HOLY WEEK REFLECTIONS: The fight for the legacy of Jesus (Part 1)

HOLY WEEK REFLECTIONS: The fight for the legacy of Jesus (Part 1) Featured

First of 2 parts
THIS week, this column digresses from the usual menu of parsing behind the headlines, mining the same for their political content. Instead I will do some reflections myself during this Holy Week on the beliefs, traditions and rites that defined Christendom for a good part of 2,000 years. Most Christians take this week as a given: the passion of Jesus Christ the Son of God made flesh, came down to this world to sacrifice his life as redemption for its sins. Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection is the bedrock of Christian faith.

There is, however, another dimension to this narrative which Christianity, principally the Roman Catholic Church, has relegated to oblivion, save perhaps for serious students of religious history, biblical scholars and vexatious ex-seminarians like this columnist.

This other version of the historical Christ was promoted by witnesses to his life in Palestine, spawning a Jesus Movement in Jerusalem. To them Christ was a devout Jew who was born of natural parents, Joseph and Mary, and was a charismatic preacher, a healer and a revolutionary who saw religion and politics as one. After his death, his older brother James headed the movement known as the Jerusalem Church in contrast with that of the Pauline Church headed by Saul of Tarsus who converted to the faith on his way to Damascus and much later was canonized as St. Paul the Apostle.

These two factions of the Jesus Movement were inspired by the life and death of Christ. Paul never did meet personally the living Christ but preached the new religion to the Roman Empire and beyond — principally to the non-Jews. James’ Jerusalem Church preached mainly to the Jews, himself adhering to the strict Jewish precepts. These two church leaders were a study in contrast. Paul was a man of letters, master of Greek rhetoric, sophisticated and urbane. James, on the other hand, was poor and illiterate, but being the elder brother of Jesus, must perforce be familiar with his teachings and humanity.

The split came 25 years after Christ died. The power struggle between the two factions centered on who best to interpret the life of Jesus Christ, his vision and message. Paul wanted to tell this magnificent story to the world, which includes non-Jews, on the divinity of Christ. James, on the other hand, was bent on freeing Palestine from the clutches of Rome through the story of an earthly revolutionary messiah. The fundamental conflict therefore was whether or not Jesus was divine.

As in any great conflict, it started with a seemingly mundane dispute, with James insisting that new members of the Jesus Movement must eat kosher food and be circumcised like Christ himself and must observe Jewish laws. Paul’s perspective was beyond the Jewish character of the Jesus Movement, detaching himself from the Jewish political aim and thus was not bound by the Torah. This was anathema. And the added revelation that Paul was in fact a Roman citizen further exacerbated the already impossible state of affairs. The split between the Jerusalem and the Pauline churches of the Jesus Movement became final around 58 A.D.

In 66 A.D., less than a decade after the split, the Jews in Palestine rebelled against Rome. The rebellion was crushed in 70 A.D., ending with the suicide of 900 Jews in the fortress of Masada. As the Jews were being slaughtered, the Pauline Church dissociated any loyalty to the Jewish patriotism and declared itself not one with the rebellious Jews. James’ Jerusalem Church was wiped out. The Pauline Church emerged the victor of this religious internecine conflict and the custodianship of the biography of Christ. Now known as Christians, they went on to capture the narrative through the writing of the New Testament, decades after the crucifixion, through the four canonical gospels of Mark (66-70 A.D.), Matthew/Luke (circa 85-90 A.D.) and John (90-110 A.D.). These writers were anonymous and did not meet Christ. These names were simply added in the 2nd century. What we have today in the Christian Catholic and Protestant traditions reflect Paul’s perspective, not the James Jewish-influenced Jesus Movement.

The Gospels, the Good News, were considered the 2nd century’s version of propaganda with heavy theology and political undertones. Biblical scholars have identified Paul’s hand in the messaging although he died circa 67 A.D., just when the New Testament was being written. The irony of it all was that those who were witnesses to the actual life of the historical Jesus, and closest to him, his family and disciples — mainly James and his Jesus Movement — had no hand in the propagation of Christianity. They had no direct surviving records and Paul’s mainstream Christian Church made their version heretical, eventually evolving into a fringe group called Ebionites.

Latter biblical scholars who have been scrutinizing the Letters of St. Paul, the authorship of the Gospels and the evolution of Christianity from the great split have begun to re-examine the Ebionites. James’ Jewish-Christian movement who knew the living Christ accepted as central to their beliefs Christ nature as Man. He was a Jewish revolutionary tutored by John the Baptist, Jesus’ precursor, and martyred by the Roman puppet Herod Antipas. Jesus inspired a secular movement to foment a revolution against the Romans and free the Jews from oppression ushering in a new age of Jewish ascendency over Palestine. This was the original interpretation of a “Messiah establishing God’s Kingdom on earth.” He was not divine, not of a virgin birth but was crucified by the Romans, died but was resurrected as Lazarus was by a miracle.

Several inconsistencies in the New Testament came to the fore, accusing Paul of being an interloper and hijacking the Jesus movement. Paul, the Roman citizen with no love lost for the Jewish patriots, contemplated a Jesus narrative using the Old Testament’s prophecy of Isaiah on the coming Messiah, born of a Virgin. To Paul, messiah meant son of God come down to earth, died on the cross and promising eternal life to mankind. This and other prophecies were meant to support Paul’s contention of Christ’s divinity. The gospels therefore came up with stories which could only be attributed to divine intervention or patently false narratives.

If James’ faction won the split in the early century of the Jesus movement, we wouldn’t have the Christian tradition as practiced today. His version of the life of Jesus witnessed by his family, father Joseph, mother Mary, his brothers and wife Mary Magdalene would have shown him to be a Jewish revolutionary at a time of the Roman occupation.

In second of this two-part column, the alternative biography of Jesus Christ reveals some of the implausible accounts in the New Testament which biblical scholars suspected were inserted in the Gospels to prove and sustain his divinity.000
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