The Scandal of Joshua Ben
Adam, Part 4
By Robert D. Brinsmead VERDICT, August 1998
certain man was going down from
Joshua ben Adam's sayings and parables exposed human evil in a devastating way. Yet he rarely used the word sin. It was not a normal part of his vocabulary as it was with his contemporaries and the early Christians.
Sin belongs to the vocabulary of religion. Religion is pre-occupied with sin, and so are all religious people.
Judaism into which Joshua was born had invested certain days, places,
institutions, foods and customs with sacred significance. These religious icons
had to be reverenced and observed in a prescribed way. Any noncompliance was
thought to be a sin against God incurring defilement and guilt. The sacred
things were also important to sacralize
Many people at the bottom or on the margins of Joshua's society could not avoid "sin" because they were ignorant of the Torah (the religious rules). If they were also sick and destitute this was regarded as a sign of God's displeasure. They were then trapped in double guilt.
The more privileged people spent a lot of effort observing the purity code to avoid defilement. This pre-occupation with religion and sin blinded them to how inhuman they were. Their whole value system was distorted. As Joshua said, they strained at gnats and swallowed camels ("unclean" animals). A speck of sawdust in a brother's eye was deemed a greater offence than a log in their own eye. Whilst they fussed over the minutia of religious sin, they neglected the big issues of human existence like justice, equality (love your neighbor as yourself), forgiveness and compassion.
Real evil, according to Joshua, has nothing to do with the religious icons whether they are foods, rituals, garments, days, places or anything else. Evil has to do with the way we treat people, nothing more and nothing less. The living God has given us a living icon or image of himself and it is people. Nothing else matters!
Joshua makes this point in the story of the man left half-dead at the side of the road. The parable turns the value system of Joshua's day on its head.
The Priest and Levite represented the religious elites, the recognized "goodies" of that society. They failed to do the human thing, presumably because they had to keep themselves free and pure for their service to God. The Samaritan on the other hand had a standing akin to a prostitute or a Mafia man. He was the recognized "badie" in the story. Yet he had pity on the wounded victim. He put his life at risk when he stopped to help. He did the human thing.
Joshua told this story in answer to a question about finding eternal life. The story tells us that religious affiliations, practices and belief systems don't really count. The only thing which matters is doing the human thing.
The Christian Situation
The Christian may thank God that he is free from the religious regulations of the Old Testament. But there are plenty of Christian icons to take their place.
The Christian religion is divided into numerous sects, big and small. Each group has its own special religious icon. It may be a mode of baptism, a Eucharistic tradition (The Supper), the keeping of a certain day in a distinctive way, an apocalyptic schema, a religious institution, a unique theological belief or a religious practice.
Each group derives from its icon its reason d'etre. It uses the icon to sacralize its own identify as superior to the rest. The icon is the rallying point of tribal righteousness. And consciously or unconsciously, the hierarchy or powerholders in the group use the icon to keep the people captive within their system.
If someone in the tribe calls the surpassing glory or importance of its icon into question, all hell breaks loose and there are broken bones and dead bodies all over the place. It would be all too easy to give some real life examples from church after church, but it is all too sensitive and embarrassing, so we will spare everybody because there has been too much human pain already in inquisitions, heresy trials, purges, burnings, drownings, floggings, shunnings, defrockings, social pressures, name-callings, intimidations, guilt trips and the like.
But who ever heard of such things happening in a church because some members were judgmental, unkind, uncaring, hard hearted, unforgiving or in any other way not truly human? Even robbing the bank won't disturb the tribe nearly as much as a sin against the tribe's icon. The religious authorities perform as if the integrity of God's throne is at stake when it's only some human throne which deprives people of the freedom of being human.
The Christian religion has produced the same inhuman distortions which Joshua ben Adam exposed in his day. If sin is forsaking the religious icons to join the human race, then let us "sin bravely" as Luther once said.
