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.
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.
Back in Mrs. Wilson’s 5th grade Sunday School class, we were taught that Jesus was the Son of God. And when Jesus kneeled down to pray, that’s who he was praying to. By the time we got to high school, Mr. Wilson (spouse) taught us the Gospel of John, where Jesus and God were described as the same thing. Hmmm.
OK, so there’s gotta be a story here. Yep. Jesus himself never really said he was a god … or THE God. The disciples did not think Jesus was a god. Paul never said Jesus was a god in any of his letters. And the very first Christians did not think Jesus was a god — at least while he was here on Earth.
You left some wriggle room there. Agreed. As time went on, the followers developed a belief system where Jesus became a god when he was taken up to heaven after his resurrection. As the number of followers increased approaching the 2nd century (i.e. more cooks in the kitchen), the deification of Jesus kept getting earlier and earlier. We can see this in the Gospels themselves. The first Gospel Mark says nothing of note about Jesus being a deity (maybe with his baptism). Luke and Matthew added a virgin birth story to their narratives as an indication that Jesus must have been a deity when he arrived on Earth. John takes it back even further, clearly saying Jesus was around with God from the beginning.
This makes it sound like the early followers may have made Jesus a deity. We will not stray into theological territory here. But Professor Bart Ehrman speculates that if Jesus had not been declared God, the Christian group would have remained a small Jewish sect and may have even died out. By making Jesus a deity, the Christians attracted a large number of Gentiles into the group. And by the time we get to Constantine’s conversion 300 years later, the Christians have recruited a size-able critical mass of followers, which made his conversion politically palatable. And the rest is history.
But you still did not address how the Christians addressed the conundrum of Jesus being the Son versus Jesus being equal to God. We’ll do that next week. We’ve exhausted our three bullets this week.
In today’s post, we’ll look at just when the early Christians thought Jesus became Divine. Was he already Divine while he was alive? Or did he become Divine after he was resurrected? Or something else entirely? We admit that this borders on a debate about the number of angels on the head of a pin, but we’ll try to make it interesting.
Didn’t everyone who followed Jesus think he was the son of God? Maybe some did. But many merely thought that Jesus was a very good teacher, and a good man. But they did not think he was a direct incarnation of God.
What does Jesus say about himself in the Gospels? This is kinda complicated because the Gospels were not eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus, and were written several decades after Jesus’ death. We acknowledge that certain passages in the Gospels indicate that Jesus identified himself as one with God, or maybe even Divine. But Biblical scholars such as Bart Ehrman say it is not clear whether Jesus actually made these statements. Dr. Ehrman posits that Jesus probably thought he was a regular guy during his lifetime, but he was going to return at the end of times (which was supposed to be really really soon) as the Divine Messiah.
What did the disciples think? When Jesus was crucified, his disciples were totally shocked. This was not how it was supposed to turn out. But at some point (and this is where things get really murky), the early followers regained hope when some of them claimed they had seen Jesus and that he was alive again. Word spread. And some (all?) of his followers believed it. According to Dr. Ehrman, the story of the resurrection meant that Jesus had really been favored by God after all.
But why was he not there to talk to people about it (except for the random visions)? More murkiness. The story evolved over time that it was because Jesus had gone to heaven to be with God.
Soooo, it looks like in the period right after Jesus’ death, most of his followers had the idea that a) Jesus was human while he was living here on earth, but b) became a Divine being after his death and resurrection. This way of thinking evolved over the centuries, amid years of Roman persecution, a split from Judaism, and in-fighting among various Christian sects. Eventually we get to the Council in Nicaea in 325 CE, where the majority vote was that Jesus had always been the Divine Son of God, even during his life on earth. Period. No further debate. Moving on.
The Romans destroyed Jerusalem, including the Temple in 70 CE. All of Paul’s epistles were written before the destruction. All the Gospels were written after — Mark and Matthew both within 20 years. Today let’s look at what the author of Mark might have been thinking as he penned his account.
The Chief Editor is not usually big on symbolism (or metaphysical interpretations). But sometimes we just gotta do it. And although our 3BT staff is talented, we certainly did not think these up on our own. Big thanks to the writings of Shelby Spong for these observations.
Symbols — Judas. We are not 100% sure Judas was a real person (Paul never mentions the name or the betrayal). But note that the name Judas is similar to Judah, land of the Jewish people. If we follow this thought, Mark’s narrative uses Jesus as a symbol for separation from the established Jewish system. In another part of Mark’s Gospel about Jesus’ transfiguration, he is saying the light of God has shifted away from the Temple and onto Jesus.
