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The Foundational Way -The Human Life of Jesus

 
Summary notes from recent writings and research – putting together an emerging picture. Sources are added below.

Many would-be Christians seem to be most often concerned with how different and how ‘divine’ Jesus was – what the proofs of this might be and whether Jesus himself was indeed ‘God’ on earth. Yet, without the sheer quality of his humanity and his astounding human life there would be no Christian movement at all. The whole Christian revelation was determined by that human life, which he lived out with friends and with any whom he met. Without this life-with-others within the communities of Palestine there would be no Christian history, no church, no doctrines or creeds, and no theology. Yet despite its breath-taking compassion, transformative vision and self-vindicating truth, the human life of Jesus is absent from almost all traditional Christian sources: it is omitted from the canticles, from every one of the creeds, from the Christian year, and even from almost all the New Testament letters.

Yet we can note first that there are now extensive materials on that life in discoveries and researches from the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd ‘Searches for the historical Jesus’ ; there are also now over 20 Gospels recovered from the first and second centuries; the library of researches from the last 25 years cover a dozen shelves or more; and we have many further research results for first century Palestine society, culture and context. New images of Jesus have also emerged in the experience and studies of Asian Christians in particular, including Jesus as Guru or Bodhisattva, Shaman, or itinerant Sage and ‘Sophia’, of Sadhu, charismatic Healer or Jewish Holy Man, Mother or Woman Messiah, Dalit or Minjung of the Minjung, ‘Barefoot Prophet’, ‘Ancestor’, ‘the Crucified People’.

It is important first to see that the context in which Jesus lived out his Good News was Palestine of the first century CE, where the people faced daily a most brutal occupation, along with oppressive religious laws and the agonies of pervasive poverty and destitution. Amidst extreme inequalities up to 90% of people were severely exploited by taxation, classical hierarchy and patriarchy, Roman and Herodian injustices and endless religious prescription. So many were constantly and badly malnourished that famine resulted extensively. Yet in this context many Jewish people remained devout even though being often sharply divided in religious practice and belief. It should be noted that despite being often condemned as ‘provincials’ or ‘sinners’ by Pharisees and others in the south, rural Galileans in the north preserved their own faithful piety. Wandering charismatics offered prophetic visions, some apocalyptic, some hopeful, some as healers. Other renewal movements and dissident groups such as the Essene community forged alternative Biblical interpretations, life-styles and beliefs.

Almost certainly Jesus was born in Nazareth or in nearby Betleman. (There is no historical record of any ‘Registration’ or census, which in any case would have been logistically impossible in occupied Palestine). Betleman and Nazareth were in a frontier and cosmopolitan territory close to many trade routes. The cosmopolitan trade city of Sepphoris was only three miles away with links to the Asia-wide ‘silk routes’. As to family Jesus was raised with brothers, sisters and cousins in the home of a ‘peasant’ woman and her Rabbi husband (‘carpenter’ being a common nick-name for rabbi because as such they often earned their living). Jesus would have received rabbinic schooling from his father and in nearby synagogues, that covered the Torah, the Shema and the Prophets. As was usual in rabbinic teaching he learned well to study, to debate and also to be of service to others. Almost certainly too he learnt the life-style of a rabbi which divided the day equally between pursuit of a trade and the pursuit of studies.

So clearly Jesus was literate (c.f. Luke 4:17, 24:25-27). But this also makes us wonder at the place of books in Jesus’ life. He was obviously fully familiar with Jewish scriptures; and we know from his teachings that he studied the prophetic writings in particular. What of Jesus’ own books? He would have been taught from synagogue scrolls by first, his rabbi father and later by other rabbis. Were there also a few books he himself owned? or those of friends he could use? We can pause and see him reading: at home … in synagogue … with a scroll in hand when travelling or resting? The ‘wandering’ ministry with his friends would have been only during the dry seasons so this would be possible.

There is strong evidence that Jesus (‘Issa’, ‘Eisu’ or Yesu) travelled widely in his late youth and was therefore not readily recognised on his return (‘Who is this man?’). Recent scholarship has investigated this fully and presents a history of Jesus travelling eastwards to India and westwards to Britain. In north India especially there are traditions and records of him spending years in the study of pristine Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Such travel ‘to the east’ occurred often then by many of the either land or sea ‘silk routes’. We know there were also synagogues already in India, and Roman coins discovered show that Roman traders regularly visited. From the history now established for Christianity in India we also know that Thomas and others would soon be travelling there, as well as travelling further east. Travel to the west would have been on the routes of Phoenician merchants who are known to have traded in tin from the mines of Cornwall. References in the Talmud affirm that Joseph of Arimathea was himself a trader in tin and the evidence from coinage of the Dubunni (a British tribe) points to the presence around 30 CE of one named Eisu. It is no longer possible to ignore the traditions from Cornwall and Glastonbury which record that Jesus accompanied Joseph at least once to Britain, and which claim also that Jesus returned later along with ‘a woman in her early thirties’ which could have been his mother or the Magdalene. (Some versions of Druidic teachings then also focus on the divine justice, recompense and reconciliation brought through the life of a ‘man’, suggesting possible mutual influences).

