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The Hidden Jesus – D. Spoto

October 26, 2015

THJI have to admit that I purchased this book by mistake. I had mistaken the author for Angelo Spoto who is a Myers Briggs expert.

The author is a biographer though he contrasts the gospels with what we know regard as ‘biography’. He sorts out midrash from possible ‘fact’.

As a Roman Catholic, he is only just catching up with what liberal protestants have been saying for a century.


As for the family’s precipitate journey to Egypt and their residing there for, it seems, two years—a period to which no reference is made anywhere else in the New Testament—this, too, is very likely Matthew’s religious re­flection, for it is incompatible with Luke’s account of the peaceful, une­ventful return from Bethlehem to Nazareth. More to the point, the slaughter of Jewish babies (a horrific act supposedly decreed at the time of Jesus’ birth and impossible for Herod to hide, says Matthew) is not even alluded to in the writings of Josephus, who documents, usually with glee­ful relish, the king’s every reprehensible deed. Especially during the last years of his reign, Herod treated many people appallingly—it is all the more odd, therefore, that Josephus would have made not even the vaguest reference to Herod’s atrocity against the children of Judea.

Two words of Luke’s nativity account (with no parallel in Matthew’s) are often ignored, but they are full of meaning. When the shepherds learn of the birth of Jesus, they are keeping watch over their flocks “by night.”

The background for this small detail is the ancient Hebrew experience of God’s saving act in their history. On the first Passover night, when God acted to save His people from destruction by liberating them from Egyptian slavery, He sent His omnipotent, salvific word—the “agent” of the divine judgment: “While gentle silence enveloped all things,” we read in the Wisdom of Solomon, “and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful word leaped down from heaven, from the royal throne.”

Jesus’ birth at night thus marks the moment of God’s ultimate “leap” from obscurity to full disclosure. And his birth, life and death are (in the words of Ignatius of Antioch, writing at the end of the first century) “resounding mysteries, wrought in the silence of God.” A “mystery,” it is worth pointing out, is not something infinitely unknowable or forever incomprehensible—it is, quite the contrary, something always to be fur­ther grasped, more deeply known. To put it another way, a “mystery of God” is something of the divine that knows and grasps you and me, that invites us into the life of God.

Good old Ignatius of Antioch: he knew something of the “silence of God,” which speaks more loudly that any human speech or music or noise. Perhaps he had in mind the words of the New Testament’s Letter to the Colossians, which referred to “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed” to those who make themselves accessible to God’s whisper—those who heed God in silence. This deserves some reflection, for the moments when God acts in history on our behalf, and the moments in which we reach out to Him, seem to occur mostly in silence.

Human discourse and writing about God and the things of God—even the best of it, the Scriptures held sacred by Jews and Chris­tians—are always inexact analogues, precisely because they are expressions limited by the specifics of culture. However necessary as a guide for faith, the Bible itself represents the attempts of human beings to express what is finally inexpressible: the identity, the nature, the meaning of God for the world. Behind the words are experiences that (faith in­sists) were manifestations of God within history. But the experiences occurred, were understood and were perceived as meaningful in si­lence—just as their meaning is plumbed by us in silence today.

In every case, human discourse is less clear and less creative than the silence of God. “While gentle silence enveloped all things,” God made Himself known. And so He continues to do. “The Lord is in His holy temple,” announced the prophet Habakkuk. “Let all the earth keep silence before Him.”

One of the many elements in Jewish life that varied according to geography was the issue of sexual relations after the betrothal. In certain parts of Judea, a betrothed couple could consummate the relationship during this year. But in Galilee, the virginity of the bride was customarily preserved until her formal entry into her husband’s home. A year after the betrothal, another ceremony was held for the typical Jewish couple, after which the girl was fully transferred from her father’s power to her husband’s. The groom then took the bride home, and he assumed full financial and legal support for her.

it is interesting to cite the staunchly conservative Roman Catholic theologian Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, the prelate who presides over the Church’s official teaching office: “According to the faith of the Church, the Sonship of Jesus does not rest on the fact that Jesus had no human father: the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity would not be affected if Jesus had been the product of a normal human marriage [italics mine]. For the Sonship of which faith speaks is not a biological but an ontological fact, an event not in time but in God’s eternity. The con­ception of Jesus does not mean that a new God-the-Son comes into being, but that God as Son in the man Jesus draws the mature man to Himself, so that He Himself ‘is’ man.”… Even the Roman Catholic Church, which more than any other tradition carefully artic­ulates its belief in dogmas, has strongly warned Catholics against inap­propriate considerations of the biological aspects of the virginity of Mary. Rome has also insisted that emphasis be placed on the religious—not the anatomical or gynecological—implications of the teaching.

