For many years biblical scholars have baulked at the idea that Jesus was a transcendent figure and have busied themselves redefining him in humanistic terms.
Is this due to the ‘secular’ spirit of the age that airbrushes the Almighty from the public square?
For a period in early the twentieth century some thought there was little we could know about Jesus, for example, in 1934 Rudolph Bultmann declared, ‘We can now know almost nothing about the life and personality of Jesus’. The pendulum has swung back so that in 1985 Ed. Sanders could say, ‘We can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish…we can know a lot about what he said…’.
Despite Sanders’s confidence there is no agreement about how to think about Jesus.
The great philosopher, musician and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer thought Jesus was a confused apocalyptic prophet. Robert Eisler and Samuel Brandon thought he was a warrior-zealot ready to inspire a revolt against Rome. According to Geza Vermes Jesus was a devout, charismatic rabbi who healed. For Ed. Sanders, Jesus was yet another species of prophet. Others, like Burton Mack, reacting against a Jewish Jesus found it more plausible to locate him as a social reformer in the Greek cynic tradition. The list is long and seemingly unending.
There are, of course, some elements of the above to be found in Jesus. He was called a rabbi, many thought of him as a prophet, and he did forcibly eject the traders from the temple. The problem is that these are secondary activities that some have over-inflated and made definitive. Those who redefine Jesus along these lines tend not to address all the evidence, in particular the witness of the apostles in the New Testament.
Jesus’ miracles, if accepted, would clinch the issue and identify Jesus as singular and otherworldly. That is a subject for another day. What then about his judgements, which form a significant part of the Synoptic Tradition?
Jesus’ judgements were part of the Jewish synagogue culture of the Second Temple period. The synagogues had become the spiritual and social centres of the towns and villages of Israel, led by their teachers, the rabbis. The rabbis combined several activities in their vocation. They explained the Scriptures in the synagogues and they gave legal judgements appropriate to a whole range of pastoral situations.
The Gospels make many references to Jesus as a ‘rabbi’ or ‘teacher’. He travelled to the synagogues teaching the Scriptures, as well as in the open. Mainstream, recognised rabbis had one or two disciples; Jesus had twelve. Typically a disciple took the initiative in approaching a rabbi; Jesus called those who followed him. So Jesus was a rabbi, but an unorthodox, unrecognised one.
Like other rabbis Jesus made legal judgements on real life, day-to-day issues. Often these arose from his provocative teaching about the kingdom of God and its application to the law. The oral tradition about Jesus reported in the Acts of the Apostles and in the letters is biographical, with no record of his legal judgements. When Mark committed Peter’s oral gospel to writing he included many of the judgements of Rabbi Jesus.
The Mishnah (c. 200) is a collection of the legal judgements of rabbis from two centuries before the time of Jesus and extending over the next century or more. Its editor, according to tradition was Rabbi Judah the Patriarch. The Mishnah is a bridge between the Tanakh (the Old Testament) and Rabbinic Judaism.
There are six main divisions in the Mishnah: (i) laws dealing with agricultural produce and portions due to priests, Levites and the poor; (ii) the set feasts; (iii) laws affecting women; (iv) property rights; (v) the holy things of the temple; (vi) the laws of uncleanness. Each division has the judgements and counter judgements of the various rabbis.
Overwhelmingly the judgments of the rabbis relate to interpretations of the written law, but equally to the generation-by-generation tradition of oral law. These judgements were not codified, but are analogous to secular Common Law judgements that form the precedents for ongoing legal decisions in the courts. Like modern lawyers the rabbis appealed to judgements of earlier rabbis.
Neither Jesus nor Paul, both rabbis according the Christians texts, is mentioned in the Mishnah. This comes as no surprise given that the Synagogue and the Church had dramatically separated by the nineties. Had that separation not occurred it is more than likely that both men and their judgements would have been documented in the Mishnah. According to the eminent Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, ‘No rabbi was so important to rabbinic Judaism as Jesus was to Christianity. None prophesied as an independent authority’.
