Was Jesus a Zealot?

If you are remotely familiar with the Gospels, you have probably heard about Jesus and his tirade at the Temple, where he overturned the money-changer tables during Passover. Pretty radical stuff, right? Some conspiracy circles view this as a subversive attempt by Jesus and his band of zealots to take over the Temple. Let’s lay out a few bullets on this issue. 

  • It is not totally out of the question. In his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Rena Aslan makes a good case that Jesus was one of many militant leaders roaming ancient Palestine. More specifically:
    • Jesus followed John the Baptist. Both preached the imminent arrival of a physical kingdom of God to take over the earth. 
    • Jesus opposed Rome, the Temple priests, the wealthy Jewish aristocracy, and Herod. 
    • Tthe Gospels say that Jesus actually used phrases about about bringing the sword to the world, not peace. 
    • The grand entry into Jerusalem as described in the Gospels is not exactly a low-key event. 
    • One of Jesus’ followers is called Simon the Zealot. James and John were nicknamed “Sons of Thunder.” And many scholars think that Judas was a zealot, and one of the reasons for the betrayal was that Jesus was not willing to take a hard stand against the Romans. 
  • But maybe not. Jesus also said taxes should be paid to Caesar per the law. And if Jesus had been the leader of a band of insurrectionists, it seems likely that the Romans would have arrested the entire gang, instead of just Jesus, on the night of his arrest. And realistically, it is not likely the table-turning event was an attempt to overthrow the Temple. The Temple itself was huge — at least 4×4 city blocks. So even if Jesus and his disciples had wanted to foment a riot, they would not have created a security threat … at least for very long. 
  • So why was Jesus crucified? We are not quite sure. The Gospels are inconsistent (for another 3BT post). Left alone, the Romans may not have cared one way or another about an itinerant preacher from Galilee with a small group of followers. One plausible theory is that the Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas, invented a story about Jesus that offended most traditional Jews, and simultaneously planted enough concern in Pilate about a possible mass insurrection. That would do it. 

Fun fact. And it is not clear if the money-changer table incident took place in the early part of Jesus’ ministry, or in the last week. All four gospels agree that it was during Passover. But John has it early in the ministry. The other three have it in his last week.

Moses, Leavening, and Free Will

Let’s get back to Moses. Did you ever notice how the Bible (especially the Old Testament) repeats a lot of the same things? Part of it is because the Chief Editor of the OT had to piece together multiple, overlapping sources. Part of it is just bad editing. But here we go with more on Moses and the upcoming exodus:

  • What are the Israelites doing to prepare? Soooo Moses has called down nine plagues on the Egyptians, and Pharaoh still won’t let the Israelites go. But Moses thinks the release is coming soon, so he advises his people to borrow jewelry and other stuff from their neighbors to … you know … take with them on the way out. Yep, it’s right here:

Exodus 3:22, NIV: Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.

  • Whose responsibility? Exodus says several times that ‘God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.’ And that’s why he continued to stonewall Moses and refused to let the Israelites go, even after multiple demonstrations of God’s power. If this is so, how can we label Pharaoh as an evil ruler since God determined Pharaoh’s decisions? What happened to free will? 
  • Leaven and sin. In the chapters leading up to the actual departure, God spends a lot of energy focusing on unleavened bread. The 3BT research team reports that leavening (i.e. yeast) is used throughout the Bible as the symbol for … you guessed it … sin.  Soooo, in a totally symbolic (and ironic) literary moment, Exodus focuses on eliminating sin from the Jewish nation, while God is sending plagues onto the Egyptians, their animals, and their first-born sons. Plus, we also find out that the Israelites have their own slaves, which they take with them on their way out of town. Along with their neighbors’ valuables. 

So many enigmas here that were not covered in Mrs. Wilson’s Sunday school class. What are the authors of Exodus trying to demonstrate?

