Spiritual teacher of peace & love v. Jewish revolutionary
Bart Ehrman made a provocative statement recently to the effect that the Jewish people of the first century CE would have viewed the claim that Jesus was the messiah as akin to saying David Koresh was lord of the universe. In case you missed it, here is a short clip with the money quote from Dr. Ehrman.
The first time I heard it, the statement offended me; however, on further reflection, I see where Dr. Ehrman is coming from and find him guilty of no more than theatrics (which I have also been guilty of in life). From what little I know, Ehrman appears to view Jesus through the standard prism of the NT augmented with Josephus and other extra-biblical texts / archeology; however, after extensive analysis, takes a critical view of the Jesus presented to us by Christian doctrine. Seeaudio of Ehrman attacking the authenticity of Christian scripture. I reason Ehrman's point to be that the Jesus presented in the gospels is completely underwhelming in the role of messiah. We are told a Jewish peasant, the son of a carpenter, from an extremely small village in Galilee marched into Jerusalem at the head of twelve scruffy Galilean fishermen with swords tucked under their cloaks. Ehrman and others (including myself) believe Jesus intended a Jewish, nationalist revolution. How insane was that? He and the fisherman intended to overthrow the Roman Empire in Israel? And the Jewish people were going to follow him down this suicidal path because he worked some magic tricks back in Galilee?
I ask Dr. Ehrman's forgiveness if I have not captured the essence of his David Koresh analogy. This view is pretty much where I started searching for the historical Jesus years ago, so I am sympathetic to it. It's an unflattering portrait of Jesus and I did not particularly buy it as the gospels contain hints that Jesus was much more than a carpenter's son. Without rehashing Herodian Messiah, let's just say my thinking evolved such that I reached the conclusion that Jesus was in fact the grandson of King Antigonus and this bloodline was the basis upon which he claimed to be the messiah (albeit the messiah of Levi as known to us from the DSS). The grandson of King Antigonus marching into Jerusalem at the head of 30,0000 armed supporters with the mission of reclaiming the Hasmonean throne usurped by Herod and his Roman allies makes much more sense than the carpenter's son with his little band of fishermen.
Let's say I'm right. Jesus was a Hasmonean prince and this is why he was able to assemble such an extensive following and, also, why the Romans / Herodians took his movement to be such a serious threat to their power in Israel. That still doesn't end the mystery of Jesus. Where is the guy who gave us the Beatitudes?
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall possess the earth.
* * *
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called sons of God.
See Matthew 5. 'Turn the other cheek.' 'Love thy neighbor as thyself.' How the hell can this spiritual man of peace be the same guy who attempted a political revolution against the Romans? A comment made yesterday in another thread by Peter Fromm gives voice to one path to take in reaction to the issue: "I think that this all implies that the Jesus of the NT is almost a total fiction meant to obscure 'the Egyptian'. ... I have not found one data point to suggest that Jesus was anything but a political, real-world revolutionary." If Jesus was an Hasmonean prince, then the Romans and Pharisees definitely knew this. The early Christians in Jerusalem surely knew this as well. If they (read the Romans) edited what became the NT in an effort to write out the Hasmonean heritage of Jesus, what else did they alter? Did they insert all these quotes from Jesus about peace & love in order to subvert a Jewish nationalist movement into one of non-violence that submits to authority?
These are difficult questions. My short answer is that I do not think the Jesus quotes on peace & love were fabricated. Why? Because they are too tightly wound around a central doctrine that can be traced to Philo of Alexandria's description of the Essenes and Therapeutae, with use of nomenclature from the DSS. Eusebius argues that the Therapeutae community in Egypt (as described by Philo) was in fact a Christian community. Church History, Ch. 17. More importantly, some parallel quotes are found in the Nag Hammadi library (especially the Gospel of Thomas). The Nag Hammadi texts were suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church in the fourth century CE after Gnosticism was declared heretical. The fact that Christian heretics from antiquity preserved similar sayings of Jesus as found in the NT (in the sense that the Nag Hammadi library presents Jesus as a spiritual leader) lends tremendous weight to the view of Jesus as a spiritual teacher. If anybody in the fourth century CE stood outside of Rome to preserve an accurate account of the teachings of Jesus, it was these ascetic, mystic Christians of the Egyptian desert IMHO. As the Roman church burned the Nag Hammadi texts and they also showed Jesus to be a spiritual leader, I feel comfortable concluding he was both a political revolutionary and a spiritual teacher.
