July 31, 2003
The shape of righteousness

In the comments to a recent post Rob threw out a topic for discussion: "Deuteronomy 28: 15-68 The God of Jesus?" He went on to explain:

I can't get the verses from Deut. that I cited out of my head. I can't reconcile the horror expressed in those lines to anything in the New Testament, or even in the Koran. Certainly, IMHO, this is not the God to whom Jesus prayed...

I haven't read Deuteronomy and, frankly, as I slide toward vacation I don't feel like starting now. But I kind of dealt with a similar problem back when I was blogging Exodus, where I got into an unusually acrimonious debate with Telford about God's persecution of the Egyptians.

I don't think I specifically addressed what the relation to Jesus could be, since I don't think I have as strong an opinion about Jesus' character as Rob does. Despite having a lot of great lines, Jesus doesn't appear to me as the image of perfect goodness and holiness that he seems to be to most Christians. Nonetheless, there's obviously enough there to keep me interested, and to make real the sort of problem that Rob brought up.

I don't have an answer, but Mark's recent post seemed to me to be thematically related. Mark was reacting to a recent discussion among Catholic bloggers about praying for one's enemies, and noted a recurring phenomenon:

But I've noticed in this and in many recent issues that there is a tendency to throw up one's hands in frustration and wonder if some revealed truth is now so distorted or taken so literally or not taken literally enough that we're now in a kind of theological la-la land. I'm thinking of comments like:
Okay then, when could there ever be a just war!

So are you suggesting that somehow everyone is saved?

If that's really what the pope said, then I'm jumping ship!

Or my favorite, something I ran across when I started reading blogs over a year ago, a post, I think on . . . well, let's do a search on it since I think it had "neck" in it and I think it was over at relapsed catholic. . . Ah yes, here it is from April of 2002:
Jesus said that some evils could only be driven out by prayer and fasting.

Yup, God help me: I'm a pretty hard-hearted gal. So I can't go along with some of my fellow Catholic bloggers, who support the U.S. Bishop's church-wide Day of Reparation for sex abuse crimes.

The idea that "we are all guilty" is a trendy modern notion, but one I can't square with the words of Christ. It would be better if a millstone were tied around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, he said about anyone who destroyed the innocence of a child.

Implicitly, someone has to stay dry. And do the tying. I'm delighted to volunteer. . .

This is a perfectly understandable opinion and it's clever enough to have stuck in my head from so long ago. But I think most would agree that someone staying in the boat to do the tying of millstones on necks and then shoving the millstone laden folks overboard may not quite be the point of the Gospel passage. I don't think the point is something like, "many are called, few are chosen, and some get to tie millstones around the necks of others."

I had to smile at the last one because, even though Jesus is a murky figure to me and I profess little understanding of the Gospels, there are certain times when I think, "Wow, that reading is just wrong!", indicating that I have more opinions than I think.

But anyway, I think we're talking about a similar problem here. The conservative Catholics Mark addresses tend to be more concerned about insufficient punishment of the wicked, while Rob and I tend to be more put off by all the smiting and stoning in the Old Testament, but the issue is the same: sometimes God just seems to go against our internal moral compass.

Many people I know respond by saying that therefore, Christianity is wrong. Mark takes a the opposite tack, quoting an amusing line from M.D. Molinie:

We must accept the fact that one by one our poor little ideas are gently being splintered in the tender darkness of God.

In other words, we should conform to God, not vice versa.

I, as usual, feel somewhere in the middle. I am very attached to my internal moral compass. I am too familiar with the temptation to compromise. That was why one of the ironies of Bible blogging is that, while liberal secularists such as myself have a reputation for moral relativism and evangelical Christians are supposed to be moral absolutists, it was Telford who kept pleading with me to be more flexible, and me that kept refusing to budge.

On the other hand, I also know very well what Mark is talking about. I gather that many of the cradle Christians he refers to have to fight the assumption that what God believes, and what the subculture they grew up in believes, and their own internal morals are all the same, but I can make no such assumption about myself. Simply going on this quest goes against the grain of a lot of things I was brought up with. And more to the point, I recognize my own limitations. If I felt that my own will, feelings and attitudes were enough to guide me through life, I would not feel this lack, this "God-shaped hole." I have followed them thus far, and they've gotten me somewhere but not really where I want to be. I know that something's going to have to get splintered if I am to become more than I am, and that is the most appealing and the most frightening thing of all.

Posted by Camassia at July 31, 2003 09:24 AM | TrackBack

What I meant to ponder by the reference to Deuteronomy is whether Christians need (or even, perhaps, should) have reference to the Pentateuch when meditating on the problem of Good and Evil.
Jesus also said, Why do you call me good? Only God is good. It is hard for me to call the god of Deut. 28: 15-68 "good".
As for the millstone saying, my take is that it would be better for the child abuser to have been cast into the sea PRIOR to having molested the child, so that he would thereby have avoided the much worse punishment to come in the hereafter for that particular sin. We need not even try to imagine who is in the boat: our task to not to be in the position of the one to be punished.

Posted by: Rob on July 31, 2003 01:07 PM

The god of Deuteronomy is Yahweh, and Yahweh is a terrible being; one to be feared indeed. So far as I know, however, Jesus never refers to God as "Yahweh". He usually refers to his "Father". He often calls God "Abba". I have read that Abba can be translated as "Papa", or as "Daddy"; it is an intimate and loving word for father. I think that this (if I have it right, and I would appreciate being corrected if I do not) way of addressing God makes it clear that Jesus's conception of God is not consistant with the conception attributed to Moses in the Pentateuch. Moreover, it is that Old Testament conception of God that has allowed for most of the violence and hatred that has been perpetrated by "Christians" in Jesus's name. My question then, is: is that part of the "Old Testament" that is dominated by Yahweh a useful set of documents for followers of Jesus?

Posted by: Rob on July 31, 2003 06:06 PM

Yeah, my take on the millstone story was similar, which is why Kathy's interpretation seemed so wildly off. (It also seems strange that she thinks the "we're all guilty" notion is a trendy new thing, since it's right there in Romans, but that's another subject.)

