Reading the Bible with Caesar

While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the rulers, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” The people and the rulers were disturbed when they heard this.

Acts c17

Every person who reads the Bible must interpret the Bible. If you want to tell me how you “just read the Bible for what it says”, I will smile and ask about all the property you sold to give to the poor.

When liberal Christians (or as I prefer, “Christians”) talk about how we interpret the Bible, we commonly use a shorthand, “reading with Jesus.” Implicit in this phrase is an admission that some parts of the Bible are on their face horrific, and we need a standard by which to determine what things we hold and what things we let go. We acknowledge the literary tradition through which the ancient Hebrew people distinguished and preserved their ethnic and national identity, and we preserve them—warts and all—because they are foundational to understanding Jesus’s colorful and subversive teachings as a Jewish rabbi. However, we also hold that the many, many, many parts of the Bible are not equals and anything that contradicts what Jesus taught takes a backseat.

I like the phrase, “reading with Jesus,” but I also have problems with it. For one thing, it’s too safe. It doesn’t offend the sorts of people who need to be offended. It continues a tendency of progressive Christians to try and sound to fundamentalists like we have a lot in common—when really we don’t at all. If I write something on here and it doesn’t fill my inbox with the rants of angry, right-wing, conservative, fundamentalist Christians, I usually feel like I’ve just wasted a whole lot of time.

More importantly, because it’s just a shorthand, it doesn’t actually mean anything unless you’re familiar with the intellectual giants whose work it summarizes. When I lived in Evangelical Fundamentalist World— and was made to believe that Tim Keller, Francis Chan, and Lee Strobel had important things to say—the phrase Reading with Jesus would have done nothing to stretch my imagination. I would have “read the Bible with Jesus” and then just remained one of the millions of believers who are of no concern to the “principalities and powers”—those against whom the Bible demonstrates its greatest and most timeless literary genius. This is no accident. It’s the result of billions of dollars that have shaped the readings of the people who taught the people who taught the people who taught your Vacation Bible School. The Gospel of John screams this at you when the post-resurrection Jesus resembled a gardner rather than a messianic warrior, and the writer tells you that no one recognized him.

To avoid reading our own biases into the Bible and calling it Reading with Jesus, we need to do the work of creating a defensible reference point, and I wrote this essay because there’s a simple but intellectually rigorous framework for doing that work.

Before you read the Bible with Jesus, you need to read the Bible with Caesar.

Sit across the table with Augustus. Hike through the forest with Domitian. Invite Nebuchadnezzar to your Bible study group. Go on a retreat led by Pharaoh. Meditate with Alexander the Great. Listen to the prayers of Nero and Caligula. Ask each of these powerful men how they would like you to read the Bible.

And then do the opposite.

Because in the four decades before Jesus was born, the Roman Senate and the court poets referred to Augustus Caesar as the Son of God and Our Lord and Savior. Throughout his empire, he established propaganda centers for the imperial gods called churches. When his army brutally occupied a new territory he announced his victory through messages that were called Gospels. The words son of God, savior, Lord, gospel, and church are Bible words that will always carry some degree of mystery and artistry. But if you asked Jesus what he meant by them in any concrete sense, he could point to the Roman empire and say “well definitely not that.”

Christians used these words in rebellion. To say Jesus is Lord was dangerous and unpatriotic, because it unmistakably communicated and Caesar is not. To proclaim the Gospel of Jesus was to deny the Gospel of Rome. The rebelliousness of the church was the same rebelliousness inherent in the Jewish religion—a religion that came into being on the underside of economic, religious, and violent power. To read with Jesus means to read about the world turning upside down, and the Caesars never want that.

So, with all this as a backdrop, lets talk about that. How would Caesar want you to read the Bible? If you’re an American, the answer is: probably how you already do.

