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Evan Lewis:

Getting real --

Re-viewing our religion


Doubts on Bible stories

Jerusalem:  An Israeli archaeologist has cast doubt on the truth of the stories in the Bible,   striking at the very foundations of the history of the Jewish people,  a newspaper reported.   Professor Zeev Herzog,  of Tel Aviv University,  claims that after 70 years of digging,  most archaeologists believe events recounted in the Bible  "never happened",  reported the Haaretz newspaper.   "It is difficult to accept,  but it is clear to researchers today that the children of Israel were not in Egypt,  did not wander in the desert,  did not conquer the land of Canaan in a military campaign and did not divide it up between the Twelve Tribes,"  Prof Herzog wrote.  "Even more difficult to accept is the fact,  now becoming clear,  that the united kingdom of David and Solomon,  portrayed in the Bible as a regional power,  was at most a tiny tribal fiefdom,"  he said.  Prof Herzog was unable to be reached for immediate comment. -- AFP

   (Otago Daily Times   30/10/99)

The ancient social and political environment
The phenomenon of Israel
The exodus story
The religion of tribal Israel
The end of the experiment
The beginnings of the Bible
Priestly religion
Jesus of Nazareth
The kingdom of God
Religion now
Jesus sayings


Perhaps the problem with Christianity is that it says too much.   The impression is widely given that to be a Christian one has to affirm a whole heap of unsubstantiated doctrine and dubious history,  and accept everything in the Bible as literal truth  --  because God is supposed to have told the biblical writers exactly what to write.   Today fewer and fewer people are ready for what they would see as intellectual suicide.   It is one thing to entertain a little nonsense of one's own choosing.   Maybe most of us do.   But what Christianity calls for can seem much worse than that.

The events which led to the production of the Bible covered a period of 14 centuries or so.   The Bible fails us if what we want from it is an accurate historical account.   None of its many authors had modern research skills for distilling sober historical information from the documents and traditions at their disposal.   Nor did they feel the lack.   What they did have,  each in their own way,  was a theological perspective which it was natural for them to express in the shape they gave to their stories.   What we now have is access to high quality historical research,  which is offering us an intuition of the actual events that underlie the biblical account.

There were two outstanding creative moments in that history.   The first saw the birth of Israel and its religion;  the second the movement initiated by Jesus of Nazareth.   This essay puts those key events in context.   That will help us to understand why some of what we have inherited from ancient religion is no longer viable for us.   We shall also see that a 'caring' theme was central to both Israelite and Christian origins.   The same theme,  of course,  is primary in the best we know of religion,  down the centuries and in our own time.

What this essay does not do,   and cannot do,    is lay out the scholarly evidence for the story it tells.   A bibliographical appendix indicates where that information can be found.



The ancient social and political environment

The social pattern which,  through the period we are interested in and long after,  was typical of productive regions in the eastern Mediterranean has been given the label 'agrarian'.   The description implies that a society was supported by technologically developed agriculture  --  working the land with ploughs rather than hoes.   There is a certain inevitability about the way such a society would organize itself.   Two thirds,  or more,  of the population would be peasants actually cultivating the land and bringing in the harvests,  which they must have regarded as rightfully theirs.   But chiefs or kings had taken control at an early stage  --  by the right of might.   The ruler considered that he actually owned everything  --  people,  land and crops  --  and that he could could use and dispose of it all as he thought appropriate.   He had the 'right' to as much of the product of the land as he could take without actually killing off the work-force or putting future productivity in jeopardy.   Because peasants had no sense of loyalty to him,  the ruler needed retainers to make the exploitative system work efficiently in his favour.   He needed managers.   He needed financial bureaucrats to keep records and organise the accumulation of goods.   He needed a military bureaucracy to ensure that the peasants were compliant,  to promote public order,  and perhaps to support campaigns of conquest aimed at enlarging his territory or to discourage other powers that might have designs on his own domain.   It did sometimes happen,  of course,  that one city-state grew stronger than others and became a major power in its neighbourhood,  perhaps on the way to establishing an empire.

Something else the ruler needed was a public relations department.   It was much more economical to keep people on side through stories that had the right  'spin'  than to solve all your problems by sending in the military.   Even if it didn't directly win over the peasants,  effective propaganda was calculated to promote loyalty and harmony amongst the retainers.

