Monday, December 15, 2014

Jesus, Q, and the Dead Sea Scrolls in JTS!




Jesus, Q, and the Dead Sea Scrolls just reviewed by Alan Kirk in the Journal of Theological Studies:

"This volume constitutes an important contribution to Q scholarship, confirming that Q's origins lie at a time and a place in which the Jesus movement, or a branch of it at any rate, has not fully differentiated itself from the Palestinian Jewish milieu. Joseph's work will move research in this direction forward in a number of important respects."

Jesus in India?






A few years ago I published an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion called "Jesus in India: Transgressing Social and Religious Boundaries." It's about a late nineteenth century text - The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ - alleged to be the translation of an ancient Buddhist manuscript referring to Jesus living in India during his lost years. While the legend is generally ignored by biblical scholars - largely because the text appears to be a nineteenth century forgery - the circumstances behind its composition are fascinating and it has played a major role in the teachings of East Indian spiritual leaders and within the New Age movement.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Death of Jesus as a Political Conspiracy and Assassination




Politics, conspiracy, and assassination are not words typically associated with Jesus, but they are fitting descriptions of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Jesus was executed by the Roman state for the alleged crime of sedition or insurrection. The Gospels protest that Jesus was innocent of such charges and attribute the guilt for Jesus’ death to the political machinations of Jewish high priestly leaders. According to the Gospels, then, Jesus’ death was an assassination, “the murder of a prominent person or political figure by a surprise attack, usually for payment or political reasons, motivated by religious, ideological, or military motives.” Assassination is one of the oldest tools in power politics, as old as recorded human history.

     It was also a conspiracy, an "agreement" between two or more persons to commit a crime or achieve some other secret goal. Conspiracies have common features including illegal or sinister aims, carefully orchestrated acts, and secret planning. That is, conspirators conspire. Unfortunately, the relatively neutral meaning of this term – which simply involves a secret agreement between two or more parties to perform an act – has picked up a derogatory meaning signifying a paranoid tendency to detect the influence of some malign covert entity orchestrating historical events. The term is now often used to dismiss historical claims that are considered to be too ridiculous, paranoid, unfounded, or irrational. Historians tend not to use the word, relegating it to theories which lack veracity. A conspiracy theory, in other words, is often thought to be illegitimate knowledge. If the desired goal of a conspiratorial assassination is to re-present the act as accidental by obscuring the real parties responsible, then Jesus’ death - the result of a conspiratorial alliance between the Jewish high priesthood and Pontius Pilate - seems to qualify. At least the authors of the Gospels seem to have thought so.

   The Gospels portray the Jewish high priest – among other Jewish religious leaders – as secretly plotting Jesus’ death. Did the author of Mark invent this “conspiracy?” Or was Jesus’ death the result of an “institutional conspiracy” orchestrated in secret? The author of Mark presented Jesus’ death as part of a divine plan: the son of man must suffer and die at the hands of the religious leaders. This explained why Jesus died ("for our sins"), but did so by constructing a conspiratorial narrative that over-exaggerated a political conspiracy between the high priests into a full-blown drama involving all "The Jews" (Matt 27:25). Now Jesus' death was not just a political execution based on religious conflict, but a voluntary sacrifice for the sins “of many.” Jesus' death was a political assassination orchestrated by a small group of priests threatened by his authority and influence. It was then turned into a divine drama that set the Jews against Jesus, Jesus against Judaism, and Judaism vs. Christianity - all based on a tragic misunderstanding of history.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"The 'Prince of Peace' or the God of War?"


The Isaiah Scroll - Dead Sea Scrolls

My new article, "The Prince of Peace" or the God of War? Jesus as Nonviolent Messiah" was just published in The Bible and Interpretation. Here's the intro

"Was Jesus nonviolent at the beginning of his ministry only to embrace violence later? Or vice versa? Or was Jesus radically nonviolent throughout his ministry and then misrepresented in the Gospels? Did Jesus say "love your enemies" and then assign them to eternal hell? Did Jesus change his mind? Or is it the tradition itself that is confused and irreconcilable? . . . "





Thursday, October 23, 2014

John Dominic Crossan on The Nonviolent Messiah




"Simon’s book argues—powerfully and persuasively—that first common-era century Judaism evoked both a violent and a non-violent Messianic option. Furthermore, that Jesus deliberately and self-consciously chose that latter alternative even unto martyrdom. After this book’s challenge, the debate is no longer the Jesus of History or the Christ of Faith. It is now whether, be it as Jesus in academy or Christ in church, that figure is one of violent or non-violent resistance to inequality, injustice, and oppression." 

