Jesus Probably* Wasn’t Pro-Life**

The modern person would scarcely recognize the political landscape of 1979, the year when Paul Weyrich is said to have first met with Jerry Falwell.

Polling in the 1960s consistently revealed that most Americans believed abortion should be legal in most cases and that the issue, if anything, was a women’s health issue. This was true among people you wouldn’t expect. Abortion access was liberalized in such conservative states as North Carolina in 1967, Georgia in 1968, Kansas in 1969, Arkansas in 1969, Virginia in 1970, and South Carolina in 1970.

This was consistent with the conservative faith institutions that constituted the majority of these states. In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” Two years later, a 7-2 majority of the United States Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade held that a woman has a right to an abortion until the third trimester of her pregnancy. The decision went mostly unnoticed. In fact, after Roe was decided the Southern Baptist Convention in 1974 reaffirmed its 1971 position and reaffirmed it again in 1976. W. A. Criswell, the Southern Baptist Convention’s president, went on the record saying, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”

This probably strikes you as complete bonkers.

There was a time when the issue was not so atomic. In fact, and perhaps even more surprising, the states that most resisted liberalizing abortion access were the northeastern states—those same states that today overwhelmingly elect pro-choice candidates. What held these states back in that time was that they were overwhelmingly Catholic.

Obviously the political landscape is different today, but you as a modern citizen need to understand why. There’s a lot of history and a lot of money and a lot of cynicism behind why this issue went from mildly controversial at best to the single defining issue in American politics. I find the story nothing short of disturbing.

First, I’m going to explain what happened. The story is well-documented in the historical record. Second, I’m going to talk about how Jesus probably* viewed the issue. I think both parts of this essay are going to surprise you.

A Cynical Beginning

Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which held that racial segregation of public schools violates the United States Constitution, and following President Eisenhower’s enlistment of the National Guard to enforce the decision, church-run schools proliferated throughout the American South in the 1960s. These schools ensured that white families would not have to send their children to schools that admitted non-white children. The practice was so pervasive that they earned the name “segregation academies.”

The 1960s was also a time when most of the think tanks and advocacy organizations that made up Washington D.C. leaned liberal—think school desegregation. But the ethos of the American South really began its systematic infiltration of Washington in 1970, when the IRS issued Revenue Rule 71-447, which revoked exempt status for private schools that discriminated on the basis of race. Major funding for conservative causes and organizations skyrocketed after this decision. In this new environment that was suddenly flush with interested conservative cash, Paul Weyrich in 1973 co-founded the Heritage Foundation, which devoted itself to free enterprise, limited government, and a strong national defense. While its backers were almost entirely large commercial interests, Weyrich had an idea that would distinguish his organization from the few other conservative organizations.

Even though, as I said earlier, liberal organizations far outnumbered conservative organizations at this time, the Heritage Foundation was not completely alone. By 1973, the American Enterprise Institute had been around for more than three decades and had fiercely, but with little to show for it, opposed FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s and 40s, Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960s, and Nixon’s Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act of 1970.

Where Paul Weyrich and his the Heritage Foundation differed from other anti-government organizations was their targeting of the long politically dormant evangelical Christian community to form a voting bloc with whom they could shoehorn conservative social issues with their otherwise unpopular pro-big-business causes. At first these efforts were unsuccessful. Weyrich tried a whole host of issues—pornography was one—but nothing seemed to fire them up enough to consolidate a voting bloc.

That is until the Catholic, Paul Weyrich, met with the megachurch Baptist preacher, Jerry Falwell, and convinced Falwell to steer evangelicals to politics and specifically to the issue of abortion.

The idea was that if, instead of framing the issue as when does science tell us that life begins, the issue could be framed as godless liberal feminists just want to be able to kill babies so they can have more sex and we have to stop them, ordinary people could be manipulated to support any politician as long as they prayed to God and saluted the flag and were on the right side of the should-we-be-able-to-kill-babies question.

And it worked brilliantly.

Indeed, were there some group out there advocating to kill babies, I would agree that a political movement would need to consolidate against them. It would dramatically change my priorities. It would influence which sources I trusted. If the smart people in the we-shouldn’t-kill-babies group advocated tax cuts for the wealthy, I would support tax cuts for the wealthy. If they told me that climate change is a hoax, I would believe it was a hoax. If they delivered an alert to my television screen every time some non-white person committed a crime in a downtown setting, I would live far away in the suburbs and put my children in private schools. There are many reasons why fetuses should be deemed a human life sometime after conception, but because conservatives have been trained for so long to equate pro choice with anti life, our society is divided into two groups who increasingly cannot speak to each other. No matter how much science and data and decency might be found in some good idea, if it comes from the baby killing group, it would be inherently suspect.

What you’ve just read was the impetus behind the Moral Majority, the 1979 brainchild of Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell, the key mobilizing force of evangelical Christians beginning in the 1980s, and almost everything you hate about politics in 2018. If you want to understand why 81% of white evangelical Christians cast their vote for the President of the United States of America on a guy who bragged about regularly sexually assaulting women, you need to understand that most of them believe they are the last humans on earth who care about human life. Donald Trump, however flawed, had promised them early and often that he would give them their long-sought fifth anti-Roe vote on the United States Supreme Court.

