One World or Two Worlds

The Greeks

Platonism may not seem the proper place to begin a short survey of the background to the Christian doctrine of Original Sin.  Plato, after all, lived 350 years before the time of Jesus and in a land far away.  But I want to start there because I believe more than any other influence, despite the antiquity of the Jewish story of the Garden of Eden and Jesus’ own strictly Jewish perspective, it was Platonism that gave the essential character to Christianity and its doctrine of Original Sin.  Most are not aware of this.  Platonism not only reworked every detail of what was inherited from the Hebrew scriptures, it suffused every statement and action of Jesus, effectively re-interpreting his message in the light of Platonism’s own fundamental assumptions.  The essential meaning of the Christian doctrine of “Ori­gi­nal Sin” did not come from the Jews or from Jesus of Nazareth.  It was the product of Platonism and hellenistic culture.[1]

The first point is that Platonism, as philosophy, was believed to be the rational correction of the outland­ish stories of the gods of mediterranean mythology.  Platonism, in other words, considered itself not religion, but something like science.  Christianity eventually identified with Platonism, and picked up this attitude, at least by late in the second century c.e.  When Athenagoras wrote his “Letter to Marcus Aurelius” around 175 ce, it was on full display.  Christianity was truth, said Athenagoras, in the scientific sense of literal, factual and historical truth; the stories of the gods were “mere” myths.  Christianity never lost that self-projection.  The apparently factual accounts of Jesus’ life in the gospels, and the frank narrative of failure in his execution by the Romans, corroborated this feeling; with Christianity the days of legends and myths were over and the age of truth had dawned.

But while Plato worked to correct the ideas that Greek mythology falsely propagated, he did not chal­lenge its basic premises, and in fact even reinforced them.  The only thing he disputed were the fantastical stories told about the gods and the absurd infantile character of the divinity they portrayed.  But for Plato, there was indeed “another” world where the gods, whom he imagined were pure spirit, dwelt and acted.  His gods were contemplators of eternal ideas, and ruled the universe by them.[2]

Plato was different in this respect from his contemporary Zeno of Citium, the Stoic, who rejected any other world.  His “God” was immanent in the material universe.  Zeno sought to discover rational ways of living that did not involve preoccupation with what was going on in another, imaginary, world.

Plato’s “other” world was populated with different kinds of beings altogether — spirits.  He imagined they were minds with ideas, different from the dense stuff of this world, “matter.”  He found it strange that in this earthly world of matter there were human minds that use ideas to survive, grow food, build their families and their empires.  Ideas and minds are “spirit,” they didn’t really belong in a material world.  How did they get here?  The original human, he conjectured, must have been all “spirit,” and must have done something in that other world, by mistake or by malice, and as a result “fell” into matter.  Human nature as we know it, in other words, is not as nature intended; it is the result of a tragic misstep.  Humanity is the product of a catastrophe that joined two substances that were never meant to be together.  “Spirit” was exiled into matter as into a dungeon; and its true nature drives it to escape its place of torture and return to the world of ideas and minds from which it came.  All of human work, struggle and the social, political strife that seems to accompany us wherever we go, is explained as the effort to get back home to that other world — the world that the myths of the “gods” had so grossly mis-represen­ted.  Plato’s philosophy set out to rectify the false impressions of that other world created by mythology, and to set the correct course for “getting back home.”[3]

Stoicism was the other philosophy that vied with Platonism for popularity among the Greeks of that time.  While Stoicism had a non-dualist materialistic physics and cosmology, its views on these fundamentals are often glossed over.  Historians tend to focus on its ethics and spiritual program which Jews and Christians have always admired.  Its ethical views, however, cannot really be understood outside of the context of its cosmology.

… the Stoics, make God material. … the Stoic God is immanent throughout the whole of creation and directs its development down to the smallest detail. … It is important to realize that the Stoic God does not craft its world in accordance with its plan from the outside, as the demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus is described as doing.  Rather, the history of the universe is determined by God’s activity internal to it, shaping it with its differentiated characteristics. The biological conception of God as a kind of living heat or seed from which things grow seems to be fully inten­ded.[4]

Please note: the Stoics did not believe in the existence of two-worlds, nor any alleged “fall.”  There was no thought of another life after death.  Their ethical program had to do with how to live in this world such as it is, not how to insure “salvation” in some other.  Hence their “stoical” attitudes toward suffering.  What is most relevant for our study is that there was a deep affinity between Stoicism’s ethical goals and the message of Jesus of Nazareth, and both differed significantly from Platonism’s em­phasis on returning to the “other world,” and Christianity’s “life after death.”  For the Stoics, as for Jesus, as we shall see, the ethical act was its own reward … a good human life for the individual and for the community.

