Saturday, January 24, 2015

Passover Plot or Pentecost Portent?

The good story of Jesus of Nazareth ends with his trial, execution and burial. Or does it? Four versions that are in modern Christian Bibles tell of a rising from the dead. A sequel tells about about a dove and tongues of fire on the fiftieth day of the death.

The execution of Jesus is so widely attested as the one incontestable fact about this obscure Galilean woodworker that it is not worth pondering insofar as the history of it goes.

But how did a band of devout Jews following the executed self-made rabbi of humble origins end up founding a new religion?

Hugh J. Schonfield's 1965 work The Passover Plot argued, from a respectful Jewish scholarly stance, that somehow the apostles conspired to reinterpret the gospel events into something a bit larger than the actual life that happens. It is one modern iteration of a polemic that goes back 2,000 years.

The much maligned, but second-string, professors who adopted the overly grand title of "The Jesus Seminar" more recently pointed to the two or three decades that passed between the events in the gospel and the first written testimony.

Something happened to the understandably scared bunch of fisherman and tradesmen who followed Jesus the day he was arrested. At first, as even the canonical gospels admit, they were scattered, or gathered in small groups in hiding.

Then the Rebbe appeared to them alive. Then, finally, a dove descended upon them spewing tongues of fire and they were suddenly polyglots in Jerusalem and risked death to spread the "good news."

Even then, contrary to the catechetics of many a well-meaning nun, they weren't Christian and wouldn't have known a pope if he came to shake their hand. They were a band of Jews with a peculiar story to tell: a sect sometimes called Nazarenes, after their deceased leader.

The book of Acts tells of a debate in Jerusalem between Peter and Paul on whether to circumcise Gentile converts to believers in the teachings, resurrection and lordship of Jesus the Christ. This was no grand, genteel erudite discussion in a renaissance basilica in Rome; this was a band of still persecuted "Jesusite" die-hards gathered in lofts and barns, arguing like vendors in bazaars.

Indeed, they were in the bazaar of ideas that was Judaism in Palestine of the first century up to the year 70. Some of their fellow Jews called them apostates. The Romans didn't like their stirring up things but couldn't tell apart one non-Jesusite Jew from a Nazarene.

To my mind, the apostles' willingness to hold fast to their story to the point of death suggests more than a simple "plot" to make a living off some flim-flam man's sweet talk. The original meaning of "martyr" is witness; a martyrdom gives witness to the martyred's conviction.

I would argue that what we know as Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove (Acts 2:1–31), which presumably occurred on the Jewish feast of Shevuot, represents a portent of some sort that led to a radical transformation.

Perhaps they were so shocked that they had to go over and over their recollections of the events and words of the exciting three years with Jesus many times. Then, a "fire" of clarity arose among them about the overall meaning of what they had witnessed.

The words attributed to Jesus offer enough ambiguity to leave open whether he intended to be regarded the Son of God and the founder of a church. But, clearly, by some point in the 50s (Jesus was executed in the 30s), when we find the first New Testament documents, the apostles believed Jesus had intended this.

The earliest "creed" was unambiguous but simple: Jesus is Lord.

This lordship included the role of Messiah, meaningful at that time only to Jews, and included, in the present tense of "to be" the assertion that the executed Jesus is alive.

The rest is commentary, 2,000 years of it, and we now turn to that story.

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