And he delivered.

Jesus?

Just because the modern pro-life movement owes its beginning to such cynicism does not per se make it wrong. I too cast my party-line votes each election cycle for candidates whose true motivations I will never know. I do this because they vote for policies that I believe further my values. My values are formed from many sources, but chief among them is my confession that Jesus is Lord.

So, what did Jesus think?

Can we know that?

Actually, we can—and with more certainty than you might think.

But first we need to untangle a few things, starting with the Bible. When modern Christians gird themselves in the armor of God and unsheathe their sword of the word, the scriptures they usually fling around are Psalm c139 v13, Jeremiah c1 v5, or Isaiah c44 v24. Each of these verses have in common the idea of Yahweh knowing humans so intimately that they are known even before they are born. To express this idea, each writer uses language that can be translated from the Hebrew as having been known “in the womb.”

Which is why I find it so interesting that 83% of Jews—who for thousands of years have shared these biblical sources along with Christian believers in Yahweh—believe that in all or most cases abortion should be legal. No doubt, that most modern Jews disagree on an issue with modern evangelicals doesn’t prove anything, but it certainly demands interest. Jews and modern evangelical Christians share so much scripture and yet disagree so profoundly on this issue. Considering that Christians go to the Old Testament for 100% of their proof texts against abortion, I think it intellectually dishonest not to wonder why Jews see the issue so differently.

For one thing, Jewish people have always had a very different relationship to the Bible than modern evangelical Christians. They view each part of the Bible with far more nuance. The Bible for them, rightly, is not an instruction manual for how to avoid burning in fire for eternity after you die. Its parts are not equals, are in conversation with each other, and sometimes disagree. Specifically, they don’t go to psalms for ethical and legal authority. The psalmists and the prophets are sought after for their poetry, their advocacy for justice, and their worship liturgy—but not as legal authorities.

On the legal question of when life begins, the Jewish rabbis do their work through the Torah, specifically the laws of compensation in the Old Testament book of Exodus. According to the Old Testament book of Exodus, one who deliberately kills someone is guilty of murder, so it would seem then that if a fetus was considered a life, a person who for some culpable reason killed a fetus would also be guilty of murder. But the Torah doesn’t do this.

Instead, the rabbis do their interpretative work through a scenario described in this same section of Exodus in which two men are in a fight and one of them strikes a nearby pregnant woman and the blow causes her to miscarry. What the rabbis note about that passage is that the offender is guilty of a capital offense if the mother dies, but if her only harm is the loss of the fetus, the case is treated as one of property damage. Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, an ultra-Orthodox Jew wrote in his legal treatise, the Tzitz Eliezer, “It is clear that in Jewish law an Israelite is not liable to capital punishment for feticide. . . . An Israelite woman was permitted to undergo a therapeutic abortion, even though her life was not at stake. . . . This permissive ruling applies even when there is no direct threat to the life of the mother, but merely a need to save her from great pain, which falls within the rubric of ‘great need.’”

I find the Jewish commentary on abortion remarkable for two reasons. First, Jesus, from his birth to his ascension, was an observant rabbinic Jew, and so was every single person who wrote every single letter of your Bible. Second, this interpretation goes way back. Based on the writings we have in the Talmud (a collection of rabbinic interpretations of Torah that existed during Jesus’s time and even earlier) this was almost certainly the view of Jewish people when Jesus was alive.

These two points are remarkable to me because, if in fact Jesus disagreed with the Jewish authorities on the question on when life begins, the fact that the gospel writers included none of it would have been an incredible miss. Jesus was not afraid to disagree with the Pharisees and Sadducees on points of the law, and the gospel writers were not afraid to tell you about it.

*When I say that Jesus “probably” wasn’t pro-life**, I mean that Jesus almost certainly wasn’t pro-life. I simply cannot imagine that he believed life began at conception. It would defy everything I know.

**(as conservatives define the term)

Now, I want to be careful, lest this essay unleash a torrent of well-deserved backlash. First, while the Jewish authorities have never viewed fetuses as fully human and while they overwhelmingly support the public legalization of abortion, their views differ on what harm to the mother that must be substantiated before permitting an abortion. Virtually all hold that abortion is not just permitted but demanded when the mother’s life is at stake. They also virtually hold that abortion is never a capital offense. The rabbis differ on what harm is required to the mother for the act to be considered not sinful. For these reasons, I want to be very clear about my purposes behind this essay.

My purpose here is to cool the room down.

I want you to question what you have always thought absolutely certain.

I want to open you up to asking more questions.

I want to open you up to people whose opinions you never found worth hearing.

I want to kindle your interest in scientists and feminists and ancient Jewish rabbis and modern Jewish rabbis and the Jewish rabbi named Jesus.

I want to free you from being a single-issue voter.

I want you to understand that the modern movement against abortion is mostly a manufactured one.

Because right now I think most of you are just getting played with junk theology and junk science.

