October 31,.2021 Kelley Kidd
“O Man of my own people, I alone
Among these alien ones can know thy face,
I who have felt the kinship of thy race
Burn in me as I sit where they intone
Thy praises–those who, striving to make known
A God of sacrifice, have missed the grace
Of thy sweet human meaning in its place,
Thou of our blood-bond and our own,
Are we not sharers of thy Passion? Yea,
In spirit-anguish closely by thy side
We have drained the bitter cup, and, tortured, felt
With thee the bruising of the heavy welt,
In every land is our Gethsemane,
A thousand times have we been crucified.”
THE JEW TO JESUS BY Florence Kiper Frank (about 1912)
I am the son of a devout Southern Baptist Mother and a Father who was once Superintendent of Sunday School in his Methodist Church. According to these good Christian people who raised me, the Jewish people were “chosen” by God at their beginning in the life of Abraham. And I was taught that they were chosen by God from all the peoples of the earth to fulfill the task of becoming the religious culture into which Jesus, the Only Begotten Son of God, eventually would be born. And. of course, at least one of those Jewish people about two thousand years later did become the Mother of Jesus. God himself, not Mary’s husband Joseph, was said to be the other parent of Jesus. His Mother was a Jew and he had no human Father, which made him the child of a Virgin. Oddly enough two out of four of the Jesus stories (ie, gospels) in my Bible recited the ancestors of Joseph as the ancestors of Jesus! None of them traced the ancestry of Jesus’ Mother. but the earliest gospel, Mark, neither asserted nor denied the Virgin birth story. Only one of the four Jesus stories, the gospel of John, asserted that Jesus was as eternal as the creation of the universe and a part of God himself! Nevertheless the function of many hundreds of years of Jewish history, according to my Christian upbringing, was to produce the Mother and the cultural context into which Jesus was eventually to be born.
According to the Christian litany all the families and nations of the world and all humans thereafter would be blessed by the opportunity to adopt certain beliefs about Jesus, since these beliefs would guarantee each believer with eternal life and happiness. The doctrine was also that the lack of those beliefs would leave every nonbeliever in a condition called “original sin”, a status which doomed the nonbeliever to eternal death and torture in eternal fire. This scheme of salvation was said to be the ultimate worthwhile product of Jewish history and divine grace–according to my Christian mentors. Of course this point of view reduced the Biblical “Old Testament” to little more than a lengthy and very complicated literary preface to the doctrine of salvation for those who accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. Both the ancient Jews and their scripture were thereby relegated to semi-curious background, not as either my history nor the guide for my behavior. Some of my mentors went so far as to proclaim that the theology and ethics of the New Testament replaced any expressed in the Old Testament. But the creed of these Christian believers is perhaps better expressed by the ancient Nicene Creed, which has been a part of Christian liturgy for more than 1200 years now. Although this creed is perhaps less often recited these days than the less explicit Apostle’s Creed, this statement of the beliefs expected of Christians also verbalizes what my mentors stressed as the truly important points of the religion I was asked to accept as the foundation for my life. Anyhow the Creed follows:
“I believe in one God,
the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Chris, the only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father: through him all things were made. For us men and our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. I believe in one, holy , catholic and apostolic Church. I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins and look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life in the world to come. Amen.”
To my way of thinking the centrality of these beliefs relegated both ethics and actions to marginality. Nevertheless this and similar expressions of the central doctrines of the church were also understood to distinguish good people from bad. According to my teachers the Jews had rejected Jesus, which of course left them condemned by those same teachers as both damned and among the bad people. By the time I was 12 or 13 I had seen enough of humans to know that this simple scheme did not correlate with what I saw of human behavior. I began even in the American South of the 1950s and 60s to encounter church going bigots and despisers of anyone who disagreed with them about much of anything. And I also began to encounter nonbelievers who seemed to me to be compassionate, tolerant and scrupulous.
