I’m not talking about the “Second Coming” or whatever, I mean what if you got transported back in time 2000 years ago and met Jesus of Nazareth. What would you see?
Studying the history of early Christianity really makes me appreciate how little we know about ancient history. Sure there’s some records here and there, but we’re really riding blind.
Imagine if historians 3000 years from now just have Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, this blog, and the ruins of Las Vegas to go on while studying our era. That would leave them with a pretty odd view. But that’s essentially what we’re going by when evaluating ancient times.
Every famous person from back then, like Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, was probably half a foot shorter than you imagine and you could have easily kicked their ass. What I am saying is that I can stomp the shit out of a Spartan. 300 was just a movie, a shitty one at that. I am taller, got more muscle, and when I’m when I’m trying to quit nicotine I can take anybody. ANYBODY.
The Last Temptation of Christ unsurprisingly stuck with me. Usually when I complete a novel, I think “hmm, that was nice” and I move on to the next thing. But Kazantzakis’s interpretation of “the Greatest Story Ever Told” is rewarding and leaves a lot to think about, especially if you’re obsessed with early Christian history.
I mean, obviously it’s not historically accurate. That’s not the point. The point is that the book brings these familiar characters to life. Jesus begins the book as a sickly carpenter before transforming into the messianic figure we’ve come to know and love. However, his humanity is emphasized. At times, Jesus comes across as a jerk with megalomaniac fantasies. This helps contextualize Jesus the man and the era he lived in.
This is best demonstrated by his relationship with Judas Iscariot. Judas is a true revolutionary with a hatred for the Romans and is often frustrated by Jesus and his message of love. Jesus feels that Judas’s revolutionary ideals don’t go far enough: the concerns for the body are temporary, Jesus wants to bring salvation to the world…Jew and gentile alike.
The various characters are often puzzled by this. This universalism is too lofty, too radical to ever be realized.
And this sort of remains true today. I’ve expressed my admiration for John Dominic Crossan views: Jesus was responding to the imperial authority of the Romans. Jesus and his followers might not thought of it in that way, but that was effectively what he was doing. I don’t think enough scholars, both Christian and secular, stop to appreciate this. Not even Bart Ehrman.
I think this is best demonstrated by the cross as the official symbol of Christianity. Jesus unquestionably died by crucifixion, perhaps the most ruthless form of punishment by the Romans. And none of the early Christian apologists deny that it happened. Stop and think about that: their very leader got “owned” by the Romans. In fact, it HAD to have happened so that he could be resurrected. So Christians took this event and chalked it up as a win for their beliefs, and a loss for the ruthless rule of the Romans.
Scholars often wonder how Paul was able to convince so many pagans to convert to Christianity (or, to be more historically accurate, his form of Christian Judaism, as Paul still thought of himself as a Jew), well maybe here’s an answer: Roman rule under the Pax Romana pissed off enough people that when they heard of a man who was resurrected after a crucifixion, conversion was a way to subtly stick it to the Romans. This could be why Paul put so much emphasis on death and resurrection in his theology.
Yes, I know there are plenty of problems with this theory, chief among these is how little the Romans are criticized in the New Testament. In fact, the Gospels explicitly blame the Jews for Jesus’s death and not the Romans, even though the Romans certainly DID execute Jesus. My response to this is that you don’t have to spend more than two minutes following populist/leftist politics before realizing that they hate each other more than they hate their opposition. It is my opinion (maybe more on that at another time) that this is fundamentally rooted in these kinds of movements. Even though the Romans were THE existential threat to life in the Mediterranean world, it would have been mainstream Judaism that were the primary theological/ideological opponents of early Christianity…even if the Jews were as much under the thumb of Roman rule as they were. This is heresy in the world of radical movements, what leftists might call “class traitors” today, and it wouldn’t take much for Christian writers to switch out Romans for the Jews in regards to who was guilty for Jesus’s death.
It is this narcissism of small differences that plague radical movements, religious and political alike, and I doubt early Christianity was any different. (See Monty Python’s Life of Brian)
It is difficult to tell if the real Jesus actually preached this message of universalism, or a peaceful coexistence of all people under one God. Crossan might, but it’s more likely this was extracted by later thinkers and is now considered the ethical message of Christianity IF people could move past their short-sightedness (maybe not under “one god”, but you get the idea).
Anyways, I’ve spent too much time on this post, forgot where I was going. The end.
I’ll say this though: Jesus at least dabbled in asceticism. Any hard evidence for this? No. And none will ever turn up. BUT the two earliest accounts of Jesus’s life, the Gospel of Mark and the hypothetical “Q source” (which survives in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew) mention Jesus turning to the wilderness after his baptism from John the Baptist.
John the Baptist’s existence can be independently confirmed by Josephus, a first century Jewish historian. This is partly why it is universally agreed upon that the baptism of Jesus by John is a real historical event. The other reason why historians believe this is due to the criterion of embarrassment, which simply means that Jesus’s associations with John the Baptist would have been well known enough that it had to of been accounted for by early Christian writers, despite Jesus’s superiority to John.