Despite the manufactured frenzy around “late-term” abortions, they are not legal and never have been. 92% of abortions take place in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy. Of the 1.2% of abortions that take place at or after 21 weeks, almost all of them are performed to protect the life of the mother. And as for the fetus feeling pain? Neurons in the spinal cord do not form until week 23, which is about the point when the third trimester begins and abortions are no longer legal. The nerve fibers that connect to pain receptors in the cerebral cortex don’t form until, at earliest, 26 weeks. And the brain does not activate until about week 30.

Finally, while we are apt to demonize women who have an abortion for “financial reasons,” we usually miss the fact that most women who terminate a pregnancy live below the federal poverty line. We are talking in large part about women who have virtually no way to raise a child.

I don’t blame conservative evangelicals for their unwavering single-issue voting stance. I don’t blame them for their aversion to people who differ in this way. I too was a conservative evangelical and for most of my life their views were my views. If this describes you, I believe you are wrong, but I also believe you mean well. I am not angry at you.

But I am angry.

Because we are systematically manipulated to scapegoat our most vulnerable women and force them to carry a yolk they cannot bear—in the name of the Lord.

Because an elected group of overwhelmingly white men will on one day vote to restrict abortion access and on the next day vote to cut benefits to poor single mothers—in the name of the Lord.

Because on one day they will vote to protect life and on the next day all but ensure that life will consist of bitter misery—in the name of the Lord.

Because they will show up to the National Prayer Breakfast and bow in prayer and quote some Bible and salute the flag and proclaim some imaginary nonsense about the Founders and run ads in your district with promises to protect this country from terrorists and from all others who have no value for human life and we all know that means women who make the choice to terminate a pregnancy.

Because this little pious routine guarantees them success every election cycle.

And once elected they are free to do whatever they want and without consequence.

And cloaked in the protection of the Almighty (and their wealthy donors), they do.

They go to work every day and protect the extravagantly wealthy from anything that might possibly require contributing more to the poor mothers who must now endure even more pressure than the pressure they already did not know how to endure.

I am angry, but it is not with you that I am angry.

I am angry at the greedy and cowardly people in power who in the name of God protect themselves and their positions at the expense of poor single mothers and everyone else.

I have no doubt it will continue long after I’ve published this insignificant essay from this insignificant blog. I’m not the first or the smartest person to share these ideas. But now you know where I stand and why.

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“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 8

I spent the first half of the year portraying the Bible as the freeing thing that it is instead of the enslaving thing that we’ve made it. And I’ve spent the second half of the year working on your spirituality becoming more earthy. So today we’re going to tackle what you surely have been thinking is the most obvious question.

Why was Jesus baptized?

(didn’t see that coming, did you?)

The Bible provides little about Jesus’s life until the day he went to the Jordan River to visit his thunderous but mysterious cousin, John. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke inform us that John was immersing large crowds in the Jordan River in a “baptism of repentance.” Jesus traveled among the crowds to participate in these baptisms. Now, before I go any further, let’s stop right there and pay attention to what should be a nagging problem.

According to all the atonement theory I heard growing up, God needs stuff to die when we sin and Jesus could perfectly atone for our sins as a sacrifice only if he himself was a perfect sacrifice. Yet, the only baptisms we find in the New Testament are John’s baptism of repentance and Peter’s baptism for the forgiveness of sins. According to Paul, when we are baptized we enter into Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection. And, of course, we read that to mean: I’m a wretched sinner, but Jesus as the sinless sacrifice means I get my sins forgiven! I’m saved! Hallelujah!

We baptize thousands of frightened young teenagers in summer camps all over the country by convincing them that that one time they masturbated means God now views them as a loathsome spider, and they will spend eternity in a scorching and searing torture chamber—unless they accept the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ!

(and we wonder why kids leave their upbringings with all kinds of psychological problems)

Except . . . wait a second.

Wait just one second.

If Jesus was the perfect atoning sacrifice who never sinned—who never needed to repent of anything—then what was he doing at his cousin’s baptism of repentance extravaganza in the Jordan River?

Of course, the church of Christ (my tribe) has a quick theological answer for this (as we always do when we get backed into a theological corner). In order to protect our tight biblical scheme, we like to say that Jesus would never ask us to do something he wasn’t willing to do himself, and so he set the example to emphasize that we either do that little thing in water or else burn in fire for eternity. And that does it. We swiftly move on from the temptation in the desert through the rest of Jesus’s life—not asking too many questions about what we find there—until we reach the writings of Paul where we really stop and savor good old atonement theology.

But, really. Is that it? Is that really the point of the whole baptism story? Is that the point of Paul’s writings on atonement? Is that the whole point of life? Believe in Jesus and get in some water and you’ll be saved from fire?

(Really, this is a point for another post, but if conservative Christians understood Paul’s writings more critically, I’m convinced we’d use them nowhere near as much as we currently do.)

