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Chapter One: About the Story of Jesus


One cannot understand the life of Jesus by viewing it as a simple story where he undertakes certain activities in the world. One ought not ascribe to him motives understood in those terms. For instance, Jesus was not a social agitator wanting to reform society or improve its moral tone. He was not a political revolutionary wanting to overthrow the government. He was not seeking to gain converts to a new religion. From the Gospels we learn that Jesus’ chief activity on earth was to announce the coming of God’s kingdom. So much is clear from these words in the Gospel of Mark which describe his first preaching: “After John had been arrested, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God: ‘The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you; repent, and believe the Gospel.” That was Jesus’ original teaching; it remained at the core of his ministry.

Within Jewish religious culture of his day, the Kingdom of God had been expected for a long time. Jesus was saying that this “Kingdom” would soon appear. What was it exactly? The Kingdom of God was a concept expressed in Old Testament prophecies. These were religious writings produced in the course of eight centuries. A succession of prophets had predicted that events of history would culminate in a cataclysm bringing the end of the world as we know it and the beginning of a new order under God’s rule. Jesus was relating this event to the present time. He was saying: “The Kingdom of God is upon you.” It is almost here. What religious Jews had been expecting for so many years was about to happen. No wonder his preaching created much excitement.

The other part of the story, though, was that this Kingdom was not yet here. “Almost” was not close enough. Those living in Jesus’ day, chafing under Roman rule, were interested in having God’s kingdom come immediately. Jesus sought to pass through the period which remained between the present time and the time of the Kingdom of God. He was involved in the process of bringing about this Kingdom not by his own exertions but by fulfilling scriptural conditions that had to be met first. God would bring about the Kingdom. Neither Jesus nor any other man had the power to make God do anything. Yet, the prophetic scriptures had described a process by which the Kingdom would arrive in the course of time; and Jesus had a role to play.

With respect to Jesus’ power over nature, the Gospels are filled with accounts of his miracle-working. He turned water into wine at a wedding. He walked on water. He cast demons out of possessed persons. He healed the blind and brought dead persons back to life. Most significantly, he was himself raised from the dead. But was miracle-working what Jesus’ life was about? Was he giving evidence of his godlike powers to persuade people that he controlled the universe and had to be obeyed? That seems not to have been the spirit of his ministry. No, Jesus was focused on the Kingdom of God. The miracle-working is significant because the prophetic scriptures foretold miraculous events in the final days. They were a sign of its nearness.

So the story of Jesus should be understood in terms of prophecy. Motives which make sense in worldly terms play little part in his thinking. If the world is set to end in - say - fifteen minutes, nothing matters except for the cataclysm and what comes afterwards - that is to say, the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ moral teachings presuppose that event; they are intended to prepare his followers for the difficult task of gaining admission to the Kingdom.

A Complex Structure of Experience

Certainly Jesus is a character in a story, but the story is referring to something beyond itself. It is referring to a body of prophetic scriptures. When we study these scriptures, we see that they, too, refer to something else. The Old Testament prophecies were written in response to historical events. Each of these spheres of experience has its own set of stories. So now, if we want to understand the story of Jesus, we need to be knowledgeable about three things: (1) what Jesus himself did, (2) the scriptures in reference to which he did those things, and (3) the historical context in which the scriptures were produced.

The story of Jesus could only have taken place at this particular time in history. There needed first to be a culture of written language from which the prophetic scriptures sprang. Such writings had an aura of divine truth. Not only were they attributed to a revered religious figure of the past; they also gained credibility as examples of predictions come true. Written words last. One can see what a person wrote in the past - before the predicted events occurred - and then, from a vantage point in the present, see whether or not those events have come to pass. The difference between the time of the writing and the time when the words are read is what makes it possible for us to know, after the fact, whether the predictions came true. If they did, the prophet would be presumed to be writing under divine inspiration since only God can predict future events.

It may be useful to recall that alphabetic writing was invented in Palestine during the 2nd millennium B.C. The alphabet of the Phoenician people in neighboring Lebanon was the source of most other alphabets. The Hebrew people were literate at the time of King David. There was an unusual continuity of culture between that time and the time when Jesus lived. Because writing was then in its infancy, some were testing the limits.