However, this line of reasoning does not solve the problem as we are still left with a schizophrenic Jesus. How do we get out of this dark cave? It is my personal view that Gnosticism offers us a rational explanation for the actions of Jesus. Let's back up and take a minute to reflect on the lost years of Jesus. He was born in Judea but the family quickly fled to Egypt out of fear for the baby's life due to Herodian persecution. Under my theory, he was the only grandson of Antigonus then alive and this bloodline was a political threat to the Herodians (and this was why they tried so hard to kill him). At some point while Herod Archelaus was still on the throne, the family emigrated to Galilee from Egypt; however, Jesus disappeared from the scene around age 12 and doesn't reappear again until the start of his public campaign for the Jewish throne. Where was he? I suggest the fact that his teachings resemble that of the Therapeutae, whose base was in Egypt, suggests Jesus spent part of the lost years in Egypt. What are the origins of the Therapeutae? One suggestion (that I have not seen refuted) is that they were founded by Buddhist monks from India as missionaries around 250 BCE pursuant to the Edicts of Ashoka. India, of course, was part of the Parthian Empire. Parthia was an ally of King Antigonus, the grandfather of Jesus. After Jesus survived crucifixion, many believe he went east into exile to the Parthian Empire. A reasonable argument can be made that Jesus went to India where he spent the last years of his life. See Jesus Lived in India by Holger Kersten. The Acts of Thomas also say that Jude Thomas was assigned by lot to be the Nazarene missionary to India. And it is the Thomas tradition that is venerated in Christian Gnostic texts. Elaine Pagels and others argue for a strong connection between Gnosticism and Buddhism. I concur with Dr. Pagels on this point.
What does Gnosticism have to do with the schizophrenic Jesus? Give me a second, I'm getting there. If one agrees that Jesus was 'the Egyptian' of Josephus, then Jesus arrived in Jerusalem with 30,000 followers. They marched triumphantly through the city defying the authorities, then took up station on the Mount of Olives. But the revolution never happened. Jesus surrendered to the Romans in the middle of the night just before Passover. I say surrender based on the logistics of how it went down and information contained in the Gospel of Judas. I covered this ground in my book and beg off from doing so again here but the movements of Jesus that fateful night strongly suggest that he arranged to be captured by the Romans without a fight by his men. The Romans had one cohort (usually 500 men), probably reinforced with axillaries of a few thousand. Jesus had 30,000 men in command of the highest ground in greater Jerusalem. Why did he surrender without a fight? In Herodian Messiah, I suggest his Parthian allies double-crossed him making peace with the Romans thereby freeing up three legions under Procounsul Vitellius to wheel west from Babylon for Palestine. Still, surrender without a fight was beyond weak for a Jewish nationalist. The Hasmoneans were fierce warriors. So were all the other Jewish nationalists: Simon of Perea, Judas of Gamala, the defenders at Massada, Bar Kochba. These men not only fought, they fought to the death. It is difficult to fathom why Jesus gave up without a fight when he possessed vast numerical superiority and his men held the high ground overlooking Jerusalem. Yes, legions were on the way but the Romans always sent legions when the locals revolted. He was going to have to engage them much sooner and less prepared than he had hoped making the chances of success slimmer but taking on Rome was always a dicey matter. Jesus proclaimed himself to be the messiah, which meant he was appointed by God to vanquish the enemies of the Jewish people and restore righteousness to their homeland. What kind of messiah does not believe he can beat the Romans with God + 30,000 men?
My answer: a messiah who, at his core, is a man of peace & love but upon whom fate has thrust the role of Jewish nationalist leader. He was a man of honor who felt it his duty to see through this mission but, in the end, he could not accept the bloodshed that would befall the land of Israel if he followed through on this course. He turned himself over to the Sanhedrin to be executed in the hope that others would avoid suffering. As it happens, this portrait of a reluctant noble warrior forced to fight a civil war he does not want but who is commanded by fate to carry through with the mission is found in a well-known eastern scripture that existed in the time of Jesus, the Bhagavad Gita.
Before getting into the parrellels between Jesus and prince Arjuna from the Gita, let me present a potential glimpse at Jesus playing the role of nationalist leader. Peter, in his comment re-posted above, looks for a "data point" suggesting another Jesus than the nationalist rebel leader. Almost all of the parables and sayings of Jesus are spiritual but I believe a few relate to his temporal situation as leader of a rebel movement. The Parable of the Minas (Luke 19:11-27), told by Jesus just before his final assault on Jerusalem, is one such example. Another comes to us from the Gospel of Thomas, Logion 98:
Jesus said, "What the kingdom of the father resembles is a man who wanted to assassinate a member of the court. At home, drew the dagger and stabbed it into the wall in order to know whether his hand would be firm. Next, he murdered the member of the court."
I've tried to construct a spiritual interpretation for this saying but failed. Maybe another will read this article and propose an angle that I have missed. If we instead look at this saying with a more literal eye, Jesus is confessing his own self-doubt about his ability to prosecute a bloody revolution in Jerusalem. He is the assassin unsure whether "his hand would be firm." Finding this quote in the Gospel of Thomas lends authenticity in my view. The NT gospels present the disciples of Jesus as not understanding his parables. I believe the followers of Jesus wrote down his sayings without understanding what they meant (but assuming they contained some deep spiritual message). So here we have Jesus confessing his own self-doubt as a military commander yet his followers record the saying among his important spiritual messages. Priceless.
