|Posted by [email protected] on February 12, 2013 at 11:20 PM||comments (8)|
Any authentic Christian should be prepared to go beyond received theological verities and look at the historical background to Easter. When this is fused with the gospel accounts, Christ tends to emerge more as a humanist activist than a sacrificial redeemer.
For the past two thousand years, Christians have accepted St Paul’s view that Jesus was the sacrificial Lamb of God whose death on the cross atoned for human sin, providing salvation as a ‘free gift’. But unlike Paul of Tarsus, James and the intimate disciples of Jesus saw no redemptive value in his crucifixion, continued to observe Yom Kippur and remained firmly wedded to Judaism. They accepted Jesus as a Messiah but believed redemption would only be secured by a second coming and thought that would not happen until real attempts were made to improve the world, to achieve “the final recovery of all things from sin”(Acts 3:21). To this end, they worked tirelessly to help the sick and the poor and continued Christ’s campaign against the corrupt religious elites based inthe Jerusalem Temple. Professor JD Crossan is just one of many scholars who now see Jesus and his Apostles steeped in in this Judaic prophetic tradition, elevating a thirst for justice, forgiveness, non violence and compassionate activism as ‘the new cornerstone’, the supreme commandment of Judaic law.
Unlike the original Apostles, Paul's vision of Christ as redeemer arose from an epiphany- metaphysical voices and hallucinations. But while his Christology gradually prevailed over theirs, it is their more humanist perspective that dominates the four gospels, even though they were written decades after Christ’s death when Paul’s influence was at its zenith. Indeed, for anyone not saturated in Christian orthodoxy, it is hard tofind any gospel validation for Paul’s take on the crucifixion. There is only one reference in Matthew’s gospel where Christ said he was shedding his blood “to forgive the sins of multitudes” (Matt 26:28) and Paul seems to have hitched his wagon to this verse. Yet when thosewords are placed in the historical context of Christ’s mission, they take on a very different meaning to the one Paul distilled.
In Galilee where Christ focused most of his campaign, there were ‘multitudes’ afflicted with widespread disease and rural poverty, often caused by the dispossession of their land. The dominant landowners were the Sadducean aristocracy who also comprised the priesthood at the Jerusalem Temple. Their strategy was to impose heavy religious taxes (tithes) and then evict indebted farmers from their land.The Sadducees were assisted in this task by an extremist Pharisaic sect called the Shammaites who imposed a strict ‘purity code’ that stigmatized suffering and adversity as a punishment from God for sinfulness. In relieving the physical suffering, Christ emphasized he was also forgiving the sin and thus by extension, removing the psychological burden of guilt.
But in what sense was Jesus ‘shedding his blood’ for these unfortunates?
The event that triggered Christ’s crucifixion was his assault on the Jerusalem Temple which of course, had a monopoly on forgiveness of sins. John the Baptist and the Essenes sect had broken with Temple Judaism and both offered alternative rituals of forgiveness. But Christ’s dispensation of sin went way beyond rituals and symbolic forgiveness. His healing miracles eradicated the sin altogether by actually curing people, re-empowering them and giving them new hope. Here was a competing power of forgiveness that had the potential to put ‘Temple Inc’ out of business. Its priests arrested him and demanded his crucifixion.
So was Christ saving us or showing us how to save ourselves? If the former, he surely could have contrived a far simpler way to get himself crucified. But if it was the latter, perhaps this Easter we should consider Christ’s demand that we ‘take up our own crosses’ and, like the early Jewish Christians, hone our compassionate sensibilities, resolving to do our utmost to make this world more worthy of its creator. After his physical assault on Temple, Jesus did not go inside to pray or worship. Instead he proceeded to heal “the blind and the crippled” who were brought to him there. That is how he chose to glorify God, not on his knees but in the real world of pain and torment. James clearly prioritized this humanist activism over self-serving faith (James 2:17). In a world where ‘multitudes’ are still screaming out in agony in places like the Congo, perhaps Christians should take their cue from James rather than Paul and focus far more on this world than the next, if they are to find redemption in either.