In regard to your first point, well, that's a very very old debate in Christianity. I mean, people are already arguing in the New Testament about how much they're bound to the Old Testament. Moreover, the early Christians sects, the Gnostics and Marcionists, rejected the idea of Yahweh as Jesus' father at all, for pretty much the reason that he seemed like too much of a bastard.

The problem with that is that it raises more questions than it answers. If Jesus wasn't Yahweh's son, who was he? Why do the four standard gospels have him repeatedly affirming Yahweh, and why was this the prevalent view in the early church, despite the other sects? (He may not refer to God as "Yahweh" -- I don't think any Jew did at the time -- but he referred to the Prophets and other OT characters often enough.) And if we don't accept the Jewish cosmology, what is our cosmology? The Gnostics had their own strange polytheistic cosmology whose origins I'm not sure of (I think it grew out of certain Greek cults of the day); the Marcionists I don't know about.

Anyway, I've heard various explanations from Christians today about why God would act like he did in Moses' day. It was an evolutionary thing; Moses was the beginning, and Jesus was the fulfilment. It was a savage world the Israelites lived in, and God was speaking their language. God was acting like a god in the OT, and not something any human should act like, and only in Jesus did he give us an example to follow. God showed his true character in Jesus, and that was good, so even if his OT behavior looks bad there must have been a reason for it.

There's a certain sense to all of those. In fact, I remarked when I blogged the lawgiving part of Exodus that even though those laws seem really harsh, they were actually an improvement upon the informal tribal justice of the time. But what makes me uneasy -- and I gather what makes you uneasy too -- is what it all says about the character of God. It does not incline me to trust him, which has always been the big stumbling block.

Posted by: Camassia on July 31, 2003 06:29 PM

Oh, and the usual explanation I hear about Jesus' different way of addressing God is that this signaled not a different god, but a different relationship with him. In the OT, before the Atonement, the relationship of God and humans was distant because of our sin and all, but Jesus had an intimate relationship with God that his followers can participate in.

Posted by: Camassia on July 31, 2003 06:40 PM

"Abba" does not mean Daddy. It simply means Father. For an excellent brief discussion of this, see Geza Vermes, "The Religion of Jesus the Jew", pp. 180-83; he also references an important article on this by James Barr (p. 180, n. 37).

It is also important to know that Judaism had changed a lot by the 1st century from the days of Hebrew scripture. Jesus is actually much closer to the world of rabbinic literature than he is to the world of the Hebrew Bible. In rabbinic lit., you will find many intimate references to God. Not only is God a father in rabbinic lit., but at times a mother eagle or any number of other metaphors. God is a kindly boss who will never turn anyone away. However much you pester him, he will answer you. As it says (in the Jerusalem Talmud, I think), God is near with every kind of nearness. You will also find a deep struggle to get away from the world of anger and punishment in the Hebrew Bible. The rabbis say that God rebuked the angels for rejoicing when the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. These are my children, God said. Compassion and affection are the keynotes of God in rabbinic lit. The rabbis even depict God praying to himself for his compassion to overcome his anger. That is the world Jesus was raised in.

Posted by: Leon Zitzer on July 31, 2003 07:29 PM

In part of the verses of Deut. I suggested you read, Yahweh threatens to invoke a curse upon the disobedient that would result (among many other dire things) in women hiding their new-born babies from their husbands and other children, in order that those women may eat the babies themselves, rather than having to share, those women having been driven to such extremes by a Yahweh-induced, maddening hunger. I don't find this kind of thing useful to my spiritual quest. There is not even a remote echo of this kind of thing in reaction of Jesus to transgressions. If the conception of God has evolved from the time of Moses to the time of Jesus, hurrah! But, on the other hand, if American Christians today are still persecuting homosexuals, based on verses from Leviticus, boo! What happened to that evolutionary trend? The worshippers of Yahweh are seen perpetrating ethnic cleansings against peoples put "under the ban" by Yahweh throughout the books of Moses and beyond: not a useful model, I think, in a world rife with WMD.
All that old, flint-age stuff can be used selectively to justify any kind of prejudice and to perpetrate violence in the pursuance of any ends that become expedient. It is very difficult to use the New Testament ALONE to further your greed, your ambition, or to justify your use of power to objectify and subjugate your fellow man.
To cite one example: Did Jesus say anything that would justify the decision of George W. Bush, as governor of Texas, not to commute the death sentence of Karla Fay Tucker to life without parole? Yet George claims to be a born-again Christian. I maintain that Karla Fay was a human sacrifice, made to Yahweh on an altar called Security: an eye for an eye. Would Jesus have approved?
It seems to me that the new conception of God and the old conception of God coexist in our world, and that they are in conflict, and that this conflict represents a de facto polytheism, since both gods exist simultaneously in the hearts of many contemporary "Christians".
To this extent, perhaps some of the criticism aimed against Christians by fundamentalist Muslims is not so far off base. (But that's a whole new can of worms.)
The God of Love does not cause you to eat your children.

Posted by: Rob on July 31, 2003 07:37 PM

Leon--thank you for your clarification on Abba. I think that I read the "daddy" thing in one of the books by one of the members of The Jesus Seminar. Since I disagree with most of those peoples' conclusions, I will readily discard the "daddy" concept.
My point about the part of the Bible that Christians call the Pentateuch is that it is used to justify behavior that, under the "evolved" conception of God, are seen as evils. God is eternal and does not evolve. If those biblical texts are based on human error, why do we (Jews and Christians) preserve them within the canon? Why not relegate them to literature shelf, and with that act remove from our lives all temptation to use Yahweh as a moral exemplar? Hillel and/or Jesus do our souls so much more good, do they not?

Posted by: Rob on July 31, 2003 07:48 PM

I don't think most Christians would agree with the characterization of an "evolved conception of God," but rather would speak of a revised covenant with God. I.e., it's not the perception of God that has changed but God's rules themselves. Thus, while the books like Leviticus remain canonical, the obligation to follow their many draconian provisions has been superseded. This may be too causal, but I suppose one might even say that the God of Deuteronomy is indeed the God to whom Jesus prayed, and it's because Jesus prayed to Him that He is no longer imposing the rules of Deuteronomy upon us.