Don’t Let It Be Too Political

The Bible concerns itself with structural economic justice from beginning to end, but discuss this ultra-biblical topic with any Christian fundamentalist and you will reflexively be warned that we shouldn’t let the Bible get too political. This is not the voice of Jesus, but of Caesar.

When you read the Bible in opposition to Caesar, Jesus’s well-known Beatitudes are rightly recognized as the constitution of the kingdom of God. When Jesus proclaimed “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of Heaven” his message was not that it is good for you to be poor in spirit, so you can go to Heaven. His message was that in the “kingdom” (or government) of God, which was coming down to Earth, those who had lost all hope under the weight of Caesar would now find blessing. The government of God was for them. When Jesus proclaimed “blessed are those who mourn”, his message was not that it is bad to be happy. His message was that in the government of God, those upon whom Caesar’s power had trampled would find comfort. You cannot put Jesus in the context of his Jewish literary tradition and read it any other way.

For Jesus’s favorite self designation was the “Son of Man”, a phrase that came from the centuries-old Jewish Book of Daniel. In the story, Daniel sees a vision of all of the world’s empires—which he sees as “beasts”—and they are stripped of their power and worship “one like a son of man.” Nobody in the story dies and goes to Heaven. Nobody leaves the Earth. In Daniel’s vision, the kingdom of Heaven comes to them. And Jesus changed that tradition in no way. As he said further in his kingdom constitution, “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.”

And I could just keep going. After the story of the Hebrews being freed from Egypt and from being just a source of cheap labor for Pharaoh’s great projects (how can you say this isn’t political???), they go out into the wilderness and God gives them a legal code that contains one welfare program after another. What’s striking to me about almost all of the Torah is how little of it would apply to all but the most wealthy of its adherents. And to take it further, God required that all of the Torah’s welfare programs benefit Israel’s immigrants.

Whether it was Pharaoh and his magicians being overcome by a nomadic shepherd and his staff, or the King in Nineveh hearing the worst sermon in the whole Bible and repenting in sackcloth and ashes, or King Nebuchadnezzar boasting about his power before losing his mind like a wild animal, the writers of the Jewish canon loved to tell incongruent and subversive stories that in various ways showed God humiliating the seeming invincibility of the world’s oppressive systems. The resurrection of Jesus after being killed by the execution device of the Roman empire comes straight out of this tradition. The Apostle Paul expressed this when he wrote “and having disarmed the powers and authorities, Jesus made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

We Americans have been scripted to read our Bibles and not think about what they mean for our systems. We apply our Bibles to what we do individually, but leave our systems intact. The American system for allocating resources is competition. You get things by being a winner (or by being born to the winners). We conceptualize most things in terms of what is mine and what is yours. Our identities consist of neat boundaries that protect my actions from having anything to do with you or anyone else. We don’t talk about “walking with the Lord” in any context other than our own private moral conduct. Private moral conduct is good, but if your nation’s systems do not bless the least among it, your nation has not inherited the kingdom of God. In the same way, a personal relationship with God is good, and I hope you have one, but Caesar would love for you to keep it there. He would love it if at the end of your Bible study, you, like Caiaphas, proclaim “we have no king but Caesar.”

Make It Only About Spiritual Things

The Bible is a spiritual book, and Caesar would love to keep it that way. But never does the Bible situate the spiritual world in one place and the physical in another. In the Bible, these two realms are always in direct contact.

In the creation poem of Genesis c1, the spirit of God was there in the creation and God called it good.

In the story of Jesus’s baptism, the spirit of God came on the body of Jesus right before Luke used a genealogy to argue that Jesus was recreating the same world that God called good (go read that genealogy in Luke c4 again).

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he didn’t instruct them to pray that we would all—as Plato taught—leave the Earth for some airy spiritual paradise in Heaven. He taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom in Heaven come to the sweat and soil of the Earth.

In the story of the Exodus from Egypt, Moses brought the Israelites out of Pharoah’s economic system of slavery, and into the wilderness where they saw the “glory of the Lord.” And what was that glory?