The word “stoic” originally referred to the porch (stoa) from which Zeno delivered his lectures.  But it has come to be used in all European languages to mean endurance in the face of suffering, and a cold, bloodless acceptance of the meaninglessness of life.  With such a negative assessment, it is no surprise that its metaphysics has been ignored by western historians, the majority of whom have been Christians.  But I would offer an alternative evaluation.

Stoicism tapped into ideas of an immanent deity that antedated Plato by a hundred years.  Plato’s innovation in Greek thought was the introduction of the notion of “spirit,” and with it a “scientific” basis for the existence of another world and a hope in immortality.  Thus the primitive Greek fascination with the world of the gods and their immortal divine-human offspring was made suddenly accessible to ordinary mortals through the possibility of “return.”   The promise of immortality tapped and unleashed the infinite wells of energy stored in humankinds conatus — our “denial of death” the corollary of the drive to survive.  Platonism displaced the wisdom of stoicism and eventually gave it a disparaging label because the human “denial of death,” a force as irrational as it is insuppressible, was served by it.  The conatus, our blind physical irrepressible thirst for existence, resident in every cell of our body and oozing from every pore, was fatally seduced by Plato’s vision, and western civilization as we know it, was the fruit of that seduction.

Christianity, I contend, was a subset of that generalized hellenistic enthusiasm — the “movement for immortality” — called forth and spread throughout the mediterranean world by Plato.  Christians rejected the simple “stoic” wisdom of Jesus’ one-world Jewish message and, following Plato’s vision, transcendentalized it and Jesus with it.  Christianity represented the same preference for the fantasy of life after death as the displacement of Stoicism by Platonism.  They were really both part of the same phenomenon.  Christianity is Platonism in symbolic form.

One-world vs. two-worlds

Plato’s theory of the “fall” was consistent with his view of the two-worlds.  But once you assert the exis­tence of another world and the human destiny to return there, you necessarily create an ethos that is directed by and to that other world.  This entails some unavoidable consequences:

Revelation.  There has to be some way of finding out what you need to do to get there.  By defini­tion, since these worlds are not only separate but diametrically opposed, the requirements for entrance will not be readily available in this world.  At best, Plato thought, they can only be adumbrated, i.e., inferred from the shadows they cast.  The only real realities exist in that other world.  That means there has to be some kind of “revelation” from that world to this if we are to know for sure what we must do to get there.  This helps explain the endless western enterprise that we are all familiar with: of ascertaining exactly what “God said,” and what “God wants.”  We should remind ourselves of the centuries of conflict and rivers of blood spilt on this question.  It was inevitable.  For once you have convinced yourself that you know what “God” wants us to do, your toleration for other kinds of behavior evaporate.  “Knowing the will of God” not only destined Europe to endless wars in the centuries since the end of the middle ages but it also served as justification for colonial plunder, enslavement and genocide in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Ulterior motivation will always be suspected in a two-world system, because individual “reward and punishment” is an embedded feature of that structure.  Appeal to individual self-interest cannot be avoided.  Jesus’ moral program, however, was opposed to self-interest.  It was not based on reward and punishment of any kind, nor any form of selfishness no matter how “spiritual” or refined.  A two-world system is inconsistent if not totally incompatible with it.  Much of what is paradoxical in Christianity — like the conflict between forgiveness and righteous behavior — can be attributed to this fact.  Once the influence of the “other world” is allowed to disappear, these anomalies tend to disappear as well.

In a two-world system the kind of compassion and consequent forgiveness that would characterize a “this-worldly” ethic like the one Jesus promoted, is always secondary to salvation in the “other world” and to loyalty to its master.  Human compassion tends to be treated as a weakness, a dispensable indulgence attributable to an excess of sentiment; it becomes religiously significant only when transformed into a “virtu­ous act,” i.e., when “performed” as a disciplined obedience to a command from “God.”  Compassion does not “gain grace” unless it is performed as a hard-nosed “self-interested” compliance-for-salva­tion.  In this dual system, Jesus’ program of forgiveness, was in fact re-catego­rized as an other-worldly “law” dependent upon the arbitrary will of “God” rendering it psychologically contrary to the message of Jesus even as it became efficacious for “salvation.”  “Obeying law,” which strictly speaking may focus on the same moral content, actually contradicts the ultimate point of Jesus’ ethos, which is the development of a new type of personality, a “new human being” with a new psychological identity that functions on a new set of emotions and motivations.  In a two-world system, we are faced with the strange anomaly of hearing that Jesus came to give us a “new law” which “commands” us “to forgive as God forgives.”  The incongruence here is significant and revealing.  Such a “command,” if Jesus were ever to have used the word, could only have been meant metaphorically.  For If it is taken literally, it utterly eviscerates the sincerity and primacy of compassion; it undermines the spontaneity of love and trust in God, and it is damaging to human autonomy.  Just how free and generous are you if you are ultimately, always “taking care of yourself,” gaining grace and building your nest in the “other” world?