the nonbiblical idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Contemporary scholars—even Catholics—who insist that “brothers and sisters” means just that, and that therefore Mary could hardly have been a perpetual virgin, have not, it should be noted, ever been officially denounced or condemned by Rome. More to the point, the New Tes­tament has a Greek word for “cousin” (anepsios), but when the siblings of Jesus are mentioned (especially by him), the Greek words for “broth­ers” and “sisters” (adelphoi, adelphai) are calmly employed.

There is not one example in the New Testament of the word for “brother” meaning “cousin” or “stepbrother.” That stretch of linguistic fancy did not occur until the fourth century, when it was thought un­seemly for Mary ever to have had other children, much less sexual re­lations. The matter has been neatly summed up by Jerome Neyrey: “No linguistic evidence warrants our interpreting Gospel passages about Je­sus’ brothers and sisters as his cousins. ‘Cousins’ of Jesus, when noted, were called just that, ‘cousins,’ not ‘brothers.’ Therefore [New Testa­ment] authors apparently understood Jesus’ ‘brothers’ as blood brothers, not as ‘cousins’ or ‘stepbrothers.’ . . . The evidence for ‘stepbrother’ is merely legendary.” Neyrey’s position, quietly held by numerous other Catholic theologians and exegetes, has not deprived him of his status as a Jesuit priest or as a professor of New Testament at Notre Dame Uni­versity, which is as about as Catholic an institution as one might find.

for the intimate life of Mary and Joseph: that is no one’s business st theirs, and of it we have no record. To presume that Mary took a vow of virginity, as if she were a nun, is to fantasize—and certainly to pose something very un-Semitic on a Jewish girl of that time.

On the matter of Gospel truth, even the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Biblical Commission—a papal organization not known for seizing the fashionable viewpoint or for issuing wildly liberal state­ments—has for decades taught that the Gospels must be carefully stud­ied according to the literary forms and norms of the time when the documents were created. The great encyclical letter of Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, issued in 1943, first opened the door to Scripture scholarship even among Roman Catholics. One says “even” because as late as the first third of the current century, Rome viewed with suspicion and sometimes condemnation virtually any reading of Scripture that had taken into account the rich discoveries of language, archaeology, history and science in the last hundred years.

Then as now, the rich were not the majority of people. John’s call was primarily to the powerful few who affected the lives of everyone—the aristocrats whose lives were bathed in luxury, who despised the common folk, kept slaves and believed they were sufficient unto themselves. The nearly one million inhabitants of first-century Palestine (about seventy percent of them Jews) were a heterodox aggregate with widely divergent creeds and practices. Mostly they were the anonymous masses: since the economic base of Palestine was agriculture, most workers were peasant farmers, eking out a livelihood from the recalcitrant soil, cultivating wheat and barley, vines and fruit trees, olives and honey. Between the multitudes of indigent poor and the few rich was a very small number of middle-class citizens, primarily tradesmen—stonecutters, masons, woodworkers, fishermen. But the typical citizen was not a wealthy or even a comfortable man; he was a day laborer. Women, of course, had no rights at all and careers were forbidden to them.

Everywhere could be seen the castaways of society—beggars, cripples, all sorts of diseased people, the blind and the insane wandering the streets and the poor elderly, which meant those over forty-five or so; most people did not survive to that age. Many pregnant women did not sur­vive, either, and young people died in agony from appendicitis or fevers or paralysis; children suffocated with asthma; people were blinded by cataracts and sandstorms; the ravages of scurvy and beriberi were pan­demic, and everyone was subject to serious vitamin deficiencies. Broken bones became deformed, useless limbs; serious blood diseases and death often resulted from infected wounds; and contagion was widespread, as were weakness, malnutrition, nervous diseases, and brain and neurolog­ical disorders. All sorts of skin problems, burns and eczema were clas­sified with the dreaded leprosy, which was widespread and usually regarded as a sign of God’s wrath (as was the illness of Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, in the Old Testament). Little could be done for most injuries except scraping or lancing wounds, preparing poultices made of crushed fruit, or applying herbs, roots or a mixture of oil and wine.

