World Religions 10: Christianity
Zoroastrianism’s influence was at its height as the Jews suffered under Roman occupation. The Persians were sometimes an ally of Israel against the Romans, Egyptians and other powers that wanted Israel because of all the trade that passed through between the Mediterranean (Egypt, Greece, North Africa, Rome) and Asia along the silk road. As we learned two weeks ago, Zoroastrians believe that a savior (the Saoshyant) had been prophesied who would restore the kingdom of the righteous by fighting a final battle with the forces of good against Ahriman and the forces of evil. This idea grew in popularity under the occupation, and the Jews increasingly incorporated concepts of the Messiah and Satan into their beliefs. Many movements arose around many figures at this time, some who claimed to be the Messiah, some who were called the Messiah by their followers, and others who said they were not the Messiah but simply announcing the coming of the Messiah (like John the Baptist was doing as Jesus came onto the scene).
Out of this changing cultural complex, the religion of Christianity was born. ‘Jesus’ is the Roman or Latinized name of Yoshua (the modern name ‘Joshua’ of the Ashkenazi Germanic Jewish heritage). Yoshua means ‘leader’, which leads some scholars to wonder whether this was his name or simply the title his disciples would have called him.
What sort of leader was Jesus? This question opens up one of the central issues of Christianity. Jesus is considered both the Messiah and a wise teacher (particularly of ethics). If you recall, we spoke of three paths in Hinduism: devotional worship, asceticism, and knowledge. It is clear to you, I hope, that modern Christian worship is quite similar in form to Bhakti devotional worship. However, Jesus also taught knowledge (and I would say Psychology, as I would of other figures), and by fasting in the desert he also qualifies as an ascetic (like the Jains, consider that John the Baptist lived in the deserts and ate locusts and wild honey). The central split in interpreting the meaning of Jesus and the tradition seems to fall between Bhakti devotional worship and Jnana acquisition of knowledge. The majority of traditional Christians believe that Jesus is to be worshiped as identical with and incarnation of God, and that it is this devotional practice that merits the individual. Some Christians, including ‘heretical’ offshoot groups, Deist scientists (such as Newton) and many liberal Christians (such as Unitarians), believe that Jesus was a teacher and his parables teach us about life and the mind. The first group believe that the resurrection (returning to life from death) of Jesus is what allows one to be resurrected oneself, the second group believe that the teachings and parables of Jesus allow one to lead the good life and obtain the ‘mind of Christ’. Of course, there is no reason to be simply one and not the other if you are a Christian, but historically and culturally we can see groups branching off in these two directions in many places and coming to similar arguments and issues.
I have given you the first part of the Gospel of Matthew to read, including Jesus preaching ethical teachings. In your reflections you can respond to one of these passages (or any other part of the reading or lecture you wish).
The Gospel of Matthew is one of the four Gospels that was put into the New Testament along with other books at the Council of Nicaea (“Nice-ee-ah”) in 325 CE. Many do not know that there were many textual accounts of Jesus at that time in many diverging traditions. The four books that are the Gospels were selected out of the pile because they agreed with each other and they supported the doctrines of the Roman Church against other Christianities (particularly the Arians). Constantine, the Roman emperor who called the Council of Nicaea together, said that anyone professing to be a Christian must submit to the Council’s decision. Many Christians who believed in alternative texts and traditions fled. In fact, there are Nestorian Christians in China today who trace their ancestry back to this event. There will be more on the Roman Church and alternative Gnostic Gospel texts in a bit, but first we need to talk about Jesus and the pre-Roman Christians.
The Life of Jesus (in a Mustard Seed)
The reading selection I have given you covers the birth of Jesus to Mary, who is said to have been impregnated by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the third being of the Christian trinity along with God and Jesus. Interestingly, the Holy Spirit in this passage and others (like the dove at Jesus’ baptism) appears to be the mediator between Jesus on Earth and God in Heaven, but in later Medieval Christianity Jesus is assigned this role as mediator between God in Heaven and the Holy Spirit that dwells in Christians on Earth. The trinity remains the same, but the middle role is increasingly given to Jesus and not the Holy Spirit. Also, in 18:23, notice that the text quotes Isaiah the prophet as proof that Jesus is fulfillment of the scripture. Jews do not make the same connections that Christians do (most often from the book of Isaiah, in fact) between these passages and the life of Jesus, reading the same prophesies in different ways.
The reading selection also covers the Three (Zoroastrian) Kings who come following a star (Zoroastrian Astrology) to pay homage to the Messiah (Saoshyant). When King Herod gets angry, Jesus and family flee to Egypt. For Gnostic Christians and later mystical seekers the fact that Jesus spends his childhood in Egypt, in the land from which Moses got his magic, is deeply significant. First, the Zoroastrians come to Jesus, and then Jesus goes to Egypt. Persia and Egypt were the two great centers of knowledge and scholarship in these times.