All this serves to emphasize the real focus of Jesus’ message — to live humanly in this world.  To be fully and deeply human, he said, one had to imitate “God” who gives … and forgives, gratuitously, spontaneously, unreservedly, generously, without expectation of recompense … just like a “loving Father.”  His message was very simple, much too simple, in fact, for the coercions we insist must drive all human interaction.  The complex theological labyrinths produced throughout the millennia of “Christian thought” can be understood as just so many elaborate fabrications needed to contain and subdue that sim­plicity … and, on the opposing side, the titanic efforts required to deconstruct them.

As far as moral content is concerned, a program of “living wisely on earth” — characteristic of one-world visions — will almost never work for “two-worlders” for the simple reason that the earth and living on it is not the object of their respect; its only value is as conduit to another world.  Attention, care and concern is necessarily directed elsewhere, and since the “other world” is a world of immaterial spirit, the focus will be on spirit: “God,” ideas, thoughts, etc, … not the human body of my brother and sister struggling to survive … much less the eco-systems that support us and all the other species with which we share the earth.  In a “two-world” system, the moral agent cannot really care all that much about life on earth and the organisms that populate it because matter is the place of banishment and frustration, soon to be left behind.  In fact historically the two-world view has caused people to despise earthly life and the human body.  It is hostile to a “natural morality.”

Objections

Well, then, couldn’t “God” mandate a “natural morality,” as in the traditional “natural law”?  “God,” in this case, would be requiring that certain natural human behavior be performed … not because it is humanly natural and good to do … but because “God” arbitrarily chooses to use it as a litmus test of obedience for entrance into a supernatural world.  It is a needless redundancy.  Moreover, such a “test” today strikes us as narcissistic.  It is not directed at what is good for us, but rather at God’s “need” to be obeyed.  Such a conception of “God” is psychologically infantile, not to mention philosophically impossible.  By even the most traditional standards, “God” needs nothing.

From another angle, it implies that we humans are simply not mature enough to do what is good and natural for ourselves and on our own without being “forced” under pain of punishment.  It leaves us children … and it doesn’t say much for the quality of “God’s” creative design if “he” cannot trust “his” creation to do what it was created to do without being coerced (or enticed) by a secondary mechanism.  Some argue that it was precisely Original Sin that caused this breakdown in “God’s” creative design, and therefore the “law” only became necessary after the moral impotence precipitated by the fall.   I would answer that the very “fall” itself, if taken literally, occurred when a “command” given before the fall, was disobeyed.  What accounts for such a use of law imposed on humans in the pre-lapsarian, allegedly morally vigorous state?  Similar to the permission given to the serpent (“Satan”) well in advance of any “fall,” it only makes sense as a narcissistic test.  And in my opinion that borders on blasphemy.  All this indicates that the Genesis account is neither literal nor even figuratively reliable as theology.  It has nothing to do with Jesus’ message.  It is no wonder he never mentioned it.

Furthermore, while such “laws” may happen to dovetail with earthly human needs, it is not essential that they do so, since they are being imposed as a test for the other world.  In a “two-world” system it is predictable that there will be many arbitrary “laws” with no moral importance whatsoever — let’s call them ritual or symbolic laws — like commands about foods, or prescribed prayers, or work on the Sabbath, designed as symbols of submission to “God” or whatever forces control the “other world.”  In short order, the two classes of “laws” — the natural and the symbolic — become indistinguishable as far as their significance for “salvation” is concerned, and what is good for people is put on a par with, or even made subordinate to, arbitrary symbolic practice whose only purpose is a display of loyalty.  It is easy to imagine, in such a context, that the ritual law may be given precedence over human compassion and the moral law.  And for many of us, it’s not a matter of imagination at all, but something that we experienced first hand, that skewed our values and seriously affected our lives.

To the argument that making natural morality into a “law” subject to punishment is only a first and educational phase (later to be superseded), necessary to begin neophytes on their moral journey … I answer that as a teaching tool it generates more problems than it solves.  For it creates a selfishness of a deeper and more refined type that is more difficult to identify and eliminate than the initial gross selfishness targeted by the command.  Since it was intended to be discarded anyway, there is no intrinsic reason that it be used even at the beginning.  Since it is only an educational tool, and doesn’t necessarily enter into the dynamic of the moral decision, “training” can always be provided by other methods less prone to encourage a selfish motivation.

