For many decades (maybe even for hundreds of years) Paul, who considered himself an apostle, was routinely described as a man who had “converted” to Christianity from Judaism. Virtually all of the people who described Paul in this manner are/were themselves Christians, perhaps a few agnostics/atheists—even some Jews. Scholars of how Christianity arose seemed to be primarily interested in separating Christians from Jews, although they often acknowledged that the roots of Christianity were in Judaism. In fact, The Christian “Bible” includes all of the books of the “Old Testament” with some variations between and within the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and various Protestant versions. The early Christian theologian, Marcion, wanted to omit all of the Old Testament, but he was an outlier.
In the usual versions of Paul’s history, his enemies were/are almost uniformly described as the Jews, especially the clergy (Temple priests) and later the rabbis, although the Jerusalem Temple was still in existence during Paul’s life. He lived from approximately 5 C.E. to 67 C.E., and the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.
While the issue is still debated, and probably most Christians think of Paul as himself a Christian, and the Jews as his opponents, leading scholars now assert that Paul never converted, and remained a Jew for his entire life. These scholars also believe that in Paul’s theology, the enemy was not “the Jews,” but the Roman empire.
Paul describes himself as an apostle, chosen not by any man, but directly by God, as represented by His only Son, Jesus Christ. He further asserts that he is God’s apostle to the “Nations.” This word is often translated as “Gentiles,” which many take to mean as “Christians.” However, this is a rather careless analysis. In Jewish Scripture, God tells the Israelites he has chosen them as a nation of priests, a holy nation, and they are instructed to minister to the rest of the (known) world—the nations--and bring them to God.
It is unclear whether Paul intended to bring the “Nations” directly into Israel’s covenant with God, which I believe is the correct interpretation. There are scholars (Bernard Brandon Scott) who believe there was to be a second covenant between the Nations and God, but since all of humanity is to eventually share in God’s universal kingdom, I think this is an unnecessary complication.
On the other hand, Paul believed the nations were to be exempted from some of the commandments and rules that were the obligations of the Jews. For example, circumcision was not required, nor were most of the dietary restrictions. Modern commentators often describe these rules—the 613 “commandments” as burdensome, although objective scholars in the modern era acknowledge that the Jews of Jesus’s time did not find them onerous and were pleased to have detailed instructions of how to please God. Nevertheless,
Nevertheless, it was and remains much easier to fulfill the requirements set by Paul than the more stringent standards for conversion to Judaism.
There was another major element of Paul’s teaching. The idea of apocalypticism—the world was going to end very soon and God’s judgment was about to be rendered. Those who accepted Jesus as their Lord would indeed be saved. Those who did not were doomed to eternal torment. Paul told his adherents the apocalypse was imminent--thus conversion was not only easy, it was a matter of life or death. If Paul didn’t invent Christianity, he was its greatest booster. I wonder what Jesus would think...2 billion plus converts to a religion he wouldn’t recognize.
Who was the genius who came up with the idea that the dead Jesus of Nazareth was God? Despite claims to the contrary in the Gospels and in Paul’s letters, Jesus never claimed to be God during his lifetime. If he had really marched into synagogues and said he was divine, he would have been laughed out of town – and probably beaten to a pulp as well. I do think he considered himself to be the messiah, which he believed to be based on a covenant, similar to the fundamental covenant between the Jewish people and God. Jesus thought that God had chosen him as the messiah and that he had in turn accepted the mission.
The mission failed—not through any fault of Jesus’s—and he was tortured and murdered. For the Jews, this meant that, however tragic his death had been, he could not have been the Messiah, because the Messiah would have saved them. But that was not the end of it. Some claim that Jesus would (typically) have been buried in a mass grave with all the other criminals slaughtered that day. Others assert that he was buried in the tomb of a member of the Sanhedrin. Two days later that tomb was empty.
And thereby hangs the beginning of his apotheosis. Someone says Jesus was resurrected. Next we’re told he has been raised up to Heaven. He is now a god. He is now the God. Who has invented this story? He/she is a genius. But who was this person? By the time Paul has inserted himself into history, the tale has been established. Paul has only to embellish his role in the story, which he does superbly. But Paul did not invent the resurrection/apotheosis fable. Who did? And why did so many believe it? This is the greatest Christian mystery of all.
