Jesus Christ

Rushing the Pope

Every pope has to deal with throngs of people. They crowd St. Peter’s Square, the streets along papal routes, and push past each other for at least a view, if not an opportunity to touch. But Pope Francis has to fend off more than any of his predecessors, for he has been “rushed”, a.k.a. “Limbaughed”. Yup, the same. The talk show host who, in his own mind, is larger than life.

In my more sane moments, I believe that it is better to ignore people like Limbaugh. So much of what he says is spoken out of ignorance—in the true sense of the word. He lacks knowledge. Giving him more attention runs the risk of expanding his already immense ego. However, he has a large following, turning the old aphorism into a truism: He knows just enough to be dangerous. On top of which he seems to be a touch schizophrenic. First he liked Francis, now he despises him. All within seven months.

For the first few months Limbaugh waxed ineloquently about the pope, assuming he was a conservative who would make the liberals—both in and outside the church—squirm. When answering questions and consenting to interviews, the pope mused about equality and acceptance. Still, he did not fundamentally alter church teaching. He even promulgated a document mostly written by his predecessor, Benedict XVI.

Then came Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. This is an almost overwhelming document. It is not written in typical ecclesiastical language. Nor is it an academic treatise from an ivory tower. It is the result of a life lived among God’s people. It is very readable, personal, even tender in style. But it is also uncomfortable in its call to joy and in its challenge to the economic principles and individualism that have seduced many a believer and obscured the teachings of Jesus. Hence, the title.

This is all about the Gospel. It is not an economic document, but it recognizes that the Good News of Jesus Christ must be applied to every facet of life, even the economy. In fact, given the desire for wealth, the drive to maximize profit at the expense of human beings, The Joy of the Gospel is profoundly applicable to the economy. That’s what bothers people like Limbaugh.

Like many others who have criticized Pope Francis’ Exhortation, Limbaugh rants against the application of the Gospel to economics. As if the economy is somehow exempt from the Good News, from the call of Jesus. As if capitalism is a competing gospel. Sadly, for many an American I suspect it is.

Limbaugh probably doesn’t know that the term capitalism is of relatively recent coinage. It is anachronistic to suggest that it is the economic principle on which this nation has built. As an economic system, it can only claim our allegiance if it advances the principles of the Gospel. Unfettered capitalism certainly does not.

Jesus came to free us from sin. However, that terminology has become almost meaningless in today’s world, because while we easily condemn one another, we rarely look to the sin in ourselves. We do not bother to question what drives us on a daily basis.

Perhaps capitalism is not inherently evil. But no system that places profit over people, that dismisses the downtrodden or disperses inequality can simultaneously advance the Gospel. Dependence has been imbued with a negative connotation in the capitalistic world. Yet Jesus calls us to be dependent on God. It is not for nothing that he cautions us, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Popes are not always right. And there is room for dialogue and even disagreement. But one has to wonder why so many apostles of capitalism are so uncomfortable with Pope Francis’ apostolic letter. They seem more reactionary than dialogic in their dissent—squirming as the Gospel inches ever closer to their raison d’être.

I am reminded of a scene in John’s Gospel in which Jesus’ teaching makes many of his listeners uncomfortable, causing even some of his disciples to abandon him. He then turns to the twelve and asks, “Do you wish to leave also?” Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

As Rush Limbaugh and his kind turn their backs and leave, I think I’ll stay for awhile.

Jesus Never Existed

Yes, that Jesus! True, the name Jesus or Yeshua was in common usage at the time of the New Testament, but I am referring specifically to Jesus of Nazareth, also known as the Christ. Let me be clear. I am not saying that Jesus never existed. Rather, that is the claim of Joseph Atwill, a self-proclaimed biblical scholar. He intends to make his allegation public on October 19th. However, before grabbing a notepad or setting your recorder, let’s examine the following.

I suppose the fact that Atwill is a "self-proclaimed" biblical scholar puts everything else in focus. If his credentials had any validity, he would surely say so. His argument, however, does not collapse merely on his own lack of merit. It has no integrity or internal support. His fundamental statement is that the government of ancient Rome invented Jesus as way of discouraging the continual insurrections of the Jews who had grown tired of the Roman occupation.

During the years of Rome’s superiority in the ancient world, the emperor did some strange things. Fiddling was not one of them; claiming to be divine was. Atwill would have us believe that the emperor (a divine one, at that), created a fictional character who represented the Messianic hopes of a conquered people, had that character preach peace in opposition to rebellion, and then executed him thus turning that fictional character into a martyr. Really? That would only have incited more revolution. Bring back Nero, the fiddles, and let Rome burn. It’s a better and more believable story.

