Jesus: The Outline

After spending the greater part of my academic life trying to persuade people that the New Testament is chock full of myths, I’m at the point where it might be useful to say what I think isn’t one.

The Bultmann era was edged in the hypocrisy of subverting and redesigning myth to save the gospel. It was quickly supplanted by the pan-Gnostics who in turn got hijacked by a dozen different modes of discourse theory, and several ill-fated new quests that assured us that the footprints they were tracking were not, as it seemed, going around in a circle. Naturally, no “Jesus” emerged from any of this and understandably the fact that none did greatly encouraged the amateurs to speculate that there was nothing down the hole in the first place.

My semi-sincere New Year’s resolution for 2013 is to be nicer to the mythicists, because their conclusions are not their fault. After all, they are simply piecing together the stammering indecision, deconstruction, conspiracy-theories, and half-baked analogies of a hundred years of uncongealed scholarship. When a senior professor of New Testament studies at Harvard touts a shred of gnostic papyrus as showing that Jesus may have been married without so much as a nod to the weird provenance of the scrap, who can blame amateurs for coming to less absurd conclusions?

The problem with all of this isn’t that we don’t have ingredients for assessing the “Jesus Puzzle.” It’s that too many adventurous souls, using what we have, are calling their work a cake when it isn’t even a recipe.

I am going out on a limb, this last day of 2012, unprotected by footnotes, to offer a few paragraphs on what I think the gospels tell us that we can be relatively sure is “true.” I have been persuaded by a few friends to lay all of this out in a book at the end of this year, so I will. With any luck, it will be shorter and easier to read than any of the books I have read on the subject in the last two decades. Think of this as a preview; I’ll save persuasion, argument and evidence for later.

Jesus of Nazareth was born toward the beginning of the common era to a peasant woman named Miriam. He was from the region known as the Galilee (ha-Galel: Josh. 20.7), and according to an early but dubious tradition from “Nazareth.” But the tradition soon lost track of the ascription and seems to have used a place name for an imperfectly understood epithet based on the common Hebrew word נֵ֫צֶר or branch. No one knows what Jesus is supposed to have been a branch of, but the two likeliest prospects are of the sect associated with John the Baptist or the sect associated with Judas of Galilee.

The true identity of his father is unknown, and both the Joseph-tradition and the ben-Panthera (Jewish polemical) tradition are flimsy attempts, respectively, to provide cover and to attack the shadowy circumstances of his origin. Later elaborations of this tendency will be found in the efforts to insist on the virginity of Mary and an appeal to prophetic tradition.

By far, in making sense of the synoptic gospels, the likeliest scenario is that Jesus was taken by his mother to Jerusalem as a boy, a tradition preserved in the unlikely and legendary story of the journey to Jerusalem in Luke 2.42-51. While in no sense “liberal,” Jerusalem was populous and rustic scandals could be glossed over. As a teenager, he probably found work in the building projects associated with the reign of the Herodians. He listened to apocalyptic preaching and became an ardent opponent of the Roman occupation of Palestine.

He commenced his own preaching career in Jerusalem and retreated to the Galilee during the sporadic but increasingly intense crackdowns on tax revolts and anti-government agitation that extended from Judas the Galilean to Theudas. (6 CE-46CE) where he began to find followers and build a small movement.

That this movement was a crashing failure in the outposts of the province is hardly surprising, since the iron fist of Rome affected city-dwellers in ways hardly imagineable outside Jerusalem. In his “home town,” the message of Jesus was largely irrelevant.

In specific ways, the political message of Jesus seems identical to the person described by Josephus (Ant. 18.1) as Judas of Galilee, who opposed the tax structure imposed on the Jews following the census of Quirinius mentioned by both Luke and Josephus. The geographical coordinates of Jesus and Judas coincide in important and suggestive ways.