As for the more specifically political and ethical points raised in the comments above, I think it's important to emphasize that both halves of the Bible were written long ago, under wildly different social conditions, in elliptical, lyrical language, with a focus as much on the next world as on this one. Thus, they're not necessarily clear guides for today's political problems. Indeed, I think it's possible to find support for either side of almost any modern political cause in either the Old Testament or the New. Presumably, executions could be justified by Jesus' millstone statement. St. Paul's teachings can justify all sorts of repression, and he specifically condemns homosexual behavior. Certainly, a case can be made that Europe's long history of religious warfare was fought in the name of Jesus much more than in the name of Yahweh. Obviously, though, the NT is also suffused with messages of love, egalitarianism, and humility.

By this comment, I don't mean to endorse executions or gay-bashing (or socialism, for that matter). I also don't mean to say that I think Rob's wrong in anything he said; his comments have been provocative and thoughtful. I'm just suggesting that it's possible to have opposing opinions and to base those opinions on the Bible.

Posted by: Tom T. on July 31, 2003 10:06 PM

I'm also not sure what to make of the questions raised about whether certain parts of the Bible are "useful." Isn't that an ethical inquiry, rather than a religious question? Wouldn't the religious question focus on "are these books holy; do they reveal (literally or otherwise) the word of God?" It seems to me that if one is a believer, and one believes these books to be holy, then one is stuck with them and their teachings, whether or not they fit one's own internal moral sense (bearing in mind, though, that there may be parts of the books that can be explained away by mechanisms such as the notion of a new covenant with God).

Certainly, one could start one's own sect, based upon the view that that only certain parts of Bible are actually holy scripture. The early church threw out several books as non-canonical, and the Protestant reformers rejected others as well. That seems to me to be a different issue, though, than accepting the whole Bible as scripture and trying to figure out why even the troublesome parts are holy.

Posted by: Tom T. on July 31, 2003 10:19 PM

Thank you for your thoughts. Needless to say, many groups of people over the centuries HAVE founded their own sects, based on the interpretations of scripture made by leaders who chose to emphasize this, or that. The Mormons simply received a whole new scripture to fill in what they felt was needed.
I'm glad you bring up St. Paul, because it is arguable, to me, that parts of his letters do more harm than good, for the reasons you mention. As with the O.T., there is much in the Epistles that is beautiful and much that is true, but I like the principle "First, do no harm". But Paul was not Jesus.
I'm not much interested in the historical Jesus, or in trying to decide if he was more like a rabbi than an Old Testament prophet, or more like a Greek Stoic than a Jewish rabbi, as has been suggested (as I remember) Crossan. We don't live then, or in the time of Moses, we live now; and it's clear that we need help in relating to one another, now, perhaps more than ever.
My problem with the O.T. (and parts of the New, thanks again, Tom) is not only that they may have lost their utility (and yes, I think that something "holy" can be a tool; why not?), but that they can actually make things worse. The role of Yahweh was clearly to actively make things worse for all but a small part of humanity. It would seem that the role of Jesus was the opposite of that, in its intent. This is the question that interests me: why continue to consider holy, and to show reverence for, that which may not help men strive toward Goodness?

Posted by: Rob on August 1, 2003 02:42 AM

From the Christian perspective, God has been answering the sorts of questions Rob is asking -- "All right, but what does this mean to *us*?" -- ever since Moses received the Law. You can find out how God answered those who came before us at the same time you yourself ask God. (If there's no correlation, someone has made a mistake; expect it to be you.)

There's an interesting article on the names for God in the Bible, "The Concept of the Father God," at http://www.bfpubs.demon.co.uk/father%20god.htm which, while by no means exhaustive, shows several trends and models by which the Israelites related to their God. (It also points out that only once is Jesus recorded as using the Aramaic word "Abba"; every other time He says "Father," the evangelists use the Greek.)

Posted by: Tom on August 1, 2003 06:02 AM

Thanks for the reference.
My memory may be faulty, but I believe that the time Abba is used, he says both: "Abba, Father...". That may be why the author who gave me the impression that the Aramaic "Abba" was intended to be more intimate: it was felt to be more than a mere redundancy. (?)

Posted by: Rob on August 1, 2003 07:38 AM

Rob, I understand your point of view, but I still don't see what, exactly, we have left if we throw all that stuff out. If you strip Jesus from his Jewish context, if you're not interested in exactly what he did or said historically, if you're going to toss out the words of his followers that you don't like -- what, then, do we know about Jesus, much less God? How can he help us, if he is so inscrutable?

The point I was trying to make in this post is that I'm not going to throw out something automatically simply because I morally object to it. I'm going to critically examine it, I'm going to argue and question and be a pain in the neck, but instantly reject it, no. Because I am looking for the truth, and I know the truth isn't always going to be what I want. I don't feel entitled to say, "Well, I like where Jesus says love your neighbor, but I don't like where he curses the fig tree, so I'll just take the former and not the latter." Sometimes, though, as with Borg's take on the fig-tree story a few weeks ago, I might see an interpretation of a dubious story that makes it easier to swallow.

I also remembered last night that Telford told me some early church father (Augustine?) interpreted Exodus metaphorically, because he couldn't imagine the God of Jesus acting like that. I assume he felt the same about the episode in Deuteronomy you mentioned. I'm afraid I can't tell you more than that, at the moment.

What I'm trying to tell you is that though there are obviously quite a few highly visible groups who dig the smiting in the OT and take it more to heart than the words of Jesus, there has also always been a deep and wide stream in Christianity that's looked at the OT the way you describe: something historical, fictional, and/or no longer applying. But I don't think how people today use or misuse some text is definitive proof of how true or worthy it is. I doubt you could stupid-proof the Bible, no matter how much of it you cut out.