It’s difficult to establish any degree of certainty from this period. Was John the Baptist an ascetic? It certainly appears that he had those tendencies from the surviving texts. It’s has even been suggested that he was an Essene, a “semi-ascetic” Jewish sect from the first century. Could Jesus have been a follower of John? We know that they met at least once, and the Gospels (whatever their historical worth) say that Jesus immediately did something ascetic-like after that meeting.
I like questions like these because it helps contextualize this era. I personally think that Jesus did ascetic-like things and might’ve ran with a few ascetic groups. But I don’t think he thought of himself ascetic or even monastic. Like I said, the historical information contained in the Gospels are dubious and hard facts will likely never appear, but I think it’s important to look at the language of the Gospels.
Mark and the “Q” source (or possible sources) seem to address a rural audience, meaning that Jesus likely focused his mission on the poor or “working class”. There are obvious problems with this assumption, the main one being that the entire New Testament is written in Koine Greek while the poor in Galilee and Judea, including Jesus, spoke Aramaic (plus the Gospels are written 40 years after the crucifixion of Jesus). How much of Jesus’s message was changed between his death and the written accounts is impossible to determine. Despite these problems though, I do think that Mark and Q are more than likely correct in Jesus’s focus.
So as I’ve said before, I think that Jesus was a religious-populist figure, and as we often find in populist movements, leaders often take a “postmodern” turn by becoming (as Apostle Paul later found out) “all things to all people”. This is why so many people can have so many different interpretations on what happened.
Why I obsess over Jesus and the New Testament, I don’t know. Just do. Get off my ass.
But I just started reading The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. I’m only about halfway through it, it’s a long book. I don’t expect any twists and turns to a story that I’m already familiar with.
But the book is nothing like the film, let’s just get that out of the way.
I couldn’t have written in a million years. It reads like an extended version of the Gospels. But it weaves between perspectives-from Jesus (Son of Mary, as he’s often called), to Judas, to Mary (wife of Joseph) to Mary Magdalene, to the Apostles, etc-to create a rich tapestry of these events. Because Kazantzakis writes like the authors of the Gospels, the book actually breaths life into the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
While reading it, I honestly forget that this book was deemed “controversial”. Of course, I haven’t gotten to the “last temptation” part, which might understandably piss some people off, but as Kazantzakis explains in his prologue, Jesus (at least if you’re Christian) was both full divine and fully human. Can you imagine the burden of having to live with that? Everyone hears about the “divine” part. But no one wants to confront the “fully human” part. So Kazantzakis takes that perspective and runs with it.
Anyways, finished taking a shit. Gotta get back to work.
A lot of people don’t know this about me, but between laughing hysterically at shit and cum jokes I obsess over the historicity a man named Jesus of Nazareth, aka our Lord and Savior.
I even read the New Testament in Koine Greek (it’s a lot easier than you think).
For the record, I’m not a “mythicist”-or those that believe Jesus was a myth that the Romans or later believers fabricated. That’s stupid. Modern archeology and scholarship affirm that Jesus almost certainly existed.
Sure, some of my opinions my be a little bit outside the mainstream. I tend to agree with John Dominic Crossan’s assessment that perhaps Jesus’s ministry needs to be viewed in light of Roman authority. The Roman’s notoriously ruled with an iron fist. Jesus, by contrast, appeared more as a pacifist that appealed to neighborly love. His “Kingdom of God”, which Jesus almost certainly believed was going to be on earth rather than in some supernatural realm, directly challenged Roman Rule. So in many ways, Jesus was more than just a religious figure-he was a political one (not that anyone distinguished between the two in those days). Could this be wrong? Sure. But I think this view is worth taking seriously.
When viewed in this light, Jesus’s message remains just as radical today as it was in the first century AD: it was a direct challenge to the violence of the era.
But another interesting perspective on early Christianity is how it provides insight into the nature of radical politics: it starts off as fringe then branches off into rivaling sects before becoming mainstream. Once it becomes mainstream, it becomes orthodox and therefore conservative-if not authoritarian-in nature.
I’ve always thought that this subject, the “real” Jesus, would make an excellent film.
Unfortunately no such film has been made.
So the next best thing is Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.
Is it a perfect film? No. I can appreciate some of the modern characterizations of Jesus, the Apostles, Judas Iscariot, and so on. But Paul Schrader’s dialogue comes across as academic, which at times undermines the effectiveness of the story.
But Scorsese’s frenzied take on a familiar story is refreshing. Of course Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack might be one of the best in film history (a hill I’m willing to die on).
What I love most about this movie though is it’s influence on my favorite film franchise: the James Bond series.
“The fuck are you talking about?” you might ask.
Think I’m crazy? Well you’re right. But I’m also correct.
Watch the final act of The Last Temptation of Christ. Then go watch the final act of Casino Royale.