Friday, August 13, 2010

Book Review of "Rabbi Jesus; An Intimate Biography", by Bruce Chilton; Part 2

There were so many interesting ideas in Chilton's book that I've wanted to really explore in this review, but I can't spend the next five weeks writing about it!!! So here are some of the major, and most interesting perspectives from "Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography".

Between his childhood and emergence in adulthood to begin his own ministry, a big blank spot appears in the gospels.

There are many ideas of what happened during this time, including a sojourn to India to learn from spiritualist masters there. But have you ever considered this - what if Jesus was a teenage runaway? That's exactly Chilton's idea based on the gospels. Jesus made a pilgrimage with his family to Jerusalem one year. He disappeared, and his mother had to go back to the temple to find him teaching there. He give her a little bit of teenage sass before going back home with her. But what if that last part about going back home was just a resolution tacked on in later years to excuse Jesus' unpredictable behavior? For after this incident, nothing more is heard about Jesus until he is well into adulthood. What if, instead of going back home, Jesus RAN AWAY from home? What if he couldn't take local life as a mamzer after his father died and escaped at the earliest opportunity? What if he was drawn to the holy city as some children are drawn to the nunnery?

-How did Jesus meet John?

Maybe, instead of predestination, Jesus ran to John because he had no where else to go. A guy who lives in the desert and likes to eat bugs might not seem so bad to kid who'se been starving on the streets for months. If you're a kid with a strong calling towards religion, you might be enthralled by the idea of someone with John's reputation as an uncompromising and zealous prophet.

What was John teaching with his baptisms?

John's baptisms were just about the Torah's prescriptions for bathing to remove impurity. They were about contradicting the Temple establishment in Jerusalem. As today, being wealthy in ancient times decided whether or not you could live in Jerusalem, the holy city. One group of religious leaders had domination of Temple rituals. They decided who was pure and impure, and they decided what the correct way to practice the Law was, right down to bathing in the river vs. bathing in a specially constructed pool near the temple. All who wanted to offer sacrifice to the temple or stand within the Temple Courtyards on the Temple Mount had to bathe in a mikvah sanctioned by the ruling priests. Visitors' own bathing traditions were not accepted as being fully legitimate or trustworthy.

John also taught about something called "The Chariot" and "The Throne". It was a mystical visionary and meditative practice to focus one's mind on God's Chariot, as described in the book of Daniel, and God's Throne, from where, it was thought, all creation emanated. I know nothing about this, so I won't go into details, but it is mentioned a lot in the book.

Was There Conflict Between John and Jesus?

One idea in biblical scholarship is that tensions rose between John and Jesus, despite the gospel's words attributed to John that, "I must decrease...while he must increase". One difference between John and Jesus may have been methods of purification. John purified through immersion in living waters. But Jesus eventually broke with this traditional Jewish practice by preaching that communal meals were a ritual that surpassed the holiness of Torah-sanction immersion. Jesus was very charismatic, and came to have a substantial following of his own apart from John's congregants. What's more, John and Jesus may have had another facet of their relationship - that of father and son. If Jesus' own father had died in his youth, leaving him outcast and suspect in his village, this father-son relationship, along with it's joys, encouragement, issues of control and rebellion, may have been played out again with John. And as with the first relationship, Jesus would have been left with no sense of closure as a father-figure was again taken abruptly from him. As a disciple of an executed figure of religious and political dissent, Jesus would once again have been left unprotected and vulnerable, this time on the run from the law and an outcast in all of Israel.

What were some of Jesus' core teachings?

According to Chilton, they vary considerable from what many Christians believe today:

- Baptism, or immersion in the mikvah was not a necessary step towards purification.

- Communal meals were a form of holiness and purification

- As uncleanness and defilement were a contagious phenomenon (see Biblical laws on dead human bodies, food consumption, sexual and bodily functions, mildew and skin lesions as possible sources of contamination) that needed to be stopped by immersion, segregation and atonements with animal sacrifice, so purity was also contagious. He may have believed this purity extended to all b'nai Y'israel (children of Israel), but even those outside that circle; a good example would have been when he asked the Samaritan woman for a drink at a well, despite the Judaic sages' belief that Samaritan women were "menstruants from birth."

- The "one like a person" that Jesus kept talking about in the gospels was actually an angel listed among the animals surrounding God's chariot in the book of Daniel.

- Jesus' concept of perfection was to become angelic, like the one like a person.

