Sunday, February 28, 2016

A rabbi asks a priest a question... part 8

Continued from last week…

There were three uprisings by Israel against the Romans. The first resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem. In 70 AD, the second, the Kitos uprising in 115 AD which ended in the death of hundreds of thousands and more in Alexandria, Cyprus and the Holy land and then in 132AD the third Jewish war, the re bar Kochba revolt which ended in the complete destruction of Jerusalem, the definitive end of the temple sacrifice and the building of a Roman city on the ruins of Jerusalem to which Jews were forbidden entrance.  It was probably at this period that a steady flow of Israelites, or as we would call them, Jews, accepted the messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth. The Pharisees continued to reject the possibility that Jesus might be the messiah, but things were not going very well for Israel. The idea that the rejection of Jesus had been the cause of the disaster, seems to have taken root among the Nazarenes now universally called Christians. 

Some of these first and second century Christian came from non-Israelite nation, but many, perhaps most for the first century were ethnically and genetically Judean and Israelite. Take for instance, Melito of Sardis, a bishop of the Greek speaking city, located in present day Turkey, just west of Ephesus. Melito was possibly born around 100AD and died around 180.  He was ethnically Jewish, but probably grew up in that period when Christianity and Israel were not thought of as completely opposed to each other. The stresses of the destruction of the temple and the three Jewish wars put an end to the less hostile relationship. Melito, someone we would call a Jewish Christian, could seem remarkably anti-Semitic. Here is an excerpt from his Sermon on Easter:

 “Why was it like this, O Israel? You did not tremble for the Lord. You did not fear for the Lord. You did not lament for the Lord, yet you lamented for your firstborn. You did not tear your garments at the crucifixion of the Lord, yet you tore your garments for your own who were murdered. You forsook the Lord; you were not found by him. You dashed the Lord to the ground; you, too, were dashed to the ground, and lie quite dead.”

Pretty strong stuff!  It is clear that there was an increasing hostility between the Nazarenes and the rabbinic Pharisees. It is now that conclusively we can begin to talk about Jews and Christians. They are no longer part of the same household.

Take for instance, Marcion of Sinope (85-160 AD). He was a bishop in Pontus, now a region of northern Turkey. He taught that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures was not the God of the New Testament. Jesus came to defeat the evil Hebrew God. Around 144, Marcion developed a canon of scripture that excluded the Old Testament and some of the New Testament. He would not be the last to do so. The other bishops denounced Marcion, so he started his own church. It is thought that Marcion’s rejection of the Hebrew Scriptures is a major cause of the development of the Christian canon that emphatically includes the Hebrew Scriptures. Melito criticized his own. Marcion was a true anti- Semite. 

Romans believed that a religion of antiquity should be respected. Novel superstitions were not to be tolerated. They defined an ancient religion as one that existed before the founding of the city of Rome in 753 BC.  By that definition, the religion of Israel was a venerable and tolerated religion, no matter how difficult its adherents had been for the Roman Empire. In most of the empire the community of Israel produced good citizens who caused no trouble. Christianity was a different matter altogether.

Christianity was something new and something troubling. Israel pretty much kept to itself and didn’t publicly condemn the religious system of the Greco Roman world. Christians however loved to tell the Romans that they were all going to hell and that the world would end in fire. When the city of Rome had burned in 64 AD, the Emperor Nero found it convenient to blame this new sect for the tragedy. The Roman historian Tacitus writes the following his book the Annals of the History of Rome:

 “Therefore, to stop the rumor (that he had set Rome on fire), he (Emperor Nero) falsely charged with guilt, and punished with the most fearful tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were (generally) hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of that name, was put to death as a criminal by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, in the reign of Tiberius, but the pernicious superstition - repressed for a time, broke out yet again, not only through Judea, - where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also…. Accordingly first those were arrested who confessed they were Christians; next on their information, a vast multitude was convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of ‘hating the human race.’  In their very deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned to serve for the evening lights.”

