You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘historical Jesus’ category.
In 2015, writing about “Christian Universalisms,” I explained that Jesus
was from Galilee in northern Palestine, child of Aramaic-speaking peasants, not of the “proper” Hebrew-speaking Jews from Judea in the south. His [initial] concern was that his own Galilean people not feel excluded from God’s blessing because of their not being part of the Jerusalem-centered Temple cult.
As we find in teaching stories like “the woman at the well” (John 4) and “the man who fell among thieves” (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus gradually also engaged himself—and, hence, his followers—with the Samaritans,
people whose land lay between Galilee and Judea. The Samaritans were mixed-race descendants of those scattered people who remained in Palestine when the Judean Hebrews were carried into exile in Babylon. They were scorned by Judeans, due both to their mixed heritage and to their revering of Mount Gerizim rather than Jerusalem as God’s chosen worship site.
Even with this change, Jesus still limited himself to people who were somehow within the Hebrew cultic tradition. However, in both Mark (7:24-30) and Matthew (15:21-28) we are told of a journey to the Mediterranean coast during which he a met Canaanite woman.
In this context, “Canaanite” means one from among the mixture of races who had been in Canaan before the Hebrews conquered it. The translation of Mark used here calls the Canaanite woman a “Greek,” that is “a Gentile” or “Pagan.”
From there he got up and went away to the regions of Tyre. Whenever he visited a house he wanted no one to know, but he could not escape notice. Instead, suddenly a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him, and came and fell down at his feet. The woman was a Greek, by race a Phoenician from Syria.
And she started asking him to drive the demon out of her daughter. He responded to her like this: “Let the children be fed first, since it isn’t good to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs!”
But as a rejoinder she says to him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table get to eat scraps (dropped by) children!”
Then he said to her, “For that retort, be on your way, the demon has come out of your daughter.”
She returned home and found the child lying on the bed and the demon was gone.
— Mark 7:24-30,
The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version,
Robert J. Miller, Editor (1994, p.30)
In her 2001 Ideas at the Powerhouse lecture, Elaine Wainwright, former Professor of Theology at the University of Auckland, re-imagines the story of the Canaanite woman (named “Justa” in later traditions) in the context of a story about an Australian Aboriginal woman who faced colonialist scorn.
Justa’s voice is constructed by the…storyteller, who sets her story in the context of the ancient Canaanite/Israelite struggle. Jesus, whose birth and life story generally placed him among the colonised of the Roman empire, preaching a message that was counter-Imperial, is placed in this story in the role of the coloniser.
He stands with and for ancient Israel, as this story evokes that of another conquest of land, namely ancient Israel’s violent appropriation of the land of the Canaanites on the grounds of its being promised as divine gift.
Wainwright continues by imagining the transformation Jesus might have experienced during this confrontation:
The Jesus of this new story-telling, this shaping of a new spiritual imagination, emerges, not in doctrinal or dogmatic formulae, but engaged in the process of recognizing his own complicity in colonialism, even while steeped in a broader life vision of seeking to eradicate it.
We are always unlearning and learning on this path toward transformation, and stories which remind us of this aspect of the journeying can sustain our spirits along the way.
Re-imagining the Story
In an earlier piece written for Reading from This Place. 2: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation Internationally (Fortress, 1995, pp. 151-52), Wainwright shares her feminist take on how this story might have been viewed by 2nd- and 3rd-generation Christians in the house churches of Antioch. Some of these communities were made up mostly of Aramaic-speaking Hebrews and others, mostly Greek-speaking Gentiles.
Wainwright pictures leaders of these house churches meeting to gather together their various traditions about Jesus. On this occasion, they were retelling the story of the Canaanite woman. Miriam, representing a community where Greek- and Aramaic-speaking people worshiped together, was the first to speak.
She told it as the story of Justa, the woman of Tyre whose granddaughter was now a member of their community. Justa had told and retold the story of her encounter with Jesus….
Justa [had] called out for help to this itinerant Jew, who wandered into the area and who was being followed by such a close-knit group of women and men that he gave the appearance of being a holy one. How taken aback she was when she received this insulting rebuff: It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.
Justa’s need, however, was greater than any humiliation she could receive and so, led by some power even beyond her own consciousness, she quipped back: Ah, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.
She remembered her own fear at the realisation of what she had just said, but also her experience of a new power which she had not known before, a power which would never again allow her to be put down in such a way.