For the son of man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark )
This is Joshua ben Adam's mission statement. It is about living and dying in the service of people. It is not just his own mission statement however, because he offers it to everyone who is willing to share his vision of human liberation.
Joshua did not die for some sacred thing or religious idea. There has never been a shortage of people willing to die for religion. Millions have died to defend their holy places. Just as many have died to preserve their sacred practices. They have died for the Sabbath. They have lost their lives for the sake of circumcision. They have put their life on the line for religious ideas, especially ideas about God. But Joshua died for none of these things. He died solely for people.
The word ransom in Joshua's mission statement is a simple metaphor for liberation - nothing more! At the very commencement of his public work he cited these words from the book of Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty them that are bruised. .. (Luke 4:18)
This was a moving, breathtaking vision of human liberation. It envisaged deliverance from guilt, false views of God, distorted value systems, hunger, sickness, destitution, religious bondage and inhuman power structures. He was concerned with the whole human condition.
When Joshua launched this mission to liberate people from their inhuman situation, the religio-political climate was extremely volatile and dangerous. John the Baptist had recently lost his head. The religious authorities and the Romans were ready to pounce at the first suspicion of a disturbance. Joshua worked judiciously, moving from place to place lest he attract too much attention.
Judged by the canons of his time his teaching was blasphemous and his mission seditious. How could any system, least of all the brutal inhuman system of his day, tolerate the kind of human liberation he envisaged?
Ben Adam was not blind to the risks. He worked to sow as much seed as he could before the inevitable storm broke over his head. After a short period of public activity the power elites conspired to put out his light.
Following a hasty arrest, the highest religious court in the land condemned him to death on the grounds of blasphemy. Then they conspired to have him crucified by the Romans. This would be a double disgrace. The Jewish Torah said that anyone hanged on a tree was cursed of God.
Ben Adam's death was a hurried and brutal affair. Crucifixion was a degrading and humiliating way to die. It was the Roman penalty for sedition. It was all too much for Joshua's inner support group. One betrayed him, another disowned him, and they all forsook both him and his doomed cause. His untimely death was a senseless, wrongful execution. It was also a religious scandal and a public disgrace.
The Scandal of His Death
Removing the Scandal
The post-Easter community was hard put to rationalize the scandal of Joshua ben Adam's death. In the earliest preaching they said he was wrongly condemned, but they did not say there was any redemptive value in his violent death. Their good news was their declaration that God reversed the human verdict by raising Joshua to his own right hand.
Later, however, the early Christians did try to bring some meaning out of this scandalous crucifixion. It was said to be a blood sacrifice, offered on the Divine altar, as an atonement or payment to God for the sins of the world.
The idea of a blood sacrifice for sin is not fully developed in the New Testament. Luke, who wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else, makes no mention of it at all. But the idea was developed over the centuries until it reached its final expression in what became known as the substitutionary or penal theory of atonement (This theory of atonement reached its full development within Calvinism. To their credit, most Catholic theologians stopped short of the very legalistic "substitutionary atonement."...)
The basic historical facts of Joshua ben Adam's death are quite plain. He was condemned to death in a Jewish court and executed by the Romans. The whole idea of an atonement by blood sacrifice in some kind of divine arrangement is not history, but an apocalyptic interpretation of history. It was a religious interpretation of a tragedy, an interpretation motivated at least in part by a need to rationalize a scandal. Instead of seeing men engaged in an act of senseless killing, God was seen killing his son to pay for the sins of the world. What God did was illustrated by the Old Testament story of Abraham killing his son as a sin-offering to God.
The Roots of Blood Atonement
Since blood atonement for sins is not evident in the historical facts of a man dying by crucifixion (a very common occurrence in those times), it raises the question, How did the idea of a blood sacrifice to God, arise? Where did it come from? Some may content themselves with the thought that the revelation miraculously dropped from heaven. We know however, that God generally works through less spectacular human processes. Ideas don't generally leap out of the ground from nowhere or drop suddenly out of the sky. They evolve as humanity and human history evolves.
