Reza Aslan’s Jesus the Zealot

It’s about time. A Palestinian Jesus has made it to the top of the New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists with Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Muslim writer Reza Aslan.

First off, let’s get to the question of whether a Muslim has the right to pen a critical evaluation of the founder of Christianity. Just as much right as Christians have to expound on Islam and its founder Muhammad. And Christians have been wide ranging in their evaluations of Muhammad.

At one end of the spectrum is fundamentalist evangelist Pat Robertson’s famous 2002 FOX News interview in which he declared that Muhammad was “an absolute wild-eyed fanatic … a robber and a brigand.” A more balanced (perhaps unduly favorable) perspective is expressed by well-known liberal commentator Karen Armstrong in her 2001 book Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet. And there have been numerous non-Muslim commentaries in-between.

A self-described American Muslim (of Iranian heritage), Aslan “found Jesus” and briefly converted to Christianity at an evangelical youth camp at age 15. As a re-converted Muslim, today he claims to be a “more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.” He concludes the book with the statement that “Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the man – is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”

Whether as an anti-American jihadist or non-practicing Muslim proud of his American heritage, any Muslim has as much right to talk and write about Jesus as anyone else. The fact that Reza Aslan is up-front about his biases and sympathies is so much the better.

Make no mistake about it. Zealot is one of the best-written, most coherent books about the Jesus of history and faith to appear in recent years. Three features of this book are most compelling:

1. Aslan clearly separates the life of Jesus the man from the post-resurrection identity of Jesus the Christ. Jesus is planted as a flesh and blood Jewish man within the chronological time span of human history. As much as any work to date, this book succinctly articulates the case for Jesus as a revolutionary – a Zealot – who sought to rid his native Palestine of the economically and spiritually corrupt practices of first century Roman authority and Jewish religious leadership. To the extent that the Christian New Testament presents the “kingdom” as more a heavenly than earthly realm, that is because the gospels and epistles are argued (by Aslan) as written after the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem. In effect, rather than tell the story of Jesus as it really was, Aslan claims that the goal of the post-70 writers was to rescue Jesus from a failed human mission by elevating him to a divine and timeless role as the Christ – the Messiah, one with God – for Gentiles as well as Jews.

2. Zealot is not shy about presenting apparent conflicts between various canonical and non-canonical accounts of Jesus life and mission. Aslan does a great job to accentuate rather than (the more typical Christian predilection) to smooth the edges as happens, for example, between the accounts of Jesus life by the three synoptic gospel writers or in the New Testament’s presentation of subsequent early church conflicts between Paul and James. Based on a detailed review of the gospel accounts, Aslan presents a compelling case as to why Jesus may never have viewed himself as Messiah and likely would have opposed his subsequent deification as Christ – on a par equal to God the Father.

3. Aslan rightly ends his survey of apostolic church authority with James the brother of Jesus rather than Paul the self-appointed missionary to a more receptive non-Jewish audience. As Aslan notes, “Paul may have considered himself an apostle, but it seems that few if any of the other (early Christian) movement leaders agreed.” Aslan suggests that James was getting the upper hand in this intra-church feud. Paul’s influence even with churches he started may have been on the wane due to James’ efforts to keep the diaspora in line with its roots in both Judaism and the Jesus of history.

James may have won the battle but lost the war due to his early execution at the hands of the Jewish high priest, the subsequent Roman destruction of Jerusalem and attempted obliteration of all things Jewish, and by a re-crafted Pauline message that played better to the culture and mythologies of Rome and its subject empire. In summary, Aslan writes that “it would be the contest between these two bitter and openly hostile adversaries (James and Paul) that, more than anything else, would shape Christianity as the global religion we know today.” Unfortunately, the shape Christianity has taken reflects less of the Jesus of history than the post-resurrection manipulations of Paul the self-anointed apostle.

Despite the outstanding presentation of Zealot, Aslan unfortunately overplays his hand – in at least two respects.

First, as the title of the book clearly implies, Jesus is portrayed by Aslan as a zealot – a term commonly associated with persons seeking to overturn the economic and political authority of the day, by violence if necessary.  However, the more detailed narrative backs off this claim. Jesus is one who has zeal for God’s house but is not necessarily of the same ilk as the numerous wannabe and actual revolutionaries of first century Palestine. Near the middle of the book, Aslan explains a bit more precisely that:

To be clear, Jesus was not a member of the Zealot Party that launched the war with Rome, because no such party could be said to exist for another thirty years after his death. Nor was Jesus a violent revolutionary bent on armed rebellion, though his views on the use of violence were far more complex than it is often assumed.

