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Posts Tagged ‘Hebrew Roots’

Too many Jesuses…not enough Jesus

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 27, 2018

Che Guevara and the Zig Zag man

Everybody loves Jesus, but do they love the right Jesus?   If Jesus is a real individual, then he is just one person among a potentially infinite number of persons.  Our minds are further clouded by an inability to grasp things-in-themselves.  We must make do with images, perceptions, and archetypes which float around in our brains and attempt to match each to the thing signified.  Obviously not everyone named Jesus, film directors, prize fighters, chefs etc, mostly, but not always, Hispanic, is our Jesus of faith.  Or to  mention a more plausible confusion, keep in mind that there were at least eleven men named Jesus (Yashua) in the history of the Jewish wars recorded by Josephus.  Will the real Jesus stand up?

While only a simpleton would mistake any random person with the name of Jesus for Jesus of Nazareth, there is a more serious confusion over the personality of Jesus.  Any number of false Christs have been offered up for adoration by the devotees of modernity.   Some of them even bear an alleged physical resemblance to Jesus.  Among these, let’s pick out Che Guevara and the Zig Zag man for special attention.  Apart from the fact that one was a historical character and the other a commercial logo, we can consider them both archetypes of what many consider (mistakenly) to be Christ-like-ness.

Thus we have Che Guevara murdering his way across Latin America in search of social justice.  No doubt this is very attractive to certain kinds of people, and Che had his own justification for his thoughts and deeds.  However to interpret Jesus of Nazareth according to the archetype of a Marxist revolutionary is, frankly, an abomination.  Jesus, unlike Che, was not a class-theorist.  Certainly Jesus empathized with the poor and recognized the class divisions of his own day, but he never indicated that justice is subjective to one’s class position, or that the means justifies the end in a class struggle.

I was never big on Che, but I must confess to having a soft spot for the Zig Zag man.  In case you don’t remember, or never knew, the Zig Zag man adorns packages of cigarette wrappers intended for impromptu use by smokers of tobacco and other substances.  The Zig Zag man, or something like him, is many people’s Jesus of choice.  Many of us want to roll our own religion, the primary ingredient of which is an easy-going Jesus who saves and then leaves us on our own. That’s the Jesus of no hassles and not getting on anyone’s case.  I infinitely prefer him to the moralistic, murdering Che, but both are equally false.

 

The mind of the true Jesus is the mind of Torah

Che and the Zig Zag guy are amusing straw men, and you don’t have to be much of a theologian to poke holes in those who take them as their “Jesus.”  But the problem of the pseudo-Jesus goes back deep into the early centuries of Christian faith.  Che, the Zig Zag man, and all the other false Christs of modernity are the grandchildren of Gnosticism.  There is only one true Jesus, but there are many Gnostic christs.  This proliferation of christs comes from the Gnostic rejection of the Hebrew scriptures.

That is why we cant just regurgitate the slogan “the true Jesus is the Jesus of the Bible.”  In the minds of many people today “The Bible” for all practical purposes consists of nothing more than the books from Matthew to Revelation.  Like the ancient Gnostics, they have excised the so-called “Old Testament” from their religion, and as a consequence they have created their own out-of-context Christs.  The ancient Gnostics were more consistent in their treatment of scripture.  They didn’t just excise the Old Testament they demonized it.  Their Jesus was a Jesus at war against the Creator, whom they considered at best a fool, and at worst malevolent.

Hence, from a Gnostic point of view, the Gospel must be seen as antithetical to, instead of fulfilling, the Torah.  Logically, this would lead to a trans-valuation of values and an inverted decaloge, to wit

Hate God, idolize, curse, work without intermission, disrespect parents, kill, steal, lie, cheat, envy…all these in the imperative, mind you.

While this kind of explicit antinomianism was rare, even in ancient Gnosticism, many of the psuedo-Jesus idols of modernity, up to and including Che and the Zig Zag man, are based on severing Torah from Gospel.  Unless we know Torah, we simply don’t understand what the motivations of Jesus were in the Gospel accounts.  The Gospel records actions.  From a Gnostic viewpoint the purpose of the actions was to liberate humanity from Torah.  From a Christian point of view the purpose was to pay the penalty which humanity had already incurred by breaking Torah.  Simply having the Gospel account doesn’t inform us fully as to which of these motivations underpin the actions of Jesus.  However if we understand the mind of Jesus as the mind revealed in Torah, then we know who the real Jesus is.  He is one with his Father in Heaven, not the antagonist of the Creator.