John Dominic Crossan
Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies, DePaul University 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Dispelling The Jesus Myth





In recent years, the idea that Jesus was a myth invented by early Christians has become increasingly popular among skeptics and atheists. For many, Jesus-Mythicism serves as an effective tool in discrediting the Cornerstone of what is perceived to be the very shaky edifice called “Christianity.” Yet despite the efforts of biblical scholars like Bart Ehrman, Maurice CaseyJames McGrath, and others to challenge the methodological weaknesses of the Mythicist position, there seems to be no end in sight to the phenomenon.

    It is not that skepticism does not have a valid role in Jesus Research. The problem is that Mythicism depends on problematic arguments that do not hold up under the scrutiny of critical analysis. For example, there is no compelling reason to think that we should have more evidence about Jesus preserved from antiquity. Jesus left no written records and was opposed by most of his contemporaries. The truth is that we actually have pretty good evidence for Jesus considering that he did not have much of a public ministry. 

     Historians know that most of the ancient past is long gone, especially the early Christian past. Christianity was a sporadically persecuted sect for almost three hundred years. Most of its early history was either lost or destroyed. So we can neither assume nor assert  that we should have more evidence from this remote period in time. To do so sets up an impossible standard of proof and evidence that can never be met, which is why it is such an easy position for Mythicists to adopt: it makes it virtually impossible to “prove” Jesus’ existence to them – no matter what kind of evidence is presented.

     What also makes the Mythicist position untenable is that none of the positive evidence for Jesus' existence ever survives their acid baths of deconstruction. The problem is not skepticism. Without critical skepticism of the Christian tradition, modern science would never have progressed at all. But Mythicism takes skepticism to new heights. The Quest for the Historical Jesus isn’t rocket science, but it is based on the critical evaluation of historical sources. Historical-critical scholarship is an exercise in analytical skepticism: rendering critical judgments on the probabilities of past events using the tools of evidence, arguments, logic, and peer-review. According to the overwhelmingly vast majority of scholars who participate in this discussion, for example, the letters of Paul – written between c. 48 and 60 CE, with their references to Jesus’ human birth (“born of a woman”), Jewish ancestry, teachings (on divorce), crucifixion, family, and disciples – refer to a very real historical figure in very real time and space. 

     When it comes to Jesus, it is the cumulative weight of the evidence that convinces. This convergence of evidence – Josephus’ references to Jesus, the references in Paul’s letters, the embarrassing political and theological fact of Jesus’ crucifixion, the literary and theological trajectories of the Gospels, and the telling fact that the Mythicist position is never taken by any of the Jesus movement’s many enemies, whether Jewish, pagan, Roman, or Gnostic, throughtout late antiquity – is compelling. The historical question, therefore, is not whether Jesus existed, but why theological ideas and beliefs were added to the Jesus story. We are better off acknowledging that theological accretions have been added to the developing tradition than rejecting the tradition altogether. We are better off cleaning up the Baby instead of throwing it out with the bath-water.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Armed and Dangerous?




How often does Newsweek discuss scholarly articles in obscure academic journals? Not very often. But when research suggests that Jesus and his disciples were violence-prone apocalyptic revolutionaries, they make an exception. In “Jesus Was Crucified Because Disciples Were Armed, Bible Analysis Suggests,” Newsweek reporter Douglas Main discusses the provocative implications of a recent article, “Jesus in Jerusalem: Armed and Not Dangerous,” by Yale University professor Dale Martin. The Newsweek article announces that this new research suggests that “the man from Nazareth was not the pacifist he’s usually made out to be” and that “Jesus may have been crucified because his followers were carrying weapons.”