An agrarian society was therefore two-tiered.   The ruler and his retainers,  perhaps ten percent of the population,  lived in a walled city.   Slaves,  and others whose labour was directly necessary to them,  were no doubt kept close at hand.   Around the city there were agricultural villages and associated farmlands.   Alongside the farmer peasants,  but of lower status,  were artisans.   At the bottom of society were those engaged in degrading occupations,  and those others who,  at least from the elite point of view,  were useless and surplus to requirements.




Religion was a vital component of the propaganda that reinforced the position of the ruling elite.   There was a more or less universal religious pattern throughout the region.   People simply took it for granted that there was a family or tribe of gods,  with superior powers,  but with human motivations.   They believed that the earth and its inhabitants had somehow arisen out of events in the divine realm,  and that co-operation with appropriate gods was very much in the human interest.   So priests were an essential group amongst retainers.   Their responsibility was to develop and apply the religious story in the way most helpful to the ruling power.

For example,  in a Babylonian account from around the eighteenth century BCE,   the first divine beings were Apsu and Tiamat,   the originators of everything else.      But the time came when Apsu and Tiamat found the disruptive activity of the godlings they had themselves produced intolerable,   so they decided to destroy them all.   The younger gods then made Ea their leader,   to deal with this threat.   Apsu was killed by Ea   (or maybe by Ea's son Marduk)   and Marduk finally killed Tiamat also.      He then fashioned the world   --   earth and sky   --   out of Tiamat's body.      But that was not the end of dissension in the divine realm.   The lesser gods began to complain bitterly of the heavy toil that was their lot.   So Marduk responded by creating humans to perform the sweaty labour.   Out of gratitude the gods built Marduk a sanctuary,  thus establishing Babylon as a temple city,  with Marduk as its special god.

The political usefulness of this story is that it underlines the significance of Babylon as the temple city,  and therefore of its ruler and governing classes.   The ruler might be represented as the god's son.   (Compare Psalm 2:7.)   Babylon is special to Marduk,  and its king must be Marduk's special representative,  and could be assumed to be doing what Marduk wants.   Humans are put in their place,  especially those humans  --  peasants and others  --  who sweat to provide what the elites demand of them.   After all,  their toil is the reason the working population were created,  their only excuse for existence.

We move a little closer to the origins of Israel when we explore the mythology of Canaanite religion.   Here Baal is the active warrior god  (similar to Babylonian Marduk).   He is credited with defeating Yamm,  the sea divinity,  the power of Chaos.   El,  the patriarch of the gods,  comparable with Babylonian Ea,  decrees that a temple be built for Baal as king of the gods.   Then another struggle develops between Baal and Mot,  lord of the dark powers that cause sterility,  disease,  and death.   Baal is swallowed by Mot and goes down to the underworld,  but is rescued by his consort,  Anat.   Baal  (rather than El)  is the active god of choice for Canaanite city-states.   He is the storm-god and the bringer of fertility.   It may be of interest that Psalm 29 is thought to be a Canaanite hymn to Baal taken over and adapted as a hymn to Yahweh.

It is not to be expected that the lower classes became enthusiastic adherents of a religion that served upper-class interests.   They were bound to have their own religious and moral perspective,  which might even encourage a measure of calculated resistance to ruling expectations.   Commentators speak of the  'Great Tradition'  which was elaborated by the priests in the best interests of the aristocracy,  and the  'Little Tradition'  of the common people  --  which,  unfortunately for later students,  wasn't often put on record for the information of posterity.



The phenomenon of Israel

Israel took shape in parts of Palestine  (then called Canaan)  during the thirteenth century BCE.   At that time Canaan was not a single political entity.   It was organised in agrarian city-states of the kind we have looked at.   These owed some allegiance  (and tribute)  to Egypt,  which found it politic to take an active interest in the region to its north.   The city­states were,  on the other hand,  in competition with one another,  at least for agricultural resources,  and maybe for Egyptian favour.   The proto-Israelites  (a good name for them because they had no idea at the beginning what they would develop into)  came mostly from the peasants and other lower classes of city-states.   They were groups of fugitives from exploitation,  aiming to make new lives for themselves and their kin,  in the less-populated hill country.   A raft of explanations is offered for the success of the movement at that particular time.