The Judgements of Jesus
Let me reflect on six judgements of Jesus. The question is: do Jesus’ judgements mark him as a rabbi who was a transcendental figure, or not? So far as his followers were concerned it did not matter whether Jesus was explaining the Bible, or giving a legal judgement, he spoke with ‘authority’, that is with the authority of God, not like the scribes.
1. The Heart not the Hands
In the era of Jesus it was believed that ‘sinners’ and Gentiles transmitted their impurity to the ‘righteous’ by physical contact. By analogy, it was like people with influenza passing on their sickness by touching or sneezing. To protect themselves from defilement the people washed their hands before eating. It was not a matter of hygiene but of religion.
Mark described current practices: ‘[they] do not eat unless they wash their hands…When they come from the market place they do not eat unless they wash’. They also washed ‘cups, pots, copper vessels and dining couches’ (Mark 7:3). The preservation of purity from any physical contact with ‘sinners’ or Gentiles, whether direct or indirect, was critically important.
Stone water jars were placed near the house entrance for this washing, which was not for a hygienic but a ritual purpose. Perhaps due to shortage of water in Israel the hands were not immersed, but a small quantity was poured on to cupped hands with fingers extended.
In the eyes of his critics Jesus would have rendered himself ‘unclean’ by eating with ‘tax collectors and sinners’, and by his contact with the leper and the woman with the ‘issue of blood’. A major dispute arose when the scribes from Jerusalem observed that some of Jesus’ disciples ‘ate with hands that were defiled, that is unwashed’ (Mark 7:2). They challenged him, ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ The washing of hands prior to eating had become a matter of ‘religious correctness’, which his disciples purposely disregarded.
Jesus made a twofold response.
First, the food that is eaten does not defile because it simply passes through the body as waste into the ground. By this judgement Jesus pronounced ‘all foods clean’ (Mark 7:19). In one stroke Jesus abolished the classification of food as ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’ which in turn removed the distinction between ‘clean’ people (with whom one could eat) and unclean people (with whom one could not eat). This meant that Peter, a Jew could sit at table with the Gentile, Cornelius. Peter said, ‘God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean’ (Acts 10:28). The Gentile is not unclean because the food he eats is not unclean.
Secondly, Jesus’ action provided him with the opportunity to give his judgement about the true source of impurity. Food that is eaten, with or without washing beforehand, simply passes through the body so that he said, ‘There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him’.
Jesus then makes this piercing judgement.
What comes out of a person is what defiles him.
For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit,
sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.
All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person (Mark 7:15).
Because food that comes into a person and goes out again cannot spiritually defile it means that ritual washing of hands beforehand is irrelevant. Rather, it is the evil that proceeds from the heart that defiles. Jesus lists thirteen items that directly or indirectly break the Ten Commandments that Lord God gave to Israel at Mount Sinai. Ironically, Jesus directed these words to those who sought to defend the law by building a ‘hedge’ around it.
By these pointed words Jesus abolished the superficialities of ritual and reached into the human heart. As he said on another occasion, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God’. But this was only to say what the Psalmist had said years earlier.
Jesus’ judgements were radical but liberating. Preoccupation with purity by ritual washings obscured the reality that evil does not flow out of what is eaten, but from the heart. Jesus did not abolish the Sabbath or washings, but by his actions gave penetrating and liberating insight to a deeper morality.
John the Baptist was killed because he condemned the marriage of Herod the tetrarch to the wife of a living brother. This was adultery. Pharisees posed a question that was intended to trap Jesus in an answer that would also endanger him: ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’
Typical of debates between rabbis, Jesus responded to a question with a question: ‘What did Moses command you?’ They answered, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away’.
The Scripture in question was Deuteronomy 24:1, which declared the basis for a husband’s divorce of a wife. It was ‘because he has found some indecency in her’. The rabbis were divided over their interpretation of ‘indecency’. The School of Shammai said, negatively, ‘a man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her’ (i.e., adultery). With greater laxity, the School of Hillel said, ‘He may divorce her even if she spoiled a dish for him’ (Mishnah, Gittin 9:10).