Jesus is prophesied by John the Baptist, who then baptizes him (being dunked under water as starting a new converted life was earlier a practice of Egyptians who worshiped Osiris as a personal savior). Then Jesus goes into the desert to be ascetic and get tempted by Satan (Zoroastrian Ahriman). Jesus beats the Devil, and then goes out to preach ethics to the people, cure diseases and gather his disciples. While these healings are presented as miraculous, it is important to remember that the physician or doctor was at the time the cosmologist, the one who knew how the individual fit in the orders of the cosmos. Jesus’ healings show that he has supreme knowledge of the cosmos and human individual.
Just after Jesus calls his first disciples, the text says that his fame spreads “throughout Syria” (23:24), then Israel and “beyond”. In fact, while the Gospels sometimes present things as if everyone in Israel was converting and following Jesus, Christianity did not spread in Israel but rather in Syria and Greece, after which it spread to Rome and then Europe. There remain today Palestinian Christians who trace their ancestry back to Jesus’ time, but this group has always been a minority in the land. Just like with Buddhism, Christianity was to become the dominant religion in the next land over (and the next and the next, considering that Europeans get their Christianity through Greece and then Rome). While many think that the Roman Catholic Church is the original Christian Church, this never ceases to annoy Syrian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians.
With chapter 5 we have the Beatitudes and the start of Jesus preaching a “fulfillment of the law” that lasts through chapters 6 and 7 to the end of your reading selection. Jesus is here giving ethical teachings that both compliment and contradict the older tradition, the state and situation with which the Jewish people were increasingly becoming frustrated. According to much of the Old Testament/Torah books God rewards faith and punishes the wicked, but in the time of Jesus righteous people were suffering under oppression for no perceivable reason and many were asking themselves why. The Zoroastrian teachings of a coming savior and battle that would even the score helped to explain why there is great evil and motivate people to overcome that evil. Consider the Beatitudes, which say that the one who is cursed on Earth is blessed in Heaven. The traditional view says that those who are righteous will be blessed by God on Earth, but to many this was simply not happening around them. Jesus asks his audience to drive the past teachings deep on an individual level in a way that he says fulfills the teachings (5:17) but which also got him in trouble for contradicting the old traditions and ways according to the authorities. This is what makes the content of chapters 5-7 so interesting and complex. Jesus says (5:12) that only if you pass the authorities in merit will you be blessed, which contradicts the traditional view that one is to look up to the authorities as the role models to follow, as the blessed ones to imitate (more on this with Gnosticism in a bit).
The best example of this is 5:38, where Jesus overturns the Torah/OT teaching of ‘Eye for an Eye’. Jesus is arguing that one should not balance evil with evil but rather evil with good, but he can not help but contradict the older teaching. Just after this, he says famously, ‘Love your enemies’, saying that this contradicts the typical and traditional practice (loving the authorities and hating the enemy).
In 6:19, Jesus gives us a teaching we already found in Daoism, that storing up worldly goods puts one in a situation where one will have it taken away, but if one stores up heavenly (mental, spiritual) treasure one can never be robbed.
Following this are some good passages where Jesus encourages clear vision and knowledge, saying ‘the eye is the lamp of the body’, and then, ‘Do not judge so that you may not be judged…remove the obstruction from your own eye’. I personally have always seen this as the deepest message of the text, and I continue to be inspired by it. Jesus continues with ‘Knock, and it will be opened to you’ which encourages discovery and seeking truth beyond one’s judgments (parallel to the cleansing of one’s own eye). This is followed by the ‘Golden Rule’, which we have seen before in Confucius.
At the end of all of this, (7:28) the crowd is astonished at his teachings as they had authority but not the authority of those they had heard before.
The early Christians were persecuted in the Roman Empire until the time of Constantine when Christianity became the official religion of the empire. Unfortunately, they then proceeded to persecute other religions and groups of Christians who did not adhere to the four gospel texts and orthodox creed (all this laid down at Nicaea, as said above). Until this day, the Syrian Orthodox Church has views that Roman Catholicism considers to be heretical, even thought the Syrian Church has indeed the fact that they were around first.
One of the groups increasingly recognized today were the Gnostics, a term which does not describe a single group as much as many groups that all shared similar beliefs and unorthodox Gospel texts. Remembering the split mentioned above about devotional worship vs. seeking knowledge, the Gnostics saw Jesus as teaching individuals to rise above the traps of judgment and worldly goods into a higher existence on Earth (obtaining the mind of Christ). Many Gnostics taught that the god of the Torah/OT is evil (a Satan or Ahriman figure), and the god of Jesus is the true god which is overturning the evil deception of the lower god. Notice how Jesus ‘fulfilling’ yet contradicting can lead to this understanding. The Gnostics said, ‘look how in the tradition God says to kill people, but now through Jesus God says love everyone and turn the other cheek’, and radically rejected the Old Testament as lies. Notice also that this is not the way the Churches taught the Old Testament, rather that Jesus fulfilled the Old and brings the New.