According to the synoptic gospels, the “journey” of Jesus to Jerusalem was a one-off event. According to the Fourth gospel, Jesus moved between the Galilee and Jerusalem, a more likely pattern for someone suspected of political agitation and holding reformist views about religion. The gospel writers, beginning with Mark, have substituted the conceit of a royal Davidic procession for the real scurrying between the villages of the Gaililee and the parlous environment of Jerusalem that seems to have characterized Jesus’ career. The journey saga, Mark’s invention, and the passion sequence following it are highly ritualized and the former is almost without historical merit, a fact inadvertently relayed even by Mark in his inability to explain the “crowds” waiting for Jesus on his arrival.

On one of his preaching ventures, accompanied by the followers who had come to believe he was a deliverer (perhaps believing it himself) Jesus was arrested, accused of fomenting rebellion against Roman rule, and (possibly) with the capitulation of Jewish leaders, executed.

Like Judas and “Theudas” (whose tradition is botched in the New Testament sources) Jesus used apocalyptic utterances and threats as political cover. The early Christians would do the same thing in the Book of Revelation, probably written before the end of the first century. The securest parts of the Jesus-tradition therefore are the apocalyptic sections of the gospels such as Mark 13, though these have been repeatedly altered to conform to the changing expectations and beliefs of the community Jesus left behind.

The “displaced tradition” of Jesus’ attack on the temple cult in John 2 (which violates the Markan chronology, if it knows it) comes closest to giving us an accurate picture of how Jesus was remembered by the earliest community, as a prophet, trouble-maker, and critic of the religious regime of the Pharisees and priests.

That community was unalterably changed by two events: the destruction of the Temple, which eviscerated apocalyptic of its historical power, and the preaching of Paul, which deprived Jesus of his historical context and turned him into a mixed-messianic figure. To the extent that Jesus used the apocalytic genre, he used it as a ritual curse and not as a prophecy of messianic return or redemption.

In Jerusalem, Jesus was remembered as a charismatic outlaw. A tradition, such as the Judas [Iscariot]-tradition, while partly legendary (including the name) is entirely plausible from the standpoint of Roman tactics. It was a snare, or a set-up, that tradition recasts as betrayal. The legal process against Jesus needed witnesses; the self-contradictory gospel insistence that “no one could be found” to testify against him suggests that the Romans conducted his trial with dispatch. It would have been handled by a magistrate and not by the governor of the province.

The Jewish trials, completely legendary, are based on the need to establish Jesus’ messianic credentials and (later) to point a finger away from the Roman process.

As to his teaching, certain elements seem secure. Rather than a raw political apocalypticism such as we find in the preaching of John the Baptist, known to be an enemy of the Herodians, Jesus seems to be a typical purist member of “the fourth sect,” the religious group Josephus associates with the final troubles leading to the wars of 66-70. The tradition of the destruction of Jerusalem (forecast in the crucifixion scene) may be a metaphorical way of associating Jesus with these troubles in an honorary way, though the more direct evidence comes in stray passages such as Mark 13.2 and its rationalizations. These “threats” are primarily “cosmopolitan” issues that were more intense in Jerusalem than the provinces, making a “Galilean” provenance for Jesus, or his inexperience (a one week acquaintance!) of the city, implausible.

This model unfortunately requires us to leave to one side features of Jesus’ message that are often regarded as essential–especially the injunction to “love” one’s enemies. Jesus does not display any of these characteristics in his remembered controversies with members of other sects, so there is no reason to suppose he would have encouraged others to display them to total strangers. In this respect, the controversy stories, though not in every detail, are the best indicators of what the “personality” of Jesus may have been like.

By the same token, certain elements of his teaching–the critical agenda that flows from a general distaste for ritual, the irrelevance of social caste, suspicion of priestcraft and law, the meaning of sin and the “power” of God–are fairly represented.

Meng Zhi: On Government*

Meng Zhi, known to the west as Mencius, was a Chinese philosopher of the fourth century B.C., whose influence on his intellectual tradition is roughly equivalent to the joint influence of St. Paul and Aristotle on Western thought. Better known to English speakers by the Latinization of his name, “Mencius,” Mengzi thought of himself as merely defending the teachings of Confucius against rival philosophical doctrines, especially the “egoism” of Yang Zhu and the universalistic consequentialism of Mozi. However, Mengzi was actually a very original thinker, whose doctrine of the goodness of human nature went far beyond anything Confucius had said. Long after his death, Mengzi’s interpretation of Confucianism became orthodoxy, meaning that generations of Chinese intellectuals literally memorized his work.

