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Two Ancient Jesuses and the Current Crises

One of the most important discoveries of critical Biblical scholarship over the past two hundred years – arguably the single most important discovery – is that the Bible does not have a single message about virtually anything.  The Bible is an extremely diverse, multi-faceted book, written over many centuries by many different authors with many different views.  The fact that these sixty-six books were all gathered together and called “Scripture” does not change the fact that the author of one of the books may well have a very different view of a particular matter, even an extremely important matter than another.

Let’s take the question of how we are to treat those who are not like us.  People who aren’t from our same nation; who don’t look like us; who are of different ancestry; who are not from our own cultural background; who do not share our political views or religious beliefs; who are of a different gender or sexual orientation or race.  How do we treat such people?  Depends whom you ask within the pages of the Bible.

Let’s ask two people named Jesus.  The name “Jesus” is the English word we use for the Greek word ΙΗΣΟΥΣ.  ΙΗΣΟΥΣ is the Greek word for the Aramaic word (I’ll use English letters now, since my keyboard won’t type Aramaic) YESHUA.   YESHUA is the Aramaic word for the Hebrew יהושע

If you were to put that Hebrew name into English letters it would be Joshua.  So why don’t we call Jesus of Nazareth “Joshua”?  We could, but that wasn’t his name.  His name was YESHUA, spelled with Aramaic letters.  We are speaking English, not Aramaic or Hebrew, and so when reading or talking about the Bible we use the English equivalents.  That’s why we speak of God rather than ELOHIM or Mary instead of MIRIAM or John instead of IOANNES, etc….

There is a famous Joshua/Jesus in the Old Testament and an even more famous one in the New Testament.  If you were to consider their two stories, how do they deal with the “Other,” those who are different from them in significant ways?  About as differently as you can imagine, yet both, apparently, upon divine instruction.

I will give a representative snippet from each.

The book of Joshua is about the Conquest of the Promised Land.  God had promised the ancestors of Israel, starting with the patriarch Abraham, then his son Isaac, then his son Jacob (whose other name was “Israel”) that he would grant them the land area that comprises most of what we today think of Israel, Palestinian territory, and Jordan.  Centuries after these promises were made the people of Israel had still not inherited the land.  They were enslaved in Egypt.  But they were delivered from there under Moses (book of Exodus), given God’s law (books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and were now poised under Moses’ successor, Joshua, to enter into the land and take it for themselves (the book of Joshua)

The difficulty with taking the land was that other nations and peoples were living in it.  They had to be killed or displaced.  That was not only because the Israelites wanted the cities, fields, and houses of the people living in what they called “Canaan,” but also because the peoples living there (Canaanites, and others) did not worship the same God, did not observe the same religious practices, followed different customs, had completely different ancestry, and were simply the “Other.”  Israelites had to be distinct, worshiping only Yahweh, their God, following his law, keeping the established customs, maintaining their racial purity, and keeping separate from everyone else as the one Chosen People of God.

So God ordered them to destroy everyone else.  The most famous incident occurs at the outset of the narrative, in Joshua 6.  God orders the Israelites to take the walled city of Jericho.  They are to march around the city once a day for six days; on the seventh day they were to march around it seven times.  They do so.  And after the seventh time around on the seventh day, on divine instructions, they blow trumpets, the people shout, and the walls protecting the city of Jericho “come a-tumblin’ down” and Joshua/Jesus issues the divine command to kill every living being in the city.  And so the Israelites rush in and kill “with the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys” (6:21).

What do you do with those who are different from you?  You murder them.  From the elderly to the infants and everyone in between.  You want their city and their houses, but you don’t want them.  And God has ordered you to destroy them all.  So you do.

That’s one model.

Let me stress a very, very, very important point.  I am NOT insisting, claiming, suggesting, or even hinting that the Old Testament God is a God of WRATH and that the New Testament God is a God of MERCY, as is so often said.  I’m not saying that Israelites were blood-thirsty criminals and the followers of Jesus were mercy-loving saints.  NO.  I’m not saying that at all.  There are scads of passages – passage after passage after passage – in the Old Testament that advocate love, mercy, and universal peace.  And there is PLENTY of divinely driven violence in the New Testament.  Anyone who doubts that has never read the final book.  When it comes to divinely-inspired violence, the book of Revelation makes Joshua look like children’s literature.