There were several avenues of entry into the new possibilities.   Numbers of have-nots,  perhaps without direct access to tillable land,  had begun to form bands of armed men who were ready for brigandage,  or willing to provide military services to any who would hire them.   Diplomatic correspondence from the region gives them the label 'apiru   (which may be the origin of the term 'Hebrew',  used occasionally in the Bible).   City-states with defensive or offensive needs were happy to employ 'apiru.   That fact in itself would have encouraged the proliferation of 'apiru bands in the region.   The important point is that 'apiru were self-determined and could go their own way.   Egyptian documents also tell of independent-minded groups they call Shosu.   These,  like the 'apiru,  had military tendencies and were attracted to brigandage.   The difference seems to be that they were pastoralists,  nomadic to a certain extent when they had to move to new ground.   All this means that unhappy peasants need not be reliant only on themselves if they wanted to create a new life.   Rewarding partnerships could form between militarised and non­militarised bands of dissenters from city­states.

City-states were strong especially in the fertile low country.   There were not so many of them in the hills.   Their military wings,  generally organised around horses and chariots,  found the hill country difficult to manoeuvre in when they were sent out to deal with deserters.   The new settlers would be more secure in the hills,  even if the land was harder to work.   At least there was less chance of being raided to feed the greed of ruler and governors.

Certain technological innovations were favourable to the new movement.  Waterproof plaster had been devised,  so that it was now possible to arrange permanent water storage.   Iron tools were coming into use,  and these were far more efficient for shaping the land and working the soil than those previously made of copper or bronze.

The situation must have been propitious for the movement of dissidents into the hill­country in the thirteenth century.   The city-states were themselves in some disarray.   Egypt was not managing to keep Canaan stabilised.   Militarised groups had formed whose sympathies would be strongly pro­people.   Opening up the highlands had become a real technical and political possibility.

Over the decades numbers grew.   Bands became tribes.   Tribes became aware of one another,  and eventually saw themselves as being in association and having mutual loyalties and a common history.   Their ethos was egalitarian,  and they had no room for a ruling and exploiting class.



The exodus story

The Biblical account of Israel's beginnings is a kind of rationalisation of what happened.   It was first committed to writing only after the experiment of Israel had broken down.   Much of it was shaped up long after that time.   But there is one key passage which has all the marks of antiquity and therefore demands attention.   Reproduced here is a version of Exodus 15:1b­18:

Sing to Yahweh,   for he triumphed gloriously; 
horse and rider he threw into the sea.
This is my God,  whom I praise,  my father's God,  whom I exalt.
Yahweh is a warrior;  Yahweh is his name.
The chariots and the army of Pharaoh he cast into the sea;
the pick of his troops drowned in the Reed Sea.
The deeps closed over them;  they sank in the depths like a stone.
Your right hand,  Yahweh,  is awesome in power, 
Your right hand,  Yahweh,  shattered the enemy.
In your great majesty you crushed your foes;
you sent forth your fury to consume them like stubble.
At the blast of your nostrils the waters were piled up,
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps foamed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy said,  'I will pursue,  I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil,  my soul shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword,  my hand shall destroy them.'
You blew with your breath,  the sea covered them;
they sank as lead in the dreadful waters.
Who is like you among the gods,  Yahweh?
Who is like you,  terrible among the holy ones, 
awesome in deeds,  worker of wonders?
You stretched forth your hand,  the earth swallowed them.

You faithfully led the people you liberated, 
you guided them in your strength to your holy abode.
The peoples heard and shuddered.
Horror seized the inhabitants of Philistia;
the chiefs of Edom were dismayed;
the nobles of Moab were seized by panic;
the rulers of Canaan melted away.
Terror and dread came upon them.
They were struck dumb as a stone at your great power,
till your people passed over,  Yahweh,  the people you created.
You brought them and planted them on your own mountain,
the place,  Yahweh,  which you made your abode,
the sanctuary,  Yahweh,  which your hands created.
Let Yahweh reign for ever and ever.

These lines cannot have been the song of Miriam or Moses at the Reed Sea,  if only because they tell a story which mostly hadn't happened yet.   But the escape from slavery in Egypt seems so central to the self-understanding of tribal Israel,  and what came after,  that there has to be some historical basis for it.   The scholarly conclusion is that one group which had had just such an experience did become part of Israel.   Its story entered into the lore of the tribal confederation and in fact became the focus around which all Israel's traditions were organised.   After all,  a story of bold,  divinely inspired,  resistance to oppression was everybody's story.

