Yahweh holds a grudge. Jesus forgives.
In an earlier post, I posed the question of whether or not there can be a Christianity without a God. So much of what we know about Jesus’ teachings and Christianity more generally are predicated on the notion that a single, all-powerful God must exist that it is seemingly impossible to separate the two. We are likewise not helped by the fact that so much of the central teachings and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth were altered through interpretation from seemingly the very moment of his death. The very question of Jesus’ divine nature — one which is not clearly explained in any of the canonical Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John — was itself not settled until three centuries after his death, and then not out of a concern for truth as out of a desire to unite Constantine’s empire. Politics and not reality made Jesus the God-incarnate we know today.
Today it is virtually impossible to separate Jesus from his divine nature, but in the world which preceded the Council of Nicaea, it was anything but certain that Jesus was the/a physically manifestation of God. Certainly Jesus’ contemporaries thought of him as mortal, describing a mortal family divided by doubters and followers. Even the stories of the resurrection are uncomfortably vague regarding the physical manifestation of the resurrected Jesus. Could Thomas truly put his hands in his teacher’s side, and what did he feel? The earliest account of Jesus’ life and ministry — the Gospel of Mark — has been traditionally attributed to a student of a student of Jesus, reputably a student of the apostle Peter named Mark. At such a remove from the original events, it’s difficult to know how much truth or reality the author of Mark has preserved in the transmission to his hand and from the recollections of his teacher. Any alteration, abbreviation, or elaboration would not have been undertaken with malicious intent, to change or to manipulate the words of Jesus or the thoughts of readers, but by the natural process by which we all transmit recollections to others, recollections which are themselves recollections transmitted to us by a still another. Imagine a story told to your grandparent by his parent which your grandparent tells you in the last years of their life. How accurate do you suppose that story is go to be to the reality of the events being retold? In this vein it is worth pointing out that the earliest manuscript of the Gospel of Mark ends at 16:8 and tells nothing of the events following the resurrection. For that matter, the instructions given to Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome by the young man in the empty tomb were apparently never followed, for 16:8 ends with the following: And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
This “original ending” to the Gospel of Mark is rather intriguing, for it actually poses the challenge of faith to the reader — faith in the words of the young man in the tomb, of the recollections of the teacher, of the accuracy of the transmission. The reader is left with the requirement of faith in a resurrected, yet unseen Jesus. This “original ending” leaves early Christianity in a place not dissimilar to certain aspects described in other contemporaneous mystery cults regarding such figures as Osiris, Mithras, Dionysus, Hercules, and Cybele. In the case of Jesus, the mysteries may have been his divine nature, but more likely it was the secret of his resurrection. A leader who is killed and then returns was commonplace enough for would-be rebels to take on the appellation “son of…” as a way of amassing credence — auctoritas to the Romans — in the face of opposition. It was used to great effect by Octavian in his insistence upon being called “Caesar” after the dictator’s death in 44 BCE and the subsequent revelation that Caesar had seemingly adopted his grandnephew in his will. The same cannot be said for Octavian’s contemporary “son of Marius,” who Antony had executed in the days following the dictator’s assassination. More on the matter of being the “son of God” in a moment, but the matter of the Christian mysteries remains first. The evidence of Mark 16:8, and the very real evidence that the stories of Jesus’ activities during his resurrection were later additions points to original mysteries derived in the resurrection, a secret which could not be verified by just anyone since the resurrected Jesus appeared to only a select few, namely his apostles. This privileged position would later serve (or was added to justify?) the creation of a clergy whose familiarity with the mysteries of Jesus gave them exclusive access; little wonder Peter was made the “first Pope.” More to the point for Levantine/Jewish Christians, a the secret of a resurrected Jesus was that he could not be found: he was unknowable and could seemingly appear anywhere at any time, or so the Gospels tell. So when early Christians spoke of Jesus risen from the dead, Romans concerned over the political nature of Jewish sects would be incapable of finding and once more executing their teacher, who was increasingly viewed as a leader, מָשִׁיחַ, μεσσίας — messiah. It was just as much a snub at Roman authorities as it was a way of ensuring the continuation of Jesus and the movement he started.
Later Gospels added details regarding Jesus’ activities following the resurrection event, but this itself seems to prove the point that the events described therein are later additions. For those who followed Jesus and those who followed his students, it was relatively easy to understand the concept of a hidden deity, like Mithras beneath the rock or an ever-absent wandering Hercules, but newcomers separated from the teachings of Jesus by three or more generations could not so easily be convinced. By adding details following the resurrection event — in which the risen Jesus interacts with his students and is witnessed ascending to heaven — provide the sort of narrative necessary to keep the faith of those who might be skeptical of this hidden lord. By the witness of the apostles, they would believe the resurrection event; by the witness of the ascension, they would have faith in his ongoing (hidden) presence, and in his eventual return. Without these details it might be difficult, perhaps impossible to expand the community of followers. Saul of Tarsus had an acute understanding of this problem, having himself persecuted Levantine/Jewish Christians before his apparent encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, the converted Saul made it his personal mission to make Christianity palatable to Roman authorities, and therefore to Gentiles. To use the modern expression, he draped himself in the flag, rejecting his birth name in favor of a Roman name, Paulus, using his Roman citizenship — an exclusive privileged not shared by Jesus or any of his followers — to his advantage.
