The Non-Christian Jesus (or the Gospel of Jesus the man), by Paranoid Android. Last edited, 5/5/2014
When asked "what is the greatest Commandment", Jesus responds: "The first is to love the Lord God with all your heart and soul and strength. And the second greatest is like it - Love your neighbour as yourself".
For nearly two millennia, Jesus is accredited with bringing the so-called “golden rule” to the mainstream. But what led him to do this? Why was this so ground-breaking among Jesus’ earliest followers, fellow first century Jews? Today it’s as obvious as the image staring back at a person in the mirror, but back then was it so clear? In the broadest sense, this is the purpose of this paper. However it shall also be looking at other teachings that contributed to the social milieu of this period of history.
No Christian with any knowledge of the Bible would suggest that Jesus’ earthly ministry was anything but primarily for the Jews. It wasn’t until after Jesus’ death that the message was expanded to include gentiles. As such, I shall confine this discourse to Jesus’ earthly ministry, from an entirely earthly perspective. The alleged miracles, prophecies, claims of Messiah-hood, or the expansion of Jesus’ message to the gentiles from early Christian leaders such as the apostle Paul will be put aside. For the purpose of this commentary, only his earthly ministry will be examined, with specific emphasis on why his message was revolutionary, relevant, and timely to Jews living in this society in the first century AD.
To clarify, I use the word “alleged” in the sense that I am a Christian and therefore believe Jesus’ claims to the Messiah and the accompanying miracles and prophecies therein, but in order to focus solely on the earthly Jesus I’ll keep that aside and work under the assumption that the message was directly for First Century Jews. At some point in the future I may either add to this paper or write a companion piece to it that expands the ministry of Jesus beyond the Jews, but for now I’ll confine it to the “gospel of Jesus the man”, for lack of a better phrase.
The historical position of Jews:
The term “Pharisaic Righteousness” is commonly understood today to mean a person who follows the letter of the law but not its spirit. In modern 21st Century society, the understanding that laws are not absolute is paramount to most legal systems. The circumstances surrounding an event are taken into consideration and moderated against what actually happened. As such, it can be confusing to look at 1st Century Pharisees and ask “why don’t they get it”? The best way to begin this is to put Jewish history into perspective and see what brought Jews to this position in the first place.
According to Jewish ancient history, after the reign of King Solomon, Rehoboem and Jeroboem fought and ultimately split the Jewish people into two kingdoms. The Southern Kingdom, Judah, comprised of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The Northern Kingdom, Israel, comprised the other Ten Tribes. In 722 BC, the Northern Kingdom was invaded by Assyria and destroyed. This was seen as God’s Judgement against them for being almost entirely devoid of Yahweh worship. Likewise in 590-580 BC the Southern Kingdom was invaded, this time by the Babylonians. Again this was attributed to a lack of Yahweh worship (the “judgement” of Judah was postponed several generations because the kingdom of Judah was more faithful to Yahweh [approximately half their kings were worshippers of Yahweh]). However, differently to the Assyrians, the Babylonians had a more “enlightened” view of treating conquered nations. Instead of destroying their civilisation entirely, the Babylonians allowed the Jews to continue their ancestral beliefs concerning Yahweh. What proceeded was a period Jews today call the “Diaspora”, when they were literally cast out of their homeland to live as nomads.
Ten years after the Diaspora began, the king of Babylon gave permission for the Jews to return to their hometown, Jerusalem. The Jews viewed this as the end of God’s judgement against them, and though a seemingly insignificant comment, became the driving force behind the next five hundred years of Jewish thought. In the mind of the Jews, they were redeemed, the sins of their past forgiven. And so minds began to turn towards methods to ensure that God would NEVER punish them again for faithlessness. From now on, the Jews would ensure their survival by never again sinning against Yahweh. And through the centuries until Jesus, hardships befell the Jews. Rebellions, persecutions, wars, but they retained their ancestral home of Jerusalem, and were reinforced in their view that they were following Yahweh.