As with all new media, deceptive practices took place. Some “prophets” inserted their writings into ancient texts, giving the appearance that these words were written in the distant past whereas the writer, living in later times, had the advantage of historical hindsight. No divine powers were needed for this kind of “prediction”. Yet, such texts were accepted as authentic works of prophecy, same as the earlier ones. Such fakery was made possible by a lack of scholarly standards when the culture of writing was in a relatively primitive phase.

With John the Baptist and Jesus, prophecy shifts into the mode of action. They are the first prophets to say that the time of the predicted events has arrived. Instead of writing prophecy, they live it. An extreme pressure is created to live up to the predictions of scripture which, by this time, have become quite fantastic. Their earthly careers are formed by a body of writings hallowed with the passage of time. And so, as actors in a dramatic script, they themselves take on the aura of divinity associated with the sacred text.

What we have, then, in this case, is a script of future history and a character in the script known as the Messiah. Jesus stepped upon the historical stage as one following that script. He was acting in the role of Messiah or, more precisely, as the future Messiah who would appear as God’s agent when the Kingdom arrived. Jesus was also working to bring about this Kingdom. He was fulfilling conditions which the scriptures had said had to happen first. In fulfilling those conditions, Jesus was removing obstacles to the Kingdom’s arrival. When there were no more obstacles, the Kingdom would be here.

Dissonance between Two Sources of Truth

Let us now turn from Jesus’ story to the story of Jewish prophecy. Arnold Toynbee has compared the ancient Jewish attitude toward writing with the Greco-Roman attitude. For the Greeks and Romans, written words were reminders of what one might say, not unlike the notes which a broadcaster has in front of him while talking on the radio. For Jews, on the other hand, the words of scripture were sacred. Toynbee wrote that “in the Syrian world to which the Jews belonged, a book was certainly not recorded as a mere mnemonic aid to human discourse. It was revered as the revealed word of God: a sacred object, in which every jot and tittle on the written page had a magical potency.”

Judaism starts with words inscribed in the stone tablets which Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. God’s words are a primary source of truth. Therefore, written words attributed to someone who conveys God’s message would also be true. Moses would be such a messenger as would other prophets speaking or writing while under the influence of divine inspiration. Each and every word must literally be true.

Potential conflict arises when scripture purports to describe future events. Because of its origin in divine inspiration, the scripture is presumed to be true. So must history be true if, indeed, the reported events actually happened. In time, however, predicted events become history. One can then see if the predictions matched subsequent experience. Normally one would say, if predicted events do not come to pass, the predictions were simply wrong. After all, people do sometimes make mistakes. This explanation is not possible in the case of religious prophecy. When the person making the prediction is a prophet backed by the authority of God, it would damage his credibility to say that he was wrong. It would mean that this person was not a man of God or, worse yet, that God sometimes makes mistakes. It might even mean that the religion was false.

The Old Testament prophets were faced with this dilemma. Jewish religion had seen a number of prophets by the time the first writing prophets appeared in the 8th century B.C. Certain promises had been made. By that time it appeared that God had not kept his promises to the Hebrews. History was proceeding on an unexpected course. There was, then, a certain dissonance between religious expectations and the subsequent historical events. The prophet’s job was to reconcile the apparent discrepancies between these two sources of truth. So prophets in each succeeding period would issue new prophecies taking into account what had gone before. God could not be wrong; and neither could history. There must be some creative explanation for what had happened. Maybe humanity’s understanding of God’s plan was faulty? What could the problem be?

Keep in mind that Jewish prophetic writing spanned a period of almost eight centuries by the time that Jesus lived. Much history had also taken place during this period. We can regard these as two separate streams of expression. One was the flow of national experience which, in a written form, we call history. The other was the flow of prophetic writings in an accumulated body of scripture. The two leapfrogged past each other. History would catch up to earlier prophecies. New prophets would then appear attempting to resolve the discrepancies. They would propose new explanations and make predictions for the period ahead. Then more history would take place, and so on. Taking into account all previous experiences, the later prophecies became more complex. To reconcile discrepancies, the prophets were searching for explanations that broke existing paradigms of moral thought and established higher truths.

