Seeing Jesus as a charismatic wannabe revolutionary is possible. So is assuming that he was politically inept or stark raving mad. Maybe both.
Another option is seeing Jesus as a great teacher, one of the world’s best: in the same league as Socrates, Kapila and Confucius.
The ‘up’ side of the ‘great teacher’ view is that it acknowledges our Lord as someone who talked about ethics and made sense.
The ‘down’ side, and it’s a big one, is that Jesus of Nazareth said this:
“You do not know him, but I know him. And if I should say that I do not know him, I would be like you a liar. But I do know him and I keep his word.
“Abraham your father rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad.
“So the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham?’
“Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.'”
Odds are that you recognize “before Abraham came to be, I AM” as a reference to the interview Moses had with God. Folks in first century Jerusalem would have.
“‘But,’ said Moses to God, ‘if I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what do I tell them?’
“God replied to Moses: I am who I am. Then he added: This is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.”
Folks who claim they’re divine can be charismatic. Sometimes they’ll attract followers. But these days, they become celebrities or residents of psychiatric institutions.
They’re not hailed as great teachers.1
Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt — my opinion — but I strongly suspect it can deposit a bland veneer on extraordinary realities. Or bring greater appreciation of their magnificence.
And I am not going to get sidetracked by convoluted concepts of perception, cognition, recollection and a whole mess of other -tions.
Well, maybe just a few.
They were living in their “now.” Their homeland was a Roman province.2 (November 26, 2017)
Their ancestors had followed Moses out of Egypt a half-dozen centuries earlier. Abraham had been dead for a thousand years or so.
A half-century back, more or less, academic types started saying that Abraham and Moses are mythic figures: maybe based on real people, maybe not.
The academics have a point. Apart from Scripture and related texts, we have precious little documentation for either of them.
That doesn’t surprise me.
Our records say that Moses went back to Egypt and had several unsatisfactory interviews with the Pharaoh. Ten “plagues” later, Pharaoh told Moses to get out and take his people with him. Pharaoh and company realized, a bit late, that a substantial chunk of Egypt’s workforce were leaving.
I’ll give Egypt’s chief executive credit for flexible decision-making.
Taking what sounds like a substantial part of his army, including at least one elite unite, Pharaoh chased after Abraham’s descendants: catching up with them as they were crossing a substantial body of water.
Back-to-back national disasters topped off by evicting valuable workers and obliterating his own army isn’t in any Pharaoh’s official annals.
Maybe the Hebrews made up the whole thing, or maybe something else.
There’s a remarkably complete record of glorious victories and magnificent public works. Crushing defeats and disastrous mismanagement, not so much.
That’s not surprising. Like most ancient rulers, Pharaohs used their official records the way we use press releases. Historians, serious ones, have been learning to piece together what actually happened by analyzing more practical documents, like invoices.
I’ve run across plausible explanations for each of the ten Egyptian plagues. I won’t claim that they couldn’t have been what we call natural phenomena. If so, they were remarkably well-timed.3
In a way, I can’t blame today’s scholars for assuming that the Exodus events are make-believe. Nothing quite like them has happened since.
Nobody quite like Jesus has shown up, either. There’s been no shortage of folks claiming that they’re Jesus, and that’s another topic for another day.
My opinion is what Simon Peter said:
“When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’
“They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’
“He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’
“Simon Peter said in reply, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.'”
Pharisees and Sadducees were the most influential folks in Judea.
Rome’s provincial boss had considerable clout, too. He had troops and imperial backing, which arguably reduced his grass roots support.
Pharisees and Sadducees, I’m back to those good old boys now, had reason for concern.
Jesus of Nazareth, a nobody from a squeedunk village, was enormously popular. ‘The masses’ were listening to the Nazarene: not the established good old boys.
Then Jesus started talking crazy.
Some folks who’d been following Jesus started edging away after that, understandably. But some didn’t. (November 20, 2016)
Just what the Pharisees and Sadducees needed: an off-the-charts superstar lunatic acting like he wanted to seize power. No, like he had seized power.
We’re celebrating Palm Sunday this week.4
It’s when we remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Which I think sounds a bit odd, since our Lord was riding a critter we see as pack animals, or a mount for folks who can’t afford a horse.
From that viewpoint, our Lord’s ride displays great humility. Sort of like a dignitary arriving in a pickup.
That’s how I’d probably see it. If I didn’t realize that cultures aren’t all alike. And that change happens.
Folks living in 1st century Jerusalem weren’t all that different from me and my neighbors here in 21st century Minnesota.
We’re not exactly alike, either.
Folks in 1st century Jerusalem had grown up with the ancient Middle East’s cultures. Shepherds, donkeys, horses and all were as familiar to them as factory workers, VIPs, pickups and limousines are to us.
Back then, rulers on a peaceful visit arrived riding an ass, not a horse. Today’s equivalent might be riding in an escorted limousine.
A Middle Eastern king riding a horse would be at the head of an army, trying to conquer the city or taking possession. In today’s world, national leaders generally aren’t physically leading their troops into battle; and that’s yet another topic.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each describe our Lord’s triumphal entry. The accounts don’t quite match up, by contemporary Western standards.
We read that Jesus rode an ass, a colt, and an ass’s colt. Folks waved palm branches and/or spread their cloaks on the road.5
I could let that upset me, or decide the discrepancies mean the events didn’t happen. Or I could figure that folks with related but different points to make, living in a culture that’s not just like mine, might describe them in different ways. That makes more sense to me.
Palm fronds are part of this Sunday’s celebration, in this area anyway. Folks take a few home with them, folding them into crosses. The style varies from family to family.
My wife introduced me to a tradition that she learned from her father.
My understanding is that he’d learned the technique as a cowboy in the Dakotas. If we used leather instead of palm fronds, we’d end up with a wonderfully flexible lanyard. As it is, we get something resembling a St. Andrew’s Cross. And that’s — what else? — yet again another topic.
“Good news of great joy,” two millennia and counting:
- “The Best News Ever”
(April 1, 2018)
- “Seeing the Big Picture”
(November 26, 2017)
- “Fan or Follower of Jesus?”
Guest post (January 22, 2017)
- “Jesus and Expectations”
(December 11, 2016)
- “‘Good News of Great Joy’”
(December 25, 2016)
- Historical perspective, my view
- “Peace: Optional” (December 24, 2018)
- “Homer, Hegel, History and Hope” (May 12, 2018)
- “Wanting Truth” (October 22, 2017)
- “The Past: What We Know, What We Don’t” (March 30, 2017)
- “Trinity” (March 12, 2017)
Pope Francis (March 24, 2013)
- “Homily: Palm Sunday of the Passion of Our Lord”
Pope John Paul II (March 24, 2002)
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 559–560