Well, I think that is a miserable understanding of Jesus, Jesus’s baptism, Paul’s letters and the years you’ll spend on this planet of coral reefs and glaciers and swamps and rainforests and beaches and mountains and deserts and sunsets and wind and rain and sunshine. The good thing is there’s a better way of understanding the story—a way that doesn’t suck all the life out of the thing. But it requires more critical reading than we usually bring to the Bible.

The first thing you need to notice about the story of Jesus’s baptism is what Luke does immediately afterwards. Unfortunately, that thing is the very thing that your attention-sapped brain is almost certain to ignore: a genealogy.

Not just a genealogy.

But a long one.

Full of names you don’t know.

Or care about.

(And—most importantly—one that has nothing to do with what one must do to get out of Hell.)

Do not ever skip a genealogy. Never ever, ever. If ever there was a sin worthy of being consigned to the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness, skipping a genealogy in the Bible might be that sin. You need to understand that every time you read your Bible and it suddenly forces you to read a genealogy—a long one full of names you don’t know or care about and you think “this has nothing to do with what I must do to get out of Hell”—what your Bible is really doing is making an important argument about something.

When Jesus comes out of the water, the story tells us that a voice comes out of Heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” In the baptism story, God announces from the Heavens that Jesus is the son of God. Remember that when you read the genealogy, which states as follows: “Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli . . . [skipping a lot] . . . the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.”

That’s very interesting. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus gets baptized, God announces Jesus as the son of God, and, immediately after that, we read a genealogy in which Adam is named the son of God. And if you’re wondering whether Luke wants you to connect those two things, you are absolutely right. Luke wants you to connect Jesus with what happened in the Hebrew creation myth of Genesis.

On day one, God saw what he made and said that it was good (“tov”).

On day two, God saw what he made and said that it was good.

On day three, God saw what he made and said that it was good. (twice actually)

On day four, God saw what he made and said that it was good.

On day five, God saw what he made and said that it was good.

On day six, God made plants, animals, and humans, and God saw what he made on that day and said that it was very good (“tov meod”).

Very. Good.

The story of the Old Testament is the story of how God made everything in the beginning to be tov but greedy systems of oppression, injustice, inequality, poverty, war, and empire (played out in the narrative of the Old Testament and symbolized in the garden story that itself is a repurposing of important national myths from the mighty Babylonian empire) separated humanity from God’s adama tov (“good earth”). It should be no surprise then that Jesus’s baptism took place in the same river where the Israelite’s historical myths recorded that they entered the land of Canaan (and slaughtered everyone they found). Jesus’s baptism is in one sense a kind of redo. A kind of lets-start-from-the-beginning-and-try-again. A return not just to the entry into the promised land but a return to the original blessing that all created things are good.

Luke wants you to think of Jesus as the new Adam.

Not as one who came so we could separate ourselves from the Earth. Or who came to announce that we should live in accordance with only those things that fit into neat religious categories.

No.

God loves the Earth. He loves the cherry blossoms in Japan. The Grand Canyon in Arizona. He loves the Northern Lights in Iceland. The sequoia redwood trees in California. The Alps of Switzerland. The rice fields of Vietnam. The cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta.

He loves brown bears. And antelope. And hippos. And kangaroos. And eagles. And alligators. And lions. And big dogs. And small dogs. And those little bitty dogs in the toy category of the National Dog Show. And maybe a few cats.

He loves humans. And human culture. He loves the English language. The French language. The Chinese language. The Swahili language. He loves the riddled poetry of T.S Elliot. The literary triumphs of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. He loves the Delta Blues songs that were sung on Saturday nights by black plantation workers in Mississippi and the gospel music songs that were sung by those same plantation workers on Sunday mornings. He loves the paintings of Marc Chagall and Mark Rothko. He loves the heartbreak of Beethoven’s symphonies and Shakespeare’s sonnets. And plenty more.

Dance.

Food.

Wine.

Exploration.

Discovery.

Science.

Government.

But what God doesn’t love are the systems of Caesar, Pharaoh, and Nebuchadnezzar. Systems that work for some but don’t work for most.

This is what John the Apostle meant when he wrote “do not love the world or anything in the world.” When John wrote those words, he wasn’t questioning the first chapter of Genesis. He wasn’t arguing against God, who said it was good. He wasn’t arguing with Jesus who said that God so loved the world that he sent his only son to save it. He wasn’t saying that what Jesus really meant was God sent his only son to save us from it. No, he was warning us not to love the systems of power he observed in the world that had not yet been reconciled in the image of Christ (which he calls “the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life”). He was warning us against systems that seduce us into feelings of power, but ultimately bring about suffering to most of the world.

And this is the sin from which Jesus repented when he made the long hike down from Galilee to the Jordan River. We confess that Jesus committed no individual sins, and I have no qualm with that.

As we confess that Jesus saves us from our sins, Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan calls us to question what exactly that means. I think Jesus’s baptism is a recognition that our primary sin is the sin we do as a group—as a nation—as a planet. A recognition that we are all in this together. A recognition that you cannot separate the individual from the system. Jesus lived in systems that separated the mass of humanity from the good creation that the poets of the post Babylonian exile described in Genesis. He grew up in and lived in them.