What I AM saying is that there are different models in the Bible of how to treat those who are different from us.

We’ve seen one Joshua/Jesus.  Now let’s look at the other.   In Luke 10:25-37 Jesus tells his famous parable of the Good Samaritan.  He has just been teaching that it is important to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  But someone in the crowd wants to know “Who is my neighbor”?  That is, whom do I need to love?  The guy next door?  The family across town?  My fellow Israelite?  Whom?

Jesus tells the parable to explain.

A Jewish fellow is walking from Jerusalem to Jericho and is attacked by a band of robbers who mug him, rob him, and leave him half dead by the side of the road.  Soon, a Jewish priest (one who participates in the sacrificial practices of the Jewish temple) comes along and, seeing the collapsed body, walks past on the other side  Then a Levite comes along (a Levite is a minor temple functionary who participates in the sacrificial practices in the temple), and he, too, passes to one side.

Neither stops to help.  Why?  It’s not because “Jews are hard-hearted and unloving” (as I’ve heard); it’s because they were cultic officials involved in Temple sacrifices and touching a corpse meant ceremonial impurity that would temporarily make it impossible for them to perform their cultic duties.  They thought the guy was dead and couldn’t risk becoming ceremonially unclean.

And then a Samaritan comes along.  Samaria was located between Galilee in the north, where Jesus was from, and Judea in the south, where Jerusalem and the temple were.  The inhabitants of Samaria traced their ancestral lineage back to Abraham, but were known to have descended from gentile stock as well from centuries before, when the northern kingdom of Israel fell some 700 years earlier to the Assyrians and the northerners intermarried with other peoples.  Even though Samaritans subscribed to the law of Moses, they were not considered “Jews” by most of those in Judea and by the Jews of Galilee (or elsewhere) but were thought of as a kind of “half-breeds” and “outcasts” with bad lines of ancestry, misinterpretations of the religion, and strange customs.  They were viewed with hostility as the “Other” that “true Jews” wanted nothing to do with.

So back to the story.  And then a Samaritan comes along.  Unlike the two Jewish religious leaders, he has pity on the man, binds his wounds, takes him to an inn, arranges for his recovery, and pays for his time there.

That’s the story.  When Jesus finishes, he asks his questioner who the “neighbor” was in the story.  It was the outcast Samaritan.  The outsider.  And Jesus then ends by saying “Go and to likewise.”  Jesus’ followers are to treat outsiders as neighbors.

So what does it mean to fulfill the law of God, to Love your Neighbor as yourself?  It’s a law, by the way, from the Old Testament!  (Leviticus 19:18).  It means working to help those in need, even if they are different from you, even if they come from a different country, are of a different race, don’t look like you, don’t follow your customs, are widely seen in your society as alien, foreign, strange, and threatening.

How should we treat such people?  Should we ignore them (think the priest and the Levite)?  Should we murder them and drive them out of our land (think the book of Joshua).  Should we close our borders to them, deprive them of legal rights, remove their civil rights, prosecute them, brutalize them, torture them, drive our knees into their necks until they can’t breathe?

You say, well, our society is very complicated and the complexities make it very different.  And I reply, societies have always been very complicated and complexities make every situation different.  Do we want to hate, abuse, mistreat, and kill the other?  Or love them?

The Bible gives us a couple of options.  I’m not a Christian, but I know which Jesus I want to follow.


A Plea for Humility in the Face of the Universe
Views of Suffering Among Those Who Suffer

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    gbsinkers  June 7, 2020

    Love that last sentence!

  2. Avatar
    Steve Clark  June 7, 2020

    In the words of Robert Ingersoll:

    “While there are many passages in the NT showing Christ to having been forgiving and tender, there are many others showing he was exactly the opposite”

    Jesus also embraced tribalism at times :
    Saying he came only for the lost sheep of Israel
    That the 12 would rule with him one for each of the 12 tribes
    Calling a Canaanite woman a dog
    Calling for Yahweh’s vengeance to be rained down worse than S&G on villages that don’t accept his disciples

    And of course he redefined his own family as his followers – as only those within the movement over and over
    Luke 14:26, etc

    NT Jesus himself is a conflicted protagonist when it comes to almost everything as well

    • Avatar
      jrhislb  June 12, 2020

      Right. Part of what makes Jesus interesting is the tensions and contradictions in his portrayal. I get annoyed when I hear some atheists make him all about peace and love.

