Our world demands that personal things like blog posts be “real”, and I struggle in posts, especially posts like this that are at the core of my faith because this is real. My frustrations, failings, feelings of inadequacy, and the changes Christ Jesus has made and continues to make in me with my cooperation and even prayers are on display. Paul of Tarsus writes (Romans 7:19) For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. In that much, it is certain that I understand Paul of Tarsus, and this continues to be the story of my life and perhaps even yours.
This post will contain more quotations and references than are advisable for a normal blog post. I do this more out of the desire to show readers why I think what I think than to provide proof that I am correct. As always, my advice is to read and study and pray. It is not essential that all come to the same conclusions; it is essential to find Jesus or let him find you, to attempt to walk in Love, to attempt to walk on what the earliest Christians termed “The Way”.
People often argue about politics and religion, it is true. It is also true that in the time of Christ and even today, religion and politics are inseparable because they are both expressions of our core beliefs about ourselves, our society and its governance, freedom, and liberty. Life changing events have gradually led me towards a view that seems astonishing to me, even fourteen years on, a view that I’ve gotten a lot wrong and so have we, a view that this talk of Love is real and requires action to respond to our God and his Christ (cf. Philippians 3:3-16).
We may call that theology or religious philosophy, but it is not a mere study of God or love of wisdom. No, it is, at least and for me, a call for action, a recognition of personal responsibility, and failures. You see, I don’t think we can figure God out or predict him (Isaiah 55:8) and I do think our attempts to do so have led to lots of problems. Jesus makes it simple, Love, but that’s impossible, isn’t it? Or is it? With God’s help is it truly impossible?
That’s what this post is about, opening your eyes to see what I see as best I can. I don’t claim to be right; no one is right but God alone (cf. Mark 10:18). I do claim to be trying to find my way to The Way, trying and failing, and trying again. Jesus, for me, is like Jacob Marley to Scrooge, like unto the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future, reminding me of The Way and the chains that he helps me remove. Unlike Scrooge, I yearn for the presence, even rebuke, of Jesus because that rebuke feels like mud being cleaned off in a warm shower; it feels wonderful.
You, too, can make someone’s life wonderful. I know you can, I mean even I can. The question is will we. As we search for that special niche where we fit in, one I’ve yet to find, we should perhaps remember that in the niche we’re alone. Without the niche, we’re together with each other and on equal footing as it were. It’s really a loving embrace that we seek, not a niche. That’s what Jesus does, if we let him.
If you read further, I hope you will understand the historical and scriptural perspective that leads me to that conclusion rationally. But Jesus is here now, so too the Holy Spirit and the Father, and that’s not a rational or tangible thing. Neither is Love. Therefore, I hope you will consider being rationally irrational and reflect on your own way to The Way as I discuss mine.
Throughout, I will use the currently accepted dating terminology, CE for common era (originally Christian Era and the same as AD – Anno Domini – the year of our Lord), and BCE for before common era (originally Before Christian Era and the same as BC – Before Christ). We should note that refined dating has Jesus born in about 4 BCE.
What does Jesus do? He plants mustard seeds of the nascent Kingdom of God, a revolution in our souls that may, with God’s help, flourish giving refuge for the birds of the air and even shade to humans. He leads us into the shining light of the Kingdom of God, and if highwaymen along the way kill us, he leads us to victory over even death. In him, by him, and through him, we find forgiveness for our failings, encouragement to keep walking the road, and help with our many burdens. In him we find life everlasting in the Kingdom of God.
But the Kingdom of God is not born without birthing pangs. Matthew (24:8) and Mark (13:18), in nearly identical passages, tell us of the birth pangs of the coming Kingdom. Paul of Tarsus (Galatians 4:27) also writes of these birth pangs, and Revelation 12:2-5 tells us of a woman in birth pangs … (verse 5) “she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne;” which dovetails almost perfectly to Daniel 7:13-14 “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”
Jesus challenges us to experience those pangs by being the mothers and midwives of the Kingdom’s birth when he tells us to pick up our crosses and follow him and that we are not worthy of him if we don’t (Matthew 10:38, 16:24; Mark 8:24; Luke 9:23, 14:27).
Carrying one’s cross, in the Bible, is not the casual metaphor for a burden we find in today’s literature. No, not at all. Crucifixion is excruciatingly painful, and shameful. Indeed, the word excruciating is derived from Latin roots: “ex+crux” – from the cross, from crucifixion. And Jesus does ask this of us, that we be willing to suffer not that we suffer for suffering’s sake.
Early Christians experienced much suffering, as Tacitus (Roman Senator, Historian, and certainly not a Christian ca 56 CE – 120 CE) writes in his Annals of Roman History:
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. (Tacitus, Annals, Book 15, Chapter 44)
Many, including Christians, are persecuted today, and the world is full of suffering, so much so that some cannot reconcile our good God with the suffering of his people. Yet, we ourselves do not relieve suffering where we can, do not care for the poor, the stranger, the sick, the prisoner, the child, and we dare blame God.