And because—as John’s words reverberated throughout the countryside—the kingdom of Heaven was at hand, Jesus repented of the system.

I’ve been talking about systems for several posts now. God’s care for them is central to a proper and complete understanding of the Bible. It is central to what Jesus calls “abundant life”. Yet, most conservative, atonement-theory Christians simply aren’t good at this. We lump all of life into (1) things that fit into our atonement-for-sins-so-we-don’t-burn-in-fire theology and (2) everything else. Once we’ve successfully placed everything into the holy and the profane (or “spiritual” and “worldly”) we celebrate the one and neglect the other, thinking we’re being godly.

We aren’t.

I’m calling Christians to a more earthy, more Jewish theology. A theology in which everything is spiritual. A theology of rocks and trees and soil. Of sweat. A theology of wine. A theology of justice. A theology of peace.

I’m calling Christians to turn their gaze away from some invisible place beyond the clouds (where nothing is changing) and return it down to God’s adama tov.

The amount you can learn about God from trying to use your Bible to escape this world pales in comparison to what you will learn by sitting in the mountains, reading great literature, listening to Delta blues, eating strange foods with foreigners, and involving yourself with the most vulnerable people in your midst.

 

Part 9

The Bible That Borrows Part 4: The Pharisee Bible

We think of Jesus as that guy who opened up God to people of every nationality, but on one occasion a non-Israelite woman pleaded with Jesus to heal her daughter, and Jesus couldn’t have seemed less interested.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” said the Lord and Savior of all humanity.

Let’s take a moment and admit to our souls that this is extremely weird.

Matthew calls this woman a “Canaanite”, which is an interesting choice. By the time of Matthew, there shouldn’t have been any Canaanites wondering around.

The Law of Moses instructed the Hebrews to kill them all.

Yet, when Matthew’s so-called Canaanite woman begged Jesus even harder, Jesus doubled down: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

The dogs.

This was a mother in misery.

And Jesus called her a dog.

Now can we admit that this is weird?

This is the same Jesus who on the night his betrayal told Peter to put down his sword against Roman soldiers (which, as an aside, why did Jesus wait until that night to say anything about Peter’s sword?). This is the same Jesus who gave us the Good Samaritan. Who gave us the new covenant in which there is “no Jew nor Gentile, no slave nor free, no male nor male and female, for we are all one in him.” Right? Jesus calling someone a “dog” sounds a lot like comments I read underneath Youtube videos, but not a lot like Jesus.

So, what’s going on here? That’s what we’ll cover today. As usual, we have some ground to cover.

Jesus, The Rabbi

Last week, we talked in detail about the Essenes, and I briefly mentioned the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Today, we’re circling back to the Pharisees.

As I said yesterday, if someone in the first century was a rabbi, that means they would have aligned with the Pharisees.

Jesus was a rabbi.

If you don’t believe me, ask his friends and enemies:

  • Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Matthew c26 v49
  • Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Mark c9 v5
  • “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” Mark c10 v51
  • On one occasion a Pharisee stood up to test Jesus. “Rabbi,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke c10 v25
  • “And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Rabbi, rebuke your disciples.’” Luke c19 v39
  • “Then there came to him some of the Sadducees…and they asked him, saying, ‘Rabbi…’” Luke c20 v27

Jesus is identified as a rabbi in every one of the four gospels.

Jesus’s disciples called him a rabbi.

The Pharisees called him a rabbi.

The Sadducees called him a rabbi.

Even a blind man called him a rabbi.

So, what’s a rabbi?

Pay attention to the details of this next part. To me, they’re everything.

In the towns of Galilee, Jewish children around the age of five or six entered Bet Seferessentially Jewish elementary school. By the age of ten, most of these children, starting with B’eresheit bara Ehohim (where have you heard that?), would have memorized the entire text of the Torah.

Which is freaking amazing.

The children who excelled in Bet Sefer (because memorizing the Torah apparently isn’t by itself amazing) graduated to Bet Talmud. By the age of fourteen, most children in Bet Talmud would have had the entire Hebrew text memorized.

(Which is double . . . triple . . . quadruple . . . infinity amazing)

And again, the teenagers who excelled in Bet Talmud would have a chance to move further. The final stage of Jewish education was called Bet Midrash. Before you could be accepted to Bet Midrash, you would present yourself before the rabbi whose group of disciples you hoped to join. After all, it was through Bet Midrash that Jewish children would become rabbis themselves.

As I pointed out last week in our discussion of the Essenes, the rabbis also understood that texts are pliable things. Flexible things. Things that look different from different angles.

Texts have to be probed.

Interpreted.

Questioned.

Deconstructed.

Viewed from different perspectives.

Applied in different circumstances.

Sure, any literate person can read the words of a text, but the Pharisees correctly understood that that is just the beginning. Once a text is read, the reader has to decide what it means, and whether its mean the same thing now as it did when it was written. Sure, the Torah instructs Jews not to work on the Sabbath, but how does one follow this command? The Jewish Mishnah is full of commentary on this, and there were many splits of opinion on this issue and many others.

