The Scandal of Joshua Ben Adam, Part 3
By Robert D. Brinsmead VERDICT, July 1998
"The son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look at him! a glutton and a drinker, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners..." (Luke 2:34)
This statement is a superb illustration of the way Joshua ben Adam uses his name. It is a statement of his solidarity with everyone else who are sons and daughters of "Adam". Then he backs up what's implied in his name with appropriate actions. He rejects all recognized distinctions between classes of people - clean and unclean, righteous and sinners, notables and nobodies, male and female.
Ben Adam set himself to dismantle the culture of discrimination by a whole variety of sayings and actions. But the center piece of his strategy was simple and stunningly effective. The meal table was the center stage for his mission. So everywhere ben Adam went he ate and drank according to a new way. It shocked everybody. Sometimes the occasions were ordinary meals. Other times they were more relaxed banquets where the participants reclined as they ate according to contemporary custom. Joshua's company included "many bad characters". (Mark ,16
). They were people considered as unclean or defiled according to the religious tradition. NEB
Joshua's disciples were not comfortable with his scandalous behavior. It is amazing that twenty years later, when the church was formed and growing, the Jerusalem Christians were not prepared to eat with "uncircumcised" people. Even Peter, the leading apostle, withdrew from eating with the "uncircumcised" when his
brethren arrived at Jerusalem . (see Act 15: 1-2, Galatians 2:11-14). Antioch
Ben Adam's table practice was so central to his modus operandi that the New Testament authors could not fail to make mention of it, but they softened the scandal by putting it in the context of Joshua doing all this as part of his mission to rescue sinners. This kind of patronizing condescension misses Joshua's main point.
It is difficult for us Westerners, with our more relaxed and egalitarian ways, to appreciate what eating together meant in Joshua's eastern culture. It meant mutual acceptance, forgiveness and sharing life together in a profoundly religious sense.
The religion of
was distinguished by a very elaborate purity or holiness code. The essence of holiness was to be separate as God was separate and distinct from every object or thing. Israel
saw itself as called to be separate, distinct, and above all other peoples. The "holiness" code was a way of achieving that and maintaining the nation's special status and sense of identity. In the etymology of their Hebrew language, the word defile signified something alien, strange or foreign. Israel
There were levels of purity and defilement. For instance, women were more unclean than men, and the birth of a daughter isolated a mother with uncleanness much longer than she would have been isolated if she had a son. Ruptures in the skin and serious skin rashes such as psoriasis were called leprosy and rendered the sufferer unclean.
In the highest state of cleanness or purity a person would be whole or healthy. The sick were more unclean. The rich were more clean than the poor. The learned who knew the Torah were much cleaner than the ignorant who did not.
The goyim (Gentiles or non-Jews), being uncircumcised, were very unclean. Unfortunately some of Joshua's own people were so destitute they couldn't afford to have their children circumcised, so all these were treated like the goyim.
The purity code forbade table fellowship with unclean people. To do so was to accept and to share in that uncleanness. Anyone who had any regard for being pure and staying pure in the eyes of God - and of course in the eyes of his peers - would not think of eating below his own "peck order" of purity. This included women. They could only serve at banquets.
So more than anything else, it was the table of eating and drinking where the whole "peck order" of Joshua's society was re-enforced. The discrimination humiliated those at the bottom of society as much as it dehumanized those at the top. Through his nondiscriminatory table fellowship Joshua signified that he was setting aside the holiness code. He was disregarding all the accepted categories of shame and honor.
The purity code went to the heart of
's self-identity. In these laws which separated clean from unclean, Israel separated herself from other people. She hereby ritualized her favored nation status. Israel
Religion is the sacralization of one's identity!
