Sunday, February 21, 2010

On the Cultural World of the Gospels

More interesting than the facts surrounding the birth, life and death of Jesus of Nazareth are perhaps the potential collisions between the facts themselves – a point to which Reddish alludes and toward which I hope this class progresses. That is to say it matters less than Jesus was a Jew or a resident of Roman-occupied Palestine than it matters that Jesus was a Jew and a resident of Roman-occupied Palestine. And it matters less that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic than it matters that Jesus spoke Aramaic in the Roman world where the educated and wealthy all spoke Greek.

It must certainly matter what kind of Jew Jesus was (if any) and what kind of stance he took regarding both the occupying Romans and the co-opted Jerusalem Temple and its cultural system. It must certainly matter, at least to women then and now, that he was a man in a Jewish and Roman setting – what were Jesus Messiah’s own interpretive and active stances towards women, and what do they tell us about Jesus himself?

It must surely mean something that Jesus came to one of the most occupied and acrimonious places on the earth. We who have as our longest-term enemy the Soviet Union of the markedly un-violent Cold War might lack some of the conceptual tools to fully understand the problem. Often we Americans hear of violence such as the conflict between Palestine and Israel and think ‘but that is all in the past, why cannot they just let this go?’

But perhaps we fail to consider the psychology of on-going, intermittent, and recurring occupation and violence. It matters that Israel conquered, and then Babylon conquered, and then Persia conquered, and then Alexander, and on, and on, and on. I don’t know that I can say whether or not sins are visited unto the fourth generation, but I know that it would matter, analogically speaking, if your ex-wife came back to stab you every six months or so for the next eighteen years.

Rage accrues. Injustice and hostility accrue. I sometimes wonder if all these might do so exponentially – and, if so, what it matters that Jesus the Nazarene spoke both to conquered and to conquerors, and also to those whom such conflicts had simply run over.

All of this is not to reduce Jesus Christ to a mediator of entrenched imperial and ethnic conflicts – but it is to expand Jesus to a real person within a real and all-encompassing concurrent situation. And it is to suggest that these things mattered to him. I don’t know that I’d go as far as saying, as I heard last semester, that one cannot understand Revelation without understanding the history of Hanukkah, but I cannot but suppose that a Palestinian Jew of the first century CE would have had something to say about Jewish nationalism, and that this would have mattered, to some degree, to how he confronted everyone.

Of course, my very point is that this could not have been the only thing that mattered. The same Temple with which Jesus engaged was the one crushing its adherents with 40-50% taxes and pushing them into the very day labor that helped complete its renovation – almost until its very destruction in 70 AD. If money is mentioned more often than any other subject in the Bible as a whole, one can presume a similar emphasis in the Gospels and thus, more weakly, in Jesus Christ himself.

I mention the Temple in reference to economics instead of religion because Jesus, in his demonstrated concern for the daily realities of the people he encountered, would have cared very much how the Temple impacted the lives of fellow Galileans and other rural Jews (though of course not just those). It would have mattered to him that the institution ostensibly preserving the people from destitution was serving as a de-facto slaveholder demanding both their money and their work. It would have mattered to him that these people could not possibly store up their treasures on this earth, and one imagines him seeing these people needing more, and his coming to provide it.

It would have mattered to him (hence of course the language of the parables) that the local economy, the local source of thriving and life, was agricultural – but the economy of the local temple supported physicians, scribes, weavers, and a host of other laborers, all not markedly contributing to local thriving. One wonders how literal the parables about abundant harvests actually were.

It would have mattered to Jesus and his ministry (his being no less contextual than anyone else’s) that the people of the villages of occupied Israel were essentially squeezed by both Rome and by Jerusalem, by Caiaphas and by Herod and by Augustus. Jesus Messiah’s answer concerning taxes –‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’ – makes more sense if one recalls that Roman and Jewish coins were both failing his native village anyway.

The Lament over Jerusalem and the Denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees that precedes it both make more sense in the context of tensions between rural and urban Israel. Jerusalem was the locus of Roman occupation and Jewish corruption; Jerusalem was the culmination of his mission; and Jerusalem was the place that finally did him in. Did Jesus, as it is said, show a preferential option for the poor? Another, perhaps more scandalous way to ask the question is did Jesus show a preferential option for the laborer, for the farmer, and for the village peasant?

This is not to reduce Jesus to a champion of class struggle – but it is to ask where Jesus stands in regard to historical tensions, already extant in the Scriptures of his time, between wandering Abram and settled Gomorrah, between David of Bethlehem and David in Jerusalem, and between Jerusalem the city of peace and Jerusalem that kills the prophets.

And if economy means ‘of the household’ then Jesus would also have cared about that other locus of daily and vital life, the human, Jewish, and Roman family – I say all of these because Jesus would have experienced all of these, and perhaps, in his affiliations with his disciples, added still one more. One wonders how much of an exception Jesus must have been, if most all had married by age twenty – and one wonders if his critique of Jewish divorce could have been, just this once, his siding with the Romans.

It must certainly have mattered to Jesus Messiah that both Roman and Jewish society (and therefore family, hence its inclusion here) were stratified (to use our language), and so leveled in differing ways. Was the wife of a senator or prefect worth more to God than a scribe paid by the Temple? Did a God-fearing freeman have just as much a part in the Kingdom as a Jewish hired hand?

How did Jesus answer these questions – in whatever form he understood them – and what do those answers mean, then and now? Surely his encounters, his common, daily interactions with all of these people, slave and free, man and woman, Roman and Jew, as evidenced in the Synoptics generally and in Matthew in particular can tell us as much about Jesus of Nazareth as any theological or liturgical text.


brd said...

You musings remind me of the wonderful book by Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills. In it he makes a case for the idea that Jesus, indeed, did make an historical difference and brought to our history a truly new message that perhaps is born anew in our hearts as we, personally, encounter him.

Curious Monk said...

thanks, brd. if there's anything i need from my seminary experience, it is surely, surely, more books to read!

but seriously, we've talked a lot, the first two weeks of my christology class, about the Christ of faith and the Christ of history, as though they were separate - and that is one error that christologists have tended to make.

but i think we're in agreement here: the actual history of jesus means something, and that something is forever, and we reiterate/ participate in that something when we follow christ in actual history today.