The Scandal of Joshua Ben
Adam, Part 1
By Robert D. Brinsmead VERDICT, May 1998
In The Status of Jesus Re-examined, the previous issue of Verdict stripped away the ancient myths about dying and rising gods. 'What is left', it asked in conclusion? The answer: "Just a truly human Jesus - a man who refused any titles except the self-effacing 'son of man' which simply meant the human one."
This real Jesus of history was no soft pushover, however. He was the greatest debunker of religious hierarchies and traditions, the greatest desacralizer of holy places, times, people, rituals, priests and things, that this world has ever seen. The religious establishment hurriedly condemned him to death for blasphemy, while the secular powers executed him for sedition.
That the Christian Church could claim to represent him and carry on his work is an amazing historical irony. It's like having the old
Soviet Unionbureaucracy posing as the heir of Adam Smith's laisse faire capitalism.
The Christian religion built up an elaborate theological edifice. It formed religious orders, hierarchies, rituals, calendars and creeds that were utterly at odds to the whole life and teachings of the historical Jesus. And throughout its history, anyone who exhibited anything of the irreverent iconoclasm or freedom of Jesus was systematically condemned, burned alive, tortured, slaughtered, banished or cast out. When it comes to piling up human bodies and bones, it is an irrefutable fact that Christianity has wrought more human havoc than any rival religion.
Of course there is a better side to the Christian movement. Buried beneath its layers of myths, it did preserve something of the history and the spirit of the original man. And the movement has also produced scholars courageous enough to engage in honest historical and literary criticism despite those disapproving big sticks hanging over their heads
For two hundred years literary researchers have investigated the puzzling problem of the tension between the Jesus of history (pre-Easter) and the Jesus of the Christian religion (post-Easter). As the research has continued, the crack in the wall dividing the man and the myth has become a yawning chasm. This is recognized by an increasing number of scholars, both Catholic and Protestant. A very readable Catholic example is Alfred Nolan's Jesus Before Christianity and Michael Morwood's Tomorrow's Catholic: Understanding God and Jesus in a New Millennium. Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time is an excellent example from a Protestant scholar.
In order to maintain the distinction between the historical man and the religious icon we shall call the former Joshua ben Adam and the latter Jesus ben Parthenos.
The Hebrew name given to this historical figure was Yashua whose Anglicized form is Joshua. Since this Joshua preferred to call himself son of man or son of Adam (which means the same thing) his name was in truth Joshua ben Adam.
When the name Yashua was first Grecianized, then Latinized, and finally Anglicized it became Jesus. Since Christian story-telling depicted him as virgin born, he can quite correctly be called Jesus ben Parthenos, that is, Jesus, son of the Virgin.
Jesus ben Parthenos was the foundation of that great system of religious absolutism known as Christianity. What an elaborate edifice of thought control it became, presided over by a suitably elaborate hierarchy of suitably frocked holy men who could defend the Chalcedonian formula of the hypostatic union of divine and human in one person! Or how God was three persons but not three Gods. How the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son and not the Father only. How wine became the real blood of Christ sacramentally but not physically. Are we justified before God by a righteousness imputare or efficare? Is saving faith formed with charity before it justifies or after it justifies?. Is predestination only directed toward the elect (single) or toward the non-elect also (double)? These are just a few of the big theological issues. We won't distract ourselves now with minor issues such as the transmission of original sin through sex, distinction between venial and mortal sin or distinctions between the intermediate state and the final judgment, and so on. There is enough here which has kept legions of theologians employed for centuries defining the faith and labeling heretics.
Christianity was not a hundred years old before it was swept up in a contagion of celibacy. A veritable tidal wave of monkery and nunnery continued unabated for centuries. This was all inspired by the religious devotion to Jesus ben Parthenos, the celibate son of a sexless mother. The systematic denigration of women and human sexuality among the so-called "early fathers" of the church down to the time of Augustine in the fourth century was absolutely appalling. In the mind of Julian it was all attributable to that "pale Galillean", whom he lamented, had conquered the world.
It is rationally possible to see a clear line of connection between Jesus ben Parthenos and the great world religion which was founded in his name. But there is no rational link between Joshua ben Adam and the foregoing religious paraphernalia. He is no more at home in this Christian "temple" than he was in that Jewish temple when his blazing rage sent the furniture and the money counters flying in all directions. Joshua ben Adam compatible with religious hierachicalism, monasticism, credalism and washing up the blood of heretics from the floor of the church? You'd have to be joking!