It was only in the late 18th century, and then in the 19th, that scholars began the search for the historical Jesus of Nazareth as distinguished from the Jesus of the Gospels (canonic and otherwise), and the letters of Paul. Of course, even this search requires inquiry regarding these sources as well as a handful of historians such as Josephus, Philo, Tacitus and a few others.
These searches have expanded geometrically since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi documents in “middle” Egypt and the discarded items in the Genizah of a Jewish synagogue also in Egypt. No doubt, the majority, perhaps the vast majority of the 2 billion Christians in the world continue to view Jesus as divine—the Son of God, both literally and spiritually.
But which Jesus are we talking about? While studies of the historical Jesus have become more informed, more detailed and probably more accurate, this Jesus has become less and less important theologically. In fact, some scholars draw a heavy line—even a fence—between the Jesus who preached in Judea and Galilee and died on the cross, and the resurrected and uplifted Jesus now in heaven. Most Christians denigrated (even despised) the Jews for having “rejected” Jesus; in many versions Jews are “Christ-killers,” even “murderers of the living God.”
However, in the decades since the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews in the middle of the 20th century, many Christians have come to have a more nuanced view of the Jews. The Vatican has formally acknowledged that Jesus was born, lived and died a Jew and has specifically decried Anti-Semitism. While there is has been a resurgence of Ant-Semitism in many parts of the world lately (often masked as opposition to the State of Israel and its policies), there are no longer anti-Jewish polemics endorsed by any Christian religion in the U.S., nor in most of the rest of the world.
However, many otherwise responsible historians and theologians, propound the thesis that the Jews of Jesus’s time not only opposed the idea that he was their “messiah,” but also that since he was crucified, and only the most terrible people were crucified, Jews despised him as a totally tainted, human being—and they rejected him as impure . In my opinion, this is merely a screen for anti-Semitism. Rather than feeling deeply sympathetic to a fellow Jew who had been tortured, abused and murdered, they wanted nothing to do with him. I have discussed this with a number of Rabbis, from Reform to Ultra-Orthodox, and they found this idea not only false, but repulsive and a complete contradiction of the principles on which Judaism is based.
Perhaps the most curious result of this new “scholarship” is that it seems to imply that the correct Christianity is not at all dependent on the historical “Christ.” That man died not only physically, but spiritually. The “new” Christ is the resurrected and elevated Christ, revealed to Paul directly from God. He is no longer “Jew nor Greek,” but a wholly new son of God. In this view, the Jewish connection is of trivial importance—if any. If this isn’t a sophisticated form of anti-Semitism, what is it?
I do believe that it is time for Jews to acknowledge the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish hero; that Jesus would find the idea that he opposed Judaism absurd; that the co-option of him as the creator of a new religion is at best silly, and at worst offensive. It is also time for Christian scholars to abandon the proposition that Jews rejected Jesus as an irreparably damaged person, and therefore to be despised. There is room for rapprochement of both these Abrahamic religions, and perhaps for Islam as well.
The vast majority of historians, theologians, religious, believe, as Bart Ehrman does, that Jesus of Nazareth was an apocalyptist, and that Jesus thought the end of the world was nigh, including final judgment and the inauguration of God’s Kingdom. Therefore, these folks assert, Jesus believed it was urgent that the Jews repent their sins and make themselves right with God before the end came. The hills were alive with the sound of would-be messiahs, magicians, and assorted fakirs promising the end of the world. Of course, Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion were not part of this plan—he couldn’t be the messiah if he died without “saving” his people; explaining that state of affairs required the remarkable imagination and inventiveness of his followers, including the resurrection, the new conception of messiahship, the divinity of Jesus, dying for “our” sins, etc.
From this convoluted interpretation even more complex and fantastic interpretations of Jesus and his world were developed. There is the virgin birth and the immaculate conception, transubstantiation, etc., etc. It also seemed necessary to some scholars that Jesus be considered an ignorant, illiterate, peasant.
And of course, since none of the promised events have ever transpired, it’s difficult to believe that millions, possibly billions of people, accept these apocalyptic ideas. But they do. Even as these preposterous prophecies prove false, true believers (whatever that means) remain convinced that the Christian scriptures are true.