Ben Adam was not just subverting a few customs. To promote his kind of egalitarianism in a hierarchical society where three percent of the people at the top were sure to defend their position was dangerous enough. But ben Adam was subverting
's whole favored nation status and her egotistical sense of identity. All this he did in the name of ben Adam. His parties where he welcomed a riot of human diversity were more fun than the company of sectarian clones. Israel
"The son of man is sovereign even over the Sabbath." (Mark )
The name ben Adam not only gives Joshua solidarity with everybody, it gives him authority over everything. To set aside the purity code as Joshua does is audacious enough, but to assert authority over the Sabbath seems awesome. The Sabbath is the sign and seal of
's Covenant with God; it is the heart of the Ten Commandments. If Joshua, the human one, claims authority to set aside Sabbath regulations to suit human needs, then everyone who is human has authority over the whole of the Torah or Holy Scripture. (See Matt 5:33-39) Israel
Unlike the prophets before him, ben Adam does not stake his claim to authority by saying, "Thus said the Lord..", nor does he declare like Billy Graham, "The Bible says..." He is not a Shaman or a mystic who acts on visions or voices of God in the bicameral mind. * All appeals to some spectacular religious authority is conspicuously absent with ben Adam. The only authority he claims is the authority of being human!
When we look at the context of Joshua's son of man/Sabbath saying as cited above, it is clear that he is re-interpreting the Creation story.
"So God created man in his own image in the image of God, male and female…and God said to them ....Have dominion over…every living thing." (Genesis 1:27,28)
Throughout the Old Testament God strictly forbids us from making any image of himself. He utterly forbids us using anything in the realm of nature - whether it be trees, rocks, animals, stars, mountains, temples, animals - to make an icon of the invisible God. God alone has given the sole image of himself, and it is the living human being, male and female.
Along with monotheism, this is the most astounding insight of the Old Testament. It is an insight which ben Adam accepts and acts upon. He realizes that God has bestowed on him as a human being the greatest honor, status and dignity possible: "Thou hast made him [man] a little less than God, crowning him with glory and honor, Thou makest him master of all thy creatures; Thou has put everything under his feet." (Psalm 8:5,6)
When ben Adam rejects every title of honor which men offer to confer on him, he does this in the consciousness of who he is by virtue of being ben Adam, the human one.
Suppose the Prince of Wales was offered the title of Knight or Lord of the realm, would he accept it? Hardly, for he already has a status far above those honors by virtue of being son of the royal house of
. So ben Adam is conscious that being human confers on him the highest status, dignity and authority that is possible to have. Windsor
Religion however, makes sacred icons of things such as special times (Sabbath), places (mountains, temples, Jerusalem, Rome) trees, rocks, water, fire, garments, rituals, creeds, books, rivers, stars, bread - there is hardly a thing which has not somewhere, somehow been made into a sacred icon. Religion sacralizes nature either in whole (as in the old nature religions or with the modem Greens) or in part (as in Judaism and Christianity).
Whatever the sacralized thing might be, it is supposed to function as a mediator of God's presence (spirit). Some people think they will find God in the observance of a sacred day. Others think that the place to make contact with the Divine is in a sacred place like
, Jerusalem , or some other "holy mountain." Still others want to sense God's nearness in a ritual or a religious ordinance. Some imagine God is mediated to them either by eating some sacred food or by eating no food at all (fasting). Then there's the religion of "the Bible only" wherein worshippers are confident God is found in a book. Lourdes
It seems that sometime, somewhere, everything has been sacralized except man. Humanity has been sacrificed to the icons of religion. The icons make submission and slavery to the vertical order a sacred duty.
Conscious of his dignity and authority by virtue of being human, ben Adam turns everything up side down. He desacralizes everything - times, places, rituals, altars, hierarchies, traditions - except ordinary men and women who bear God's image. He puts everything back under the feet of the human ones. Religion - Law, Scripture, everything - must serve them rather than be served by them.
Joshua ben Adam did not assume a religious persona. In the spirit of the Old Testament prophets, he did not advocate religious fasting or support the temple sacrifices (Compare Luke 5:33 and Isaiah 58:3-8 Matthew 12:7 and Isaiah 1:11-17). He did not baptize. He did not preach from the Bible, although he was able to use it creatively to serve his purposes. He was dismissive of long or repetitious prayers. He set aside the purity code in regard to food, the washing of hands, interaction with women and the touching of lepers. He declared his sovereignty over the Sabbath, and by implication, the whole of the Torah or sacred Scriptures. And all this he did in solidarity with all of us because he was the son of Adam.