A panoply of writers over the last two centuries have attempted to pigeon-hole Jesus – variously as a mystic, charismatic, healer, do-gooder, preacher of prosperity gospel, social revolutionary, and now as zealot.

Jesus is all and yet none of the above. History has attempted but so far failed to pigeon-hole Jesus into any of these or other singular categories. While perhaps helping to sell books, Aslan’s appellation – as zealot – sells his work short.

When Jesus looked at this site, he saw Herod's temple. Did he predict its destruction in advance or was his prophecy inserted into the gospels after the leveling had taken place at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD? And did Jesus foresee the Muslim Dome of the Rock that would eventually take its place?

When Jesus looked at this site, he saw Herod’s temple. Did he predict its destruction in advance or was his prophecy inserted into the gospels after the leveling had taken place at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD? And did Jesus foresee the Muslim Dome of the Rock that would eventually take its place?

Second, like many critical thinkers and scholars, Aslan flatly states (without evidence) that all of the gospels are written after the 70 AD destruction of Jerusalem. He also summarily rejects John’s gospel as an essentially bogus work – supposedly written much later to further buttress Paul’s claims of Jesus as Christ – as God.

Nowhere in Zealot does this reader find any definitive evidence or explanation to support these conclusions, not even in the fairly extensive notes at the end of the book. If Aslan is in league with much of the current scholarly community, the overwhelming reason for this late dating appears to be the presupposition that, since no one can foretell the future, any gospel that predicts the destruction of Jerusalem must have been written after than before 70 AD. This is logic not based on rules of evidence but on personal and/or scholarly bias.

Admittedly, it is high time for fundamentalist Christians to consider what it means if the gospels were shaped (or spun) to reflect political conditions and realities in place long after rather than during Jesus’ actual sojourn on earth. At the very least, this suggests a spin toward the Jesus of Paul (Jesus as God) rather than Jesus of James (as messiah or divine representative of God).

On the flip side, commentators like Aslan either need to provide clear historically verifiable evidence for a post-70 dating of the gospels or to straightforwardly address the implications of their spin in view of the contingency that these accounts may well have been written earlier instead of later. If the gospel accounts were written by the traditionally ascribed writers with first-hand (albeit sometimes conflicting) information or direct access to those with first hand contact with Jesus, do the arguments of Zealot still stand? 

If Jesus really did prophesy the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, does Aslan still present a coherent view of the Jesus of history? Or do his arguments crumble?


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Archaeology Trumps Faith?

In preparing for development of new terraced condo units a few miles outside Jerusalem, construction workers exposed a nearly 2,000 year old tomb with a dynamite blast. The date was Thursday, March 27, 1980. A team from the Israeli Antiquities Authority was dispatched to begin excavation but ended work on Friday in anticipation of the Sabbath with the tomb left open and unguarded.

By Saturday sabbath, it was discovered that local children had entered the tomb, found skulls and bones and practiced their soccer skills. Bones were re-collected as best possible, and not much more was heard until BBC aired a 1996 Easter television special on this tomb with a distinguished list of occupants – a Jesus son of Joseph, Mariamene Mara, and Judah son of Jesus, among others.

As one reputed burial site of Jesus, the Garden Tomb (located just north of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate) today gathers pilgrims from all nations – seeking the Jesus of history as well as faith.
But what if the real tomb – and occupants – lie elsewhere?

As advocated by James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici in their 2012 book, The Jesus Discovery, this was none other than the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his apparent wife Mary Magdalene. Those skulls and bones kicked around by those kids in 1980 may well be have included those of the founder of Christianity.

The intrigue is deepened with two related observations from this find related to the ossuary of Mariamene Mara. First, the “Mara” appendage appears to be an honorific, or “Lady” in English as the feminine form of “Mar” or “Lord”. Second, DNA testing  has confirmed that the Jesus in this tomb was neither the son nor the brother of the Mariamene – leaving open for future research the possibility that the woman was his spouse.

Needless to say, this find and the resulting claims have proven highly controversial. Rather than dwelling on the merits of the archeological findings, this blog post focuses on the potential implications. What if this Jesus was the Christ, the Mary his spouse, and the Judah his son?