She remembered also the look of astonishment, recognition and even shame that passed across the face of the Jewish holy man whom she later came to know as Jesus. He spontaneously held out his hand to her in welcome, drawing her up from her position of supplication, and he acclaimed her: Woman, great is your faith.
Miriam acknowledged that their community had extended the saying of Jesus: Let it be done for you as you desire, so as to highlight Jesus’ recognition of what Justa had taught him; a recognition that linked her insight into wholeness with that of God whose way, whose dream, Jesus was to establish on earth.
Johannan, leader of an Aramaic-speaking house church, interrupted.
You tell this story as if it were a story of Justa rather than Jesus. Our community is much more aware of the outrage that Jesus must have felt when confronted by this foreigner who was not only Syrophoenician—a veritable Canaanite according to our tradition—but also female.
We have it on good authority from those who knew Jesus’ companions of that day, that Jesus at first ignored the woman. He was forever faithful to the traditions of his religion and he would not have spoken to such a woman in public….
Furthermore, in the story as we received it from our Hellenistic Jewish brothers and sisters in southern Syria, Jesus is reported as saying to the woman: I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This is a very different picture of Jesus than that presented by Miriam.
Jesus may eventually have given the woman what she wanted because she was crying after them, as the disciples suggested, but the story still preserves the integrity of his mission to Israel rather than to the Gentiles, and our God-given gender distinctions.
Finally Justinian, a Roman official who led a Greek-speaking community, intervened.
Johannan, we have had this conversation many times before, I know, but Jesus’ own vision of his ministry was more universal than you say. This is one of our key stories which illustrate the movement within Jesus during his lifetime enabling him to see his mission as one including us.
This woman, whom we don’t name and I am happy to learn her name, this woman Justa, is indeed for us the foremother of the mission which includes us as Gentiles. Just as she won healing and wholeness for her daughter, so too she won it for us, her daughters and sons today.
While she does not have a name in our story, she does, however, have a voice. She addresses Jesus as ‘Kyrios’ and as ‘Son of David’ and she cries out in the language of prayer and liturgy: ‘have mercy on me’ and ‘help me.’
Indeed, for us, her voice echoes the voice of the women of our community who participate in the liturgical life of the community and in our theological reflection.
I hadn’t heard the conclusion to the story as Miriam has told it but I can tell you…it will be significant in our house community, and we will add it to our telling of the story, so you would do well to include it also.
And so it is.
Christ and the Canaanite Woman, about 1650, Pen and brown ink, brown wash, corrected with white gouache, 20 × 27.9 cm (7 7/8 × 11 in). Unknown maker, Rembrandt Pupil, active 1650s. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. This image is available for download, without charge, under the Getty’s Open Content Program.
Out of the deserts of the Middle East comes an ancient Christian tradition. Although it has been overshadowed by the Greek and Latin traditions, it is their equal in dignity and theological importance. It is a Semitic tradition, belonging to those churches that use Syriac as their liturgical language. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ himself.
This icon celebrates the richness of Syriac Christianity. The inscriptions in the upper corners read “Jesus Christ,” and at the bottom, “Christ of the Desert.” The Syriac language has ties to the earth that are deep and rich. It is more inclusive than most European languages. The theological experience of Syriac Christians is different because they have encountered the Gospel in such a language. Theirs is an unhellenized expression—one that is neither Europeanized nor Westernized.
Semitic as it is, the Syriac tradition knows no dichotomy between the mind and heart. The heart is the center of the human person—center of intellect as well as feelings. The body and all of creation longs to be reunited with God.
A constant theme in Syriac literature is homesickness for Paradise, a desire to restore Paradise on earth. Christians pray facing east because Paradise was in the east. This longing was expressed in monastic terms in ancient times, but its implications today reach far beyond monastery walls. With earthy roots, this longing for Paradise involves concrete responses in the realms of politics, ecology, and economics.
Originally published on 10/4/2015 on Quaker Universalist Conversations
In “Seeing beyond the Projections” (9/7/2015), I voiced my concern that modern Friends across the spectrum tend to perceive liberal or universalist Quakerism as representing anything but Christianity. As Wendy Geiger has put it so gracefully in her comment, I wanted to suggest an alternative view, a way “to keep one’s heart-mind supple and expandable and inclusive.”1
To give the discussion historical context, I cited James G. Crossley’s 2015 Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Life of the Historical Jesus. Crossley’s scriptural studies and his analysis of social disruption in 1st century Galilee show how the earliest Palestinian tradition of the Jesus movement was led to embrace the power metaphors of “kingdom language.” The tragic irony is that within a few generations such metaphors were being used to rationalize a doctrinaire and authoritarian hierarchy in the early Christian church.