With no refrigeration for food, illness and poisoning were common; water was tainted, and dysentery, malaria and typhoid fever were com­mon. Of course, plumbing was unknown, and raw sewage and human waste flowed in open gutters through streets and alleys. To guard against the pattern of nightly theft of livestock, animals were usually brought indoors and kept with the family, and the unavoidable filth and disease were impossible to control. Death was a brother in every household: most children were dead before their third birthday. There were very few pleasures to be had in life, and many needs to be met. A person of good will must have felt overwhelmed.

Yet there was no sense of life being “unfair,” which is very much an attitude cultivated in a modern world accustomed to instant coffee and wonder drugs. Perhaps only in the twentieth century have great numbers of human beings expected life to be happy, healthy and virtually per­fect—by which is meant easy and subject to our will and skill. Illness now offends; the deaths of children are read as signs of an indifferent God or a hostile universe. No such attitude characterized people two millennia ago. Life and death were not administered unfairly: they simply were what they were.

idea of initiation is important. While John’s baptism, practiced by him and by Jesus, signified a change of heart and action because of the imminent end of something, Christians after the death and Resur­rection of Jesus continued the ritual of pouring water as the beginning of something.

But none of it has to do with a magic act. People do not experience transcendent, invisible realities in the sphere of God by the simple performance of words and gestures, nor does anyone but God have “power”

to establish our friendship with Him. No priest can effect it, nor can we bring it on ourselves. We count on water and words, now as then, to externalize—to represent an inner transformation we ask God to achieve. In this regard, the ancient practice of baptizing unaware infants speaks loudly: it is God who acts first, even before we have the wits to respond.

Just as the Jewish people dedicated male infants to God by way of the initiation rite of circumcision, so baptism places the Christian new‑born among the community of the new Israel that was continuous with the old. Plunged into the waters of baptism as Christ was plunged into death, the newly born, once and forever, emerges “in Christ,” who now fills the universe, not merely the limited space of fleshly existence on earth. In our complete incapacity as helpless children—itself a metaphor of our condition before God throughout our lifetime—it is He who acts first, coming to embrace us even in our infantile sleep, our wailing and complaining. God claims for His own what He has made. He loves it and saves it. Can any other idea about God make sense?

Just so, the process of the journey toward God is entirely His doing: the act of longing for Him as we progress from infancy, of reaching out in conscious trust, which is the ground of faith, merely tills the soil within us; only God can plant, water and bring to full flower.

Christian baptism, practiced uninterruptedly in history from the late first century, is not, therefore, the conclusion of something, the sealing and finale of salvation, but the emergence of a lifelong process in which, over and over, we are transformed from sleeping children to alert adults. Salvation—being saved for meaning—is entirely a divine prerogative, but it asks for a response, and that is our task. Salvation—being saved

In reading traditional biography, we often presume that the author has suppressed his imagination. But that is not so: in order to see and feel the texture of another’s life even as he adheres to his sources, the biographer must somehow have feelings and intuitions—all of them derived from imag­ination.

The problem derives from our rationalist, post-Enlightenment men­tality, for today we think of imagination as fabrication or fantasy, contrary to “the truth.” “Oh, that’s just your imagination,” we tell someone as we attempt to dispel a groundless fear; or “Stop imagining things!” The word has taken a decidedly negative cast. When Joan of Arc stood before the bishops, they asked, “Do you not believe that what you call your voices from God are really nothing but your imagination?” To which the illiterate nineteen-year-old peasant replied with a wisdom worthy of the mystics: “Of course it is my imagination! How else does God speak to us except through our imagination?” That silenced the bishops for a while.

The modern kind of biography, based on an array of detailed acts, sources and resources, was an unrecognized category in the an­cient world. The danger for us is that we think the modern biogra­phy is superior; it is not—it is just different. And because some modern biographies so often seem to strive for a patently impossible neutrality (or worse, approach the subject with a negative agenda), they are frequently less. Striving to be valueless, they lack interpre­tation, and so the reader has no frame of reference, nothing with which to work as he finds his own meaning. Footnotes documenting every fact, and interviews supporting every opinion, are, in any case, very recent adjuncts to the craft of history or biography—not much more than forty or fifty years old. For centuries before that, it was taken for granted that the viewpoint and the experience of the writer gave as much meaning as the bare facts the writer presented. And if the writer had been touched, moved, even inspired by the subject, that gave the work more value. In a modern narrative, facts can too easily substitute for reality: they are not reality—interpretation leads us to the reality.