Jesus’ Jewish reform movement

A case can be made for saying that the very object of Jesus’ mission and message was precisely to overcome the obstacles created by the “reward and punishment” mentality of a Judaism that — according to Christian claims in the NT — had come to be dominated by an excessive legalism.  While Judaism did not subscribe to the existence of two-worlds, it had been moving in that direction since before Jesus’ time.  But even without it, the Jewish belief that “God” rewarded or punished in this world, set up the same dyna­mic.  The contract — the “covenant” — between Israel and Yahweh had precisely to do with national prosperity in return for obeying the “law” which was heavily ritual.  It is not at all irrelevant that even Jewish theologians recognize this as a “phase” in the evolution of mature Judaism as reinterpreted by the prophets, who saw the contract as well as the law in more moral and mystical terms.[5]

Jesus was part of the prophetic movement toward a universalist Judaism built on love for humanity.  For him it meant following the example of God himself who loved without measure.  The problem for Jesus, then, was the rigid self-involved and uncompassionate religion that the fixation on “law” — the hope for reward and the fear of punishment — tends to elicit.  In steering his followers away from that pitfall, his message was directed toward compassionate behavior in this world, in a way that was not unlike the Stoics.  Recognizing this similarity, John Dominic Crossan, a Catholic New Testament scholar, claims Jesus’ movement was similar to a Greek philosophical program he identifies as a lived version of Stoicism popular in Jesus’ time he calls “Stoic-cyni­cism.”  He categorized the moral program and intentional simplicity of life of this movement as one of the diverse ways in which people respond to the world when salvation from evil is no longer the issue.[6]

Jesus’ entire program was about living with and loving other human beings here and now in imitation of a God of gratuitous love, not in response to a law, much less out of fear of punishment or hope of any reward other than the love itself.  Therefore it is not surprising that he did not point to the commands of “the Book” for the content of his vision.[7]  He elicited it from the hearts and minds of his listeners.  His teaching method reflected this; he taught in parables, which meant people had to look inside themselves to disco­ver what was right and wrong.  Clearly he thought his listeners were up to the task.  Correct conduct was theirs to discover and decide.  How many times did his parables end with a question … “which of these was truly a neighbor … a faithful servant …  a true son”?  He called forth the “law” written in their hearts, not on tablets of stone.  He encouraged attitudes of empathy, forgiveness, sincerity, humility, compassion, loyalty that may have been mentioned in the Jewish Torah and were certainly the spirit behind it,[8] but were not the direct object of a written “command.”  Jesus was so far from making morality an act of legal obedience that he even encouraged his people to judge their religious authorities by the standards they found in their own hearts.  “By their fruits,” he told them boldly, “you will know them.” 

Do not misunderstand .  I am not claiming that Jesus himself or the Judaism of his time actively rejected life after death.  But to them it was a controversial possibility, not “dogma.”[9]  Jesus ignored it at any rate and concentrated conspicuously on this world alone both for motivation and moral content.  I say “conspicu­ously” because it stands in such sharp contrast with the “other worldly” perspective of the Christianity erec­ted in his name.  Jesus was not a Christian; he was a Jew.  We have to remember that.  I contend that the program offered by Jesus, with no loss of integrity whatsoever, functions perfectly in a universe where there are not two-worlds … (but not without a loving “Father.”)  In fact, as it should be clear by now, I go even further and state that the insistence that there are two-worlds — and that human destiny is bound to the “other world,”is contrary to the spirit and focus of Jesus’ message.

In a two-world system we must always be ready to make whatever sacrifices are necessary — whether it be social peace in the village or harmony among nations, or even the welfare of our children or the health and well-being of our material matrix which includes our bodies — in order to “obey the will of God.”  Barbara Newman quotes Bernard of Clairvaux as saying: “It is the height of piety to be cruel for Christ’s sake.”[10]  With such a mentality we are not encouraged to listen to our hearts, and respond to our neigh­bor with empathy when she suffers, or a sense of outrage when she is exploited and oppressed as Jesus asked of us.  We are warned only to “obey God,” and, of course, those who claim to speak in “his” name.


[1] The primary agent of this penetration was Philo of Alexandria, a first century diaspora Jew whose books were widely known.  Diaspora Greek speaking Jews like Saul (later Paul) ofTarsus would doubtless have been familiar with his work.

[2] Plato’s Phaedrus

[3] Ibid..

[4] Dirk Baltzly, “Stoicism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/stoicism/.

[5] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, Harper Torchbooks, 1969;  cf Edward Greenstein, chapter “Biblical Law” in Back to the Sources, Barry Holtz, ed. Simon & Shuster, 1984 pp. 83-103. passim.

