Thursday, August 5, 2010

Book Review of "Rabbi Jesus; An Intimate Biography", by Bruce Chilton; Part 1

So, I wanted to write a book I recently finished reading about Jesus and second temple Judaism. You could classify it with all of the "Historical Jesus" books out there on the market today. I'm not sure I believe in a historical Jesus to be start with. After all, jesus' story had been told countless times in the religious cults of Mithra, Dionysus, Osiris and Horus, Buddah, and Krishna, to name a few. Sometimes the parallels between these deities are absurdly common. In fact, religious research on the Internet has shown me two different "truths" - one, that there is absolute proof and historical documentation (outside of the Bible) confirming the existence of a historical Jesus. The other "truth" is that there is absolutely NO proof or historical documentation (outside the Bible) confirming the existence of a historical Jesus. This is a very controversial issue and it seems I'm going to have to do the research for myself one day.

But "Rabbi Jesus" isn't about proving or disproving the existence of a historical man who may or may not have been "The Messiah". Chilton's book assumes the first four gospels are written as valid historical accounts, although he believes that, like most historical accounts, they were biased and sometimes had parts falsified, edited or added on for political and religious reasons. I wanted to review the book in order to share the new, amazing perspectives it offers from which to view Jesus and the Biblical gospels. I didn't always understand Chilton's assertions or agree with his opinions, but it's still a book worth reading. So here are some new, fascinating perspectives from the book:

1) Jesus would have been considered a "mamzer". What is a mamzer? It's a Jewish status given to those who are born from a union in which there could be no possible shidduch (a "match" made between two people for the intent of marriage). A good example would be brother and sister. Incest is forbidden by the Torah (not to mention most of the world), and so a child born to these parents would be considered a mamzer. A mamzer isn't even a bastard, because, theoretically, an unmarried man and woman who were Jewish and had a baby COULD still get married - in other words, even though the child was born out of wedlock, a marriage between the parents would theoretically still be possible.

The contemporary translations of the New Testament state that Jesus' mother Mary was a virgin who conceived from the Holy Spirit. Now put aside your opinion of whether or not this was true. The fellow Israelites who Mary, Jesus, and Joseph lived among would obviously have noticed the infant Jesus being born BEFORE 9 months of Mary and Joseph's marriage had passed. And even if Joseph had sworn up and down the Galilee that Jesus was his biological son, the rumours of his uncertain parentage would have continued to circulate (for those of you who live in a small town today, you don't need much imagination to know how true this can be). Even assuming the virgin birth were true, Joseph could hardly have gone around saying, "hey everybody, God's spirit impregnated my wife in order to make my son the future messiah and king of Israel". At best, Joseph and his family would have been ostracized and laughed at. At worst, killed by an angry mob for blasphemy or by Rome as a threat to it's political rule over Judea. So Jesus was a mamzer. An outsider. Literally. He wouldn't have been allowed to congregate with the other males in the synagogue. Even as a confirmed Israelite (and NOT a Gentile), he and his descendants would have been unable to truly join the Israelites for ten generations (some interpret this to mean forever).

As my mind grasped this insight, I was reminded of why my spirit responds to the gospels so much. It has the spirit of the outsider in it, ones who are outside the law and outside polite society. I've always identified with the underdog and the rebel. I've always felt like an outsider. And in some ways, I have been. As a young Jewish girl, I attended Jewish schools and summer camps with other Jewish children. I am grateful for the experiences I had, especially because I came from a poor family and was afforded those experiences through Jewish chesed (loving kindness) and the community sponsors who allowed me to attend those places at a price my mom could afford. My childhood summers were spent camping, swimming in a lake, enjoying fresh air and doing arts and crafts. I was given the opportunity to learn to read Hebrew (even though I can barely understand what I'm reading when I DO read Hebrew). I've been to Israel twice. These are just just some of the benefits I've received from being a member of the Jewish community. But I wasn't able to appreciate these benefits at the time. One of those reasons was because I was an outsider.

In my Jewish community, I was an outsider for several reasons. One was because my father was not Jewish. Another was because my father and I weren't beige. As a child, the looks of curious surprise from white folks who found out I was Jewish didn't bother me; now, they infuriate me. I didn't understand why my mostly Ashkenaz (European heritage) and Moroccan Jewish friends' parents never seemed to like me. There was a subtle current of ostracism and hostility running through a lot of my Jewish experiences as a child and teen.

It's no wonder that the insight that Jesus would have been seen as an outsider, and 'less than', reminded me of why I love this guy so much. It's no wonder I am moved with and identify with his politics so much. It also explains how we can both be so unceasingly critical of Jewish religious and cultural bureaucracy. In fact, one of Chilton's brilliant observations was that Jesus' conflict with Jewish religious law, custom, and political and religious figures could be seen as a personal struggle that ricocheted off his early disciples and on through the ages, got larger and larger as it invaded the gospels and New Testament with anti-semitism and ultimately culminated in a global mass murder of Jews, ironically his own people and descendants. Okay, so maybe the author didn't say it quite like that. I think it's valid (although I certainly don't believe this was the primary explanation of Christian persecution of Jews).

But it was these hardships and struggles that enabled him to gain a large and devoted following, especially as his teachings solidified into a religion after his death. Who were his followers? The dispossessed. The outsiders. Women who weren't allowed as much participation in religious life as they were in Judaism during the second temple period. Those who were crazy, possessed, whores open to all manner of abuse and scapegoating. How did he teach? With examples about everyday life - baking, planting, farming. As a mamzer, Jesus would have spent more time with his mother and the village women than other boys his age. This might be why he was so skilled at using parables about daily life, particularly those involving women, to teach a spiritual lesson. When his father died, Jesus would not even have been allowed to mourn his Joseph's death. Again, he wouldn't have been permitted into the synagogue to recite Kaddish with the other males. Today, many Christians are learning that the Lord's Prayer, which Christians historically believed was unique to their religion, has a deep connection to Judaism. A part of the Kaddish says in Aramaic, " Abba, yitkadash shemach, tetey malchutach" or, "Father, your name will be santified, your Kingdom will come."

And so here you have the first installment of this book review and the reason I chose "Mamzer HaKodesh" as the title for this blog. Through the cross, the holy and profane meet, the clean and the unclean. That, and the fact that my ideas about Judaism and Christianity are what most religious folks, both Jewish and Christian, think my ideas are somehow 'impure'. And to that charge I respond, screw 'em!

Despite Jesus' conflicts with his religion and culture, Chilton's book asserts that it is extremely important to understand that Jesus was trying not to destroy, but to UPHOLD the law to what he felt was its intended purpose - which includes, after all, caring for the widow, the orphan, and the "alien among us, for we were once aliens in the land of Egypt" (I'm paraphrasing the Torah, just so you know I don't have an exact verse quote). Only in the Jewish context can we fully understand exactly WHAT and exactly WHY he said and did what he did according to the canonical gospels. With that in mind, I hope you enjoyed this post enough to join me next time where we discuss the idea of Jesus as a starving teenage runaway.

Until next time, may the Holy Spirit be with you!

No comments:

Post a Comment