The Scandal of Joshua Ben Adam, Part 2
By Robert D. Brinsmead VERDICT, June 1998
The first Christians interpreted the meaning of the Christ event against the background of their cosmology or worldview. That was a very natural and human thing to do. We can excuse them for that.
Theirs was a little matchbox universe. The world was believed to be four thousand years old. Father Adam had sinned and lost
Paradisefor all. The result was estrangement from God, suffering and death across the face of the world.
Our age has got the Hubbell telescope. We can look back in time to see things, which happened twelve billion years ago. We can count at least four hundred billion galaxies like our own "Milky Way" galaxy.
Joseph Campbell says: "In our day of course, the whole picture of all the major religions are at least two thousand years out of date". Myths to Live By p 215
What are the implications of this vastly expanded time/space reality? To start with, we know that millions of years before Adam was supposed to have sinned bringing death and destruction, there were enormous disturbances on earth with wholesale extinction of species such as dinosaurs and saber-toothed tigers. And speaking of tigers, tigers never did have teeth suited to anything but tearing flesh.
So there is no point going on with a theological scheme based on a Paradise which never was, a Fall of Man which never was, an estranged (offended and absent) Deity that never was, and then paying for all this damage by a blood atonement that never was. In short, a matchbox sized theology suited to that matchbox sized universe has all been blown to smithereens.
In this Part 2 of the Scandal of Joshua ben Adam, we take up the challenge of re-interpreting the story of the greatest man who ever lived against the bigger picture of our bigger universe.
To the best of human knowledge, life began on this planet about three to four billion years ago. As we observe the order of nature it is plain to see that there is a natural selection of the fittest to survive. The strong dominate the weak; the weak are prey to the strong. Every fish in the sea lives to be someone else's dinner.
Every pen of chickens organizes itself according to a pecking order. There is also a "pecking order" in every herd of cows, horses or other groups of animals.
This same vertical order is stamped on the whole order of nature. There is a food chain too. The strongest are at the top; the weakest are at the bottom.
As biologist Dr Lyle Watson points out in Dark Nature, the first gene in the first living cell was imbued by a 'will ' to survive and conquer in any way, at any cost. Species are therefore driven to kill, maim, dominate, subjugate, deceive, propagate and even to build better models (e.g. super-bugs to withstand antibiotics).
Whilst there are beautiful sunsets and butterflies to be admired, nature is also a killing field, even 'a wicked old witch' as a great scientist once said.
Yet for all its spontaneous randomness, nature tends to produce symbiotic harmony, order rather than chaos, balance rather than dis-equilibruim.
The earliest species of the human race, some one and a half to two million years ago, was distinguished by a big brain. This equipped man to become the greatest predator of all even though he had no rapacious claws or teeth. Some environmentalists tell us that the arrival of Homo Sapiens was the greatest threat to living species and the greatest risk to the survival of this planet that could ever be!
Earliest man killed and ate practically anything which moved, even of his own kind. He did it in all the innocence of any other animal which kills and eats.
Except for a few scattered bones and fossils we have little record of early man. He had no human consciousness (self-identity and self-awareness), and consequently he left us no trace of anything to form a proper human history.
The birth of human consciousness is apparently a very late or recent development. According to Julian Jaynes, a psychologist at
, the invention of writing and the building of early civilizations preceded the birth of real human consciousness. That however is a fascinating account, which we cannot stop to pursue here. (See The Origin of Human Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind) Princeton University
One thing is very clear however: whenever and however this great leap forward to human consciousness did take place, it was accompanied by loss of innocence and awareness of the other.
This is beautifully illustrated in the myth of Adam's 'fall'. With self-awareness comes loss of innocence (Genesis 3:9,10) and awareness of duty to neighbor ('Am I my brother's keeper?' - Genesis 4:10). To this was added the Old Testament law, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself", together with stipulations not to oppress other people, but to help the poor and the weak. Similar moral imperatives were embedded in other human cultures and religions.