My personal discomfort with institutional Christianity arose during my young adulthood as the response of a self-affirming gay man to that tradition’s condemnation, but also as the response of a first-year seminary student to doctrinaire exclusion of non-Christians and to two millennia of global violence, both done, allegedly, in Jesus’ name.
As I explained in a follow-up comment on “Projections”:
I usually avoid calling myself a Christian out of respect for those who experience Christianity as a creedal religion with an orthodox theological belief system.
Nonetheless, Jesus has been my spiritual master since my earliest childhood. He is the human face of God for me, a “perfect type” of what God tells us we can ourselves become as human beings.
I became a convinced Quaker in my adult years because I understood that the first Friends had centered Quaker faith and practice in the witness of Jesus, indwelling as a teacher in our hearts. This primitive focus on the reality of Jesus, rather than on the theology about Jesus, speaks to my condition.
In other words, I became able to lay down the personal hurts I was projecting onto Christianity, able to discern the faith and practice of the historical Jesus, which transcends the abuses done by the human institution of the church. Now I can reembrace “Christian” as my native religion, the faith language my soul was taught from infancy.
In joy or despair, I can again listen to Jesus, I can seek rescue from Mother-Father God, without stumbling over the conceptual constraints of human doctrine or theological debate—and without distancing myself from those who speak other faith languages.
That “however” involves complex, interwoven challenges.
One commenter on “Projections” objected that Crossley’s thoughtful textual and socio-political reconstruction of the 1st century Palestinian Jesus movement is merely “a contemporary projection that universalists find congenial.” He alleged that “those who disagree with this interpretation are psychologically analyzed as being in some way deficient.” In modern Quaker communities, he wrote, “Christians often fell marginalized (at best).”
This objection represents well the hurt reaction of some creedal Christian Friends to their exclusion by hurting anti-Christian Universalist Friends. That my soul can embrace a non-creedal, universalist “Christ within” does not mean that I can readily share unity in worship with hurting Christians and hurting Universalists who misperceive and therefore mistrust each other as opponents. How do we all become “supple and expandable and inclusive” enough to receive such unity?
Religion is always bound up with identity. More specifically, it is bound up with collective identity: that is, with belonging.2 This in itself would not be a problem, save that the suffering which human beings perpetuate against themselves and each other is frequently the result of believing that “identity” is something real, rather than (at best) a mere poetic shorthand for a complex of shared characteristics which are forever alive and in flux.
During my “radical years,” I used to reply jokingly, if asked my religion, that I was a “Lutheran-Buddhist-Faggot-Witch.” In other words, there was—and is—no name for the religion I share with others, because that religion is not a thing. What is the reality encompassing all named religions which binds together all beings? That is my “religion.”
When we cling to “identity”—worse, when we imagine that identity entails boundaries between “who is” and “who is not”—worse still, when we trick ourselves into ideological stances over “identity politics”—then we deny each other the unity of being which comes from knowing that we sit together around the one and only reality. We separate ourselves from each other by imagined boundaries, instead of worshiping a common center with boundariless horizons.
In the evangelist Matthew’s parable of “The sheep and the goats” (Matt 25:31-46), there is a rarely noticed paradox. The King does not divide those whom he calls “sheep” from those he calls “goats” according to their identities or their belief systems. He does so according to how they have treated each other. That challenge contains its own paradoxes, yet I am referring here to a more elusive paradox.
If I reject the goats, if I do not welcome and bless them as if each were the King, then I, too, am a goat.
My old radical joke was: “We all get to heaven or nobody does.”
And so it is.