I also tend to agree that I don't see as violent a break between Yahweh and Jesus as you do. If you compare certain extreme cases, yeah, but there are lots of other points on the continuum. Yahweh can be merciful and compassionate (think of how he cuts the Ninevites a break, even though Jonah wants him to smite them), and Jesus talks about judgment and hellfire. I wouldn't feel that I was approaching this with intellectual honesty if I denied that.

Posted by: Camassia on August 1, 2003 08:34 AM

Thanks for your most recent comments. They leave me with several new questions, the most interesting (to me) of which is: Is it relevant, or even possible, to speak of the resurrected Jesus as "Jewish"? And if not, how relevant is his Jewishness to the legacy of his human life and teachings?

Posted by: Rob on August 1, 2003 09:45 AM

In a sense everyone struggles with scripture in every religion. Every scripture has ugly things in it we cannot accept today. The Bible is either a human product or a product of humans communicating with God. In either case, it has human error in it. It would be wrong to enshrine human error as divine just because it is found in scripture. If you do not want to worship human mistakes, then you have to struggle to figure out what has to be rejected.

Certainly, much in Jewish tradition is about that. Even in Hebrew scripture, Jews are constantly disagreeing with God and questioning whether a proposed divine action is just. Thus, Abraham questions God's resolve to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. And God approves of this. It became an important part of rabbinic tradition, which is Jesus' tradition, that God wants you to struggle with him, question him, and figure sone things out for yourself.

The historical, Jewish Jesus does matter -- if for no other reason than that it can help people to stop misinterpreting some of his words. I could tell you lots of stories about rabbinic challenges to God and how that is reflected in Jesus' teachings. I can show you where Jesus talks about relating to God with "chutzpah". He talks about it quite a lot. I can show you that by the last being first (Matt 20:16) Jesus was not establishing a new order where the last are favored over the first. He was talking about God's compassion for both the first and the last. It's all there in rabbinic lit. The historical, Jewish Jesus matters quite a lot. It's such a long, interesting story and one that I think would thrill most Christians.

Posted by: Leon Zitzer on August 1, 2003 10:47 AM

Matthew 20:16 is surely meant to explain to Jews how it is that Johnny-Come-Lately Gentiles are suddenly made eligible to enter The Kingdom. Although many are called by Jesus, few respond, and if among those few are some Gentiles, so be it.
As for "most Christians"; if pressed on it, I would guess that most Christians' conceptions of Jesus are heavily invested in John 8:58, which complements John 1:5 and suggests that Jesus was more than merely a man and also ipso facto more than just a Jew.
It is, of course, crucial that Jesus was mysteriously simultaneously merely a man. And it is historically true that he was a Jew. The bottom line, however, as St. Paul pointed out, is that if Jesus was not resurrected from the dead, it is all pretty much irrelevant.

Posted by: Rob on August 1, 2003 12:17 PM

Hey Rob:

Matt 20:16 does not have anything to do with latecoming gentiles. But there is probably nothing I can say to convince you. If you just want to say that Jesus was historically a Jew and then brush it away, it is a meaningless statement. If the statement means anything real, it means that he was raised in and loved Jewish culture -- i.e., Pharisaic/rabbinic culture. To be dismissive of the culture he loved is not something he would be happy about, or so I think.

A popular rabbinic idea is that God sometimes seems to love the pentitent sinner (the last) more than the one who has been righteous his whole life (the first). Of course, he doesn't really prefer one over the other, it only seems that way. Why? Because God trusts that the righteous will continue in their ways, but the sinners (the last) he might lose, if he doesn't pay attention to them now. So God rewards the last first in order to encourage them or give them a little extra help. One rabbi uses the words "the near" and "the far" to express the same thing that Jesus means by "the first" and "the last".

Anyway, that's what it means to say that Jesus was a Jew. He was part of a Jewish thought world. If it doesn't mean that, it means nothing to say he was Jewish. So some Christians won't like this. I understand that. But I know very well that there are also Christians who are excited to learn precisely what the Jewish Jesus meant by his words and do not consider this a threat to Christianity. For others, their own theology will be the most important thing or Paul's theology. I will never convince those. But as for Paul, remember what he says to gentiles in Romans 11:17-18 -- Do not boast that you are better than Jews. That means something to some Christains (e.g., Dietrich Bonhoeffer) and nothing to others.

Posted by: Leon Zitzer on August 2, 2003 09:55 AM

I don't see a sharp distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. Jesus was steeped in the law and the prophets, and quotes them all the time; they shaped his thought immensely.

It's true that I find some things in the Old Testament very troubling. One of my more disturbing lessons, as I read through the Old Testament in my Education for Ministry class last year, was the one which covered the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, an account of the history of the return from Babylon. There is a point in the story in which people who married non-Jews are asked to put away their wives and children. And I found it chilling to think that someone could see a father repudiating a child as in any way honoring God. On the other hand, it was probably during that same time period that the beautiful love story of Ruth the Moabitess, and the story of God's mercy toward Ninevah in Jonah were recorded.

Likewise, the Pentateuch has the wonderful story of God as the liberator of his people from slavery in Egypt; it has numerous reminders about obligations to the sojourner, the widow, and the orphan; it has a beautiful beginning about the goodness of creation. The prophets have moving accounts of God's mercy, and passionate denunciation of human injustice to the poor.

Some of the harsher parts of the Old Testament were already interpreted in Jesus' time in a more merciful light; for instance, it is my understanding that "eye for an eye" (which, as Camassia points out, is already an improvement over informal tribal justice) was actually interpreted by rabbis in a way that involved proportional monetary compensation. So, Jesus' thoughts would naturally be shaped both by the Old Testament and by current rabbinic interpretation during his lifetime.

As for whether the risen Jesus is a Jew, I would say yes. Jesus is God incarnate as a particular man, and he is, for all time, yes, even after the resurrection, that particular man. So, he is still all the particular things he was in life: a man, the son of Mary, a Jew, and everything else that makes him a specific individual.