Back in Palestine after years of travel and of enlightening experience Jesus would seem to some extent strange to earlier friends, yet there was also clearly a renewed camaraderie. For he was a disciple of John for a period and knew traditions of the Essenes. (We can clearly see from many of the gospels that he developed a more compassionate, ‘modest’, and inclusive ministry than either John or the Essenes). Yet he too was a remarkable social prophet for his people, and although drawing on the major Hebrew prophets, he uniquely redefined the inclusiveness of the Covenant. His life was focussed always on the lives of disprivileged common people outside the circles of elite authority or wealth and here lay a first challenge to religious and military authority.

It is necessary here to emphasize that from the earliest records of Jesus’ teaching and living, the foundation Gospel is not the story and theology of his death. Nor is it the schema or catechism that begins by telling us to first realise our sin, to acknowledge a vicarious death upon the cross which is necessary to appease God, or to ‘be saved’. Nor is it in the many doctrines concerning his ‘person and work’ which have developed from centuries of study, controversy and speculation. Rather the Gospel is the proclamation that God’s rule is upon us and that this is found in the human life that Jesus lived with other women and men (Mark 1.1). The ‘Kingdom’ is thus both present and future, ‘a radically transformed way of living’, both personally and corporately.

In a counter-cultural spirituality of compassionate action he thus offered a quite new vision, and practice, of the Reign of God’s peace and justice. His unwavering dependence was upon the compassionate God who holds for us unconditional love and forgiveness. His was a charismatic and revolutionary wisdom therefore which offered the scandalous teaching that, even without any merit or ‘righteousness’ at all, God accepts, forgives, and restores all in full equity and reconciliation. This is his Gospel of God’s Common-wealth – that love will be all in all, for all. This was another major challenge to both ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ authority

In the view of eminent Asian theologians this life-style and teaching is the source of all true humanization and so it is of divinization also. Here was the fullest humanity we have known yet one with a prophetic consciousness wholly ‘transparent to God’; a ‘concentration’ of the Logos, the Spirit and of Sophia who is everywhere present working for wholeness, compassion, justice, and peace. Here is the dynamic heart of the Christian movement which lived and would live, in countless followers of this first century activist sage. It would become too the heart of the mythic and creative Christ of widest human experience.

He often met friends in cafés and wine-shops or in his own home (Mk 2.1, 15; Mt 4.13, 9.28) for long discussions of the scriptures, of the lives of poorest neighbours, and of the coming ‘Kingdom’. There were times too beside or on the Galilean sea, Mark alone recording six journeys there as if this was an accustomed outing. Soon groups formed around him, shared ideas of God’s coming Commonwealth, planned urgent reforms, then answered his call to spend time preparing and soon in travelling on seasonal ‘missions’ with him. With his friends, both women and men, he planned ways to now live out that Common-wealth in selflessness and conviviality. At suppers and parties, at which he spends much of his time, he seems to reveal most of himself, often becoming the de facto host. Note his extensive befriending, especially of women, who were, in the end, his most faithful friends and co-workers. Such relations with women were clearly warm and mutually rewarding and the evidence of the gospels places Mary Magdalene in a quite special relationship to Jesus.

With such emerging groups his ‘renewal movement’ began to find an informal yet disciplined shape which included not only those designated ‘the Twelve’ but others who sought him out or whom he had healed or restored. Amongst these the women named in the gospels formed a significant fellowship. With many of these he came to lead the seasonal ‘missions’ during which he shared companionship and the communion of the road with a ‘partnership of equals’. Here there was teaching and listening, joking and story-telling, shared service and prayer. It is important to emphasize that this company on the road is the best model of God’s Commonwealth on earth we have: to be the new level of fellowship, partners on a quest and in a ‘mission’ for religious awakening and social restoration.

Although revered as a ’Jewish holy one’ Jesus was seen to much enjoy ‘secular’ life on the streets, and in doorways, on hillsides and seashores and in village centres. He was most often seen and heard in these ‘secular’ places for there he carried out nearly all his teaching, demonstrating and healing. As for the more ‘sacred’ places, he was sometimes thrown out from synagogues, and in the temple he sometimes threw others out! Along the way he challenged accepted customs, and the ‘purity’ law system, in happily associating with most unsavoury characters: the supposedly ‘immoral’, the scorned, the sick, the mentally ill, the condemned and the discarded. From none of these (or indeed from anyone else) did Jesus first require evidence of ‘repentance’ or declarations of belief, before befriending, calling, healing or restoring them. But he strongly rejected religious hypocrisy, greed and the accumulation of wealth. Jesus constantly highlighted the gap between what supposed leaders might claim and what they might act out for others. And regarding wealth, note the dozens of critical references by Jesus to money or riches in the gospels. These were the evils he most often condemned, calling his friends to do the same, and calling all to first seek the Common-wealth of God where distinctions by caste or class, gender or power, learning or piety, wealth or authority have no place whatever.