1 I invite readers to visit some of the earlier posts which have explored aspects of the concerns expressed here:
- “Listening in tongues” (3/2/2012)
- “What is ‘religion’?” (2/6/2013)
- “What is ‘belief’?” (1/23/2013)
- “The universalisms” (2/27/2013)
- “Do humanism and universalism differ?” (4/7/2013)
- “A typology of universalisms” (6/17/2013)
- “Christocentric Quaker universalism” (7/2/2013)
- “Yeshua” (10/19/2013)
- “Native Religion: Richard Beck & Wendell Berry” (2/12/2014)
- “On discernment” (4/27/2014)
- “Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept,” by Brent Nongbri (7/28/2014)
- “After Religion: Thoughts on Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion” (8/13/2014)
- “Fearing God” (10/31/2014)
- “Christian Universalisms” (5/1/2015)
2 Possible etymology of the word “religion”: re-ligare, re- (again) + ligare (to bind, connect) or “to reconnect.”
“Christ of the Desert,” an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM.
“Two sheep and two goats resting together in a field.” Lithograph with gouache by A. Ducote. [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Originally published on 9/7/2015 on Quaker Universalist Conversations
Some recent conversations with Friends revealed that they considered Quaker Universalism to represent anything but Christianity. This is not surprising either psychologically or historically, yet it misses the core premise of universalism: inclusion.
Psychologically, our pattern-seeking brains prefer boundaries and distinctions, and their cognitive shortcut is to divide things into either/or categories. Historically, if I came to Quakerism from outside of the Christian community, or if I have laid down the belief system of that community, I may see Quaker Universalism as the “welcoming other,” something instead of Christianity.
There’s a trick here.
When I look at Christianity—either from the inside or from the outside—I tend to see it as it is usually presented to me by its human advocates: as a system of beliefs and practices, together with the institutions which advocate and defend them. In other words, I see what those advocates project as being “Christianity.” I also see what I project onto “Christianity,” my conscious and visceral reactions to whatever I have experienced in interaction with “Christian” people and institutions.
I’ve used those quotation marks above to signify my dilemma. I see “Christianity” and self-identified “Christian” people, but am I seeing the Truth that those people and I share and sometimes glimpse beyond our projections?
In his new book, Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Life of the Historical Jesus, James G. Crossley speaks to the challenges of this dilemma, even within the scholarly tradition of “historical Jesus” research. Crossley writes:
One of the advantages of working with the general “earliest Palestinian tradition” [of the Jesus movement], rather than trying more precisely to reconstruct the historical Jesus, is that it potentially allows for more evidence to assess the ways in which people were part of the complexities and chaos of historical change….
Besides, we do not necessarily have direct access to the words or even deeds of the historical Jesus and working more generally eases some of those more practical problems” (163)
There was great social disruption in 1st century Galilee and Palestine. Family, household and agrarian village life were turned upside down by the socio-economic demands of Herod Antipas’ new Roman cities of Tiberias and Sepphoris. Whether or not Jesus himself spoke out of a sense of peasant revolutionary distress, enough of that sense is reflected in the earliest tradition to show up in the gospels of Mark and the later evangelists.
In particular, Crossley argues that in this tradition the “sinners” Jesus was criticized for sitting at table with were not the lowly outcasts, the riff-raff, but rather “rich people who are powerful, oppressive, abusing justice, and unjustly successful” (99). The Jesus of this tradition does not deny that such people are sinners, but he communes with them in order to bring them back to righteousness.
For Crossley, the great historical irony is that the remedies looked for in this tradition carried within them the seeds of an abusive historical church:
The earliest Palestinian tradition pitted the kingdom of God against Rome, attacked wealth and privilege, supported the poorest members of society, and saw Jesus as an agent of the kingdom in both present and future.
However, the…tradition simultaneously mimicked power and imperialism. It looked to the kingdom of God coming in power and establishing hierarchical rule on earth with Jesus and his followers playing highly elevated roles, including one of judge. Rich and poor would be reversed but the structure of reward was not radically altered….
This imperial theology was also taken up very early, not least by Paul, and, even if it probably would have horrified some of the people responsible for the earliest Palestinian tradition, imperialist theology is not as far removed from Constantine as is often thought. (162)
So many intermingled layers of projection. How to see beyond them?
My suggestion is that universalism is not a belief system but a faith testimony.
I begin with the testimony that all of us are one kindred, regardless of our traditions, our religions, our politics, our behaviors and beliefs.
If that is the case, I first find situations for fellowship with others: self-identified Christians, same-sex marriage opponents, racists, and so on.
Then I find ways for us to sit together in expectant and compassionate waiting, perhaps sharing a meal, while we make ourselves tender and open to seeing what we all share as Truth.
And so it is.