Scrolling up a bit to where Leon Zitzer says, "The Bible is either a human product or a product of humans communicating with God. In either case, it has human error in it," I'd say that I see the Bible as a product of humans communicating with God, with some human error in it, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, but to be taken seriously and wrestled with, as a whole, for the sake of that communication with God.

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on August 2, 2003 12:53 PM

Perhaps those lines from Matthew mean both what you say they mean and what I say they mean. Surely, they could well mean both of those things. Your interpretation boils down to "Life ain't fair sometimes, so shut up and count your blessings." That's good advice, but pretty basic; you hardly need a prodigy to come up with it. Why do you seem to assume that the gospels have only a surface meaning, when it is generally accepted that the OT contains subtext upon subtext?

Posted by: Rob on August 2, 2003 02:35 PM

Hi Lynn:
I'm not quite as sure as you are that the risen Jesus remains the same individual that he was before the crucifixion. For one thing, the gospels repeatedly say that his closest followers did not readily recognize the risen Christ when they encountered him. Perhaps this was because he was now on another plane of existence that his followers were not able to fully comprehend.
For another thing, Christians believe that the risen Jesus is the third person of the Holy Trinity. Is it the idea that Christians are worshipping a man who said "Why do you call me good? Only God is good." The implication there is that the Jewish man, Jesus, or Joshua, or Jehoshua, was not perfect, as God is perfect. If the resurrection perfected him, would it not do so by changing his essential person from what it had been to something else to which "Jewishness" and perhaps even "humanity" are superfluous sets of characteristics?
To the extent that we might hope, through spiritual striving, to live forever, do we want or expect that our flawed and pain generating personality quirks will survive and live forever in us?

Posted by: Rob on August 2, 2003 02:52 PM

I feel that I'm making this too complicated. I will stipulate that Jesus was everything that you say he was. I, in fact, believe that. It is just that where you stop in contemplating the significance of his life, satisfied that you have considered all that needs to be considered, is only the bottom rung of the spiritual ladder for a Christian. Jesus was all that you say he was, but he was so much more than that. But, peace. I have no interest in picking a fight.

Posted by: Rob on August 2, 2003 04:28 PM

Rob (and some comments for Lynn, below):

I have never said that what I say is all that needs to be considered. I would never tell Christians that they cannot continue to contemplate the meaning of his life and death. I would never tell Christians that they should not find deep, powerful meaning in his resurrection.

I am a historian. That means I believe in building from the ground up. I want to have a secure knowledge of the historical context of Jesus' time. I want to ground the meaning of his words in a very specific context. Begin with a good historical foundation. That has never been done in Jesus' case and, in fact, has been avoided by scholars. I want to do it better than anyone else has done and demonstrate that there is absolutely no threat here to Christianity. For Christians who seek more, that is fine. The only objection I would ever raise to further interpretations is that they should not encourage hatred, fear, and violence. But I heartily approve of all interpretations that bring us to a higher level of peace, love, and humanity.

For myself, what I love most is sound historical knowledge because it goes such a long way to correcting the injustices of the past.

Hi Lynn:

I liked some of the points you made above. My own favorite parts of the Hebrew scriptures are where God appoves of or even encourages people to challenge him. Fight with me, argue with me, stand up for yourself and tell me what you think. Maybe you'll convince me. Lynn, you would be surprised (or maybe you wouldn't) how much this too is a part of Jesus' teachings.

Posted by: Leon Zitzer on August 3, 2003 12:11 PM

My problem with the whole concept of "the historical Jesus" is simply that there isn't one. The only quasi-historical record we have of Jesus is the gospels. I believe that most scholars feel the brief mention of Jesus in Josephus to be mostly the interpolation of later Christian copyists. It is interesting to note, however, that the Josephus citation, early as it might be, includes the caveat "if it be lawful to call him a man"--which shows that either those monks, or Josephus himself, had contemplated the question I asked earlier.
The quest for the "historical" Jesus can only render the portrait of a type. We can only say what he was probably like, based on what we know about his ethnic, cultural and historical environment. The problem with that is that it does not tell us anything about Jesus that can account for his effect on the world over the past 2000+ years. It doesn't hurt to know more about the world that Jesus lived in, but it doesn't help much in understanding the significance of his death and reported resurrection (of which not one scrap of documentation outside of the gospels exists).
Let me ask you, Leon, for what crime the Romans crucified Jesus? He was explicitly NOT an insurrectionist. He did not seem to have any great following in terms of numbers. There were no riots or demonstrations after he was killed. Pilate did not seem to even know who he was. He did, on the other hand, flaunt the Jewish law; he did show at least a modicum of disrespect for the hierarchy of the temple cult; and he did create a disturbance within the temple precinct.
Jerusalem was occupied territory. It is quite easy to imagine a scenario in which the Roman in charge of maintaining civil order went to the High Priest and said, "Look. I won't profane the temple with the standard eagle, or put a bust of Augustus in the Holy of Holies. But I want you to send your spies out amongst the zealots and other trouble makers and report back to the proper authorities concerning any individuals who might tend to break the law or cause civil disorder. So, if Jesus had become a problem, not to the Romans, but to the Jewish hierarchy, it is plausible that they would have turned him over to the Romans as a rabble rouser in order to get rid of him for their own purposes. Judas might have been such a spy.
This is all speculation, of course, but it is at least supported by the story in gospels. It is also s.o.p. for occupying powers throughout history.
So, I challenge you to provide your theory of why the Romans would have had any interest in crucifying Jesus that is more likely than the scenario I propose, in which the Jewish religious establishment has the motivation to do so.

Posted by: Rob on August 3, 2003 04:07 PM

Leon and Lynn:
Let me try another approach. My understanding of Jesus is that he was a man who found a way to God. He was able to empty himself of all that was ignorant and sinful so that God could fill the void created by that emptying out; he achieved self-perfection. In this he is more similar to the Buddha than he is to Moses or to Mohammad. The message Jesus has for us is: do as I have done; follow my way. The active ingredient in the law as Jesus reconstituted it is love: love God and love your neighbor as yourself, and the rest of the law will take care of itself. Judaism and Islam, on the other hand, have as their active ingredients sets of rules, handed down to prophets by Allah, or by Yahweh/God. In these religious systems you please God and achieve salvation by following the rules as perfectly as you are able to, and by making prescribed atonements to appease the wrath of God over your failures.
In Christianity, you must develop within yourself purity of motive, so that you act out of love, rather than self-interest in every volitional situation. You are not given many rules to follow. If you lust after a woman in your heart, you have already committed adultery. If you forgive a woman caught in adultery, you do so out of love for her divine nature, valuing the woman over the law that would condemn her to death for her weakness.