    The Violent Revolutionary Jesus hypothesis has long been rejected by most New Testament scholars, as I noted in my review of Reza Aslan's Zealot last year. I have argued herehere, here, and here, that Jesus advocated and practiced a radical form of eschatological nonviolence. Martin's thesis would seem to call that conclusion into question. But as New Testament scholar Paula Fredriksen points out, Martin's thesis has holes so big “you could drive trucks through” them. For example, just because carrying arms was illegal in Rome doesn’t make it so in Jerusalem, a claim that Martin asks us to simply take "it for granted." Fredriksen also adds that the Greek word for sword “really means something more akin to knife,” and such weapons were easily concealed. Nonetheless, she sees her disagreements with Martin as part of the "contact sport" that is Jesus scholarship: the controversy itself is all part of the "fun."

    If Jesus and his followers was preparing to participate in a military overthrow of Roman rule in Judea, he certainly had a funny way of showing it and the Romans and Jewish authorities certainly had a funny way of punishing them. It is true, of course, that the Book of Revelation envisions an end-time battle, as does the Qumran War Scroll. And it seems reasonable enough to conclude that some passionate apocalypticists took up arms against the Romans. But it is highly unlikely that Jesus was one of them. Why not?

    The problems are legion.

    Martin begins his discussion by stating that "At least one of Jesus' disciples was armed" at his arrest. He then, however, leaps to the conclusion that because one disciple might have been armed that all of Jesus' disciples - even Jesus himself - were armed. That is just wishful thinking. While it is certainly possible that some of Jesus' disciples or followers may have been covertly "armed" or that there could have been some type of scuffle, that's as far as the evidence goes. Furthermore, in Matthew, Luke, and John, Jesus rebukes the violent act, which is hardly what one would expect if Jesus thought he was launching an angelic holy war. We should not forget that it is the Markan Peter who must also be rebuked by Jesus for misunderstanding his messianic vocation as a militaristic one.

   Unfortunately, the problems do not end here. Even if two or more of Jesus' disciples did possess large swords, this un-interpreted fact alone does not tell us very much. Perhaps they were simply armed against brigands and thieves. A few weapons were not "enough" to take on the Roman army nor can we assume that the reason they carried them was to prepare for an imminent apocalyptic war. The mere "fact" (if that is what it is) that a few disciples were armed tells us nothing about their apocalyptic intentions or readiness for battle. In the Gospel of Luke, the only reason the disciples possess swords is to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53 ("he was counted among the lawless"). Martin plausibly dismisses this as "invention," but his alternative explanation is far more problematic.

    If Jesus and his disciples were "armed," why wasn’t Peter (or the unnamed follower) arrested for cutting off a person’s ear? And  why does Luke portray Jesus as healing the servant's ear? If Jesus' disciples were armed and ready for war, why weren’t they all rounded up for sedition? Martin knows that these are major objections to his thesis, but he dismisses these arguments, asserting that the Romans were "pragmatists" (18) and did not need to hunt down the followers once the leader had been properly disposed of. If Jesus and his disciples were really embarking on a military revolt against Rome, I think it's reasonable to conclude that Rome would have eliminated the entire threat.

     While the article's title would lead us to believe that the argument will center on the disciples being armed, the heart of Martin's thesis actually focuses on the Temple incident. Here Martin follows E. P. Sanders in arguing that Jesus symbolically demonstrated "the imminent destruction of the temple." Yet Martin goes further in stating that Jesus' act in the Temple was "an attempt to catalyze that destruction" and "may have even threatened to do it himself." He also argues that Jesus intended to launch an angelic "overthrow" of the high priestly rulers and Roman overlords. As most Jesus scholars know, the Temple incident is a complicated site of interpretation. It is very difficult to do justice to the historical and theological problems associated with it, which is why I've dedicated my next book to this subject. But in short, the authors of the Gospels each have their own theological interpretation of the event and want us to think that Jesus predicted, threatened, and inaugurated the destruction of the Temple. Why? Because that signals the end of one era and the beginning of the new, "Christian" era in which Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice, replacing the Temple. Consequently, we cannot assume that Jesus sought its destruction. Martin thinks that Jesus wanted to destroy the Temple, but he doesn't explain why (14).