Christians were now a proscribed sect in the empire. They insisted that they were part of the ancient religion of Israel, and therefore legally entitled to the rights conceded to Israel, which included freedom from emperor worship and from military service.  The Romans were smart enough to know that they would never get the Hebrews to worship a mere human being even if he were the divine emperor of Rome and, still worse, they would not, fight or even carry a pack on Sabbath, so they were wisely exempted from any military service.  It was just the Christians and the Jews left, and now the Romans were hell-bent on destroying this religion of Christ which both the exiled Judeans and the Romans agree was a novel superstation. 

So the Pharisees were the last group left standing after the chaos in the Holy Land had swept away the temple, the priestly party of the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots who had started the wars. No matter what the Christians said, Rabbinic Phariseeism was legally the only form of the religion of Israel. To be an Israelite, was to be a Jew was to be a Rabbinic Pharisee, and so it remained until our times.

Next week: More history, more weeping

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A rabbi asks a priest a question... part 7

Continued from Last week…

Jesus could most certainly not have been the messiah, yet here were these Nazarenes insisting that he was, and that he had come back from the dead.  Now they were being called Christians by the Greek speakers, a name that meant “those belonging to the messiah”, christos being the Greek word for the anointed chosen one. (In Hebrew/Aramaic “meshiach.”) In addition to claiming that Jesus the Nazarene was the messiah, the Christ, they made outrageous claims for him. He was the great high priest as well as the king of Israel, he had died on a cross, but had risen from the dead, and worst of all, some of them blasphemously claimed that he was both human and divine, his mother being Mary, a hair dresser or seamstress or something like that, having been a virgin and they claimed that the Almighty, blessed be He, was his father.

Such a mingling of human and divine is a repulsive blasphemy worthy of Zeus or Apollo or one of the other demons that the Greeks worshiped.  There is no priest-king, dying and rising, human and divine messiah in the Torah. The messiah will be a man, a descendant of David who will rebuild the temple, establish peace and righteousness and then die. There is nothing about doing away with circumcision or dietary laws, or the inclusion of the goyim in the Torah. These fanatics went about the communities of Israel not only in the Land itself, but throughout the Roman and Persian empires. They had even reached the trading communities of Hebrews in Arabia and far away India, where they infected the gullible with their blasphemies.

Normally, sane people wouldn’t give this nonsense about a crucified, human, divine, virgin- born, day-laborer being the Messiah, king of Israel, but these charlatans claimed to work miracles and to heal the sick. What nonsense! This Saul was the worst of them, the most aggressive. The man never slept. He practically lived on the road, travelling everywhere, disturbing the communities of Israel throughout the empire, as well as any gentiles who would listen. He even claimed to have raised the dead! Now he was calling himself Paul and putting on the airs of a Roman citizen. 

There had been a riot in the Hebrew community of Rome. “Since the Judeans constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, (the Emperor Claudius) expelled them from Rome.” (Suetonius, Divus Claudius 25) The Romans could tolerate almost anything except civil disorder, especially in their beloved city. Now these Nazarenes were rioting in Rome and the Romans had called these rioters “Judeans” (Jews). The dangerous gaze of Rome turned evermore intently on the religious feuds of faraway Judea. The elimination of the founder of this sect had clearly not worked. The sect now had a second founder: Paul. Something more had to be done.

Right around this time, (about 57 AD) Saul/ Paul had returned to Jerusalem and had been arrested by the Romans after causing a riot in the Holy Temple itself. This provided an opportunity. Some members of the Judean faction took a solemn oath “…that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul.” (Acts 23:12) Paul was taken into protective custody and hustled off to Caesarea, the thoroughly Greco/Roman city on the coast. There he was kept in protective custody for more than a year. He was about to be released, but knowing that his life was in danger, he claimed Roman citizenship, and appealed to the Emperor and, by law, he had to be sent to Rome under armed guard.