When we decide that our will is conforming to the will of God, we take a big step, and when we try to force others to conform to our will, we overstep. It is his will, and not our own that we seek, and his will requires prayer and pain and change just as it always has. When we fail at these attempts and also fail to change our ways, we build the world in our own image, to our own plan, to our own will, towards a new tower of Babel. “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’” (Genesis 11:4 NRS)
The story of Babel teaches us, inter alia, that we are not God’s rivals, and throughout history and scripture, our conflicts have largely been over wealth, power, laws, and traditions including religions that, in most places, also have the force of law. Perhaps this even goes as far as the story of Eden where the tree of knowledge gives us the impiety of declaration of good and evil apart from God, again seeking to be rivals and not his flock.
Archeological findings show us that laws gradually became legal codes defining proper behavior. While ancient written Egyptian law seems not to have survived, negative confessions in funeral texts have, saying things like I did not kill, I fed the poor, and so forth in self justification of the dead. Early direct examples include the Code of Lipit-Ishtar (ca 1860 BCE), the Code of Hammurabi (ca 1750 BCE), and the Torah (first five books of the Bible, also called the Pentateuch, variously dated but with elements prior to 900 BCE). We tend to lump these items together without noticing that the Torah is quite unique because the Torah makes all people equal before the law whereas the other ancient codes are feudalistic where the powerful are not held directly to account.
What Jesus does largely involves tradition and laws, and we often want firm fixed boundaries to set for behaviors and our concepts of justice. Jesus does not lead us into that legalistic nightmare but imposes a much more difficult standard upon us – the standard of acting out of Love in all things. This doesn’t mean that anything goes and everything is acceptable, no, far from it. But it does mean that we build each other up through Love (cf. Isaiah 62:8-12, Acts 20:32, Galatians 2:17-21, 1 Thessalonians 5:9-28, et al.).
When we read “law” in our translations of scripture, what the authors convey is an admixture of Torah law (the 613 commandments: 365 thou shalt not – negative commands and the remainder thou shalt – positive commands) and traditions with the force of law, established based on those commandments, often also called the Oral Torah perhaps given to Moses on the mountain (like James Kugel and other scholars, I believe that the Oral Torah has existed albeit not in written form for a long time, perhaps before 900 BCE). Later, as the very existence of Judaism was threatened by the fall of the Temple at the end of the first Jewish-Roman War (66-70 CE), and the disastrous failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-136 CE) resulted in Emperor Hadrian’s genocidal fury, this would give rise to writing the traditions down in the Mishnah (ca 200 CE) and ultimately the full elaboration of Orthodox Jewish traditions in the Babylonian Talmud (the Bavli) and the Jerusalem Talmud (both ca 400 CE). These documents were prepared in the widening diaspora, with the Bavli being prominent in modern Jewish discourse.
Understanding worldviews is paramount to understanding texts from a period and what was met with approbation and by whom. Jesus does and says many things in the Gospels that are abhorrent to the powers that then ruled, with some factions such as the Pharisees being slightly more sympathetic due to their shared belief in the Resurrection and world to come (which the Sadducees did not share; cf. Matthew 22:23).
I don’t see a path towards sharing how I see things without a digression into history to elucidate certain attitudes then prevalent and how shocking the authoritative teachings of Christ Jesus were, and still are.
While I will focus on the primary Jewish traditions in Jerusalem at the time of Christ in this post, it is important to understand that Judaism was never a monolithic system of laws and beliefs. We should understand that then, as now, religion is often more about general culture than about monolithic dogma and agreed rules, and differences on those rules lead to separation and even violence, just as they do today. This is made quite clear by the Maccabean literature as well as findings at Qumran also known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Such differences led to a multi-party civil war inside the walls of Jerusalem while under siege from Titus in 70 CE. These are not minor differences.
For instance, the Qumran community or “Yahad” meaning unity or something like that in Hebrew, had rejected the temple because, inter alia, beginning with Maccabean (Hasmonean) rule, the High Priests were not of the proper genealogical descent (Son of Levi, Son of Aaron, Son of Phinehas, Son of Zadok). Some scrolls even match the Samaritan Torah (see below) rather than our traditional Masoretic Hebrew text. The Yahad was active in the time of Christ showing that even the Torah was not monolithic; “Community Rule”, scroll 1QS dates from between 100 BCE and 100 CE. Some date slightly earlier, some later.
Moreover, by ca 200 BCE, there was a Greek translation of the Torah which we call the Septuagint or the LXX owing to the story of its creation by 70 (actually 72) Jewish scholars at the request of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (King of Egypt). The Greek Orthodox Tradition uses this for the Old Testament and not the traditional Masoretic (Hebrew) Text that most bibles rely on. Some New Testament references correspond to the LXX and may have come from there or some variant like what we find at Qumran. For the most part, differences are very minor, but they do show some level of fluidity in the text just as there was fluidity in tradition and interpretation. Minor, for the most part. Exodus 21:22 is very different, with the LXX removing any ambiguity about the harm done when a woman loses a child as a result of a blow from men fighting. The Masoretic text is ambiguous as to what harm requires up to life for life whereas the LXX is very clear that if the child is imperfectly formed, it is a fine. If the child is fully formed, like for like injury or life; the Lex Talionis, applies.
