2007-08-02

The subtext of Jesus’ family relationships — (2)

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by Neil Godfrey

When I wrote The subtext of Jesus’ family relationships — (1) I was looking at the Jesus who emerges from the gospels after they had achieved the status of being the definitive life of Jesus. The intention is to examine the psychology of the family relationships of Jesus. The idea was sparked by a much more accomplished psychological study in relation to Achilles and Socrates by Richard Holway. In that article I was intrigued by the what the subtext of the personal relationships implied for the values and/or experiences of those who saw these men as models of certain virtues. Achilles is semi-divine in the mythology, but whether mythological or literary, the characters are viewed as creations of the human mind and as such their actions are the products human psychological processes. Ditto for Jesus. For what it’s worth, I’m adding another scratch to the surface of this exploratory thoughts here, though by no means in the depth that Holway delved.

Jesus’ family relations — with focus on the mother

Jesus so totally identifies himself as belonging to his divine father in heaven that he distances himself from his human mother, stepfather and siblings. Indeed, his intimacy and ultimate destiny with his heavenly father excludes him from any normal need to relate in any “worldly” way with his mortal parents. Thus his uncaring disregard for their feelings when at only twelve years of age he stayed behind in the Temple (Luke 2:46-49); his rudeness to his mother at the wedding of Cana (John 2:4); and his public humiliation of his mother and siblings when they attempted to see him amidst his crowd of followers (Mark 3:31-35); and his teaching others to hate their fathers and mothers in preference to him (Luke 14:26) — all these could be justified at the time as emanating from his sure belief in his superiority, or superior place in the plan of God, to his parents and family.

But it appears that at the end of his life he could not but avoid acknowledging the wrong he had done, the hurt he had caused. Only at the point of his death does he finally show any caring feelings for his mother when he assigns her to the guardianship of his beloved disciple. But it took the sense of abandonment by his object of devotion, his heavenly father, that had caused him to act this way towards his parents, to force him to acknowledge that wrong.

Compared with Socrates

It was the similar with Socrates. The daemonic intermediary, Diotima, had taught Socrates to pursue the philosophical life, the ultimate other-worldly Good, at the cost of dismissing the beauty and good of this world as unworthy of notice. She promised him the gods would grant him immortality for his sacrifice and devotion, and for his emulation of the heroic Achilles. So in his pursuit of this higher life of the mind he did neglect his Xanthippe, his wife. But on his deathbed he implicitly acknowledged the wrong that this was when he expressed care for her in the same way Jesus did for his mother on the cross, spending time alone with her before asking his friend Crito to take her home.

And the followers?

Many have followed or identified themselves with Jesus in the same attitudes towards their parents. It is common to hear of those who leave “the more serious” religions such as more active fundamentalist, pentecostal and cult types to express regret for the way they did treat their “unsaved” or “unconverted” families during their religiously active time. That is, after they experience what Jesus did, a feeling of abandonment of the heavenly parent, they are free then to build the deeper attachment they had so long owed their families. Or maybe like Socrates, the moment of truth when existence is seen to be more than just a shadow or plaything of spirit-world fantasies, they will allow themselves that brief contact at the visceral level.

Relations with the fathers

We hear nothing of Joseph after Jesus’ rebuff of him when we was twelve years old. We hear nothing of Socrates’ father.

Though Achille’s father, Peleus, was a hero in his own right, his mortality was a shame to his divine mother, Thetis. And Thetis drove Achilles to live worthy of the divine side of his parentage. Achilles was also aware that the reason for having a mortal as a father was that Zeus himself feared that a son of Thetis, if fathered by himself, would have the power to overthrow him. Zeus loved Thetis and wanted to conceive in her. But this prophecy of such a child’s power prevented him. Achilles, in being assigned a mortal father and mortality itself, was thus being sacrificed by Zeus. Achilles knew his life and death was for the glory of Zeus, and a sacrifice by Zeus, and because of this understanding, he held Zeus to compensate him by giving him great honour.

It was the same with Jesus. His father was to sacrifice him, so Jesus proclaimed the way his life had honoured his heavenly Father, and requested the quid pro quo of honour in return.

