Sunday, December 27, 2009

What is Christian morality? Part 8

12:28-31 And one of the scholars approached when he heard them arguing, and because he saw how skilfully Jesus answered them, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ Jesus answered: ‘The first is, “Hear, Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord, and you are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul [and all your mind] and with all your energy.” The second is this: “You are to love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ [see also Matt 22:34-40, Luke 10:25-29]

Both of these ‘most important commandments’ can be found in the Old Testament [Deut 6:4-5, Lev 19:18]. The first reiterates what is evident throughout the earlier scriptures, that God is a jealous god, who demands lots of attention and lots of worship. The second is something of a commonplace. Some scholars have suggested that Jesus, or ‘Mark’, was merely echoing the teaching of the famous Rabbi Hillel, an exact contemporary of Jesus. Challenged by some wag to teach him the whole of the Torah while he [the wag] stood on one foot, Hillel provided a version of the golden rule: ‘What you find hateful do not do to another. This is the whole of the law. Everything else is commentary. Now go learn that.’

Some have argued that ‘neighbour’ here means only Jewish neighbours [certainly it does seem to mean this in Leviticus]. That’s to say, it was a call to Jewish solidarity. I don’t think so. To give him his due, Jesus seems genuinely to have reached out beyond his own community. This, I think, is brought out more clearly in the famous sermon in Matthew, as well as some important passages in Luke.

12:38-40 During the course of his teaching he would say: ‘Look out for the scholars who like to parade around in long robes, and insist on being addressed properly in the marketplaces, and prefer important seats in the synagogues and the best couches at banquets. They are the ones who prey on widows and their families, and recite long prayers just to put on airs. These people will get a stiff sentence!’ [see also Matt 23:5-7, Luke 11:43, Luke 20:45-47].

These remarks may have been directed at the Pharisees or other Jewish functionaries, who might’ve been compensating for their lack of any real power under the Romans by doing dress-ups and bumping up the pomp and circumstance, much as the Catholic Church does these days. The final comment about divine justice sounds more like retribution [and wishful thinking] to me.

12:43-44 ‘I swear to you, this poor widow has contributed more than all those who dropped something into the collection box! After all, they were all donating out of their surplus, whereas she, out of her poverty, was contributing all she had, her entire livelihood! [see also Luke 21:3-4].

This observation by Jesus is of course pleasing, but hardly original. As scholars have pointed out, they can be found in rabbinical, Buddhist and ancient Greek texts, and people make the same observations every day, for example on the disproportionate burden upon the poor of a flat tax, without needing to invoke Jesus or Christianity.

That’s about it for Mark, moral-wise. What follows is a passage known as ‘the little apocalypse’, in which Jesus, or ‘Mark’, gives his account of the last days. This is followed by an account of Jesus’s arrest, trial, execution and resurrection. Of course many Christians have drawn sustenance from a description of Jesus’s stoicism through these events, but it’s hard to see how his behaviour provides us with any specific moral guidelines. The stoicism of heroic figures in adversity was of course a commonplace long before Jesus came along, and it’s hard to see how the gospel writers would’ve gotten away with depicting him in any other way. Also, if we take the view that the gospel writers were inheritors of the eyewitness accounts of the disciples, it’s worth noting that the disciples dispersed after Jesus’s arrest, and they certainly weren’t eyewitnesses to his demeanour and remarks during his trial, supposing there was one. That part of the story is as mythical as the accounts of his birth.

Before going on to Matthew I should say that the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, though often divided among themselves, generally take only a fraction of the above [and following] sayings of Jesus to be authentic. Most of the sayings they believe to be the creation of the early Christian community, given a twist by the particular preoccupations and character of the particular gospel writer. For example, Mark seems to emphasise the weakness and obtuseness of the disciples, and often has Jesus castigating them for not listening, for not ‘getting it’, and for being concerned for their own status [eg Mark 10:35-41]. Matthew has a near-obsessive tendency to tie Jesus’s sayings and doings to Old Testament prophecies, for obvious reasons. Luke, generally assumed to be a non-Jewish author, emphasises good works and broader sympathies, as in the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son parables, whereas John, or the Christian community writing under John’s name, is primarily concerned with Jesus’s status as ‘saviour’. All the gospel writers are, of course, concerned to make claims for the significance of Jesus that he is unlikely to have made for himself. I haven’t been so concerned myself to separate an ‘authentic’ Jesus from a constructed one, partly because I’m sceptical about this being possible, but mainly because I’m looking at the impact upon Western moral praxis of every remark and action attributed to Jesus in the canonical gospels, regardless of their authenticity. In other words, I’m assuming that throughout the history of Christendom, until very recently, everything attributed to Jesus in the New Testament was taken as gospel.



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