The Gospels are telling us that strange things happened in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death. The veil that separates the Inner Sanctum, the Holy of Holies of the Temple, was torn apart. This was a symbol of the destruction of Judaism and the opening of the direct access from man to God as the result of Jesus’ death. Several tombs opened and the dead walked again.
According to Jewish Law a dead person should be buried before sundown, and Jesus’ family was very unhappy that he could not be buried in Galilee. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two rich and powerful members of the Sanhedrin as well as secret followers of Jesus, helped to take Jesus down the cross. Joseph is described as Jesus’ cousin who asked personally Pilate to be authorised to bury Jesus in a tomb he had prepared for himself. This shows us that Jesus had some acquaintances in Jerusalem, if not close associates, who had little to do with his Galilean fishing-friends. According to tradition, Pilate was surprised that Jesus was already dead. The tomb offered by Joseph of Arimathea was cut in the rock in a garden not far from where Jesus had been crucified and had never been used before. It is strange that Jesus, who had been led to his death by the Jews, was buried and anointed according to the Jewish tradition on the eve of Passover by such two powerful members of the Sanhedrin, with or without the help of some women. A stone was then put across the entrance of the cave.
>From what we have learned Jesus was a man of his time and preoccupied by problems that have no more meanings to-day. His universal appeal is also due to the fact that we know very little about him, besides the fact that he probably was an innocent man sent to trial first, and then condemned to death, for his ideas or merely for the convenience of the Jewish religious hierarchy. Paul, later on, saw the enormous imaginative appeal of the story of redemption through the atoning death of Jesus. He led us to believe that the Cross was the focus of religious consolation and fascination, even if we know next to nothing of the man known as Jesus. Jesus remained within the tradition of the Jewish Prophets, preaching that God could only be pleased by human goodness and kindness, but he went as far and saying that religious observance was not enough. Mysticism, exorcism, healing or casting off devils were not substitute for justice and virtue. This led him to mix with sinners and to forgive them in the name of God. When Christianity became a world religion it took these principles to itself. In other words he must have been an extraordinary person, but we do not really know why.
Mark tells us that on the Third Day Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome came to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with sweet spices. They noticed that the stone that closed the entrance had been removed and that the cave was empty. A young man, or an Angel, told them that Jesus was not there anymore and they ran away in sheer terror. This, in itself, did not mean that Jesus had risen. His body could have been moved somewhere else, for instance in Galilee for burial. While escaping, according to Matthew, the women met Jesus who told them that he had risen and that he was going to Galilee. Later he appeared to the Twelve on a hill in Galilee and told them to go into the world, to teach all nations and to baptise them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. In this version Jesus would be the founder of the Catholic Church. This could explain why the Catholics insist that Matthew wrote the first Gospel. Luke also tells us the story of two men on the road to Emmaus. They are disappointed because Jesus, whom they trusted before his death, did not redeem Israel as they expected him to do. A stranger joined them and convinced them that He fulfilled the predictions of the Jewish Scriptures. They invited the stranger in their home and he ate with them before disappearing from their side. For the believers this stranger was Jesus, but for anyone else he could have been somebody looking like him, for instance his brother James.
The fourth Gospel has its own three resurrection stories. In the first, Mary Magdalene goes alone to the tomb on the Third Day and finds it empty. She runs to call Peter and the “other disciples that Jesus loved” but, they too, find the tomb empty and they go home. Mary then sees two angels sitting on the Sepulchre; she goes into the garden where she meets a stranger that she assumes to be the gardener, but it is Jesus. Strangely enough she does not recognise him and asks him where he has put the Christ’s body. Of course it is very strange that she did not recognise him. The only explanation is that it was not really Jesus himself but his brother, James, who looked very much like him, or even a spirit. The second story tells us that Jesus walked through a wall, or a door, into the room where his disciples were hiding in fear of the Jews. Thomas, who was not present, refused to believe it and Jesus appeared to him and said: “reach with your hand and put it in my side and be a believer” and Doubting Thomas answered “My Lord and My God”. In his third resurrection story John takes us to Galilee where Jesus meets his disciples on the shore of the lake after one night where they did not catch any fish. He tells them to throw their nets on the right side of the boat and they bring back 153 fish. Here again, as with Mary Magdalene, and in the encounter on the road to Emmaus, the Disciples do not recognise Jesus.
By that time Jesus wants to make Peter the head of his Church and he does it by telling him to “feed my lambs”. As the Gospels tell us, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after the Resurrection, to guide the Church. It is a known fact that at the beginning the Christian Church was not united and several groups, that did not share a common faith, thought they were the true heirs of Jesus. In the “Acts of the Apostles” we are told of Stephen, a Greek Jew, who did not believe in Temple-worshipping and blamed the Jerusalem religious hierarchy for most of the problems of the Jews. He did not suggest that Jesus was divine, or that he rose from the dead, even if he was a great Prophet. Stephen was later stoned to death for blasphemy at Paul’s instigation. The Twelve Apostles remained in Jerusalem under the leadership of James, Jesus’ brother; they did not share Stephen’s views but, on the opposite, they were worshipping in the Temple. Philip and the Hellenizers went to Samaria, a country between Galilee and Jerusalem. Jesus was very tolerant with the Samaritans whereas Paul persecuted them and they had to leave Jerusalem and go North in search of converts. The Samaritans were not Temple-worshippers and they expected an earthy Messiah like Jesus. They were less monotheists that the Jews of Jerusalem and Judea. There were Samaritan Christians for many centuries after Jesus’ death but there were few in numbers.