Jesus’ earthly ministry (ca 30-33 CE) was during the second temple period, 516 BCE-70 CE, so called because the first temple (Solomon’s temple), destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, was later rebuilt (the second temple) during the time of Ezra/Nehemiah ca 516 BCE with the permission and help of Cyrus the Great (Cyrus II) of Persia. So, when we talk about Second Temple Period Judaism, it is a misnomer inasmuch as there were several simultaneous groups, for instance the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. And the Yahad who may have been Essenes or related to them. The Hasidim (Hassidic Judaism) group was also born in this general period, and Rabbinical Judaism was born after the temple fell. So we should consider and understand Judaism as plural, just as it and Christianity are today. The Gospels tell us this when referring to the Sadducees and Pharisees and so forth, but it’s often not clearly understood. We must also understand that not only the Hasmoneans but also Herod the Great had influenced the priesthood and its traditional division between Levite for priests and Davidic descent for kings. Indeed, Herod undertook a massive re-building of the temple, not only expanding the temple itself but also the temple mount upon which it stood.
Neither is it often understood that the Samaritans are an offshoot of Judaism (note the tense, they still exist on Mt. Gerizim) whose insistence that the Torah should read “the place the LORD has chosen” – Mt. Gerizim, vs. “the place the LORD will choose” (cf. Deuteronomy chapter 12 & The Israelite Samaritan Torah, Benyamim Tsedaka) created problems, many problems.
The Kingdom of Israel, united under David and Solomon, split when Solomon’s son Rehoboam came to power. Jeroboam, who had rebelled against Solomon and fled to Egypt returned after Solomon’s death, and the people of the Northern Kingdom made him King, splitting the kingdom with Judea/Benjamin staying with Rehoboam (1 Kings chapter 12). The Northern Kingdom of Israel, under King Jeroboam, built temples apart from the Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 28:33, with “calves of gold”) violating the Torah as we know it – so that Jeroboam’s subjects did not have to travel to the southern Kingdom (Judah/Benjamin which we call Judea and whence comes the name Jew), to Jerusalem, to worship and obey the Torah. The Kingdom of (northern) Israel later fell to Assyria and its occupants were forcefully relocated, with a Jewish priest being returned to direct some worship to Yahweh (2 Kings 17:27, the entire chapter clarifies second temple period attitude towards Samaritans). When John Hyrcanus led the destruction of these temples (see below) in ca 110 BCE, he destroyed things older than the second temple of Jerusalem itself. We don’t know if there were golden calves, but archaeology confirms that such structures existed in roughly Dan and Bethel as the bible tells us. These are truly bitter divisions, and we may not get that impression from the parable of the good Samaritan, but it is nonetheless essential in understanding how enormous a statement Jesus makes. You see, it is not only that the Samaritan helped someone, but he helped his enemy, a Jew, who viewed the Samaritan as an apostate at best.
In high hopes that you will pardon the historical digression, we return to the enormity of the law which by Jesus’ time had taken on a life of its own. My copy of the Bavli in English (tr. Jacob Neusner) is twenty-two volumes of text. Within that corpus, and the three tractates of those twenty-two that I have studied, we learn that traditions are not to be changed, ever. This hinges, according to the Bavli itself, on the interpretation of Deuteronomy 19:14 You must not move your neighbor’s boundary marker, set up by former generations, on the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess. (LORD, in Hebrew, is YHWH, Yahweh)
In other words, traditions may become more stringent but never more relaxed; reform is a violation of the law itself, as we again hear in Deuteronomy 27:17 “Cursed be anyone who moves a neighbor’s boundary marker.” All the people shall say, “Amen!“
Jesus tells us to focus on the heads of the law – Love of God and Love of Neighbor (Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27; Agape love in Greek; on that more anon). He chides the Scribes and Pharisees strongly in Matthew chapter 23, including this charge (verse 23): “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” Jesus tells us that traditions can be wrong and wrong-headed, that it is legal to do good on the Sabbath even though tradition forbids that good by categorizing it as “work” (Matthew 12:12). He redefines neighbor to mean everyone as he declares the Samaritan to be a good neighbor (Luke 10:29-36). As we’ve seen, such a declaration is nothing short of scandalous.
And Jesus expects us to change. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15 which directly follows the Lord’s Prayer in verses 9-13).
And Jesus tells us “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13 NRS cf. Hosea 6:6) He tells us to love one another even as he has loved us (John 13:34, again Agape love).
Now consider the restrictions imposed on the early Gentile followers of Jesus “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:28-29 NRS)
Twenty-one words of negative commands. Positive commands: Love God, Love your Neighbor as yourself, Love others as Jesus has loved you. Fourteen words of positive commands. Thirty-five words to replace twenty-two volumes.
This is not reform; it is a revolution, and not just in Jewish thought but in thought throughout the world, then and now.
Jesus brings conflict
People like to think of Jesus as a soft cuddly bunny rabbit with magic powers to make everything better and without us having to do anything at all. In song and word, we rightly call him “Sweet Jesus who takest away the sins of the world” (Pie Jesu qui tollis pecatta mundi) or Agnus Dei, the lamb of God whose sacrifice is our Passover, our road to the new exodus to the Kingdom of God. Worthy is the lamb that was slain, we sing, and there’s nothing wrong with or about that. Until we put Jesus in a box under our control that is.