Atwill suffers from bigger problems than logic, however. He bases his theory (a generous term, to be sure), on the writings of the first century Jewish commander and historian, Flavius Josephus, specifically his book Wars of the Jews. This is where a little history would benefit Atwill.

The earliest of the New Testament books is the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, written in the year 52, approximately 20 years after Jesus died. The first gospel was written by Mark about 30 years after Jesus’ death, and by at least the mid-40s, the Christian faith had already arrived in Rome. But the Roman-Jewish wars did not begin until the year 66. Oops!

Beyond chronology, it would be helpful if Atwill understood a little more about the bible. On this point, sadly, even some Christians are misguided. The bible is not history. It does contain some elements of history, most notably the Books of Chronicles. But at its core, the bible is faith. The belief that Jesus is the promised Messiah was not accepted by all. That he is the Christ is a testament of faith that even the early Christians did not come to accept until after the Crucifixion and and their faith in the Resurrection. Who Jesus was, what he meant to people in the first century, and what he means today is a matter of faith. His existence is not in question. It is indisputable and supported by non-biblical material, including the writings of Josephus.

According to Atwill the creation of a fictional Jesus was the result of Rome’s frustration on the battlefield. He claims, "When the Romans had exhausted conventional means of quashing rebellion, they switched to psychological warfare." In the year 70, the Romans destroyed the Temple, the holiest site. I suggest that this act, combined with the defeat of the Jewish nation was more than "psychological" warfare.

Barring any unexpected catastrophe, like the return of a Roman emperor, October 19, 2013, will be just another Saturday. There is no reason to be concerned. On Sunday, October 20th, Joseph Atwill will be just another easily forgotten “self-proclaimed”--and not very good--biblical scholar.

Bill O'Reilly and Jesus

There is a new book in the O’Reilly-centric world, “Killing Jesus: A History.”

As the title suggests, Bill O’Reilly would have us believe that he is a legitimate historian who has put his unequaled intellect to work explaining the death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Within the covers of the book itself, there are factual, dare I say historical, errors. Some are glaring, others are subtle—as if they were written to mislead and compel agreement from his readers, rather than enlighten minds or open dialogue. But there is a deeper problem.

Had O’Reilly titled his work “Killing Jesus: A Meditation”, or something else that suggests a spiritual reflection on the Crucifixion, his only problem would be the factual errors. As it is, O’Reilly’s title is self-defeating. It is not possible to write a history of Jesus in any true sense of the word. The writing of history depends upon verifiable factual evidence. The interpretation of that evidence often varies among historians. But the evidence, itself, is irrefutable.

However, we do not have such evidence when it comes to Jesus. The Jewish historian, Josephus, does make mention of him. However, the scant references that occur in non-biblical writings serve to prove only that Jesus of Nazareth existed and was executed. The gospels present a profound collection of stories about Jesus, but they do not provide a sound basis for history.

Like most of the Bible, the four canonical Gospels are books of faith. They are important and instructive for someone who already believes, and perhaps someone who is seeking faith. But they are not history. Sometimes the gospels agree with each other. Sometimes they do not. The writers were quite comfortable making up stories, or changing passages from the Old Testament to suit their purposes. That should not create consternation for anyone. These men were trying to explain their faith and give others a reason to believe in Jesus. As one scholar has said, “The Bible is the Word of God in the words of the men who wrote it.” The words used to convey THE Word are utilitarian, meeting the needs of the author.

A good suggestion concerning the gospels, is to compare the evangelists to painters. If four artists each paint the exact same scene, the resultant works will all be quite different, because the scene is perceived through four different sets of eyes. So it is with the gospels. Each writer is telling the same story. But because they see Jesus through different eyes, their “pictures” of him are not the same. Ironically, the Crucifixion scene, or “killing of Jesus”, is a classic example. The image of Jesus in the first three gospels is of a man rejected and defeated. It is in his resurrection that he is vindicated. John’s gospel is quite different. While many elements are similar, the image John creates is not of a defeated man. Rather, Jesus is depicted as a king who ascends the cross of his own power and exercises authority from that cross.

Like the people of their time, the gospel writers were not concerned with facts. They were concerned with the meaning of events. In order to convey that meaning in all its depths, some events had to be created or altered. I am not suggesting that the bible is false. Rather, it is necessary for us to make the following distinction:

The opposite of fact is fiction; the opposite of truth is falsehood.