At the same time as an American I was also occasionally being taught that the human being was God’s greatest creation, and that all people were created equal, and all were entitled to live in freedom and dignity. These latter beliefs were the premises of the democratic country I lived in, or at least the premises my forebears claimed for my country.. Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence seemed to me to be at odds with the Christian creeds of the white churches I attended. If these democratic teachings were true, then the world in which I lived must somehow be either very confused or at least was being operated by people whose beliefs contradicted each other. My world was mostly the neighborhood and small towns in which I was raised. And most of the people who lived in my home town were poor, and most of these poor people were at least faintly despised by my Mother and Father and the other ‘saved’ Christians that I knew from my middle class schooling and social life. Yet when I took the time to listen to the church services and the conversations of these poor people, I usually found them to be devout believers in salvation through Jesus Christ. And every Jew I saw seemed to be at least pretty good folks. These contradictions were not the only reasons I found to doubt most of the doctrines of the Christian Creed taught by my parents and my class of white American citizens. That particular view of Jesus and the Jewish people seemed echoed s well by even the teachings of the Puritan pioneers of the Yankee New England my Southern forebears had been teaching me to despise for their racial views.
The prevailing political and social attitude of my Christian teachers was far removed from Jefferson’s vision of equality.A short clip from the sermons of Governor Winthrop, a respected religious leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony should suffice to illustrate the founding fathers’ posture as it was projected through my early Christian indoctrination: “…some were meant to rule, others to serve their betters. God Almighty…so disposed the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high ..in power and dignity; others mean and in subjection.” If this Puritan approach to the Christian faith were to be believed, then Jesus was the heir to a God ordained social order at complete odds with the Declaration’s proclamation that “all men were created equal.” Later I discovered that the same Thomas Jefferson who had written the Declaration had also edited the gospels to produce a portrait of Jesus drawn directly from the text who was a man completely at odds with the teaching of both Nicene Creed and Winthrop pronouncements. The gospels it seemed contained two entirely different portraits of Jesus which were incompatible with each other and which produced totally different world views.
There was also the doubt biology I learned in high school and later in college. There was the caste system features of churches which preached these doctrines and excluded Blacks and the poorly dressed of all races, the seeming cruelty of a doctrine which ignored the ethical and moral behavior of non-believing sinners, and the cruelty so many Christians showed towards animals and foreigners, assertive Black folks and folks deemed to be insufficiently patriotic or devout. Then too, I could not help but wonder why Jews seemed to be so unwilling to convert to Christianity. After all, the story did assert that Jesus was one of them and that his life and mission was foretold by their prophets.
In time my studies and ruminations would lead me to the conclusion that the New Testament contained two different personalities which had been conflated to produce the Jesus portrayed by the gospels.
THE GRECO-ROMAN LEGEND OF JESUS One of these personalities I will refer to as the Greco-Roman Legend, whose character and nature are described in the Nicene Creed. This was the Jesus of the Nicene Creed and the model held up by my mentors. I believe that Jesus character–who the poetess above calls “a God of sacrifice”–was an invention of preachers who were appealing to the sympathies of a Greek and Latin world dominated by the very Roman Empire whose functionaries had unjustly killed Jesus for defying them and their allies among the contemporary Judean elite. See HOW JESUS BECAME GOD, by Bart Erdman. Christianity almost simultaneously became the religion of Rome and the enemy of Judaism, the religion of the rebellious (against Roman domination) Jews, In my upbringing of course this Greco-Roman Jesus was predominant. It was also eventually rejected by me as a legend and not a very helpful one.
