In the previous post we saw how Clarke W. Owens (Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels) drew the inference that the evangelists created the type of Jesus they did because of the impact of the Jewish War.
Just as the Jewish people and their centre of worship had been destroyed through fire and mass crucifixions, and just as many were subsequently finding new hope and a new life in Christianity, so Jesus, the suffering servant who was resurrected, was a personification of the ideal Israel. That would explain why Jesus was depicted as the Temple, destroyed physically but restored spiritually; why he was depicted as an antitype of Israel thrust into the wilderness for forty days; and why hosts of other such allusions were attached to him.
There are additional supports for Owens’ inference.
One of these is the nature of messianism “as a cultural survival tactic”. He writes
Messianism as a cultural survival tactic is attested to as recently as 1889, when the Lakota people . . . were threatened with extinction.
The Jewish people were being threatened with “cultural extinction” with the destruction of the physical and ideological centre of their cult along with the rest of the bloodshed. Owens quotes the 8th, 9th and 10th paragraphs of the Messiah chapter from Black Elk Speaks to
[demonstrate] the same sort of collective, cultural need and motivation described by Spong, Josephus, and other writers who describe or acknowledge the effect on the Jewish War on the First Century Jews.
A book I read many years ago reflects similar social responses to distress, although at a class level rather than a cultural survival one. The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn is a fascinating study of millennial movements among distressed peasantry of Europe through the Middle Ages.
Furthermore, Thomas L. Thompson has shown in The Christ Myth that the messianic ideal was a pervasive theme throughout the Middle Eastern cultures for centuries and right through to the Roman era. Populations were “saved” or “terrorized” by “saviour” and “shepherd” kings (often “god-kings/emperors”) who “debased the mighty” and “exalted the humble” and “restored the worship of the original gods” and generally ushered in a new “golden age”. This is not raised in Owen’s argument at all but I think it adds a little weight to the likelihood that people facing their cultural and physical destruction would readily turn to messianic hopes in the other world when their human saviours turned against them.
Owens quotes a pertinent description of the scenario facing Jews at the time of the Jewish War:
[The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.] changed the face of human history far more dramatically than historians have yet imagined. . . . Indeed, one cannot understand the books of the New Testament unless one understands the violent history of that part of the world in which the Christian movement was first born and against which it was defined. (Spong, Liberating the Gospels, pp. 39-40)
A few pages on Spong expands on this. I wonder if his depiction would better apply to the consequences of the second war in the 130s than to the events of 70, but that’s another question for another time:
This collapse of the Jewish nation and the loss of any national identity for the people of this land meant that generations of Jews were destined to be homeless people, exiled wanderers on the face of the earth. As powerless people who seemed to belong to nowhere, the Jews would be victimized, oppressed, ghettoized, persecuted, tortured, and killed. All of the values by which the Jewish people lived, all of the gifts with which they had once enriched the world, were now dependent on the single goal of survival. So it was that survival, nothing else — just survival — became the highest value and the driving force among the Jew in this long period of homelessness. The only possessions the Jews had that was not destroyed in this disaster was their sacred story, their scriptures, which included the Torah, the writings, and the prophets. If they were to lose their scriptures, then they would no longer know who they were and no power on this earth could have preserved their national identity. Many a nation has, in fact, ceased to exist as a recognizable people in human history when its homeland was conquered. Adaptation and intermarriage have usually marked the survivors [of conquered homelands].
So, following that defeat in the year 70, we find that every other value of the Jewish people was sublimated or put into the service of survival. Survival became the overwhelming and primary agenda of the Jewish people. The sacred scriptures of the Jews became not just their only possession of note but also their chief weapon in their quest to achieve this goal of survival. . . . (p. 45, my bolded emphasis)
Before 70, widely diverse opinions on the scriptures and faith were tolerated in Judaism. After 70, such diversity would have been felt as a threat their self-identity.
The gospels reflect the consequent tensions between Christians and other Jews post 70. Jesus is always in conflict with those loyal to the physical temple and traditions of Moses. Judas was invented to personify those Jews who hated the Christians.
Following the destruction of the Jewish nation and temple, Jews “searched their ancient scriptures seeking to resolve this conflict, to lift the darkness, to ease their sense of defeat and loss” (Spong, p. 301). Spong, of course, believed that the Christians who were doing this believed their Jesus had indeed been crucified earlier under Pilate and they were seeking to explain their experience of the War with their hope in him in mind. But as Owens points out, this searching quest
sounds exactly like what Black Elk describes, but we might recognize that in both cases, the historical defeat and loss belonged to a culture facing its own demise, not to individuals facing the loss of another individual. (my emphasis)
So it was that “some tremendous and powerful moment” must have occurred for all the symbols of Jewish apocalyptic and messianism — the Son of Man, the atoning sacrifice, the Suffering Servant, the three day symbol, images of Armageddon, the paschal lamb, the first day of the Kingdom of God and the end of the old world — to be applied to a single human life and story.
Spong acknowledges that the early Christians were not writing about a literal resurrection of a body from a grave:
It was not a resurrected body emerging from a tomb, but that was the only way they could narrate their conviction that death could not contain him. (Spong. p. 302)
Owens concurs with a caveat:
Just so. And just as the “him” does not refer to a person rising from the grave, so it does not refer to a particular historical person confined to one, but rather to an entire society condemned to masses of graves, and symbolically represented in the most efficient way it could be narrated for liturgical purposes: by creating a midrashic character named “Savior,” or, as we might say, “One who Makes Live.”
I have yet to do much more reading before I can be confident the Gospels were composed for liturgical purposes, but I think that is only a minor point beside the main one explaining how the Gospels came to be composed the way they are.
This post was originally meant to cover the apocalyptic form of the Gospels. That will be the topic of the next post.
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