More symbols — John the Baptist. Mark also sets up John the Baptist as the symbolic (or maybe real) return of Elijah. This is significant because the Jewish texts said that Elijah was supposed to precede the Messiah. Both wore a camel hair shirt and a girdle (think leather apron like a blacksmith). And they both ate locusts and honey.
And more symbols — Jewish holidays. The Jews have a series of religious ceremonies and holidays they celebrate every year. Jesus’ followers, for around 40 years anyway, would have participated in all those observances. Over that 40-year period, the oral stories about Jesus kept getting more and more entwined with the history and festivals of the Jews. By the time Mark sets quill to parchment, he decides to arrange his entire account around these Jewish holidays. It culminates with the crucifixion taking place within the Passover. This is symbolic because of the slaughter of the lamb in Passover ceremonies.
If we follow the timeline here, it seems like the idea of Jesus being the Messiah may have evolved slowly over time. And when Mark wrote his Gospel soon after the destruction of the Temple, the time was right to solidify this idea in writing.
John was the last Gospel written, likely at the end of the first century. John is the only gospel to contain the story of Jesus’ turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. And the guests remark about how it is so much better than the first wine that was served. Let’s take an alternative view of this story.
Why is this listed first? John starts off (after the preamble about the Word), with Jesus at the wedding. No virgin birth. No John the Baptist. No forty days in the wilderness. For John, this miracle story must have been significant. But why?
Brian Muraresku wrote a recent book titled The Immortality Key, The Secret History of the Religion with No Name. In his book, Brian posits two theories about the significance of turning the water into wine at Cana.
Connection to the Roman god. The Greek/Roman god of wine was Dionysus. But some of the Greek festivals associated with Dionysus were limited to the upper echelons of society. And even the Roman government was starting to crack down on some of these Dionysian festivals. Muraresku believes the story in John was an attempt to a) make a clandestine connection between Jesus and Dionysus and b) to make it obvious that Jesus was a god for all classes of people.
And then there’s the wine itself. The land of Canaan was well-know for its wine production. It was also known for its herb production; more specifically, hallucinogenic herbs. Muraresku believes that what made the wine at Cana so special was the extra psychedelic kick coming from a few well portioned additives to the wine jars.
Isn’t that a hoot? But what if .. just what if … it is true? The Chief Editor has sent a query to reputable New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, to get a reality check. We’ll report back in a future edition.
This week we finish up with three final things taken from a pop quiz that New Testament Professor Bart Ehrman gives his University of North Carolina students at the beginning of the school year.
Name four gospels not in the New Testament
Gospel of Peter. Containing a detailed account of the resurrection.
Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Jesus could be a brat if he wasn’t picked first for the kickball team.
Proto-Gospel of James. About Mary’s birth and conception.
Gospel of Thomas. A collection of sayings of Jesus. No narrative.
Gospels of Philip, Mary, and Judas. These are all Gnostic gospels.
What does the term “Gospel” mean? It’s an old English term for good news, or evangelical books. The significance here is that they are not called histories or biographies, and were not intended to be read that way.
Who carried Jesus’ cross? It depends. Mark, Matthew and Ike say that Simon of Cyrene carried it. John says that Jesus himself carried it all the way. In one of the movie versions (Greatest Story Ever Told) the producers resolve the problem by having both Simon and Jesus carry it. Ok, then. But that’s not in the gospels.
Well, that was fun. We’ll return to Paul next week.
And if you want to see what the Chief Editor wrote about Gnosticism, check this out (it’s short and fairly interesting for a topic on Gnosticism):
Last week we speculated if Jesus was married. We’re not sure if we resolved that issue, but let’s bring up another similar one anyway — the Essenes and celibacy. One of our readers from the West Coast brought up this subject in a letter to the editor after last week’s publication.
The reports of the Essenes being celibate largely come from two Jewish historians (Josephus being one of them) and one Roman official (Pliny the Elder). All of these writers were (unhappily) married .. Josephus three times. And all three firmly state (with admiration) that the Essenes were a community that practiced celibacy. And over the course of 2,000 years Jesus has sometimes been seen as being affiliated with this group.