But what if they’re not? What if Jesus wasn’t an ignorant, illiterate peasant? Is it possible there is a simpler, more plausible view of Jesus, his life, his goals? Of course there is, and I explained it all in an historical novel, about which one reviewer wrote, “I find this writer’s story more believable than the official version.”
But that’s for another post.
One of the great errors in Christian thought – let’s not call it a lie – is that the “Apostle” Paul personally converted, presumably to a new religion, “Christianity.” This is simply false. Paul, by his own assertion was born a Jew, a Pharisee, and remained a Jew for his entire life. When Paul asserted to his followers his opposition to the authorities, he was referring to the Roman Empire, not the High Priest and the other Jewish eminences in the first century, C.E.
Paul was preaching to the nations, that is non-Jews, and offering them a way into the covenant with God. In fact this is a clear part of Jewish theology—that the Jews are to be a nation of priests and a holy nation, leading the non-Jews into a covenant with God. Some theologians theorize that this meant entry into the Jews’ covenant with God, others into a new covenant designed specifically for them—“a new testament.”
Paul did not truly oppose Jewish law; he said the people of the nations could become part of God’s covenant by their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah and his faithfulness towards God. Paul did NOT say that they could join the covenant by their faith IN Jesus. This error has informed (or disinformed) the Christian religion for well over 1500 years.
Most important, Paul invented major changes in the rules under which non-Jews could become members of the covenant with God. He omitted circumcision, dietary restrictions and many other of the commandments, big and small. What was he up to? He wanted to convert as many non-Jews as possible to his religious views. He wanted to increase the number of his followers, and thus his power and importance.
To further increase his recruitment, Paul emphasized an idea that was floating around in first century Israel: the apocalypse was imminent and the reign of God on earth and the day of judgment would soon arrive. Paul added to this theology the idea that Jesus, the son of God, would also return at the right hand of God and participate in the new heaven and new earth.
The 2 centuries on both sides of the millennium were an era when a huge number of magicians, messiahs, prophets and other assorted religious nuts warned of the coming apocalypse and claimed they would save the world in one way or another. Paul used this widespread fantasy to convince his hearers they must act quickly or suffer disaster. It worked. And worked. And worked.
Whether Paul believed any of this nonsense is unknowable, but he certainly ranks as the greatest and most successful religious con man of all time.
Many historians, clerics and commentators who have written about Jesus of Nazareth assert that the Jews of his time had fallen away from God and that Jesus’ mission was to persuade them to repent their sins and redeem their relationship with God. Some of these writers consider Jesus divine, others do not, but many claim that the Jews, entrenched in sin, rejected Jesus. They also claim that Jesus was opposed to the law and the overly difficult rules the Jews lived by. Supposedly he opposed the High Priest, the other priests, the rituals and ordinances.
In all these versions, Jesus is—whether directly or indirectly—the founder of a new religion, replacing Judaism. And the Jews are cursed by their failure to acknowledge their messiah, and in some iterations, responsible for his death. They have killed God.
There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus was a great and good man. I don’t believe he considered himself to be the son of God, except in the sense that Jews consider themselves the children of God, made in his image. Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, and died a Jew.
What then was his understanding of his mission? I believe he considered himself the Messiah—that God had given him a messianic mission and that he accepted it, knowing the mortal risks involved. The Jews of Jesus’ era had many ideas of the nature of the Messiah—king, priest, warrior, prophet, perhaps a combination of these roles. Jesus surely did not consider himself to be a king; in his view there was only one king—almighty God. He surely didn’t consider himself to be a warrior, except perhaps in a metaphorical sense. He would surely never have borne arms.
It is possible that he considered himself to be a prophet, in the sense that many Hebrew prophets warned their people that if they did not do God’s will, negative, even fatal consequences would follow. However, contrary to many tales, the Jews of Jesus time had not fallen away from God, but they were subject to huge, powerful and vicious empire. Jesus realized that his people had been pushed to their limit, and he feared they might explode into violence in an attempt to drive the Romans out of their land. He knew that violence would be not only fruitless, but disastrous. Although his people were brave and intelligent, they could not hope to defeat the vast and powerful Roman empire. The murder of John the Baptist crystallized his thought and catalyzed his action. He would have to find the way to convince the Romans to abandon their occupancy of Israel—without using violence. That is the crux and the conundrum of The Murdered Messiah.