The religious authorities, being guardians of the vertical order, responded by condemning Joshua to death for blasphemy, that is, for being anti-religious. The high priest reasoned it was better for one man to die than have the whole system collapse. (John 11: 50 )
According to Mark's gospel, the apostles were so dull they never understood Joshua ben Adam's words or actions right to the bitter end. They gave little indication that they understood his message about human freedom even after Easter.
The first church in
where the apostles presided retreated to conservatism completely at odds with Joshua ben Adam. Twenty years on they were reluctant to eat with uncircumcised people. (Acts 11:3; Gal 2:11-14) They still lived strictly by Judaism's religious codes. They were appalled by rumors that Paul allowed his Jewish converts from the Dispersion to forsake Moses and the Jewish customs. (Acts 21:22-24) Jerusalem
The person who came closest to reflecting Joshua's freedom from religion was Paul. He was so far ahead of the rest that the church on the whole never did come to grips with his law-free gospel. Even the Protestant reformers, who drew their inspiration from Paul, only played on the edges of his liberating thought.
The center-piece of Paul's teaching, at least in Romans and Galatians, is a fairly involved argument about "justification by faith without the works of the law." Contrary to the popular interpretation of this article in Western Christianity, Paul's real point in his lengthy legal and historical argument is not to show people how to be saved or find a gracious God. Paul knew how to give a direct and simple answer on that question.
The problem Paul had to address was a church seriously divided between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Jewish Christians continued to live according to their ancient customs (circumcision, Sabbath and Kosher food were the big three). They thought that Gentile Christians should live the same way. Gentile Christians at
, for instance, did not regard any day as sacred and they ate any kind of food.(see Roman 14). They thought that Jewish Christians should live like them. Each side was inclined to be judgmental and non-accepting of the other. Rome
In his letter to the Roman church, Paul does not tell either side to change their religious practices. His line of attack is to show that the religious practices are irrelevant. "There is no difference", he declares (Romans ; ). Justification - the prized status of a person doing the right thing - is by faith without the works of the law, that is to say, without the practices of the Jewish religion. By simple extrapolation, this means without the practices of any religion. Whether it's in the eyes of God or the community, religious differences don't count. "There is no difference". Only people matter. (See Corinthians 9:19-22.)
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul explains how the law was given to
like a child-minder is given to minors. Being governed by the law or scripture, he reasons is like being in jail or in prison. But now that Christ has set us free, "we are no longer under the supervision of the law." (Galatians 3:19-25: 4:1-22). There is no slavish obedience to written codes, written documents or written letters. There is no Biblicism.* (Ephesians 2;15; 2 Corinthians 3; Romans 7:6, etc. Paul uses the words law and scripture interchangeably. In contemporary non-Biblical Greek the word homos (law) also had the meaning of religion) Israel
Freedom from law in Paul therefore, carries the idea of being free from religion and a slavish adherence to Scripture. The Reformers never understood Paul at this level, so they were just as intolerant and authoritarian as
Like Joshua ben Adam before him, Paul is ambivalent towards religious practices. In his Romans he is indulgently accommodating. In his Galatians he is unbending in criticism. Why the difference?
The religious festivals and rituals of the Hebrew tribes were not unlike the rituals, dances and festivals of African, Malaysian, Australian or any other tribes. For the most part they were happy festivities with dancing, eating and drinking. In this way they celebrated their dreamtime stories, and told of their victories and defeats. Simplification, exaggeration and embellishment of the stories was necessary, as it is necessary in all folk pageantry.
Along with ritual festivities, most of the Old Testament is Song, Poetry and folk stories. Much of it was sung or recited at the festal dramas. (The book of Job is also poetry like a grand Shakespearean play. The question of the historicity of the characters is absolutely irrelevant to the message of the play. Jonah is some very clever lampooning of Jewish nationalism). There is an imaginative, playful element in this type of literature.
It's the atrocious, fun-less literalism of the Christian West which has botched up and locked away the real meaning of the Old Testament. It is as silly as someone discovering Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and then subjecting it to literal analysis.