    • Avatar
      Gabo3k  June 27, 2020

      And why would that be?

      Why do we have this contradictions?

  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 7, 2020

    Martin Wagner calls the Bible “the big book of multiple-choice.” Depending on which passages you emphasize and which you downplay you can get almost any sort of morality.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2020

      Yup. And which do we want?

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  June 8, 2020

        “For I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger and you took me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

  4. Avatar
    Apocryphile  June 7, 2020

    Excellent post. I do wonder about the long-term viability of our species on the planet though. Our entire time here has been marked by violence and conflict – we’re an inherently violent species. We have made some progress, after a fashion, in our legal and ethical systems, but these advances are still ideals we must constantly strive for and protect. Rarely do we actually live up to the lofty standards we set for ourselves. At the end of the day, we must hope our wisdom can lift us above our inherently violent nature. It isn’t inevitable that homo sapiens will survive into the far future. Homo Neanderthalensis walked the planet for a period three times longer than modern humans, and the dinosaurs for a period much, much longer than any primate, ancestor or not. We must also remind ourselves that ‘there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’
    – Walter Benjamin – ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’

    • Avatar
      flcombs  June 8, 2020

      I don’t think humankind has gotten any better. Especially when societies are stressed you see the bad really come out. The biggest development is technology: It’s now possible for a very few to cause a lot of death and damage. Instead of one person with a rock or spear, now they have a chance at a nuclear weapons or engineering a biological weapon and wiping out everyone.

  5. galah
    galah  June 7, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, the “which Jesus” part was surprisingly good. Especially coming from you. 😉

  6. Avatar
    seahawk41  June 7, 2020

    I had not thought of the “ritual purity” angle before. Good point! Of course nowadays we have many things that stand in for ritual purity!

  7. Avatar
    Victor  June 7, 2020

    Hi Bart. I have a somewhat unrelated question.
    Was killing of all civilians in an enemy city a usual practice in ancient times (as some Christian apologists claim, to put the blame on morals of the time instead of the OT authors)? Or was it more like a bloody fantasy of the authors of the OT?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2020

      Oh, it was incredibly common. And the ones who weren’t slaughtered were often enslaved. It’s very, very, very bad now. But not like then. It was government policy in many places/situations in times of war.

      • Avatar
        Victor  June 8, 2020

        Ah, I see. Thank you!

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  June 9, 2020

        “It’s very, very, very bad now.”

        Two follow-up questions, if you will:
        What does ‘it’ refer to?
        Such a statement implies there was a time when ‘it’ was better, say, merely ‘very, very bad’. When was that?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 9, 2020

          Conditions of war and oppression. And no, I’m not saying it was ever better. I can have a very, very bad sense of balance, and it may never have been any better at all!

    • Avatar
      AstaKask  June 8, 2020

      The Romans had a policy called “until the ram touches the wall.” Once the battering ram had touched the wall, that was it. The city was going to be sacked and its citizens sold into slavery. Look at how the Romans treated the Jews after the Bar Kokhba rebellion – they basically leveled the region, sold everyone they found as slaves and moved in new settlers. This was harsh, but not uncommonly so. Or after the rebellion in Gaul, when Julius Caesar collected 5000 Gallic men, cut of their hands and sent them to all corners of Gaul to show what happened when you defied Rome.

    • Avatar
      flcombs  June 8, 2020

      I always like the “morals of the time” argument. In other words “God’s people under his direct command were no better than anyone else at the time”. So no evidence of any moral superiority and the society evolves along with the rest of mankind: nothing special there, just better surviving documents perhaps. You would think the god described by Christians with all the miracles and interference in the world would have the power to make them better. Were Moses and Joshua alive today they would be tried and executed as war criminals. They remind me of what I’ve seen in Serbia/Bosnia, the Mideast and WWII.

