Jesus of Nazareth
Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. ~ Jesus [Mark 16:15-16]
Jesus was born within a few years before the death of Herod the Great, king of Judea, who died in 4 BCE. Jesus came from a respectable family.
Jesus was provincial: growing up in the town of Nazareth and living his life in Galilee, the province where Nazareth was situated. Galilee at the time was hick, half-pagan. Jesus’ thick northern accent alone would have got him noticed in cosmopolitan Jerusalem.
The gospels’ mythic story of being born in a manger to a virgin, celebrated by angels and others in at infancy as the promised savior, belies that virtually nothing is known of Jesus’ life from birth until around the age of 30.
The gospels portray a Jesus that received a sound education in Old Testament scriptures, probably at a local synagogue school. But that does not fit with the fact that Jesus was a carpenter by trade, and laborers were seldom keen on academics.
Jesus’ first-known public gig was at the behest of a respected relative, John “the Baptist.” Jesus joined John’s mission in the southern province of Judea and got himself baptized in the River Jordan.
Jesus was impressed by John’s large following. But before he could start his own ministry, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” [Mark 1:12-13]
Jesus heard of John’s arrest. Herod imprisoned John for denouncing Herod’s marriage to Mariamne, a teenaged niece to Antigonus, a man of power in Rome.
Herod’s marital currying-of-favor was complicated by the fact that he was already married. After marrying Mariamne, Herod had his 1st wife, Doris, and his 3-year-old son, Antipater II, banished. After Maiamne’s death, Herod recalled Antipater II, and made him 1st heir in his will. Years later, Antipater II was executed for murdering Herod.
Having had enough of hanging out with Satan, and weary of the angelic service available in the wilderness, Jesus moved back to Galilee after John was imprisoned. Certainly, John’s departure from the scene was a convenient opportunity for an aspiring messiah.
Jesus’ initial hometown reception, in Nazareth, was one of “unbelief.” [Mark 6:6] Nazareth at the time may have had 300 or so residents. Most would have known him personally, and more than a few would have been kin.
The report in Mark of Jesus’ return to Nazareth was that he was unable to demonstrate any miracles commensurate with his self-acclaimed power: “he could do no deed of power there.” [Mark 6:5] So “he went about among the villages teaching.” [Mark 6:6]
Like other Jewish preachers at the time, Jesus consolidated his ministry by gathering a group of disciples, of whom he demanded an absolute commitment to the ideals he preached. They were an odd bunch. Jesus was outrageously unorthodox in his egalitarianism: he welcomed non-Jews as followers, including a Syrian woman. Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and had women disciples, at a time when women as disciples was more than irregular.
Following the ministerial pyramid scheme common at the time, Jesus’ disciples were trained and went out on their own preaching and healing missions. Jesus taught his disciples to see themselves as special, to set themselves as apart from others, and, of course, proselytize new converts to belief in Jesus. A core group of 12 disciples were Jesus’ constant companions.
Jesus’ enthusiastic followers came to see him as a political savior, hoping that he would lead them in rebellion against Rome. But Jesus made plain that his idea of salvation was spiritual, not political. This disappointed those who hoped that Jesus would be a militant messiah. His popular following dwindled.
Though he stayed on as a disciple, Judas became disillusioned enough to betray his chosen master for 30 pieces of silver. Jesus was generally an enigma even to his disciples.
Jesus reportedly foretold his death to his disciples, with the expectation that they would be the locus of a new community dedicated to his teachings.
Jesus’ teachings, popularity, and unorthodoxy earned him opposition from the local religious establishment, where he was increasingly seen as a threat. Jesus made no secret of his contempt for affluence: giving up a secure livelihood as a tradesman to live off the beneficence of others. Jesus’ contempt for materialism by itself made the religious establishment uncomfortable.
Jesus’ sermons often told stories of the striving and downtrodden, the very people he preached to. These were parables to love and justice, hard to come by in life but to be had unto death. Any believer, no matter how low, could enter Heaven: a very appealing message to his audience.
With his egalitarian stance, Jesus appeared to follow in Buddha’s footsteps as a radical of his time. Jesus’ famous story of a good Samaritan was made at the expense of respectable Jewish clerics. Those clerics weren’t the ones that Jesus was living off of or trying to attract as followers.
Jesus’ take on religious issues was also heretical. He was no stickler for the observance of the Sabbath, declaring that ritual purification mattered less than purity of heart.
