JEWS, ROME and JESUS – continued)
John the Baptist had views similar to the Essenes. The New Testament describes him as calling the Pharisees and Sadducees a "brood of vipers," and it describes him as living in the desert, wearing a garment of camel's hair and eating locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4-7). Like the Essenes, John saw perversity in Jewish society and he envisioned the coming of an Armageddon that would bring a new Israel under God. But rather than stay separated from others as did the Essenes, John joined various others who traveled about Galilee preaching.
Some of Jerusalem's sophisticates looked down upon Galilee as populated by bumpkins given to erroneous ideas. The people of Galilee, on the other hand, looked down upon outsiders. Recently, two thousand in Galilee had been crucified for rebelling against the Romans. But John had a message other than rebellion for the people of Galilee: he called on them to give up their sinful ways and to repent. All Jews, he claimed, could have their sins forgiven. Believing as people had for centuries that water washed away one's sins – or as Hindus believed cleansed the soul – John submerged people in the Jordan River, and he made the ritual a solemn act of conversion into membership in his sect.
Among the poor and dissatisfied, John acquired a following and a brotherhood of disciples. Like the Essenes they held their property in common, and they had as their central ritual the eating of a community meal at which they believed the Messiah was spiritually present. John's demise came with his criticism of Rome's local ruler Herod Antipas – the son of Herod the Great. Like the Essenes, John was given to denunciations for any deviation from what he saw as orthodoxy. He denounced the marriage of Herod Antipas to the former wife of his half-brother – a marriage illegal under Judaic law but of little concern to a Hellenized king such as Herod. Such criticism made John appear to Herod as a troublemaker and a subversive, and Herod had John jailed. John's criticism of Herod's marriage angered Herod's new wife, who, according to the New Testament, had her daughter, Salome, ask Herod for John's death in exchange for dancing at Herod's birthday feast. And Herod had John taken from prison and executed.
Among the contemporaries of John the Baptist was a young man named Joshua, a name translated into Greek as Jesus. Jesus left no writings, and known written descriptions of his life and what he said came decades after his death. These were to become known as the Gospels – a part of Christianity's New Testament – traditionally believed to have been written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Some scholars believe the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were written between the years 70 and 100 and the Gospel of John between 90 and 110. As written in Wikipedia, some others speculate that the Gospels may have originated as late as the year 140 and that "many scholars agree none of the Gospels' true authors can be identified at all."
Matthew describes Jesus as having been born before the death of Herod the Great, which came in 4 BCE. Luke's account has Jesus born during or after the year 6 CE. According to the Gospels, Jesus was born in Bethlehem – a village ten miles south of Jerusalem – a claim that might have been made to match Jesus with a prophesy in the book of Micah (5:2), where it was said that from Bethlehem one would go forth to become a ruler of Israel. Instead, Jesus may have been born in Galilee, in a village called Nazareth, where Jesus is said to have lived as a youth.
Jesus appears to have been born into humble circumstances. As a young man he worked at what was then considered a humble occupation: carpentry. The educated around him spoke Greek, while Jesus spoke Aramaic. The Gospel of John, describes Jesus as beginning his own ministry before the imprisonment of John the Baptist. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke describe Jesus as beginning his ministry after John the Baptist's imprisonment. According to the Gospels, the neighbors of Jesus and his brother John saw Jesus' attempt to fill in for the loss of John the Baptist as presumptuous, and they rejected him. At any rate, from among John the Baptist's followers Jesus was able to attract a following of his own. And according to the Book of Matthew, rather than see himself as the predestined leader of John's movement, Jesus denied that he was equal to John. He said that "among those born of women there has not yet arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist." (Matthew 11:11) [ reader comment ]
The Gospels describe Jesus as preaching in rural towns and villages for three years, and they describe his message as close to that of the Essenes. Jesus denounced spiritual corruption that pervaded Jewish society. Similar to the Essenes and John the Baptist, Jesus disliked the ways of the well-to-do, and he disliked prevailing commerce. According to the Gospels he advocated the sharing of possessions. If a man asks for your shirt, he is reported to have said, give your shirt and your coat too. He warned against serving two masters: God and mammon. He preached against the wearing of soft clothing, and he called upon his disciples to follow an ascetic life, to refrain from acquiring gold and silver for their money belts, a bag for their journey, sandals or a staff. "Woe to you who are rich," he said, "for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well fed, for you shall be hungry."
Like the Essenes and John the Baptist, Jesus was a devout Jew. He claimed that he had come to fulfill Judaic law and the word of the prophets, and he preached in Synagogues. Like the Essenes and John the Baptist, he spoke of a kingdom of heaven that was at hand. And like the Essenes he described his generation as evil and adulterous. He admonished his listeners to refrain from divorce and said that for a man to marry a divorced woman was to make that woman commit adultery. He commanded his listeners to follow the commandments of God. And, like the old prophets, he preached that foreign ways were evil and warned his listeners not to go the way of foreigners (gentiles).