How did Joshua ben Adam become Jesus ben Parthenos? What were the factors at work in this metamorphosis? Scholars have been able to throw a lot of light on the development of the Jesus tradition. They have established that no part of the New Testament was written by eye-witnesses. Second, third and even later generations of Christians, most of whom remain unknown, wrote the New Testament.
Literary analysis can demonstrate that there was a process of retrojection at work. The Easter happening had convinced the believing community that a truly great person had been put to death. They projected their post-Easter beliefs about Jesus back into the historical Joshua ben Adam. A man raised from the dead and so singly honored by God deserved every honor the believing community could bestow on him.
For example, in that ancient world, the birth of the truly great were often said to be accompanied by omens and virgin births. Should not the greatest man of all have the same? Scholars such as Raymond Brown (The Birth of the Messiah), Bishop Spong or Marcus Borg tell us that this was the way the early community confessed faith in Jesus as the unique agent of God. The story, they tell us, is not historically true but theologically true.
In the same way, faith in Jesus' Lordship and Messianic authority was projected back into the story-telling about his life. This is what the scholars mean by retrojection.
Then there was the factor of the changing historical circumstances of the church. The community adapted the Jesus tradition to meet their historical circumstances, or even to settle their own religious controversies. (e.g. whether or not to keep Sabbath, eat Kosher food, whether Peter or Paul was the ultimate source of apostolic authority, etc.) Just as the Old Testament writers sometimes resorted to "Moses said..." to buttress some religious point of view, so second or third generation leaders in the church could not resist using a "Jesus said" formula to make what they felt was an urgent point.
This process of identifying how the historical circumstances and controversies of the church get written back into the Jesus tradition is what scholars call form criticism. The specialized disciplines also of redaction criticism, historical criticism, higher criticism and lower criticism have all thrown some light on the process of how Joshua ben Adam was transformed into Jesus ben Parthenos.
The tendency among all scholars however, is to miss seeing the forest for the trees. There was one over-riding thing which drove the entire process of myth-making forward. Joshua ben Adam was a scandal from beginning to end.
His birth was a scandal which peeps out everywhere from the pages of the gospels. There was no escape from the embarrassing questions raised by Joshua's critics concerning the irregular circumstances surrounding his birth.
Then there was the scandal of his ministry. He swept aside the purity codes in favor of a fraternity with no distinction between the disreputable, the nobodies and the religious elite. Joshua's habit of "eating" with sinners and people on the margins of society cannot be explained as an act of condescension, much less a patronizing method of saving sinners. It was the act of a man who appeared to have no regard for the canons of honor or shame. Worse still, it was the act of a man who had no regard for
's favored nation status with God. Israel 's "chosen race" syndrome was supported by the purity laws separating the "clean" people from the "unclean". The manner of Joshua's ministry was therefore a formidable scandal. ' Israel
But the greatest scandal of all was the scandal of his death. His public work had hardly begun when it was cut short by a death reserved for the trash of society as far as the Romans were concerned, and the cursed of God as far as the Jews and their law was concerned. If Joshua ben Adam had died while drank in a brothel the disgrace of his death could not have been greater.
Having died as a discredited rat-bag, Joshua ben Adam didn't have the credentials of a royal Messiah. He had no "son of God" mythology to rival a divine Caesar who was worshipped as the "son of God". So his followers succumbed to the need of a more miraclarised version of his history. Wasn't such an honor deserving him in the light of the Easter event? So they thought, and so they developed the myth of Jesus ben Parthenos - born by God's own act involving a virgin, going among sinners and outcasts to bring them salvation, and dying on a cross in a most glorious act of atonement for human sin.
It can easily be demonstrated that none of these myths were unique, but were part and parcel of myths which had been recycled again and again long before Christianity was born. And in hindsight of the myths with which Jesus was invested, why was it any surprise that God should raise him from the dead? Did not the miraculous nature of his birth, life and death make resurrection a foregone conclusion? The myth really empties the resurrection of meaning.
But if, having been discredited by both Jews and Romans, and forsaken at last by his own followers, God raised Joshua ben Adam from the dead, that would be a surprise! It would mean that God turned all human judgment on its head. The rat-bag outcast in the judgment of men had been made Lord and Christ by Almighty God.