A highly respected authority states that the language of the passage is more consistently archaic than that of any other prose or poetic work of some length in the Bible.   In his view this hymn is not merely one of the oldest compositions preserved in the scriptures.   It is the primary source for the central event in Israel's history.   It must derive from an annual celebratory festival observed at a shrine in tribal Israel,  and dates to the late twelfth or early eleventh century BCE.

Note that this account contains none of the dubious miracles  --  walls of water to pass between,  and daily feeding in the desert  --  which became standard in later retellings of the story.   The archaic version seems to imply only that the Egyptians,  caught in an intensifying storm,  were thrown from barges or ferries into the sea and sank like stones.   Or did a wild sea trap them as they were negotiating a causeway that would not have been a problem at a different time?   At any rate,  it is unlikely that this story is a pure fabrication.



The religion of tribal Israel

Tribal Israel came into existence under the umbrella of Canaanite religion.   Its people took for granted the divine realm of the gods,  but had room to develop their own feeling for how divinity related to them.   It is highly significant that when they needed a name to describe their movement they settled on  'Isra-el'.   It is not certain just how that should be translated,  but it does imply that El,  the patriarchal god in the Canaanite pantheon,  was the god that counted for them.   El is met often in the Hebrew scriptures  --  sometimes with just that name and an explanatory word accompanying it.   In the story of Genesis 14,  for example,  Melchizedek,  king of Salem,  blesses Abram in the name of  'El Elyon',  commonly translated  'God Most High'.   More common is the grammatically plural form  'Elohim',  translated simply 'God'.   Perhaps the preference for El had been characteristic of the Little Traditions of the common people.   The god Baal was certainly too closely associated with the triumphal religion of city­state rulers to be allowed to dominate the new environment.

The exodus group must have joined only after Israel had become conscious of itself as a united movement.   Otherwise the uniting name would have pointed to Yahweh rather than to El.   Yahweh was a characterisation of El that the newcomers brought with them,  and which was adopted by the tribes.   The Yahweh story was so powerful,  and the dynamic presentation of El (=Yahweh) was so exciting,  that wider Israel accepted these later arrivals  (under the name of Levites)  as religious guides.   Over time ancestral traditions that had developed in particular tribes or tribal groups  (e.g. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob)  were harmonised with the exodus story of the Levites,  so that one 'history' belonged to everybody.   The theme of revelation and covenant at Sinai was another element that needed to be elaborated and cemented in.

Although Yahweh was a tribal name for one of the gods of Canaanite mythology,  the religion of Yahweh was different from the Baal religions in particular.   The reason for the difference was that Yahwism reflected the experience and aspirations of the oppressed,  while Baalism was the religion of the oppressors.   Some of the special characteristics of tribal Yahwism were:

The theologian Karl Barth made the following observation,  which underlines a quality essential to the Yahwism of tribal Israel,  something which was never entirely left behind:

The human righteousness required by God,  and established in obedience  --  the righteousness which according to Amos 5:24 should pour down as a mighty stream  --  has necessarily the character of a vindication of right in favour of the threatened innocent,  the oppressed poor,  widows,  orphans,  and aliens.   For this reason,  in the relations and events in the life of his people,  God always takes his stand on this side and on this side alone:  against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly,  against those who already enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied and deprived of it.
Karl Barth is reporting a theme widespread in the Hebrew scriptures,  but it would be a mistake to suppose that this is how society generally worked.   The persistence with which prophets and others had to make the point is a sign that social elites of later times didn't take it nearly seriously enough.


The end of the experiment,
and the beginnings of the Bible

Israel lasted as a tribal society committed to equality and social justice for around two centuries.   Then the Philistine military threat seemed to demand the establishment of a monarchy for effective response.   Saul,  a Benjaminite,  was the first to be made king-commander of Israel.   The date was around 1020 BCE.   However Saul eventually died in battle.   After a time it became clear that only David,  from Judah,  was competent to follow him.   David dealt with the Philistines,  and then captured Jerusalem,  a Canaanite city,  and made it his capital.   There could be no return to the egalitarian ideal of tribal Israel.