     In the end, the whole point of Jesus' ministry - in the Gospel according to Dale Martin - is that Jesus was a "ringleader" who gathered together a small peasant army to march on Jerusalem during Passover where he would launch a violent overthrow of Roman and high priestly rule as "a small detachment in a much larger [angelic] army" (18). In Martin's eyes, Jesus is tragically deluded - and terribly wrong about just about everything.

    This attempted resurrection of the (violent) Revolutionary hypothesis - an hypothesis that Martin admits to having been "discredited" many times before - seeks not only to "second others' claims that Jesus was leading a band of armed insurrectionists" but to "strengthen that hypothesis" (4). Martin begins with a firm foundation - "Jesus was expecting the inbreaking of apocalyptic events" (6) - but within a few short pages misrepresents Jesus' apocalypticism as violent. How does Martin know that Jesus "was expecting an angelic army to break through the sky"? This sounds more like a scene from Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ - where Jesus actually aborts the revolutionary path of violence - than anything the Gospels have to say. Martin's thesis also implicates Jesus as guilty by association, blaming the disciples for Jesus' crucifixion because they carried swords. Where is that in the historical record? Did Pilate crucify Jesus because his disciples had a few knives? Is Jesus really to be held responsible for everything his wayward disciples do? If that is the case, then Jesus really has a lot to answer for.

    The most disturbing thing about Martin's thesis is that it runs roughshod over - in fact, ignores - Jesus' teachings on nonviolence, non-retaliation, and love of enemies. While Martin is correct in saying that Jesus' "apocalyptic expectations must be brought into any scenario" (4n2) - that is precisely where his thesis fails, illustrating how truly "dangerous" the misinterpretation of that "scenario" can be. These questions are too complicated for a single article (or blog-post!), which is why I have dedicated an entire book to addressing the relationship between Jesus, the Torah, and the Temple. Martin's paper - while a gross over-simplification of Early Jewish apocalypticism in terms of eschatological violence - provides an opportunity to revisit the monolithic "apocalypticism" of scholarly imagination. In my next few posts I will explore in greater detail and locate Jesus within a far more complex range of interpretive options in Second Temple Judaism. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Finding God in the City of Angels




Finding God in the City of Angels is a feature-length documentary film that I wrote and co-produced. Interviewing over 100 participants from over 40 different faith communities, the film illustrates the diversity of religious expression and experience in Los Angeles, with a particular focus on how different communities engage their sacred texts or "Scriptures." The film premiered at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta in November, 2009, and won the 2010 Audience Award at the Urban World Film Festival in New York City and an Accolade Award.

     Watch the trailer hereBuy the DVD.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Imaginary Visions of True Peace (review)

Andrew Marr, a Benedictine monk, has written a review of The Nonviolent Messiah on his blog, Imaginary Visions of True Peace:


"Simon Joseph’s book The Nonviolent Messiah is another helpful study on the question of whether or not Jesus truly preached peace . . . Joseph uses examination of the Q document and the Adamic model of the Messiah in Enochic literature to argue that the historical Jesus consistently preached peace . . . Joseph builds a case that Jesus preached nonviolence and a violent eschatology was added later by the Q community.
   The lesser known Enochic literature is examined for a lesser-known element: the Adamic model that emerged in some of this literature in contradistinction to the Davidic Messiah who would be a political and military figure. The Adamic model posits the hope of a renewed creation that would involve all people and would be achieved by totally peaceful means. The Animal Apocalypse, so-called because animals signify the figures, is a particularly strong example of this. We can easily see the influence of this model on Paul’s use of the New Adam in his epistles. Joseph provides much evidence to suggest that this Adamic model, which was very well-known at all levels of Jewish society in Jesus’ time, strongly influenced Jesus’ self-understanding of the kind of Messiah he was . . . 
   Although a meticulous examination, the book is readable and is an important contribution to the investigations on Jesus’ attitude to peace and violence."