Posted by: Rob on August 3, 2003 07:00 PM

A brief note on the chance that you are looking in while on vacation. I just want to say that I was once a "liberal secularist" too. I was, in fact, a wannabe militant atheist. I admired the French existentialists; they were so John Wayne, they were so "Who was that masked man?"-- riding into the sunset, unbashed by a violent and absurd universe, courageously giving life meaning by the choices they made while staring into the Void.
I thought that one had to be an unflective, simple-minded conformist to believe in God. But there was something that kept at me.
That something kept at me until I discovered that there were, in fact, a great many people who were smarter than I was, more creative than I was, more clever than I was, and more generous toward others than I was, who all believed in God. Not only did they believe in God, but they believed in Jesus Christ.
My personal favorite in the 20th Century is Simone Weil. I wonder if you have read her? She is controversial. She is not easy, but she is brilliant, even when you don't want to agree with her. I would suggest that Waiting for God and particularly Gravity and Grace are excellent texts to test just how much splintering you are ready to endure.

Posted by: Rob on August 4, 2003 06:10 PM

On "the historical Jesus" in general: I have mixed feelings. At least some "historical Jesus" discussion seems to me to involve saying, with too much confidence, a couple of millenia later, what Jesus couldn't possibly have said. And, it does involve a certain hazard of inventing Jesus in our image. On the other hand, I'm following an actual person, and I want to know what he was actually like. Including whatever light history can shed.

To Leon: Yes, I love the stories about challenges to God. Where Jesus talks about relating to God with "chutzpah"? Actually, I hadn't thought of that. I suppose the parable of the woman and the unjust judge?

To Rob: On whether Jesus is still Jewish after the resurrection, the way I see it is that he retains all his particularity, but transformed and glorified. This is why, on the one hand, the disciples don't always recognize him, but, on the other hand, Thomas can touch the marks of the nails. He's still fully human, but also God.

"Let me ask you, Leon, for what crime the Romans crucified Jesus?" I'll answer this, even though I'm not Leon :-). They executed him for setting himself forth as "King of the Jews." That's what Pilate had put up on the cross, so that must be the offense of which he was convicted. As for why they would see him as an insurrectionist, well, you have a popular teacher who, first, is reputed to be a son of David (in an area where there is a belief in a Messiah, descended from David, who will be a deliverer in a quite earthly sense), one of his closest followers is a known Zealot (referred to in the gospels as "Simon the Zealot"), he talks about a kingdom of God, which might be understood as a kingdom not under the Romans' control, he has ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey with people throwing palms before him, people have been asking him about whether they should still pay taxes to Rome ... and Pilate isn't recorded in extra-Biblical history as being a particularly lenient occupying authority.

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on August 5, 2003 08:15 AM

Hi, Lynn:
You may recall that when Jesus was asked if Jews should continue to pay taxes to Rome, he said "Yes".
As for King of the Jews, when asked, Jesus explicitly said, "My kingdom is not of this world." And he said that to his friends. So, to the extent that Roman authorities knew anything about him, they would have known that he was not political. I reiterate, however, that the gospels make it clear that Pilate had no clear idea who he was, or why he was being asked to condemn him.
That Jesus refused to become the Warrior King, Davidic type of Messiah has often been proposed as a possible reason for Judas to have given up on him and betrayed him.
Bottom line, again, the best information about Jesus that we have is the gospels. To the extent that we don't like the portrait there and want another, we have to invent it by speculating on Jesus as a type. That doesn't work for me in terms of religion, although it is an interesting intellectual exercise. It also does not explain why Jesus was apparently seen as so very unique to those who knew him in life, or were told about him soon after his crucifiction. If he was just one more wandering rabbi in the tradition of wandering rabbis, well, then why was he not forgotten soon after his ignominious death?

Posted by: Rob on August 5, 2003 10:24 AM

Interesting, blatantly Freudian, misspelling I made in that last post, eh? "Crucifiction", geez!

Posted by: Rob on August 5, 2003 10:43 AM

Hi Rob:

There certainly is a historical Jesus. The idea that there is no historical Jesus was invented by 19th century scholars because they were scared to death of finding the historical, Jewish Jesus. They taught all the generations that followed to be afraid as well. It is all so pointless. You can never do good scholarship based on fear. Nobody has to be interested in the historical Jesus. You always have the right to say that this does not interest me at all. But nobody has the right to suppress this inquiry. And all the scholarly "arguments" that are based on fear are nothing but an attempt to suppress honest historical investigation.

As for what caused the Romans to execute Jesus, it wouldn't have taken much. Any hint of anyone saying he was a king would be enough to do it. But it could have been even simpler than that. Just preaching about another kingdom without the adjective "Roman" in front of it would have been enough to get Rome to execute Jesus. Rome could not tolerate that sort of insult. A hundred years later, another rabbi escaped Roman crucifixion because he hid in a cave for 10 years. What was his crime? He simply said I don't think Roman civilization is so hot and he ridiculed a couple of their bragging points (like their much vaunted baths). A little insult and the Romans wanted your head.

Jewish priests would never work with Romans to help arrest Jewish troublemakers. That is just one big historical lie. Absolutely no evidence supports that. The Gospels suggest that might have happened to Jesus, but here is the really big point: The Gospels also tell us a lot of things that suggest that this did not happen to Jesus. I have discussed this enough on my blogspot.

As for your comment that Judaism is or was about adhering to a set of rules, that is just antisemitic, racist garbage. Even a majority of Christian scholars will not say that anymore. Judaism is about love of God and having the right internal motivations. External rules have nothing to do with it.

