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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Why Christianity Happend: The Origins of Jesus' Specific View of the Law

The second chapter picks up on recent work done in the socio-economic context of Jesus’ Galilee and how the Jesus movement emerged. What I try to do with these approaches is to show it as the first part in the causal chain (don’t take that too literally) that sparked off the emergence of the subsequent movement.

In recent years Crossan and several others have used the work of G. Lenski and J. H. Kautsky. Lenski’s model as a whole is a static and descriptive one (though not exclusively – he also tries to explain the mechanisms underlying socio-economic change). His description of social relations in agrarian society has proven very popular in recent scholarship, particularly his stress on the marked social inequality.

This is a significant point but it does not explain what is any different at the time of Jesus. This is where I think the work of Hobsbawm and countless other Marxist and Marxian historians on peasant unrest is useful. What they argue is that peasant unrest is due to are real or perceived change in the peasant lifestyle. Frequently this will involve changes in land patterns and ownership. This generalisation is important for explaining why the Jesus movement emerged when and where it did.

Crossan’s use of Kautsky is also important here because Kautsky uses evidence from societies around the time of Christian origins to show that commercialisation and that land plays a key part in peasant unrest. This also ties in with urbanisation in such economic contexts because urban centres, as is widely agreed, siphon off resources from the countryside.

The evidence for this all is strong and well backed up. Perhaps more than anything the building and rebuilding of Tiberias and Sepphoris as Jesus was growing up resulted in peasant unrest and hatred toward these two urban centres. This, along with general unrest, is a powerful argument for once socio-economic reason behind the emergence of the Jesus movement.

I spend some time on this theoretical background. For some, such as the context group, the use of Kautsky and Lenski may not be anything new but I really wanted to show how this model could be useful for more traditional scholars (not least in the UK). But the main reason was to modify this model to explain Jesus’ specific view on the Law and how it could link in with the emergence of later Christian views on the Law.

One general reaction to the general socio-economic impact of urbanisation in Palestine was banditry. The role of bandits is well documented. What I would add to this is the role of the Law in this reaction. In several instances, Jewish bandits and their local supporters would utilise the law as a key part of their rhetoric of reversing the fortunes of rich and poor. This is also the case in reactions to Sepphoris.

Jesus was not a bandit but the categories of bandit and prophet were not always clear cut and they could gang up together at times. Let’s not forget that the political powers were not too bothered about neat distinctions and would kill prophetic figures just in case, including those like John the Baptist who also used the rhetoric of the Law. Let’s not forget how Jesus was killed either.

On top of this there was a long literary tradition where the rich and poor would be reversed. Wealth itself in some traditions was simply equated with sin: sooner or later rich people would just sin and act against the law. Wealth was also said to lead to idolatry. Read these literary traditions in the context of Jesus’ Galilee and it is perhaps no wonder these theme appear in the teaching of Jesus.

The camel and the eye of the needle stands firmly in the tradition challenging the idea that law observance leads to a long life here on earth and replacing it with the rich being damned in the life to come (the afterlife is a very convenient place to resolve those kinds of problems). This passage also equates wealth/landownership with sin. ‘The rich man has observed the commandments but he will sin’, is part of the message here. Jesus is trying to show how the law must be observed (if simply isn’t a question).

The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus also stands firmly in the tradition of re-interpreting reward theology and as ever it is done in terms of law observance. The rich man does NOT go to fire because he has mistreated the poor; no, he goes because he is rich. That simple. So Lazarus has a happy ending because he is poor. The conclusion to the parable is not added in light of Christian preaching on the resurrection, as is often argued, for the simple reason that Lazarus is the one who is to be sent back and is better read in the tradition of sending someone back from the afterlife to warn the living. And note the reference to Moses and repentance.

What these and other traditions show is that the repentance of the rich is a theme of Jesus’ teaching. They must repent, give up their wealth (or part of it) or else suffer. When Jesus criticises those who worry about food and clothes, he is following a tradition of criticising the behaviour of the rich.

This line of thought is also a part of Jesus’ actions in the Temple. The economic element in Jesus protest is well established (as I’ve argued elsewhere) but I now add another element, namely the idea that idolatry is a part of Jesus’ polemic. In other words, there is a tradition, I think, that remembers Jesus as one who accused the Temple authorities of idolatry. Of course they would have disagreed but in many ways that is irrelevant. Jesus may have been arguing that wealth led to what he regarded as the sin of idolatry.

So much for all that. The key thing, apart from explaining why Jesus specific spin on the law emerged is how these themes can take us along the next part of the causal chain [NB: don’t take this language of chains too literally! I do not mean a nice convenient movement with no other factors etc.]. In particular I next focus on how Jesus’ audience led to the spread of his teaching among gentiles after his death. The key thing here is the role of the ‘the sinners’…


Blogger Chris Petersen said...

Interesting stuff, Dr. Crossley. I'm looking forward to the rest of the posts.

October 24, 2006

Blogger James Crossley said...

Thanks Chris!

October 26, 2006


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