  8. Avatar
    jhague  June 7, 2020

    Thank you for this well said post. It is very much appreciated. From a historical view, since we now know that Joshua was not an actual person and did not go into Jericho and slaughter every living being, why did the authors write this? To make a point of following only god and to be completely pure about it to the point of murder? Were the people during this time very barbaric?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2020

      My guess is that the authors thought Joshua was historical. They were telling stories that had been in circulation for years, probably centuries, and had no historical tools to call them into question. But the stories aer written to make a point, that’s right. in this case the point is that the God of Israel insists on absolute purity and separation from those who do not worship him and follow his law.

  9. Avatar
    Shah  June 7, 2020

    Such literally interpretation of the book of Joshua and the Conquest of the Promised Land, is not correct. That is why a historical approach to the Bible is a blunder..
    That story is a prophecy, an event of the future, not of the past, and it must be read as a type of the mission of the second messiah, the Messiah of the House of Joseph.
    Joshua is a descendant of Joseph, and the reason God says to Moses that he does not enter to the Promised Land and does not lead Israelites into it, is because the mission of the messiah from the tribe of Judah was only to receive the word of God. In contrast, the mission of the Messiah from the House of Joseph, is interpreting the word of God. Therefore, the whole story is a symbolic reference to the hermeneutic war that the Messiah of the House of Joseph will conduct, not a real killing of people that are different.

  10. Avatar
    DirkCampbell  June 7, 2020

    I wonder what Jesus thought of the wholesale destruction of Jericho, Ai and other cities by his namesake Joshua, at the express command of the God of Love that Jesus purported to represent. I mean Jesus was an observant Jew who knew the scriptures pretty well and said things like ‘not one jot or tittle of the [Mosaic] law shall be changed until all shall be fulfilled’. Which again means he should have approved of stoning people for breaking the law, but the Gospels tell us he was against that sort of thing. A bit of a conundrum surely?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2020

      I wonder too. Then again, it’s not clear how much of what we call the Hebrew Bible he would have known apart from Torah itself. If he did knwo the stories of Joshua, what would he have said about them? wish we knew!

  11. Avatar
    Pegill7  June 7, 2020

    In the verse you cite, Leviticus 19:18, the context seems to imply that “neighbor” is a fellow Israelite. Leviticus 19:33-34 goes on to say, however, “When an alien resides with you on your land, you should not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Is this a contradiction? Or just a further explication of the meaning of “neighbor?”

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2020

      That’s right. In Leviticus the neighbor is the Israelite. But you are to treat a resident alien as an Israelite (but not others who are not resident aliens) Jesus is extending the definition yet further.

  12. Avatar
    stiegl  June 7, 2020

    Doesnt Leviticus 19:18 explicitly qualify a neighbor as someone “of your people”? That doesn’t sound too outsider-friendly to me

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2020

      That’s right. In Leviticus the neighbor is the Israelite. Jesus is extending the definition further.

      • Avatar
        Phillipos98  June 8, 2020

        But that depends on the parable being really said by the Historical Jesus.

        Dr. Ehrman, do you think Jesus actually said that parable (or something along those lines) or was it just something that fit well into the portrayal of Jesus the author wanted to convey?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 9, 2020

          It’s one of those passages that I’m not sure about either way.

  13. Avatar
    veritas  June 7, 2020

    How appropriate to read this after I re watched ” 12 Years a Slave” on Saturday. I cannot imagine what it was/would be like growing up,*black* in America. Bryan Stevenson, a social justice lawyer from Alabama,spends most of his time helping young ( 13 yrs old) boys and girls of colour get a fighting hope in life from prisons. The 2012 Ted Talk, where he spoke, is a powerful affirmation of Bart’s post. 34 % of black people in Alabama have lost their right to vote. He says, ” We can’t be fully evolved as human beings until we care about human rights and basic dignity”. The opposite of poverty is not wealth but justice. There is system of justice in America, that treats you much better if your rich and guilty than poor and innocent. Wealth not culpability shapes outcomes. We heard the leader of the most powerful nation in the world explicitly encourage NFL owners to ” fire those S.O.B ‘s who don’t stand for the flag”. Colin Kaepernick was not disrespecting the flag or country, but opposing for what he saw as injustice and what America stood for. That is ………..

