The Disturbing Jesus, Part 3
Yet more things I have discovered about Jesus
Recently I wrote a couple of articles called The Disturbing Jesus, Parts 1 and 2. In them, I discussed the fact that for many people today, the person and ministry of Jesus has become such a familiar part of life that we almost function on automatic when it comes to thinking and talking about him. This article is intended to be a continuation of the others. As I wrote previously, a tried-and-true remedy of mine against taking Jesus for granted has been to read the gospels more closely. When I have done this, I have found a depiction of Christ, which at times, has both startled and troubled me. Here are some examples of what I mean.
Jesus as a First Century Jew. Twenty-first Century people can easily forget that, like the rest of us, Jesus was born and raised in a particular ethnic context. Like all Jewish boys throughout history, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day according to the commandment in Moses’ Law. At age thirteen, he became a son of the covenant (bar mitzvah). He attended synagogue, kept the sabbath, ate kosher and observed the numerous laws of Torah. The gospels show Jesus as very careful to make the journey to Jerusalem to attend mandatory feasts and participate in temple rites. Even his humor is Jewish (“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven.”)
For those outside Judaism, there is much in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life which can seem puzzling or culturally unintelligible. It is not unheard of, on the other hand, for Jews to investigate the gospels and find immediate common ground with Jesus, even after twenty centuries of Jewish adaptation and cultural change! So it should be no surprise that Jesus’ way of interacting with people, his concerns and his teachings are all very Jewish in character. A bit of reading up on Jewish custom and religious practice can make a huge improvement in one’s comprehension and insight into the story of Jesus as told in the gospel accounts.
But as a Jew, Jesus’ most severe criticism was aimed, not at Gentiles or even at Jews who were not taking seriously their obligations to the Law of Moses. He reserved his condemnation for the religious elites of the day, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Why? Because Jesus saw them as missing the point of the very scriptures they claimed to live by. He saw them obsessing over the minutia of their religious code, using it to elevate themselves in relation to others and manipulating people through guilt and intimidation. That is why his message to those oppressed by the power of the religious elite and despairing of any share in God’s Kingdom, was such truly good news.
The More-Than-Human Jesus. Certainly Jesus was born in a particular time and place (during the reign of Caesar Augustus in Bethlehem). He was entirely human as is shown in his human traits (hunger, thirst, anger, sorrow, death). But then there is that other side of Jesus, which may make us uncomfortable, such as his claim to be the Messiah of Israel. The New Testament spends a great deal of space showing how this claim is validated by the many prophecies concerning Messiah in the Old Testament (Micah 5:2, Isaiah 7:14, etc.) Yet the scriptural experts of his day couldn’t believe that a carpenter’s son, the circumstances of whose birth was dubious to say the least, from a backwater town like Nazareth, who had never attended any of the respectable rabbinic academies, could possibly be God’s answer to centuries of prophetic utterance.
More than this, Jesus claimed to be God in human form. In John chapter 8, we encounter Jesus saying to these very religious leaders that Abraham, some two thousand years before, had personally acknowledged him and had forseen his day coming. Jesus claimed that to see him, was in fact to see God. He claimed that he and God the Father were one: that is, somehow unified in nature and being. So incensed were the religious elites by all these claims that they plotted to kill him. Even today these claims, if taken seriously, must surely shake the conventional viewpoints of many.
The Living Jesus. The gospels assert that Jesus is literally, physically alive. Contrast this with the notion that Jesus was simply a tragic figure whose life was cut short before his calling was fulfilled. His disciples then were so lost without his magnetic personality that they began to talk about him as though he were still living. So after several generations, the belief that the deceased teacher from Nazareth was still alive somehow became solidified as Christian doctrine.
Of course, this line of thinking is pure nonsense. From what the gospels record about the circumstances of the resurrection it just doesn’t add up. Neither can this “wishful thinking view” possibly be right when the incredible spread of the early Christian message is considered realistically. The early Christians proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection from a very confident factual position. The location of Jesus’ tomb was common knowledge. No one could deny that it was empty. The likelihood of Jesus being mistakenly buried before he was actually dead makes no sense since the Romans were experts at the process of crucifixion. Even if that could be believed, the idea that a severely wounded Jesus could revive, roll away the huge stone and then escape the detection of those who were determined to eliminate him, is far fetched (to say the least).
More likely would be a conspiracy by his friends to steal the body and fake a resurrection. Yet even this doesn’t add up. The disciples were as sure as anyone that Jesus was dead. They were demoralized and afraid. Even if they had planned such a daring theft of Jesus’ body, they had proved their incompetence in such a mission when some of them unsuccessfully attacked a group of soldiers only days before at Jesus’ arrest . So the body-snatching theory falls apart as well. No, the best explanation, given the facts, is that Jesus rose bodily from the grave.
Conclusion: My advice is that if you think you know all there is to know about Jesus, maybe a serious and informed look at the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) might upset your comfortable views. Jesus isn’t someone you can easily categorize and put on a shelf. He still has the ability after all these centuries and across cultures, to make people squirm a bit. He also has the ability to call forth our deepest admiration and even devotion, just as he did twenty centuries ago. If you are content with some kind of dumbed-down Jesus, then you needn’t read the gospels with any kind of searching eye. But if you are brave enough to do so, brace yourself for some discomfort and perhaps a whole new life!
Michael Bogart For more articles like this one, check out my website at mbogart.com
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