Passover and Easter are upon us. While the precise timing of each festival is dictated by different calendars (Passover the lunar one and Easter by the Gregorian one) both commemorate emerging values in an ancient world. Values like liberty and equality that are also hallmarks of secular ethical frameworks in the contemporary western world.
I grew up knowing little about Passover. When my great-grandfather was still alive, my largely secular Jewish family celebrated it in a “two-four-six-eight-dig-in-don’t-wait” manner. When he died, we barely marked it at all.
I didn’t know much about Easter either, other than that it involved my best friend getting seriously frocked up for her weekly foray to Church.
I am not a believer. Over the years, I have come to think of faith as a harpsicord string embedded deep in an individual’s makeup. Those who have it seek out services or rituals that strum this chord and awaken music in their hearts. Because I lack what has come to be known as the religious gene, spirituality and the ritual tied to it leave me cold.
But the history of religion does not. In the same way as those who forget the secular past are condemned to repeat it, those who lose sight of the ancient predicaments that shaped religious figures and stories still revered today will lack insight into the transformative power and unifying potential these narratives – properly understood – could have for believers and non-believers today.
Passover celebrates the exodus of the Jews from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land of Israel. Jesus of Nazareth (or Joshua as he almost certainly would have been called) was participating in the ritual meal – or Seder – Jews are currently enacting across the world on one of the last nights of his life.
Freedom was not just a historical preoccupation for the Jews at the time of Jesus, but a live one. Having endured 600 years of military conquest and colonisation, interrupted only for what were then viewed as the halcyon days of Jewish rule under King David and his son Solomon, Jews were casting about for a solution to the predicament of their colonial subjection and the oppression of an ill-educated and indigent majority by a corrupt religious caste that was selling salvation.
We use the term outcast today, but have little idea what it meant in Israelite society over 2,000 years ago. Back then, Israelites saw the collective condition of their tribe and each individual’s plight as evidence of God’s regard.
To have been born crippled, or struck down by illness, to come in contact with the skins of unkosher animals or – most seriously – to have contact with the dead, made one ritually unclean and so distant from God. This spiritual distance drew a matching response in the human world. That response was casting out.
To return to the fold, the cast-out soul must show contrition though rituals or sacrificial offerings at the Jewish Temple. Where more visible afflictions like club foot, leprosy or schizophrenia were involved, God’s acceptance of such penance must be proved by the penitent’s return to health.
Women were considered permanently beyond God’s direct concern, though they could be seen indirectly through their connections to an upright man: a father, brother or son.
It is against this social reality that we must understand the desperate desire of biblical women to avoid divorce and to give birth to sons, who were their only means to God’s grace and through it, survival and status in the human community.
Joshua of Nazareth was challenging the spiritual status quo of such a world by claiming he had the same power as the Temple Priests to forgive – or heal – those cast out, and return them to the human community.
In contrast to the Temple priests, he did this free of charge and for no more than a promise the penitent would not sin again. This was a direct challenge to the power and pockets of the elite priestly caste and predictably made waves.
It appears to have led, once the Romans were called in to aid their elite Jewish allies, to his ignominious and painful death.
Could it be that Joshua was standing up for the full humanity not just of fisherman, tanners, cripples and lepers – but of women, too? Certainly, a consistent application of his ideas about the universality of God’s concern would have seen women among the cast-outs needing redemption.
But, sadly, western intellectual history is littered with men convinced of the universality of rights for men of all races, religions and means, but unconvinced of the full humanity of women. We do know that the tenuous social and financial status of women was increasingly being recognised by Israelites of the time.
The Jewish scholar and royal Simon Bar Shetah, who died around 40 years before Joshua was born, sought to alleviate the plight of widows and divorcees though the innovation called the Ketubah, a marriage contract that required the payment of considerable sums of money to widows and the wives men chose to divorce.
The Gospel of Thomas also has Joshua asserting the full spiritual and human status of any woman who “makes herself male,” a notion that offends contemporary feminist standards but would have been radical for the time.
Thomas has Joshua making the claim in reply to Peter, who appears jealous of someone named Mary, a woman some believe may have been a fellow disciple who was eventually struck from the text, or mischaracterised in it as a whore.
It seems almost certain that Joshua did not foresee his brutal murder by the Romans. While we can thank Paul of Tarsus for much of the theological adaptations that centred religious attention on Joshua’s death rather than the provocative wisdom that characterised his life, such focus may also be an artifact of the society in which Joshua lived.
In the same way as the Jews at the time of Jesus saw illness as a punishment from God, they understood death to be a judgment, too.
Many men were vying for the title of Messiah at the time, which for them meant anything from a warrior to a prophet sent by God to rescue the Jewish people from the spiritual desecration and physical seizure of their land.
Jewish heroes and saviours, like Methuselah, lived forever. They did not suffer humiliating and torturous deaths at the hands of their enemies: stripped naked and strung up for viewing as they suffocated slowly beneath a relentless Mediterranean sun.
It seems possible that those who claimed Joshua did not really die – that God healed and resurrected him – saw this assertion as necessary to salvage his legacy and further their claim that he was the Messiah.
But were the ancients claiming that Joshua actually rose from the dead, or was their assertion symbolic – akin to the symbolic resurrections Joshua would have undertaken during his life?
When Joshua forgives Lazarus, was he really re-enlivening a corpse, or was he offering healing to the most unclean of Israelites: the dead? If so, the message would have been dangerous and strong, for if Joshua could forgive a dead man, then any Israelite could offer and achieve redemption.
Should he live to tell the tale of this social and spiritual rebellion he would be understood, in the logic of the times, to have the approval of God for the message of radical equality he was trying to send. So he had to die.
To be cast out in the time of Jesus was a form of oppression akin to slavery, the loss of one’s standing as a full human being in society and the brutal subjugation by the powerful that follows it.
The world that Joshua described, where all people – believing they are loved equally by God – accept one another as equals, would indeed have been heaven on earth. Sadly, we still have yet to enter this state of grace.
But as Jews and Christians begin the holiday season they might well recall the shared history that shapes their celebrations, and the values of liberty and equality cherished by all.
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