The early Christians had a world-view which they shared with everyone of their age. They shared assumptions about the way justice operated in the universe which were the common currency of their era.
1. Pay Back Justice
practice of blood sacrifice, both of humans and animals, runs right back
through history to the most primitive cultures. It has been found all over the
earth. It has even persisted in places like
The blood sacrifices were linked to primitive notions of pay-back justice. It was thought that the order and balance of the cosmos was maintained by a justice which demanded "and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Nature demanded it. The gods of the cosmos demanded it. If a head was stolen from a tribe, another head had to be stolen back. If there was no retaliation to balance the order of the cosmos, the gods would be angry.
The Old Testament also said that God required this same "eye for an eye" justice.
Much of the popular culture of our day shares this primitive idea that justice means "getting even," "getting what's coming", "what goes around comes around." The school science class even proved to us that this is natural: "Every action brings an opposite and equal reaction." So also the conventional wisdom says, "You reap what you sow," "You get out of life exactly what you put in," "Everyone eventually gets what he deserves," "There is no free lunch," "Pay-back time comes sooner or later."
2. Suffering and Death are Pay-Back Justice
Whether it was the gods or spirits of the cosmos or the God of the Old Testament, they were all seen as the enforcers of pay-back justice. They "got even" by punishing human sin with calamities, sickness, famine, suffering and death.
The ancient world of the nuclear Near East had their Creation myths. Those myths were recycled again and again from country to country, millenniums before the Hebrews were even able to read them in the Babylonian writings or copy them (in modified form of course) into their own literature. The substance of all the Creation myths were the same: for a misdemeanor the first man and women were expelled from a perfect environment (the garden of innocence) and the punishment ever after has been suffering and death for the whole human race.
The ancient world had their Flood myths too. The Babylonian version said that the gods drowned the world in a flood because the people down below were disturbing them with too much noise. When the Hebrews recycled that myth they said that their very moral God drowned the world as punishment for sin.
monotonous regularity, especially in Ezra's version of history called The
Chronicles, the Old Testament shows that calamities, famine, captivity,
suffering and death was God's way of punishing sin. Whenever
It became all too easy to conclude that health, prosperity and power were God's reward for righteousness, while sickness, poverty and suffering were evidence of God's displeasure. Although the book of Job challenged this prevailing idea of pay-back justice, it dominated the culture. It existed in the time of Joshua ben Adam. When a tower fell on people or they were slaughtered in a skirmish, it was generally felt that someone had done something to merit this manifestation of pay-back justice. If some people were destitute, sick, blind or leprous, this too was seen as God's pay-back justice, either because of what they did or what their ancestors did.
The notion of pay-back justice may not be as overt in our modem society but it is still there, especially in the prison system where people "pay for their crimes." When misfortune strikes, the sufferer asks, "why me? What did I do to deserve this?" Or there's the popular notion of what goes "around comes around." God or fate keeps the scales of the universe balanced, and sees to it that everyone gets exactly what he deserves. "Every action bringing an opposite and equal reaction."
3. Hell, the Final Pay-Back
The ancients believed that the gods would get their full and final revenge (pay-back) in the final punishment of Hell. Any suffering in this life was only a down payment. If there were anomalies in this life, like a wicked man prospering, the accounts would be settled at the final pay-back time.
The ancients were familiar with volcanoes belching up fire and lava flows from the bowels of the earth. In their myths, the sky above was the abode of the gods, while the seething caldron beneath the earth was the place where the gods would send those who displeased them. When Cortes and his Catholic Spaniards arrived in Aztec Mexico,. they found a civilization which had nine levels of hell for the suffering of souls. Hell and pay-back justice was as fundamental to the world-view of Joshua ben Adam's day as a post-Copernican world-view is fundamental to ours.