Jesus reinterpreted Old Testament law: away from mere rule-keeping to a more disciplined lifestyle that fit his creed. Jesus confidently declared his understanding of the will of God in a way that cut through centuries of tradition, putting him at odds with the major sects at the time, most notably the Pharisees and upper-class Sadducees who ran the major temples. This squares with a man dedicated to blazing his own path using the strategy of polarization.
I have not come to bring peace, but the sword. ~ Jesus [Matthew 10:34]
After honing his skills with a shamanistic ministry of healing and exorcism of evil spirits, Jesus proceeded to put a new coat of paint on an old trick: apocalypse now.
500 years earlier, the 8th-century BCE prophet Isaiah reputedly beseeched the people of Israel to turn back to Yahweh or suffer dire consequences (which never occurred).
The land will be completely laid waste and totally plundered. The Lord has spoken this word. ~ Isiah [Isaiah 24:3]
Like Isaiah, Jesus made apocalyptic predictions which did not come to pass. Jesus taught that the Jewish nation was ripe for God’s judgment, even predicting the destruction of a local Jewish temple, which continued to stand despite Jesus’ ill will.
Jesus said that very soon the day of salvation would arrive, when good would triumph over evil; hence the Bible books as “gospel,” as in “glad tidings.” In Galilee, Jesus proclaimed the good news of God’s impending arrival, saying: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” [Mark 1:14-15] In Mark, “the kingdom of God” was imminent.
Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power. ~ Jesus [Mark 9:1]
By the time the book of Luke was written, “the kingdom of God” had become metaphysical, not tangible. Asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” [Luke 17:20-21]
After months in the hinterlands, Jesus entered Jerusalem in time for the Passover festival that would be his last. Jesus’ reputation preceded him, and he was enthusiastically welcomed by the crowds, who expected him to declare himself their leader. Instead, Jesus harangued the religious authorities but showed no inclination to the political revolt that his followers longed for.
As a supposed symbolic gesture, Jesus – angry at business-as-usual – “purified” a Jerusalem temple during Passover by violently expelling the traders who exchanged currency and plied their goods in the temple market. The market was supported by the priests there, both to increase traffic to the temple and for their cut of the take. Violence begets violence, as Jesus would soon learn.
One is reasonably left wondering whether Jesus set himself up as a martyr. Surely, he knew he would disappoint his larger following by not grasping the brass knuckles of political revolt. His own disciples were shaky about Jesus’ mission, as events would soon prove.
With an assist from one of his disciples, Jesus was arrested and found guilty of blasphemy for declaring himself the Son of God. But for his death sentence to be legally carried out, a Roman conviction was necessary. The final irony of Jesus’ life story was that he was found guilty of sedition, even as he had forfeited popular following by refusing to be a political revolutionary.
The slow-killing torture of crucifixion was reserved for low-class criminals. It was a final humiliation to be hung naked in public.
Many lasted days on the cross before expiring, though breaking the legs hastens the process: one dies of suffocation while crucified when one can no longer support one’s weight. Jesus only hung for 6 hours before being taken down for dead, and, because of his hasty retreat from breathing, his legs were never broken. (Contrary to common depiction, Jesus was not nailed to the cross: he was bound by rope, as was common. Further, Jesus did not carry the cross: the cross was already in place.)
Those crucified were generally left to rot. According to Jewish beliefs, proper burial was a prerequisite for a successful afterlife.
A well-to-do follower had Jesus entombed. There is no mention in the Bible as to whether this was prearranged.
Jesus’ tomb was found empty 2 days after his placement there. This was not nearly the shock as a resurrected Jesus coming around for visits: one-on-one and group meetings with disciples.
Jesus’ spontaneous appearances reputedly went on for a few weeks. Though he appeared alive and real, Jesus would appear and disappear suddenly, no longer bound by the corporeal constraint of using the door to get in or out of the room.
Jesus was both the messenger and the message. Only after his resurrection did Jesus’ message come across: that he was Christ, Lord, and Savior. This took considerable haranguing from the Messiah himself, back from the dead to drive the point home. According to Jesus, he himself was the object of worship.
During his life, Jesus’ teachings were very much of his time, reflecting the Jews’ predicament. This was a surefire rhetorical formula. Socially, Jesus’ teachings were profoundly communistic: a sense of shared family with those of the faith, where materialism and social standing took a backseat to righteousness.