[6] John Dominic Crossan The Historical Jesus 1991, Harper Collins, p.72.  Cf the entire chapter 4, “Poverty and Freedom,”pp.72-88.  Crossan explores the striking similarity between the text and attitudes found in Matthew chapters 5 and 10 and attitudes of the “movement” of Stoic-Cynics of the Mediterranean.world in Greco-Roman times.  Crossan had hinted earlier that the proximity ofNazareth to the ancient Roman city ofSephoris, only 4 miles away, would suggest that Jesus was more aware of these non-Jewish Greek movements than we realize . His respect for them may or may not have induced him to include them in his program, but at any rate he seemed to share their values.

[7] The only “command” he cited was the paraphrase of the “Shema Ishrael” – Love God with your whole heart … and your neighbor as yourself.  Hardly a “law.”

[8] Edward Greenstein, op cit. says colloquially, “God is a mensch.” P.89

[9] Cf Jesus debate with the Sadducees on exactly this question: Mark 12:18-27, Matthew 22:23-33, Luke 20:27–40.  This was not a settled question in Jesus’ day.

[10] Barbara Newman, From Virile Woman to Woman Christ, Phila., U of PA Pr, 1995, p.81, cf Chapter 3 “Crueel Corage” pp. 76-107 passim.

Lost Words

Jesus has been poorly served by his followers …

 … at least the Buddha’s disciples preserved their teacher’s original sayings, and kept them separate from their own with the result that we have a fairly good idea of what the Buddha actually said and thought.  (“The Authenticity of the Pali Suttas”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 30 January 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org /lib/authors/thanissaro/ authenticity.html).

 That didn’t happen with Jesus.  Within a generation of his death “Christians” had taken his words and set them within fictitious narratives that gave them meanings that he never intended.  What happened?  Why did Jesus’ followers feel they could take his words and the Jewish tradition to which they were directed, and give them a new meaning altogether? 

 The excuse we hear most often is that the ancients were sloppy historians.  That is complete nonsense.  In fact, the incredible capacity for memorization among ancient and non-literate people is a well known phenomenon that belies any such excuse.  You can be sure Jesus’ words were memorized and remem­bered verbatim, and most certainly written down.  But they have been lost.  If the gospel authors failed to transmit exactly what Jesus said and did, there is only one reason:  they did not feel it was necessary or important.  The fact is that what Jesus said and did, and what he claimed to be, was Jewish.  Jesus’ followers who wrote the gospels in the generation after his death, on the other hand, were Greeks, not Jews.  For the Greeks to accept Jesus’ message as he gave it would have meant becoming Jewish.  The Greeks were not about to do that … they were interested in a religion that would replace the myths of their capricious gods recently “deconstructed” by the philosophers.  They adapted the man, message and mission of Jesus to suit their religious and philosophical projections.  This process had already begun when the gospels were written in the latter half of the first century and the early part of the second.  It is not insignificant that there are no Hebrew or Aramaic versions of the gospels, and all conjectured sources like the “Q” document or other collections of logia (“sayings”), which certainly existed, have been lost.  All the gospels are in Greek, and according to the scholars, show no signs of having been translated(This true even of “Matthew” which Papias claimed was based on Aramaic logia.  But, whatever his sources, Matthew’s Greek “reveals none of the telltale marks of a translation.” Geoffrey W Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (1959) Eerdmans,  p. 281). 

 The Christians who wrote the gospels were Greeks and they were convinced that they had “the real truth” discovered by Greek philosophy — especially Plato.  The Jewish Philosopher Philo of Alexandria encour­aged that conviction.  Philo lived in Egypt in Jesus’ time and  spent his life comparing the Jewish writings and Greek philosophy.  It was he who insisted that Judaism and Platonic philosophy were one and the same thing.  The Jewish “Book” (the Bible), he taught, was simply Greek philosophy re-packaged in the form of legends and stories for simple, uneducated, non-philoso­phi­cal people.  Both Moses and Plato agreed there was only one God, and so according to this school of thought, there could be only one truth.  That truth was expressed literally, factually, scientifically by Greek philosophy and allegorically, metaphorically, symbolically by the Jewish stories in the Bible.  It was philosophy and philosophy alone that had the real truth and expressed it in the proper words.  And the Greek Christianity created by Paul and “John” caught that football and ran with it.   So for example, they took the word “Messiah” and they translated it to mean Philo’s Logos, the first-born of all creation, the very “Wisdom” by which “God” created all things.  These were Greek philosophical categories; they were not Jewish and they were not Jesus’.

 The Christians who wrote the gospels reported what they chose to remember of what Jesus said and put it in terms that they believed and understood it to mean.  Through their “vision of faith” they “knew” the real truth, and the results are the mixed narratives we call the gospels.  They were primarily a re-inter­pre­tation of the Jewish Scriptures designed to justify Christians’ perception that Jesus was the Messiah, the chosen messenger of God, along with adumbrations of his divinity.  These were claims that Jesus himself never made; that fact is clearly in the gospels and available to the careful reader.