Second, the concept of the resurrection is turned on its head. Rather than being aloft above the clouds, we are left with a body decayed and bones still bound to the earth (though scrambled). We are left with a spiritual rather than bodily resurrection.

The Garden Tomb was “discovered” in the late 1800s as an alternative to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the more traditional site for Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. This multi-phase structure dates to the 4th century when it was pronounced the site of the tomb by Helena, mother of Roman emperor Constantine. But what if the real tomb – and occupants – lie elsewhere?

There is a larger question: what happens when science (or archaeology) provides clear evidence that either flatly contradicts or sheds entirely new and unexpected light on our current understanding of Jesus, his life and mission? Christians – of all stripes and persuasions – had better get prepared. Because that day is coming.

The worst thing the church could do would be to hide behind scriptures that are stretched well beyond their original intent and meaning. As when the Church declared the earth was flat, based on such scriptures as Isaiah 11:12 which talks about gathering the “dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.”

New archaeological (including manuscript) discoveries are coming fast and furious. Consider the James ossuary (or burial box) with the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Despite accusation and trial, defendent Oded Golan was acquitted on May 14, 2012 on the count of forgery, though he was convicted of illegal trading in antiquities.

The judge in the case was careful to  point out that, while acquitted of forgery, this acquittal “does not mean that the inscription on the ossuary is authentic or that it was written 2,000 years ago.”

If the ossuary is not a forgery, what is the likelihood that the Jesus, James and Joseph inscribed on the James ossuary are those of the family of Jesus of Nazareth? Statistical analysis conducted by Camil Fuchs, statistician from Tel Aviv University, concludes that there is a 38% probability that there is only one such individual named James with a brother named Jesus and a father name Joseph in the time frame that this ossurary was made (between 6 and 70 AD).

As cited by theBiblical Archaeology Reviewof June/Auguest 2012, there is an approximately 32 percent chance that two individuals had this combination, an 18% chance that three individuals had it, and an 8% chance that  four individuals had it – all at a 95% level of statistical confidence. In other words, the chance that this is the ossuary of James the brother of Jesus of the New Testament appears to be the single most likely possibility, though clearly not the only possibility.

From all of these recent archaeological finds, one thing is clear. While more discoveries have yet to be made, many if not most can expect to be dogged by controversy. In part, this is because persons of varied persuasions of Christian faith (or lack therof) are willing to accept only the evidence that accords with their own particular preconceptions. The logic is like this: consider only the facts that fit the existing bias.

And, in large part, the process of provenance – including finding, securing and interpreting complete rather than partial works – appears increasingly challenging. One has only to look at the recent tragic story of the so-called Gospel of Judas, which survived nearly 2,000 years largely intact only to be greatly damaged after its discovery, by mishandling and jurisdictional disputes leading to loss of much of the manuscript.

In some cases, there may be corroborating evidence within the the current canon. For example, the distinctive role that Mary Magdalene plays in holding the embryonic post-Jesus church together is hinted at by the gospel accounts of the resurrection, then given more substance with non-canonical works such as the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Phillip.

Like others, the authors of The Jesus Discovery have a ways to go to solidify their case for the authenticity and reliability of radically divergent interpretations – as with the hypothetical Jesus family. However, this or a similar find that challenges Christian orthodoxy will eventually happen – whether with something like the proof of Jesus and family or perhaps involving something even more seemingly far-fetched.

When it does, remember  that scripture never claims to be inerrant – only inspired. There is already substantial evidence of errors or perhaps even malevolent additions to the New Testament. A telling example is provided by the reference to the trinitarian concept of “three in one” as suggested by I John 5:7, first included in the canon, in part, as a Catholic overreaction to Martin Luther. Other examples of altered scriptural texts include the shortened and surprise ending to the earliest versions of Mark’s gospel, and the absence of the story about Jesus and the adulterous woman intended for stoning as described in early editions of John’s gospel. “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

The worst reaction for the Christian community – especially fundamentalists – would be to go into denial (as with the flat earth advocates of times past). Don’t deny; instead actively encourage new evidence and resulting truth-seeking.

After all, it was Jesus brother James who wrote that “faith without works is dead.” The Greek for “works” is ergon, meaning labor or work, both of which are demonstrated by evidence in material or physical terms. James could just as well have written that “faith without evidence is dead.”