A consistent application of loving the neighbor as oneself would suggest something very different to the vertical animal order. It suggests a horizontal order with all human beings on the same level, with none above the line and none below the line.
It has never been like that, however. Human beings are driven by genes like those, which drive the animal order. What society doesn't develop a 'pecking order' whether in a bureaucracy, a business organization, an army or even (especially!) a church?
We see something of Orwell's Animal Farm in all human societies. The strong in brain, will or muscle dominate the weak. There are chains of command from superiors to inferiors.
Coming back to the love of neighbor enjoined in the Old Testament, this was impossible to carry out except in a very limited way. The vertical order with rulers and subjects, masters and slaves, high priests and people was institutionalized.
More than this, this institutionalized vertical order was rendered sacred by religion. As in
, Egypt and everywhere else, these earthly hierarchies were seen as representations of the heavenly ones. Above all was the supreme authority of God himself. The human king, for instance, was seen as a reflection of the Divine King, and it was appropriate for all subjects to come before him with nose on the floor and rear-end in the air. The order of domination of the one and subjection of the other was thought to be sacralized by God himself. Babylon
The best that the Old Testament could do was to temper the vertical order with laws requiring compassion for those at the bottom of the system, including injunctions about proper care of slaves (embodied in the Ten Commandments themselves. Not a very high vision of human liberation!)
The Old Testament prophets railed against
's inhumanity. They demanded justice for the oppressed and compassion for others instead of religious ritualism. But they did not, could not in that age, lay the axe to the root of the tree. They only had fleeting visions of a coming horizontal order where there would be peace and no oppression. Israel
On the darker side, the Old Testament used religion to make violence and inhumanity a sacred duty. Ethnic cleansings and appalling bloodshed was religiously legitimatized. God is represented as saying things like, "Kill without pity: spare no one, kill and destroy them all, old men and young girls, little children and women". (Ezekiel 9:6)
Of course the Christian age has sacralized violence and inhumanity too - wars, Pogroms, Inquisitions, Crusades, and the shedding of far more blood than the Jews and Muslims ever managed to do. Throughout history Christians have sacralized the divine right of kings over and against human rights, the subordination of women rather than human equality, the subjugation of slaves and other races, religious intolerance and the suppression of many human freedoms.
No theistic society has ever been able to create an order of true human equality because theistic religion stands in tension with the horizontal order. The great religions are all based on love of God above us and love of neighbor beside us. The vertical relationship to God of course comes first, and to suggest otherwise would appear blasphemous. When God comes first however, it is not hard to show how the neighbor comes a poor second.
For instance, for all the Old Testament talk about love of neighbor,
put men, women and little children of other races to the sword apparently in all good conscience. They did this because God commanded it - and God comes first. His will takes precedence over human relationships. Israel
This is how it worked out with Saul of Tarsus who, knowing lofty poems about love for others, did nevertheless persecute the first Christians, dragging them in chains to
to suffer the fate of their Christ. This is how it worked out with devout men who consigned heretics to the tortures of the rack or the stake by decree of the Inquisition. This is how it worked out for Calvin who had Michael Servetus burned alive for heretical thoughts about the Trinity (although the gentle Calvin did ask the civil authorities to mercifully chop off Servetus' head rather than burn him at the stake.) Jerusalem
The problem is that every devout theist is committed to follow orders from above. God is the supreme vertical authority. Our relationship to him is represented as a submissive subject, even slave, to the absolute Master.
"My will is not my own, till it a Master find..." So goes the pious Christian hymn. Once the devotee to God is convinced a course of action is the divine will, he will do it at any cost to himself or others: "Ours is not to reason why!"