 What they did to Jesus, they also did to Genesis … and to any other part of the Bible they looked at.  They disregarded what the Jews thought, just as they disregarded what Jesus said and meant.  But it should not be a big surprise: Jesus was Jewish … and his Jewish message was ignored and his mission transcended just as the Jewish Bible was ignored and its meaning transcended.  The Greeks were not interested in Judaism; they had the “truth” in Platonic philosophy, and integrated everything they found into its worldview.

 The modification of Jesus’ message was inchoate in the first generation after his death; but it was just the beginning.  The subsequent three centuries of the historical development of Christianity were a clear example of the unfettered process whereby “memes” evolve.  (“meme” is a currently popular term that refers to a cultural unit, like an idea or a social value or practice.  The way “memes” change and grow in society is similar to living organisms and genes which evolve by natural selection.  It was coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene 1986)  Greco-Romans took Jesus’ words as they had received them, already adapted by the gospel accounts, and wrapped them in ever more culturally appropriate doctrinal packaging and ritual practice.  It was nothing less than the superimposition onto Christianity of the social stratification, authority requirements, religious prejudices and philosophical assumptions of the Greco-Roman world.    

That transformation continued until Christianity became Catholicism — the official religion of the Roman empire at the beginning of the 4th century.  That was the event that put an abrupt end to its spontaneous evolution.  From that point forward Christianity became subject to the standardization and codification imposed by its new imperial managers.  But that did not mean a return to its roots in Jesus’ Judaism.  The changes that had already taken place were the very things that made a once threatening anti-imperialist Christianity attractive to the emperors, and any changes allowed from then on would be carefully monitored by the Roman authorities.  What suited their purposes they set in stone; what didn’t they made sure were anathematized, and their proponents exiled.  The empire would not abide division or uncontrolled change in its state religion.  If the empire knew how to do anything, it knew how to control. 

This helps explain why the “new” Romans had to violently suppress Judaism — something they had never done before.  The Jews had proprietary rights to the Scriptures and their interpretation.   If the Christian revision of a thousand years of Jewish fidelity, reflection and scholarship was not to be dismissed for the usurpation that it was, Jewish claims and the tradition that supported them had to be eliminated.  The empire would not tolerate a challenge of that scale to the very wellspring of its “divine power.”

This is the “Christianity” we have inherited, and the version preserved in the Roman Church is its most representative and least reformed repository.  It bears little resemblance to the mission and original intent of Jesus, whose words, if not totally lost, were buried in the “inspired” text of early commentaries we call “gospels” — which themselves became buried later under centuries and centuries of “infallible” magisterium, dogmas and pontifications.  Unearthing Jesus’ original message at this point is a dauntintg archaeological enterprise.  Jesus was a Jew.  The Doctrine of Original Sin is one of the extreme examples of Christianity’s arrogant disregard for Jewish tradition as well as the worst possible reversal of the Jewish religious values which were the source of Jesus’ teaching.  It turned his “loving Father” into a tyranical Roman psychopath.  It displays all the typical penchants of Greek philosophical thought: they interpreted everything as the allegorical expression of their cosmological and metaphysical certainties.  Augustine’s elaboration of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin as the allegorical narrative of a Platonic-style “fall” is a standing contradiction of the traditional Jewish interpretation of Genesis as legends of origin and the goodness of God.

“Jesus died for our sins”

             “Jesus died for our sins.  That is the key phrase that came out of apostolic times.  It says in very few words what Christianity is all about.  The original witnesses to Jesus’ life and work were convinced that Jesus’ apparent defeat in his execution by the Roman occupational forces was not a defeat at all; it was actually the triumphant climax of his mission.  It was the point of everything he said and did.  Jesus spoke and taught, he consoled and healed through years of compassionate labor, all for the benefit of people; but in the long run it was all in preparation for an ultimate gift that “saved” us: his death on the cross — “Jesus died for our sins.”

            Two thousand years of Christian theology could be characterized very succinctly as the attempt to explain what it could possibly mean to say that “Jesus died for our sins.”  The Church’s insistence on the absurd “doctrine of Original Sin” is dependent on the equally absurd explanation of the significance of Jesus’ death as concocted by Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century and refined by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th.  This short piece will be an attempt to explain how that phrase, “Jesus died for our sins,” should be understood … but now in a way that eliminates the need for a metaphysical fantasy about the Garden of Eden, or the pathological projections about a narcissistic Emperor-god whose tantrum over being insulted is assuaged only by the brutal death of his own son.  There is plenty of “absurd” to go around.!