He lived under house arrest in Rome for two more years and was finally acquitted, having preached this Christian blasphemy in Rome during a comfortable imprisonment in his own rented home. He seems to have travelled to Spain according to the early Christian authors. Then he probably went back to Jerusalem and then returned to Rome where he was re-arrested during the great persecution of the Christians by Nero after the burning of the city in July, 64 AD. He was executed, as was St. Peter, in Rome, probably in the year 65or 66.  But the harm had been done. It was already too late.

The deaths of the ringleaders of the Nazarenes did nothing to stop the inevitable. Disturbingly, there had been strange omens in Jerusalem.” Forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the western light went out, the crimson thread remained crimson, (meaning that the Yom Kippur sacrifice was unacceptable) and the lot for the Lord always came up in the left hand. They would close the gates of the Temple by night and get up in the morning and find them wide open” (Jerusalem Talmud).

Coincidentally, the Temple was destroyed in 70AD, 40 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. In Josephus’ history, the Wars of the Jews (Book VII, Chapter II, Section 1) We read:

“(A) certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared; I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner [court of the] temple, as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, “Let us remove hence.”
In the same year, 66 when Peter and Paul were executed in Rome, in retaliation for attacks on their representatives and anti-tax protest in Judea, the Romans plundered the temple and slaughtered 6,000 residents of Jerusalem.

That was the final straw, Judea rose up in revolt and after four years of war, Jerusalem was reduced to rubble and the temple was destroyed. Between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people died in the siege of Jerusalem and 90, 000 plus were taken to Rome to be sold as slaves. The enslaved exiles and gold plundered from the Holy Temple built the great Roman colosseum, whose ruins stand to this day. The Romans destroyed the temple on Tisha b’Av the anniversary of its destruction by the Babylonians, six centuries earlier. Whether this was by design, coincidence or divine plan, who knows?

This was not quite the end. Israelite life continued in the rest of the Holy Land and throughout the Greek and Middle Eastern worlds, but rebellion still simmered. The Kitos war, or the “Rebellion in the Diaspora”, broke out in 115. Perhaps a million more died in these Israelite rebellions in Libya, Egypt and Cyprus, as well as in the Holy Land and even in Iraq and Iran where Israelite life had been established for more than 500 years. During these years there were sporadic attempts to reestablish sacrifice on the temple mount in the ruins of the great temple, but things were never the same.

Things finally came to a head in the revolt of Bar Kochba (132-136). The revolt initially met with success, but, in the end, the Romans triumphed. Jerusalem was utterly destroyed and the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina was built on its ruins. Israelites, including Nazarenes of Israelite origin, were banned from the city.  It was at this point in history that Christianity and Judaism diverged and ultimately became inimical.

Rabbi Akivah ben Joseph, one of the foremost thinkers of Judaism, in his late 90s gave Simeon bar Kosevah the name “bar Kochba” or “son of the star.” This is a reference to the one possible messianic prophecy in the Torah: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.”  (Numbers 24: 17) In changing the name Kosiva to Kochaba (star) the aged rabbi was proclaiming him the messiah. Others weren’t so sure. They called him bar Koziva, son of the lie. The Nazarenes who believed Jesus of Nazareth had been the messiah were probably among them. Thus they were expelled from the territory controlled by the rebels, and if they didn’t leave they were killed for not assisting the rebellion, according to a later Christian historian, Eusebius of Caesarea.

 In 136, the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple were complete and there has been no temple sacrifice for two thousand years. The consequences changed not only the life of Israel, but the future of the entire globe. Two types of the religion of Israel were positioned to survive the end of the temple and its rituals of sacrifice: rabbinic Phariseeism which revolved, not around priest and sacrifices, but around rabbis and synagogues; and Christianity, the absurd heresy of the Nazarenes, which claimed to be a temple not made with stones in which the Messianic thanksgiving sacrifice was offered by its new priesthood, the bishops and their assistant the elder (presbyter in Greek, hence priests). 

