Before I wrote The Memorial of Jesus. I had done a lot of research about the various religious sects and political parties at the time of Jesus, but I was always a bit apprehensive that I might be misrepresenting the Jewish people of the time, in particular the Pharisees, Sadducees and the Sanhedrin. I had a discussion with a Christian-Jewish scholar, but I think having one with a Jewish rabbi would have been a better choice.
The presentation of the Jews in the New Testament writings is harsh, to say the least The Pharisees and Sadducees, for example, are portrayed as antagonists when Jesus preached and he appears to condemn them When he went into a violent rage in the Temple market, it seems as though Jesus was rejecting his faith. In the Gospels, the Temple leadership is blamed for his death. The Jewish people have suffered the consequences of these harsh depictions. The world has used the condemning passages to justify the oppression and genocide of the Jewish race since.
I just finished reading Kosher Jesus by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. He suggests that the negative depictions of the Jews in the New Testament were actually alterations of the original texts, done so to protect the early Christians from the Romans. He contends that Jesus was not an adversary at all, but was a faithful Jew who participated in his faith’s religious practices. He was well educated in the Jewish law and writings and never intended to start a new religion. I agree with his portrayal of Jesus, for the most part.
In my book, The Memorial of Jesus, my character Matthew said this about Jesus’ relationship with Jewish law:
Jesus never refuted the law as he was accused. ‘The law that is handed down to us is not enough,’ he taught. He gave examples of this. ‘We are taught not to kill, but I say you should sweep away the anger that leads you to taking revenge on another.’ The law demands an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek when we are offended. ‘Instead of retribution, God wants us to love our enemies, for they are God’s children too.’ he said. As for the law concerning adultery, Jesus said even lusting after another woman is sin, for it is adultery of the heart.
Rabbi Boteach suggests that Jesus’ ideas were not original. Throughout their history, there were prophets, scholars and mystics who called the Hebrew people to a deeper sense of the law and Jesus would have been aware of these.
I agree with Boteach that the reporting of Jesus’ words and actions and his subsequent death were wrongly portrayed in the New Testament. Unlike Boteach, I believe they were wrong, or at least biased, from the start. Scholar Raymond Brown wrote several books on the gospel of John, which is harshest against the Jews, and suggests that these negative representations were a reflection of the rift developing between different factions of Jews within the synagogues. In other words, they reflect a bit of a resentment on the part of the followers of the Way who were experiencing rejection by their fellow Jews. The key to understanding the scripture is to discern Jesus’ actual words under these reactionary voices.
Boreach sees Jesus primarily as a political leader for the Jews against the Romans as much as a spiritual leader. I agree to some extent. Through my character Simon, best friend to Judas the betrayer, I tried to demonstrate how the zealots believed that the savior would achieve a political and military triumph over the Romans. To me, Jesus was indeed a political leader but not in the way Boreach suggests in his book. I imagine him to be a leader like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. These two men were fine with the man-made governments under which they lived as long as their rule was just. At the same time, they were each spiritual leaders, calling their followers live by highest ideals.
(Interestingly, a reading of the Old Testament stories of the Kings of Israel and Judah and the prophets who critiqued them, it seems God felt the same way. He blessed the just kings and punished those that failed to follow their Higher Power…God.)
Boteach quoted Luke’s Jesus: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” (22:20) and suggested that a person who is part of the oppressed class would not say such a thing. But he failed to consider the second part of that passage: “Render unto to God that which is God’s” Gandhi would have said the same…obey the laws if they are just but resist those that are not. Gandhi believed in the philosophy of Ahimsa, which he learned through his Hindu faith. This was a belief in non violence and non-violent resistance as a form of civil disobedience. I believe this is what Jesus taught. Gandhi died for his convictions, assassinated by a Hindu zealot for his failure to be the military leader he’d hoped for. My character Simon reports that this is the same reason his best friend Judas betrayed Jesus.
The lesson for me today is that when I see my government leaders making laws that are contrary to what I believe to be God’s laws, I am compelled, if I am to call myself a follower of Jesus, to choose God’s laws. This is a difficult thing because I often feel alone in my convictions. I find the path of the pacifist often scorned as being unpatriotic, for example. This is where prayer is important to me, for I can depend on the Light to help me find the path the God wants me to follow.