Who were the Essenes? This group does not get a lot of press in the New Testament. The Essenes were a splinter group that did not like some of the decisions the traditional Jewish hierarchy. And they had a lot of rules. A lot. A two-year initiation was required, after which, if approved, a member was to donate all of his possessions to the community fund and share the common meal with all the other members. Rigorous guidelines dictated the life of the community. Members had fixed hours for work and rest and for their meals, there were required times of fasting, and strict penalties were imposed for unseemly behavior such as interrupting one another, talking at meals, and laughing at inappropriate times. Sign me up. They also had a strong belief that the end of times was near. Prophets (e.g. Jeremiah) had been predicting the end of times for centuries even then. But this time it looked feasible because of all the conflict between Rome and the Jewish community.
Was Jesus an Essene? Most scholars today think Jesus was probably not an Essene. Although he shared their apocalyptic belief system (as well as John the Baptist), he was not caught up in the use of the proper Jewish calendar; he did not care which Jewish line produced the high priest; and the rituals and separation from society imposed by the Essenes were a little too strict.
Bring in the written documentation. The Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered in caves along the Dead Sea — duh — between 1947-1956) were contemporary Jewish writings from the time of the Essenes. Although the scrolls contain the strict rules noted above, they never hint at celibacy. And even though they were written and hidden away in the Jewish uprisings in the 1st century, there is nothing about Jesus or John the Baptist in any of them. Editor note: As a reminder, the Dead Sea scrolls are different from those other gospels (e.g. Gospel of Mary and Gospel of Thomas) that were found in other places (e.g. Nag Hammadi) at other times.
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It would have been very unusual in those days for a Jewish man not to be married.The New Testament is actually silent on the matter of whether Jesus was married or not. But that does not mean we should assume the latter. The New Testament is silent on a lot of historical facets of the life of Jesus. In two interesting examples, the gospel of Mark never mentions Jesus’ father, and the gospel of John never mentions his mother by name. The New Testament does not say anything directly about wives for any of the 12 disciples either. Although there is a reference to Peter’s mother-in-law, whom Jesus healed in Mark 1:30. And Paul acknowledges that wives (all nameless) accompanied the disciples on their missions.
Paul’s silence may be proof. Interestingly, Paul may have come the closest to confirming that Jesus was married. Paul was all about celibacy, because he thought the end of times was near and it was better to be prepared for tough times ahead by being celibate (we thought Paul was a good marketer when he abolished the circumcision requirement, but this one baffles). You’d think that if Jesus himself were celibate, Paul would have used Jesus as his prime argument for why celibacy was a good thing. But he doesn’t. He actually admits in 1 Corinthians 7:25 that “I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.”
Why do we assume Jesus was unmarried? The reason most Christians in 2020 think of Jesus as being celibate largely comes from the negative attitudes against women and sex that were developed by the early Christian church leaders. Some of the writings from Augustine, Jerome, and other Christian leaders are almost scary in how they address women. For example, how about this from Tertullian, the “father of Latin Christianity” in talking about Eve (and by inference all women in the human race):
You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you are the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.
Probable Answer: As usual, it’s a little complicated. The Gospels give different accounts on this. Luke says the Jewish religious authorities did it. Mark and John indicate the Romans did it. Matthew says the Jewish Sanhedrin arrested him, but ultimately the Romans carried out the crucifixion. Most Biblical scholars today believe the Romans did it for political reasons, at least according to Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman.
If the Romans did it, why did they care? The Romans did not care if Jesus was offending the Jewish religious authorities. And Jesus merely taught about love and forgiveness and the coming Kingdom of Heaven, right? Well, yes. And it’s that last thing that may have caused the problem. Pilate and the Roman authorities did not like anyone saying they were ‘king’ of anything. Rome was in charge, not the Jews. And word got out that Jesus was touting himself as King.
But did Jesus say this publicly? No. That’s where things get more interesting. Jesus knew that saying things like that in public might not go over well. But he did talk to his disciples about it. And this might be yet another explanation of the Judas betrayal story — Judas may have reported to the Romans about a coming kingdom with Jesus in charge.
Then why did Luke write that it was the Jewish religious authorities?Remember that each of the Gospel writers had an agenda when they took the pen 30-50 years after Jesus’ death. Luke was a Gentile writing to a Gentile audience during a time of great political unrest between the Jewish people and the Roman government. And if you are trying to market to a Gentile audience and not offend those in authority, you place the responsibility for the death of your spiritual leader on someone else. Luke spends a lot of ink constructing a story where Pilate and Herod (son of THE Herod) both wash their hands of the situation, leaving the blame to the Jewish authorities.