Our society is full of symbolic renderings, perhaps The Lord of the Rings being the best and truest to the task at hand (although Tolkien denied it), but also the fuzzy bunny rabbit variety as we find in Rudolph the red nosed Reindeer. Imagine Santa as the Father, the Winged Lion sweeping the world for misfits as the Holy Spirit, Rudolph as literally the light of the way, despised and rejected – Jesus, and all of us as the misfit toys who still manage to bring joy to the right children.
But there is the cross, alone, rejected by even Peter, the cross, quoting Psalm 22, the cross. We can read Tolkien as giving us a Prophet in Gandalf, a Priest in Frodo, and a King in Aragorn, with Gandalf resurrected as “The White” perhaps akin to Revelation 19:11, but these are still heroic figures. In Jesus, what everyone, even his inner circle, saw as shameful failure was the ultimate victory on which all of Christianity rests (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:17), the third day Jesus rose again. He is risen, he is risen indeed! Love wins, the suffering servant of Isaiah wins (Isaiah 42:1–4; Isaiah 49:1–6; Isaiah 50:4–7; and Isaiah 52:13–53:12). The resurrection proves it, Jesus is righteous before Yahweh (cf. Genesis 6:9, 7:1, 22:1-18) and more, much more, Daniel Chapter 7 and the entire New Testament for instance.
Willingly sacrificing oneself has biblical precedent. We can, in ways, parallel the cross to the Akedah, the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18) whereupon Isaac is a willing sacrifice and Abraham is prepared to offer him to the Lord yet is stopped by the voice of the LORD just before sacrificing Isaac’s life. Jewish lore (Ginzberg: Legends of the Jews) has it that Abraham was not stopped in time and the LORD restored Isaac to life, making the parallel closer. Within the Biblical narrative, we receive a promise (emphasis mine):
The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:15-18 NRS)
We, grafted on to the stock of Abraham (Romans, Chapter 11), are to be a blessing for all nations.
And of course, we can see Jesus as the sacrificial lamb of the Exodus (Exodus 12-21-23), Or we can take Jesus at his own word: While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.“ (Matthew 26:26-28 NRS)
In Jesus, God shows his mercy to the world. God shows his willingness to sacrifice the image bearer of God, his only true son, Jesus, for us so that we may be held righteous in Jesus. It is as Isaiah writes:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. (Isaiah 11:1-5 NRS)
But this all demands action on our parts. Jesus tells us that in Matthew Chapter 10:32-42, here focused on v34-38 (note: Philo is used for love here, more anon)
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
How should we understand this passage? I suggest we understand it as the schism created by drastic nay radical changes in traditions and laws and how followers of Christ should respond to attacks made on them, not with the sword but by accepting the cross. We see this in the Gospel, in Luke 22:47-51 where Jesus tells his followers not to attack those who arrest him and also heals the wounds inflicted by a follower on one of those who were taking Jesus away.
So what must we do? Paul of Tarsus writes in Romans Chapter 11, that what Jesus does is by grace and not by our works, not by our adherence to a specific law “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6 NRS)
It is here that soteriology, the study of salvation, becomes most paradoxical. We are saved by the grace of God through our acceptance and faith in Christ Jesus and not our works or worthiness, yet Jesus expects us to spread the good news, to bear fruit (Matthew Chapter 7), to lead others to Christ Jesus through the agency of the Holy Spirit. So, while we are saved by faith in Jesus, faith in Jesus – if truly faith it is, requires us to act and accept the suffering that comes with loving as Jesus has loved us. The paradox is broken by understanding that while our soteriology is not conditional salvation, it does mean that in accepting Christ Jesus, we accept his light burden and easy yoke (Matthew 11:30). We are in transformation toward the selfless love that is for the benefit of others and not our own selves or our merit before our King and Judge, Jesus. Our only merit before Jesus is his love for us and our faith in him; soteriology does not reveal a meritocracy but, rather, divine mercy for those who have believed.
This is a continuing theme in scripture and is one reason among many to see how clearly Jesus fulfills the Old Testament. In Isaiah, we read “Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 1:18-20 NRS)
The book of Jeremiah continues the same thread (Jeremiah 31:31-34), saying God’s law will be within us, written as it were on our hearts (emphasis mine) v34: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Paul of Tarsus picks this up in his most developed theological discourse, his letter to the Romans (emphasis mine): All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (Romans 2:12-16 NRS)
In accepting Jesus, we accept the conflict he brings as the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). As we mature in our faith, traditions must change, just as Jesus tells us that traditional Jewish divorce must change (Matthew 19:3-11, also Mark 10:2-12). Jesus tells us on divorce that Moses gave the existing commandment because of the hardness of the people’s hearts. Traditions must change as our hearts themselves have the law written upon them. So, too, with dietary laws (Matthew 15:10-18, Mark 7:18-23) – it is not what we eat that defiles us but what we think and do, what comes out. Laws and traditions need changing, and that’s part of our quest, part of The Way to the Kingdom of God.