Can you walk? If yes, how far can you walk? If you drop something while you walk, can you pick it up? If you can pick up something you drop, can you pick up other things? How many other things? How far? Is there anything you cannot pick up? How much weight can you pick up and carry? How far can you move something you pick up? Does it matter if the load you pick up is shared by others? Are there any exceptions for emergencies? Are there any other Jewish laws that supersede Sabbath laws?

(You may pass this off as legalism, but violation of the Sabbath is punishable by death, so figuring this out was important work.)

If you were to compile a list of a particular rabbi’s interpretations of the law, the prophets, and the writings, the list you would end up with was called that rabbi’s “yoke.”

A rabbi’s yoke could be understood by making a list in two columns. In one column, you would list the things on any issue of the Torah that a rabbi did not allow. In rabbi speak, these things were said to be “bound”. In another column, you would list the things that a rabbi allowed. Things that were allowed were said to be “loosed.”

Where have you heard this language?

Usually, rabbis would trace their yoke back to the rabbi who taught them, who would trace their yoke back to the rabbi who taught them. If you followed the trail long enough, you would go back to a kind of exceptional rabbi of the Tanakh who had reached such a stature that they were conferred the authority to make new interpretations of the text. A rabbi with authority to reinterpret the text was and is said to have s’mikhah, the Hebrew word denoting authority. The ceremony of giving s’mikhah would involve two rabbis already with s’mikhah who would place their hands on the new rabbi, thus vouching for their exceptional competence.

When the best of the best of Bet Talmud presented themselves before a rabbi to be accepted to the final stage of Jewish education, Bet Midrash, the question of greatest concern to the rabbi was whether this disciple had what it took to propagate the rabbi’s yoke—that rabbi’s way of living out the Torah, the Nevi’im, and Ketuvim (the law, the prophets, and the writings).

If you have to re-read what I just wrote, do so because this is the key to everything ever taught by that son of a carpenter from poor Galilee.

Remember last week how I showed how John the Apostle depicted John the Baptist in a way that would have appealed to the Essenes?

Even despite John the Baptist’s Essene connections, John the Baptist also took on the title “rabbi”, and this detail is not an accident.

So much debate has been devoted in our time to why John baptized Jesus. Understanding the baptism scene requires understanding the Essenes and the Pharisees.

Notice the convergence of influences that Matthew brilliantly paints together. John laid his hands on Jesus, and became Jesus’s first witness for his s’mikhah. At the same time that John baptized Jesus, God came down on Jesus as a dove. Any Pharisee reading Matthew would instantly recognize that Matthew was making an argument.

God was Jesus’s second witness, and Jesus now had s’mikhah.

The text was now his.

He had the “keys to the kingdom.”

Notice in the text how many times his s’mikhah gets emphasized in the gospels.

  • When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. Matthew c7 v28-29
  • Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. Matthew c21 v23–24
  • Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Matthew c28 v18
  • The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authorityMark c1 v27

Matthew places the “sermon on the mount” almost immediately after Jesus gets his s’mikhah and calls his first disciples. Notice how much of the sermon on the mount takes the form of “You have heard that it was said [old teaching on the Torah] but I tell you [new interpretation of the Torah].” There is a reason Matthew arranges his gospel the way he does. He is tying together all these elements of Jesus’s rabbinical identity as a Pharisee with authority to reinterpret the text.

And when you view Jesus as the Pharisee that he was, other texts start to look different.

Notice what happens when Jesus is asked where his s’mikhah came from.

Jewish children who go through Bet Midrash are trained to respond to questions with questions. In fact, the answer to the original question is usually in the responsive question itself. As you will see, Jesus’s answer is that his s’mikhah came from (1) John the Baptist and (2) God. But notice how he answers:

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

Matthew c21

Do you see it? Matthew depicts a carpenter’s son from Nazareth as both (1) possessing s’mikhah and (2) dominating the Jewish leaders in the kind of discourse that would have been mastered only at the highest level of Jewish education.

But Jesus was about to do something even more radical.

As I said earlier, a disciple wishing to study under a particular rabbi would present themselves before the rabbi for a kind of oral exam on steroids. If the student passed the test, the rabbi would tell the student, “come follow me.” So, the rabbi would drill the candidate with an excruciating barrage of questions about the Hebrew text—about the law, the prophets, the writings, the oral law, prominent rabbis’ interpretations of the text, and so on. The goal was to weed out students who would not effectively carry on the rabbi’s way of living out the Torah. After all, to choose a disciple was to make a serious time commitment.

But Rabbi Jesus did something altogether different.

Right after Matthew records John the baptist and God giving Jesus his s’mikhah, Jesus took the extremely rare step of presenting himself to his new disciples—rather than the other way around.

Of course every once in a while, you are presented with a childhood prodigy. Mozart, Pascal, Picasso, and even Tiger Woods were undeniable childhood prodigies.

But Matthew wants to eliminate any doubt that Jesus’s disciples were not like them. When Matthew tells us that Peter and Andrew were fisherman, he is telling you that at some point in Peter and Andrew’s Jewish education, they had to go back to their family to learn the family trade because they were not good enough for any of the rabbis.