JESUS, THE FIRST CENTURY JEWISH RABBI Gradually I have learned from and about the other characterization of Jesus> I eventually came to believe that the human being who was the historical Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi who inspired many of his contemporary Jewish followers by demonstrating an incandescent faith and practice rooted in Biblical and post biblical Jewish traditions and teaching. I will refer to him here as Rabbi Jesus. While the Legend was certainly the principle figure in the religion of my youth, Rabbi Jesus was and is a powerful influence on my own spiritual journey. Until fairly recently and in my lifetime few educated Americans seemed very impressed with the Jewish Jesus. Many recent books use the New Testament and Jewish writings in the Talmud and elsewhere to demonstrate that Jesus was a somewhat radical but devout and committed practitioner and proponent of Judaism. My favorite of the recent books on the Jewishness of Jesus is Jesus: First Century Rabbi by Rabbi David Zalman.
Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth spoke Aramaic and may have been familiar with Biblical Hebrew, a very closely related language which had long been the principle literary and liturgical language of a people that had once spoken it in everyday conversation. He was the child of a devoutly Jewish Mother and a Father who made his living as a carpenter in the Galilean town of Nazareth. Jesus began a ministry of preaching, teaching and healing when he was about 30 years of age. He worked mostly among poor people, and was killed a few years later by a Roman colonial despot named Pilate. He lived a life of devotion to God and to service among the despised, marginalized and persecuted Jews of his time. He never claimed to be divine in any way, talked little about himself, avoided temptation to pursue wealth of social prestige, was a humble follower of his understanding of the Bible of his people, the Hebrew Scriptures that my mentors called the Old Testament—a collection of books written by Jews and for Jews about the acts of God in relationship to God’s beloved people, the Jews. He no more intended to start a new religion than Abraham Lincoln intended to start a new country. Like many other Rabbis in his time, Jesus welcomed gentiles who were genuinely interested in living as devout Jews, and thought of religious attitudes as being centered primarily on the attention and actions of the devotee, not his beliefs. The so-called synoptic gospels are primarily about the life and teaching of this Jewish Rabbi. I have not found this life and teaching unbelievable and at odds with my democratic idealism.
What follows is a list of some of those gospel teachings and episodes which have provided my life with direction and boundary since my childhood:
The Sermon of the Mount and its compassionate appeal to living in the here and now with charity for all and malice towards none. Lessons in tolerance and forgiveness and mercy from parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.
The Lord’s prayer with its emphasis on a vision of God as the loving Father of us all and its expression of willingness to seek universal peace and brotherhood among all of the members of a human race bound by a common creation and hopefully capable of striving towards a common destiny of equality and peace.
A humility that admits that none of us are perfect and a willingness to strive for improvement.
A theology that sees love of God and others as the keys to eternal life.
The Rabbi from Nazareth revered the commandments and directions of the Torah and said his fellow Jews should try to faithfully follow them, revered the Sabbath and never suggested that the first day of the week (Sunday in the Gregorian calendar) should be a special day of worship services, taught that returning to God through repentance and atonement was possible and desirable, and had strong criticism for attitudes like Governor Winthrop’s.
The whole course of human history may eventually be decided by whether or not the values of the real and Jewish Jesus gain strength in the affairs of people and nations and economies. After nearly 80 years of living and watching life I sense more deeply than ever that the best values of the Jewish people are the greatest hopes for the survival and flourishing of life on this little and ever-shrinking planet. In that sense I believe the old teaching that the Creator has “chosen” the Jews. And their martyred son Jesus has exerted and will continue to exert a very powerful influence in he struggle for that life. L’chaim.
The closer I have drawn to eternity, the more I have come to believe that God can be trusted to take care of eternity, and that my job is to help God to make this planet a place in which God’s will is done now in this life. I have sought direction for that task from many sources, but virtually all of them appear now to me to be springs of inspiration and guidance from the same deep source –the writings of ancient Jews.
And For the last 46 years I have been living as though the most important story to the quality of life on this planet has been the story of the birth of the Jewish people—the principal story of the first five books of the Christian Bible, a collection that Jews call Torah. That word–Torah–has been variously translated Law or Teaching. I think that the best translation would probably be something like “Teaching that Embodies God’s Instruction to Jews”.