4. Blood Sacrifice
only way to survive in a universe of pay-back justice was through the offering
up of blood sacrifices to the gods or spirits of the cosmos. The
idea of offering up human sacrifices runs right back through the most primitive
cultures. Bloody human sacrifices have persisted until very recent times
Joseph Campbell, an authority on myths, gives accounts of the practice of sacrificing infants, children, captives, slaves and sometimes even kings and nobles. The practice existed in many cultures all over the world. It seemed that the gods had an insatiable appetite for screaming children or terrified adults fed alive into fiery pits, dismembered on altars, or cut up piece by piece while alive and writhing in unspeakable anguish. Atonement, paying for sin, was necessary to propitiate the gods and restore balance to the cosmos. Any serious debts to the gods had to be paid in blood.
More humane cultures like the Hebrews substituted animal sacrifices for human ones, but the Old Testament records that even the Hebrews reverted to human sacrifices from time to time. There were enlightened voices like the prophets who were scornful of sacrificial rituals, but the cult of blood sacrifices remained firmly entrenched in the imagination. One Old Testament story vividly illustrates atonement through human sacrifice:
the reign of David, there was a famine of three successive years: so David
sought the face of the Lord. The Lord said, "It is on account of Saul and
his blood-stained house; it is because he put the Gibeonites
to death "... David asked the Gibeonites,
"What shall I do for you? How shall I make atonement so that you will
bless the Lord's inheritance?" The Gibeonites
answered him, "We have no right to demand silver or gold from Saul or his
family, nor do we have the right to put any one in
a series of songs about 'a suffering servant', an Old Testament poet depicts
the sins of the nation being paid for by its exile in
for the religions of
"The recurrent mythological event of the death and resurrection of a god had been for millenniums the central mystery of all the great religions of the nuclear Near East..." (Campbell Occidental Mythology "P. 334)
justice! Paying for sin by blood sacrifice! A holy martyr paying for a nations sin! Incarnate gods dying for human sin! It was all
there in the culture of the first century. It was part and parcel of the
world-view of that age. Those ideas, to use an expression from
This writer knows what it is to sing from the heart songs like Rock of Ages:
"Let the water and the blood from thy riven side which flowed Be of sin the double cure, wash me from its guilt and power..."
Trusting in Christ's flagellations as a remedy for guilt is better than trying to deal with guilt by self-flagellations or having a bad conscience which Shakespeare said, "doth make cowards of us all." But there is another way. It is so radically different that its like living in another universe - which indeed it is. It is the world-view of Joshua ben Adam. To this we must now turn.
"You have learned that they were told, "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.'" But what I tell you is this: Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you. If someone slaps you on the right cheek turn and offer him your left. If a man wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. If a man in authority makes you go one mile, go with him two. Give when you are asked to give and do not turn your back on a man who wants to borrow. You have learned that they were told, "Love your neighbor, hate your enemy..."
"...But what I tell you is this: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors; only so can you be children of your heavenly Father, who makes his sun rise on the good and bad alike, and sends the rain on the honest and the dishonest. If you love only those who love you, what reward can you expect? Surely the tax-gatherers do as much as that. And if you greet only your brothers, what is there extraordinary about that? Even the heathen do as much. There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father's goodness knows no bounds..." (Matthew 38-48)
In these sayings, Joshua is not indulging in some nice little moralisms. In these words, backed up by actions and parables which turn all canons of accepted justice on its head, ben Adam sets himself to pull down the entire world order which has pay-back justice, retaliation, getting even, revenge and blood atonement at its heart.
Ben Adam stood in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets who repudiated the blood sacrifices. They called for human compassion and social justice. So did Joshua, but he went to the heart of the matter by setting aside the whole notion of atonement. You will not practice pay-back justice, says Joshua, because God does not practice that kind of justice. He showers his gifts on the just and the unjust alike. He keeps no score of wrongs, holds no grudges and does not balance his accounts by returning evil for evil. He does not keep a black book to record our debts, and does not expect repayment for his scandalous generosity to the least deserving. Like the father of the prodigal son, he abandons concern for his own honor. He throws away all caution about his good reputation because he is moved totally by love, a forgiving heart and a reckless generosity that tosses out all known canons of justice.