This fitted entirely with the life of one who ‘blessed the poorest’, sought out the ‘last and least’, and in his everyday encounters exemplified simplicity, outspoken frankness and also modesty. Here was no emphasis on ‘dogma or worship’ but the model of life-style, action for others and a never-to-be-forgotten ‘voice-print’. Optimism, humour and often delight also marked his speech and dealings: after all, God is setting all to rights! Justice, reconciliation and love will be victorious; the highest truth can be known in the most ordinary human actions; God’s love and forgiveness are unlimited and embrace every woman, man and child; the signs of God’s reign are all about us and you too can be part of those signs. ‘Rejoice and be exceeding glad’… ‘my joy I give to you’!

– He said none was good save God alone; none knew God’s final will but God alone. Always reticent about himself, he called himself ‘son of humanity’, the Human One, and never himself claimed to be divine. He was in earthly life a, not the, ‘Son of God’ (as others had been so named). Nevertheless we can discern that for us he was, and is, amongst religious leaders, the unique prophet and liberator, healer and enlightened one, forerunner, rescuer and great friend. For this he taught and inspired, welcomed and befriended, while also practising civil disobedience (twelve different kinds of such actions have been listed). He was often hungry, thirsty, sometimes angry, sad and exhausted while living this counter-cultural ‘spirituality’ of life-with-other women and men. Yet even as a victim of imperial power and religious bigotry, identified closely therefore with Rome’s or Israel’s victims, he still acted out an accepting and forgiving love that endured and withstood all hostility or ignorance, all cruelty and death.

– His earthly death was the inevitable end of such a prophetic life-with-others, not a predetermined ‘sacrifice’; a supreme witness to justice and love, not a ‘ransom’ or ‘propitiation’. For the God of Jesus requires no such offering or oblation before lavishing upon us a full embrace, acceptance and forgiveness. But along with his subsequent ‘resurrection’, Jesus’ death sealed and guaranteed the sacrificial and vivifying life he gave to, and for us. Such a life and death with others could not die. It lives on through a continuing Presence of unquenchable compassion and truth, and in all who receive his life to be theirs or who unknowingly live that life for others. His life of compassion and consolation, healing and restoration was therefore not destroyed but continued beyond his death, and continues in countless women and men of all peoples, places and creeds who live out such love.

– In Jesus’ life in our world, we are given the image and embodiment of the eternal people-justice, peace and love in God’s Commonwealth and coming New World. This is enacted, for example, in the Eucharist when we are given the life of Jesus to be our life, as Subba Rao of India has said, “Not to worship You but to live like You, to follow You”; to find in our own experience ‘the form and features of Jesus’. Because his life is the Way, so we are to practise his life of caring and prophetic action, of befriending and conviviality, his tranquility and righteous anger, and his offering of self in hope and serving, in learning and sharing, liberating and resisting.

Writers drawn on for these notes include:

– From the Asia-Pacific region: Inoue Yoji, Mary John Mananzan, Michael Amaladoss, Aruna Gnanadason, Arai Sasagu, AhnByung Mu, Aloysius Pieris, Muriel Orevilla-Montenegro, Israel Selvanayagam, R.S. Sugirtharajah, M.M.Thomas, Vimal Tirimanna, Carlos Abesamis, Fung Jojo, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, Ian Harris. (For these and others refer to Asian Christian Theologies,. ISPCK/Claretian/ Orbis, 2001-2004. Later studies are found in such books as Muriel Orevillo-Montenegro The Jesus of Asian Women (Orbis, 2006);Martien E. Brinkman The Non-Western Jesus (Equinox, 2009); & Franklyn J. Balasundaram Contemporary Asian Christian Theology (ISPCK 2012).

– Other sources include: Geza Vermes, H.T. Driver, E.P. Sanders, Gerd Theissen, Nicolas Notovich, Holger Kersten, David B. Gowler, Elizabeth Moltan-Wendel, James W. Deardorf, José A. Agola, Marcus Borg, Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Ann Parker, James L. Charlesworth, Ramon Malek, Charlotte Allen, Martien E. Brinkman, Anton Wessels, Peter Kersten, Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, Jan Peter Schouten, Marcus Borg, Nicola Slee, Robin Meyers, Dominic Crossan, David Ford & Mike Higton, M. Charlesworth, Leonis Price, Levi H. Dowling, Peter de Rosa.

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Review & Commentary