Saturday, January 24, 2015

Jesus and Buddha




The word "Buddha" means "Enlightened One." Like "Christ," it is not a name, but a title. For centuries, scholars have wondered whether early Christians knew about or perhaps even incorporated Buddhist concepts in their writings about Jesus. As a missionary religion, Buddhism had been expanding westward for several centuries by the time of Jesus. The trade route known as the Silk Road connected Palestine, India, and China and a number of cities along the route had Buddhist populations in the first century. And the parallels between the lives and teachings of Jesus and the Buddha are striking, as the late Marcus J. Borg pointed out. According to The Dalai Lama, Jesus was “either a fully enlightened being or a bodhisattva of a very high spiritual realization.” 




Jesus and the Buddha both taught nonviolence and compassion. Both seem to have had life-changing experiences. Both initiated renewal movements within their traditions. Both were exalted to divine status in the traditions that grew up around them. Both were teachers of wisdom. Both underwent "testing" prior to their public ministries. Both made enemies by their rejection of priestly authority. Both founded orders of disciples. And both taught non-attachment to the things of this world.

Jesus and Buddha both seem to have taken up the lifestyle of a traveling spiritual master, an ancient tradition in India. The wandering, ascetic holy man travels from village to village teaching and giving advice. He has few possessions and depends on the voluntary contributions of the villagers for his food. Some wandering holy men gathered disciples who looked to them for spiritual instruction. What are we to make of these similarities? 

Jesus was not a "Buddhist." There are significant differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism - whether it is Judeo-Christian monotheism vs. Buddhist non-theism, the exclusivity of Christian atonement theology vs. the peaceful death of the Buddha, or the doctrines of grace vs. karmaIt is a futile task to try and draw literary relationships between Buddhist teachings and the Gospels. But both were born into religious traditions characterized by an adherence to sacred scriptures, a sacrificial system, a priesthood that controlled religious authority, and a stratified social caste-system. 

In Jesus' case, his support for the marginalized and outcast challenged the social structures of traditional Jewish life, alarmed the priesthood, and seems to have ultimately cost him his life - making him an altogether very different kind of Bodhisattva in his brutal death on the cross. Jesus and the Buddha share striking similarities at the level of their teachings and practices, but their followers took their traditions in very different directions: Buddhists focused on the teachings of their Master while (most) Christians focused on their personal salvation via the death and resurrection of their Savior.



In Memoriam: Marcus J. Borg (March 11, 1942 - January 21, 2015)


Monday, January 19, 2015

The End of Sacrifice



There are very few cultures today that still practice animal sacrifice - slitting the throat of a lamb as an offering to God. Yet the core idea behind offering something to the Divine - whether it be flowers, fruits, incense, food, another life, or one's own life - lies at the very foundation of most religions. Our desire to be connected to something greater than ourselves - whether Nature, God, or the Spirit World - still comes to profound expression in these simple gestures of ritual reciprocity. That is one "end" of sacrifice.

Historically speaking, however, the "end" of sacrifice, at least in its Jewish and Christian contexts, came to pass because the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., commemorating their victory by erecting the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum, where it still stands today. They carried away the Temple's sacred objects - including the golden menorah and trumpets, pictured here - and murdered and enslaved thousands of Jews.




The Jewish sacrificial system of ritual-cultic atonement had existed in Jerusalem for a thousand years. Now, without the Temple, the sacrificial system was over. Without the Temple, the rabbis needed to reconstruct Judaism around the Torah in order to maintain the continuity of Jewish identity and practice. The destruction of the Temple meant something very different to most Christians. It was the fulfillment of prophecy, adivine vindication of Jesus. It supported the new idea that Jesus and his community were a Temple and his death was a blood sacrifice that replaced the Temple, which was now forever commemorated in the blood-sacrifice rites of the Eucharist. This supported the new idea that "Christianity" had replaced "Judaism" as true Israel. Now the end of sacrifice came to symbolize the end of an era and the Jews were part of that "old covenant."

For 2,000 years, rabbinical Jews have mourned the loss of the Temple. Today, many look forward to the day when a Third Temple might be erected, although others  - especially Reform Jews - do not think that the ancient sacrificial system prescribed in the Torah should be re-instituted. But we all still use the language of sacrifice to describe acts of noble dedication to a higher purpose. Mothers and fathers "sacrifice" for their children. Soldiers "sacrifice" for their countries. We do this because the word "sacrifice" means "to make sacred," "to sanctify," and conveys that something has been offered, dedicated to a higher, nobler purpose. In this sense, then, "sacrifice" has never come to an "end."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Jesus and the Temple!




Happy to announce that my new book - Jesus and the Temple: The Crucifixion in its Jewish Context - will be published by Cambridge University Press in its Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series.

Here's a preliminary overview: 

Jesus and the Temple is a critical investigation into the cultural, political, economic, and religious conflicts that led to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. Most Jesus specialists agree that the Temple incident led to Jesus’ execution, but what few seem to agree on is why Jesus was in conflict with the Temple. There is a growing tendency in contemporary scholarship to assume that Jesus and the earliest Christians had an almost uniformly positive view of the Temple’s sacrificial system. This approach may correct supersessionist views of sacrifice, but it also tends to downplay the ambiguous, inconsistent, and contradictory views on sacrifice in the New Testament. Jesus and the Temple re-examines these complex views on sacrifice and the Temple in the New Testament and contemporary Jesus Research. 



Tuesday, January 6, 2015

"Jesus of Nazareth: Pacifist or Revolutionary?" Interview in Portuguese magazine





I was recently interviewed by journalist Margarida Santos Lopes for the Portuguese magazine Além-Mar (Dec 2014). I was interviewed because I wrote a critical review of Aslan's Zealot and because of my book The Nonviolent Messiah, which paints a very different picture of Jesus. Here is a link to the full article (in Portuguese), "Jesus de Nazaré: Pacifíco ou revolucionário?" There's also a longer version of the original interview here, and a different layout of the article here.

Here are a few excerpts:

"The interpretation of Simon J. Joseph, Professor of Religion at California Lutheran University (USA) and author of the recently published The Nonviolent Messiah is totally opposed to Reza Aslan . .  . Phrases that Aslan privileges ("I did not come to bring peace but a sword") come from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the primary sources of the Jesus tradition, says Joseph, by email. "Although they may be attributed to the historical Jesus, there is no evidence that Jesus ever resorted to violence to hurt someone, much less to start a military campaign against Rome. The early Christian movement was known in its first three centuries to be pacifist. Christians refused to enlist in the Roman army because in this way, they tried to follow the teachings of Jesus . . ."

"The true meaning of the phrase is that loyalty to Jesus causes division - symbolized by the sword - within families. It has nothing to do with physical or revolutionary violence. Its literary context requires a symbolic interpretation of the word 'sword', and this is something that any responsible New Testament scholar would know. . ."

“Love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” are, according to biblical scholar Joseph, well known and established authentic Jesus traditions. They belong to the earliest Jesus traditions in Q (material) – commonly referred to as the “Inaugural Sermon.” Loving enemies is an unprecedented commandment in Early Judaism and the scholarly consensus is that this instruction is authentic Jesus tradition . . . In short, nothing suggests that Jesus advocated or participated in any kind of zealot activity against Rome."