Jesus said Moses’ words were given because of ‘hardness of heart’, that is, to give the woman at least formal recognition that she was legally divorced. Jesus then stepped back over Moses to God’s creation narrative in Genesis 1-2. God ‘made them male and female’ who leave father and mother and ‘become one flesh’. To those words, Jesus added his own, ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate’ (Mark 10:1-10).
In the present context Jesus fearlessly stated his judgement in absolute terms, adopting the same stance as John the Baptist towards the marriage of Herod the tetrarch to Herodias. Marriage is between a male and female, and it is to be a lifelong union. There are other passages where Jesus allows the possibility of divorce on the grounds of adultery. But Jesus’ ‘in principle’ judgement to the Pharisees who sought to ‘test’ him was that God joins a man and a woman together in marriage until ‘death do them part’.
Christianity was born at the height of the Roman Empire. Roman views on marriage and divorce differed sharply from Jesus. Men or women could initiate divorce, and they did so frequently. Seneca wryly observed that most women did not reckon a year’s date by the name of the ruling consul but by the husband of that year. ‘They divorce in order to re-marry. They marry in order to divorce’ (Seneca, De Beneficiis iii.16.2). Those views began to change when the Roman Empire embraced Christianity.
Minucius Felix, a Roman Christian of the second century, made this comment about contemporary attitudes toward marriage.
In Persia, a man is allowed to marry his mother, in Egypt and Athens his sister. Your histories and tragedies, which you eagerly read and listen to, treat incest as something to be proud of; hence it is that you worship incestuous gods, united to mother, daughter, and sister. Not without reason, then, is incest often detected amongst you, but always permitted.
We, on the other hand, show our modesty not only outwardly but inwardly;
we willingly cleave to one marriage-tie ; in the desire to have children, we have only one wife or else none (Minucius Felix, Octavius 87).
Through Jesus’ ideal of marriage as a lifelong, exclusive union has been the norm in Christian-based societies, that is, until recent decades.
There can be little doubt that the judgement of Jesus on marriage, which his followers have generally implemented, has been a great stabilizing influence within wider society. Men and women who are committed to each other and to their children work to provide for them and create the moral and economic backbone of society.
Almost certainly Mark has deliberately located this passage about children immediately following Jesus’ judgement about marriage. Children were not regarded as ‘unclean’, like ‘sinners’, Samaritans or Gentiles but along with women, as inferior. Women and children played no active part in a male dominated, patriarchal society.
This explains why the disciples rebuked those who brought their children for Jesus to bless, especially if young girls were among them.
And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it’. And she took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them (Mark 10:13-16).
Jesus memorably said that child-like trust of small children towards their parents was the necessary attitude to God of those who would enter his kingdom. Jesus ‘took them in his arms (they were small children) and blessed them, laying his hands on them’.
Jesus saw in a child’s simple trust an attitude to God for adults to emulate. Jesus applauded the trust of these little ones that adults need to have if they are to engage with God in his fatherly majesty.
We are the heirs of Roman civilization, its laws, principles of administrative governance, its excellence in engineering and architecture and its military discipline. But the Romans allowed the exposure to the elements and wild animals of unwanted children. Child killing was accepted in Roman culture. Excavations of Roman sewers have found the bones of hundreds of children.
Minucius Felix also made this telling comment about contemporary attitudes toward children.
I see your newly born sons exposed by you to wild beasts and birds of prey, or cruelly strangled to death. There are also women among you who, by taking certain drugs, destroy the beginning of the future human being while it is still in the womb and are guilty of infanticide before they are mothers. These practices have certainly come down to you from the gods (Minucius Felix, Octavius 83).
But societies that have evolved from Roman society developed laws to protect children, reversing Roman practices. How did that come about? It was the influence of Jesus’ powerful judgement about children that contributed to the changing attitudes towards them.