Bread.

Not just bread, but freedom from Pharaoh’s system of cheap labor. Bread from outside the imaginations that Pharaoh sought to control. Bread that reduced his power to nothing.

Real spirituality concerns itself with tangible things. Like bread. Like segregated school districts. Access to healthcare. Affordable housing. Carbon emissions. Employment discrimination. Consumer protection. Rehabilitation for those who commit crimes. Peacemaking.

But a spirituality that sings songs on Sundays and then just floats off into the clouds is no threat to Caesar or Pharaoh, and it is how they will teach you to read the Bible. They are thrilled when they profit from systems that exploit vulnerable people and then the Christians come and tell everyone to just focus on getting to Heaven.

Make It All About the Afterlife

Speaking of Heaven, Rome did not persecute the early Christians because of anything having to do with the afterlife. This comes as a surprise to the modern fundamentalist Christian, but Rome allowed the people it subjugated to continue their religious traditions. In fact, Rome was famous for adopting the gods of people it conquered. As long as you worshipped the Caesars and the important gods of the empire, the Roman authorities did not care that you also worshipped another god or gods. The Romans especially did not have a well-developed theology of an afterlife, so people were completely free to preach about that.

(Almost none of your Bible is concerned with the afterlife either, but I’ve already written on this.)

I find it compelling then that, in spite of this religious tolerance, Rome found adherents of Judaism and Christianity so especially threatening. When Christians were identified, they were imprisoned and hauled into arenas to be mauled by wild animals. The Roman state depended on exploiting vulnerable people, but the Christians preached a different way of seeing the world. They acknowledged no distinction between slave and senator. They would not participate in any government ministry that required killing people.

Here’s a letter from the Governor Pliny to the Emperor Trajan in the early 2nd century:

This is what I have done with those who have been brought before me as Christians. First, I asked them whether they were Christians or not. If they confessed that they were Christians, I asked them again, and a third time, intermixing threatenings with the questions. If they persevered in their confession, I ordered them to be executed. . . .

Those who denied that they were or had been Christians and called upon the gods with the usual formula, reciting the words after me, and those who offered incense and wine before your image — which I had ordered to be brought forward for this purpose, along with the regular statues of the gods — all such I considered acquitted — especially as they cursed the name of Christ, which it is said bona fide Christians cannot be induced to do. . . .

There are among them every age, of every rank, and of both sexes.

Nowhere in this letter, or in Trajan’s response, or in anything the Roman ever wrote about the Christians, does the topic of the afterlife come up. For this reason, Caesar would love for you to make the Bible an instruction manual to get to Heaven after you die. What he will not tolerate is you turning the world upside down. For that he will take your life.

And if Caesar wants to take your life, you’re probably reading the Bible with Jesus.

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God Loves and Accepts the LGBT: Part 2

In the beginning, Marduk created the heavens and the earth.

There were many gods, and the cosmos were chaotic, wild, and unformed. Abzu, the god of fresh river water, and his wife, Tiamat, the goddess of the salt waters of the deep, ruled over all the gods. But the other gods created so much noise (literally “babel”), that Abzu could never rest, and he plotted to kill them all. However, when Enki and Mummu, the gods of knowledge, found out about Abzu’s plot, they killed him. Then came a great battle between Marduk and Tiamat. It went like this:

  • Marduk killed each of the serpents that Tiamat had created to defend herself,
  • Marduk killed Tiamat,
  • Marduk used a great wind to split half of Tiamat into two,
  • The first half of Tiamat became the ocean,
  • Her other half became a dome of water above the earth,
  • The remainder of her corpse created the heavens and the earth, and
  • Her blood created humankind, who would become Marduk’s slaves and fight to defeat the world’s barbarian people—literally those who created too much “babel.”