The Christian tribes have their religious dances too. They don't all dance to the same tune, and the rituals vary somewhat. The New Testament Mark was probably written for ritual reading in Christian gatherings. Matthew, with its precise five-discourse structure to mimic the five books of Moses, was obviously a composed Shakespearean-like drama. The book of Revelation is pure drama, ridiculous stuff if interpreted seriously. Not all the authors or groups liked the scripts of the other groups either. There was some contradictory detail and difference of interpretation. When the competing scripts were called Holy Scripture hundreds of years later, it blocked any hope of reading them intelligently.
The Christian tribes have been like primitive tribes taunting each other's dance. What was supposed to be a "theology of play" became a bloody war dance. Eucharist (giving thanks), baptism, Bible reading and the rest became the war dances of the Christian tribes going into battle against one another.
How does all this relate to interpreting Paul - or Joshua? If religious practices are nothing more than celebrations which serve people in the fellowship and freedom of being human, then, "there is no difference." When they became imposed icons demanding the surrender of human freedom, Paul sarcastically told the men submitting to circumcision to lop it all off! (Galatians 5:12) Joshua ben Adam would say that since the dance is made for people, not people for the dance, the human one is Lord of the Dance. (Mark ,28) More fun than castration!
is not coming with signs to be observed: nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'there!' 'for behold the kingdomof God is in the midst of your [in you - KJV] "(Luke -21) kingdomof God
These words of Joshua ben Adam are astounding for their originality. They fly in the face of what everybody in his society expected. They are remarkably different from the language and concepts of the early Christian movement.
The people of Joshua's day were looking for a future kingdom. They expected an imminent fiery end of the world when God's people would be delivered and their enemies destroyed. It was believed that this catastrophic end of the world would be preceded by spectacular signs and omens like the sun shining at night or the stars falling from heaven (II Ezra 5:4-5). This kind of expectation and belief is called apocalyptic.
Apocalyptic, as a dominant literary thought form, flourished from about 200 BC to 130 AD It arose when
was suffering the threat of extinction under the rule of a hostile foreign power. It was thought that God had left the earth to be ruled by Gentile powers who ravished the world like lions, bears, leopards and non-descript beasts of prey (see Daniel 7) But it would be for a time appointed. Then God's kingdom would suddenly destroy these oppressive enemies and deliver his people in a final act of coercive power. Israel
In Joshua's day apocalyptic expectation was white hot. The New Testament says "all men were in expectation". People were standing on tiptoe watching for signs and omens of the end. John the Baptist believed in apocalyptic too. He spoke of the imminent day of wrath which would "bum up the chaff with unquenchable fire".
Joshua's disciples too were incurably apocalyptic. They were bent on looking for signs of the end of the world. They never gave it up. Christ's death - resurrection event was interpreted by Paul and others as an end of the world event, the first stage of a two-stage end of the world.
This apocalyptic belief was projected back to Joshua as if he taught the near end of the world too. The moralistic parable of the Ten Virgins, so utterly unlike his authentic parables, was put into his mouth to teach vigilant waiting for the end of history.
Apocalyptic became the all-pervasive interpretive factor in Joshua ben Adam's history. Recognizing this, the German scholar Kaseman coined this famous one-liner, "Apocalyptic is the mother of all Christian theology." Like a cuckoo in the Christian nest, apocalyptic threw out Joshua ben Adam and hatched a theology about Jesus ben Parthenos.
When we examine ben Adam's core sayings and parables however, the kingdom of which he speaks is not a future kingdom but something already present in the midst of his listeners. There is no apocalyptic talk. He declares there are no signs and no outward show to announce its arrival. Silent as a seed that is growing, hidden as yeast which is leavening the dough, the kingdom is a present reality, says Joshua, and those who respond to his teaching are entering it now.
In the authentic voice of this historical man there is no speculation about the end of the world or life after death. This is not to say that Joshua did not believe in life after death, but our looking in this direction misses the whole thrust of his teaching. He does not talk about life after death, only about life before death. In his terminology, finding life and entering the kingdom are the same thing.
Apocalyptic - a Dehumizing Icon
Apocalyptic, back then or now, is part of a religion which sacralizes time. We know that Judaism sacralized a day of the week which they called Sabbath. There is nothing wrong in a community having a time set aside for rest and spiritual development. That kind of "time out" can be very beneficial. The problem with Judaism and some Christian sects, however, is that Sabbath became an authoritarian icon to be served by man rather than serving man (see Mark ,28).