On Government

Mencius had an audience with King Hui of Liang. The king said, “Sir, you did not consider a thousand li too far to come You must have some ideas about how to benefit my state.” Mencius replied, “Why must Your Majesty use the word ‘benefit” All I am concerned with are the benevolent and the right. If Your Majesty says, ‘How can I benefit my state?’ your officials will say, ‘How can I benefit my family,’ and officers and common people will say, ‘How can I benefit myself.’ Once superiors and inferiors are cornpeting for benefit, the state will be in danger. When the head of a state of ten thousand chariots is murdered, the assassin is invariably a noble with a fief of a thousand chariots, When the head of a fief of a thousand chariots is murdered, the assassin is invariably head of a subfief of a hundred chariots. Those with a thousand out of ten thousand, or a hundred out of a thousand, had quite a bit. But when benefit is put before what is right, they are not satisfied without snatching it all. By contrast there has never been a benevolent person who neglected his parents or a righteous person who put his lord last. Your Majesty perhaps will now also say, ‘All I am concerned with are the benevolent and the right. Why mention ‘benefit?’ ”

After seeing King Xiang of Liang, Mencius to someone, “When I saw him from a distance he did not look like a ruler, and when I got closer, I saw nothing to command respect. But he asked ‘How can the realm be settled?’ I answered, ‘It can be settled through unity.’ ‘Who can unify it?’ he asked. I answered, ‘Someone not fond of killing people.’ ‘Who could give it to him?’ I answered ‘Everyone in the world will give it to him. Your .Majesty knows what rice plants are? If therere is a drought in the seventh and eighth months, the plants wither, but if moisture collects in the sky and forms clouds and rain falls in torrents, plants suddenly revive. This is the way it is; no one can stop the process. In the world today there are no rulers disinclined toward killing. If there were a ruler who did not like to kill people, everyone in the world would crane their necks to catch sight of him. This is really true. The people would flow toward him the way water flows down. No one would be able to repress them.’ ”

King Xuan of Qi asked, “Is it true that King Wen’s park was seventy li square’,” Mencius answered, “That is what the records say.” The King said, “Isn’t that large?” Mencius responded, ‘The people considered it small.” “Why then do the people consider my park large when it is forty li square?” “In the forty square li of King Wen’s park, people could collect firewood and catch birds and rabbits. Since he shared it with the people, isn’t it fitting that they considered it small? When I arrived at the border, I asked about the main rules of the state before daring to enter. I learned that there was a forty-li park within the outskirts of the capital where killing a deer was punished like killing a person. Thus these forty li are a trap in the center of the state. Isn’t it apprpriiate that the people consider it too large?”

After an incident between Zou and Lu, Duke Mu asked, “Thirty-three of my officials died but no common people died. I could punish them, but I could not punish them all. I could refrain from punishing them but they did angrily watch their superiors die without saving them. What would be the best course for me to follow?” Mencius answered, “When the harvest failed, even though your granaries were full, nearly a thousand of your subjects were lost — the old and weak among them dying in the gutters, the able — bodied scatter ing in all directions. Your officials never reported the situation, a case of superiors callously inflicting suffering on their subordinates. Zengzi said, ‘Watch out, watch out! What you do will be done to you.’ This was the first chance the people had to pay them back. You should not resent them. If Your Highness practices benevolent government, the common people will love their superiors and die for those in charge of them.”