More on Gnosticism

Last week we had a surprising number of letters to the editor (i.e. three) expressing an interest in learning a little more about Gnosticism. It’s pretty bizarre, but definitely worth three bullets this week.

Here are the basic tenets:

  • Matter vs spirit. The Gnostics thought that everything is made up of matter and spirit. Spirit is good. Matter (e.g. the body) is bad.
  • Myths. This is where the going gets weird. Grab a beverage.
    • Before there was Earth … or anything … there was a universal God that was comprised of pure spirit.  
    • There were also a bunch of divine entities emanating from this divine God. They were called Aeons (just go with it). The Aeons made up this thing called the Divine Realm.
    • Everything was great until one day, one of the Aeons (Wisdom) fell from the Universe. And it caused a cosmic disaster. Ultimately, this lesser divine being created the Earth (that was the bizarre part — the big God did not create Earth). And after that Wisdom broke up into a lot of individual spiritual pieces. And these ended up inside us humans.
    • The goal of the Gnostic religion is to release that divine spark that was left within us. And we can do that by acquiring the ‘secret knowledge.’
    • Secret knowledge? Yeah, all good mystical belief systems have secret knowledge. According to the Gnostics, the secret knowledge is a discovery of who you are, where you came from, how you got here, and how you can return (sounds a lot like Buddhism).
    • Who can get secret knowledge if it is secret? That’s where the connection to Christianity comes in. Jesus came from the Divine realm to set us free from the material trappings of our body. And according to some Gnostic accounts, Jesus gave this knowledge to certain disciples (and Paul) after his resurrection. Unfortunately, the Nag Hammadi library documents don’t have those specific instructions.
  • Fake News. The more traditional Church fathers thought the Gnostics conducted wild sex orgies in their Sunday worship service. Ultimately they decreed that the Gnostics were heretics (because that’s what you do) and banned the Gnostics from the Christian church. Hence, the buried scripts at Nag Hammadi. In reality, the Gnostics did not have sex orgies, and they used the New Testament sources (especially John) as a basis for their doctrine.  

Where did we get this information? The Chief Editor has no first-hand knowledge of Gnosticism. So the R&D department watched Bart Ehrman’s lecture on Gnosticism, and reviewed the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Wikipedia.

The Gospel of Thomas and Gnosticism

This week when we ran across a new site (to us) called Religion for Breakfast. It is produced by Dr. Andrew Henry. Despite being a doctor in religious studies, Dr. Andrew works with more secular publications such as The Atlantic. The Chief Editor believes this gives him additional credibility. Plus he is a younger guy and sports some awesome facial hair.

This week he talked about the Gospel of Thomas, which is as good a reason as any to post three bullets about it here.

  • Summary please. The Gospel of Thomas was found in Egypt in the 1940s as part of the Nag Hammadi texts. The texts date back to the 2nd or 3rd centuries CE, possibly earlier. It’s 114 sayings of Jesus. No narratives. No sermons. Some of the sayings are similar to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But many scholars believe the G of T was produced by the Gnostic splinter group of early Christians. 
  • Gnostic splinter group? Yes, contrary to most Christian church publications, there was not a uniform system of beliefs that evolved spontaneously after Jesus’ life on earth. One of these groups was called the Gnostics. They had an interesting set of beliefs:
    • There were two Gods — one good (Monad) and one not-so-good (Demiurge). The bad one set up Adam & Eve for failure in the Garden.
    • There was no physical resurrection, but the soul of Jesus (and everyone else) escapes the wretched physical body at death and continues on in the ethereal realm.
    • There were some secret sayings by Jesus that only a few people know about. For example, Judas and Jesus had a ‘talk’ in private right before the betrayal.
  • Why did the Gospel of Thomas miss the cut? A few reasons. 1) the primary four gospels had already been making the rounds and had gained an exclusive fan club in the Christian community before the G of T was published. 2) The early church leaders considered the Gnostic system of beliefs to be the arch-heresy of all heresies. 3) The early church leaders thought the Gnostics ate babies during communion. 