The rupture was final at this point. Israel was forgotten. The Pharisees and their rabbis assumed that they had the only claim to the heritage of Israel. The Christians, however claimed to be Israel, and at the beginning of the Christian era, they probably were, at least genetically. The religion of the Pharisees became what we know as Judaism. The heresy of the Nazarenes became the world wide religion called Christianity that today embraces a third of the world’s population.

Judaism persisted by means of its synagogues and rabbis. Christianity flourished by means of its hierarchical structure, its universal interpretation of the religion of Israel and the Hebrew Scriptures by claiming that the Torah had taken flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Next week: History, Read it and Weep.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A rabbi asks a priest a question... part 6

Continued from last week…

Modern Judaism discourages gentile conversions to the religion of Israel.  One who is not Jewish should simply be a good Noahite, following the universal laws of God’s covenant with Noah, the new founder of the human race after the flood. The laws of the Noahite covenant are:

1.Do not deny God.
2.Do not blaspheme God.
3.Do not murder.
4.Do not engage in illicit sexual relations.
5.Do not steal.
6.Do not eat of a live animal. (i.e. cruelty to animals is forbidden)
7.Establish a legal system to ensure civil order and justice.

Israel is bound to the Law of Moses, but a gentile who follows these Noahite laws is considered righteous. It is unnecessary for a gentile to convert to Judaism. This was not always the case. In the second temple era when Christianity emerged there was a time in which Rabbinic Pharisees invited conversions to the religion of Israel. Ancient Greco-Roman religion was a crazy quilt of competing gods and goddesses and in most cases religion was not connected to moral behavior in any way. The gods of the nations were principally capricious nature spirits and religion was a way to get the gods to do your will, or least to leave you alone. The gods did not love humanity. In fact, the gods could be dangerous. The point of pagan religion was to placate these powerful capricious forces.

The incoherent nature of paganism made the religion of Israel very appealing to the ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, one all powerful, all knowing God who intentionally created and loved mankind, a reasonable moral code and a coherent religious literature. This was certainly better than traditional religion with its “once upon a time” myths of gods who often took vengeance on humanity. There was a problem, however. This one reasonable God demanded some very odd things.

There were dietary restrictions on quite a number of foods, especially seafood and pork, two of the staples of Greco Roman cuisine and, still worse, the god of the Israelites demanded male circumcision which the ancient Greeks and Romans considered barbaric and obscene. There was, however, a whole class of gentiles who tried to live an Israelite life. They read the Hebrew Scriptures, attended synagogue and worshipped the God of Israel. They did not, however go the whole route. They were called God-fearers and could be found throughout the Greek and Roman world. Israel had never been as universally respected in the world as it was at the time of Jesus and the second temple. Then along came Saul of Tarsus.

Saul was probably born around 5 AD in what is now southern Turkey. He was a second generation Roman citizen, a mark of probable wealth and distinction. He was clearly educated in Greek literature which he quotes in his epistles, and was by his own admission a zealous Pharisee, the son of Pharisees. He was sent back to the Holy Land to be educated in the rabbinic school of Gamaliel or so he claimed. There is a very unusual story in the Talmud that may refer to Saul as “that student” ( oto hatalmid):
Rabbi Judah used to pray as follows: May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to save me this day from the impudent, and from impudence in learning. They asked, what is meant by impudence in learning? He answered as follows, Rabban Gamliel would sit and teach ... but OTO HA-TALMID scoffed at him.” (Sabbath 30b)
It is pure speculation to suggest that Saul of Tarsus was “that student’” but one would not be surprised. Gamaliel was the most flexible and generous of teachers. Saul/Paul was not. One can see Saul, if indeed he had been sent study at the feet of Gamaliel as he claimed, soon parting ways with his moderate teacher. Perhaps Saul became “radicalized” in his devotion to the religion of Israel, and perhaps he understood that this ridiculous sect of the Nazarenes would make the God of Israel available to the gentiles in a way that was entirely unacceptable. All speculation aside, it was clear that Saul was an impetuous young man who could be used by the temple authorities to nip this thing in the bud.