Both fiction and fact can convey truth. And in the bible we find many fictional stories that tell of God’s love, that challenge us to love one another and build a better world. These stories speak deep truth, but they are not factual and do not lend themselves to writing a history.

In the past, there have been attempts to write the story of Jesus, usually under such titles as “The Life of Christ”. Some of these books were moving testimonies of faith, but none were history.

I admire O’Reilly’s faith. Like him, I believe in Jesus. Let’s just not pretend to suggest that our faith is history.

The Messiah?

Every belief system requires a certain leap of faith. By its very definition, faith is not something that can be proved. At the same time, it must be reasonable. Karl Marx remains famous for calling religion the opiate of the people. And Nietzsche may be most remembered for his statement that God is dead.

This may seem an odd beginning for a Christmas blog. But it is precisely because so many people get lost in the romanticism of Christmas, that it becomes an escape, rather than a time of reflection, thus given some credence to the remarks of Marx and Nietzsche.

Whether or not faith can be proved, a pre-requisite for religious belief should be its rationality and whether or not it holds up to investigation. For example, Jews believe that Moses parted the Red (or Reed) Sea during the Exodus from Egypt. Christians believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Mormons believe that Jesus appeared in ancient America.

Let’s dismiss the most silly of these claims. There are no serious scholars, even among Mormons, who accept the belief that Jesus appeared in ancient America. One reason for discounting that tenet is that there is absolutely no archeological evidence of such an event. It would be irrational to continue to hold to that belief, thus raising echoes of Marx.

The Jewish belief (also shared by Christians and Muslims) in the parting of the sea is also subject to investigation. There are a number of scenarios whereby the land beneath the sea was, indeed, dry enough to cross. It was a periodic occurrence. So subsequently, the waters that had receded returned, thus miring Pharaoh and his army in the mud. There remains a reasonable miracle here, in that God intervened to assure the timing of the event. The art of storytelling simply embellishes the crossing with the image of water walling up on the right and the left.

Whether or not Jesus is the Messiah is a little more complex. There is no question that Jesus existed as a real person. His life and death are not the invention of sacred writing. They are also mentioned in non-biblical documents. But is he the Messiah?

The Old Testament writers left us numerous ways to identify the Messiah upon his arrival. One of the principle Messianic promises was peace. So, how does this fit in with the story of Jesus?

The Roman Martyrology of the Catholic Church includes a Proclamation of the Birth of Christ. In very brief and poetic language, it traces the passage of time from the creation and biblical events, through Greek and Roman civilization, to the arrival. Of particular significance is the situating of Jesus’ birth in real time:

“The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus; the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ…was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.”

Setting aside the fact that the phrase “the whole world” is a touch Judeo-Roman-centric, the real issue is the question of peace. Since Christians already believed that Jesus was the Messiah at the time of its composition, it is understandable that an observation of peace would find its way into the Christmas Proclamation.

It is also true that at the time of Jesus’ birth, the Roman Empire was not engaged in an ongoing war. Still, Rome was a foreign power that controlled ancient Palestine. Since peace is not just the absence of war, it would take a Rowlingesque imagination to observe occupying forces patrolling the streets and deem that reality as peace.

It is understandable that many in ancient Israel, as well as many today, find it difficult to recognize Jesus as Messiah. Peace was not only absent at the time of his birth. Christianity, itself, has been darkened with war and other forms of violence throughout much of its history.

It might be too simplistic to reject Jesus due to the absence of one Messianic promise, even if that promise is as significant as peace. At the same time, that very absence might serve as motivation for those who really do believe in Jesus.

At the core of the Gospels and of authentic Christian Faith, is a peace that is rooted in forgiveness and love. The absence of peaces is not just a historical issue surrounding Jesus’ birth. It is an existential issue that questions the authenticity of believers today.

If the Christian Faith is to circumvent the condemnation of Marx and not serve as a collective drug; if it is to counter the declaration of Nietzsche and keep God alive and present in our world today, then “Peace on Earth” cannot be just decorative phrasing on a holiday card or sentimental lyrics in a Christmas song. Peace must drive who and what we are. War is not only not the answer, it cannot even be part of the discussion.

Maybe peace really is that important. I, like millions of others, believe in Jesus. However, until peace defines the followers of Jesus, there is not sufficient reason to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.