This was the creation story of the Babylonian Empire, the military superpower of the 6th century BC. Their creation story was well-engineered to shape and reinforce a mindset among the masses that was favorable to the ruthlessness and cruelty of their empire—a war machine that marched through and conquered the entire Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Because the empire was in the service of Marduk, and everyone who got in its way was just babel, nothing that supported the empire could be understood as too cruel. The gods said so in their creation story.

And that gets me to a slave class who lived in the shadows of the empire and its war machine.

Israel is a narrow land bridge between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian desert, which historically had the misfortune of connecting Africa, Europe, and Asia. I say “misfortune” because any ancient king with half a brain knew that conquering the world required controlling this land bridge.

So in 589 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar was armed with a military and a creation story, and he took his turn.

When King Zedekiah of Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel) refused to pay the imperial tribute to Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar dispatched his army in numbers that shocked the people of Judah. His infantry marched around the Sea of Galilee and then due south where it surrounded and laid siege to Jerusalem for eighteen of the most miserable months humanity has passed down in the historical record. With Jerusalem unable to import food or any other resources, it descended into disease, starvation, terror, and even civil war. When the Babylonian army finally commenced attack and broke through Jerusalem’s walls, it was hardly a fight. The terrified population was quickly put in chains by the tens of thousands.

And the cruelty had only just begun. When Zedekiah and his family were captured, Zedekiah was made to watch Babylonian soldiers execute each member of his family, one by one. Then, having watched that event in all its agony it was Zedekiah’s turn, but he wasn’t punished by execution. Instead, the soldiers told him that his punishment would be for the last thing he would ever see to be the execution of his family.

And then they stabbed his eyes.

The prisoners began the agonizing and exhausting march to Babylon—a one thousand-mile overland journey in shackles through desert to a life of slavery. Many of them didn’t survive the journey. For the next half century, the Israelites were a spat-upon underclass—mere babel upon which to be trampled. The cruelty of the Babylonians and the breaking of the Israelites’s spirit are simultaneously captured in Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

So, when I say that the Babylonian creation story was an essential driving force of its empire and world view, I hope this helps you see that. Its ubiquitous presence served to reinforce the limits of the people’s imagination. The empire was all there was because its gods said so. This was just how the world worked.

Yet, out of this slave people—who for the rest of their lives would suffer the post-traumatic stress disorder that comes from surviving war—nevertheless was born the courage to imagine a different sort of world than the one given to them by Marduk. History’s oppressed people have long given the world many of its most enduring artistic creations. What this slave people did was compose a new creation story—a subversive story that took all the elements of Marduk’s pro-empire, anti-humanity creation story and repurposed them into a pro-humanity, anti-empire creation story.

This is what you are reading when you open your Bible and in front of you is the Genesis story: an artistic act of rebellion. 

In the new creation story, the God they called Elohim was not at war with the forces of nature, and humans weren’t created to be slaves to the power structure. Instead, humans were created in the very image of Elohim, and the earth was given to them and their inherent creativity to make it flourish. In this story, the first occupation of humans was not that of warriors to keep “barbarian” civilizations from being too “noisy.” The first humans were gardeners. And when humans were made, Elohim saw them and remarked that they were tov me’od (“very good”). And not only were they very good but the noise of their existence did not cause Elohim to lose rest. Actually, in the new story, rest was exactly what Elohim did when he finished creating humanity. And with a final artistic flourish from the old story, the new story explained that humankind lost its way to war and violence and death only when it embraced the various other analogues to the Babylonian story—the serpent and the gods of knowledge. As a modern reader, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil must be understood in the context of the gods of knowledge in the Babylonian story, who were simultaneously gods of violence and war.

All this artistic ingenuity and otherworldly imagination from a slave class. The Genesis story is sophisticated, poetic, and elegant, but you need to understand that it is not the scientific and journalistic story of the beginning of the world.

It was a middle finger to the creation story of their Babylonian slave masters.