Well, that was fun.

Did Jesus Teach About the Soul and Afterlife?

This week we are going to look at whether Jesus actually said anything about the promise of an eternal afterlife for the soul. The short answer is “No.”

  • Jesus was a traditional Jew. In the 1st century, most Jews who thought about these things did not believe there was a separate soul that was different from the body. The body and the soul were one (e.g. God formed man out of the dust). And when the body died, so did the soul. It was the Greeks who developed the idea about souls being separated from the body. 
  • Jesus thought the apocalypse was going to happen soon … like next week. In the apocalypse, God would return to punish the wicked and reward the pious. This was going to be true no matter how long the body had been dead. Dead bodies would come back to life. And their souls with them. Thinking this was imminent, Jesus urged people to repent and get right with God. Most had better things to do. And a lot of folks (think the ones with big houses) saw his teachings as potentially dangerous to the status quo. This ultimately led to his arrest and crucifixion. 
  • Soooo how do we get current Christian doctrine about heaven/hell/soul etc.? That all came about after Jesus’ death. Most of the converts to Christianity were pagans (i.e. non-Jewish). They were more open to the idea that the soul could be separate from the body. Plus, once the idea of Jesus’ resurrection (physical or otherwise) gained momentum in the late 1st century, the church leaders framed up the early Christian doctrine to include a separate and eternal soul. That has largely stayed in place to today.

Moses Negotiates with Pharaoh — Kinda

When we left Moses the last time, he was busy wrestling with God in a tent but had not done a lot to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Now we get into some good drama.

  • Early negotiations. Moses (and his brother Aaron who does most of the talking) go to Pharaoh several times over the course of Chapters 7-13.  First they try to influence Pharaoh using tricks with the magic staff (Moses and Aaron are both in their 80s, so picture talent night at the Senior Center). This does not work too well, largely because Pharaoh’s magicians can go toe to toe with Moses. Then they go back and forth with Pharaoh, calling down one plague after another. Pharaoh capitulates and then reneges over and over again. Ultimately, we get 10 plagues.

                       1. Nile turns into blood.
                       2. Frogs appear; then die. Think of the stench.
                       3. Lice.
                       4. Flies.
                       5. Pestilence from fire ash.
                       6. Boils caused by the pestilence.
                       7. Hailstorm destroying crops and livestock. More stench.
                       8. Locusts destroying more crops.
                       9. Darkness for 3 days.
                     10. Death to first born Egyptian sons.

  • Natural phenomena?  The 3BT research staffers consulted with the Biblical Archeology Society (BAS) archives. The BAS people had some interesting observations. Some researchers have connected the Egyptian plagues to natural phenomena that were possible in ancient Egypt. Torrential rains in Ethiopia could have sent red clay (“blood”) into the Nile, which could have caused a migration of frogs, further causing lice and flies, which caused the death of cattle and human boils. A Libyan dust storm could have caused the three days of darkness.
  • Literary devices. Both the BAS people and various religious sources posited that the 10 plagues were each directed at a specific Egyptian God, essentially proving the the Israelite God was better than theirs. And then there’s the metaphysical interpretations, which are always fun because no one can really argue against them. We found these two from the TruthUnity.net site to be the most interesting
    • Pharaoh’s reluctance and fluctuations about letting the people go illustrate the position our personal ego takes when spiritual growth offers a threat to its domination in our lives. Materialistic and sensual self-interest (Pharaoh) is not easily convinced to make way for spiritual commitment
    • The various plagues are broad, general references to painful manifestations caused by negative thinking and emotions. The plagues are symbolic of useless, unnecessary suffering caused by ignorance and selfishness.

See? Can’t argue.

Was Jesus God or the Son of God?

Last week we figured out that Jesus’ early followers probably did not think he was a god (or THE God). But the church authorities in the late 1st century developed the concept of Jesus being God, probably with an eye toward expanding the market for Christianity to the gentile population. But the church fathers created a real conundrum when they made Jesus equal to God: Was Jesus the Son of God or was Jesus THE God. 