 

 

 

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Jesus, teacher of the full Torah

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 20, 2018

JESUS, TEACHER OF THE FULL TORAH

…work out your salvation in fear and trembling. (Phillipians 2:13)

The full Gospel and the full Torah

Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 2:2  Paul gives us the full Gospel, explaining that he is determined to convey only his  knowledge of Christ and him crucified.  This knowledge does not refer to consciousness, information, or skills.  Paul was not an anchorite meditating on the Crucifixion of Christ 7/24 in a cell with disciples shoving him meals through a crack in the wall.  Paul had skills, wrote a lot, made stuff on weekdays, like tents, and preached on the sabbath.   In Corinthians Paul writes in Greek but thinks in Hebrew, where knowledge (Heb. daát) means something like intimate connection, as in the euphemism “he knew her in the Biblical sense.”

Jesus is our exclusive savior, but the Gospel, in the sense of evangelism, is not our exclusive preoccupation.  Paul’s words in Philippians are problematic because contemporary Christians tend to jump to evangelical conclusions.  This  makes the verse liable to a salvation-by-works reading which contradicts the Pauline doctrine of of grace.  However the phrase “work out your salvation” does not refer to the initial free gift of salvation.  It refers to the unpacking, assembling, and use of God’s gift.  What are the principles which ought to guide the life of someone who has gotten Jesus for free.  Do we send a thank you note?  How do you send a thank you note to God?  Surely we send it with our lives…as a “living letter.”

But then again, do we even need send a thank you note?  The antinomian would say “no”…that sending a thank you note is an insult to God.  Rather, we ought to live our lives with riotous abandon…showing the heathen what a great God we have who saves even the most contemptible sinners.  This view, though a minority position among theologians, actually crops up from time to time.  Let’s leave that discussion alone, since most Christians, whatever their failings in practice, are unlikely to be antinomians in principle…unless perhaps their common sense has been interfered with by too much theological subtlety.

Jesus the Teacher of the completed Torah

Most people will want to send God a thank you letter with their lives.  They will want to live their lives according to a pattern which is pleasing to God.  However they will also be careful not to give others the impression that they have earned their salvation through good works.  The antinomian is a rare but dangerous breed, and ever ready to pounce upon those who “trust in the law and not in grace.”

Yet, apart from those rare and eccentric antinomians , it is usually acceptable to be good, and even ever so, very, very squeaky clean good if you really want to be.  However if you ground your goodness according to Biblical standards, be prepared to face criticism, and not just from hard-core antinomians and kindred free-spirits.  Be prepared to face criticism from Christians, and even, perhaps especially, from morally rigorous Christians.

Morally rigorous Christians will agree that the gift of the gospel should evoke an ethical response from the believers.   However they are wary of the so-called “Old Testement”…a.k.a., the Torah that both Jesus and Paul knew and taught, albeit in a way which differed radically from the teachings of the Jewish rabbis of their times.  Torah (the life instructions and guidelines found in the beginning of the Bible) is supposed to be something other than, if not contradictory to, Christianity.  If you are determined to be good, then at least you should add some extra-Biblical criteria of goodness to your faith.  How about some virtue-ethics from Aristotle?  Or how about some Stoicism or Buddhism?  Marx anyone?  The last thing we want is an ethics drawn straight from the Bible, lest we be called Hebrisers…or worse, actual Jews!

Furthermore, weren’t the lives of both Jesus and Paul a string of unrelenting debate with Torah rabbis?  Well, yes, but that actually proves the opposite.  Jesus and the Pharisees were rivals, which means that both were struggling for the same thing.  They were both struggling for Torah.  The Torah of Jesus seems like a “new” teaching, or Torah.  However it was actually the teaching of the Pharisees which was new.  The teaching of Jesus was actually the old Torah of Moses, which was new in the sense that we speak of a priceless antique being “made like new” once the patina has been removed from its surface.

What was the difference between the Torah of Jesus and the apostles on the one hand, and the Torah of the scribes and Pharisees on the other?  Jesus taught the full Torah, his contemporaries taught only a partial Torah.  What does this mean?  Well, it is said that there are 613 precepts in the Torah.  Does this mean the Pharisees were teaching only 612 and Jesus was preaching the full 613?

Is this numerology or something?  Heaven forbid!

To avoid majoring in the minors, we need a succinct summary of the Torah.   As long as God has been kind enough to provide us with just “ten words” in the Bible which we need to obey, let’s lay aside the notion of 613, or some such number, precepts.  Usually these Divine Words are called “the ten commandments” but out of sensitivity to the law-phobic let’s call them words.  There is another reason to call them the “ten words”…since God’s words flow together as a single idea, expressed in a complete sentence.  If you take one of the words out it changes the meaning of the sentence completely.  That is the meaning of “you must keep the whole of the law”…not that anyone is actually expected to keep 613 “mitzvot” or commandments.

