A Light to the Gentiles

  February 07, 2024   Read time 8 min
A Light to the Gentiles
At the same time as Philo was expounding his Platonised Judaism in Alexandria and Hillel and Shammai were arguing in Jerusalem, a charismatic faith healer began his own career in the north of Palestine. We know very little about Jesus.

The first full-length account of his life was St Mark's Gospel, which was not written until about the year 70, some twenty years after his death. By that time, historical facts had been overlaid with mythical elements, which expressed the meaning Jesus had acquired for his followers more accurately than a straight biography would have done. The first Christians saw him as a new Moses, a new Joshua, the founder of a new Israel. Like the Buddha, Jesus had seemed to encapsulate some of the deepest aspirations of many of his contemporaries and to have given substance to dreams that had haunted the Jewish people for centuries. During his lifetime, many Jews in Palestine had believed that he was the Messiah: he had ridden into Jerusalem and been hailed as the Son of David but, only a few days later, he was put to death by the agonising Roman punishment of crucifixion. Yet despite the scandal of a Messiah who had died like a common criminal, his disciples could not believe that their faith in him had been misplaced.

There were rumours that he had risen from the dead. Some said that his tomb had been found empty three days after his crucifixion; others saw him in visions and on one occasion 500 people saw him simultaneously. His disciples believed that he would soon return to inaugurate the Messianic Kingdom of God and, since there was nothing heretical about such a belief, their sect was accepted as authentically Jewish by no less a Person than Rabbi Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel and one of the greatest of the tannaim. His followers worshipped in the Temple every day as fully observant Jews. Ultimately, however, the New Israel, inspired by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, would become a Gentile faith, which would evolve its own distinctive conception of God.

By the time of Jesus's death in about 30 CE, the Jews were passionate monotheists so nobody expected the Messiah to be a divine figure: he would simply be an ordinary, if privileged, human being. Some of the Rabbis suggested that his name and identity were known to God from all eternity. In that sense, therefore, the Messiah could be said to have been 'with God' from before the beginning of time in the same symbolic way as the figure of divine Wisdom in Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus. Jews expected the Messiah, the anointed one, to be a descendant of King David who, as King and spiritual leader, had founded the first independent Jewish kingdom in Jerusalem. The Psalms sometimes called David or the Messiah 'the Son of God' but that was simply a way of expressing his intimacy with Yahweh. Nobody since the return from Babylon had imagined that Yahweh actually had a son, like the abominable deities of the goyim.
Mark's Gospel, which as the earliest is usually regarded as the most reliable, presents Jesus as a perfectly normal man, with a family that included brothers and sisters. No angels announced his birth or sang over his crib. He had not been marked out during his infancy or adolescence as remarkable in any way. When he began to teach, his fellow townsmen in Nazareth were astonished that the son of the local carpenter should have turned out to be such a prodigy. Mark begins his narrative with Jesus's career. It seems that he may originally have been the disciple of one John the Baptist, a wandering ascetic who had probably been an Essene: John had regarded the Jerusalem establishment as hopelessly corrupt and preached excoriating sermons against it. He urged the populace to repent and to accept the Essene rite of purification by baptism in the river Jordan. Luke suggests that Jesus and John were actually related. Jesus had made the long journey from Nazareth to Judaea to be baptised by John. As Mark tells us: 'No sooner had he come out of the water than he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit, like a dove, descending on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests upon you."'
John the Baptist had immediately recognised Jesus as the Messiah. The next thing we hear about Jesus is that he began to preach in all the towns and villages of Galilee, announcing: 'The Kingdom of God has arrived!' There has been much speculation about the exact nature of Jesus's mission. Very few of his actual words seem to have been recorded in the Gospels and much of their material has been affected by later developments in the churches that were founded by St Paul after his death. Nevertheless there are clues that point to the essentially Jewish nature of his career. It has been pointed out that faith healers were familiar religious figures in Galilee: like Jesus, they were mendicants, who preached, healed the sick and exorcised demons.
Like Jesus again, these Galilean holy men often had a large number of women disciples. Others argue that Jesus was probably a Pharisee of the same school as Hillel, just as Paul, who claimed to have been a Pharisee before his conversion to Christianity, was said to have sat at the feet of Rabbi Gamaliel. Certainly Jesus's teaching was in accord with major tenets of the Pharisees, since he also believed that charity and loving-kindness were the most important of the mitzvot. Like the Pharisees, he was devoted to the Torah and was said to have preached a more stringent observance than many of his contemporaries. He also taught a version of Hillel's Golden Rule, when he argued that the whole of the Law could be summed up in the maxim: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
In St Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is made to utter violent and rather unedifying diatribes against 'the Scribes and Pharisees', presenting diem as worthless hypocrites. Apart from this being a libellous distortion of the facts and a flagrant breach of the charity that was supposed to characterise his mission, the bitter denunciation of the Pharisees is almost certainly inauthentic. Luke, for example, gives the Pharisees a fairly good press in both his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles and Paul would scarcely have flaunted his Pharisaic background if the Pharisees really had been the sworn enemies of Jesus who had hounded him to death. The anti-Semitic tenor of Matthew's Gospel reflects the tension between Jews and Christians during the 8os. The Gospels often show Jesus arguing with the Pharisees but the discussion is either amicable or may reflect a disagreement with the more rigorous school of Shammai.
After his death, his followers decided that Jesus had been divine. This did not happen immediately; as we shall see, the doctrine that Jesus had been God in human form was not finalised until the fourth century. The development of Christian belief in the Incarnation was a gradual, complex process. Jesus himself certainly never claimed to be God. At his baptism he had been called the Son of God by a voice from heaven but this was probably simply a confirmation that he was the beloved Messiah. There was nothing particularly unusual about such a proclamation from above: the Rabbis often experienced what they called a bat qol (literally, 'Daughter of the Voice'), a form of inspiration that had replaced the more direct prophetic revelations. {7} Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai had heard such a bat qol confirming his own mission on the occasion when the Holy Spirit had descended upon him and his disciples in the form of fire. Jesus himself used to call himself 'the Son of Man'. There has been much controversy about this title but it seems that the original Aramaic phrase (bar nasha) simply stressed the weakness and mortality of the human condition. If this is so, Jesus seems to have gone out of his way to emphasise that he was a frail human being who would one day suffer and die.
The Gospels tell us that God had given Jesus certain divine 'powers' (duanis), however, which enabled him, mere mortal though he was, to perform the God-like tasks of healing the sick and forgiving sins. When people saw Jesus in action, therefore, they had a living, breathing image of what God was like. On one occasion, three of his disciples claimed to have seen this more clearly than usual. The story has been preserved in all three of the Synoptic Gospels and would be very important to later generations of Christians. It tells us that Jesus had taken Peter, James and John up a very high mountain, which is traditionally identified with Mount Tabor in Galilee. There he was 'transfigured' before them: 'his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as the light.' {8} Moses and Elijah, representing respectively the Law and the prophets, suddenly appeared beside him and the three conversed together. Peter was quite overcome and cried aloud, not knowing what he said, that they should build three tabernacles to commemorate the vision. A bright cloud, like that which had descended on Mount Sinai, covered the mountain top and a bat qol declared: 'This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him.' {9} Centuries later, when Greek Christians pondered the meaning of this vision, they decided that the 'powers' of God had shone through Jesus's transfigured humanity.

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