There is a tendency in the Christian world to view Yeshua Nazarite as the first New Age hippie; a long-haired, sandal-wearing likeable guy who strolled about Palestine spreading love and good feelings. While there is a grain of truth to this sentiment, Yeshua Nazarite was more than a friendly guy. Indeed he did spread love amongst the unlovable, peace amongst those foreign to it. However, he was also a scholar, a man learned in the Law and a religious Jew. Yeshua’s teachings did not appear via some process of parthenogenesis, but rather his ideas find their foundation in the Torah interpreted for use by ordinary people in a dangerous world.
The Rabbi as the spiritual leader in the Jewish community slowly evolved in response to the destruction of the Temple and the Diaspora. In the Middle Ages, Jews found themselves without a homeland, caught between Muslims and Christians, spread throughout the known world without a Temple or homeland to link them together. The Levite priesthood disintegrated, and Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides helped to popularize the Rabbinical method as a way to help unify and strengthen the Jewish community in a time of darkness.
Rabbinical thought has antecedents much earlier, but in a time when the priesthood dominated religious practice, the Rabbis were scribes and teachers, though rarely community leaders. While respected members of the community, their role was not truly divine. Unlike the Levites, their place was not set out in the Torah. In the time of the birth of the Roman Empire, Yeshua Nazarite was born into a Jewish community where scholars and priests co-existed, where the Rabbi’s role in the community was still evolving.
It is difficult to pin down the exact date of Yeshua’s birth, though reasonable to assume he lived from around 11 B.C. to 25 A.D. This was a time of great change in the Mediterranean world. A century of civil war had just ended and in the transition the Greek Kingdom in Egypt lost its independence, the Roman Republic was swept away and the world became ruled by the Roman Empire. Its Emperor, Caesar Augustus, became the God of the Known World. To the Romans, Alexander’s once mighty empire was nothing more than a pot of gold to be taxed and pillaged into oblivion. Not even the restored Temple in Jerusalem escaped the greedy Roman vultures.
Rome’s greatest enemy, the undefeatable Parthian Empire, stood at the border of Syria, forcing Rome to turn Palestine into a military outpost. Jerusalem became a supply depot and base for the Legions on their way to the Parthian frontier. Though the Jewish nation had lived through slavery in Egypt, captivity in Babylon and countless wars and invasions, they had always survived. During the Roman occupation they longed once again for a hero to save them. Rome, however, was the mightiest enemy the Jews had ever faced. It would take more than another Moses or Gideon or Samson to defeat them. To defeat the Romans and reestablish the glorious kingdom of David required none other than the long prophesied Messiah. Or so it seemed.
Hope was given wings when Yayan Baptizer, a man from the wilderness, son of the priest Zacharias, a man of courage and great elocution, began to travel Judea preaching the word of God. Of course, in a time of chaos prophets, wild-men and preachers were abundant. Like many of them, Yayan denounced the excesses of the Romans and their tax system. He spoke against the corrupt and opportunistic Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed ruler of Galilee who had recently been given civil authority over the High Levite priests. Popular though he might have been, Yayan Baptizer was nothing more than a rabble-rouser, one of many capitalizing on resentment of the Romans and the Jewish leaders seen as their lapdogs. One of Yayan’s closest supporters was his cousin, a laborer from Nazareth who was to not only give voice to the people’s frustrations, but also provide practical solutions for life in an oppressive and confusing new world.
In the tens of centuries that passed between the time of Moses and the time of Yeshua, the Mediterranean World had been transformed in ways that no prophet foresaw. The great power-base of Egypt and Mesopotamia was usurped by the restless tribes of the north and west. Alexander relegated the Persian super-power to provincial status and then did the same to mighty Egypt. The Macedonians had not only conquered the world, they had doubled its size. The mists were lifted and strange new lands appeared on the horizon from the barbaric tribal groups of Europa to the magnificently rich and exotic lands of India, to the mysterious Seres and Phyrini1.
The Romans, once a barbarian tribe, took control of the Italian peninsula, established themselves in Iberia and North Africa and absorbed the remnants of Alexander’s Empire. Expanding their dominion of the world, the Romans brought their civilization to Gaul, Germania and even to Albion and Hibernia2, then seen as beyond the edge of the world.
Historically, the Jews viewed Jerusalem as the center of the Earth, between the Egyptians and Mesopotamia. The rise of the Greco-Roman civilization irrevocably destroyed this world-view. By 100 B.C. the center of the world had shifted by fourteen hundred miles to a city on the Tiber. The world in which Yeshua lived would have been alien to Moses; a world ruled by northern barbarians of whose very existence even an educated Egyptian of 1400 B.C. would have been ignorant.
Not one prophet had told of the rise of the west. Not one had warned of the ferocity of Rome and the relegation of Jerusalem to the humble status of a minor, back-water province of a great western Empire. The prophets of Judaism had, perhaps, let their people down. The world changed, but the Torah and the Mitzvah had not. But, perhaps they could be reinterpreted for a new generation facing a new challenge.