The scribes and the Pharisees were very good at keeping nine out of the ten commandments.  These nine are all things that one can do, or refrain from doing, with the body or using outward verbal expression.  The tenth commandment is different.  It is completely mental.  Superficially it seems to be a law against envy.  The authorized version uses the old-fashioned word “covet” which means “wanting to have something which other people have.”

Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t murder. Don’t cheat on your spouse.  So far, if your conscience has even a spark of life in it, so good.  But what about “Don’t even think about any of that stuff!”

That’s the Jesus difference.  Jesus was teaching the full Torah, the scribes and the Pharisees were teaching only 9/10ths of the Torah.  It is not that most scribes and the Pharisees fit the cruel caricatures in which they are often depicted in Christian drama.  As far as intentions are concerned, they were probably outstanding in the degree of kindness and consideration they exhibited towards their peers.  In particular, they wanted to exculpate their contemporaries, and especially themselves, from the onus of violating the psychological implications of Torah. Their reasoning was as follows:

“Look, we know that the human mind is impossible to control.  The prophet Jeremiah himself said that it is the slipperiest and most deceptive thing in all creation.  Let’s be realistic.  If you will just act in a way which is socially responsible and morally decent, we will give you a pass.  What you think is your own business.”

This sounds reasonable, but unfortunately it stumbles on the last word of the ten words.  That word is not just about cravings for sex or the possession of buildings and domestic animals.  It is about the normal mental disposition of fallen humanity, a disposition which makes us so unsatisfied with our lives that we are, in extremity, driven to lie, steal, cheat, and even kill.  These actions don’t suddenly appear without cause.

The late Rene Girard, a French emigre who taught anthropology at Stanford University, noted that the object of the tenth word, i.e. “coveting” was the wellspring of all fallen humanity’s actions.  According to Girard, we are driven by a desire, not just to usurp the possessions of others, but to displace them in their very existence.  In the eyes of the (tenth) commandment breaker, the crime of the man or woman in our own chosen field (our neighbor) is not just that they have more “stuff” than we do.  Rather, it is their existence itself which is offensive to us.   We think, even if we do not say, “So and so has my same ideas, aspirations and attributes, and in fact is more successful than me in promotion of these things, yet paradoxically, so and so is not me!   What am I to do?  I must displace him or her…since there cannot be two of ‘me’!”  The preferred method of rivalry is to imitate the rival, to become a more successful version of the rival.  Yet who can become a better ego than their rival alter ego?  Hence elimination follows upon the failure of imitation.  Indeed, if things were allowed to take their natural course, breaking the Tenth Word in thought would lead back, by degrees, to breaking the Sixth Word in practice.

Jesus had an intuitive grasp of all these deep and unsettling truths, since they lurked at the bottom of the Tenth Word of the Torah, disguised by homely language about houses and cattle.  He recognized the essence of the matter and was not afraid to teach it.  He knew that breaking the last word, like removing the keystone from an arch, would cause the structure of the prior commandments to collapse. His rivals, intent on establishing a practical religion of action (both performed actions and prohibited actions) were horrified that the firewall between the body and the mind had been breached.  They feared that a psychological Torah would be impossible for anyone to keep.

Their fears were well founded, but Jesus continued to preach a psychological Torah anyway.  In this regard, as in all others, it was Jesus who was the orthodox Torah teacher, since Moses had already insisted on purity of mind as well as body.  His rivals were content with a seemingly tolerant, but increasingly minute religion of actions, an “orthopraxy” in the stead of “orthodoxy.”

Fear and Trembling

It is not that anyone needs to practice the Ten Words in order to get into heaven.  That is not what the “fear and trembling” is about.  The fear and trembling is the vision that we all should have of the contrast between a perfect God and the manifestly depraved tendency of the human mind when left to its own devices.  The Tenth Word, the word against Envy, is the capstone of Torah, just as the monotheism of the First Word is its foundation.

Just as his rivals feared, Jesus, in preaching a Torah which condemned the mental quality of envy as well as the increasingly vicious actions which proceed from envy, was preaching a Torah which is impossible for human beings to keep.  Moses had already understood the incompatible relationship between the moral teachings of Torah and the imperfections of human life, which is why the sacrifices of atonement were instituted in the temple.  With much greater confidence, Jesus, looking forward to the Messianic atonement, taught perfect doctrine to imperfect creatures.

We cannot live utterly without envy, and even if we could, it would not get us into heaven.  However we can “work out” our heavenly destiny by unpacking and living out the teachings of the anti-envy doctrine, which is one of the treasures which has been delivered to the saints.  It is edifying for us, and also a great way to say “thank you” to the God of our salvation.

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