            I am going to try to show that for the community of his original Jewish followers, the death of Jesus represented a completely reversed understanding of the traditional Covenant — the contract — between Israeland Yahweh.  It was a reversal that had begun long ago, as early as the Book of Job.  It developed and deepened through the thinking of the prophets as they agonized over the breakdown of the Jewish state, the utter destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the humiliating exile and decimation of the population of Judah.  What was happening in the minds of Jesus’ friends was an awareness of what the entire history of the Jewish relationship to Yahweh was saying with an evolving clarity.  They were learning that the Covenant was not about national or personal prosperity in exchange for obedience or even moral righteousness.  The covenant was simply about love.  And just as Job decided to love God and accept that “God” loved him despite the overwhelming losses he was made to suffer, Jesus’ death represented the ultimate expression that the relationship to “God” was simply trust — no matter the context.  There was no guarantee of recompense whatsoever, and the clearest way to announce that realization definitively was to say that “Jesus died for our sins.”

Redemption.  This word is very interesting because it was not only applied by Christians to the death of Christ.  The origin of the term’s use among Jews seems to have been the ancient custom of dedicating the first fruits (and therefore the first born of humans and animals) for sacrifice to “God.”  To “save” them from literally being sacrificed, they were “bought back” (redeemed) for a certain price (in money or produce) paid to the priests.[1]  By Jesus’ time the term simply meant “to save” and was used to describe the definitive restoration of Israel’s national pride and prosper­ity by the Messiah.  Hence the two on the road to Emmaus lamented the death of Jesus, whom they had hoped “would redeem Israel.”  It was a phrase-label for the Messiah.  What the disciples learn from their companion is that Jesus’ death is exactly that redemption.

But … why “for our sins“?  What does “sin” have to do with messianic restoration?

            The powerful poetry in Isaiah 53 was sufficient to link Jesus’ death to the conquest of “sin” for his grieving and confused followers.  The Jews were already thoroughly convinced that their political degradation had to be due to their infidelity — sin — because Yahweh was faithful to the contract and that left only one possibility.  So “sin” was a generic concept meaning “infidelity to the contract.”  If “sin” was the exclusive reason for Jewish abasement, then the triumph of the Messiah had to mean the conquest and elimination of “sin” both by forgiveness and by a restoration of righteousness.  And again, this was the result of a reasoning process.  Even though Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah, the theme and significance of 2nd Isaiah were relevant to his message.  It is hard to imagine that he would not have had many conversations on that theme with his closest friends and followers.  In other words, what was dawning on them was a new understanding of the “contract,” the meaning of “restoration” and the role of the Messiah.  There was a definitive movement away from the traditional interpretation that it meant prosperity in exchange for moral righteousness and ritual compliance.  Isaiah 53: 4-5, like Job, was a critical element in that reappraisal:

 Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: upon him was the chastisement that made us whole; and with his stripes we are healed.

            I claim that the coining of the phrase “Jesus died for our sins” by his followers was actually a verbal tag — a kind of label — drawn from the logic of the evolving tradition and using the words of the prophetic text. It was an identifier, not a specific ideational notion.  It is saying, “Jesus is the man in Isaiah 53.”  It included  a vague sense drawn from the tradition of animal sacrifice that the sufferings of the Messiah somehow “atoned” for it.  There was no more depth to the phrase than that.

            So, my interpretation: The statement “Jesus died for our sins” was the conclusion of a chain of reasoning.  It was the application to Jesus of an interpretation of sacred texts.  It was a verbal formula — a use of traditional terminology that conferred a messianic identity. 

            So can we still use the phrase “Jesus died for our sins” in any literal or metaphysical sense?  No we cannot.  Then how does Jesus death “save” humankind?  For me the cross is an extraordinary symbol of the reality of the human condition.  I personally feel that Jesus’ unshakable trust in “God” in whose image humanity was created, despite the brutality and humiliation of his treatment by the occupational authorities and the utter defeat of his project, stands as a triumphant display of resistance to dehumanization in a world of exploitatiion and repressive control.  No death can be worse for human beings than knowing that they are being brutalized by other human beings, in an attempt to degrade, humiliate and dehumanize them.  I believe that the ability to assert the value of human life, even in the teeth of death’s most intolerable forms, is a challenge we all have to be prepared for.  The death of Jesus speaks to the human condition as does no other.  I believe this is the unique source of the perennial appeal of Christianity.  Jesus died with us, like us, and, by proclaiming that (his / our) humanity was sacred, for us. 