Good to hear from you again. You are right about that parable being one example of Jesus' teaching on "chutzpah". There's a lot more. This is not the forum to do it. There is way too much information. Anyway, I get really exhausted when I've been typing for a couple of hours. By the way, I posted my reply to your Aug. 2 blog on my blogspot on Aug. 5. Thanks for all your deep commtittment to intelligent inquiry.

Posted by: Leon Zitzer on August 5, 2003 12:17 PM

Four of the first five books of the Bible, beginning with Exodus, but with special reference to Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, are little else than rules and prescribed rituals. These clearly formed the basis of the religion of the early Jews. I don't see how you can deny that. I never said Judaism was not more than that, particularly after the destruction of the second temple. But those rules and rituals were still the essential core of Judaism. It has been suggested that Judaism survived the diaspora in part because of the those rules and the sense of community they helped to engender; so, how can they be seen as a bad thing, or as something that needs to be denied?
The Koran contains many specific rules too. The gospels contain very few by comparison. The gospels report Jesus having broken a few of those OT rules and as having fulfilled the law by embodying it in his personal example, which his followers are urged to internalize.
If by "historical" you mean something that can be documented by written evidence or supported by physical evidence, then there is no historical Jesus outside of the gospels. He wrote nothing. There are no artifacts. We have nothing that was written about him until several years after his death, and the earliest of those documents, the letters of Paul, were written by a man who never saw him alive.
I certainly have no doubt that Jesus walked this earth, but his history is gospel history and only gospel history; the rest is speculation and approximation as it attempts to pertain specifically to Jesus.
I have obviously given offense by expressing what seems to me to be true, for which I can't apologize, but for which I am sorry since that was not my intent.

Posted by: Rob on August 5, 2003 01:40 PM


2 Samuel 22: 21-24

22:21 Yahweh rewarded me according to my righteousness.
He rewarded me according to the cleanness of my hands.
22:22 For I have kept the ways of Yahweh,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
22:23 For all his ordinances were before me.
As for his statutes, I did not depart from them.
22:24 I was also perfect toward him.
I kept myself from my iniquity.


Posted by: Rob on August 6, 2003 05:28 AM

I'm going to have to bow out of this comments thread for now, but I'm going to work on a blog post or two on this topic, sometime within the next week. Including at least one on Jesus' relation with his fellow Jews.

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on August 6, 2003 06:52 PM

Well, Rob --

Rituals were never the essence of Judaism. You do not get to decide what is the essence of Judaism or Torah. Only Jews get to decide that. When Hillel was asked about the essence of Torah, he did not answer, The rituals. When rabbis pondered the essence of God, they did not answer, His concern about rituals. The most important quality of God, they said, was mercy and lovingkindness, and the highest duty of a Jew is to imitate that.

Every religion has rituals, rules. You know what rituals are? They are the place you call home, the place you are most comfortable. God is one, but he allows himself to be worshiped in a multiplicity of ways. He has many homes on earth.

Buddhists have rituals too. If you go to a Buddhist monastery, you will be taught how to meditate, and not only meditate, but meditate in a prescribed way. Christianity, Judaism -- no religion is ritual free. It doesn't matter whether a religion has two rituals, or ten, or one hundred.

Ah, but you will say that the Gospels have no rituals. Really? What about the Eucharist? What about the Lord's prayer (a purely Jewish prayer; every word and phrase in it comes from Judaism)? What about the Temple? Jesus has only the most positive things to say about the Temple. When he predicts its destruction, that is because the Temple is a good thing and loved by all Jews, including Jesus; its loss would be a terrible thing, which is why Jesus laments its destruction. Several times, he tells his listeners to make their sacrifice at the Temple. Rabbinic Judaism taught that your intentions were more important than sacrifice, and so does Jesus, but it was still an accepted ritual of the time. And the early Jesus community continued to worship at the Temple, as Acts attests. So before it was destroyed, the Temple was an important ritual of the Jesus community.

The Gospels contain all the information we need about the historical Jesus. There is not just evidence in them, but very strong patterns of evidence and those patterns tell us what happened. Scholars have avoided looking for them because, as I said in a post above, they encouraged the idea that we should be afraid of the historical Jesus. When they decided there is no history in the Gospels, that is because they thought this idea would be an excellent prison for Jesus from which he could never escape. They want to control Jesus. An honest search for the historical Jesus means to set him free.

Posted by: Leon Zitzer on August 7, 2003 10:50 AM

Jehovah is not the same as the supreme God our Father. He is a jealous angel whose name is Melchisedec, who revealed all his anger and wrath along centuries, especially against non-Jews.
Jesus is the really true God who was exalted to the highest place after His glorious resurrection (Philippians 2:9).
The Old Covenant has been supported by angels led by Melchisedec in order to condemn men. For this reason it is called “ministry of death and condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:7 and 9). However, the Law prescribed in the Old Testament became useless and obsolete (Hebrews 7:18).
The New Covenant is the answer provided by Jesus Christ to offer an opportunity of rescue to the sinners, according to God’s ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).

The arguments for these claims can be found in the address:

Posted by: Oswaldo Carvalho on November 23, 2003 10:32 AM

The majority of Christians affirm that God the Father and Yahweh are the same person.
However by a deeper analyze we will see that their personalities and characteristics are very different, as well as their justices.
Yahweh boasts of himself saying that he is just and that there isn’t another rescuer (Isaiah 45:21).
Even if Yahweh was just, he wouldn’t be modest, for if someone is just, the others should attest it and not himself, because the auto-judgment is doubtful.
In Micah 6:5, Yahweh incites the people of Israel to recognize his “justices”, remembering them the big release in Egypt.
But what kind of justice is that if a new-born is killed because of the sin of its father, for it was what happened to the son who had been generated by the adultery of David and Bathsheba? (2 Samuel 12:14). What blames would have that babe who had no possibility of salvation?
In addition, what kind of justice is there on punishing children because of the badness of their parents till third and fourth generation (Exodus 20:5)? What blames would have the children of subsequent generations because of the sins of their parents from previous generations?
That “justice” forbad a man to get part on the priesthood because of his physical born defect, according to Leviticus 21:21.
That “justice” provided the killing of a man who in his best intentions tried to avoid the fall of the ark of Alliance, which was falling due to the hard jolts from oxen-car that carried it. That man called Uzza, simply because he touched the ark (2 Samuel 6:6 to 8).
That “justice” allowed the sacrifice of a young lady by her own father, who had made a vote to Yahweh (Judges 11:30 to 39). Jehovah could have intervened saying to the father that the sacrifice would not be necessary to certify his allegiance, as it occurred with Abraham and his son, who had been saved by a warning (Genesis 22:1 to 13). Are there two patterns of justice?
That “justice” ordered that the one who worked in a Saturday would be put to death by stoning, without giving any possibility of repentance to the sinner (Numbers 15:32 to 36).
That “justice” blinded the spiritual eyes of the people of Israel in order to renounce them later for their lack of vision, as it is written in Isaiah 7:9 and 10.
That “justice” ordered that David made a census in Israel and later punished the people with a plague that killed 70,000 innocent people because David proceeded just as the command given byYahweh. That fact is reported in 2 Samuel 24:1, 10 and 15.
What kind of “justice” is that in which Yahweh privileges only the Jews if the true God and Father does not have favoritisms of people or races (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9)?
Paul said in Ephesians 2:11 and 12: "formerly we were without Christ, separated from the community of Israel and excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world”.
Almost all the people of ancient centuries were polytheists and only the Jews were monotheists. When Gentiles, who do not have the formal law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law to themselves , since they show that the requirements of a natural law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them (Romans 2:14 and 15).
Jesus said to the Samaritan that the salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22). It is evident that Jesus referred to the salvation through himself, that was born physically Jewish, and not through the obsolete and useless law of the Old Testament (Hebrews 7:18 and 19).
Indeed, the sacrifices of animals were only "shifting shades" of the true and efficient sacrifice of Christ, which provides a perpetual redemption to anyone who believes (Hebrews 9:11 and 12).
The Jews had the promise of a Messiah that would set them free from politician yoke by use of physical force. Yahweh fed them with this perspective through the patriarchs and prophets, as we read in Psalms 110:5 to 7.
Many of the disciples of Jesus still had this conception when they knew him, as it is reported in Acts 1:6 and Matthew 20:21.
Jesus identified himself to the Samaritan as the Messiah (John 4:25 and 26), but not as an exclusive Messiah for the Jews. His objective was not physical for his freedom is from Satan’s yoke.
Christ was spiritually in the rock of the desert, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10:4, but he affirmed that the Manna sent to the Israelis did not proceed from his Father (John 6:32). He said too that his food is perpetual and not perishable as the bread of the desert that was full of maggots and smelled badly (Exodus 16:20; John 6:48 to 51).
The Jews had the promises, but now we have the realities. The Jews had the law written in stone blocks, but we have the commands of Jesus written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:3).
The Jews had the temporal glory, the commandments of a ritualistic law, the earthly promises, the ceremonial cult and the human Christ, but Paul said in Romans 9:4 to 8 that these things don’t count in respect of our adoption by God Father as his legitimate children.
The true justice and righteousness of God is Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30), who is also justifier of everyone that believes (Romans 3:26).
That justice is supported by the paradox that the judgment followed one single sin and brought condemnation for all men, but the gift of the Father followed many trespasses and brought justification and life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of one man (Adam) the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man (Jesus Christ) the many will be made righteous, by believing in him (Romans 5:16 to 19).
The will of the Father is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life (John 6:39). He wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4).
Although Father’s intention is always for saving, Jesus said that many will look for salvation, but will not find. For this reason he recommended effort to the one who wants to enter through the narrow door (Luke 13:23 and 24).
The fact of living under the grace of God doesn’t means that this one is free from responsibility is respect of his obligations as a God’s child, for in 1 John 2:4 we read that the man who says “I know him” but doesn’t do what He commands is a liar.
Many prefer to follow the doctrine of Yahweh in the Old Testament, which is based in the Ten Commandments because that Law condemned only for whatever the men do of wrong. In the New Testament the men are disapproved also for whatever they let to do right. That refers to the sin of omission, as it is reported in James 4:17.
The commands of Jesus are more difficult to execute because, whereas the Law condemned the adultery for the attitude, Jesus disapproved it for the inner intention (Matthew 5:28).
The Law prescribed the sanctification of just one single day (the seventh), whereas Jesus ordered to keep watching every day (Matthew 24:36 to 44 and 25:13).
The Law ordered to love the neighbour and to hate the enemy whereas Jesus ordered to love the enemies (Matthew 5:43 and 44).
The Law ordered to walk a mile whereas Jesus ordered to walk two (Matthew 5:41) and so on.
Jesus sat freedom to his disciples to give up when they wanted (John 6:66 and 67), although he always looked for stimulating them to keep on the way (John 16:33). In front of such difficulty to follow their Master, the disciples asked: Sir, who then can be saved? Jesus answered: With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:25 and 26; Luke 18:26 and 27).
If we submit ourselves to God, He is able to keep us from falling and to present us before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy, as Jude 24 says.
Besides of that, Paul affirms that God is faithful, not allowing that anyone be tempted beyond what he can bear, providing a way out so he can stand up under it (1 Corinthians10:13).
If God had chosen one for salvation and others for condemnation, as those who defend the Calvinist predestination, He won’t be merciful and just, as John 3:16 to 19 says.
In reality the option is not by God, but by each man who has freedom choice. God does not violate our freedom to choose the way that we want to follow. However, it is obvious that there is a reward to the one who follows Jesus and do what He teaches (Luke 9:23 and 14:27).
We conclude saying that if the Father would fulfill the appropriate righteousness that we really are worthy, everybody would just have been consumed. But luckily He is patient with us, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).

Posted by: Oswaldo Carvalho on November 30, 2003 05:50 AM
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