Monday, August 12, 2013

Want to read about Jesus? Read 'Simply Jesus'

In his book Simply Jesus (written as a follow-up to his magnificent Simply Christian- a book I highly recommend giving to young people, being something of a twenty-first century Mere Christianity), N.T. Wright, in one chapter, refutes Reza Aslan's thesis about Jesus being a Zealot, a member of "the Jewish nationalist revolutionary party," dedicated to armed revolt against the Romans and the re-establishment of the united Davidic kingdom.

In the first part of the book, Wright uses the metaphor of a "perfect storm" to frame Jesus' time: the western gale being the imperial power of Rome, the high pressure system being the Judaism of the time with its national aspirations, and finally the hurricane, perhaps reduced to the power of a tropical storm, of the coming of God's rule in and through Jesus of Nazareth, who defied all expectations.

The chapter of Simply Jesus in which Wright, a renowned Bible and Early Church scholar, refutes Aslan, the religious sociologist and creative writing professor, even before the latter put fingers to keyboard, is the fourth chapter, entitled "The Making of a First-Century Storm."

After briefly describing the history of imperial Rome, which began with Julius Caesar famously crossing the Rubicon river in BC 49 with his army from Gaul, he composed a section he called "The Jewish Storm." In this section Wright chronicles the history of Israel, seeking to show how this history, especially the perception among Jesus' fellow Jews that they were playing a part in God's plan, shaped and formed Jesus' time. I think Wright is correct to assert that it is very difficult for us today "to imagine what it's like to live within a long story" in the way the Jews of Jesus' day did. I find him to be very insightful when he writes that perhaps the closest we can come "is the widespread assumption that ever since the rise of the modern Western world we are acting out a story of 'progress.'" He also proceeds with a fairly good explanation about how this is really a fictitious narrative, one refuted by actual events.

Especially in light of what he wrote in Simply Christian, I was surprised that Wright does not even mention that Christians are supposed to live this same story, the thread of which we seem to be in danger of losing. The result of this increasing loss is making Christianity yet another ahistorical religion, which opens the way for such schlock as making Christianity the way to "live your best life now" and other perversions, like the increasingly not-so-implicit universalism, according to which nothing has significance because, in the end, everyone goes to heaven, which belief the Church, even now, assiduously maintains is a heresy. If, as Flannery O'Connor noted, nothing matters, then we are deprived of our humanity. Working on such a faulty assumption leads to very slipshod pastoral care because one deliberately chooses to ignore the most pressing matter in each person's life- the deep desire to be happy, to be content, to be completely satisfied.

Although he passes over it quickly, Wright notes that the story in which the Jews of Jesus' time perceived themselves to be playing their part had been on-going for more than a thousand years. The story of Israel, Wright observes, as "far as we know," is "unique in the ancient world." The cornerstone of the uniqueness of the Jewish story was that the God of Israel "was the one true God of all the world. He wasn't simply one god among many. It was therefore impossible that his will for the world would be ultimately thwarted." So, their state-of-affairs (i.e., being conquered by and subject to the Romans), like the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, seemed to be an impediment to the accomplishment of God's purpose for Israel, something that had to be overcome. Of course, the Roman conquest would ultimately lead to the third Jewish exile, the dispersion, which was the result of the failed Bar Kokhba (a would-be Messiah) revolt of AD 132-136, which followed the earlier revolt that resulted in the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. It was at the conclusion of the Bar Kokhba revolt that the Romans decreed no Jew was allowed to live in the Roman province of Palestine.

Wright then reminisces about time he spent in Jerusalem in 1989, especially about his walks through the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim section of the ancient city. He notes that many of those who originally settled in Mea Shearim came from Eastern Europe to flee the Nazi slaughter. He recalls seeing a lot of posters that basically said it was important to now observe the Law because of Hitler and that "because of what Hitler did that God would now do a new thing," presumably send the Messiah. The point of this recollection is to note how the Messanic expectation among the Jews of Jesus' time was ramped up because of Caesar. Among both groups there is/was the expectation that God would have to send a deliverer in order to accomplish His purpose. This is one of many reasons why so many Jews today, just as in His own time, reject even the possibility of Jesus of Nazareth being the Messiah: He was not a zealot committed to waging war on the Romans!

Jesus, who, in Wright's metaphor of the perfect storm, represents the hurricane of God, defies all Jewish messianic expectations. This is shown time and again in the Gospels, especially His triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-44; John 12:12-19), which Christians commemorate on Palm Sunday. There is also the dialogue in John 18:33-38, in which Jesus tells the beleaguered Roman procurator, "My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants [would] be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here." It is also shown in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, when, just prior to His ascension, the Twelve ask Jesus if "now" He is going to restore Israel (Acts 1:6-8). Jesus makes it clear in each of these and a few other instances that He is not the Messiah of contemporary expectation. To reduce Jesus to a Zealot really makes no sense of the historical data.

Here is another rub that defeats Aslan's thesis, even more thoroughly than the theses of other "historical" Jesus fiction writers (i.e., Crossan, Borg, Pagels et al): apart from the canonical Gospels, which were written closer to the time of Jesus' earthly life than virtually any other chronicles from the ancient world telling of other historic persons and apart from the establishment and continuation of the Church, whose existence is well-chronicled from ancient times to now, there are really only two extra-biblical sources that pertain directly to Jesus' life- those by Tactitus and Suetonious. It refutes him because it poses the question, From what reliable historical sources does he draw his conclusion that Jesus was simply a Zealot? Beyond this, was it not St. Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome sometime between AD 55-58, who asserted the need for Christians to be subject to governmental authority (Rom. 13:1-7)? St. Justin Martyr, in his First Apology, written about a hundred years later and addressed to the Roman emperor, insisted that Christians are the best citizens.

In Book 15, Chapter 44 of his Annals, the Roman senator and historian Tacitus wrote:
Such indeed were the precautions of human wisdom. The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods, and recourse was had to the Sibylline books, by the direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno, too, was entreated by the matrons, first, in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle the fane and image of the goddess. And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women. But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
Below is Suetonius, in his The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, writing about the reign of Claudius:
He forbade men of foreign birth to use the Roman names so far as those of the clans were concerned. Those who usurped the privileges of Roman citizenship he executed in the Esquiline field. He restored to the senate the provinces of Achaia and Macedonia, which Tiberius had taken into his own charge. He deprived the Lycians of their independence because of deadly intestine feuds, and restored theirs to the Rhodians, since they had given up their former faults. He allowed the people of Ilium perpetual exemption from tribute, on the ground that they were the founders of the Roman race, reading an ancient letter of the senate and people of Rome written in Greek to king Seleucus, in which they promised him their friendship and alliance only on condition that he should keep their kinsfolk of Ilium free from every burden. Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome
If you want to read a well-written, well-researched, popular and accessible book on Jesus by a reputable scholar, it would be difficult to do better than reading N.T. Wright's Simply Jesus, which was published in 2011. This book does not merely succeed at being critical, but faithful, it is faithful because it is critical, respecting the fact set forth by St. Paul: "nobody speaking by the spirit of God says, 'Jesus be accursed.' And no one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3).

No matter where one stands in reference to Jesus, it's time to overcome the relentless, and relentlessly ahistorical, reduction of Jesus of Nazareth. Simply dealing with Jesus, as Wright notes at the beginning of his book, requires a certain amount of complexity precisely because Jesus is real and not some two-dimensional figure from a bad historical novel.

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