When you read that Peter and Andrew “dropped their nets”, this is what you’re reading. Not that Jesus’s long hair and blue Swedish eyes would put people into a trance—as depicted in every Jesus movie. Or that “there’s just something about Jesus”—as I’ve heard in so many sermons.

People, no.

When Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, “come follow me,” this was the first time in their whole life that a rabbi had told them that they were good enough.

Which gives a wholly different meaning to Jesus’s words, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

But Jesus was about to do something even more radical.

While Jesus and his disciples were camped outside Caesarea Philippi, he told his disciples that they were given “the keys to the kingdom.” This may not mean much to you. But I promise it did to them.

Someone given the “keys to the kingdom” was given the authority to make new interpretations and judgments about what is permitted and not permitted.

This is s’mikhah.

Jesus told his disciples that they had the power to bind and loose.

And then he told his disciples to make more disciples.

Who would continue to bind and loose.

Don’t believe me, read Acts 15.

Matthew is doing something never before heard of.

Matthew is arguing that people in the “Jesus movement” would be given authority to make decisions about what is right and wrong, what is allowed and not allowed.

When we read Jesus telling his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” what he is doing is giving us our compass. He is setting the parameters of this authority. BUT, as I have taken great pains to demonstrate, we—like the Jews have done for centuries—get to decide in our day what that commandment means.

Jesus has great faith in his disciples to determine what to loose and what to bind.

Especially the ordinary disciples who don’t spend their free time writing blog posts.

This is totally different than how I was brought up to understand church. This is totally different than how I was brought up to understand being a Christian.

Do you need a glass of water?

Water

Jesus did a lot of reinterpreting.

The seventh and final yearly festival of the Jews is Sukkot (Sue-COAT), or the “Festival of Tabernacles.” The weeklong festival commemorates the Old Testament story of the Hebrews exiting slavery in the Nile-lush Egypt and living dependent on God in the barren desert. The  festival-goers construct a sukkah—essentially a big tent made out of branches—and have a weeklong religious camp festival.

Dancing.

Singing.

Wine.

Clapping.

Drums.

Flutes.

Shouting.

And—to commemorate the Hebrews’ former life in the Sinai desert—passionate sermons about water.

The Hebrews’ story of the wandering in the desert is all about relying on God’s provision. Water is everything. Water is dependence on God. Water is thirst for God. Longing for God. Desperation for God. It is what came out of some rock that God miraculously provided in the Sinai desert. When we get to John c7 in the New Testament, these details are the subtext of what must have been a remarkable scene.

Jesus, we are told, had been hiding out all week during the festival, but by the end of the chapter it was the seventh day—what Jews to this day call the “last and greatest day of the festival.”

The last day has a certain ritual. First, the priest would assemble all the people and read aloud from Jeremiah:

Lord, you are the hope of Israel; all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.

After reading Jeremiah, the priest would pour a pitcher of water and wine on an alter (what Leviticus calls a “drink offering”) while these people who had been dancing and drinking wine for a week would shout, “HOSANNA, HOSANNA!” And as the crowd became more and more inebriated, they would get louder and louder.

And this is when Jesus finally came out of hiding.

After all the build up, John tells us that Jesus yelled at the top of his voice:

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.

By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.

Cinematic perfection.

And a totally new way of understanding Sukkot, not to mention the prophet Jeremiah. The Pharisees had been talking about the Holy Spirit before Jesus arrived on the scene. I’ll talk more about this in Part 7, but the Pharisees understood the spirit of God on a limited number of occasions to enter people and give them divine revelation. But the Holy Spirit was not given to the masses. What Jesus said during this Sukkot was revolutionary.

Before we end, I mentioned some rock…

Some Rock

As I said, the Israelites left Egypt and “wandered” around the Sinai Desert for forty years. They began their journey in a place called Rephedim, where the writer of Exodus tells us there was no water. It is in Rephedim that Exodus says God miraculously provided water from a rock.

Their story in the desert continued for forty years, but the narrative made no mention of how they continued to get water during that time.

Until their last year.

In a different book, Numbers, we are told that the Israelites are at the end of the forty years when they come to a place called Kadesh. At Kadesh, a familiar story emerges. There was no water. The people panic. And, again, God provided water from a rock.

Apparently, this bothered some Pharisees who were intimately familiar with the barrenness of the Sinai desert.

Reasonably, so thought the Pharisees, the Israelites drank water in the forty years of wandering in the desert.

I think we would all agree with that.

But the only mentions of them having access to water were in Rephedim in year one and in Kadesh in year forty. There really isn’t much water in the Sinai desert and the text speaks to nothing in between years one and forty.

(Remember our discussion about problematic doublets throughout the Old Testament text?)

So where did they get their water in the forty years of wandering in the desert between Rephedim and Kadesh?

After some debate, the rabbis decided—in all seriousness—that the rock in Rephedim and the rock in Kadesh must have been the same rock.

But Rephedim and Kadesh are hundreds of miles apart. So, how did the same rock from Rephedim forty years later appear in Kadesh?

