New Understanding of the New Testament
By Alan D. Griffin
My thoughts and outlook on Jesus and the New Testament has been changed through many readings and discussions. When I began I saw Jesus as a Jewish philosopher from the Essenes sect of Judaism who claimed fame from reinterpreting the laws of Moses in terms of intention rather than proper behavior. I believed his reason for this was to stop further Hellenization of the Jewish faith without much concern about restoring the nation of Judah. I believed that Jesus embraced his follower’s claims that he was the Messiah to further his cause. I believed that Christianity developed linearly and cohesively from the Twelve Apostles to the rest of the world and a division occurring later from disputes between the Twelve Apostles each claiming to be the most beloved and obtaining secret teachings from Jesus. I did know that Paul’s writing were written first but did not realize the differences in his teachings and the teachings of Jesus. I did not realize the amount of time that past between Paul’s letters and the writing of the different Gospels. I realized that John’s Gospel focused on different details of Jesus’ life and ministry than the synoptic Gospels but I was unaware of the spiritual and theological differences. I believed that Revelation was a coded message to Christians concerning Rome but I was ignorant of the ancient symbolism used in Revelation and the backdrop of the Imperial cult in which it was written. I have developed an almost entirely new interpretation of the life of Jesus and the development of Christianity and the New Testament throughout my studies.
I believe the best place to begin unpacking the New Testament is in the setting in which Jesus lived. The diversity of Judaism in the first century was essentially broken down into 4 distinct groups. The Sadducees who allied themselves with Rome to keep control of the Temple and the very profitable sacrificial system enjoyed wealth and power but were despised by the majority of Jews. The Pharisees who were strict legalist and According to Harris were “the spiritual descendants of the Hasidim, who separated themselves from what they saw as the corrupting influence of Hellenistic culture...” ( p.50). The Zealots who were a violent sect of Judaism who wish to regain sovereignty of their God given kingdom who’s ultimate revolt led to the destruction of the temple. And the Essences who were a sect of Judaism that had a mystic element to their beliefs and wanted to protect Judaism from further Hellenistic influences and rejected violent attempts to revolt against Rome. John the Baptist a desert ascetic condemning Jewish political and religious leadership preached repentance was probably a member of this group (Harris p. 58) The philosophy of Plato concerning the cosmic dualism of the material and ethereal realms and the immortality of the soul incorporated with Persian Zoroastrian beliefs about the cosmic battle between good and evil had infiltrated Jewish thought and religion by the lifetime of Jesus. The Roman occupation and the Imperial cult is the source of conflict in the life and death of Jesus as well as the entire New Testament. This culmination of diversity and the rapid exchange of ideas brought about by the Roman road and port systems placed Jesus in unique historical and geographical setting.
According to the Synoptic Gospels Jesus seems to be a disciple of John the Baptist destined to surpass him. This leads me to the conclusion that if John the Baptist was a member of the Essenes that his cousin Jesus, according to Luke’s Gospel, would also be part of this sect. Jesus’ teachings, sayings and actions would also seem to line up more with what we know about the Essenes than the other three known sects of Judaism in the first century. Combining what I have learned about the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible in History of Biblical Religion I and the teachings and behavior of Jesus in the Gospels that we have discussed this semester the historical Jesus seems more of a socio-political revolutionary than a religious leader. The Prophets Amos and Jeremiah especially preached on reformation of the treatment of the poor and marginalized when facing the impending Assyrian invasion around 722 BCE. I believed that the main motivation for this was that to withstand the Assyrians they would require this segment of the population to be willing to fight off the invaders for the Kingdom of Israel of Jerusalem to stand a fighting chance and under their current treatment the poor and marginalized were more likely to simply flee than to stand and fight. Lack of these reforms resulted in the conquering of Israel and much of Judah except the city of Jerusalem who became somewhat subservient to the Assyrians and forced to pay homage to Assyria to insure their survival. Jesus seems to have picked up on this idea and went out of his way to support and keep company with the poor, the outcast, and marginalized population to achieve a climate of peaceful revolt against the Roman occupiers. We have seen the astounding affects this method of social revolution can have in our own time by the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s led by Dr. Martin Luther King. Jesus’ ministry stoked the fire of social revolution and I believe his intentional capture and crucifixion he thought would be the push his revolution needed to change the dynamic of the Palestinian region.