So where does that leave their relationships with their human fathers or stepfathers who cared for them? Their sense of superiority and identification with the divine left them without a normal series of relationships that come with growing up with their fathers, learning to trust, emulate, rival, prove themselves and accommodate them in the normal course of development. The overriding message given to both Achilles and Jesus was their superiority to their fathers. In the case of the former, Thetis even passed on her humiliation at being married to a mortal. In the case of Jesus, human parentage meant death and everything inferior to what he felt himself to be.

The psychological impact of this is to loathe one’s father or find oneself attempting to treat him as inferior and unworthy of a normal relationship. But this is a forbidden attitude. In a patriarchal society both Socrates and Jesus can get away with diminishing the significance of their mother, but it has become necessary to remove their fathers/stepfathers from the scene to preserve some legitimacy for their human existence. Achilles’ father (Peleus) remains alive, but distant. But all three respond in the same commonly understood psychological way. They all transfer their forbidden feelings towards their earthly fathers onto other authority figures — that is, on to father substitutes.

Achilles and King Agamemnon:

King Agamemnon takes this role for Achilles. Even though Achilles knows he owes him paternal-like honour and obedience, and even though he attempts to give this, his conviction of his own superiority, as well as the father’s insecurity and need to assert his authority, makes conflict inevitable. After losing his friend and lover Achilles is forced to face up to the wrong course he has followed in defying Agamemnon. His disrespect had led to enormous losses among the Greeks, and not only the loss of his own Patroclus. He finally humbles himself to submit to the authority of the King. (Agamemnon has also learned humility in the process which makes the task easier.)

Achilles accepts his fate to be sacrificed by Zeus

Socrates and the Jurors:

The paternal substitute in opposition to Socrates was the Athenian State authorities, specifically the jurors at this trial. The state authorities accused him of corrupting the youth. Socrates protested his innocence, but his innocence was only in his own mind, buttressed by his sense of superiority that put himself above the State. He could rationalize his innocence in his own mind but could not deny that he was encouraging youth to disrespect the established authorities, laws and values. During his trial he even lashes out at those opposing him. But when it comes time for the sentence to be carried out he acknowledges the authority of the jurors and accepts without protest the hemlock.

Thus at the end he appears to tacitly admit the authority of the paternal authority, and submits as is his duty.

Jesus and the Sanhedrin:

The Jewish Sanhedrin replaces Agamemnon and the Jurors as the target of paternal transference in the case of Jesus. Jesus maintains his superiority to the proceedings, even pronouncing vengeance from heaven on his accusers which naturally antagonized them all the more (Mark 14:62-64). He also speaks condescendingly to the high priest in John’s gospel when he says, “Why question me? Everyone knows what I have said.” This is naturally interpreted as contempt (John 18:21-22), but Jesus will not buckle and insists on his right to speak that way. No doubt Jesus in his own mind felt justified by his own superiority to make the threat of judgment against them as well, but his words were clearly a display of contempt for the authority of those holding him to account. He even tells Pilate that Pilate’s authority is nothing compared with the power to which he belongs.

In the end Jesus submits in silence to the punishment of the authorities. This is not the humble silence of Socrates or the submission of Achilles, however. Those men acknowledge that they have transgressed from the perspective of the world, and they must suffer the consequences. Socrates believes that a better world will come when the authorities are further enlightened, but till that time he is prepared to acknowledge the less than perfect authority. Achilles similarly is prepared to respect and accept his inferior, Agamemnon, as his authority.

Jesus cannot admit anything like this. His silence is not the silence of submission to legitimate worldly authorities but the silence of a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter. He is submitting to his divine Father, not to the human authorities. He maintains his superiority, his righteousness, and his contempt for all worldly relations and substitutes to the end.

And as role models?

Achilles and Socrates were both role models for centuries in the Hellenistic and later Roman world. So was Jesus, eventually. I submit that the models offered by the pagan heroes, with their attitudes in respect to the civic order were healthier than those offered by Jesus. They offered themselves as pointing the way to both unselfish courage and further enlightenment within the norms of social discourse.

Jesus, on the other hand, is a model for ultimate contempt for the social and political order if it did not acknowledge him as its true superior. Imagine the type of authority one could expect when such people — those who modeled themselves on the one who pronounced judgment on the world — did themselves take the reins. But we don’t have to imagine it– we only need to look at history to see the intolerant and bloody way they have handled their authority when they have had power.

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Neil Godfrey

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