  • Did Jesus say he was God? We have no eyewitness accounts of what Jesus actually said about that matter (or any matter). But in the first three Gospels, Jesus never calls himself God. And none of his disciples thought he was God. The only Gospel that really broaches the subject is John, which was written 70 years after Jesus’ death. Jesus may have said he was the messiah, but that refers more to being king over Israel (possibly in the expected apocalypse). It does not equate to Jesus saying he was God.
  • How did this get resolved? This was all ironed out in the 4th century under Emperor Constantine, who had either a) an epiphany of Christ or b) a political realization that the Christians had become a critical mass that needed to be appeased. He called together everyone who was anyone in the Christian church to Nicaea. After suffering through days and weeks in a smoke filled room, the church leaders voted and agreed that Jesus was both 100% God and 100% human. And although the vote was split, they also passed the resolution that Jesus had always been equal with God the Father. So when you’re mindlessly reciting one of those creeds during Sunday morning service, remember … it was negotiated.
  • But that almost says there are two gods (maybe three with the Holy Spirit). Exactly. We assigned the 3BT interns to look for answers to this dilemma at the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) website. The interns had a real challenge figuring this one out, just like all those Christian bishops at Nicaea. For example, Jesus did a lot of praying. Theoretically, he must have been praying to THE God. But that would not make sense if Jesus were already THE God. And if Jesus was God while he was here, did he really feel anything human (that one caused quite a rift in the community in the 2nd century). The best the interns could come up with is “it’s a paradox.” Here’s what the CARM people said to wrap up their essay on it:  So, when we say that Jesus is God, we are saying that he is divine by nature. He is, after all, the second person of the Trinity. But when we say that Jesus is the Son of God, we are saying that he is also God since that is what the phrase means.

That pretty much clears things up (sarcasm intended). We’re going back to Moses next week. It is much more straightforward dealing with magic staffs, plagues, and snakes. 

Is God Spirit, Anthropomorphic, or Both?

This week we digress from the main story of Moses to address how God appears in different formats in the Old Testament. Here’s what we mean:

  • Spirit or Man-like? Genesis 1 describes God as omniscient and omnipresent when he creates the universe. But Genesis 2 (i.e. Adam & Eve) describes God as an anthropomorphic being who forms Adam out of mud and wanders around the Garden of Eden looking for A&E. 
  • Anthropomorphic examples. Most of the memorable God-events in the Old Testament come when God appears either as an angel or as an earthly being.
    • God wrestles with Jacob and actually breaks a thigh bone during the tussle.
    • God (and two other angels) eat dinner with Abraham in his tent one night.  
    • God speaks to Moses out of a burning bush.
    • And just last week we described an altercation between Moses and God, leading to an emergency circumcision and a creepy verse about what happened to the foreskin. So there’s that.

So which is it? Is God the omnipresent ephemeral being ‘out there’ someplace? Or does God regularly appear in the form of angels and human-like beings? 

  • Different authors; different time periods.Part of the confusions is because  there were multiple authors for the Old Testament. (The books were not written by Moses.) Most biblical scholars think that Genesis 1 (which portrays God as an amorphous being), and all the Old Testament stories that describe God more akin to a spirit, were written by some guy in around 500 BCE. Genesis 2, with the anthropomorphic God who wrestles with people, gets mad, gets jealous, and does all kinds of human stuff, was written around 1,000 BCE.

You’ve got to have a lot of time (and several interns) to comb through the Old Testament to figure who wrote which verses. But that’s what biblical scholars … and their grad students …  do. And we are grateful to Professor Bart Ehrman and his grad students for that fine work.

Tamar — Not in my Sunday School class

This week we are going to switch it up a little and look at the Old Testament. In particular, Chapter 38 in Genesis. The chapter is about one of Jacob’s 12 sons — Judah. You remember those sons — the ones who sent Joseph off to Egypt. Let’s see if we can condense the first part of the story. 