32And they go to a place the name of which was Gethsemane, and he says to his disciples, “Sit down here while I pray.” 33And he takes Peter and James and John along with him, and he grew apprehensive and full of anguish. 34He says to them, “I’m so sad I could die. You stay here and be alert!”
—Mark 14:32-34 (The Complete Gospels, 3rd ed. )
Today I added a new post on the Bad Quaker Bible Blog.
Nothing convicts me in my heart more than the contemplation of Jesus as a historical person.
All my decades of wrestling with spiritual paths and theologies are self-indulgence, compared with the blessèdness and horror of that man’s life. Every day’s news is full of the brutality and painful neediness of humankind. That Jesus walked compassionately into the midst of it all is reason enough to follow him—and to be dismayed whenever I fall short of doing so.
Last Sunday I wrote about the painful discrepancy we experience between our outwardly celebrative expectations, as we wave our branches on the road into Jerusalem, and our inwardly destructive disappointments, resentments, fears and betrayals.
We imagine that divine intervention, or at least some authoritative spiritual teacher or political leader, will “fix everything” in our day-to-day lives. Yet those lives continue into one “unfixed” moment after another.
More distressing, occasionally we manage to hear what Jesus actually says: “Here’s what to do. Here’s how to do it. Let me show you.”
I say distressing, because we normally are so far from feeling able to do as he did in any moment of the life our stories tell us about. Not only so far from feeling able to walk knowingly into brutal torture and crucifixion. So far from risking or surrendering material security to live with society’s outcasts. So far from reaching out to sooth the secret wounds which cause others to hurt us.
In my “Palm Sunday” post, I owned these failings, these ways in which I fall short of what Jesus shows me a human being can do. Yet I also owned something else: my rejection of the Augustinian doctrine of The Fall, caused by original sin and perpetuated through every generation of the human race.
“None of our failure is ‘fallenness’,” I wrote. “It is merely part of normal, finite, fallible, hardwired primate survival behavior. God knows.”
All those human traits which are bound up in the metaphor of fallenness are natural survival traits of social animals. As self-serving, hurtful and sometimes deadly as they may be, they all arise from innate biological responses to perceived threat to oneself or one’s kin. It seems pointless to me to claim that these traits represent fallenness from some primordially better state of being.
Even so, the metaphor does speak to something deep in human experience. Last Monday, a friend sent this in response to my post:
To me, our fallen-ness is separation from God and being less than what we can be when we are in close communion with God, as was Jesus. The importance of the gospel stories, to me, is in what they can teach us about our true nature and our relationship to God.
These words sing welcome counterpoint to mine.
The New Testament Greek word hamartia is usually translated as “sin.” However, it “is rooted in the notion of missing the mark (hamartanein),” falling short of the target, the ideal, the moral (or divine) expectation.
So, instead of fallenness in the Augustinian sense, perhaps our challenge is fallen short-ness. Our natural survival responses usually block or distract us from the grace-filled life we sometimes glimpse. It is a life we sometimes even manage to live for a moment or so at a time. We long for it, strive for it…yet most of the time we fall short.
When we are momentarily successful at such living, we experience the unexpected grace of “our true nature and our relationship to God.” When we notice that we have fallen short once again, we feel as if we are separated from “our relationship with God.”
I do not believe that fallenness is separation from God. It is, rather, the illusory feeling of separation, the loss of conscious awareness, the denial, even, of our unending kinship with God.
Some years ago I discovered that, for me, the most important day in the Christian calendar is one not even traditionally noted, that strange, empty day between Good Friday and Easter.
Although I did not do so yesterday, some years I go out into the wilderness by myself and sit, watching and waiting. I have never physically seen or heard Jesus. In the material realm, all I have of him is the stories I have been told. Yet when I sit alone on the empty day, he is no less with me than on any other day.
It isn’t my reaching toward him, privately in meditation or longing, or publicly in Lutheran liturgical worship or Quaker waiting worship, that brings him into realness for me. And my fallenness, my fallen short-ness, doesn’t keep him from me.
He is just there. A historical person, demonstrating in the flesh, through the stories about him, all that a human being is capable of doing when in full relationship with God.
What, then, was so powerful for Jesus’ disciples—after their flight and betrayal and denial of him—that they could know him to be alive for them again?
That kinship was not broken, cannot be broken.
As I wrote last Sunday:
“Jesus knows, God knows. Just wake up and follow him again. That’s all we can do.”
And so it is.