Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Family of Jesus and his Radical Movement

Reflections for the Twelve Days of Christmas 5

....and Mary pondered all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

What if we “post-critical” readers of the Bible considered that the Birth narratives might contain important historical clues about the origins of the ministry and mission of Jesus?

Granted, the stories in Matthew and Luke are heavy with symbolism and are clearly the product of careful, midrashic crafting, and contain amazingly miraculous events. That is not my concern, however. I leave all that aside for readers to consider according to their sense of God and the possible.

What interests me here is hints about the family and people they knew or encountered. Might these stories have deeper historical roots than modern sophisticates usually consider?

What I mean is this. What if Jesus were born into a family that was part of the “third force” in Second Temple Judaism, not part of the establishment of Sadducees and Pharisees who were represented in the Sanhedrin. This was the disenfranchised melange of messiah-expecting, sometimes revolutionary groups that ranged from the Dead Sea Scroll community on the one hand to the Zealots on the other. What if these stories are about a child who was considered, by that family and their co-religionists, a special lad—a ‘child of destiny’—destined for leadership? *

The first century Jewish ‘eschatological’ community

My first clue to this possibility came from pondering the verse in Luke where we’re told that the prophetess Hannah “spoke of the child to all those in Jerusalem who were waiting for the Redemption of Israel” (Luke 2:38). Who were these folks? The extensive scholarship now available about Jewish sects in this period gives a solid historical context to Luke’s comment.

Those “waiting for the Redemption” expected a wide variety of complementary and contradictory “redemptions,” all the way from a military leader like David to the descent in human form of an angelic redeemer; and there’s tantalizing new evidence that one expectation was of a ‘Great High Priest’ after the order of Melchizedek who would offer a once-for-all atonement for Israel’s sins.** The adult Jesus walked into a maze of archetypal images just waiting to be applied to him and his mission.

The stories speak of a mother who “pondered in her heart” some special identity for her son. Is that so implausible? She would hardly be the first mother in history to feel and foster in her child a sense of special identity and destiny—more especially so if she were one of those “waiting for the redemption of Israel.” Nor is it implausible that she dreamt some startling dream about the boy. After all, modern bookshelves are filled with tales of angel dreams, angel appearances, whatever one might think of such phenomena.

Jesus, errant 'wunderkind' of a movement?

If Jesus came from a family that already had a sense of being part of God’s move to turn Israel in a different direction, this would make a lot of sense of the family’s clear distress about the direction Jesus’ ministry takes. They feel he’s not exercising leadership the way they think he should, just as John the Baptist reportedly felt.

His mother is pictured bugging him to make a self-disclosing move at a clan wedding. (John 2:1-11). We’re told a whole party of “his own people” goes off to bring him back by force because they think he’s “beside himself” (Mark 3:21). And the Fourth Gospel pictures Jesus being taunted by his brothers for not declaring himself more openly. Might “they did not believe in him” be better translated “they did not trust him” (John 7:5), that is, to do things right?

Mother Mary, brother James and “the brothers” are certainly right there on the scene in the weeks after the resurrection appearances, and James puts himself forth powerfully as a major leader of the movement’s Jerusalem commune. They seem to have a stake in his movement.

Yes, the stories are patently loaded with theological symbolism, and influenced by who Jesus became and was believed to be. But Luke does claim he consulted “eyewitnesses” who had been with the movement “from the beginning” (Luke 1:1-3). ***

For my money, at least, these speculations make clearer sense of the adult Jesus’ reportedly strained relationship with his family, and demonstrate that, at age 30, he didn’t have a sudden “break” with a more normal childhood and young adulthood, but rather an evolving sense of how he might serve the God he had been told had special plans for him.

And, of course, such “speculations” have the added merit of actually hugging the shape of the Story the first generation of Christians told about the man and his birth.


* In fact, just such ‘child of destiny’ scenario emerged among non-establishment spiritual types in the early 20th century in India. The noted Indian spiritual teacher Sri Aurobindo was dubbed a ‘child of destiny’ and groomed to be the Great World Teacher of the Theosophical Movement by leaders like Annie Besant. In adulthood, Aurobindo broke with his handlers and struck out on his own as a less exalted spiritual teacher.

** See Margaret Barker, The Great High Priest

*** Ancient historians were likely more interested in the facts than some modern scholars seem prepared to believe. See the chapter on ancient historiography in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham. See also Margaret Barker, Christmas: The Original Story**