Under the influence of religion, violence and inhumanity are made into a sacred duty. It is done in God's name. The greatest evils to humanity continue to be done in God's name - in
, in Palestine, Northern Ireland , in Bosnia , in Afghanistan . The ultimate cop-out is to say, 'God made me do it,' or 'I was just following orders'. That too was what the Nazis said at Iran before they were hanged. Nuremberg
When theists are confronted with the inhuman acts done in God's name they generally respond, 'Oh yes, they did that because they were ignorant of God's will', or 'we have the truth', 'we really know God's will', 'we are the true church'.
May God save us from those who are so cock-sure of God's will. The greatest inhumanities are carried out by those who are absolutely certain they are doing God's will.
Traditional theism cannot create a truly human society. That of course includes Christianity. Whenever the great churches have had the power and the scope they have been oppressive. But the social, spiritual and psychological oppression of the little Christian sects is even worse. They are pig pens of human oppression. They are systems of rigid thought control. Inmates think they are surrendering their individuality to God's will when they are in fact being dehumanized by some ridiculous, religious hierarchy which stands in God's place destroying human freedom.
The root of the problem is that inhuman views of God are invariably reflected in inhuman structures and actions.
Traditional theism is based on the erroneous premise of a vertical relationship with God -master and slave, ruler and subject, domination and submission. In theistic societies this is the poison in the pottage. All religions create hierarchical societies which are in their very essence inhuman.
Since theism didn't work, the great Deists* of the Enlightenment set religion to one side. They put forth a new vision of human equality based on reason and libertarian principles. Men such as John Locke, Thomas Paine, Adam Smith, Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson blazed the trail for modem democracies with religious, political and economic freedoms. They accomplished much that religiously dominated societies could never have done. Marxism also embarked on a mission to create a radically new classless society (a horizontal order) which excluded God from the picture altogether. The vision was idealistic, but for all that, the practical outworking of collectivism was an inhuman monstrosity. This was George Orwell's real Animal Farm. Its 'pecking order' society destroyed human freedom and creative individuality.
The secular democracies of the so-called free world have fared much better, if only because they have created some of the greatest freedoms seen in human history. Yet these societies are wracked with moral dissolution, epidemic levels of crime and drug taking, with no gods or myths left to give meaning to human existence.
Unless humanity has a sense of transcendence and a basis for investing human life with infinite value, it reverts to the inhuman vertical order of domination and submission, predator and prey.
With this background, we will return to the life and teaching of Joshua ben Adam. He represented a mega, even a new development of human consciousness, a new vision of humanity that was not just centuries ahead of his age, but as it has now turned out millenniums ahead! He still holds the key to solving the human dilemma. His life and vision is big enough to transcend East and West.
*Deism says that God created the world, but much like an absentee landlord left it run by inherent laws. Man has the responsibility to run his own affairs according to self-evident laws...
Scholars today generally agree that the historical Jesus (Joshua ben Adam) did not actually say everything accredited to him in the New Testament. The post Easter beliefs which developed around this central figure got projected back onto the historical-person. This is called retrojection.
This immediately raises the problem of how we are going to identify the authentic voice of the historical man. The simplest solution is to follow the lead given to us by James Breech in "The Silence of Jesus". He takes eight sayings and twelve parables, which are what he calls 'core material' whose 'authenticity is far beyond reasonable doubt as is possible in historical research'. (p9) Then he adds this remarkable statement "This material ....... is remarkably free of the language and concepts of the early Christian movement and also remarkably free of the language known to us from the contemporary literature of the period". (ibid)
Now this 'core material' (and it doesn't have to precisely correspond to that identified by James Breech) consists of aphorisms (pithy one-liners) and parables which have a ring in them that is quite unique. The one liners are characterized by hyperbole (outrageous exaggeration) like straining gnats and swallowing camels, or getting a log out of your own eye so you can get a fleck of sawdust out of your partner's eye. All authentic parables have a real sting in their tails. They turn conventional wisdom on its head and call accepted values and practices into question.