A Dialogue between Prophecy and History

This is roughly how it happened: According to the Torah, God had made certain promises to the Hebrew people. He had promised them prosperity, glory, and power if they remained faithful to Him and obeyed his Commandments. This promise is stated in Deuteronomy: “If you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing his Commandments which I lay upon you this day, then the Lord your God will raise you high above all nations of the earth, and all these blessings (of prosperity) will come to you.” (Deuteronomy 28: 1-2)

For a time, history seemed to support that theory. The Hebrew people established their own kingdom in the land of Canaan. Under David and Solomon, this kingdom prospered. After Solomon’s death, however, the Davidic empire was divided into two parts. Tribes occupying the northern part of the kingdom set up their own kingdom. The northern kings took foreign wives who worshipped other gods. The Assyrian empire meanwhile threatened both kingdoms. It is here that the tradition of prophetic scripture began.

There was evident dissonance: God had promised the Jewish people that they would prosper in remaining faithful to Him; yet their nation, now split, was threatened by a more powerful foreign empire. What had happened? Had God lied? The solution was to explain that God had not promised his people unconditional blessings. Those blessings were conditioned upon their keeping his commandments. Much wickedness had occurred at the court of the northern kingdom. Was, then, God withdrawing the promise which He had made to the Jews through Moses? If so, it might have meant the end of the Jewish religion.

No, another explanation was possible. Maybe humanity did not understand divine providence. Maybe God was taking the long view of how the Jewish people would prosper. A few short-term setbacks might be good for their character. God could be like a stern father who punished his misbehaving children to teach them a lesson. But in the end, he loved his children and would see that no real harm came to them. This is how the prophets explained the discrepancy between God’s promise given to Moses and what had happened in Jewish national history.

Amos, the first writing prophet, developed a rationale which took the form of an historical narrative. The first part of his writing described a series of calamities which had already befallen the Jewish people. Later, the same work told how God would spare a righteous remnant which would restore true worship and bring the nation of Israel back to what it had been under King David. That was God’s new promise to the Jews.

The time frame was important. Because prophetic scripture included a narrative of events up to the time of the writing which readers could verify historically, the writer, to be credible as a prophet, had to be writing in a time before those events. Even if the climax associated with the Kingdom of God had not yet occurred, an accurate description of events that had taken place up to that point gave the writer a reputation for prophetic farsightedness. Once his reputation was established, the prophet’s entire body of writings would be expected to come true. In this case, the Jews were assured that, after much trouble in the present times, God would redeem their nation.

The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah were public figures whose views were known to many before the events which they prophesied came to pass. Isaiah (740-710 B.C.) advised the kings of Judah not to make alliances with Egypt but instead recognize Assyria’s invincible power. The King of Judah, Ahaz, did submit to Assyrian rule, thereby avoiding the harsh fate that had befallen the northern Kingdom. A later king of Judah rebelled against Assyrian rule and incurred the wrath of its king Sennacherib, who demanded Jerusalem’s surrender. Isaiah assured the king that Jerusalem would not be taken. Sennacherib suddenly ceased hostilities and returned home. This turn of events brought Isaiah much prestige.

Jeremiah (628-587 B.C.) was a political opponent of kings ruling in Jerusalem. Kings of Babylon then threatened the Jewish nation. Jeremiah preached that God meant to use Babylon as an instrument for punishing Judah. A series of Judahite kings opposed Babylon. Each time they rebelled, Jeremiah preached that resistance to Babylon was useless. King Jehoiachin threw Jeremiah in prison for spreading this defeatist message. But the Babylonians easily overcame Judahite resistance. After their last attempt at rebellion, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and took much of the Jewish population to Babylon in chains. Jeremiah was vindicated.

Isaiah and Jeremiah both followed the prophetic line set by Amos: God meant to subject his people for a time to foreign enemies, but in the end he would restore the nation to glory and power under a righteous ruler descended from King David. This king’s reign would be everlasting. Having been punished for past sins, the Jewish people would be equipped with God’s spirit to remain forever in a godly state. Two later writers who described events of the exile after the fact joined their writings to Isaiah’s, bolstering his credibility as a prophet.

After the Babylonian captivity, the Jewish exiles were given some religious liberty when the Persian king Cyrus conquered Babylon. Many were allowed to return to Judaea. But the yoke of foreign rule was not lifted until the 2nd century B.C., and then only for a short time. The spiritualized kingdom never came. Since the events of history did not confirm what had been prophesied, a new dissonance was created.