The consequences were generally unhappy.   Most of what Israel had never wanted was re-established.

The ruler in an agrarian state required effective propaganda.   After all he was where he was not by natural right but because he happened to have the power.   David's position was particularly sensitive because it was known that he had been Saul's enemy.   He had even been in Philistine service at the time when Saul had been killed.   So David needed his public relations branch  (priests, scribes)  to put together a good story with the right spin,   to prove that his kingship was divinely ordained and altogether appropriate.   Probably,  the earliest major piece of writing in the Bible,  the document scholars refer to as  'J',  was in fact prepared in the first place for David,  to meet just this need.   'J'  begins in the second chapter of Genesis and is now to be found,  alongside other material,  in Genesis and Exodus and some parts of Numbers.   Some commentators suggest that traces of it appear also in Joshua and Judges.   'J'  took up the epic story of Israel as it had evolved,  and prefixed it with a mythological account of creation and divine purpose.   The document may have ended in Numbers with the children of Israel marching inexorably to their promised land.   See,  (original 'J' implied)  David's kingdom is the fulfilment of Yahweh's promises.   It is what Yahweh planned from the beginning.   However it is quite possible that,  when the Hebrew scriptures were finally assembled,  scribes suppressed the original ending of  'J',  as inappropriate in the light of later history.

After the split into two kingdoms the document  'J',  though it did preserve much of the lore and ethos of tribal Israel,  was felt,  in the north,  to be a poor representation of their religious basis.   It was too Judah-centred.   And it was curiously light-hearted in its depiction of Yahweh.   So  'J'  underwent a northern revision,  gaining additional material now labelled  'E'.   It was the combination  'JE'  which eventually ended up in the Old Testament.

Solomon's removal of the old­school chief priest did not wipe out all memory of the religious heritage of tribal Israel.   A continuing Levitical party in Judah felt that it was they who should be in charge of the temple.   Their big chance came towards the end of the monarchy.   A strong king,  Josiah,  made them his allies in social and religious affairs,  and encouraged them to produce documentary backing for their approach.   The books of Deuteronomy,  Joshua,  Judges,  Samuel and Kings resulted  --  a substantial part of the 'historical' material in the Hebrew scriptures.   This 'Deuteronomist' literature was assembled half a millenium or so after the collapse of tribal Israel,  and it had a preoccupation with the monarchical experience.   It has been given the scholarly label  'D'.   'D'  is an important component of biblical literature but,  if only for reasons of distance,  it has its limitations as a representation of founding traditions.   Its sponsors lost much of their influence after the death of Josiah.

In the monarchical period the earlier prophets were vigorous individual campaigners for founding principles.   Prophets believed they had been entrusted with the edicts of Yahweh,  which must be proclaimed.   Prophetic oracles were preserved  --  and substantially edited  --  in Levitical circles,  and incorporated in the Hebrew scriptures when these were finally assembled.   The prophets insisted that the nation's woes were divine retribution for failure to meet Yahweh's social and religious requirements.



Priestly religion

Entrenched priesthoods in their temples existed to serve the interests of rulers and elites.   Wise kings do seek to present themselves as men of goodwill towards all citizens.   The religion they espouse must express something of this.   Judah's priestly establishment did not gloss over the social concerns of the past.   But their influence was necessarily conservative.   They were bound to celebrate the current shape of their world as divinely ordained,  at least when things seemed to be going right.   It was a huge shock to the Jerusalem establishment,  especially to the priests,  when their city was overrun by the Babylonians,  the temple razed,  and most of the priests and top citizens carried off into exile.   The prophet Jeremiah had tried to make the point that the common people would be no worse off materially under Babylon than when they were subject to exploitation by the wealthy of Jerusalem,  and that it would be better for everyone if there were no resistance.   However priestly doctrine couldn't believe that Yahweh would allow the city to fall,  much less the temple to be destroyed  --  until it happened.

In the long run the outlook brightened for the priestly faction.   When the Persians took control of the Babylonian empire they chose to let exiles return to their homelands.   Their idea was to establish stable and compliant situations,  with local leadership responsive to Persian suzerainty.   Not much was to be expected in Judah  (they discovered)  from what was left of the Davidic royal line.   The Persians came to the conclusion that the religious leaders,  the high priest and his party,  should become the local rulers also.   The priests were rather happy about that.   The ruling interests they served as priests had become their own interests.