  14. Avatar
    veritas  June 7, 2020

    That is courage. A promising young football star, sacrificed his career,lost his job, for his belief. These are people I deeply admire, standing for the benefit of others, even if costs their life. The NFL,a few days ago, reversed its position and claimed,” We should of listened to our players”. It makes me wonder, how genuine is the apology. I spoke of Ravi Zacharias passing on May 19. I think his mission exemplified this message of Bart. I followed his memorial last week, and had known about Ravi visiting inmates at Angola prison in Louisiana, still one of the most dangerous prisons in America, and to my surprise the coffin used at the memorial was made by the inmates of Angola and delivered in time to Atlanta, GA for the funeral and Ravi’s body rests in it. Ironically, Angola was named after an area of Africa where former slaves came from back in the 19th century. It was originally a plantation. Still the largest maximum security prison in America where the majority of inmates are African/Americans serving life sentences with no chance of parole. Like you Bart, I know which one I follow. Great post!!!!!

  15. Avatar
    Poohbear  June 7, 2020

    The same Jesus who spoke of the Good Samaritan; rebuked his disciples for wanting to “send fire” and healed the servant’s ear was the same man who condemned even the children of the Jews to destruction and exile
    I had a loving mother who would punish me if I transgressed. There was no contradiction.
    Simple believers grasp the complexity of God; “sophisticated” people stumble at His simplicity.
    The writers of the bible were all different. But they were all the same, too. There’s no contradiction.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2020

      Oh, I would say a lot of them are so different that they are not the same. Whoever wrote Amos did not see the world or God the way the author of Ecclesiastes or Revelation did. Just ask, for each text: why do the people of God suffer?

      • Avatar
        Jayredinger  June 9, 2020

        I wonder what Poohbear is doing on this blog, it seems he/she is not really interested in history but rather in theology. It would be interesting to know the motivation behind his/her comments.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 10, 2020

          My view is that it’s good to hear the views of others, even when I don’t agree with them. (I suppose the empirical reality is that in one way or another we disagree with well over 99% of the world’s population!) So just for my part, I welcome alternative views — and on the upside, it gives everyone a chance to disagree openly!

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 8, 2020

    So, the big question: Why have so many evangelicals flocked behind a leader who seems so nasty toward foreigners? No, this is not “fake news.” It is true stuff.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2020

      I suppose everyone has major and minor agenda items, and the evangelical right just now is interested principally in issues such as opposition to abortion and preserving the distinctiveness of what they would like America to be….

  17. Avatar
    rborges  June 8, 2020

    I find the parable of the Good Samaritan one of the most moving passages of the Bible, on par with the “Woman taken in adultery” story. But just like the latter (which was the topic of you last post), I have doubts about its historicity. 1) It is found in Luke only (doesn’t have Multiple Attestation); 2) It fits nicely with Luke’s pro-gentile agenda/themes (doesn’t have Dissimilarity); and 3) Its meaning is too much in-your-face, in contrast to most parables attributed to Jesus. So, what’s the probability that the Good Samaritan story was really told by Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2020

      Yup, it’s pretty hard to show it is authentic, and those are excellent arguments. I would say, though, that the meaning is not quite so much in your face as it seems — especally since issues of ritual purity are involved (rather than just heartlessness). Still, you’re right — it’s not *massively* subtle!

  18. Avatar
    eblevine  June 9, 2020

    In Jesus’s time, the Aramaic he spoke would have been written in Hebrew letters, I think. I don’t think having an Aramaic keyboard today would add any authenticity to how his name was written.

    Do you agree?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 10, 2020

      No, I would say that — using Greek is an example — Ιησους is a more authentic way of writing the Greek name Jesus than … “Jesus” (in English letters) is.

  19. Avatar
    Todd  June 9, 2020

    Bart…This is one of your best posts in my opinion…who is the neighbor and who is the strangers we are to love? I have a degree in “Divinity” and worked in churches for about 10 years. I eventually went into elementary school teaching where I could really help real people. I don’t care if one passage is authentic and another isn’t authentic. I follow the teachings that God is love and I follow the Jesus who teaches unconditional love and compassion, even toward our enemies. Keep up the good work you are doing. Much Love Brother !!

  20. Avatar
    Christian David  June 9, 2020

    This statement made me laugh “When it comes to divinely-inspired violence, the book of Revelation makes Joshua look like children’s literature.” I am definitely telling this to my evangelical friends lol.

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