They concluded that the rock must have followed them.

Haha.

I laughed just typing that.

Here’s a second century text that describes the view from Jesus’s time.

So the well, which was with Israel in the wilderness, was a rock of the size of a large vessel, and was oozing out and rising as from the mouth of this flask, traveling with them up the mountains and down to the valleys. Wherever Israel encamped, it encamped opposite them before the door of the Tabernacle.

-Tosephta Sukkah

Okay.

This is silly.

After all, the writer of the account of Kadesh really went out of his way to show that the Israelites had no idea where they were going to get their water from. If an “oozing” watering rock for forty years had just been “traveling with them up the mountains and down to the valleys”, the Hebrews wouldn’t have been panicked in year forty about where they would get their water.

So, it’s a good thing that Jesus came down to Earth to clear up all that Jewish nonsense, right?

Not quite. Here’s Paul. You could say he wrote some parts of the New Testament.

Our ancestors were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them. I Corinthians c10 v2-4

Uh oh.

Paul is one of us, right? He’s not supposed to engage in this tortured reading of the sacred text, right?

But he went even further. The next line: “And that rock was Christ.

That rolling rock—which is not in the actual text—but which a bunch of Pharisees haphazardly one day just imagined up . . . was Christ?

Christ was a rock? That rolled around in the desert?

What does that mean?!?!

Paul?!?!?!

Shadows

By now you’ve seen this enough times: Jesus, Paul, Matthew, John, Peter, and the rest of their gang were Jews. And the ancient Jews weren’t as interested in the original intended meanings of their text as you are today. What you read when you read the Bible is a mix of new ideas and realizations that come into contact with old upbringings. Paul was thoroughly a Pharisee. When you read his letters, you are reading the thoughts of a man who sees the old lessons from his rabbi with his new conviction that it was all rushing towards Jesus.

John does this.

Matthew does this.

Luke does this.

Peter does this.

This trips people up when the New Testament uses the words that “[such-and-such event] ‘fulfilled’ some text in the Old Testament.”

A better way of understanding the word “fulfilled” is probably more like “resembled”.

The New Testament book of Hebrews puts it this way: “The Torah is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.”

Each author of the New Testament would interpret the story of Jesus differently because they all grew up perceiving different shadows. In other words, as Jews, each New Testament writer grew up with different perspectives on the Torah. This is one reason why modern Christians who expend so much effort to argue that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself are putting their energy into the wrong line of questions.

I think Jesus was interested in the Old Testament text, but not for its own sake. The New Testament depicts in Jesus a complete disinterest in the Old Testament’s priestly cult, tribalism, the Temple in Jerusalem, purity regulations, the history of Israel, and so on.

Unless, of course, something in the Old Testament was useful to make a point about something else.

What Jesus was and is interested in are humans. Humans as they are right now. Humans with all their problems and contradictions. Humans who don’t fit neatly into boxes.

And the stories that humans would write down from time to time as they tied to understand themselves and their place in the cosmos. And as they tried to understand God. And how they relate to God.

So, let’s circle back.

We started this discussion with Jesus ignoring a desperate woman for the sole reason that she was not a Hebrew. And then he called her a dog.

When Jesus called that Canaanite woman a “dog”, he was speaking as a Pharisee as part of a debate that Pharisees were having among themselves. I have no idea whether Jesus said this to her face or not. But I do know this: The woman was his secondary audience. Jesus’s primary audience was the people in his vicinity who had been reared up to hate anyone who might challenge Israel’s occupation of its “promised land.” He said what he did because he knew she was about to do something that would defy Hebrew expectations.

Read what happens next.

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

We assume that our enemies gloat over us. That they hate us as much as we hate them. That they despise us. Look down on us. Don’t believe me? Listen to any Donald Trump speech.

We don’t think of our enemies as vulnerable. As humble. That they would eagerly wait like a dog to eat the crumbs that fall off our table.

And this woman was just that.

Her words were among the greatest to have ever been spoken. And this story is one of the greatest to have ever been written down.

Jesus’s life took place in a time when the Jews were wrestling with how to think about outsiders. For a moment, Jesus appeared to take one side of the argument. But he did so in a way that would advance the other side. He allowed the woman to do something that would advance the human race.

He allowed the woman to show that the grace and goodness of God can be found even in the people we hate the most. Even in the people we imagine gloating over us.

I believe that Jesus could have chosen any ancient religion through which to use human understandings of God and the cosmos to point to himself, but you would be hard pressed to find a more oppressed group in all of history than the Jews.

So he chose the Jews.

And to push them forward, he took possession of some of the harshest ideas of their language.

Because, as the Bible says, he became them.

That Jesus, a champion for oppressed people anywhere, would choose the Jewish people in Israel should not be surprising. Though, I think Jesus has a heart for the Muslims just as he does the Jews. The point of the Old Testament is not what it literally says, but how the first century writers thought it pointed to something better.

Paul would later do the same thing in Greece, and it is the Greeks whom we’ll talk about next week. If you can believe it, the Bible borrows from them too. And WAY more than it borrowed from Babylon.

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