Traditions are incredibly strong
Norman Jewison, Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, John Williams, and others brought us Fiddler On the Roof based on a story by Sholem Aleichem. The musical and the film, set in the Jewish portion of the Russian town Anatevka, feature the Jewish culture and difficulties posed by conflicts between love and arranged marriages. Ultimately, in the film, love prevails as the patriarch of the family, Tevye, sees his daughters select their own husbands and, at the very end, even accepts the marriage of one daughter to a man outside of the Jewish faith (to a Russian Orthodox Christian). All of the Jews are forced from their village by a pogrom (purge of Jews ordered by the Tsar in this case), and in the play (but not the film) the Jewish people are referred to by the Christians as “Christ killers” emphasizing the anti-Semitic views of the Christian Culture on display.
I will digress briefly to say that my best friend is Jewish, that I grew up with Jewish people, and that the Jews I know show that the laws of Christ are written on their hearts through boundless love and efforts for my benefit that did not also benefit them. If more of those who claim Christ would behave as these people whom I know and love do, the Kingdom would be much closer than it is.
Let us never forget that Jesus is a Jew, and we are part of his other folds, as John writes (emphasis mine):
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” (John 10:7-18 NRS) Remember, Jesus is speaking to a Jewish audience here.
When we consider tradition, we generally consider things that are easily ignored or changed, perhaps causing some turned up noses, shame, or shunning. That’s what we find in Fiddler on the Roof, except for the Pogrom. That’s not the kind of tradition Jesus is asking us to change. No, far from it. Consider, for example, the Maccabean revolt from Antiochus Epiphanes, before the time of Christ (167 BCE). People considered traditions to be the law and the performance of traditions to be mandatory under the law in order to inherit the world to come.
The second book of Maccabees, Chapter 7, tells us of The Martyrdom of the Seven Brothers under Antiochus Epiphanes who banned all Jewish traditions, the teaching of Judaism, and insisted that Jewish people eat pork. This gruesomely detailed account tells of the death of seven brothers, one by one, followed by their mother, all saying that it was better to suffer torture and death than to break the law. For example,
“After the first brother had died in this way, they brought forward the second for their sport. They tore off the skin of his head with the hair, and asked him, “Will you eat rather than have your body punished limb by limb?”
He replied in the language of his ancestors and said to them, “No.” Therefore he in turn underwent tortures as the first brother had done.
And when he was at his last breath, he said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.” (2 Maccabees 7:7-9 NRS)
The Maccabean revolt was quite complex and was not simply Greek culture being imposed on Jewish people. No, it was also a civil war between strict Orthodox, perhaps Hassidic, Judaism and Hellenized Jews (Jews who had adopted some Greek ways). Jews fought and died on both sides, and we should view the victory of the Maccabean forces as including a purge of the Hellenized and Hellenizers, and any others with disparate views on the Torah law and traditions including the Samaritans whose temple to Yahweh was destroyed by Maccabean High Priest John Hyrcanus and his forces in ca 110 BCE, cementing the final enmity between Judean Jews and Samaritans. The enmity between Samaritans and Jews at the time of Christ (ca 30 CE) was enormous. And Jesus gives us the parable of the good Samaritan. Radical indeed.
Such strong traditional views continued after Hasmonean (Maccabean) rule, an example of which can be found in Josephus’ “Wars of the Jews.” The Context is Tiberius’ insistence on adding images “ensigns” of the Roman Emperors to the Temple grounds, graven images being a horrible violation of Jewish law.
Hereupon the Jews, as it were at one signal, fell down in vast numbers together, and exposed their bare necks, and cried out that they were sooner ready to be slain, than that their law should be transgressed. Hereupon Pilate was greatly surprised at their prodigious superstition, and gave orders that the ensigns should be presently carried out of Jerusalem. (Wars 2:174 Josephus)
That is the context in which we find Jesus interceding for the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:3-11). This was an enormously powerful act that to us may seem trivial.
Consider, too, the sentencing of Jesus and what people heard.
Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over.
While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.”
Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed.
The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”
So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:15-25 NRS)
The last line here, “Then the people as a whole answered …” is used by some as justification for calling those people and their descendants “Christ Killers” and that should be repugnant to Christians. We’ve missed the point and the incredible irony of the situation. Here stands Jesus accused of breaking traditions and stirring up the common people, with the truth, a truth that the priests and elders call lies, while the priests and elders have stirred up the people with real lies and false charges, and to an extent that violates the commandment “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Exodus 20:16, Deuteronomy 5:20). The people are deceived by lies and perhaps physical threats from the established order.
It is the priests and elders, not Jesus, that should be on trial.
And the choice that the people are given, read in the context that the people would have heard and linguistically understood, is perhaps quite different from what we read. For instance, the name Jesus in our English texts is really the same in Greek as Joshua (Iesous – See Acts 7:45 and Hebrews 4:8 for the exact same Greek translated as Joshua). In Hebrew, this name something like Yah-Shua likely short for Ya-HO-Shua, and the Hebrew meaning is “Yahweh is Salvation” or “Yahweh Saves”.