The Bhagavad Gita and Jesus
In the Gita, two royal armies face each other lined up for battle on "the field of truth". Prince Arjuna rides on his chariot between the battle lines with Krishna prior to the commencement of hostilities. Krishna's nominal position to Arjuna is something of a squire to a knight; however, the Gita calls him "the Lord of the soul" and "unborn god from the beginning". He is a god-man (not unlike the Nicene Creed's presentation of Jesus, see also Jn 1:14, "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us"). Arjuna looks among the two armies seeing grandfathers, fathers, sons, and cousins aligned against one another. This brings tears to his eyes. He says,
[1:31] And I see foreboding of evil, Krishna. I cannot foresee any glory if I kill my own kinsmen in the sacrifice of battle.
* * *
[1:37] I cannot therefore kill my own kinsmen, the sons of king Dhrita-rashtra, the brother of my own father. What happiness could we ever enjoy, if we killed our own kinsmen in battle?
* * *
[1:40] The destruction of a family destroys the rituals of righteousness, and when the righteous rituals are no more, unrighteousness overcomes the whole family.
* * *
[1:46] Better for me indeed if the sons of Dhrita-rashtra, with arms in hand, found me unarmed, unresisting, and killed me in the struggle of war.
[2:5] Shall I kill my own masters who, though greedy of my kingdom, are yet my sacred teachers? I would rather eat in this life the food of a beggar than eat royal food tasting of their blood.
The Bhagavad Gita translated by Juan Macaro (Penguin Books 1962). Krishna responds as follows,
[2:3] Fall not into degrading weakness, for this becomes not a man who is a man. Throw off this ignoble discouragement, and arise like a fire that burns all before it.
[2:11] * * * The wise grieve not for those who live; and they grieve not for those who die -- for life and death shall pass away.
[2:13] As the Spirit of our mortal body wanders on in childhood, and youth and old age, the Spirit wanders on to a new body: of this the sage has no doubt.
[2:19] If any man thinks he slays, and if another thinks he is slain, neither knows the ways of truth. The Eternal in man cannot kill: the Eternal in man cannot die.
[2:27] For all things born in truth must die, and out of death in truth comes life. Face to face with what must be, cease thou from sorrow.
At the very end of the Gita comes the closing statement from Arjuna in response to the instruction he has received from Krishna, "By thy grace I remember my light, and now gone is my delusion. My doubts are no more, my faith is firm; and now I can say 'Thy will be done'." [18:73], Emphasis added. Krishna told the young prince to stop worrying. Don't be weak. Death is meaningless. The gods dictate that which must be so we humans are duty-bound to carry out the role that fate deals us. (Buddhists say karma rather than the gods dictate that which must be.) Arjuna then accepts the mission uttering the words we know well from Jesus the Nazarene (spoken just prior to his arrest at the Garden at Gethsemane, Luke 22:42). The Gita stops with Arjuna accepting the mission. It does not actually tell the tale of what happened in the imminent battle (i.e., whether Arjuna fought bravely) but the clear implication is that Arjuna did go to war against his kinsmen.
How does this relate to Jesus? I think it provides a philosophical framework for a spiritual man of god to conduct a civil war that he views as just but whose brutal outcome (win or lose) is something he abhors. It is difficult to construct anything more than a loose argument connecting Jesus to Indian mystic thought but one does exist. We have the Nazarene connection to India through the Therapeutae, the mission of Jude Thomas to India, and Buddhist similarity to Gnostic Christian scriptures.
But we still have a problem though. If Jesus was Arjuna, why didn't Jesus go through with the civil war to carry out god's will for destruction of the evil Romans? That issue is very perplexing. My working hypothesis is that he arrived in Jerusalem with an army made up largely of Galileans, Samaritans, and Idumeans (i.e., second class Jews). The Herodians and Pharisees (and their Roman allies) who controlled Jerusalem were his enemies. What of the Judean Hasidim? The followers of John the Baptist? The Dead Sea Scroll community? I have concluded they rejected him as messiah. Under DSS doctrine, the community was ruled by Kohanim priests. Jesus was not a father to son descendant of Aaron, thus, he was not eligible to be a Jewish leader under their doctrine. I suspect Jesus held out hope for winning over the Hasidim until the very end (probably on the strength of his brother James' connection to the community) but it never happened. You cannot save a person drowning in the water if they do not wish to be saved. They will pull you under with them. Jesus could not impose his revolution upon Judea without the Judean people rallying to his banner in my view. I think he surrendered to the authorities out of despair. In this regard, I note with interest the following from John's gospel: "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father." John 14:12. It rings of a discouraged messiah who knows he is beaten and has resigned himself to departing this life. He thinks so little of his life's work that he tells his disciples that they will accomplish greater works (despite how utterly ignorant the gospels portray them of his inner message).
I personally revere Jesus the spiritual teacher. Jesus the revolutionary, not so much.