A life only becomes real for us when it is interiorized, only when we find those connective threads of meaning and make the link to ourselves. But this does not reduce the life and meaning of a person to a mythic shell. For the believer, the facts of Jesus’ past are not nearly so important as the reality of Jesus’ present—and presence—to, in and among us. Hence the Gospels describe and summon us not to the past but to the present, and they point us to the future. The Risen One they proclaim is not of mere historical interest: he is alive and at work now, and he invites us to the future.

This is why we attend to a deeper truth than can be found in mere facts. This, too, is why we attend the great stories of art in epics, novels, poetry, music, drama. The Bible, perhaps preeminently, offers not an attempt at mere historical truth, but a deeper truth—the truth that is relevant for our discovery of meaning and purpose, in this life and the next: that is what we mean by “the truth of salvation.”

A person’s life continues to disclose itself after the person’s death, for the meaning of that life is more deeply perceived and understood as it is received by others. Biography at its best tries to capture the meaning beneath and within the process that lasted from birth to death—a mean­ing that can only be discerned and communicated by reflection after the fact.

When we read the life of a famous person in history, we are gripped not by the facts but by someone’s spirit, mediated by the author. The text conveys, first of all, a sense of the subject’s primal experience. Then the text must somehow communicate the writer’s passion—lively prose is the first result, and then the kind of insight that can only come from understanding (which presumes compassion). From there, if we are at­tentive readers, we make the final link: the text of the life addresses our own experience. It is not, we must note, that our own experience me­diates the text and the understanding: that would not lift us out of self. Instead, we allow the text to grasp us: we allow ourselves not to be drawn into the past; rather, we allow the past to demonstrate its vitality in our present. It is we who are changed by the text. We do not change it to suit our fashions and fantasies.

Under no circumstances is this truer than when we allow ourselves to be perceived by the transcendent—in other words, when we allow ourselves to be beheld by God. This is an awesome thing. It is also unavoidable, for it is the condition of our very existence. We need only acknowledge the ultimacy of this truth for it to transform us.

One way to begin this is by allowing the texts of the Bible access into our lives, the way we allow any person or influence or art or achievement access into our lives. The words have altered lives and changed human consciousness for centuries: clearly they have an inherent power to me­diate an experience that transforms human destiny, that raises human potential. Much is cloudy, to be sure; much is not well understood by us because of the wide gaps separating our culture and language from those of the authors. But this, too, is part of the good news, for the understanding is part of a process still unfolding….four Gospels are often described as stories about the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus preceded by long introductions, which means everything told about his life. Despite the over­simplification, there is something true about the statement, for if we read the documents, even hastily, we are astonished by the unusual at­tention to details of time, place, identity, even gesture in the accounts of the last hours of Jesus’ life. The passion narrative has the ring of authenticity.

In fact, ancient stories of a person’s life and significance often devel­oped backward, from memories and traditions about the circumstances of a notable subject’s death. As early as the fifth century before Christ, Ion of Chios wrote short sketches of noted contemporaries like Pericles and Sophocles. For the most part, these fragmentary biographies were highly complimentary, idealizing personalities with grand rhetorical flourishes—variations on the elegy, in fact.

Chroniclers eventually began to give due consideration to the entire last period of a man’s life—whence the stories moved backward, to his periods of development; finally, from whatever materials might be avail­able, there was reflection on the person’s origins and significance. The result was often markedly heroic and laudatory: Plato’s life of Socrates (in the Apology and the Phaedo) is a good example, yet at the same time it is a superb evocation of a man and his times, while the Stoic biogra­phies of Cato and Brutus typify the second. The Agricola of Tacitus (written in A.D. 98, about the time the last Gospel was composed) is another example—a biographical account of the historian’s father-in-law, with an assessment of the man’s political career. In every case, the final days of the subject’s life is almost mythicized, it is so heroic. Plu­tarch and Suetonius also stressed the final days of their subjects, whatever their biased viewpoint.