So, in the name of both men, those hearing Pilate name the prisoners hear Yahweh is Salvation and we should not presume that the stirred-up crowd all knew Jesus the Messiah or Jesus Barabbas personally. When Pilate says Messiah, we should understand Anointed one or the LORD’s Anointed which is what the Hebrew word means, also rendered Christ in Greek. This contrasts against the other man, Barabbas, which, in Hebrew (Bar Abbas) means Son of a Father. In other words, the choice is metaphorically salvation by Yahweh (Jesus) through works of the law (Bar Abbas meaning traditions of our father’s unmoved boundary markers) versus salvation by the mercy of God in His Anointed, His Christ, Christ Jesus not Jesus the son of tradition. Christ Jesus not Jesus Bar-Abbas. They chose tradition over God’s will, and so, quite often, do we.
That is not as farfetched as it may seem. Remember that Cyrus the great is referred to as Messiah by Isaiah “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him– and the gates shall not be closed:” (Isaiah 45:1) with “his anointed” being Messiah (mashiyac) in Hebrew. Cyrus was a savior.
The people hearing Pilate and the Jewish recipients of the Good News, even the “rabble in the crowd”, were well educated in scripture (and Hebrew and Aramaic) and they likely did not miss these names and their meanings, supposing that the Gospel account itself is literal and does not purposefully leverage metaphor and name meanings as I have described it.
In our own time, we must remember the Holocaust and the lies that supported genocide and still spawn hatred not only for Jews but for all “different” people. In more recent times, we may consider such hardline traditions as those of the Taliban, ISIS/ISIL, and other extreme elements of Islam, or purges in China and Myanmar against Islam (and outspoken Christians). We may consider this, but it does not excuse our own Christian versions, the inquisitions, the racism, the sexism, the homophobia, and a vast number of deeds and views seeking to force others into our many different sets of views and rewarding those who conform to our will. Indeed, we should take a good look at the number of churches and consider their cost and what gains they make towards the Kingdom of God. Do we build good Christians or good buildings? Do we care for the sick, the poor, the abandoned? Are we good Samaritans? Are our churches houses of Prayer? I mean, Jesus does say that about the temple:
He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers. (Matthew 21:13 NRS) Are we sure we do not fleece the flock in some of our churches? I rather think, in some cases, we do.
Consider Jesus’ probable source (“it is written”; emphasis mine), which is Isaiah:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant– these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. (Isaiah 56:3-8 NRS)
What Jesus tells us is that change will be hard, even deadly, and so divisive that even our family bonds will be torn asunder by strong disagreements and even a parent turning against their children or children against parents to the point of torture and execution.
Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:31-33 NRS)
We need to drop our stones and walk in love, even though we be stoned as a result, as was the first Martyr, Stephen (Acts Chapter 7). Thirty-five words and not twenty-two volumes. That’s my Jesus.
The way to The Way
Early Christians called the faith “The Way”, perhaps in reference to Jesus telling Thomas “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6), although scholars generally prefer the notion that this refers to Isaiah 40:3: The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Or perhaps it refers to the paths of life and death as given by Moses in Deuteronomy 30:15, and as we find in early Christian writing, a handbook of sorts, called the Didache (ca 100 CE). This book, shorter than this post, opens as follows:
1. There are two Ways, one of Life and one of Death; but there is a great difference between the two Ways.
2. Now the Way of Life is this: First, Thou shalt love God who made thee; secondly, thy neighbor as thyself; and all things whatsoever thou wouldst not have done to thee, neither do thou to another.
3. Now the teaching of these [two] words [of the Lord] is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you; for what thank is there if ye love those who love you? Do not even Gentiles the same? But love ye those who hate you, and ye shall not have an enemy.
4. Abstain from fleshly and bodily [worldly] lusts. If any one give thee a blow on the right cheek turn to him the other also, and thou shalt be perfect. If any one press thee to go with him one mile, go with him two; if any one take away thy cloak, give him also thy tunic; if any one take from thee what is thine, ask it not back, as indeed thou canst not.
5. Give to every one that asketh thee, and ask not back, for the Father wills that from our own blessings we should give to all. Blessed is he that gives according to the commandment, for he is guiltless. Woe to him that receives; for if any one receives, having need, he shall be guiltless, but he that has not need shall give account, why he received and for what purpose, and coming into distress he shall be strictly examined concerning his deeds, and he shall not come out thence till he have paid the last farthing.
6. But concerning this also it hath been said, “Let thine alms sweat (drop like sweat) into thy hands till thou know to whom thou shouldst give.”
While our thirty-five words and even the first 320 words of the Didache are the direction, they are not The Way because each of us has a path with many options, some of which are on The Way or on the way to The Way, and some of which lead away from The Way. And there is an adversary in our way, not just ourselves, but manifest Evil.
We most often do what pleases us, which has always been both the problem and the strongest weapon of the adversary (Hebrew: ha satan). We become attuned to legalistic details regarding specific behaviors and miss the big picture that the hedonism and tyranny we indulge, permit, and even create shapes our world into societies where people want to escape through violence and hedonistic pleasures, which are Satan’s strongest and most effective weapons. They turn us against each other, and even ourselves, in ways far more destructive than we dare admit. Yet Jesus tells us that his disciples should be known by their love for each other (John 13:35), again Agape love.
Let’s talk about love.