Around the beginning of the Persian period priestly scribes established the text of a large part of the Hebrew scriptures,  more or less as we have them today.   They picked up the earlier historical work,  'JE'  and  'D',  and edited and supplemented it to make it tell their story,  and to underwrite their own dominant position in Judah.   So we now find in Genesis,  Exodus,  and Numbers substantial additions showing a keen interest in the social and cultic law of which priests understood themselves to be the guardians and administrators.   The book of Leviticus is entirely priestly in origin.   Eventually they also produced,  in Chronicles,  a revision of the books of Samuel and Kings.   Scholars attach the label  'P'  to material recognised as the work of the priestly school.

When we read the Hebrew scriptures now we are,  for the most part,  seeing Israel and its system through priestly spectacles.   The creation account in Genesis 1  points to the heart of priestly belief.
In the beginning,   when God made heaven and earth,  the earth was formless and void.   There was darkness over the abyss,  and a mighty wind sweeping over the water.   God said,  "Let there be light",  and there was light.   God saw that the light was good,  and separated the light from the darkness.   He called the light 'day',  and the darkness 'night'.   Evening came and morning came:  the first day.   God said,  Let there be a vault in the midst of the waters,  dividing the waters in two."   And so it was.   God made the vault,  separating the water below the vault from the water above it.   God called the vault 'heaven'.   Evening came and morning came:  the second day.

God said,  "Let the waters under heaven be gathered into one place so that dry land may appear."   And so it was.   God called the dry land 'earth' and the gathered waters 'seas',  and God saw that it was good.   Then God said,  "Let the earth produce vegetation.   Let there be plants yielding seed,  and trees bearing fruit containing seed,   each according to its kind,  upon the earth."   And so it was.   The earth yielded vegetation,  plants giving seed according to their kind,  trees bearing fruit each containing seed according to its kind,  and God saw that it was good.   Evening came and morning came:  the third day.

God said,  "Let there be lights in the vault of heaven to separate day from night;  and let them indicate festivals,  days and years.   And let them shine in the vault of heaven to give light on earth."   And so it was.   God made the two great lights,   the greater to govern the day and the lesser to govern the night,  and with them he made the stars.   God put these lights in the vault of heaven to shine on earth,  to govern day and night,  and to divide light from darkness.   And God saw that it was good.   Evening came and morning came:  the fourth day.

God said,  "Let the waters teem with living creatures,  and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of heaven."   Then God created the great sea monsters and all the living creatures that move and swarm in the waters,  according to their kinds,  and every kind of bird.   And God saw that it was good.   So God blessed them and said,  "Be fruitful and multiply,  and fill the waters in the seas,  and let birds increase on the earth."   Evening came and morning came:  the fifth day.

God said,  "Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kind:  cattle,  creeping things,  and wild animals,  all according to their kind."   And it was so.   God made wild animals,  cattle,  and creeping things,  each according to its kind.   God saw that it was good.   Then God said,  "Let us make humankind in our own image and likeness,  and let them be masters of the fish of the sea,  the birds of heaven,  the cattle,  the wild animals,  and everything that crawls on the earth."  

So God created humankind in his own image,  the image of God.   He created them male and female.   God blessed them and said to them,  "Be fruitful and multiply,  fill the earth and subdue it.   Be masters of the fish of the sea,  the birds of heaven,  and every living thing that moves on the earth."   God also said,  "I give you all the seed-bearing plants on earth and every tree bearing seed-yielding fruit:  these shall be yours for food.   And all green plants I give for food to the wild animals,  to all the birds of heaven,  to everything that crawls on earth,  to every living creature."   And so it was.   God saw all that he had made and indeed it was very good.   Evening came and morning came:  the sixth day.

Thus heaven and earth were completed,  with all their array.   On the sixth day God finished the work he had been doing,  and he rested on the seventh day from all his work.   God blessed the seventh day and made it holy,  because on that day God rested from all his work of creation.