            Resurrection.  I believe Jesus’ close companions scoured the scriptures after his humiliating defeat — a defeat that had dashed their hopes that he would be the Messiah who would “redeemIsrael.”  This process is reproduced in the episode of the two followers on the road to Emmaus whose “eyes were opened.”   The stranger who joined them explained “all that the prophets had spoken … that the Christ (messiah) should suffer these things and so enter into his glory.”   I believe this was the paradigm of the “discovery” that spawned Christianity, first as a radical sect within Judaism and then as a religion in its own right.  And the core of the discovery was that “death was not defeat,” and that this insight was foreshadowed in Job and the prophets, especially Isiah 53.  It is not hard to imagine the impact the words of Isaiah would have on Jesus’ followers, who were intense believing Jews, convinced that their leader was the Messiah, who had just been executed in the most brutal and humiliating manner imaginable:

            I also believe that in saying that, the trope of resurrection was generated.  But it was derivative, an inference drawn from experiences like that on the road to Emmaus where a mysterious stranger temporarily joins a conversation, makes important insightful contributions and suddenly disappears.  Post resurrection accounts in the gospels are all of that surreal quality, including Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus.  I believe they fundamentally symbolize the new understanding that “the death of Christ was the redemption of Israel.”  The articulation of that insight was made in symbolic form, and resurrection was its primary symbol, but it was only a symbol. 

      According to the interpretation I am suggesting here, Jesus’ “resurrection,” by moving from being the metaphoric symbol of the “victory” of the cross to being taken as the literal “personal prosperity” awarded to Jesus for his fidelity, fatally diluted the intensity of the key insight: that the “contract,” i.e., the relationship to “God,” has nothing whatsoever to do with prosperity of any kind — in this world or the next.   In the Christian drama as written by the apostles, Jesus’ resurrection plays a role similar to the rewards showered on Job by Yahweh at the end of his ordeal for being faithful to Yahweh … even though there was no answerBut, that there was no answer … is the answer.  I see those rewards in Job’s case as an anti-climax.  Job loved “God” gratuitously … that was sufficient, from my point of view.  Job’s “story” should have ended there.  For in fact, despite any rewards, Job had to die at the end of his life, and would have to face the same questions all over again, and this time without any reward.  Jesus died trusting his “Father;” that in itself was his only reward.  Loving trust is its own reward.  There is no other answer.  Quiet as it’s kept, that is the answer to life. 

According to traditional Christian belief Jesus died knowing he would rise.  That is not credible.  If it were true, then I ask: what was all that anguish and isolation on the cross painted so vividly for us by the gospels … pure theater?   I’m sorry, I don’t believe it.  If the narrative of Jesus’ death bears any resemblance to what actually happened, then Jesus died not knowing he would “rise again. His trust was all he had.  What drove his fidelity was not resurrection but his relationship to his Father.  After eschewing “reward” in his preaching — he never offered it as motivation — would he have had recourse to it himself?  He knew his Father loved him; that was enough.  That was all he had; that’s all any of us have

      Literal resurrection introduces a false clarity.  The recognition that Jesus’ death was “the answer” did not in itself supply any clear outcome — like a guaranteed “resurrection.”  It was hope … an amorphous unspecified hope based on knowing a loving Father.  The only thing secure was the relationship to the loving father.   Hope that sees is not hope, said Paul.   I claim the metaphor of resurrection is an “as if” … just like all metaphors.  It is saying something like, “We should think of Jesus’ death as if it were followed by his resurrection.”  Its function is to evoke a relational response, not identify an actual, literal reality.  The relational response was trust.  Jesus leads us to trust our loving “Father” even unto death.  Our trust takes strength from his trust.  That’s how he “saves” us.   He died, trusting, to show us how to trust.  That’s what he did for us.  That’s how he “saves” us.,

            The apostles did not intentionally “design” this trope, this symbol, to mystify others.  No, I believe the symbol sprang into their heads spontaneously because “victory over death” means Jesus was not dead.  The fantasy that dominates the minds of all of us that have lost the person we loved most in life — that they can’t really be dead — took over their collective imagination.  Don’t be shocked and scandalized; it is quite common.  Widows have this experience all the time. The apostles saw signs of his living presence everywhere.  This is not a stretch of the imagination, by any means.  Combine an intense worshippful love for an extraordinarily good person … with a religious tradition that had apocalyptic expectations, and resurrection becomes more than a spontaneous fantasy or a psychological demand and it becomes a conviction.  Nobody was “lying.”  But his “believers” were caught in the throes of a collective delusion based on scriptural proofs, mechanisms of grieving, eerie coincidences, as well as a deep insight into the integrity of Jesus’ accepting death as he did.


[1] Gigot, F. (1911). “Redemption in the Old Testament”. In The Catholic Encyclopedia.New York: Robert Appleton Company. RetrievedMay 21, 2011 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12681a.htm