Everybody in Joshua's day lived in a match-box sized universe in matters of space and time. But he challenged the match-box sized moral order of his age, a world of tit for tat and a God who was a penny-pinching debt collector or celestial Shylock who insisted in having his pound of flesh.
If you behave like God, says Joshua, you will genuinely love and help those who try to harm you. Instead of even a thought about pay-back justice, you will freely forgive. There must be no limit on how many times you forgive, nor any limit on the size of the debt you forgive.
Furthermore, you must not wait until your debtor repents for his wrong and begs your forgiveness, but from your heart you must forgive him even while he rains his blows upon you. This Joshua did in his dying agonies when with his last breath he asked God to forgive his heartless tormentors.
This he also did when he welcomed dishonest tax collectors, prostitutes and power-holders to his table. Such ready acceptance so moved one hardened scoundrel named Zacchaeus that he openly announced he would change his evil ways.
There is nothing in Joshua ben Adam's whole character and teaching that could give support to a world-view, especially the Christian one, which has atonement (pay-back justice) at the center of it. The man was a giant, of colossus on the landscape of history. He had a new vision of humanity, a new vision of God and a totally new world-view. Atonement or pay-back justice had no place in his view of interpersonal relationships, whether those relationships be between one human party and another or between the human party and God.
Excursus on The Chamber of Horrors
The structural outline of the Christian "gospel" is really very simple. It is a story in three parts: about the Fall, Hell and the Cross. The Fall tells of a human fall into a sinful state which is shared by everybody. Hell tells us about the final penalty for sin. The Cross ("the good news") tells us about Christ paying the penalty for sin so that we need not pay it ourselves.
Despite the differing ways this three-part story is told or applied, the bare-bone outline is the same whether it is told by a Catholic catechism or Campus Crusade for Christ pamphlet. In either case it is totally incompatible with the life and teaching of Joshua ben Adam.
1. The Fall
When the Hebrews recycled the old Babylonian myth of the Creation and Fall of man they made some considerable improvements to the story. The Hebrew version embodied some of the great Hebrew insights.
First, it embodied its heritage of monotheism. Second, it did not blur the distinction between their one God and his creation. Third, their God did not act capriciously in his dealings with man, but in a strict moral justice which was according to law.
Many whose religious traditions are rooted in the Old Testament story will admit that the story is a myth which is neither literally true or in harmony with scientific reality. They point out that the real purpose of myth is to embody important truths about God and man. We readily agree that myths have been indispensable vehicles to convey important truths. We would even agree that the Creation/Fall myth served a useful purpose to give people a sense of their origin, calling and destiny. But we also need to confront the serious fallacies conveyed in this very foundational story.
In the first place, it is completely erroneous to suggest that any human sin (least of all one misdemeanor) brought all the disruption and death into this world. Millions of years before any man walked this earth there was upheavals, wholesale destruction of species, and enough death going on in the world to make rivers of fossil fuel.
Secondly, if God is the author of life he is also the author of death. There could have been no development and improvement of any species without death. To put on mankind the responsibility for causing death is not only an appalling burden, but it is both harmful and false.
The worst aspect of the story, however, is that it conveys a concept of retributive (pay-back) justice so horrific that it defies even the rudiments of good sense. For one misdemeanor a man and women lost paradise for themselves and the entire human race. The punishment was suffering and death not just for themselves but for billions of other people for millennium after millennium.
My Great Grandfather was put on a convict
According to this recycled pagan myth, pay-back justice had barely begun with all the temporal misery, suffering, and death of this world. The full penalty of the human fall, whose guilt rests upon everybody, is said to be damnation in Hell. In Christian orthodoxy, Hell is a place of never ending punishment, of unspeakable, never ending torments.