According to Pew Research there are over 2.4 billion Christians in the world—divided among more than 40,000 self-described denominations. Of course, there are nearly 1.3 billion Roman Catholics, 800 million Protestants (many versions) and almost 300 million Eastern Orthodox. What do these people believe? The word “Christ” is derived from the Greek Christos, which in English means Messiah, so the Christians are messianists. The core Christian beliefs are based on one person, Jesus Christ. A remarkable number of people believe that Jesus is the first name, and Christ the last name of a single person—an historical person who lived in Galilee and Judaea in the first century of the Common Era (C.E.).
Most Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was divine, the Son of God. Also, most Christians believe that Jesus “died for our sins.” I personally have never understood precisely what that means. Supposedly it is based on an idea attributed to Augustine of Hippo, that all of mankind was stained with the “original sin” of Adam, the first man created by God, who, with his mate, Eve, violated the injunctions of God and ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and was therefore exiled from the Garden of Eden.
Interestingly, Martin Luther, the monk who threw the Christian world into uproar with his schismatic ideas that became what we term “Protestantism,” also subscribed to this notion. And he taught that fallen mankind could only receive redemption by faith in Jesus Christ. Some recent thinkers believe that Luther’s prescriptions should be interpreted not as faith in Christ, but belief in the faith of Christ.
One part of the legacy of Augustine and Luther is ant-Semitism. Augustine didn’t authorize the slaughter of Jews; he thought they should be kept around to show what happens to people who reject their savior, i.e. Jesus. Luther was welcoming to the Jews when he believed they would convert to his version of Christianity, but when they refused his overtures, he was outraged and prescribed punishments for them that might well have formed the basis for Hitler’s Nuremberg laws.
I have simplified my explanation for the sake of brevity and time, but what are the truths behind Christianity that hold the affection and devotion of so many people? Let me stipulate that notwithstanding the depredations of so many allegedly “Christian” nations, these nations, particularly in their European and North American forms are responsible for great achievements in art, music, literature, politics, science and human rights. The question is, where do Christians go from here? This is a difficult question because Christianity is founded on a myth, not facts. Jesus of Nazareth was not divine and never claimed to be. He was indeed a great and good man, but he was just a man. He had the spark of the divine which is in all of us—made in God’s image, not physically, but spiritually.
The greatest growth of Christianity in recent decades has been in Africa and South America, among peoples, no lest intellectually endowed than Europeans and Americans, but at an earlier phase of development. The Europeans are becoming less and less “Christian” as the decades pass, as are the Americans, though still approximately 78% still state they are Christians. What they mean by this is not known, although undoubtedly tens of millions are still sincere in their faith.
However, as the years become decades and the decades centuries, people everywhere (if we haven’t blown ourselves up) as they became more knowledgeable scientifically and sophisticated in their awareness of history, will be less likely to believe that Jesus was divine. That does not mean they will abandon the Judeo-Christian ethics – the morality of millennia, but they will no longer connect their standards to the idea of a Galilean who “died for their sins” thousands of years earlier. The truth is that Jesus (Joshua or Yeshua) was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and died a Jew. His death was heroic and sacrificial, but it was to save the Jews of his time from rebelling against oppression and being slaughtered by the Romans. As it was, he only delayed their tragedy. The Jews rose against the Romans in 66 and were defeated and Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed in 70 C.E. Some escaped to the diaspora, a few survived at Masada until 72 or 73 C.E. The Jews rose again in 135 under the man known as Bar Kochba, who was himself declared by Rabbi Akiba to be the Messiah. But he was not, and the Jews were slaughtered again. They would not have their own country again until 1948; they would not stand before the Western wall of the Temple until 1967.
Nevertheless, Jesus was a Jewish hero, though not God, and he should be honored as a hero by the Jews, but his struggles and his sacrifice have not been understood or recognized by Jews—at least not yet. This does not abrogate the rights of others who consider him to be their hero to respect and honor him, especially for his ethics. Christians must recognize, however, that the ethics of Jesus of Nazareth were and are Jewish ethics. Those that claim he opposed the Judaism of his time, that he introduced new moral standards, are mistaken, but his stature as a world figure of honor and spiritual grandeur must not be dismissed.