And herein lies a crucial difference when we compare the Gospel accounts of Jesus. The first Good Friday (which has inspired more art than any other event in the history of the world) is set forth in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with a calmness, a sobriety and a lack of hysteria that are remarkable. There is no attempt to exaggerate the struggle, to exploit sentiment, to catalog the physical details of suffering and death. What comes through is a disarming simplicity.

At the same time, the clarity and the almost minute-by-minute chro­nology of the Gospels when they come to Jesus’ final hours often lead modern readers astray: it is tempting to regard the accounts as on-the­spot reporting. But they are as rich and complex as the earlier stories (in Matthew and Luke, as we saw) of the conception, birth and infancy of Jesus. By the time the four evangelists set down their accounts—about forty to seventy years after Jesus’ death—there had been many years of early Christian experience. It is axiomatic of Bible studies in the past century that this early experience and the consequent needs of communities dictated the content, arrangement, style and concern of each Gospel. Faith was presupposed

The object of faith is a place into which one may step, a room one may enter, a power on which one may lean, a love to which one may commit. And faith itself? It is the act of meeting this reality, of building one’s life around it.

In this regard, one does not really believe in the Bible, but in the God Whom it attests. One does not believe in tradition, but in the God Whose sustaining love it witnesses. One does not believe in the Church, but in the God Whom the Church proclaims. Hence, biblical texts; the writings of saints, mystics and theologians; the formulas of the Church’s creeds and doctrines—all of these express in human language the strain­ing and striving toward ultimacy by which is meant, in the simplest language, the experience of and the concomitant desire for God. Despite all uncertainties, insecurities and questions, the believer clings fast to God. At this point, there is little distinction between faith and hope. After all, you can long for and hope for only what you already know, however partially, and have glimpsed, however imperfectly.

John, who would hardly have waited five years to denounce the con­duct of his sovereign, must have issued his first salvo against Antipas in 23, when the marriage to Herodias took place. At that time, the tetrarch and his court could perhaps afford to ignore the ravings of a wandering eccentric. But now, in 28, John was a serious force to reckon with: his critique of the social order, his injunction against the tax system and the oppression of the poor might bring the Jews dangerously close to re­bellion, for they were already offended by everything about Antipas­ – his forgotten Jewish roots, his collusion with Gentile Rome, his luxuriant immorality, his corrupt disregard for the masses.

He who does not teach his son a craft teaches him robbery” went a familiar maxim at the time of Jesus. According to Matthew and Mark, Joseph’s trade was carpentry or woodworking and, as the firstborn son who traditionally followed his father’s profession), Jesus practiced the same craft. Jews considered these artisans honorable craftsmen and, when they could afford their skills, paid them good wages. Steady in­come would have been necessary to sustain Joseph’s household in any case, for there were a wife, five sons and an indeterminate number of daughters. Jesus and his family, then, would have been no more or less poor than the average family in Nazareth; neither as distressed as a coun­try slave nor as deprived as an itinerant laborer, they could perhaps be vaguely compared to today’s middle-class workers and artisans.

As for the precise nature of the labor, it should be noted that the Greek word translated as “carpenter” is a generic term that includes more than just woodworking: such a man was proficient at house-building as well as furniture construction, and he had to master a wide range of skills. He made and repaired doors and locks, frames and fur­niture, windows and roofs, plows and yokes; and the raw materials of his work were (among other trees) sycamores and figs, cedars, firs and iunipers, olives and palms. The tools of the trade were remarkably similar to those used by woodworkers today: hammers, mallets, chisels, saws, hatchets, rulers, levels, plumb lines. Nails, which were very expensive, were used only rarely.

To understand the moral dynamic of Jesus, it is crucial to see that making a living was very difficult indeed in Galilee, for the politic system left people with no margin for error. Some women and men were coerced into work they otherwise would not have chosen—guarding sheep, for example, or even prostitution—and these unhappy people Jesus could not condemn. Instead, he questioned the civil and religious system that taxed so heavily and forced people into crime.