4. Women’s education
Martha was preparing food for Jesus and the disciples while her sister Mary was seated ‘at the feet on Jesus’ listening to his teaching, that is, in the posture of a disciple being instructed. Martha was upset because her sister had left her with all the work and she complained to Jesus, ‘Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me’.
But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her’ (Luke 10:41).
Mary has made the right choice in listening to Jesus. For Jesus to recognise and affirm Mary as a disciple, someone keen to learn, represented a social revolution in that conservative and patriarchal society. Boys of five learned to read at the synagogue school, to enable them to study the Torah. But girls remained illiterate, confined to childbearing and to domestic duties. Sadly this remains the norm in some cultures today.
Jesus’ encouragement of Mary as a learner was a significant social advance, the endorsement of the education of women.
5. Taxes and Caesar
The Pharisees and Herodians (partisans of Herod the tetrarch) faced Jesus with another question to trap him: ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?’ (Mark 12:14).
The background to this was the Roman annexation of Judea as a Roman province in AD 6. The Romans conducted a census as a basis for levying of personal tax to be paid directly to Caesar. In AD 6-7 Judas the Galilean led an uprising on theological grounds insisting that only the Lord could ‘number’ his people, and that the Lord and not Caesar was their ‘master’. The Romans killed Judas. The people of Judea grudgingly paid the tax to the emperor.
If Jesus replied, ‘Yes’ it would align him with the gentile Romans. If Jesus replied, ‘No’ he would thereby endorse the rebel Judas and automatically secure punishment as an insurgent. Jesus did not answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but called for someone to present a denarius, a Roman coin, asking whose likeness and inscription it bore. They replied, ‘Caesar’s’.
Then Jesus gave his judgement:
Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,
and to God the things that are God’s.
The ‘likeness’ (image) on the coin was that of Tiberius Caesar, but the inscription described him as ‘chief priest, son of the deified Augustus’. In other words, the coin implied that people were to worship the Roman Caesar as a god.
Jesus, however, separated paying taxes from worshipping the emperor. By answering, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’, he was saying, ‘pay the tax’. But the words, ‘Render to God the things that are God’s’ was to deny worship to Caesar.
By this judgement Jesus separated Caesar from God, but giving each his appropriate due. In brief, Jesus was saying, ‘Worship God’ and ‘be an active and positive part of society’.
Judas the Galilean was really seeking a theocracy, whereby the covenant people were to be ruled directly by God through his law. Throughout history there have been Christian theocracies, for example, the Byzantine Empire. The ideal for Islam is for a theocratic state based on Sharia Law.
Jesus words, however, imply the acceptability of living under Caesar’s ‘secular’ rule.
Jesus’ wise judgement warns against enthroning Caesar as powerful in every sphere, whilst enjoining Christians not to worship any one but the Lord. Traces of Jesus’ teaching are to be found in the letters of Paul and Peter. Christians were not to pray to Caesar, but they are to pray for him and pay taxes for the needs of society. Peter’s words to persecuted Christians in Northern Anatolia were inspired by the judgement of Jesus.
Love the brotherhood.
Honour the emperor (1 Peter 2:17).
The followers of Jesus are not to regard themselves as a sect on the fringes of society, but as active and involved members. They are to ‘honour’ fellow citizens and the emperor but they are to ‘fear’ God and love his people, ‘the brotherhood’.
Jesus’ words, as adapted by the apostles, imply the viability of the separation of church and state. That viability is threatened, however, when the state assumes a ‘messianic’ status, as in Germany under Hitler.
6. Redefining the neighbour
A religious lawyer sought an argument with Jesus. To his initial question, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus replied, ‘Love…God, and your neighbour as yourself’. He added, ‘Do this and you shall live’, that is, ‘inherit eternal life’. The lawyer asked, ‘And who is my neighbour?’
The lawyer knew that a neighbour was a fellow covenant brother and doubtless expected Jesus to reply likewise. Instead, Jesus tells an astonishing parable about a man (we assume a Jew) who was in great need but whom his fellows did nothing to help. Worse, the priest and the Levite, who were ‘official’ religionists ‘passed by on the other side’. These high profile ‘neighbours’ did nothing to save their desperately needy fellow-neighbour.