One of the miracle-working preachers of the new sect was of particular concern, a certain Greek speaking Israelite named Stephen. He was hauled before the court and was promptly taken out and stoned by a mob who “laid their coats at the feet of a certain Saul” (Acts 7:58). I suspect that Saul was the organizer of the lynch mob. Saul is a young man on the move. We next hear that he is ferreting out Nazarites and has been deputized to go north to the Hebrew community living in Damascus where this nonsense had taken hold.

He makes it to Damascus, but not the way he had expected. He is knocked down and blinded by some strange vision and is taken to Damascus. There the Christian community makes contact with him and he becomes one of them. He receives his sight back and begins to make the situation in Damascus worse by telling everyone that He has seen Jesus, who is the Son of God and risen from the dead. He has to escape Damascus by being lowered over the walls in a basket. He seems completely unhinged by the experience and travels to the desert of Arabia (probably Sinai). He goes back to Damascus, then to Jerusalem where he again upsets the locals and is sent back home to Tarsus for his own good. Essentially the leadership of the Nazarene movement told him, “Go home. Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” Which they did, ten years later. Saul has been doing nothing much other than causing trouble for about 15 years since his experience on the Damascus road.

At about that time, the Church was growing especially among Greek speakers in the area of Antioch, not far from Saul’s home town. The leadership of the movement sent Barnabas, a leader, to check things out and while he was there he might as well look up that hot-head Saul to see what he was up to. Saul accompanied Barnabas back to Antioch and eventually back to Jerusalem.

At about this time Simon Cephas had an amazing experience. He is invited to preach at the home of a God fearing Roman centurion who had been studying Judaism, and lo and behold the prophetic spirit seems to take hold of this uncircumcised Roman and his non-Jewish household, just as it had when the Church had gotten its start on Pentecost years beforehand. Cephas (Peter) lets them all join the Church just as they are.

Saul and Barnabas begin their missionary travels at about the same time. They go out into the world preaching that anyone can be saved with or without circumcision and halakhic law. This is wonderful as far as the God-fearers and some of the Jews scattered throughout the empire are concerned. You could be an Israelite and still eat pork, not to mention the advantages of remaining uncircumcised. The Christian/Nazarite movement took off exactly among the people with whom Rabbinic Phariseeism had been making real headway.

Just imagine! If you were a Greek who wished he could be an Israelite, now it was possible with just a simple baptismal ceremony. Imagine the difficulty of being an Israelite in a hostile society. Circumcision made sure you didn’t get too friendly with your gentile neighbors. You weren’t going to the gym with them where Greco Romans met to wheel and deal, and you weren’t going to dinner parties where very non-Kosher things were eaten. Until now, no self-respecting Israelite was going to join paganism with its ridiculous gods, but now one could still read the books of Moses but, according to Saul and Barnabas, pork and circumcision were optional. Thus was born Christianity, the first reformed Judaism and a universal religion that made the treasure of the Hebrew Scriptures accessible to all. Things had gone from bad to worse.

Next week: things go from bad to worse to even worse.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

A rabbi asks a priest a question... part 5

Continued from last week…

There were three pilgrimage feasts for which all Israel was expected to gather in Jerusalem. They were Pesach (Passover), which commemorated the deliverance of Israel form slavery in Egypt, Shavuot (Weeks or Pentecost), which commemorated the receiving of the Torah by Israel at the foot of Mt. Sinai and Sukkot (Booths) during which Israel would camp out for a week in lean-tos or tents to commemorate their wandering in the desert.

Jesus and his followers had almost derailed Passover by entering Jerusalem a few days before the feast. They entered in royal style declaring Jesus king and messiah and worse, they caused a riot in the temple. The Sadducees who controlled both temple and law courts at the time, had nipped things in the bud by having Jesus executed on the day before the Passover when people would be busy preparing and thus too preoccupied to riot. It would have worked perfectly except for that empty tomb.