The Christianity of Jesus’ brother, James, and of the Jerusalem Church failed to survive even if, initially, they were regarded as the main stream of Christianity. James and the Jerusalem Church were opposed to Paul’s abandonment of the Jewish Torah. But by the time of Irenaeus, in the second century, James’ followers, known as Ebionites, were considered as heretical, not very different from the Jews. They believed in the need to remain Jewish and any new convert to the “Way”, as they called Jesus’ religion, had to submit to the Jewish rituals and beliefs, including circumcision and dietary laws. Religion for the Ebionites was Judaism since Jesus was a Jew, and they did believe that he was divine nor that he was born of a virgin. After his death, Jesus’ family was accorded special status in the new sect starting with James, who became the head of the Church in Jerusalem. According to Eusebius he was beaten to death after living an ascetic life, abstaining from strong drink and from shaving. He is credited with writing an Epistle that reflects Ebionite piety, although some Orthodox Christians, such as Luther, believed that it was not Christian at all.
Forty years after Jesus’ death, Jerusalem, its Temple, most buildings and a large part of the population were destroyed by the Romans. The little Church of Jewish Christians was decimated and its members survived in little groups, enough to be denounced by the Gentile Christians in the next century. Their assertion that this was Jesus’ way to teach the Jews to be better was not well received by the Gentile Christians who had no link with Judaism. Judaism was, after all, a national religion whereas Christianity was aiming to be universal as the result of Paul’ s work. The Gentiles accepted Jesus as their Saviour and they were not interested in his human biography. However it is not accidental that Jesus could be so easily adopted by the Gentiles and transformed in their God. This is due to the fact that he refused to identify himself in any existing system, Jewish or not, as well as to the unsystematic nature of His thoughts. Jesus existed within the Jewish religious environment and he never tried to create his own religion or philosophy. He spoke in parables in order to baffle and disturb his listeners, but also, because he did not want to give them a pattern to follow, this they had to find for themselves. The many Christian doctrines are the result of selecting some particular aspects of the Gospels and to follow them to their logical conclusion. (18)
We are told that Jesus rose again after his death but in this he was not alone. The New Testament says that when he died many saints came back to life. Jesus has also been credited with bringing many people back to life. However it is difficult to believe that these stories can be taken literally because, if they are true, what happened of these resuscitated people? Did they assent to Heaven as Jesus or did they die a second time later on?
According to tradition Jesus died for our sins, was buried, rose after three days, first appeared to Mary Magdalene and Cephas, then to the twelve Apostles and, according to Paul, to more than 500 disciples and finally to James. Must we not rather believe that Jesus survived as a cult figure? At least this is found in three traditions.
– First, to the Jewish “Church” of Jerusalem that remained in the traditional Jewish stream, the belief that Jesus had created a new church made no sense. These early Christians remembered Jesus as a Prophet and a holy man, even if this is only barely mentioned in the New Testament. We know from the “Acts of the Apostles” that the Jewish followers of Jesus reacted negatively to the preaching of “Jesus the Messiah” to the Gentiles, and to St. Paul suggestion to break away from Jewish rituals and traditions. These early followers of Jesus were Jews and remained such. However they disappeared with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. None of their writings, if any, survived to this day. Some quotations can be found in the New Testament and in the writing of the early Christians Iranaeus, Clement and Jerome who said that The Ebionites thought St. Paul was a heretic.
– The cult preached by St. Paul, in a different form and to different people, mainly Gentiles who would not have understood the credo of the first-generation Jewish followers of Jesus. Among other things these Jewish followers rejected the idea to have Gentile Christians. St. Paul insisted to accept them and, in the end, he won after preaching in Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. The Gospels of Mark and Luke, and to a lesser extend that of Matthew, reflect St. Paul’s ideas.
– The fourth Gospel reiterates the religion of a mystic Christ but refers equally to the authentic memory of Jesus as he actually lived on earth. In other words it describes the historical Jesus. That Gospel leads us to believe that the “Fourth Gospel Christians” did not agree with the idea of Gentile Christians, nor with the Jerusalem church. It would seem that these first Christians could be the only ones who knew what He really was, although it is not certain that they would have told us the truth. It would, however, be a mistake to think that nothing can be known about Him. Research on contemporaries, or near-contemporaries, has told us a lot about Him. From these studies Jesus comes out as a first century “Hasid”, that is a Holy Man who went on healing the sick, casting out devils, controlling the weather and quarrelling with the official Jewish priests in Jerusalem. His teaching is based on his belief in God and in Judaism. (18)
Jesus, the great apocalyptic prophet, the visionary teacher, the popular exorcist and healer was bound to die crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem. This was the most important period in Jesus’ life on earth and it justifies the Gospels in dealing mainly with it, leaving little space for his early and middle age years. We must always remember that the Gospels were written for the early Christians who, most probably, would have disagree with the creeds of the later Church, such as the Nicene creed of 325 AD. They believed, for instance, that Jesus would soon come back to earth to lead his followers in Heaven. The Gospel of Luke, and the Acts, were perhaps the first books to realise that this event had been delayed for one reason unknown. The Gospels were based on the belief that Jesus had risen from the dead, had left behind an empty tomb to prove it, and that he had later on appeared to some of his followers. The belief that Jesus was the Prophet described in the Scriptures, or the Messiah, has been denied by the Evangelists in their writings. They know that the true story of his early years is very poor as he did not achieve any of the things he wanted to do. He was in conflict with the mainstream of Judaism but we do not know what it was about. He was killed by the Romans who, forty years later, destroyed the Temple, the symbol of Judaism.