Breech claims that this 'core material' gives a very definable outline of the man and his message. Breech is right. From the 'core material' it leaps out at you that Joshua ben Adam is so original he could not have been a literary invention. No author is going to invent material, which doesn't match his own agenda. And just as surely as the writers were not capable of creating a person so incorrigibly original, they were not capable of destroying him either.
It's as if a great painting has been touched up and embellished by lesser mortals who thought they could improve on the original masterpiece. It then lays around for centuries. Then keen art critics begin to see outlines of the original masterpiece behind all the embellishments. Bit by bit, layer by layer, they scrape away the accretions until the simple, stunning masterpiece appears in its original glory.
Joshua ben Adam is someone who says things quite contrary to the Christian tradition:
· He claims to be nothing more than human and refuses all titles of honor.
· He rejects all recognized distinctions between classes of people - clean and unclean, righteous and sinners, notables and nobodies.
· He does not assume a religious persona.
· He is not apocalyptic. There is no talk about the imminent end of the world, only a present kingdom to enter now.
· He talks about life before death rather than life after death.
· He focuses our attention on helping, forgiving and saving others, never of how we get 'saved' or get to heaven.
· He has no vertical order in respect to either humanity or God. His model for human brotherhood and sisterhood is entirely new and no religion, institution or organization on earth could possibly embody it.
The first thing we encounter in the authentic core material about Joshua ben Adam is simple and profound. He doesn't call himself anything except ben Adam - 'the son of man'. He doesn't want people to call him 'Messiah', 'Good Master' or even 'Rabbi' which means teacher. He refuses to wear any title of distinction.
Joshua's meek, self-effacing name is the foundation of everything he says or does. It is the only key we will ever have to understand either his person or mission.
The Historical Context
Joshua ben Adam found himself in a world where everybody wanted to be elevated above the wretched mass of ordinary humanity. The Jews, among whom Joshua was born, were proud to count themselves 'the chosen people'. They believed they were the only people on earth to whom God had ever talked or given his Torah, which numbered 613 commandments. Everybody else was goyim - uncircumcised or unclean.
Even many of the Jews themselves were considered 'unclean'. This included a lot of poor people who, not being able to read, were ignorant of the Torah. Consequently they were counted as cursed. (see John 7:49) Included also were people forced into compromising occupations which put them almost on the same level as the goyim. For example, shepherds couldn't keep Sabbath properly. Custom collectors had to be corrupt to survive and prostitutes were often forced into their situation by dire circumstances.
In daily prayer the pious Rabbi would thank god for three things: for not being a gentile (goyim), for not being a woman (considered more unclean than men), and for not being ignorant of the Torah.
The Greeks or Hellenists saw themselves as the custodians of the worlds highest culture, learning and language. Everybody outside their circle were called barbaroi, that is barbarian. If a Greek aspired to be cut above his own kind, he would be inducted into one of the mystery cults. He thereby attained membership of a very elite group which made him special in the eye of a Greek divinity.
If power sets some apart as special human beings, then the Romans, whose empire and laws ruled the world, were surely the top of the human heap. No Roman could be flogged without trial or executed by crucifixion. Some people paid a great price to buy Roman citizenship.
In his very remarkable book, God's Chosen Peoples, Catholic scholar Walbert Buhlmann shows that this conceit of being God's special people has existed among cultures and races all over the world. The Congolese believed that they were the first human beings and God's altogether special people. The Ethiopians considered themselves the first race to be taught by God. The Masai tribe were certain they were God's chosen people and all other races were inferior to them. The Pygmies felt that they alone were the true rulers of the world. Scholars have found ethnocentricity in all tribes of
Borneoand among the Indians of America. Many American tribes simply called everyone outside their own tribe 'enemy'. The Hindus created the caste system. In Irian Jaya there were people who called themselves 'human beings', implying that outsiders were not really human. So they ate them!