Or the apostle Peter who wrote of the need to “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope (logos) that is within you…”

Bottom line, Christianity only survives, only thrives if our faith is bigger than our preconceptions. Only as we allow scientific evidence (as it unfolds) to reshape our misconceptions.

As Jesus himself is reputed to have stated (at least as quoted by the as-yet non-canonical Gospel of Thomas):

“Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will rule over all.”

Get Christianity off the ropes, out of the dark alleys and back into the mainstream – the marketplace of life in this frenetic 21st century. And that only happens as we continually “work out our salvation,” – a never ending process of faith interacting with works (and reason).

Peace & Conflict – A Western but Religious Perspective

Issues of peace and conflict sometimes seem to present a distinctly American face – but these issues certainly have roots that well predates our great American democratic experiment.

We go to a place that may seem a bit odd to some modern secular westerners. With religion – where the juxtaposition of peace and conflict is not only front and center but, seemingly, God-inspired. Let’s look at this from the perspectives of the three great western monotheistic traditions – of Judaism, Christianity and Judaism. Starting with the Hebrew Bible, at the very first book of Genesis, it doesn’t take long for conflict to rear its ugly head and in a somewhat surprising story.

Whether we are of religious persuasion or not, we all know the story. God gets through the business of creation in six days, creating humankind – male and female – in the sixth day. Then God rests. The serpent comes along who tricks the woman Eve who likewise gives of forbidden fruit to the man Adam.

God comes to visit, finds that the couple have sinned and, in retribution, condemns serpent, woman and man. To the woman he says: “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” No kidding; the debate rages on thru to today.

But God also lets the man have it, saying: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Conflict bears its fruits in the first generation after this couple as the oldest son Cain murders Abel. And so unleashes a world of conflict – ceaseless toil, famine, war.

Lest you think this tradition of conflict is found only within the pages of the Hebrew Bible, take another step forward of three thousand or more years– to the prophet Muhammed. The religion he founded (called Islam) simply means “surrender.” And have you ever known surrender to happen without conflict. Lest you have any doubts, remember that the very term jihad means “struggle.”

And in-between Yahweh of the Hebrew Scriptures and Muhammed, we find the founder of the Christian faith – one Jesus of Nazareth. Why did he come? To bring peace and good will toward men? That’s the Christmas story but not necessarily the whole story.

As a grown man, he offers a different take on his mission to his chief followers, his disciples, asking:

Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division!

Jesus doesn’t stop here but goes on to make sure now one misses his point:

From now on five in one household will be divided,
three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
Father against son and son against father,
mother against daughter and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.

Trash pickup inside Jerusalem’s Lions Gate – just north of the Temple Mount. First, just a little security check.

So to you baby-boomers who like me who rebelled against our stodgy parents in the 60s and 70s, be forewarned. It’s your turn as GenX and GenY step up. Only this time the fight is not so much over civil rights or women’s lib or a war in Viet Nam, it’s over who pays the bills – in a world that seemingly has lived beyond its means.

The Christian Experience. To this point, the discussion has been organized around the three monotheistic religions of the west. That’s because those are the roots from which our American culture sprang.

And for a few more moments, let’s dive a bit more deeply into the into the unique heritage of our country as a Christian nation. Whether you like it or not, this is a heritage that has shaped this US of A from the get-go. Whether for better or worse, I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Massachusetts was settled by Pilgrims and Puritans, Rhode Island by break-away Baptists, Pennsylvania by Quakers, Maryland by Catholics. And Georgia by criminals – but that’s really not a religion, is it? But it certainly adds to the color of heterodoxy.

To get a better understanding of how this shakes out, we need to go back a bit further in time – to the founders of the faith in the first century AD. Read on, you may find this discussion both interesting and troubling.

But here’s an advance warning! There’s probably something for everybody not to like. If you’re an evangelical or fundamentalist Christian, these thoughts – though preliminary – may push a few buttons.

If you’re a non-Christian who is wondering how this is at all relevant, watch out. You can’t escape this legacy, either.

So, let’s divide this discussion between the theology and the practice of conflict as experienced in the Christian movement – right from the get-go. And focus on just a few of the key players. At the end, we’ll talk about how this is relevant to the new normal in the U.S. today.

The Theology of Conflict. In the Christian (orthodox) New Testament, there are four books written about the life and teachings of the movement’s founder, Jesus of Nazareth. They are called gospels, which literally means “good news.”