- Jesus did not change water to wine at the wedding in Cana. When he got the water and declared it was wine to drink, he was saying something else entirely. He was saying that the mayim hanetilat y'daim, or the water for washing hands at a meal, was itself worthy to be served as wine because of its spiritual nature. ( I can't for the life of me remember Chilton's exact words, so don't quote me on this because I may have an incomplete or inaccurate idea)

- The Eucharist was not in reference to Jesus' actual body and blood. Consuming blood is a Jewish taboo and unkosher. He was saying, "...this is my body...this is my blood" as a reference to Temple sacrifice. Jesus believed the Temple sacrifices had become corrupt. He was at odds with the Temple authorities and said that his communal meals, food consumed into the human body in celebration of God's manifest kingdom, was a truer and purer sacrifice than that in the Temple. This opinion probably lost him disciples and helped to seal his fate, because it was such a radical statement.

- Jesus carried out an organized raid on the temple. What's more, many probably supported him. Caiaphas, the High Priest, had made a change many did not agree with. Worshippers would buy their sacrificial livestock at Chanut, a nearby mount, rather than bring it all the way from home. Why? The longer the distance from the Temple, the greater likelihood that a sacrifice would become blemished or harmed, and therefore halachically (a term of religious legality) invalid. Caiaphas actually brought the animals into the Temple mount area. More noise ,more poop, and an extra portion of profits going to the Temple since it was on the Temple mount that the livestock were sold. Jesus wasn't just being obnoxious to the authorities, and he wasn't a renegade among those darn Jews which the New Testament would have us believe just seemed to love money soooooo much. He was acting out a raid that many probably supported. Many probably believed that monetary transactions on the mount was a sacrilege. Jesus' highest goal was to carry out a "pure" sacrifice in the temple; it was a goal he did not manage to achieve.

- Jesus was supported by Levite and Cohen priests. Ok, there's a catch. Jesus was supported by Levite and Cohen priests who were unable to serve in the Temple. Those who lived outside the land of Israel would not be permitted to serve in the Temple, despite their biblically sanctioned right. They may have felt invalidated or shut out by Temple hegemony, and reacted by supporting a man who believed all should have the right to lay hands on their own animals just prior to sacrifice.

- There was no physical resurrection. The resurrection that Jesus preached and others saw was the resurrection of the spirit becoming angelic, or like the " one like a person".

- How did it all end? What happened in the epilogue of this particular drama?

Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate were eventually dismissed from their posts in 37 C.E., despite their efforts to maintain power. Herod Antipas was banished to Spain after he tried to approach Rome about changing his status to that of "King of Galilee and Perea". Considering that Herod actually went to Rome during Caligula's rule, one can be thankful he wasn't flayed alive.

Records of the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 39B - and no, don't ask me what that means because I have no idea I'm just paraphrasing) indicate that the menorah torches kept going out. The Sanctuary doors opened at night. The goat for sacrifice drawn by lots was continually drawn by the lot in the left hand. The tapestry before the holy of holies was torn (New Testament reference, I believe). And in 70 C.E., the Temple was destroyed.

This was a book that really challenged my preconceived notions about Jesus. I'm not sure I like this different vision. In Chilton's vision, Jesus of Nazareth emerged as a short, balding paunchy man who was at times filled with supernatural power, at times with kindness and identification and support for the disenfranchised. He was also stubborn, controlling, manipulative, cantankerous, antagonistic and very human. On the one hand, learning more about Jesus is helping me learn more about Jewish history and the foundations and benefits of Jewish custom, law and philosophy. On the other hand, the commonly known Jesus today, the Jesus of miracles and rebirth, who is clearly a dying god like Krishna, Buddha, Dionysus and others represented throughout history in various cultures, touches me deeply. I LOVE the traditional idea of the Eucharist. I love the symbol of the cross, a symbol of great paradox and sensational ecstasy to me. I love the traditional idea of Jesus of The Perfect Human... of a tall, sexy and well muscled man who always says and does the right things and will never let you down. I like the idea of divinely sanctioned salvation and certainty. But on the third hand, despite my feelings about the Jesus who is commonly known today, I don't know if I believe Jesus ever WAS a real person to begin with. Was he a composite of various dying gods melded onto a human? Was he several human beings over a span of time who got mixed together? Was he a turkey vulture bathing in the lake of eternity under the moonlight dripping with barbeque sauce? Just checking to see if you're paying attention. Ultimately, a mind-blowing book. I suggest you give it a go!

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