How will Christians maintain their integrity and their ethics as more and more people understand that Jesus was not God? Therein lies the paradox.
Jesus (Joshua) and miracles are virtually synonymous. Millions of people around the world accept the idea without question that Jesus was a miracle-worker. There are millions of others, the number is unknowable, who think that idea is nonsense: there is no such thing as a "miracle." After a great deal of thought I decided to take a middle course. While I consider Jesus to be a great and good man, I don't think he was divine. And as far as I can tell, neither did he. On the other hand, he certainly seems to have had healing skills, partly physical, partly psychological. Also, as time goes by, more and more scientists recognize the connection between body and brain and the possibility of curing physical ailments by utilizing our mental abilities seems not only possible but probable. I had no difficulty concluding that Jesus was ahead of his time in manifesting these skills, and while I do not in any instance have Jesus claim to have performed a miracle, I had little difficulty including these events in the narrative. I have found that the great majority of readers, Christian and non-Christian accept my version.
Anne Rice, a very successful fiction writer of, e.g., The Vampire Chronicles, has also turned her hand to writing novels about Jesus of Nazareth. One of her preposterous concoctions is Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. Apparently this book is based in part on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a late 2d Century C.E. document. In Rice's novel, Jesus's family is in Egypt (having fled from the murderous KIng Herod), and Jesus, age about 7, is discovering his amazing divine powers. In the most outrageous example, he murders another child and later brings him back to life.
There are at least 2 things I am totally certain of: (1) Jesus and his family were never in Egypt. Jesus, in his life never traveled more than 100 miles from Nazareth in any direction; (2) Not as a child or an adult, did Jesus every kill anyone. It is absurd, not to say obscene, to claim that Jesus, the kindest of men (and children) would be party to such an act. It is disgraceful of Anne Rice to assert such nonsense The fact that thousands of her fans read these Jesus travesties and accept them is pathetic, but it is worse of Rice to create such monstrosities.
It may be that the answer to this question is “infinite,” i.e., that there is at least one Jesus for every believer, and another Jesus for every non-believer—who has an opinion of Jesus. Of course, there is the Jesus (or Jesuses) of the gospels; it is difficult to conceive of the Jesus of Mark’s gospel as equivalent to the Jesus of John’s gospel. Mark’s Jesus is no friend of the Jews, but John’s Jesus is a flaming anti-semite, who despises the Jews and equates them with Satan. Then there is Paul’s Jesus. We must remember that Paul’s affiliation with Jesus is decades earlier than the experiences of the gospel writers. I have my own opinion of Paul, but this is not the place to express it. However, Paul’s view of Jesus is less anti-semitic than the gospel writers.
All of these folks wrote well over 1500 years ago, and during those centuries ideas of Jesus have fluctuated, but until the Enlightenment (17th-18th centuries), the general view of Jesus by Christians (a loaded, but surprisingly indefinite category) were based on the idea that Jesus was divine—Son of God, equal to God, God before God—but always divine.
However we are now in a different era. While internationally the number of Christians may be growing, as a percentage of the population in western countries this number is shrinking.
But there is another view of Jesus that fascinates me. In the U.S., you can meet this Jesus repeatedly if you scroll among the many Christian television programs and channels. For the most part, the Jesus one meets here is a very personal Jesus. He is available to virtually anyone interested in having him in his or her life. This Jesus is a personal friend. He responds to prayer. He loves us—he loves everyone. The priest, pastor, or commentator tells us that Jesus died for our sins. How this was accomplished or what was involved is not always—if ever—clear. But since we have surely sinned since he was crucified, his forgiveness is available now, today, as well. All we have to do is accept him as our lord and savior.
There are tens—possibly hundreds—of millions of people, not only in the western world, but on all the continents, who accept this view of Jesus. And they are overwhelmingly sincere. To remove Jesus from their lives would be disastrous, even if it were possible. To cast doubt on the saving grace of this Jesus is despicable. Unkind and unworthy.
Other people, surely a minority, but a very active one, are interested in the “historical Jesus,” who by definition is not identical to the devotional Jesus, although many struggle w ith the attempt to merge these two images of Jesus.
What phase are these parallel inquiries in today? A question for another posting.