Three of these gospels appear to draw from similar source material; yet when examined closely, each has it own spin. The fourth book is completely different. Examined closely, each leads in a somewhat different direction.

Looking briefly at these gospels one-by-one – it’s remarkably easy to capture the distinctive spin that each presents:

  • We start with the Gospel of Matthew – reputedly written by a tax collector for Roman occupiers of Palestine, a man who became a follower of Jesus. More so than the other gospel writers, Matthew emphasizes Jesus as a fulfillment of Jewish prophecy – as the manifest destiny of God’s plan for Israel. He goes so far as to re-interpret Hebrew scriptures, for example, taking a birth spoken of by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah and re-interpreting it as a prophecy of a virgin birth by Jesus’ mother Mary.
  • Next comes the Gospel of Mark. Mark was reputedly the young son of a wealthy family in Jerusalem. His gospel is distinctive in that it goes light on the teachings of Jesus, emphasizing action instead. And he portrays Jesus’ disciples as a group of dimwits, like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. His is the account of the resident skeptic or cynic. About the only people in Mark’s gospel who grasp his divinity and label Jesus as a Son of God are a demon possessed man and a Roman centurion at the site of Jesus’ death by hanging on a tree.
  • Luke’s gospel is the only one purportedly written by a person who never met the Christian founder. Tradition places him as a doctor who would accompany the apostle Paul on journeys to evangelize non-Jewish places in what is now Turkey and Greece. Luke is unique in his emphasis on social justice. In Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s gospel quotes Jesus as saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke gives this a totally different twist, with Jesus simply saying “Blessed are the poor.” For Matthew, the blessing is based on spiritual condition; for Luke it’s about economic and social condition. Luke is also the only gospel to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story where the social outcast and not the prominent leader helps a man who has been robbed and beaten.
  • Finally, there is the Gospel of John, ostensibly written by the disciple who was closest to Jesus in his ministry. John’s account is very different than that of the other three. In his version, Jesus doesn’t tell a single parable. The message of Jesus via John is more mystical and spiritual – focused on individual salvation and regeneration – being born from above. Of all the gospels, John’s Jesus gets up close and personal. With an intimacy that can be wonderful, awesome, mysterious, transcendent, painful. Almost like touching God.

So, what relevance does this have to America’s experience and to the new normal in 2011? Simply this. All of the same differences and nuances we saw played out in the early Christian movement are still at work today.

Think Matthew and prophecy fulfilled, like the sense of “manifest destiny” that propelled the United States to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to today’s concept of “America first” and to the notion of exporting the grand experiment of democracy worldwide. It’s the theology of Ronald Reagan’s America as a “city on a hill,” a beacon of democracy, market capitalism and hope for the rest of humankind.

What about Mark the skeptic? His is the gospel for America’s cynics – those who see the country going down the tube with every Wall Street businessman and banker a crook, every governmental action a form of conspiracy. Every man for himself (or herself). The gospel of the libertarian (or the survivalist).

Then there’s Luke. We can spot him as the house Democrat a mile away. An advocate for social justice. Or in today’s world, the one-time civil rights crusader morphed into environmentalist.

Finally, John. Are there those who view America in spiritual, almost mystical terms? Well, yes. Perhaps not too surprisingly, the spiritualists fall into two camps. On the left, there are the true socialists (in an earlier time known as communists). They are a step beyond Luke – who view saving the planet not simply as the right thing to do, but as a spiritual imperative. Who value salmon over humans. Or reducing carbon footprint over feeding the hungry.

On the right are those who revere “the invisible hand” of Adam Smith. The preservation of the free market no matter who suffers. Libertarians, gold fanatics and monetarists who view gold specie as having a power of its own. Tea party activists bent on destroying government at all costs.

How do we bring these divergent views together? In an economic and financial crisis such as what still faces the U.S., is there any reasonable hope of a new consensus? Before we can answer that question, we have to step beyond question of mere theology into that of practice.

The Practice of Conflict. To gain an understanding of how conflict has played out on the ground over the last two millennia, it is important to look at the experience of the Christian movement from the perspective of the early leaders after their leader departs the scene.

For simplicity, the initial focus is on the three leaders of the 1st century Christian movement. Even if you’re not religious, you’ve probably heard their names – Peter the stalwart apostle of Christ, James the brother of Jesus, and Paul the latecomer convert. Each plays a role that has proved pivotal down to our own time.