It is in this climate that the religious leaders arose. The Pharisees, the Saducees, the Essenes, being the most notable groups (at the time Jesus ministered, at least). It was their job to ensure that the people of Israel kept to the path of Yahweh. The way decided upon by what became the dominant religious sect (the Pharisees) was to ensure that people didn’t break the law, not even by accident. These religious leaders began to place “fences around the Torah” as Jews describe it, commentaries on not just what rules are what, but extra ways to preserve the letter of the law, so the law would never be broken, therefore never earning God’s wrath.
Jesus the upstart:
It was a noble goal, but ultimately disastrous. The 613 laws (the Mitzvot) of the Torah were scrutinised, and analysed, and ways were invented to ensure these laws were kept. For example, questions of “working on the Sabbath” were dissected – what does it mean to “work”? When is an action on the Sabbath “work”, rather than something else? Rules were added to define “work”. By knowing what was and wasn’t work, Jews could then know whether what they are doing was actually in line with Yahweh’s wishes or not. This became the basis of Talmudic literature that was put to paper in the 2nd and 5th Century AD.
This reasoning is obvious to a religious sect intent on ensuring the continuation of Yahweh worship in their ancestral home of Jerusalem. It is also ultimately flawed. To continue with the Sabbath-example, the Pharisees declared that if you carried something within your house (for example, a pot of water to boil for the evening meal), then it was acceptable in the eyes of Yahweh. It is “essential labour”, and not part of extra work. However, if that same pot is carried outside, it is unnecessary to daily activity and therefore deemed “work” and thus sinful.
To put an extreme example forward, using this “legalistic righteousness”, if a neighbour were to knock on the door of a Jew, and the neighbour were very thirsty, the neighbour could enter the home, get given a drink of water, and that is the end of it. However, if the same Jew looked outside their home and saw a thirsty looking man on the street, to bring out water from the house to the individual would be classified as “work”, and therefore sinful.
In this social and cultural period enters the person of Jesus. He lived at a time when the religious leaders are (justifiably) pushing forward the letter of the law. He also sees that things are not quite kosher (pardon the pun). The system that has grown organically since the 6th Century BC is not as right as it appears. Legalism has replaced love as the central core of Yahweh worship. Jesus read the scriptures himself, clearly an intelligent and charismatic man. He saw the hypocrisy of legalism at the expense of love, and took action. He confronted the Pharisees and attempted a form of Cultural Revolution. For five centuries the Jews had lived in their homeland, and for five centuries the Pharisees had seen that their theology worked (Yahweh had not brought retribution on them). Jesus challenged the status quo. Does God care about actions, or does he care about the heart (for example, Hosea 6:6, where God asks which is more important – love and knowledge of God or burned sacrifice and liturgy).
Jesus takes a look at the 613 laws of the Jews, the countless “fences” constructed by the Pharisees, and turns it all on the head – why make it so hard? That is Jesus’ thought. Instead of worrying about every minor transgression, why not just be content to “love your neighbour as yourself”. And naturally that he is addressing fellow Jews, obviously he includes “Love the Lord with all your heart and soul and strength”. Both these commands are explicitly stated within the Torah.
This is the essence of Jesus’ ministry, and considering the historical context at this period of time that has just been examined, it is easy to see how and why it earned itself a “fan base” that has clearly lived long past the original purveyor of that message.
Fences around the Torah:
The Torah is what the Jews refer to as the first five books of the Tanakh (Jewish name for the Old Testament) – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. The Pharisees expanded those laws found within and included many conceivable ways to ensure said laws weren’t broken. Arguably, Jesus stripped back the laws and kept them back to the essential views of “love God, love your neighbour”. However, it’s clear through several teachings that he also attempted his own version of “fences around the Torah”. In his famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, though he also made a similar sermon in a different location in the gospel attributed to Luke) Jesus adds his own “fences around the Torah”. He uses a repeated pattern of “You have heard that it was said.... *insert Law here*.... but I tell you... *insert new approach*”. As an example, he uses adultery and says that it’s been said “you shall not commit adultery”, but Jesus then says “but I tell you, if you have even looked at a woman with desire to lust, you have committed adultery in your heart”.
