Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Perspective: The Biggest Myths About Jesus Christ | Candida Moss

"[T]he Jesus who is important to our own day is not the Jesus of history but the symbolic Jesus of contemporary discourse.”

Times of Ahmad | News Watch | UK Desk
Source/Credit: The Daily Beast
By Candida Moss | September 24, 2016

Was he really a pacifist? And what did he think about marriage? Oh, and there’s that whole thing about the color of his skin…

1. Jesus wasn’t tall and white.

We’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Jesus was not the light-haired blue-eyed icon of European art. The problem isn’t limited to European painters: Willem Dafoe, Robert Powell, and Diogo Morgado have all brought good looks and pale skin tones to modern portraits of the role. Historically speaking, it is likely that the average first-century male from Judea would have had dark hair, brown eyes, and dark skin tone. In addition, physical anthropologists estimate that the average male from the region is likely to have been around 5’ 4” and 136 pounds. Anthropologists like Jon Marks and Agustin Fuentes would also remind us that it’s inaccurate to project culturally-constructed categories of race into the first century. But if we were going to retroject the power that accompanies our modern racial categories into the first century, then we probably shouldn’t project those of the dominant group. After all, Jesus was a socially and politically disenfranchised man with tanned skin who was living under the hand of an oppressive foreign government. He didn’t enjoy the privileges of white men today.

2. Jesus was not the messiah the Jews expected.

First-century Jews, most of whom were eagerly anticipating the arrival of the messiah, had a number of opinions about what that messiah would be like. Most were hoping for a military or political leader who would overthrow the Jewish authorities and become a ruler like King David. What no one seems to have expected was a Galilean peasant of the artisanal class who would die a humiliating death at the hands of the government. There are some passages in Isaiah that describe a “suffering servant” who would endure mistreatment at the hands of his people, but almost no one read those verses messianically. This doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t the messiah, of course – just that he wasn’t what anyone was hoping for. The unexpected nature of Jesus’ ministry explains why Jesus didn’t attract that many followers, but it also posed problems when his followers tried to explain to other people that he really was the Messiah.

3. Jesus wasn’t a pacifist.

For all of the parables about caring for sheep, orphans, and poor people, Jesus was not a pacifist. Even if he wasn’t the political messiah people hoped for, he wasn’t a 1960s hippie either. In fact, he explicitly says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth” (Matt 10:34). Sure, he tells Peter to put away his sword when the temple guards come to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he announces “Blessed are the peacemakers” during the Sermon on the Mount, but his overturning of tables in the Temple during Passover week has to be read as an act of aggression. In the Gospel of John he actually uses a whip to drive people out of the Temple. He preferred peace, but he also engaged in at least one violent act of civil protest in order to highlight the social injustice and corruption of his day.

4. He wasn’t that concerned about family, but was strongly opposed to divorce.

In comparison to the prominent role that Christian leaders have played in recent cultural conversations about the family, marriage and the family do not feature strongly in Jesus’ teachings. On one occasion Jesus actually identifies his followers, rather than his biological relatives, as his family, and on another he instructs his disciples to leave their old lives behind (including their families) and follow him. The family for Jesus is the family of believers, which may or may not include all of your extended family. If family to you means two parents, 2.4 kids, and a white picket fence, that vision actually has its origins in the Victorian period.

The one place Jesus is truly supportive of marriage is when it comes to divorce. In fact, historians believe that his prohibition of divorce is one of the few sayings that we can confidently attribute to the man himself. When some Pharisees ask him about divorce (which was legal under Mosaic law) Jesus responds that God only allowed divorce because of the “hardness of [the people’s] heart[s].” It’s possible to read this one of two ways: either as a strong defense of marriage or as a defense of women (who were vulnerable when husbands chose to divorce them). On either reading, Jesus was tough on divorce and thinks  that if a person divorces and remarries s/he “commits adultery” against their first spouse (Mark 10:10).

5. Historians know almost nothing about who Jesus was.

There have been a number of best-selling and shocking books about Jesus of Nazareth that purport to tell us who Jesus actually was (Reza Aslan’s Zealot is just one). The historians writing these books purport to peel back the layers of history and deliver a biography of the real Jesus. These are entertaining, iconoclastic, and sometimes well-written reads, but they’re something of an intellectual hoax. The scholarly methods used to ascertain who Jesus was likely to have been are utterly reductionistic and sometimes contradictory.

Many of the criteria employed by scholars work with assumptions about ancient society and Jesus’ place within it. But ancient culture, like our own, is not homogenous and thus it is often impossible to evaluate whether Jesus’ words and deeds were plausible, embarrassing, commonplace, or radical. Just as you might imagine that all of the British love tea, you might imagine that all ancient Jews were obsessed with regulations about the Sabbath. But you’d be wrong in both cases.  If you don’t know what context in which to place Jesus, you’re incapable of evaluating his place within that context.

When scholars engage in this kind of work they often end up with a handful of facts – he was born, he was baptized, he performed healings, he was crucified – from which they build their portrait of Jesus. But from this collection of historical scraps you could come to any number of conclusions about what Jesus was like. The end result is, as Barnard professor Elizabeth Castelli has eloquently shown, that portraits of Jesus ends up being cultural reproductions of their own day. It’s easy to criticize the selectivity of religious characterizations of Jesus, but it’s worth acknowledging that historians have their own kinds of bias.

Finally, as William Arnal has written in the conclusion to his book The Symbolic Jesus, historical portraits of Jesus don’t matter because “the Jesus who is important to our own day is not the Jesus of history but the symbolic Jesus of contemporary discourse.” It is what people say about Jesus in our own time that actually ends up mattering.

Read original post here: Perspective: The Biggest Myths About Jesus Christ | Candida Moss

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