(Genesis 1:1 - 2:3)

We are told,  at the beginning of the Old Testament as the priests organised it,  that God created an orderly world in perfection,  and pronounced it good.   Priestly devotion required the preservation of creation with the goodness that God had endowed it with.   This explains many priestly laws which to us seem arbitrary.   God's creation was very tidy,  with a place for everything and everything in its place.   We can see why mixtures were frowned on in clothing or food.   God had said  "Be fruitful and multiply",  which in priestly eyes ruled out homosexuality.   God apparently had a clear perception of what was a true animal,  what was a bird,  what was a fish and so on.   Therefore,  when the eating of flesh  (subject to priestly oversight)  was later made legal  (Genesis 9:3-7, 'P'),  anything that didn't seem to fit the divine formula,  as well as anything that killed and ate  (thus shedding blood),  was rejected as food.   The creation story also established the seven­day week and the holiness of the sabbath.   This arrangement seems to have been unique,  to begin with,  to Judah's priestly tradition.

The special 'skill' of the priests was to recognize and interpret the perfection God intended for the world,   and to prescribe or perform the rituals required to correct or adjust or atone for shortcomings and failures  --  to repay debts to God incurred by misbehaviour.   Animal sacrifice was a central part of their responsibility   --  to the extent that the temple was virtually the national slaughterhouse.   Priests ate most of the sacrificial flesh  (which cannot have been good for their health).   They also collected the ten percent tithe tax which was supposed to keep the system functioning,  and meant also for charitable purposes.

The priestly class had a 'good thing' going.   But they presumably believed in what they were doing.   Some of their literary work shows that the priests  --  at least in the Persian period  --  did have a commitment to justice.   They taught that one law applied to all.   However,  if the delivery of justice is entrusted to the rich it is difficult to ensure impartiality,  and difficult for the judges to enter imaginatively into the necessities of the poor.   It would not have been easy for the priests to understand that their own affluence contributed directly to the distress of others.   They would have believed that to be fortunate meant they stood in the favour of God.   To be in trouble meant one must in some way be guilty before God.

As time passed,  the pursuit of power and wealth came increasingly to dominate priestly motivation.   The temple hierarchy of the time of Jesus was not in continuity with that of the Persian period,  though they were working much the same system.   The Christian scriptures have nothing complimentary to say about the priests of the day.



Jesus of Nazareth

Nazareth was an agricultural village   --  that is,   a peasant community  --   a satellite of the former Galilean capital city,  Sepphoris.   Its culture was Judean.   As far as we can tell,  Jesus was born as well as raised there.   If he and his father were artisans they were even lower in social standing than peasants working the land.   The situation in Palestine in the time of Jesus,  and at least through the first century,  was as oppressive as at almost any period in the history of the region.   Exploiters of the common people included the Roman colonial power,  the immediate rulers under the Romans  (Herods or the Roman procurator),  and the temple­based religious system.   Debt was increasing,  with the wealthy of Jerusalem,  in particular,  profiting.   Family life was under threat because of financial pressures.

Jesus was sensitive to the prophetic call for social justice and caring community.   A society functioning according to such a rule would indeed be  'the kingdom of God'.   Jesus accepted the vocation to bring about the kingdom of God in his environment.   He made a powerful impression in a short period of time.   Finally,  he took his message to Jerusalem.   An act of defiance in the temple courtyard led to his being arrested by the temple authorities and handed over to the Romans,  who executed him as a dangerous agitator.

After his death some of those who had been close to Jesus had visionary experiences of him.   There was an ongoing awareness of his spiritual presence and guidance.   In some parts of the surviving Jesus movement  (but not in all)  the belief arose that he had been returned to earthly life and then carried into heaven.   Such belief demanded a conception of the divine realm after the old Canaanite pattern.   This had never been superseded,  except that the subordinate gods had been re-imagined as angels.

What eventually became the dominant strand in the Christian movement found it appropriate to 'theologise' Jesus,  using hints they found in the Hebrew scriptures,  and the language of the temple's sacrifical theory and system.   Christian documents that expressed this (mis)understanding were chosen to become official in the church.   Jesus himself knew none of this theology,  and would have deplored it.   He did not regard himself as the 'messiah'  or his own death as uniquely redemptive.   He did not prescribe what are now the Christian sacraments.



The kingdom of God

In the companion file  "Jesus sayings"  there is assembled a comprehensive collection of the gospel material which is most likely to reflect things that Jesus actually said.   Our best chance of getting to grips with his concerns is to work through these sayings.   But understanding does not always come easily.