Now came Shavuot, the feast Weeks, the next pilgrimage feast just fifty days after Passover. The city was again overflowing with crowds of the devout from all over the world.  The followers of Jesus the Nazarene chose this moment to strike. There was a commotion in the southeast quarter of the city. The followers of Jesus acted like madmen shouting in obscure babble like prophets of old claiming that they had been filled with the Holy Spirit of the Lord.

After a rousing sermon by the Simon Bar Jonah, called Peter, the gullible mobs had rushed to the Essene baths just outside the walls and had been baptized in the mikvehs in the name of Jesus who they claimed was still alive. It was Jesus and John the Baptist all over again. Thousands had participated in this charade. This sect of the Nazarene’s followers was now numerically as large as the party of the Pharisees and certainly larger than the sects of the Essenes and the Sadducees. Worst of all, the pilgrims would soon return home to their respective countries in the Hebrew Diaspora claiming that the messiah had come, and was Jesus of Nazareth. He had proved His divinity by rising from the dead. Things would never be the same.
They preached that observance of the rules of Torah weren’t enough.  All should be baptized. All should be converted.  Being born in the covenant wasn’t enough. There was nothing strange about the immersion in the waters of the mikveh. Israel had always practiced Baptism, a Greek word that simply meant immersion, but the immersion required by the Nazarenes was different. A mikveh is a bath required to regain ritual purity after contact with things that were considered unclean. A person had to be ritually pure to enter the Temple.  If one was not in a fit state to enter the temple for worship, one had to be purified by immersion in a mikveh. Sometime, more was required depending on the nature of the impurity, but it was always capped off with the cleansing bath of the mikveh.

These baptizing Nazarenes like Jesus and John were insisting on purification for everyone, without regard to the requirements of the law. All were unclean. This new washing would allow a person to enter the new temple, the temple not made with stones, the living temple of the Messiah’s body, His assembly, and to participate in the messianic  thanksgiving sacrifice of Jesus crucified and risen flesh, in the form of bread and wine.

The Temple of Herod was over. The messiah had restored the temple and these crazy people were claiming to be that temple. What they believed sounded like cannibalism, and worse still, they were repeating Jesus blasphemous claims of divinity.

All this was insanity. Where was all this in the Torah? The Torah never clearly mentions the messiah, much less a dying-rising, priest-king, divine and human messiah. It was a non-Torah fabrication perpetrated by uneducated Galileans. It was all the most outrageous foolishness and blasphemy and now it was on its way throughout the world.  How could any of this appeal to a reasonable person? Things went from bad to worse. These madmen met daily in the temple by the thousands for prayer and study, listening to the musings of yokels like Peter who had no right to claim the title Rabbi and here were thousands hanging on his every word.

John was another of the ringleaders, a kinsman of Jesus from a priestly family, well known to the Great Priest. He and Peter were on their way into the temple courts one morning for their usual gathering when a lame beggar who had been at the same temple gate for years caught their eyes. Peter said that he had no money, but would give what he had. He took the beggar by his arm, hoisted him to his feet and the faker started to walk. Anyone who went to the temple knew him and had believed him to be lame. Now he could walk. Had he ever really been lame? It didn’t matter. Now they were claiming miraculous powers like the Nazarene before them.

It had to be stopped. Pete and John were arrested. Gamaliel, ever the peacemaker, convinced the Sanhedrin to release them. He said that if it was from God, it could not be stopped. If it wasn’t from God, it would die of its own foolishness like so many other messianic movements before it. Why make martyrs?
Still, one could help it go away by means of a little intimidation. There was a young firebrand who claimed to be a Pharisee, who supposedly had studied at the feet of Gamaliel. He was called Saul from the Greek town of Tarsus.  He managed to organize a lynch mob that stoned one of the Nazarenes to death after a quick trial.  Perhaps Gamaliel’s wise counsel was not what the situation required.  Perhaps the time had come for harsher measures against this Nazarene nonsense.

This Saul bore watching. He could be useful.

Next Week: Saul of Tarsus betrays the Sanhedrin