The Jews returning from exile to Jerusalem were led by Zerubbabel, a descendant of David. They did eventually rebuild the Temple. However the miraculous restoration of the nation did not occur as foretold in Isaiah and Jeremiah. So far as we know, no wolves came to live with sheep. No new covenant was written in people’s hearts. In fact, the Temple was not rebuilt as quickly as expected because the returning exiles quarreled with Jews already living in Judaea. Zerubbabel was an uninspiring leader, quite unlike the expected Messiah.

Maccabean independence from a foreign empire breathed new life into prophetic writing. Jewish kings again again reigned in Jerusalem. But again, no “Kingdom of God” arrived. By this time, the canon of sacred writing was closed. If prophecies continued to be produced, they had to be attributed to a prophet who lived in an earlier time. None of the miraculous events foreseen by prophets in the Old Testament canon had come to pass.

By the time that Jesus lived, there was severe dissonance between the body of prophetic writings and historical reality. Judaea had been under Roman rule for seventy years. Judaea was a political and cultural backwater. The region seethed with dissatisfaction even while adherents of traditional Jewish religion continued to look forward to divine intervention in human affairs of a purely supernatural and fantastic kind. It fell to Jesus to deal with this impossible situation.

More Dissonance

Christianity has long smacked of possible scandal. The first scandal would be connected with Jesus’ birth. The Gospels make it clear that, while Jesus was the son of Mary, Mary’s husband was not the father. Jesus was son of God, created through an immaculate conception. It takes faith to accept that conclusion.

Jesus’ life was seen as scandalous by the Pharisees and other pious persons. Jesus dined with publicans and sinners. He was seen in the company of prostitutes. He violated religious law as when he performed work on the Sabbath or made light of laws regarding cleanliness at meals.

The Crucifixion was a scandal by conventional standards. A high religious authority in Jerusalem convicted Jesus of blasphemy. He was condemned to death alongside two common criminals. Then, after resting two days in a tomb, his body disappeared. Christian faith requires belief that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. This event happened so long ago that it would now be impossible to verify the story. Faith requires us to accept, on the basis of his disappeared body and subsequent ghostly appearances, that Jesus came back to life and was in some sense related to God.

One would think that Christianity might be discredited on any of these points. Faith in Jesus as Risen Lord is clearly irrational. From the standpoint of Jewish tradition, he was accursed. The Law states: “When a man is convicted of a capital offense and is put to death, you shall hang him on a gibbet (a wooden structure or tree) ... you shall bury it on the same day, for a hanged man is offensive in the sight of God.” (Deuteronomy 21: 22-23)

The Apostle Paul recognized that there was a problem. He wrote in Galatians: “Those who rely on obedience to the law are under a curse ... Christ bought us freedom from the curse of the law by becoming for our sake an accursed thing; for Scripture says, ‘A curse is on everyone who is hanged on a gibbet.’ And the purpose of it all was that the blessing of Abraham should in Jesus Christ be extended to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” (Galatians 3: 10-14)

From another point of view, this may be what makes Jesus’ story so compelling. The contradictions in the story make us grasp at higher truths. The experience of the Christian religion is proof of God’s power to work miracles in the world. It is folly but, as the apostle Paul wrote: “Divine folly is wiser than the wisdom of man, and divine weakness stronger than man’s strength.” (First Corinthians 1: 25-26) Church history shows that what has made sense organizationally is turned upside down as the last are first and the first last, and the stone that the builders rejected becomes the chief cornerstone of the temple. The story of Jesus involves what one would call a paradigm shift.

One either accepts Jesus’ role as Messiah or one does not. In the latter case, one must confront the anomaly that the history of the western world is hinged on a mistaken point of fact. Jesus may have been the world’s greatest fool in thinking that his actions would bring about the Kingdom of God; yet , in “tilting at windmills”, he succeeded beyond all other men in changing the moral landscape of humanity. His “mistake” is like that of Christopher Columbus, who discovered a new world while sailing to east Asia. On the other hand, if one is a believer in Christ, then all worlds are subordinated to that belief. God’s favor would be gained by belief alone.

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