Jesus summed up his teaching in the phrase   "the kingdom of God",  which meant community under God's rule.   For Jesus this certainly did not imply biblical legalism.   Nor did it establish the authority of the temple priesthood and their emissaries.   It was much more a matter of getting back to the prophets' emphasis on Israel's founding inspiration.

One problem we have is that our way of thinking about relationships is very different from that of first century Mediterranean people.   We are individuals,  understanding ourselves introspectively.   We think out who we are.   They were group-oriented.   They were who­they­were because they were incorporated in a particular community.   They were defined by their community and by the way others regarded them,  not by what they thought of themselves.   Conscience was the accusing voice of others,  not an interior sense of guilt.   Most often the reference group was the family.   But it could be a group constituted in a different way.

Jesus was calling people into a new community under God,  which he intended as an effective response to society's ills.   That meant leaving an old community which was not proving equal to the challenge of the times.   'Hating'  the members of your family did not imply violent antipathy  (though that could happen).   It did mean detachment from the old and attachment to the new.

Jesus was renowned as a healer and as one who could drive out demons.   He expected the same skills to appear in his community.   Anthropologists explain to us that in his situation healing didn't mean curing the disease.   It meant finding a solution for the psychic and social calamity that had befallen people because of their condition.   (Think of the problems of the 'leper' in biblical times or a sufferer from AIDS in our day.)

The situation in colonial Palestine could push some people over the edge into insanity,  which would be explained as demon possession.   The response of an authoritative but compassionate person,  and then of a caring community,  could change the outcome  --  could be healing  --  in either circumstance.



Religion now

There have been two great creative events in our religious history  --  the birth of Israel and the mission undertaken by Jesus of Nazareth.   Both were born of the sufferings of the little people at the hands of the powerful and the wealthy.

If there are lessons to be learned from our exploration of this history,  they may perhaps be summarised in these propositions:




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      Sheffield:   Sheffield Academic Press,    1999     (first published Orbis 1979)

Cross,  Frank Moore         Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic      
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Gottwald,  NK  and  Horsley,  RA  editors         The Bible and Liberation      
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Coote, RB and Ord, DR         The Bible's First History   ['J']      
      Philadelphia:   Fortress,   1989

Coote, RB          In Defense of Revolution   ['E']      
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Coote, RB and Ord, DR         In the Beginning   ['P']      
      Minneapolis:   Fortress,   1991

Coote, RB and Coote, MP         Power,  Politics,  and the Making of the Bible      
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Gottwald,  Norman K         The Hebrew Bible  -  A Socio-Literary Introduction      
      Philadelphia:   Fortress,   1985

Crossan, John Dominic       In Fragments  --  The Aphorisms of Jesus
      San Francisco:  Harper,  1983

Crossan, John Dominic        The Historical Jesus  -  The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant     
      San Francisco:   Harper,   1991

Crossan, John Dominic          Jesus   -   a Revolutionary Biography      
      New York:   HarperCollins,   1994

Crossan, John Dominic          Four Other Gospels     
      Sonoma California:   Polebridge,   1992     [prev. 1985 - Harper & Row]

Crossan, John Dominic          The Cross that Spoke   -  the Origins of the Passion Narrative  
      New York:   Harper & Row,   1988

Crossan, John Dominic          Who Killed Jesus?      
      New York:   HarperCollins,   1995

Borg, Marcus J          Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time      
      New York:   HarperCollins,   1994

The Jesus Seminar         The Five Gospels      
      New York:   Macmillan,   1993

The Jesus Seminar         The Acts of Jesus      
      New York:   HarperCollins,   1998

The Jesus Seminar,        The Complete Gospels   -   Scholars Version
      New York:   HarperCollins,   Third edition 1994

Horsley, Richard A          Sociology and the Jesus Movement      
      New York:   Crossroad,   1989

Malina, B,   Rohrbaugh, RL          Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels      
      Minneapolis:   Fortress,   1992

Pervo, Richard I          Profit with Delight  --  Literary Genre of Acts      

Myers, Ched          Binding the Strong Man   [Mark]      
      Maryknoll, New York:   Orbis,   1988

Herzog, William R          Parables as Subversive Speech      
      Louisville, Kentucky:   Westminster / John Knox,   1994

Keck, L Robert          Sacred Quest:  the evolution and future of the human soul      
      West Chester, Pennsylvania:   Chrysalis Books,   2000



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