King Xuan of Qi asked, “Is it true that Tang banished Jie and King Wu took up arms against Zhou?” Mencius replied, “That is what the records say.” “Then is it permissible for a subject to assassinate his lord?” Mencius said, ”Someone who does violence to the good we call a villain; someone who does violence to the right we call a criminal. A person who is both a villain and a criminal we call a scoundrel I have heard that the scoundrel Zhou was killed, but have not heard that a lord was killed

King Xuan of Qi asked about ministers Mencius said, ”What sort of ministers does Your Majesty mean?” The king said ‘ Are there different kinds of ministers?” “There are. There are noble ministers related to the ruler and ministers of other surnames.” The king said, “I’d like to hear about noble ministers.” Mencius replied, “When the ruler makes a major error, they point it out. If he does not listen to their repeated remonstrations, then they put someone else on the throne.” The king blanched. Mencius continued, “Your Majesty should not be surprised at this. Since you asked me, I had to tell you truthfully.” After the king regained his composure, he asked about unrelated ministers. Mencius said, “When the king makes an error, they point it out. If he does not heed their repeated rernonstrations, they quit their posts.”

Bo Gui said, “I’d like a tax of one part in twenty What do you think?” Mencius said, “Your way is that of the northern tribes. Is one potter enough for a state with ten thousand households?” “No, there would not be enough wares.” The northern tribes do not grow all the five grains, only millet They have no cities or houses, no ritual sacrifices. They do not provide gifts or banquets for feudal lords, and do not have a full array of officials. Therefore, for them, one part in twenty is enough But we live in the central states How could we abolish social roles and do without gentlemen? If a state cannot do without potters, how much less can it do without gentlemen Those who want to make government lighter than it was under Yao and Shun are to some degree barbarians Those who wish to make government heavier than it was under Yao and Shun are to some degree [tyrants like] Jie.”

*from “China Confucius”,

How Sandy Hook is Obama’s Fault

“And it’s not surprising–then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them….” (Barack Obama, 2007)

It almost cost him the election, that comment. The rest of the damage issued from the Black Theology of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who goddamned America for, among other things, its love of guns and violence against people who are different.

Four years later, they–we–are still clinging. Not that I cling to either. But I think that all of us who live in a country that is famous for such lunacy deserve a share of the blame.

I am only a little interested in the Why? question. Maybe it is because the Why question is always answered with the sub-analytical question-begging that television journalists call analysis (“Do you think America is on the wrong track or the right track?”): America’s Love-affair with guns. The political power of the NRA, who have half the Senate and two-thirds of congressmen in their blood-stained camouflage pockets. Or the Second Amendment–you know, the one that the SCOTUS says gives every man and woman the right to carry a semi-automatic weapon for squirrel hunting. Come to think of it, if corporations are people, my friend, why don’t they have a Bushmaster?

The simple fact is, Obama had it just right. He spoke the truth that dare not be spoken. A lot of Americans see America disappearing into a gray cloud of moral relativism and negotiable truths. It leaves them stranded and sightless. Homosexuality used to be weird and funny, and if you called someone a queer they cried. Now they smile, flash their wedding ring at you and drive off with their partner in a Bugatti. Abortion was something God-fearing Christians did not do, not even if fourteen year-old Tiffany’s pregnancy was eighteen year-old Bubba’s fault. Now their pastors and (even a few priests) say that the position of their Church is evolving, or has totally changed. A sin has become a right. A Christian will know that people who talk this way aren’t Christian because God can’t change his mind. He wrote a book. He hasn’t written another one. And we wrote a Constitution. Now some people are trying to change that too, and we can’t let them.

America is not a theocracy, but it often behaves like one, and plenty of Americans would have no trouble saying that the law of God (as they construe it) is higher than the law of the land. America for them is only “good” when its representatives and judges and president make decisions that support their biblical view of reality. In that view, men and women are more separate than equal. God established difference as a basis for doing certain jobs, playing certain roles. Things have only been screwed up since we began ignoring those “natural” differences and letting women do what (real) men are naturally meant to do, like being breadwinners, wife-tamers, and heads of the household. Even many plaid-jacketed divorced AK-45-toting women survivalists believe this doctrine. It is an act of faith that America is in rebellion against the law of God.

One of the proofs of this is Barack Obama’s recent election. Who elected him? That’s right, No one. Black people, scroungers, welfare mothers. University-educated people. So-called “scientists” who have never done an honest days work, communists and atheists and anybody else who hates America. All your spicks in California or Florida or wherever. Christ, probably even your Indians and god-knows-what-else.