  • Judah has three sons. He hooks up Son #1 with a woman named Tamar. Son #1 dies. He hooks up Son #2 with Tamar. Son #2 dies (there’s an embedded story in there about coitus interruptus as birth control). There is still Son #3, but neither he nor Judah are feeling real good about the pattern going on here. So while Judah is thinking about it, he takes off on a buddy’s trip to “shear the sheep.” Really. That’s what they called it in Genesis. It was a thing. And while he goes off with the sheep, he tells Tamar to go live with her father … indefinitely. 
  • But Tamar is having none of that. She sees where this is going. So here’s the plan:  She dresses up like a prostitute with a veil, and positions herself along the road she knows Judah will take on his way back from “sheep shearing.” They negotiate a deal (this must not have been Judah’s first rodeo). where she comes away with his signet, cord, and staff. Tamar becomes pregnant. And Judah accuses her of being a prostitute (she must have kept the veil on). As Judah is about to burn her at the stake, she pulls out the signet, cord, and staff. Oooops. 
  • What makes this more interesting. Tamar goes on to have two sons, and is listed in the direct genealogy line of Jesus in Matthew’s first chapter. The 3BT interns searched for possible Christian interpretations for this story. The best we got was this metaphysical interpretation:  In the journey from sense to Spirit the soul passes through many phases, misdirects its faculties, and practices multitudinous forms of dissipation or waste.

Sure. That pretty much sums up a great story about patriarchy, misogyny, and human frailties. And we’re pretty sure that Mrs. Wilson, our 6th grade Sunday School teacher, would never have touched it.

We got inspired to tackle this story when we ran across a YouTube lecture on Genesis 38 over on the Patheos website. It was entertaining and thought-provoking; two concepts we embrace here at 3BT. Here’s the link if you want to hear about it first-hand (with even more sarcasm than here).

Finishing Up Joseph and the Family in Egypt

This week we wrap up the story of Joseph and the family in Egypt. In the last few chapters of Genesis Jacob finally makes his way to Egypt to join the rest of the family. Side-note: Jacob is also called Israel, and both names are used interchangeably throughout the text. Confusing? Yes. Helpful? No.

  • Joseph is still in charge of food distribution in the famine. And he’s pretty ruthless. First, the poor people of Egypt give all their money to the rich to buy food. When the money runs out, Joseph makes them give up their livestock. When that runs out Joseph makes them give up their land. Eventually Joseph arranges to provide seed to the people, but takes a 20% cut from the crop yield. Funny how we did not get that part of the story in Sunday School.
    • In case you were wondering, Joseph and the family are just fine. So are the religious leaders. 
  • Finally, it is time for Jacob to die. He is 147 years old, and the 22nd oldest person in the Bible. In chapter 49, he calls out each of his sons for a final word. Not all the sons get accolades.
    • He curses the eldest son Reuben for ‘doing it’ with one of Jacob’s concubines on Jacob’s couch. That was 40 years ago.
    • He also curses two other brothers (Simeon and Levi) for a a combination of forced circumcision followed by an immediate attack on a village back in Canaan. The other nine sons get various levels of blessing. 
    • Who are these people?
  • And an entourage of 70 people make the journey back to Canaan to bury Jacob. Pharaoh sends several representatives too. It is unclear if that was meant as a tribute to Jacob, or whether he just wanted to keep an eye on Joseph, his best government administrator.

On the way back, the brothers ‘find’ a letter from Jacob clearly instructing Joseph to forgive his brothers for any past transgressions. Evidently, Joseph bought it because that’s where Genesis ends. As an endnote to the book, God said that he would help Joseph and the family leave this place and return to “the promised land.” God is silent on how long it’s gonna take.

We acknowledge Hemant Mehta over at TheFriendlyAtheist.com for his comprehensive, pithy, and entertaining YouTube series on Joseph.