Judaic law was complex, and some of Judaism's rituals were expensive, and, being bold enough to condemn the rest of society as corrupt, Jesus was also bold enough to ignore those laws that he thought impractical. According to the Gospels (written when Christians were themselves diverging from some Judaic laws) Jesus criticized the Pharisees for their impractical attempt at exactitude. Jesus, according to the Gospels, saw absurdity in their selecting to refrain from certain works on the Sabbath and not other works. Of those who criticized him for healing on the Sabbath he asked, "Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the stall and lead him away to water him?" (Luke13:15)
According to the Gospels, Jesus defended the common Jew's belief in resurrection – in contrast to the Sadducees, who rejected resurrection. A Sadducee pointed out to Jesus that under Judaic law widows married their late husband's brother and that with resurrection would come confusion when the husband returned from the dead. Jesus replied that after resurrection there would be no marriage because people would be like angels in heaven. (Matthew 22:30)
The Gospels describe Jesus as claiming that his mission empowered him to forgive sins, a claim the Pharisees would have seen as a blasphemous usurpation of God's divine authority and an infringement upon monotheism. The Gospels also describe Jesus as healing people by casting out demons from within them and turning five loaves of bread into enough bread to feed and satisfy five thousand – a performance that should have convinced any Pharisee or other observer that Jesus had divine powers.
According to the Gospels, when Jesus heard the news that John the Baptist had been executed he became angered. This came with the approach of the annual pilgrimage to Judaism's holy city, Jerusalem. The focus of the pilgrimage was Jerusalem's temple, the "House of the Lord." It was a pilgrimage that celebrated the Passover holiday commemorating liberation of Jews from Egyptian slavery. Jesus and his followers joined perhaps as many as a hundred thousand pilgrims who had poured into Jerusalem from nearby and from outside Judea – doubling the number of people in the city. Jesus may or may not have gone to Jerusalem with confrontation on his mind, but in Jerusalem he created a disturbance. Jesus found that at the "House of the Lord," the merchants who sold the animals and birds that were accepted as suitable for temple sacrifices – Jerusalem's temple being the only place where sacrifices were allowed. And among the merchants were money changers who made it possible for people from the different areas to acquire the necessary coins to buy these creatures. Jesus, according to the Book of Matthew (21:13), accused the merchants and money changers as having turned the temple from a "House of Prayer" into a "robber's den," and he made a whip out of cords he had gathered and drove the merchants and money changers from the temple grounds.
The gathering crowds in Jerusalem for the Passover always heightened the spirit of nationalism there. On such occasions, joy was in the air and an increased tension, and those who made street corner speeches found audiences for their passionate denunciations, including denunciations of Jerusalem's priestly city fathers, the Sadducees. The rebellious outbursts upset the Sadducees, and they must have been offended by the disturbance that Jesus had created.
After his revolt at the temple, Jesus sensed that he was in danger, but rather than go into hiding he let himself be arrested, and the Gospels describe him as being arrested like a lestes, a Greek word meaning common criminal or undesirable troublemaker. His followers, however, were less brazen: they deserted Jesus, including one called Peter who denied to authorities that he knew Jesus.
Jesus was taken before a political council called the Sanhedrin, presided over by Jerusalem's High Priest, Caiaphas. The punishment for intending to foment rebellion or for committing blasphemy could be death, and executions for these offenses were routine in Judea. Each of the four Gospels describes the Sanhedrin as having accused Jesus of claiming to be the "king of the Jews," and John (4:26) describes Jesus as claiming that he was the Messiah. This would have been grounds for the charge of blasphemy. The usual method of execution for blasphemy was stoning, and the usual method of execution for treason or insurrection was crucifixion. According to the Gospels, crucifixion was chosen for Jesus, which fits with Jesus not having claimed to be a god or the Messiah. It was also a sentence that would be better than stoning for artistic depictions of martyrdom.
The Gospels describe Jesus as having been placed on a cross between two thieves who tossed insults at him. According to the Gospels, a crowd mocked Jesus while he was on the cross, and a priest joked that Jesus had claimed to save others but apparently could not save himself. Among the followers of Jesus who were present no one dared expose himself as such. And, according to Matthew 27:46, Jesus did not yet understand the reason for his death, for, while dying in the dark, Jesus asked aloud the same cry that appears in Psalm 22:1: "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"
The Gospels describe the body of Jesus as disappearing from its tomb, and they describe Jesus as descending from heaven and appearing before a select few of his followers on a mountain in Galilee. Only a few days before he had asked why God had forsaken him. Now, according to Matthew 28:19, he told his followers to go and "teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost."
Jesus had died, his followers are reported to have held, so that they would be unburdened in the eyes of God regarding their sins. They explained his death using that which had been common among religions in ancient times: sacrifice.
Copyright © 2009-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.