Scandalously, it was not a fellow-neighbour but an unclean, contaminated, hated Samaritan who went to great lengths to rescue the man who ‘fell among thieves’ on the road from Jericho up to Jerusalem.
Jesus’ shocking parable was not about a broadminded Jew who patronisingly helped a Samaritan, but a Samaritan who instantly and without thought to his own safety saved a man whose tribe despised him.
Jesus ends a conversation that the lawyer may have wished he had never started.
‘Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy’. And Jesus said to him, ‘You go, and do likewise’ (Luke 10:36-37).
Strictly speaking Jesus did not directly answer the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ but by his famous parable he did. The Samaritan who ‘proved to be a neighbour’ radically redefined the question. Any fellow human who is in trouble and whom I can help is my neighbour.
This profound parable has all the marks of transcendence. It is so unexpected and yet so obviously ‘true’ that we readily accept its profound insight. Jesus’ great parable has inspired emergency services around the world and the ‘Good Samaritan’ is now part of international speech.
From early times Jesus has been regarded not only as the teller of the Parable of the Good Samaritan but has been seen as the ‘good’ Samaritan who acted with compassion towards those in need.
The Judgements of Jesus
My argument is that the wisdom of Jesus’ judgements marks him as more than an insightful rabbi or prophet, but as a transcendental figure. His judgements in real life situations have had profound effects for good throughout history. Because societies are non-transcendental, whose members are prone to self-interest, Jesus’ words could never bring perfection. But the values arising from his judgements have made a difference for good where they have been heeded.
Jesus’ practical involvement with social outcasts speaks eloquently against any version of a caste system, where some are inexorably and without exception stamped as inferior and forever doomed to remain so. Similarly, Jesus’ description of himself as a ‘physician for the sick’ is a message that the socially marginalized are important and to be helped. Enlightened communities attempt to be inclusive and give serious opportunity to everybody, without fear or favour.
Jesus’ profound Parable of the Good Samaritan, if followed, spells the end of tribalism and racism. The priest and the Levite ignored the plight of their ‘neighbour’, but a despised, ‘unclean’ Samaritan saved him.
By deliberately eating without ritual washing Jesus swept away the false belief that ‘unclean’ food contaminates the person. The food we eat passes through the body and leaves the body as human waste. It is the heart, and the evils that proceed from the heart, that defile us. Humanity is not controlled by a multiplication of rules and regulations, for that exposes us to hypocrisy. Rather, Jesus pointed to the blessedness of a pure heart.
The rabbis were divided about admissible grounds for divorce, but men were able to send their wives away by merely giving them a certificate. Romans divorced repeatedly. Some cultures endorsed male marriage to mothers, daughters and sisters.
Jesus’s judgement about children has elevated their importance and made their trust a paradigm for an adult’s relationship with God.
Jesus’ judgements about the sanctity and permanence of marriage and the importance of their children have made his ideals about the family very important. Where parents are committed to each other and to their children they form a hard working team for the education and nurture of their children.
Finally, Jesus’ word, ‘Render to Caesar’ and ‘render to God’, where heeded, have been the origin of true democracies that separate church from state and where freedom of worship has been a human right.
No society can be perfect, and no society has been perfect. But some societies have been democratically governed, freer of corruption, more prosperous across the population, generous to poorer nations, better educated, with more schools, universities, and hospitals, scientifically innovative, expressive in the arts, and with widespread engagement in sport and exercise.
It would not be hard to demonstrate that countries historically influenced by Jesus’ wise judgements have been blessed in many if not all of these ways.
Jesus’ judgements as a rabbi are deceptively disarming. They appear to be mundane and not extraordinary but when carefully compared with the values of the cultures of his day, and their successors, they identify him as uniquely wise.
Furthermore, his judgements effortlessly translate into any culture, timelessly. They are as applicable in modern western society as they were in first century Jewish and Graeco-Roman society and in every culture since.