Greek, the language of the Gospels (which are written in Koine Greek also called Alexandrian Dialect Greek), has three words for love: Agape, Eros, and Philo. Agape love is a completely trusting even obedient brotherly type of love, soul sharing love if you will. Philo love is a friendly love, the sort of love we have for wisdom or a friend. Indeed, our word philosophy springs from Philo (friendly Love) [of] Sophia (Wisdom). Eros is the term given to lust and action associated with sexuality, hence our use of Erotic for the sexually piquant. That’s the love we most often read and hear in English these days, and it’s an odd thing that people use the term Platonic love to describe love without erotic engagement, perhaps Agape love. Plato does not; he uses Eros and he often poses the challenge of resisting sexual attraction as a distraction and a course that can be unwise. We do further violence to love in English by using “make love to” as a substitute for “have sex with”. Sex does not create love; it may be an expression of love, but very often it is not.
Jesus turns most of this on its head making the least common type of love, Agape love, the love that we should give each other as his followers and indeed our God and neighbors which is to say everyone. In his “feed my lambs” discussion with Peter (John 21:15-17), Jesus asks Simon-Peter if he loves (Agape) Jesus twice and twice Peter responds with friendly (Philo), not Agape love. The third time Jesus asks for Philo love and Peter responds with Philo love. Jesus compromised. We, too, find The Way a series of compromises to exist in this world, but we compromise too much and create a hellish existence for many. Remember, our mandates are Love, not control.
If we act out of Agape love for the benefit of others at our own cost and without credit, we approach The Way. This is of course impossible, and Jesus tells us that in John 16:31-33. God and Jesus send us the Advocate, our comforter, the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-26) so that we can hold on even know what to say to our accusers, in love, and suffer what comes as a result. Jesus is with us when we, even two, gather in his name (Matthew 18:20). Like the remarkable song from Dear Evan Hansen, You Will Be Found, the Lord’s hand is stretched out to keep you from sinking in troubled water (Matthew 14:29-31). Jesus asks us to join him in being that hand even though we, unlike he, cannot walk on water.
(Excerpt from You Will be Found)
Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
When you’re broken on the ground
You will be found
You are not alone, You are not alone …
Are we there to carry those who need it, do we find the lost, the broken on the ground, comfort the lonely? Are we there? God have mercy on me, a sinner, for my answers are very rarely yes and mostly no. Perhaps you, too, are humbled by considering my failures perchance even some failure of your own.
And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. (Luke 18:13 KJV) Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34 KJV)
But the Lord is merciful. He bids us forgive when we change our ways (Matthew 18:21-22, Luke 17:4).
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 15:55-58 KJV)
We pray Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy, Christ have Mercy, Lord have mercy). We still need to learn what it means, I desire mercy not sacrifice (Matthew 9:13 cf. Hosea 6:6), at least I do.
What, then, is the way to The Way? It starts by not casting that first stone (John 8:3-11), by understanding that Jesus comes to us for the sinners (Matthew 9:13) and that we are those sinners. For me, it requires understanding the Gospel more fully, more historically, and opening my mind to these words in prayer and study. It requires not re-creating Jesus in our own image to our own liking.
He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”
He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him.
He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other.
But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. (Matthew 12:3-14 NRS)
Do we conspire against Jesus and seek to destroy him with ways of our own making, with traditions that degrade and punish and do not help others? With little love, even violence, do we argue in bitterness and try to control the world rather than leading by example and carrying our crosses? Of course, we do. Of course, I have, I do, and I will. I am a sinner; I need Jesus in the here and now and always will.
Wars and Rumors of Wars
The gospels warn of wars and rumors of wars that are not yet the day of the LORD, the final instantiation of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 24:6, Mark 13:7, Luke 21:9, cf. Revelation 21:2). That day, the end of the existing world, is known as the end, the Eschaton, and its study or theories about the eschaton are known as eschatology. The Christian faith is an inaugurated eschatology because the coming of the Kingdom began in the resurrection of Christ Jesus.
The early church believed that the Eschaton was nearly here. Indeed, if one reads the Pauline Epistles in the order in which they were likely written, one develops a sense of our brother Paul of Tarsus’ disappointment that the coming Kingdom is apparently further off than he’d understood.
In my view, this continues the path of Love that Jesus inaugurated. Divine mercy seeks the lambs that have not come into the fold and has no desire to cut off or destroy. A time will come when the balance is as God sees fit to act lovingly and the Kingdom will come; it will be on His time and not ours.
But, we have much more to do than simply wait. And, yes, there will be wars and I agree that we must engage in armed conflicts, breaking things and killing people, causing suffering, causing hurt. Our Jewish Ancestors in faith learned that it was necessary and acceptable to break Shabbat (sabbath) rest in order to defend themselves from the forces of Antiochus Epiphanes as the Maccabean revolt began. Later, they would defend themselves in the six-day war on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. We, too, will face enemies that require forceful response. This is a balancing act with our Love, for we have a duty to protect those whom we love. How we do that is another large topic, but sometimes the choice is very clear as it was with the Nazis. Sometimes it is clear in that the opposing forces deprive people of freedom of choice in religion and other important areas. Our love for those people, and the protection of our own, may compel us to violence.