It is likely that two thousand years later, Jesus of Nazareth would be called a “bleeding-heart liberal,” a man without realism, a man without any pity for the victims, a man who dared to defend the victimizer. Such complaints would completely miss the point, for Jesus saw everyone as a victim. But he offered no reward merely for occupying that status, nor did the victims have a claim on privilege (as they often demand today). There was, instead, a way out of the dreadful cycle of being both deceiver and deceived.

paradox returns with a vengeance: this is itself a heartening announcement, too, for in the final analysis what can we do but throw ourselves upon that great ocean of infinite mercy? What can we do but confide ourselves to the arms of God? I have no reason to feel secure in anything that I consider mine—not my faith, not my prayer. “If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall,” Paul urged the Christians at Corinth. The process of believing, then, is linked to the process of learning to heed in prayer—and all of this is rooted in the process of becoming human at the deepest level. One is always on the way to becoming a Christian. Faith is nothing one can possess; much less is it a pulpit from which to judge and condemn others. Belief in Jesus Christ is process, it is movement and journey; it is a condition of constant clarification, of loving more.

In this regard, there is a great danger in thinking that one has reached a condition of “being Christian.” Usually those who make such a claim glance covertly aside at others they consider not Christian. in our time, they do more than glance: they all too often shout loudly about the wickedness and darkness of those they despise. What a pity that the designation “Christian” has, perhaps in America more than anywhere, been co-opted by ideologues whose agenda is founded on bogus “principles” that are exclusive, legalistic, unloving and judgmental—and therefore obviously anti-Christian.

These people seem always to know “what God thinks” and “what God wants” and, most of all, “what God hates.” Such so-called Christianity is nothing but a pious form of self-affirmation—a way of establishing one’s own imagined moral superiority. It is good to remember that God does not take instructions from people: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor my ways your ways,” said the Lord through the prophet Isaiah.
Living by faith and commitment to prayer may sound to some like a kind of spiritual lollipop—an attitude conjured up or self-imposed in order to avoid confronting the harshness of life.

Searching and finding are major motifs in Luke’s Gospel, and they recur with such frequency and urgency that it is impossible to read them is accidental repetitions. The shepherd, in a Lukan parable, loses and :hen finds his lost sheep; in another parable, a woman loses and then finds her lost coin; in a third, the Prodigal Son is lost and then found; and Jesus speaks of losing and finding one’s whole life. The key to Luke’s meaning may lie in the words immediately following: “After three days they found him, sitting among teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” For the first hearers of this episode, this may have recalled Easter Sunday, when the Jesus who had been “lost” in death for two days was “found” on the third day.

Now the narration continues with a curious dialogue: “His mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be about my father’s business [literally, “in the things of my father”]?’ But they did not understand what he said to them.”

And with that, Jesus goes back to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph and becomes an obedient teenager, and Luke adds (in exactly the words used to describe Samuel in the Old Testament), “he continued to grow both in stature and in favour with the Lord and with the people.”

The story is a bridge from the Lukan infancy narratives to the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry, which follows at once. Here, he is identified as a child with an extraordinary destiny (known in light of what later occurred) as God’s son in a unique way. The fundamental claim on Jesus’ life is made by God, who is his Father analogously and metaphorically; this is one of the terms the New Testament uses in its struggle to express the growing post-Resurrection awareness that Jesus was the fullness of God in the world. At his presentation in the temple a few verses earlier, Jesus was unable to speak on his own behalf: now he does, stating the purpose of the mission that will begin a few verses later— “to be about the things of God.”

Religion, to many modern Churches, is tantamount to a system of laws and doctrines: that is the usual think­ing, but in the final analysis such an attitude bears no relation to the life of mature faith.

This attitude of moral vigilance—as if faith and morality were syn­onymous—is closer to a fascist police mentality than it is to the attitude of Jesus, who speaks of a new inner attitude that frees us from a slavish fear of law; he stresses, on the contrary, an attitude of constant conver­sion, of turning to God. He reminds us that God rejoices over a sinner’s repentance. And no one knows better than God that a sinner needs time to repent, which is only one reason why a follower of Jesus can never, under any circumstances, support capital punishment.

This issue is absolutely essential to Christian faith and practice. From the early days of belief in Jesus, those who presented themselves for baptism were prohibited from ever carrying out an execution, however legally permitted. “A soldier who is in a position of authority is not to be allowed to put anyone to death; if he is ordered to, he is not to do it.” So stated the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (A.D. 215), whose very title witnesses its ancient character and tradition. But there was nothing revolutionary in this work: it simply made explicit for Christian converts in the Roman Empire what was the teaching of Jesus and the faith of the apostles.