(Before I go on, I wrote at length here why we’re pretty sure the creation story was written at this time and for this reason. Cliffs Notes version: (1) The Genesis story, as you can see, borrows so specifically and so often from the Babylonian story, (2) the geographic and anthropologic identifiers in Genesis reflect the world as it existed during Babylon’s time and not in the time when the stories were set, and (3) Genesis was written using the Babylonian alphabet).

And what about that pejorative slave-class label, babel? They wrote a story that worked on that too. Their story began that God created the first man (the “adam”) out of the earth (the “adamah”), which in Hebrew reads that God “created the adam out of the adamah” and then God named the first man, “Adam”—a pun that connects the goodness of humans with the beauty of the earth and the wellbeing of humans with the wellbeing of all creation. In the story that the slaves told, Adam had two sons, Cain and Abel. When Cain killed Abel, Cain moved east of Eden and built the first city. The first hearers of the story would recognize this city to represent Babylon, which too was located in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley and, from their perspective, was built on murder. Once the city in this story was fully constituted and powerful, it set its sights on ruling the world. To do so, it built a massive tower—a potent image to the slave class of Babylon’s war machine. As the story progresses, the reader is made aware that this was not how God wanted his world to be run, so God separated the people away from Babylon’s one-size-fits-all war machine and into flourishing and diverse nations. In other words, when the tower subsequently was named the Tower of Babel, this had the effect of turning the war machine merely into a monument to God’s love for the babel of the world.

Remember this story as you read the poem of Isaiah c2, the most quoted Old Testament passage of the Christian church in its first four centuries (before Christianity went to bed with the Roman Empire). In the prophetic imagination of Isaiah, instead of all the world’s people being concentrated at a tower to be ruled by the empire and its limited imagination, everyone will concentrate to a place where they will be ruled by peace.

This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

In the last days

the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

Eventually another global empire deposed Babylon, and it was when the slave babel in Babylon eventually returned to their homeland that their religion began to formalize and mature into more of the form you recognize today.

This religion was devoted fundamentally to the question of how to not be destroyed by big empires.

It was devoted to the question of what a just society looks like.

It was a religion that understood itself to be a global underdog and was devoted to all peoples seeing its essential dignity.

This religion is Judaism, and this was its vocation.

Remember this when you open your Bible and read about Judaism’s heavy stress against worshipping other gods. To modern readers, it’s easy to reduce the issue to simply should we worship Ralph or Bob or Elohim? That misses most of the point. The real issue is rooted in the reality, as you have just seen, that societies choose their power structures and then choose their gods. When you as a modern person grapple with what Judaism stands for, begin with the power structures it so imaginatively and ingeniously worked against—in particular, those of Babylonian society and its anti-human empire.

To be clear, this religion had nothing to do with how to not burn in fire for eternity when you die, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

———–

If you’ve made it this far, it’s possible you feel confused. No doubt you inferred the purpose of this series from the title, God Loves and Accepts the LGBT, and you’re wondering when I’ll get around to that.

Actually, I’m already well on my way.

Because when we talk about the writings of the Apostle Paul—who is the only New Testament writer to weigh in on the morality of homosexuality—we need a more sophisticated understanding of the trajectory of the Jewish vocation than is common among 21st century Christian churches. More broadly, if you want to understand Rabbi Yeshua’s teachings on what he called “the Kingdom,” as well as the meaning of his death on the Roman Empire’s device of intimidation, you need to start with the ancient religion of the slave class in Babylon that Jesus claimed he fulfilled. In other words, if we’re going to talk with any seriousness about the writings of Paul—that disciple of Gamaliel, who was the chief of the Jewish Sanhedrin and grandson of Hillel the Elder, the most important Pharisee in Jewish history—I need to make you more Jewish.

And I’m not done with that. In parts 3 and 4, I’ll build on this discussion and use it to show how the Jews’ understanding of how to fulfill their vocation evolved during the centuries that led to Rabbi Jesus.

————-

Part 3