because I don't know enough about Indian history and culture.  But this paragraph brought me up short:
Perhaps because the Western Christian world was apprehensive about the spreading influence of the Russian Revolution, and was traumatized by the horror of the First World War, Europeans and Americans vied to honour the living avatar of Christ.  It didn't seem to matter that unlike Gandhi, who was from a well-to-do family (his father was the prime minister of the princely state of Porbandar), Jesus was a carpenter from the slums of Jerusalem who stood up against the Roman Empire instead of trying to make friends with it.  And he was sponsored by big business. [location 1243 of the Kindle version]
That last sentence is a swipe at the support Gandhi received from Indian industrialists, especially G. D. Birla, who "paid him a generous monthly retainer to cover the costs of running his ashrams and for his Congress party work [location 1183]."  For now I'm concerned with Roy's characterization of Jesus, which is at best debatable.

Jesus was certainly not "from the slums of Jerusalem," but from the boondocks of Nazareth in Galilee, a week's journey away from Jerusalem.  I wonder where Roy got this; I can't recall ever having seen Jesus assigned to Jerusalem before.  Roy grew up in a Christian community in Kerala and attended something called the Corpus Christi School for part of her schooling, so she must have been exposed to Christian lore.

As for Jesus' social status, it's impossible to say anything sure about it.  The famous Nativity stories set in Bethlehem are absent from Mark, which was probably the first gospel to be written, and from John, which may have been the last of the four canonical gospels.  In Mark, Jesus is known in his hometown of Nazareth as "the carpenter, the son of Mary" (Mark 6:3); his father is unnamed, but he has several brothers and sisters.  Tekt┼Źn, the Greek word translated as "carpenter," refers to a woodworker as opposed to a metalworker or stonemason.  Jesus' neighbors' dismissive reaction to him in that verse indicates that he wasn't anyone very special, certainly not a Torah scholar or scribe, let alone a priest.  But he probably wasn't a slum-dweller either.

The gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy claiming Jesus' adoptive father Joseph as a descendant of King David, but there must have been quite a few of David's descendants around, so I don't know how exalted a status that gave Jesus.  The gospel of Luke has a similar (but different) genealogy for Joseph, and also depicts Jesus' mother Mary as a relative of the wife of a priest in the Jerusalem Temple.  We'll never know whether these stories were meant to boost Jesus' social status; one would think that being the incarnate Son of God would be distinguished enough.  I  don't think they have any historical basis at all, but that's something that will never be settled.  But if they do, Jesus' family compared well to Gandhi's in their class status.

Jesus' stance with regard to the Roman Empire is equally uncertain.  What is certain -- as certain as historical facts can be -- is that he was crucified, which means that he ran afoul of the Roman authorities who controlled Palestine in those days.  According to all four gospels, Jesus' cross bore the legend "King of the Jews," so it is likely he was executed as a political offender.  But from the gospels it's impossible to tell what his offense was.  This, like Matthew and Luke's genealogies, is understandable as an attempt by literate early Christians to make Jesus less scandalous and more respectable.

We also have Jesus' famous saying, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's."  Asked whether Jews ought to pay taxes to the Roman Empire, Jesus asked his challengers to show him a coin, which bore Caesar's likeness, and delivered that clever, evasive reply.  That it was evasive is shown by the many different interpretations it has inspired.  It wasn't enough to prevent his capture and execution by the Romans, but then according to Christian doctrine it wasn't supposed to. 

All four gospels show Jesus being just as cagey when he was brought before the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.  It's unlikely, of course, that Jesus' followers had any accurate information about what happened between his arrest and his crucifixion.  These stories were probably invented to show how Christians should behave when they were hauled before Jewish or Roman authorities.  But they don't show Jesus 'standing against' Rome.  Remember that Jesus was, according to the gospels, an end-times preacher, not a political activist.

As for "sponsored by big business," the gospels also agree that Jesus had some well-off followers who supported him financially, such as Joseph of Arimathea and  "Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their substance" (Luke 8:3).  Luke also has the story of Zacchaeus, a "chief tax-collector" who was so impressed by Jesus' cold reading of his background that he became a follower and supporter.  This story too may be an invention meant to instruct converts, but we know from Paul's letters that there were some well-to-do Christians in the early churches whose donations helped support the apostles and "the poor."  Like many religious leaders, Jesus' relation to the wealthy and to the state appears to have ambivalent.

This is a sore point with me, that I've written about before: educated, intelligent people who make remarkably misinformed claims about religion.  Jesus' politics are, as I've tried to indicate, open to considerable debate, but placed next to "the slums of Jesusalem," I don't find Roy's comparison of Jesus and Gandhi compelling; it seems to me that they may have been more alike than different.  Since I'm not a fan of either man, this isn't a problem for me.  Nor does it have a big impact on Roy's account of the enduring harm of the caste system.  It's just another of those curious lapses about religion that afflict many politically progressive writers.