Friday, July 11, 2014

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Friday, July 4, 2014

An Essene "Gospel of Peace?"



Is the Catholic Church hiding an ancient Essene "Gospel of Peace" in its dark vaults - an ancient Aramaic manuscript preserving the original teachings of Jesus - hidden away for 2,000 years? Yes, according to Edmund Bordeaux Szekely, its alleged "discoverer." In the late 1920s, Szekely made the bold claim to have discovered and translated this ancient manuscript while doing research in the “secret archives” of the Vatican. Unfortunately, Szekely’s ancient manuscript has never been seen. No photographs have ever been taken. There are no handwritten facsimiles, transcriptions, or original notes on the text. And there are no references to any Gospel of Peace in any ancient historical sources. 

What are we to make of all of this? Barring any sudden new discoveries, it seems clear that Szekely just made the whole thing up. He admits as much: "I myself wrote and published a number of books on the Essenes, most of them some twenty years before the discovery of the first scroll in 1947. Starting in 1927, these books were based on certain historical sources . . . and on manuscripts in the Archives of the Vatican." 

  Szekely wanted to expose Christianity as “one of the greatest deceptions in human history.” Dismissing biblical scholarship as “hopelessly sterile in substance as it is monotonous in form,” its methods “grounded upon falsehoods,” and its conclusions “either childish or obscure, or else so extravagant as to be almost laughable,” Szekely describes the Gospels as “literary fabrication” and Christianity “the product of innumerable forged documents.” Szekely failed to see the irony in accusing others of forgery.

   Szekely wrote a new "Gospel" for a "New Age" because he wanted Jesus to advocate peace, vegetarianism, organic food, reverence for the earth as our Mother, and regular colonic treatments. Szekely used this genuine photograph of the Copper Scroll from the Qumran caves in the inside book-jacket of a later re-addition of his "Essene Gospel" in order to lend mystique and credibility to his claims. The problem is that the Copper Scroll was not discovered until the 1950s, twenty years after Szekely’s "discovery."

   While "The Essene Gospel" is ignored by biblical scholars as historically useless, it illustrates the public milieu in which ideas about Jesus and the Essenes have developed. These writings may have also played an indirect role in the general public’s suspicion that the Church has “covered up” valuable information, a conspiracy theory revived during the delay in the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In fact, a small industry of New Age books about Jesus and the Essenes has emerged in recent years, many of which show signs of being influenced by this fictional Jesus, a "Gospel" that continues to be regarded as authentic by contemporary "Essene," "Essene-Nazarene," and “neo-Essene” communities.


What is "The Quest for the Historical Jesus?"



Since the dawn of the Enlightenment, a tremendous amount of scholarly energy has been spent searching for the “Historical Jesus,” but it has not always been exactly clear who that "person" is or precisely how this so-called "Quest" is to be conducted. The “Historical Jesus” is not the man who walked along the Sea of Galilee. The “Historical Jesus” is Jesus as he can be reconstructed using scientific historical methods.

    While few professional biblical scholars claim that an historical figure named Jesus (or Yeshua) did not exist, the basic problem is that every scholar’s historical Jesus is different. So there is not one Jesus, but many. The Quest for the historical Jesus attempts to identify the earliest traditions about Jesus, but again, there is not one Gospel, but many. The Quest for the historical Jesus has also been shaped by a worldview that rejects the possibility of “miracles.” Historians are not supposed to appeal to extraordinary “acts of God” to explain historical events but must bracket their personal theological beliefs (if any) and re-construct the most likely cause-and-effect explanations for historical events.

   The problem, of course, is that the story of Jesus contains numerous accounts of extraordinary phenomena. Our problem is, in part, one of language and definition. The words “miraculous” and “supernatural” are theological terms that presuppose the existence of God or some realm “beyond the natural.” Put this way, it is easy to see why historians do not allow for the “miraculous”: scientific naturalism precludes itIf history is the study of the past and theology is the study of God, it is not surprising that the disciplinary dichotomy of "the Historical Jesus" vs. "the Christ of faith" are so different: they are based on two different paradigms of interpretation.