The teachings of Yeshua Nazarite were based in the Torah, but explored new uses and adaptations of Mosaic Law. Whereas many religious leaders of the time viewed the Law as an unbendable and unbreakable set of statutes designed to ensure a standard of morality separate from common pagan religious communities, Yeshua Nazarite used the Law as a basis for creating a stronger, more pleasant community. Therein in lay one of the chief causes of Yeshua’s subsequent execution. At once Yeshua challenged the religious leaders and championed the frustrations of the people with those leaders. At the same time he failed to offer the people what they most desired: a military victory over the oppression of Rome. When religious leaders pushed for Yeshua’s execution the people chose not to save a man who proved only a Rabbinical reformer. Instead they saved a bandit known for murdering Roman soldiers.
Though later Christian theologians interpreted Yeshua’s message in the context of the sacrificial redemption of humanity, there is a much more mundane and human aspect to the Rabbi’s teaching. While there are numerous stories attributing miracles and healing powers to Yeshua, there are more stories telling of his numerous debates and discussions of the Torah. It seems there is a valid interpretation of Yeshua’s message that concerns neither conjuring nor magic tricks, but rather a courageous redefinition of the Mitzvah centering their application on human compassion and love rather than on rigid religious dogma.
A well-known story of Yeshua’s reinterpretation of the Mitzvah comes from the Gospel of John:
Now very early in the morning, he came again into the temple, and all the people came to him. He sat down, and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman taken in adultery. Having set her in the midst, they told him, “Teacher, we found this woman in adultery, in the very act. Now in our law, Moses commanded us to stone such. What then do you say about her?” They said this testing him, that they might have something to accuse him of. But Jesus stooped down, and wrote on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he looked up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw the first stone at her.” Again he stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground. They, when they heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning from the oldest, even to the last. Jesus was left alone with the woman where she was, in the middle. Jesus, standing up, saw her and said, “Woman, where are your accusers? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more.”3
The ultimate question that must be asked of the above passage is: does Yeshua’s answer violate the Mitzvah? To answer, one must of course investigate the Torah. The commandments laid down by YHVH for his people clearly state that a sinner must be castigated4, that a sexually active unmarried woman must not be allowed within the community5, that such a woman must be punished6. In one sense it does seem as though Yeshua’s choice clearly violates the Mitzvah, but in another sense he confirms the Law while reinterpreting the notion of whose role it is to enforce the statutes laid down by Moses.
Indeed, Yeshua condemns the woman’s actions, labeling them as sin. He states that punishment should be inflicted upon her. But his reinterpretation denies that mere and fallible humanity is capable of judging, much less punishing her. It should be noted that the religious leaders were not intent on stoning the woman to death, merely on proving a forensic point. Stoning and execution for minor sins was, at that point in history, rarely if ever enforced, nor did the religious authorities have jurisdiction which allowed them to do so.
The question must be asked: how can one maintain the Law while seemingly contradicting it? Yeshua did this by controversially denying the religious authorities their right to act as judges of the community. In Yeshua’s view judgment for sin can only be meted out by YHVH, most likely in the afterlife. In several ways this view was intended to offer hope to those oppressed by an alien government. It ensured unity in an already divided people by denying the power of one member of the community to pass judgment on another and it affirmed the idea that while people were powerless and broken in this world in the world to come after death they would be given fair treatment by a judge infinitely wiser than any human.
More importantly, Yeshua was a man who was willing to stand up for the oppressed in a time of tribulation. His unwillingness to condemn a woman, a probable prostitute, illustrates the notion that all people have worth; no doubt a comforting idea to a people with all their worth stripped from them by conquerors. Through his actions and statements Yeshua proclaims the idea that all people are equal. While religious leaders may attack a sexually promiscuous woman, they are still her equal. Like her they have sinned and violated the Law.
Yeshua taught that the Law was not rigid. While perhaps initially set in stone, it need not perpetuate in such a form. For a lost and powerless people in a chaotic world, Yeshua reinterpreted the Law to stress the survival and strength of the community over rigid adherence to doctrine. In one of his best-remembered sermons he states:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Indeed, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.7
Perhaps Yeshua thought that in reinterpreting the Law in a way that allowed the Jews to survive the oppression of Rome, the Law would be fulfilled; it would serve a purpose greater than that of a mere moral code. It would give the Jewish people what they needed to survive an enemy more dangerous than even the greatest of prophets could have foreseen.
For a time the people flocked to Yeshua, hoping perhaps that he could be the Messiah promised the Jewish people, that he could free them from the tyranny of their enemies. Instead, Yeshua was caught in the middle of the chaotic world into which he had tried to bring peace; his reinterpretation of the Law angering religious leaders and his refusal to lead a military revolt against Roman occupation alienating him from his supporters. He was betrayed by his own confidants, tried by the religious leaders, and handed over to the Romans for execution.
Despite their difficulties and hardships, the Jews survived and their culture endured. They would outlive greater foes than the Romans. It is an unfortunate irony of history that Yeshua’s teachings were perpetuated by alien peoples, even by the Romans, when his goal was perhaps the unification, survival and continuity of his own Jewish community. Sadder is the fact that instead of strengthening his people Yeshua’s teachings would, in the aftermath of his martyrdom, divide them. A greater irony still: those who centuries later claimed themselves his followers would let the Law fall by the wayside as they used his name to oppress the very people he sought to protect, to uplift and to defend.
- Seres and Phyrini most likely refer to the kingdoms of Han China and the kingdoms of South East Asia respectively.
- Britain and Ireland.
- John 8:2-11
- Leviticus 19:17
- Deuteronomy 23:18
- Numbers 5:30
- Matthew 5:17-18