So Buhlmann says, 'Every tribe thinks it lives at the center of the world'. 'Each tribe feels itself to be the people of God'. (P 182-3)
Looking at our family of Western nations, it's not hard to find evidence of this same group egotism. Some say that
has always been driven by a 'redeemer nation' mentality. America
The Germans went down the path of thinking they were 'the master race'. The class system has made the English insufferably arrogant. The Afrikaans were confident of being a kind of New Israel (Calvinist) nation. And the French, as everybody ought to know, are the most cultured race on earth. They invented the word chauvinism. Australians just know theirs is the 'lucky county'.
If you were to combine the arrogance of German National Socialism with the worst spiritual triumphalism of Catholicism (or Seventh-day Adventism, Lutheranism or the Southern Baptists), you might have something approaching the spirit of the society into which Joshua be Adam was born.
Bertrand Russell once said that people who set themselves above the rest of humanity invariably fall below the level of humanity. This is why Joshua ben Adam confronted a very inhuman society. About three percent of the population was wealthy. There was no real middle class. The masses were frightfully poor. They were taxed into grinding poverty by the powerful ones at the top of society. Then there was a landless class who were totally destitute. They lived one day at a time at the point of survival and starvation. Almost better off were a large class of slaves to Roman, Greek or Jewish masters.
There were levels of social and religious privileges in
. The destitute class couldn't afford the religious sacrifices or the other comforts of religion. Being ignorant of the Torah, they were called 'sinners'. They had no hope of escaping from their humiliating place in society. Israel
The average life span of people in
was twenty nine years. Infant mortality was high. Palestine ruled the world with an iron boot. Any suspicion of insurrection merited a brutal response. About the time Joshua ben Adam was born, Rome Galileewas pacified by four thousand crucifixions on one occasion. Jewish insurgents hid in the hills and from time to time attacked the Romans. The Romans were suspicious of any support for this resistance movement For their part these Jewish patriots (Zealots) would often stab their own people to death for not supporting the resistance. More often than not, life was short and brutal.
In this time of peril, the Jews were split by numerous factions, each of course claiming to be superior to the other. There were Pharisees and Sadducees, Zealots and Essenes, Priests and Rabbis, rich and poor, oppressors and oppressed, masters and slaves. It was a classical 'pecking order' Animal Farm which dehumanized those at the top as much as it dehumanized those at the bottom. It seemed that the political structures, the social customs, but most of all (yes, most of all!) the sacred traditions and religious institutions had all conspired to make people inhuman and to imprison them beyond hope of liberation.
In such a society entered Joshua ben Adam. He was obviously a man fired by the spirit of the Old Testament prophets who had grieved over and fumed against man's inhumanity to man. But Joshua ben Adam would go beyond the prophets and lay the axe at the root of this whole vertical order.
The basis of his mission lay in his consciousness and vision of being human. This man who dared to be human in every way and in every situation stood before the inhuman juggernaut of his day like that lone unarmed protester stood before the tanks in Tienanmen square.
"What is your claim to authority?" they demanded of Joshua ben Adam. "Whose son are you?" This was always the crucial question in Joshua's society when identity and status had to be established. Joshua answered, "I am ben Adam, that is, the son of man".
At first blush this would strike Joshua's hearers as a demeaning persona with absolutely no claim to distinction. And as if to re-enforce his humble status, he refused to be called Rabbi, Good Master, Father, Messiah or any other title (Fuhrer, Il Duce, Pope, Guru, etc).
We can imagine Joshua's inquisitors saying, "Why, even the trash of
and the goyim could claim as much as he does!" On the surface, Joshua's name, ben Adam, (the human one) may appear innocuous like some of the stories he told - stories which sucked his hearers in before they were trapped by the stories' quite shocking implication. So that simple ben Adam which at first blush looks as harmless as a feather, becomes a mighty axe against all that is wrong in this inhuman society. It is right here in his self-identity that he lays the axe at the roots of the corrupt Vertical Order. Israel