With Hell, God's pay-back justice takes on infinite proportions. Sin is said to be an offence against an infinite majesty meriting infinite punishment. So God spends eternity getting even, paying people back for offending him.
Enough said, because the Christian doctrine of Hell is an absolute disgrace. The church has to be charged with polluting the earth with religious sadism and pornography. No human mind should ever be made to entertain such sickening inhuman images whose portrayal has caused many to faint, go mad, live in terror, obey religious strictures out of fear, or turn away from believing in God altogether. Millions have become atheists rather than believe in fables so insulting to all sense of human decency.
Thankfully, not all Christians have believed or have continued to believe in this kind of Christian orthodoxy. An awakened human consciousness leads more and more churchmen and theologians to re-interpret Hell in a more humane way or to abandon the idea completely. It is after all an old pagan myth which has been used in the Christian religion to take pay-back justice to an infinite degree of infinite nonsense.
3. The Atonement
In Christian theology the Cross and Hell are the two sides or the two stages of one reality. The Apostles Creed says that Christ descended into Hell. He took upon himself God's wrath against sin, the infinite sufferings of Hell, in order to save us from that punishment. Out of love God is said to have provided this bloody sacrifice of his own son to make an atonement (pay-back, compensation, payment) for human sins. Christ too was said to be one with the Father in becoming the bloody victim of atonement. The transaction is said to be substitutionary. Christ, the innocent one, was treated as we deserved that we, the guilty ones, might be treated as he deserves. God rolled on him the sins of the world and punished him as if he were every sinner... (It is said that Christ's human nature was sustained by his divine nature to endure an infinite punishment making a sufficient atonement for the sins of the world).
If it be asked, "Why was this atonement necessary?" the answer is that God could not forgive sin unless he satisfied his law or his principle of retributive justice. Anselm said that reparations or an adequate compensation had to be made to God's outraged honor due to man's sin.
The real reason God offers the bloody sacrifice of his son and Christ offers himself as the victim, therefore, is not to save people but it is to justify the divine administration, to satisfy God's justice, to honor and glorify God, etc. Charles Hodge, the Calvinist systematic theologian, goes even further. Since God is the unmoved Mover who cannot be influenced by anything outside of himself, says Hodge, when he loves or is merciful toward us he is only being loving and merciful to himself. So the bottom line of atonement is that Christ did not primarily die for people at all like Joshua ben Adam did, but he died for the principle of law and pay-back justice.
If God cannot forgive us unless Christ pays our debt, then he does not really forgive at all. If a debt has been paid, then there is nothing to forgive. Atonement and forgiveness, therefore, are mutually exclusive.
The one mitigating feature of this Hangman's theology are the statements saying that God loved us and gave his son to pay our penalty. It's a good thing most people never get to read the statements of the theologians which could easily destroy allusions about God's love being altruistic. Many who still live with a legalistic world-view or in a universe which has pay-back justice at its heart, do find support and comfort in God's offering up his son as an atonement. Thankfully they have never been exposed to "good" divines such as Augustus Strong (Systematic Theology) who says that justice rather than love is the primary attribute of God.
The Fall, Hell and the Atonement by blood sacrifice are the outline structure of the Christian religion whether Catholic or Protestant.
Each of these three elements is a recycled pagan myth.
Each has pay-back justice at its heart.
Together the parts form one structure. The Fall is the beginning of the story. The story has a Hell of an end. In the middle is Atonement by means of a blood sacrifice. From beginning to end it is a Chamber of Horrors. It is totally incompatible with the life and teaching of Joshua ben Adam.
As we have seen, ben Adam totally demolished the world-view of his day. He removed pay-back justice from his vision for a new human society. There was no pay-back justice in his vision of God. His teaching was like new wine which, he said, must not be placed into the old wineskins. But that is exactly what happened. The church put the new wine of amazing generosity and love into the old wineskins of pagan myths and pay-back justice.