Politically, Jesus made no attempt to reconcile with the religious establishment. Jesus’ approach was consistently confrontational, and, in the famous temple-cleansing incident, violent. This was not the thoughtless act of an impetuous youth finding his way. This was the Messiah in his prime (though his prime was only a very few years).
In the most reliable account of Jesus – the book of Mark – “love” is mentioned twice, in only 1 passage. Asked by a scribe the most important commandment, Jesus answered: “You shall love the Lord your God,” [Mark 12:29-30] and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Mark 12:31]
Loving your neighbor makes for local social harmony. Loving all of humanity is an extrapolation that Jesus never made.
Mark makes no mention that God loves you. Instead:
If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. ~ Mark 9:42, The Bible
Hell is for unbelievers. “Get on board or be damned” was Jesus’ message. (The notion of being morally judged in the afterlife for one’s life on Earth stared with 5th-century-BCE Greeks.)
Jesus was thoroughly Islamic in teaching jihad against those who do not believe as you do. His violent disrespect of the establishment was an overriding message. Yet the Old Testament of the Bible contradictorily records:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. ~ Hebrews 13:17, The Bible
When the psychic message supposedly came in, impending death troubled Jesus, who prayed in a garden in Gethsemane that such a fate might pass him by.
He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ ~ Mark 14:33-36, The Bible
Not exactly a profile in courage from the Son of God, nor even of a man in on the plan. If he was not setting himself up, Jesus’ failure to recognize the political implications of his positions and actions shows a remarkable cluelessness, amplified in time by his legacy.
Jesus’ own violent death was karmic: what goes around comes around. There is no record that Jesus even realized those implications after his resurrection. Non-violence simply was not in Jesus’ lexicon. Instead, he came back from the dead to scold his disciples for disbelief of his standing as the Messiah, capable of bodily resurrection.
Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. ~ Mark 16:14, The Bible
Not exactly compassion in action, not to mention a strong statement about the ineffectiveness of his teachings: that his closest disciples hardly believed in him.
Jesus’ popularity stemmed from his power as a healer, and the vested hope that he would be a savior to his people. As a savior of any sort in his own time, Jesus utterly failed.
In his life, Jesus was believed by few as the Messiah he claimed to be. Instead, Jesus confused many, including his closest disciples.
The idea that Jesus was a savior is nonsense. His basic message, that those who believe will be saved, and all others condemned, was vitriolic: a veiled call to violence, and spiritually bankrupt.
These signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. ~ Mark 16:16-17, The Bible
The above goes beyond bad advice to being positively psychotic, raising the serious question, to those of rational bent, of how much stock to put in a messianic dead guy who set himself up to be killed after being betrayed and disavowed by his own disciples.
One possible rebuttal to selective citation of the New Testament is that Jesus’ message has been distorted. That rebuttal argument simply points to the shambles that Jesus left behind: no writings of his own, and or even his disciples, except Paul’s deranged letters of vacuous and sometimes surreal faith.
Buddha did not bother to write either. But oral tradition served his legacy well. The same cannot be said of Jesus.
Miracles may be lovely things, but the man behind them – impulsively given to emotional outburst – behaved in a narcissistic, monomaniacal manner. Jesus of Nazareth was not a role model for anyone spiritually inclined.
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Whatever personal foibles Jesus possessed, his presence in Western history has been overwhelming. For over a century after his death, such notoriety was in no way assured.
Persecution was the lesser of the dangers facing early Christians. The greater threat was obscurity. Christianity might have been relegated to cult status, like many other sects in the Roman Empire; and like them, end up engulfed in the morass of mystical ancient religions.
Cult religions with impressive rituals were very popular. Some offered astrology, and even magic. Coming back from the dead was not the only impressive parlor trick in town.
Christianity was saved from oblivion by a handful of vital proselytizers in the first 2 centuries of its existence. Their approach was, above all, intellectual.
One of the pilots who steered emerging Christian theology through the shoals of the times was Greek theologian Clement of Alexandria, a Christian Platonist who taught the reasonableness of God’s truths in a way that attracted men steeped in Stoicism. It was savvy marketing. Thus, Christianity separated itself from the cult pack, not through Jesus’ supposed miracles, but by enfolding it within Hellenistic tradition while providing a spiritual vigor that was appealing to people living in an empire in decline owing to moral vacuity (among other factors).