One wonders about Paul’s motivations. Did he feel guilty for what he had done in the persecution of Christians and therefore wished to sacrifice himself to Rome in order to atone for what he had done? Like Rabbinic Judaism, Pauline Christianity became Rome’s patsy, a primarily pacifist and therefore more acceptable practice for a group (Levantine Jews) who the Romans had long since eyed with some apprehension. Pauline Christianity concerned itself with accommodation to Rome, and so in turn Jesus is turned into a mouthpiece for acquiescence to Rome. How did Jesus truly feel towards Rome? The canonical gospels give the impression of feelings ranging from apathy to indifference. The Roman occupation of Palestine presented merely another obstacle in the unjust, difficult world of mortal man. Jesus realized this and the futility of the struggle against the injustices of life and death. Perhaps it was his time in the desert, starving and pondering, which brought him from his relatively privileged position as a carpenter’s son to an understanding that life ought to be devoted to hope and love. Hope for a future in which oppressors will be removed. Love for those who have been harmed by god and man alike.
But in what context could Jesus truly present such an understanding? In what context could he show others that love is the only god they should follow. This does not require a supernatural being or a deity — in fact, the concept of unconditional love is in nearly every way opposed to the fanatical demands of loyalty placed by Yahweh upon His people. But how could Jesus safely reveal this — another mystery of his teachings — to his followers and not be stoned to death for blasphemy? He would have to present God in a new way, as if God had suddenly distanced Himself from mankind or matured since the days of Eve, Noah, and Moses. But who would believe what Jesus said? They would challenge this notion of a forgiving God, and blame Jesus for the implications that follow in their wake. Would even oppressors be forgiven? Had even God prepared a place for blasphemers and sinners in the ever-after? The multiple punishments God meted out on His people in the generations since Eve and Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge argued against a forgiving god. It’s not a great leap from the sins of Eve and Adam to the sins and punishments (punishment for sins) for daily transgressions and thus daily transgressors. Yet these were the very people to whom Jesus sought to minister: the transgressors and denizens of the world. The weak, the sick, the downtrodden, the rejected, the outcast — Jesus sought to comfort the suffering of mortals in a purely mortal world. If God existed, Jesus knew him only as violent and jealous, and if he did not, then what point (at a “meta level”) was there to suffering? Was it merely a condition of existence?
But God must exist, they tell him. So Jesus responds that if God must exist, then he, Jesus, is the son 0f God — mortal, imperfect, and the son of man. Jesus all but screams out his mortality by declaring himself divine. He does so knowing that God resides within each one of us, in the part in which we are most honest with ourselves (and therefore with others, too). He declares himself both the son of God and the son of man not to illustrate the importance of divine beings and the supernatural, but to instead undermine the importance placed on such things, and by contrast demonstrate the unparalleled importance of caring, helping, forgiving, and loving others — loving unconditionally.
Jesus of Nazareth did not exist to tells us he is a god and so, like the angry Yahweh of the Old Testament, we must listen to what he says. Jesus of Nazareth demonstrated the distinct irrelevance of a god — but if a god is required in order to convince others, let that god be diffused among us in the kind things we do and the love that we spread. Through his execution, Jesus brought that point home, demonstrating the demonstrable futility of following a god. He demonstrated that even he, who declared himself a god, could not save himself from mortality. His claims of a return were metaphors for the salvation he promised, a promise he made to the helpless, the meek, the poor, the destitute. To them, Jesus of Nazareth brought hope and peace-of-mind in a world which regularly trod upon and abused them like so much refuse in the streets. He sought to ease their suffering through promises of salvation; whether or not those promises would ever be realized was irrelevant: they had hope, peace-of-mind, and perhaps a chance to simply make it through life without being forever miserable.
Jesus did not require a god. He used the idea of God to better explain what he taught to a people who might not even listen if he did not at minimum acknowledge the existence of their traditional god. Fine, we can imagine Jesus thinking. It was only later Christians, concerned with Jesus’ absence, who took up the question of salvation and the ever-after. Jesus was not concerned with those things; Jesus was concerned with the here and now (there and then?), not some unknowable afterlife. Plainly put, his followers missed this crucial point, being traumatized by the loss of their beloved teacher, and those who might have understood his message were eclipsed by increasingly dogmatic, increasingly politicized interpretations which disallowed the very open honesty which Jesus sought to harbor.
Jesus was not God; he was not a god. Jesus was greater than a god because he, a mortal person, understood the universal truths of genuine honesty, forgiveness, and unconditional love. These teachings require no god who watches over our shoulders, prepared to damn us to eternal suffering if we misstep even in our private thoughts. No god need exist for the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth to be any more true or valid.
Jesus proved the irrelevance of his divine nature through his own declarations and his death. In resurrection, a physical or metaphysical Jesus need no exist either — no supernatural beings are required for the core teachings of Jesus to be true. Jesus is resurrected through the passing on of his own teachings and the sacrifice he made so that we may better understand, forgive, and love ourselves and one another.
Yahweh hold a grudges, but Jesus forgives.
God’s love is conditional, but the love of Jesus is unconditional.