To argue that some criminals are beyond the pale of grace and for­giveness—and therefore must be executed rather than allowed a lifetime to repent—is simply to replace God’s ultimately free, forgiving and transformative action in the hearts of human beings with one’s own pre­sumptive and preemptive judgment. To endorse capital punishment, in other words, is to play God in more ways than one—not only by taking a life but also by deciding who can and who cannot be changed by grace and forgiven by God. “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” says the Lord to his prophet Ezekiel. “I desire that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” To that end, God has the patience of God.

“It isn’t a matter of reason,” said Thomas More, defending his faith. “Finally, it’s a matter of love.”

And what is the effect of this trust, this faith? “Your faith has saved you,” Jesus says again and again to the wounded, the weak in body and spirit. Something has already happened: in principle, one is saved—for meaning in this life, not only for eternity (which is God’s business and in His keeping). “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me”—that is, “Rely on God, trust Him without limit”—and take with utter seriousness the life and meaning of Jesus. In this regard, the English novelist C. S. Lewis was right: “Relying on God has to begin all over again every day, as if nothing had yet been done.” It is the work of a lifetime, a stance toward reality that has to begin daily, for faith, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote, is “of things unseen”—of things imperishable, beyond decay and death.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says to his disciple Thomas, who requires visible proof of his mas­ter’s triumph over death. It is a challenge that rings like an anthem down through the ages.

But as soon as we begin to discuss faith, mystery, darkness—the sheer elusiveness of things—it seems as if we are outside the realm of ordinary human experience. This very much requires correction, for faith is a fundamental human act.

When we go to a physician, we make an act of faith in his competence and good will—that he will heal and not hurt. The faith may be a bit shaky at times, and we may be full of fears and doubts, but it is faith nonetheless—and we act according to faith, awaiting what we hope will be a favorable outcome. This faith in another may have originated in someone’s recommendation about this physician, but it is sustained, and the relationship fares forward, only because of one’s own experience. It is the same thing with an adviser or teacher: we have to make all sorts of leaps, acts of confidence.

More to the point, faith—a self-giving trust—is really at the basis of all real love. I can see the manifestations and indications of another’s devotion, and I would be very foolish indeed not to accept them. But I cannot require multiple, daily proof of that devotion: it exists as an encompassing reality that communicates itself through signs

It is, first of all, a way of beholding, a way of regarding reality—an attitude of open-mindedness. Faith is a journey in wonder, and so a part of its dynamic must be an acceptance of the sudden occurrences of darkness. Faith is characterized by a refusal to admit that the world and everything in it is finally chaotic and meaningless: faith refuses to assert the opacity of the universe. There are questions about reality, and there is certainly doubt, which necessarily accompanies faith but does not negate it; doubt is emblematic of the infinite desire to understand infin­ity more deeply. The world, in other words, has not yet fully disclosed itself to us.

Faith is, then, like a lens through which I gaze out at reality and inward at the life of God quietly breathing within me and making my own breath possible. It is essentially a perspective that refuses to deny that there is ultimate meaning, order and purpose. The meaning, order and purpose may often be unclear; they may appear to shift and change, and they may be articulated differently. But in the final analysis, faith is an attitude about reality that is deeper and more realistic than denial, for it takes with absolute gravity the provisional nature of all human knowing. One who denies the existence of anything transcendent is locked into the poverty of his own narrow perceptions

“Don’t imagine that if you had a great deal of time you would spend more of it in prayer. Get rid of that idea! Again and again, God gives more in a moment than in a long period of time, for His actions are not measured by time at all.”

Although there was a highly developed and stratified cultic priesthood in Israel, it is impossible to find a corresponding Christian development in the New Testament, where no Christian is called a priest in relation to the Eucharist. In fact, the New Testament is silent as to who cele­brated the Eucharist; it is, as has been noted by no less than Raymond E. Brown (the Roman Catholic New Testament scholar most honored by the Vatican in the last two decades), an “unlikely thesis that only those manually ordained by the Twelve or even by the larger group of apostles celebrated the Eucharist.” In fact, in the New Testament, Brown continues, “there are relatively few references to ordination or laying-on of hands for special ministries, and among them I know of no instance of ordination for the purpose of enabling people to administer sacra­ments.”