This makes the truth much stranger and infinitely more original than the myth. Tragically for Christian arrogance, there was nothing very original about Jesus ben Parthenos. To quote Joseph Campbell, the world's leading authority on myths:
"Comparative cultural studies have now demonstrated beyond question that similar mythic tales are to be found in every quarter of this earth. When Cortes and his Catholic Spaniards arrived in Aztec Mexico, they immediately recognized in the local religion so many parallels to their own True Faith that they were hard put to explain the fact. There were towering pyramidal temples, representing, stage by stage, like Dante's
, degrees of elevation of the spirit. There were thirteen heavens, each with its Savior, associated with a serpent, born of a virgin, who had died and was resurrected, one of whose symbols was a cross. The padres, to explain all this, invented two myths of their own. The first was that Saint Thomas, the Apostle to the Indies, had probably reached America and here preached the Gospel: but, these shores being so far removed from the influence of Rome, the doctrine had deteriorated, so that what they were seeing around them was' simply a hideously degenerate form of their own revelation. And the second explanation, then, was that the devil was here deliberately throwing up parodies for the Christian faith, to frustrate the mission. Mountainof Purgatory
Modern scholarship, systematically comparing the myths and rites of mankind, has found just about everywhere legends of virgins giving birth to heroes who die and are resurrected.
is chock-full of such tales, and its towering temples, very like tire Aztec ones, represent again our many-storied cosmic mountain, bearing India Paradiseon its summit and with horrible hells beneath. The Buddhists and the Jains have similar ideas. And, looking backward into the pre-Christian past, we discover in the mythology of the slain and resurrected Osiris; in Egypt Mesopotamia, Tammuz; in , Adonis; and in Syria , Dionysos; all of which furnished models to the early Christians for their representations of Christ." Greece
The question has been debated among some scholars as to whether Jesus actually existed. Collaborative material outside the New Testament writings of second and third generation Christians is almost non-existent. So the inevitable question has arisen, Did Jesus exist or was he the product of religious imagination? The answer is "Yes" and "No". Jesus ben Parthenos did not exist. He was the product of religious myth-making.
Yet beneath the layers of religious myth, scholars generally agree that there is a person so astonishingly original and so incorrigibly real, he couldn't possibly have been the product of religious imagination. When we read the earliest Christian documents we gain the distinct impression that the authors are trying hard to fit Joshua ben Adam into their own conceptual world, but at the same time, he doesn't fit their little box - he is just too big for their little bed. The embarrassing or scandalous parts of the story can't be discreetly hid in pious embellishments, and some words and acts of Joshua are in obvious tension to the writers' own world-view. They leave pieces of the puzzling history lying about like so many land mines to blow their myth apart.
We don't accept the thesis of some scholars that "the quest of the historical Jesus" is futile on the grounds that the history is not recoverable. Robert Crotty's (The Jesus Question- the Historical Search) bottom line is that we'd be better off staying with a myth which has no basis in history. It is a very great and comforting myth which has sustained Western civilization for 2000 years. On the other hand, the historical quest has produced so many versions of the historical Jesus that this path is strewn with too much uncertainty. That is the gist of Crotty's thesis. The work of 200 years of modern scholarship has provided proof enough that the historical quest has been a veritable
Mount Everest. Yet real progress in research has also encouraged us to believe that the summit of the beckoning mountain is not insurmountable.
It frequently happens that insurmountable problems and mysteries are unlocked by very simple (at least in hindsight) solutions. We suggest that it is no different when it comes to the task of recovering the essential outlines of the life and teaching of Joshua ben Adam. We believe that the key is found in a humanity which was astonishingly, winsomely real. The religions, the cultures, the social and political structures, and the world-views of Joshua's age were so inhuman in very many respects. Yet Joshua ben Adam displayed a development of human consciousness and a vision of being human that broke through all known boundary lines. He not only had the vision but also the courage to both advocate and act out the dignity of being truly human. He did this in the face of oppressively inhuman and dangerous situations.
Scholarly methodology is important, as Dominic Crossan demonstrates. But it is not enough. Form without spirit is always lifeless, and mere academic research is a dead end, as Robert Funk's Honest to Jesus amply demonstrates. The most vital element of the quest is to share the spirit of Joshua ben Adam. Without his spirit we are sure to get off the track.