Paul who was once a persecutor of Jesus followers was changed into their greatest missionary after witnessing the stoning of Stephen the first Christian Martyr around 34 CE. This led to a divine revelation of Jesus on the road to Damascus which would change the Jesus movement from a Jewish cult into a gentile religion. Paul whose letters both disputed and undisputed lays the ground work for the basic tenants and doctrines of Christianity. Paul although he does speak of Jesus’ teachings is more concerned with preaching about Jesus as a divine fulfillment of the Jewish messianic hope to all mankind than preaching the message of Jesus himself. Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians and Galatians in the New Testament speaks to other preachers who arrive as Judaizers and false Prophets. The Judaizers Paul speaks of were more than likely missionaries of the Jerusalem Church and its leader James the Just who still saw the Jesus movement as a movement within Judaism. This challenge to Paul’s disregard of Torah law in regards to the gentile converts quickly evaporates when the Jerusalem temple is destroyed in 70 CE and the Jerusalem Church loses authority. This shift in power begins Christianity down the road of becoming truly diverse and a separate religion from Judaism. This separation from Judaism greatly increases the persecution of Christians by the Roman authorities which will dominate the writings of the rest of the New Testament. The emperor cult was a belief system which started after the death of Julius Caesar that believed that emperors were deified after death and became a god. Jews were exempt from participating in the emperor cult which included sacrifices and declaring the emperor as Lord and Savior because Rome respected their ancient and monotheistic beliefs. When it became apparent that Christianity was no longer a movement within Judaism Christians were no longer exempt from the emperor cult and refusal to participate and declaring Jesus as Lord and Savior was seen as an act of sedition and punishable by death. The concept of Jesus as the son of the one and only God who will return and judge the world began to develop through Paul’s letters and is later developed by the writers of the Gospels. Especially The Gospel of John which is more a theological dissertation than the other Gospels that focus more on Jesus’ life, sayings, teachings, and actions. John’s Gospel resembles Gnostic beliefs in many respects such as beliefs in spiritual rebirth, dualism between the forces of darkness and light, and division of the cosmos into two realms the realm of the material and the realm of the spirit. John disagrees with the Gnostic idea that Jesus was a spiritual being which only seemed to be material. Instead John Insists that Jesus was a real material person. I believe Paul set out to continue Jesus’ mission of social revolution through the poor and marginalized but his manifested into a religion about Jesus that spiraled into a belief system distinct from Jesus’ original message. Many other teachings in Paul’s undisputed letters can be seen as an outline for what we call socialism today with his attempts to redistribute wealth and to destroy the barriers of class and gender within the church.
Revelation is clearly a coded message to the seven churches of Asia Minor regarding Roman persecution of Christians and to firm up the faith of believers in those communities. John of Patmos use of apocalyptic writing which was a common practice of oppressed people to speak out against their oppressors and the people in these communities were keenly aware of references to Babylon as a synonym of Rome. Ancient Sumerian symbolism such as the seven headed dragon was also a known symbol for chaos in which a great hero will overcome and bring order out of chaos. The symbol of Chaos was embodied by the Emperor himself in which forced participation in the emperor cult was the source of all the chaos they experienced. The dragon more than likely refers to the Emperor Nero who was the first emperor to demanded worship himself as a living God. After Nero’s death, Emperor Vespasian did not assume godhood while living. The beast in Revelation more than likely refers to the Emperor Domitian who also demanded to be worshipped as a living god after the death of Vespasian. The mark of the beast referred to in Revelation is most likely a mark given to people to which showed they had participated in sacrifices to the emperor that was ascribed as mandatory by law.
Through the discussions and readings I have realized there is much I did not know and had the wrong assumptions about which has motivated me to continue to research this subject matter and develop several interpretations of this material which can be compared and contrasted. I think that the story of the life of Jesus and the religion that followed evolved from very humble beginnings and will continue to evolve through archeological findings, developments in science and religious syncretism in a global society. The great success of the spread of Christianity owes a great debt of gratitude to the roman infrastructure of hundreds of miles of roads and an intricate port system that keep this great world religion from becoming a small isolated religion that may have remain at the level of a Jewish cult without them. This religion against Roman occupation and promotion of the proper treatment of the poor and marginalized will speak to mankind for the rest of time. Christianity, which I believe is mostly archetypal myth, speaks to a universal human condition that since the rise of the first city-state civilization to the global civilization we live in today which is sadly there will probably always be oppressive governments and there will always be a group of poor and marginalized being oppressed.
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