Considering the legalism of the Pharisees, it is not too preposterous to ask whether Jesus is adding in his own “legalism”, his own “fences around the Torah” so to speak. At this time, I suggest not. There is a difference! The legalism of the Pharisees revolved around “actions” – things a person did or did not do in order to be righteous. Jesus once again turns this around by declaring it is our ATTITUDES that show our righteousness. While I am not an expert in Pharisaic tradition, I expect if “do not commit adultery” was addressed in these “fences”, it would include many do-nots. Do not spend time with your neighbour’s wife while your neighbour is away. Do not hang around the local alehouse getting drunk and waiting for the town prostitute. Do not open your door to a beautiful and alluring woman.
In contrast, Jesus’ comments were about matters of the heart – simple and to the point. Don’t get bogged down in rules, but simply ensure that you don't turn your thoughts towards looking lustfully at a woman.
Many reading this are probably aware of the ancient Jewish Rabbi Hillel. He is accredited with a statement similar to the “golden rule” that Jesus is known for espousing. Hillel, concerning the treatment of our neighbours, noted that we should “not do to others what we would not want them to do to us”. This is a similar statement to Jesus, and has led some to suggest that Jesus was a student of Hillel’s. Whether he was or not is irrelevant (I’m agnostic on this issue, though leaning towards him not being a student of his), what is important is the difference between them. Hillel was firmly in the Pharisees corner. It wasn’t attitude, but actions – DON’T do to others what you DON’T want done to yourself. Jesus subverted that message when he turned it around from a matter of action to a matter of attitude – “DO unto others as you would have them DO to you”. It’s a proactive statement that mirrors Jesus’ disdain for the Pharisaic approach to first century Judaism. What we do is not as important as the way in which we do it – in love or in legalism.
The message of Jesus:
I admit in this that I haven’t addressed every single teaching of Jesus in this “gospel of Jesus the man”. Ultimately the exact teaching of Jesus in every situation was not the goal of this paper. What I hope to leave the reader with is that Jesus’ message was uniquely Judaic, for a people who had an issue they needed to hear. Much like Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I have a dream” speech, the message of Jesus is clearly rooted in the culture of its time (1st Century Judaism, rather than 20th Century America, of course). It was a message that hit to the heart against the Pharisees, particularly their authority as teachers of God’s word, so in their fear, they attempted to squash it and re-establish their own authority. Ultimately this led to Jesus’ execution by the Roman authorities after the Jewish leaders implied that Jesus was destabilising society and was therefore a rebel to Rome. It is a message that resonates with Jews living during that time, and obviously it sparked a movement that grew beyond its intended audience. Though I did note that I would not address any overtly non-Jewish matters, so I’ll leave it there with the non-Christian message of Jesus, and not address the wider ramifications of people such as Paul (at least not in this version of the paper).
As always, if there are thoughts or concerns, or additions that people would like to address, I’m always willing to learn. This paper (as it stands) represents my current understanding of the situation, and depending on new information it is always open to change. I may have missed some historical events or situations (obviously, I’m not an historian), so any information that may not be in line with my current hypothesis could easily change (or even subvert) the current hypothesis presented.
Thank you for your time and any feedback.
*special thanks to Marcus Aurelius for feedback in an earlier draft of this. While I did leave out your suggestion from this paper, I am still in complete agreement with your comments about Jesus' claims to special authority. While the Pharisees APPEALED to authority, Jesus claimed to BE the authority - his authoritative way of declaring "but I tell you..." through the Sermon on the Mount, for instance. It was a tough call, but eventually I felt that an addendum to finish this would be better than including it within the body of the paper. Thank you for your time in reading and giving your feedback. It was appreciated
Thanks also to StarMountainKid for the suggestion of the topic title of "the gospel of Jesus the man"*