  • Let’s start with Peter. This is the guy who declared Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of history, the rock on whom Jesus then said he would build his church. Then just as quickly, Peter is referred to as Satan by his master. This is a disciple with a heart of gold, but who tends to act before he thinks. When his master is arrested, he slices off the ear of one of the gendarmes, then a few hours later denies three times that he is in any way connected with the now threatened group. After the death and reported resurrection of his Lord, Peter becomes the first spokesman and leader of the Christian church. But not for long. Somehow, he is edged aside by the next two arrivals on the scene.
  • So, then there’s James. He was certainly no supporter of his brother when Jesus was out teaching, but rather wanted to restrain him as a man who had “gone out of his mind.” Despite this antagonism, somehow James edges his way into leadership of the Jerusalem church after his brother has left the earthly scene. How? The New Testament provides few clues. However, a Jewish and later a Christian historian both describe how pivotal James became not only to the Christian movement but the broader culture of 1st century Palestine. He was called a “bulwark of the people.” The Jewish historian known as Josephus makes it clear that the murder of James sets in motion the events that would lead to the insurrection of the Jewish population and ultimately the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Rome in 70 AD.
  • Finally, there’s Paul. This fellow is the ardent anti-Christian who has a dramatic conversion experience and switches sides. He accounts for the bulk of the writings that today constitute the Christian New Testament. And he is the one that is remembered most as propelling this new hybrid religion into western civilization of the Roman Empire.

The man who writes the first history of this Christian movement – called the Acts of the Apostles – glosses over this transition in leadership and authority from Peter to James to Paul. He gives few clues as to the power struggle behind the scenes.

Fortunately, there is one eyewitness account, that of the upstart Paul himself. This Paul wrote a letter to a church in place called Galatia – central Turkey of today. In this letter that 1,500 years later would spawn the Protestant revolution of Martin Luther, Paul makes it very clear that deciding who’s on top is not just the stuff of prayer meetings. Like most politics, it’s really a contact sport.

The issue at hand is how to make this new Christian movement appealing to a non-Jewish audience. Paul thinks that the existing leadership, those who knew and were even related to Jesus have it all wrong. So Paul writes that he opposed Peter “to his face.” He goes on to say that those “reputed pillars” of the church – namely James, Peter and John – they “mean nothing to me.” And to make sure no one misses his point, in a fit of final exasperation, he exclaims that “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves.”

Reconciliation. So what do we learn from this experience that is now nearly 2,000 years old? How do these differences get resolved. Lessons learned from the first century would suggest two approaches – negotiation and compromise.

For negotiation, I turn back to the Jewish founder of the Christian movement, to Jesus himself. And to an encounter he has with a decidedly desperate but non-Jewish woman – from what is Lebanon today. This Canaanite woman begins the encounter by shouting at Jesus – demanding mercy and the healing of her daughter. But Jesus not only refuses to acknowledge the woman; his disciples also urge him to send her away “for she keeps shouting at us.”

Now Jesus moves from indifference to an attempted brush-off, telling her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” meaning not to a non-Jew like you.

She still doesn’t take the hint, but instead kneels down and begs: “Lord, help me.”

This time Jesus gets in her face saying “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the (little) dogs.” In today’s world this would be considered an insulting if not racist statement, especially given that the Greek term for “little dogs” can be taken as a more vulgar characterization.

But the woman doesn’t back off. In a great comeback, she observes that: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Game, set, match. At this, Jesus can see he has been outmatched. He has no choice but to relent, saying: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And so, instantly her daughter was healed.

So, what do we have here. Very simply – a remarkable negotiation. Conflict, dialogue, but no compromise here. The Canaanite woman gets what she has come for; Jesus gets a clear demonstration of what he wants – a clear win, win.

In contrast, with the early Christian church, it’s less about negotiation and more about compromise. After Jesus the founder of the Christian movement has left the earthly scene, the issue at hand again centers on how a person outside the Jewish faith can be accepted – inside the camp. Only this time the specifics relate to the Jewish practice of circumcision – an issue we have seen surface again in our own time (thought for ostensibly different reasons today).

This is the one and only time reported where the three leaders of the early Christian Church – Peter, James and Paul – find themselves in the same place at the same time at what is known today as the Council of Jerusalem. Peter is the man in the middle who had been blasted by Paul for his advocacy of circumcision for non-Jewish converts. This time Peter vouches for Paul, saying that cultural traditions should be set aside to bring more into the fold.

