Like I said in my previous post, I have been reading some books about the third quest for the historical Jesus. This post presents the views described in N.T. Wright's book, The Challenge of Jesus. I am still working through these ideas so I can't yet say in detail what I agree with. So consider this post a kind of book report and enjoy!
I will start with a bit of older-than-first-century history so the proper perspective is all here. What makes the Jewish people Jewish? If we were answering this question about Americans, we might start with the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Documents which codify the shared values and origin of the country. Like Americans, the Jewish people have a founding document called the Torah. One particularly important story in the Torah is the Exodus. This is a story which is commemorated and retold over and over by Hebrews. If you aren't familiar with the story, the preceding link will help.
In addition to that deliverance story, there is another Jewish distinctive that I need to bring up. In Jerusalem there have been Temples that are the center of the organized religion. These Temples were to them more than just a symbol like the American White House, they were the place where they believed God lived among his chosen people.
Now we can jump back to the first century. Just as the Hebrews of centuries before were in exile in Egypt, the contemporary Israelites, as occupied subjects of the Romans, considered themselves to be in a spiritual exile. They longed for another deliverer (or Messiah) to drive out the pagans and rebuild the temple. Different groups had different ideas about how that would go down, but they all shared that expectation.
Jesus did not fulfill these expectations in the way everyone had surmised. But he still did so in his own way such that he gained a following and angered the authorities enough to kill him. So how did he do that?
One thing he frequently did is offer forgiveness to the down and out. Then he invited them for dinner. So what’s the big deal about that? At that time, the Temple is where you went for forgiveness. And respectable people would be happy to associate with you after you had gone to the Temple to get it. So by offering forgiveness Jesus was attacking the Temple’s reason for being. And by hanging out with the people he had forgiven he was demonstrating that the forgiveness was real. If you know the stories you know he was very conspicuous about the forgiveness business.
Jesus reinforced his actions with his parables. Example: the parable of the prodigal son... The usual modern interpretation is that no matter how long you have strayed from God, no matter how much you have sinned against him, he is ready and waiting to forgive you. Your "brother" may complain that the father is being is an enabler but the father of the story says no, I will always welcome my true child. In contrast with that interpretation, this story evoked the restoration from exile in the mind of a 1st century listener. Jesus was claiming to be bringing a new restoration from the Jews’ spiritual exile right then and there. The older brother represented the establishment's rejection of that restoration. He could not recognize it for what it was.
Just like with his acts of forgiveness, Jesus is claiming to replace the temple. Rather than rebuild the temple by adding a new wing or fresh paint, Jesus proposed that he himself is the new temple.
Towards the end of his ministry he became even more aggressive when he visited the temple and disrupted the operations there. He may have only stopped the operations for a couple of hours. But along with his words, the symbolism of his action was clear to everyone. He wanted to replace the temple with himself.
Let's look at another example: the phrase "repent and believe." Today it is taught that repentance is an action that takes place deep in the heart. That in some internal way we turn from our self-centered ways and instead focus our minds on God. But a first century listener would hear a request to give up his political agenda and replace it with Jesus'. Specifically, Jesus was talking about giving up on armed revolt against Rome.
The sermon on the mount levels a similar challenge. Rather that a nation that flowed from a temple authority, Jesus exhorted his listeners to become a new Israel that is the light of the world based on Jesus' words and the coming of his new kingdom of God. This new kingdom would not be established by military might but would be a turn-the-cheek, go-the-second-mile type of nation. In this way, Jesus fulfilled the Messianic role of liberation from Israel's oppressors. But just as with rebuilding the temple, not in the way the people had expected.
Before I finish up I want to have a quick tangent to talk about the concept that the Pharisees espoused a religion of law and couldn't stomach the idea of free grace. This idea gained steam in the Protestant vs Catholic theological battles of the reformation. Purity wasn't really the Pharisees' goal but rather distinctness from (and eventual victory over) the gentiles. The purity laws were a powerful symbol of that. As we know, Jesus had a different agenda and advanced it forcefully. Specifically, Jesus' agenda was to make a new Israel that was the light and salt of the world.
Similarly, the sayings about leaving family, dead burying dead, brother vs brother... These are often interpreted today as examples of dedication to Jesus over materialism. No doubt these ideas are subversive today. Even more so in the first century where the Jews tried so hard to be distinct from their pagan neighbors. At that time family and nation were paramount. These challenges then are not so much about a monastic lifestyle as they are giving up the land of Israel and their ethnic identity which was their distinct gift from God. It was no longer those things that made up Israel, but Jesus' new way.
Jesus' final new symbol was the last supper. Again evoking the passover, they celebrated God's deliverance of the new Israel through Jesus. And then he led the way by turning his cheek and letting the authorities kill him.
At this point, his followers abandoned him. Like many other would-be Messiahs, he was killed by the pagans that he failed to drive out. Yet the name Christ was still attached to him and his movement did not die. But that's a story for another day.