For people who think this way, the election of a well-educated black lawyer who thinks the world is about fourteen billion years old is the apocalypse. No act of violence is too violent when you think that the enemy is in the White House, lighting cigars with the Constitution, palling around with terrorists and Chinese tycoons who want to buy Fort Knox, and celebrating the rites of his native religion in a secret mosque behind the Oval Office. It is a perfect storm brewed from irrational fear and an insanely available stage on which to vent your frustration and rage for what’s being taken away. And if the guys in beaver fur are the touts in this scenario, they are being stage managed by guys who use deoderant, men like Donald Trump, Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh. They are the real muses behind the weakminded men who caused Sandy Hook to happen

Listen to the rhetoric: “What’s being taken away.” The Endangered Man–Homo periclitatur–who thinks and acts against society never thinks in terms of rights as something that have been given, or developed, or created, but almost always as something that are being taken away. The unique reference in the Declaration (not the Constitution) to being “endowed” with unalienable rights by a Creator assures them that rights come from above and beyond the courts; courts have no business messing around with what God has given. We call that “liberty,” and liberty means that every individual man is free to do as he chooses as long as no one gets hurt.

The Second Amendment has become an idol in this debate as the symbol of what is left when all these God-given rights are left in the dust. Take away our guns and you take away our ability to defend our liberty. Christ knows, the government can’t defend us anymore. We have to do it ourselves. Just like in 1776.

The low-point in this “discussion” was reached in the election of 2008 when Sarah “Grizzly” Palin donned her red dress and promised the slavering hunters who had almost given up hope for a messiah that she would sleep with them if they would just vote for her and her “rogue” companion. Her rogue companion, a useless non-hero from the VietNam war, was only a little less ardent in his defense of guns. And he sits in a body where the legislators of the most powerful country on earth are given report cards by a weapons-advocacy lobby.

In the dogmatic illiteracy of 2012 America, the nation was founded not by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin–who may have owned guns but probably didn’t use them much–but by Davy Crockett and Wyatt Earp. They were all good Christians. They didn’t get divorced or kill babies. Maybe they fooled around a little because God can forgive that, and besides, men are weak in that department. It says so in scripture. These “heroes” didn’t know much science because they knew what really mattered was getting on, getting by, keeping government small, and staying out of trouble with the law. If you did get in trouble with the law, well that’s okay too. Remember what I said about being weak: God needs his sinners, as long as they are committing the right sins.

A gun, after all, is an axiom. A bullet can decide right or wrong when a court can’t, and it takes a good bullet to kill someone who uses one for evil. What went wrong at Sandy Hook? The principal wasn’t gun-smart.

It astonishes the world outside America that this childish and insipid view of history and human nature carries so much weight. It can win elections, though it didn’t win this one, and that in itself is a provocation to further violence.

But it should astonish everyone inside America that our schools don’t teach real stuff, that state educational commissions cower before the propect of teaching that religions come in different shapes, sizes and valences, and have been a source of moral harm as well as of good; that they fail to teach that evolution is not a mere theory but the best explanation we have of how we became the creatures we are. The home-schooling “revolution” that began a generation ago has been all about protecting students from the truth of science and the beauty of literature, abetted by school boards–an entrenched nineteenth century abomination–who think parents know best, and that the most important thing you can learn in school are family values.

The source of our trouble is not that Americans are stupid, though many are, but that we have permitted stupidity and fear to become the dominant force in the national psyche. We are a Janus of country, one face a road-weary, government hating, truck-driving cowboy, the other a Nobel Laureate from MIT. For every one of us who tittered at Tina Fey’s send up of Sarah Palin in 2008, there was a hunter in Arkansas, cleaning his gun, ready to shoot the TV screen in disgust that a woman who spoke God’s truth was being ridiculed for not reading books and newspapers.

And there might have been a mother in Newtown, Connecticut who said to her twelve year-old son, Adam, “You see these guns: That’s all we’ve got when they come for us.”