In our history, as written by the early church fathers, the combination of persecution and our inaugurated eschatology led many of the faithful to simply surrender to the persecutors and demonstrate their steadfast faith during torture and horrific execution (cf. The Martyrdom of Polycarp). While the fathers did not encourage violence, they did, after a time, encourage flight rather than capitulation (cf. Clement of Alexandria (ca 150-215 CE), The Stromata (Stromateis; Miscellanies), Book IV, Chapter 10 )– Tertullian (ca 155-220 CE) was vigorously opposed to flight as a denial of faith whereas Clement, Origen (ca 184-253 CE), and Cyprian (ca 210-258 CE) relied heavily on Matthew “But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.” (Matthew 10:23 KJV)) .
You see, letting yourself be destroyed in passive acceptance is not necessarily an act of love, but sometimes it is an incredible act of love demonstrating the strength of conviction and faith that people have, making even the tormentors ask, perhaps consider, what the faith is all about, evangelizing even the hardest to reach. Sometimes it is a capitulation to Evil. It’s a balancing act that requires ever maturing faith.
We make valiant efforts to teach people about our Savior without troubling the young with the radical implications of the Gospel because they are not ready, just as Paul does in first Corinthians “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready,…” (1 Corinthians 3:2 NRS)
Among many Christian educational methods is the “What would Jesus do?” or WWJD technique. My Jesus is not so predictable. Yes, he’s shockingly radical, so this well intended technique has a tendency to place Jesus in a box filled with stories of love and nice things that are indeed the Kingdom to come, but are not often manifest on our journey without the bridegroom in this world. The present requires action, so as people mature so must the faith and the understanding of the Gospel and our Lord who is still here with us.
WWJD and similar techniques, and a great deal of what we do as Christians, are well-intended and good ways to encourage people to learn about Jesus, but that’s sometimes the Jesus under our control. We need to set Jesus free to transform us, however slowly and painfully, into the image bearers of God that humans should be. His ways and thoughts are not ours (Isaiah 55:8) perhaps because we refuse to reset our boundary markers to the undiscovered country that is his Kingdom.
What does Jesus do? He saves us from ourselves, if we are willing. He bids us help others, love others, and love them so much that we risk everything to show them with our own lives that there is a better way, The Way. He is the ultimate nemesis as he constantly reminds us that it is not our will that needs to be done but rather the will of God. Therefore, he makes every house, every car, every location a house of prayer. That’s what Jesus does.
We’ve been far, wide, and deep in this post hoping to convey my conviction that Jesus is here now, that The Way requires us to try and walk in Agape love, and why I think so. Our traditions and societies are not yet so, and each of us has a duty, say I, to make the attempt to be an agent of change regardless of the world and the manifest Evil we encounter, breaking down barriers and traditions where necessary, and taking risks in so doing.
It seems that our methods and practices often convey our desire for control and opulence whereas the task at hand is to show people Love and, if they are willing, help them find their way and The Way. Our history as Christians is filled with our failures, and quite often I find people who reject churches because they seem manipulative, controlling, judgmental, and ever thirsty for cash. It’s simple, I’m told, all you have to do is do the right thing. In large measure, such people speak the truth. It’s simple yet it’s impossible. That is, only with God’s help can The Way be walked, and only with God’s grace, his forgiveness, can one reach the goal for none truly walk The Way, none but Christ Jesus.
I myself do not attend church services these days, but the truth is that I love ritual and services too much for it to be good for me on way to The Way. That which is helpful to some can become a distraction, even a bit of hedonistic pleasure for others like me. And one has the sense that one has done “enough” by attending and putting something in the plate, which is certainly not the case, not for me.
In closing this post, a discussion of shame and avoidance of shame seems essential. A lot of dark and even Evil things are enabled when something bad or shameful happens and people try to hide and cover it up. Being crucified was a very shameful thing, and early Christians were “noxi” – persons obnoxious to the Roman state treated with torture, shame, and hatred as we’ve discussed above. We should not be ashamed of following The Way, or trying to, even if others ascribe shame to us for loving those whom others hate.
We should be “doers of good”. In that regard, and as a point of reference outside of the Biblical Text for the existence of Jesus and early Christians, there are three primary sources: Josephus (c. 37-c. 100 CE), Tacitus (c. 56 CE-c. 120 CE), and Suetonius (c. 69 CE – c. 122 CE). The authenticity of these references passed down for so long in copy of copy is of course debated, but in my studies I believe them to be authentic. Josephus is rather blunt – Jesus was the Christ, implying that had Jesus been followed the temple would not have fallen – Josephus, a Jewish General from Galilee captured by Rome, writes that God changed plans, that Vespasian (founder of the Flavian imperial dynasty) was the messiah, perhaps like Cyrus II (note: the Flavians became Josephus’ sponsor after his captivity during the war). That said, Tacitus and Suetonius refer to the early Christians as Chrestians. Scholars argue whether Tacitus originally wrote Christus or Chrestus as their leader’s name, and it seems certain that Suetonius wrote Chrestus.
Chrestus means “the Good”. What Tacitus and Suetonius paint as horrible yet non-violent revolutionaries, repugnant to the Roman state they also called “followers of the Good”. What an amazing testament to our ancestors in faith.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NRS)
Challenge us to walk in love. That’s what Jesus did, does, and will do.