Apocalyptic sacralizes a future time, a great eschatological Sabbath which assumes tremendous control over human lives in the following ways:
1. Pre-occupation with the imminent end of the world is accompanied by speculation about "signs of the times" and time tables of events leading up to the End ( The Great Tribulation, Armageddon, Millennium, Mark of the Beast, 666, etc.)
It becomes an unhealthy, dehumanizing obsession with the religious icon of time. It can become so domineering that living in the future and for the future devalues the present. It becomes a cop-out from present responsibility and opportunities. ("Why polish brass on a sinking ship." "This world is doomed". "There is no hope," preaches a Green crusader who lusts for an environmental Apocalypse.)
If this Armageddon is not about to happen apocalyptic people become despondent, sad and disappointed. One Christian sect even celebrates an event known as "The Great Disappointment." The founders of this group were devastated because the end of the world didn't take place as they predicted. When they found they had to go on living here, it was a heavy disappointment to take up the dull burdens of living in the here and now. In the early church some people actually stopped working so they could be ready for the "Second Coming."
In Joshua's day the Zealots were so deluded by apocalyptic that they thought they could precipitate the fiery, eschatological deluge by a fanatical revolt against
. Apocalyptic did precipitate the End, not the End of the world, but the end of the Jewish state, first in the 70 AD and finally in the disastrous Bar Cochra revolt in the AD 130's. The slaughter was awful. All surviving Jews were banished from their homeland forever on pain of death. The leaders of Judaism, surveying the final devastation, pronounced a curse on anyone who taught apocalyptic again. Rome
Within the American "Christian Right" are the apocalyptic Zealots of our time. They are absolutely confident what is going to happen and therefore should happen in the
Middle Eastas part of the End-time scenario. Their political influence in the affairs of has been considerable. Their inside literature speaks of "blood up to the horses bridle" (from the book of Revelation), and they actually long for the battle of Armageddon to get under away. They too will be sad, glum and disappointed to learn that this final conflagration is not just around the comer, or even on the horizon. And the very suggestion there will be no hell or barbecue of the wicked is enough to make them as mad as their mythical hell. Palestine
2. The other side of this macabre preoccupation with the celestial fireworks is an overwhelming personal interest in getting to heaven, being "saved" and life after death. This overwhelming religious focus on life in the hereafter seriously devalues human life in the here and now.
3. Apocalyptic is characterized by an extremely authoritarian view of God. He is represented as solving all the problems of the world by one act of overpowering intervention or omnipotent coercion. Here is the vertical order of domination and submission at its worst. This kind of theism has also been reflected in the worst features of the Christian West.
Jewish apocalyptic leading up to the time of Joshua ben Adam developed a high and extremely authoritarian view of the Law. Its view of history was also rigidly predestinarian -a belief which says that the course of history is totally predestined. The same characteristics run through Christian apocalyptic. It embodies an extremely authoritarian view of the Bible, and its predestined history means a closed universe with no room at all for real human freedom
Whether it is the view of a monarchical God, the absolute authority given to a Torah or Bible, or the totally closed (predestined) universe, apocalyptic is the apex of a religiously constructed vertical order. In this world of apocalyptic an empty shell of a man has no say, no choice and no real humanity.
Joshua's Quiet Revolution
Joshua ben Adam taught that God's kingdom comes neither in a show of force or with signs compelling us to believe. That his kingdom could have been discounted for so long by a triumphalistic church is testimony enough that God's way is not arbitrarily imposed on humanity. Always respectful of our rights to be human, he waits for us to work toward making the earth a more human place.
It is hard for Christians to get used to the idea that Joshua ben Adam did not talk about the near end of the world. When Winston Churchill was asked if the
invasion was the end of the World War II, he said, "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It is however the end of the beginning". Normandy
If the arrival of human consciousness marked the beginning of human history, perhaps it may be useful to see Joshua ben Adam in terms of the end of that human beginning. The arrival of his kingdom would therefore mark the tree beginning of a true human history.
No Apocalyptic! Being free in the
smog beats being a zombie in some apocalyptic paradise! Los Angeles