The failures of Jesus in his life, and the fact that his unknown mission ended on the cross, lead the Evangelists to two opposite conclusions.
-The first one describes Jesus as a vulnerable being who is victim of the circumstances. He is betrayed by one of his followers and abandoned by the others. He begs the Almighty to deliver Him of his fate but even his Heavenly Father forsakes Him. Only his family is willing to take down the corpse from the cross. It has never been clear why this happened to Jesus. After all there were many false prophets in Palestine at that time and they were not killed or even worse, crucified, the punishment for those who had offended the Romans. The Evangelists were embarrassed as they were writing for the Gentiles, in a world where the Jews were persecuted by the Romans for not accepting their conquerors. They tried as hard as they could to blame the trouble-maker Jews for Jesus’ death, even if he was killed by the Romans for being a thread to Rome. From the doctrinal point of view, if they chose to believe that he was the prophet chosen by God to preach a new religion, his premature death is a problem. To solve this problem they tell us that Jesus foresaw his death and resurrection. Why then was he so afraid at the time of his arrest if he knew he would come back within three days? As we see, historical facts are mixed with doctrinal interpretations and it is difficult to separate them. We must also ask ourselves how it is possible that a group of poor and frightened followers, whose leader has been crucified, can be transformed in an active group of preachers ready to be killed for their faith? The explanation that all this is due to the “Pentecost”, or Resurrection effect, is not very credible. The Resurrection is important not so much for the changes in the disciple behaviour but, above all, in the change it seems to have brought in Jesus and to his family. Although Jesus quarrelled with his family, they alone were present at the end, burying his body and taking over his teaching after his death. Jesus quarrelled with his family because he did not conform to their idea of what a prophet should be, or they expected him to be the Messiah that he was not. His teaching that sinners could be admitted to the Kingdom, and his readiness to mix with them, must have disappointed his family. Such scenes as a prostitute bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears, of drunkards asking for salvation at the dinner table, of devils being led out of lunatics into pigs, of tax-collectors being welcomed, must have been unbearable to them.
– The second sees Jesus taking some very dangerous political risks by getting involved with rebels. This kind of association could even have unwanted repercussions on his family. Until the miracle of the Loaves Jesus was prepared to encourage the Zealots and the “Sicari”, of whom Judas was a member. After the crowd wanted to make him a King he realised that he was wrong. The people did not really understand that the “Kingdom” he spoke about was not of this world, whereas the rebels were thinking about Israel as a state. Moreover the Romans, when they heard Jesus talking about his Kingdom, became afraid. However Jesus the Prophet had not finished his teaching. If he gave all these lessons, as the Synoptic Gospels suggest, in his last week on earth, or over a longer period of time, is not known and is not important. It is probable that he overturned the tables of the money-changers in the outer court of the Jerusalem Temple, that he wept over the city, and that the Romans would have destroyed the Jews and the Temple if they had not changed their ways. It is more difficult to believe the Evangelists when they say that Jesus foresaw his arrest and death. It is easier to accept that his followers forsook him after his arrest, that he was condemned by the Romans, crucified, buried in a tomb that was found empty three days later. In many occasions later on, his disciples became very excited when they saw a man whom they identified as Jesus. It reminded them of Herod who, upon seeing Jesus, thought that John the Baptist had risen from the dead. It is possible that the man seen by Mary in the garden, by the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and by the fishermen near the lake of Galilee, was not Jesus but James, or another of his brothers. James and his other brothers carried on Jesus’ work, led his group of followers and taught them an austere Gospel that was more in line with the orthodox Jewish belief. This little group did not want to break away from Judaism, or admit Gentiles, and met regularly in the Temple. James was the perfect leader who gave them the confidence to await the coming of the Kingdom they were still expecting after the disillusion of the crucifixion. After the new ideas brought forward by Jesus, the little group settled in a routine of austerity that was similar to the Essenes and the Pharisees’ rules.
Fourteen years later they were much surprised to hear of a new “religion” preached by Paul, a Jew they had never met, in the synagogues of the Diaspora. This doctrine was completely different of that taught in the Church of James, a doctrine that made no difference between Jews and Gentiles. The dietary laws were forgotten as well as circumcision, and even the Old scriptures had lost their primary importance. The Jerusalem Church asked Paul to come for a clarification meeting in Jerusalem.