Paul describes his work at evangelizing new converts to this new religion, then the church leader James then steps up to make the final pronouncement – giving Paul what he wants not carte blanche but with conditions that involve other less onerous elements of Jewish law (like no idolatry, no immoral sexual practices, no eating improperly slaughtered animals).

This is not a win-win negotiation but a compromise where each side gives to get. And by Paul’s letter to the Galatians, it’s not clear that he felt any too good about the deal that was struck. And he may have even twisted the terms of the agreement to his advantage. But that’s a topic for another day.

And there are other voices – less heard but no less important to our understanding of the never-ending interplay between peace and conflict. Our world – Christian or otherwise – is defined not only by those who have been accepted as among the orthodox. Sometimes, those who step well beyond the mainstream have just as great an impact. For a modern example, think Steve Jobs.

Within the Christian pantheon, there are at least two enigmas – people who end up getting shoved off to the side for reasons that are not readily apparent. One is the disciple of Jesus known as Thomas. This is the guy known as “doubting Thomas,” who would not believe Jesus had been crucified and resurrected until he personally felt the nail holes in Jesus’ hands.

A person named Thomas or a follower of Thomas also wrote a gospel account of Jesus’ teachings. Called the Gospel of Thomas, it was never accepted with what became the canon of orthodox Christian writings. In fact, the manuscript of this gospel disappeared for over 1,000 years – with initial fragments again showing up in the late 1800s and a more complete manuscript in 1945.

Both of the contrasting but orthodox gospel writers Matthew and Luke record Jesus as saying: “Seek and you will find, know and it will be open to you.”Thomas offers a similar but revised account of what Jesus has to say. For Thomas, Jesus is remembered as saying: “Those who seek should not stop until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel and rule over all.”

Clearly for Jesus as author of this new Christian faith, the reconciliation comes through seeking. Each of us may come to a problem with widely varied perspectives, opinions and biases. But, if there is a process that can lead to consensus, it is by seeking the truth.

As the renegade, Thomas carries this further. Seeking and finding are not the end of the story. As Thomas says, finding is not the end all – its can be disturbing. But for those who stay the course, they will in the end marvel and rule over all. Ultimate redemption.

And let’s consider that other enigmatic and controversial figure of the New Testament story – one Mary of Magdala (or Mary Magdalene as she is more commonly known).

In all four gospel accounts of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, Mary is the pivotal figure in the period that runs through Jesus resurrection. While the details of each account vary, it is Mary and other women who first report Jesus as missing or resurrected. The other male disciples have a hard time believing. But Mary becomes the messenger to give hope and renewed faith back to the rest of the group.

It is John’s gospel that records a resurrected Jesus as saying to the Magdalene: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

There is a fragmentary Gospel of Mary that first re-surfaced in 1896 but was not published until 1955. This non-canonical account picks up the rest of the story – not told within the orthodox or canonized New Testament. In this account:

Mary stood up. She greeted them all (as disciples) and addressed her brothers: “Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be irresolute. For his grace will be with you and will shelter you. Rather, we should praise his greatness, for he has joined us together and made us true beings.” When Mary said these things, she turned their minds toward the Good, and they began to ask the words of the Savior.

From this early Christian experience, what can we say about the process of reconciliation. Three things:

  • Settling on a direction often comes only through conflict – and with those at the extreme ends of the conflict driving the solution.
  • From Thomas, we see the theory of reconciliation. Seek the truth, be prepared to be further disturbed, and then marvel at not only the insights but new direction that results.
  • From the infamous Mary Magdalene, we learn about the practice of reconciliation. The need to overcome fear and disbelief, and the importance of leadership in turning all participants toward a common understanding of what’s good.

Back to Reconciliation. So, we’ve come full circle – back to the question of how do we find peace amid conflict. For the capitalist, it may be for the non-human corporation to live to fight on again another day. For the politico as for the theologian, it may involve skills of negotiation and compromise. For the heretic – it is the ability to test and some times change the boundaries – to create a new paradigm – a fresh way of looking at the world. And as we’ve seen, some conflicts never die – they just morph into new and varied forms over time.

Digging Deeper? For a more in-depth review of this Christian heritage from the perspective of othodoxy versus heterodoxy, check out our full web site at