the soldiers drag him back to their section of the fortress, where someone has another cruel idea. If this man Jesus is accused of appropriating royal status—well, then, we ought to treat him like a king. And so they engage in a grim amusement that seems to have combined two ancient customs. First, way back in collective memory was the hazy figure of the Shadow King. The reigning monarch of an ancient land was regarded as the carrier of fertility and therefore the future of the people. But to guarantee the survival of the earth and of the race, the king had to be ritually sacrificed before he grew too old, and his blood—the life-force itself—had literally to be poured onto the earth in the belief that it would regenerate nature and humanity. Of course it would not do literally to kill the king, so a prisoner was made to substitute for him. For one day, this poor man ruled as the Shadow King. People took out on him their resentments against the real king: they pushed him about, dressed him in a grotesque parody of royal robes, slapped him, fashioned a crown of rough reeds or branches—and at the end of the day slaughtered him like a sac­rificial animal and poured his blood on the ground. His death re­placed that of the monarch’s; nature would be appeased and the future secured by the prisoner’s proxy.

Important, powerful Jews in Jerusalem were indeed hostile to Jesus and conspired with the Roman authorities to ensure his execution. To re­move this point from the text because it presents difficulties today is to deny two things fundamental to both Judaism and Christianity: the necessity of forgiveness and the realization that a good, just and innocent man of God was rejected primarily because he dared to challenge the narrowest aspects of cultural accretion in religious (i.e., Jewish) life—not because he was executed by Romans on a political charge.

In this regard, we must be honest. Today, it remains very fashionable to condemn un-Christian Christians for their crimes. But it is not at all fashionable to state an analogous truth: that a few decadent, power-mad Jews—who could not have known what they were doing—were re­sponsible for a terrible deed.

But this ought not to have led to a wholesale condemnation of Jews by Christians decades later, however they felt their sorry state was due to Jewish intolerance of them. After all, the Jewish people did not sub­sequently condemn themselves because their great prophet Jeremiah was killed centuries before Jesus through the machinations of Jewish priests. More to the point, the persecution of Christians effected by Jewish in­tolerance of them ought not to have produced anything like anti-Semitism. The Jewish people remain God’s chosen, for God does not renege on His promise; Christians are their spiritual descendants. With Pope John Paul II, all Christians ought to kneel and pledge, as he did when visiting Auschwitz in 1995, “Never again anti-Semitism!”

There is considerable scholarly debate about the historicity of Jesus’ inter­rogation before the Jewish Sanhedrin. Doubts are raised, first of all, by the unlike­lihood of a judicial session in the middle of the night so close to a major feast. In addition, the conduct of the high priests and their cronies (as described in the Gospels) violates every prescription of civil and religious law. It is also never made clear, as Brown has pointed out, why, having condemned Jesus to death, the San­hedrin then handed him over to the Roman procurator. (Only the fourth Gospel states that the Sanhedrin did not have the right to exact the death penalty—which is itself doubtful, as the case of John the Baptist revealed: Herod needed no approval from the occupying administration to behead John.) “If the portrait of the San­hedrin is unrelievedly hostile, we must remember that [the evangelists wrote for] Christians who themselves have suffered from confrontations with synagogue lead­ers”. Matthew, as usual, is especially unrelenting about the Jewish role in the death of Jesus: only he writes that “all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus”

Regarding the raising “on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”: See Hos 6,2: “On the third day He will raise us up and we will live in His presence.” Gen 22,3: “On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place in the dis­tance.” Gen 42,18: “On the third day, Joseph said to them, ‘Do this and you will live.’ ” Ex 19,11: “The day after tomorrow, Yahweh will descend on Mount Sinai.” 2 Samuel 1,2: “On the third day, a man arrived from Saul’s camp.” 1 Kings 12,12: “On the third day, Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam in obedience.” The third day refers not to a passage of seventy-two hours but to a turning point that separates the old from the new. Jn 2,1: “On the third day, there was a wedding at Cana.” The third day after what? We’re not told: this is a literary device, referring to a moment when something crucial occurs. Also, the primitive Church knew of course that the first announcement of Jesus’ Resurrection was on a Sunday. So the oral tradition at once picked up the Old Testament phrase “on the third day,” finding it literally fulfilled in the redemptive event.

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From → Biblical, Biography

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