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Who Needs a Savior

October 2, 2012

Jesus as the son of God and messiah was a theological response to a combination of problems theological and historical. Between broken covenants, disembodied supreme deities, high standards of sacrifice and a labyrinthine holiness code, the faith of the Israelites had problems addressing their circumstances as a vassal territory within the Roman Empire. While Jesus son of Joseph was not the only prophetic figure from this period, he gained the most lasting notoriety, with John the Baptist a far distant second. The combination of factors led to the need for a figure, a sect in Israelite religion used Jesus to address them all.

The Davidic monarchy was a distant memory. Since the kingdom fell to Babylon in the sixth century BCE, Israel suffered the rule of the Persians, Greeks, and the Romans. Even with a successful revolt against Hellenistic rule, the monarchy headed by descendants of David was still gone. Isreal’s history of foreign domination predates David’s kingdom and with the subsequent string of invading powers asserting dominance over Jerusalem God’s covenant of an enduring monarchy was obviously and painfully broken. By being of David’s line, Jesus restored the monarchy while also elevating it to the realm of the spiritual and thus greater than any mortal kingdom in the same way God became paramount to Jewish theology following the Babylonian conquest.

Sacrifice was important in Israelite theology. While Cain and Abel covered other issues of morality, their tale also illustrated the importance of correct ritual sacrifice. For an offering to be acceptable, even pleasing, it had to be of higher quality and importance. Cain’s sacrifice of items he had gathered was displeasing while Abel’s offering of the best he had pleased God. With a shattered covenant between God and his nation, his sacrifice had to be as great to Israel as Abel’s was to God. His failure to sustain the monarchy and expel foreign rule meant a great sacrifice. Some Christians separate Christianity from other religions with the idea that, “religion is man’s attempt to get to God, Christianity is God’s attempt to get to man.” By this metric the only acceptable sacrifice is God’s best, his only child.

A highly codified set of religious laws made faithful observance difficult for many. The wealthy and the priests adhered to the codes but did so in a legalistic manner, arguing points against each other. Jesus attempted to simplify things by preaching love. The story of Jesus’ response to the query about which commandment is most important to follow simplified a vast and complex set of laws to a pair of imperatives, love God and love your neighbor. In other questions about law, his answers were consistent with an attitude of love and forgiveness. Regarding work on the Sabbath, Jesus taught it one needed to work to survive, it was not a sin. He spared an adulteress from stoning. In the tradition of the prophets, Jesus brought a loving god to those who most needed love and wrathful correction to those not acting out of love.

The early conceptions of godhood in Canaanite religion were vastly different than the distant, bodiless king of kings of later Israelite theology. El, a contributing figure to the biblical god, had seventy sons and a sometimes vigorous body was an ancient-appearing man. Baal, the rider in the clouds, also saw his title reappropriated as a messianic figure in Daniel. One creation account had God walking among his creation, an active deity with a body. By the Babylonian conquest and exile, the Israelite god had no body and shifted from a tribal god to the lord of all creation. While God’s status was improved, he was less identifiable to his worshippers. Jesus gave god human frailties and experiences and made him more human.

The combination of history and theological evolution led to a problematic Israelite theology when confronted with the realities or worship under the Roman Empire. A quagmire of spiritual laws from a disembodied, promise-breaking, sacrifice-demanding divinity required address. While one may have addressed these problems piecemeal, the Jesus presented in the gospels corrected them all at some point. Jesus restored God’s body, elevated and restored the Davidic monarchy, replaced a complex set of laws with love, and was the only possible sacrifice to reconcile a god with his people.

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