Jesus and the archetypical failure of society


I’m sure that there is no shortage of work on Jesus being the archetype, the perfect example of so many things in narrative and literature.  To me, this confirms that the story of God is written on the hearts of men, not the other way around.  While other legends may contain pieces of the story of Christ, his in the context of the biblical arc is the only which fully satisfies.

In reflecting the past few days, I came across another way in which I believe the saga is unique, lacking nothing.  I was thinking about how the death of Jesus transpired.  What led to it?  What forces were at work?  It was then that I realized that three major societal forces rejected him.  Religion, government, and friendship form a major framework for culture throughout most of civilization.  I would consider them the three largest man-made institutions in history.  The obviously large influence of the family structure seems more of a natural necessity, though the form it takes is often synthetic.  All are supposed to help the individual and society flourish, yet all are so easily corruptible.  With the three largest establishments of mankind betraying him at once, Jesus truly shows humanity at its darkest.

Perhaps the institution which most blatantly opposed Jesus was the religion of his day.  It’s no secret that the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were the impetus for his downfall.  Supposedly holy men conspired to eliminate him at any cost.  Indeed, the temple guard were among those that arrested him in Gethsemane.  He was tried before the religious authorities who were the first to confer a death sentence on him.  The cultural cornerstone of religion despised and destroyed the very one who would fulfill it.

Secondly, government provided the cruel mechanism by which Christ would be executed.  Since the beginning, government has been about, ideally, the right use of power.  Yet history shows again and again that it more often becomes a tool of oppression.  Rather than protecting citizens, governments just as quickly slaughter them in the name of one ideology or another.  For Rome, it was the idyllic “pax romana” which was so quick to sentence death, whether warranted or not.  While a first century Jew could hardly expect an occupying Roman governor to protect his life, Pontius Pilate appears to make such an effort for Christ.  The Gospels don’t reveal much of his motives, and the outcome is the same regardless.  Pilate exemplifies that the broken notion of human government can never truly care for people, even the completely innocent.  The representative of Rome hands Jesus over to be beaten and killed in order to keep a measure of peace in his district.  In this way, the cultural centerpiece of government disposes of the only one who will ever rightly wield power.

Lastly, the deeply personal act of friendship provides the opportunity for the larger cultural forces to strike.  Without the betrayal of Judas, a covert arrest would not have been possible.  As the other followers flee and deny him, Jesus experiences the pitiful nature of self-preservation present in all of us.  We may expect to be cast aside or abused at the hands of large, impersonal institutions, but friendship is supposed to be the pinnacle of human experience, man looking after his companion.  The intimate band of twelve were no more present after Gethsemane than any of the fair-weather followers we encounter in the Gospels, even after the perfect love Jesus had devotedly shown them for three years.  Though it is supposed to be the bastion of care for fellow man, the social anchor of friendship failed Jesus even more tragically than the others.

This struck me because God did not have to weave such a complex story of betrayal and power plays to sacrifice Jesus.  He could have died sinless any number of ways, but I believe that there is purpose in the events as they transpired.  Had Jesus simply been stoned to death for a purported violation of the Jewish Law, human government would not have been exposed for the violent sham that it is.  If he had been executed as a revolutionary, the tragedy of personal betrayal, the evil within the individual, would not have been displayed.  If he had quietly been murdered by a jealous or greedy friend, the twisted abuses of religion in the hands of man could not have been seen.  Somehow as these three forces conspired together, the wholesale brokenness of humanity is laid bare, all of us at our worst.  Through the hypocritical priest, the indifferent governor, and the malicious compatriot our best systems are shown for the hollow and hopeless attempts they are without a redeemer.

So I thank God for the depth of the story, the elaborate tapestry of events He wove to show us that we cannot save ourselves, and that given the chance, we will destroy the only one who can.  Religion, government, and friendship are little more than shadows of the perfect Kingdom until they are fully redeemed by Christ.

Thoughts on “The Ethics of Paul” by Morton Scott Enslin

The Ethics of Paul by Morton Scott Enslin

I can tell a book is somewhat obscure when there aren’t any publisher photos on Google image search.  I can tell a book is over my head when there is a Greek, Hebrew, or Latin word on almost every page.  Both were the case with this book, yet I really enjoyed it.

Enslin was a relatively unknown biblical scholar and author in the twentieth century.  That said, this book itself is quite old compared to what I normally read, but that’s part of its charm.  Because the author is writing about the first century, the content is more or less timeless.  He goes to great lengths to compare the writings of Paul with contemporary teachers from various philosophical schools such as Epicureanism and Stoicism, and also with Eastern mystical cults which were prevalent at the time.  I actually found this intriguing. From a certain perspective, some may feel this undermines the writings of Paul and early Christian thought in general, but Enslin is quick to point out that co-existence of ideas or expressions does not imply dependence.

Truthfully, I learned as much about the competing ethical systems and their writers as I did about the views of Saint Paul.  Many Stoic themes, such as “standing firm” in values, find parallels in the Pauline epistles of the New Testament, but they fall short of the glorious, eternal view brought by the Gospel.  To the Stoic, pursuing virtue in this life was the reward in itself, challenging though it was.  To the Christian, it is a testimony to usher in the perfect age to come.  Similarities with mystic cults were not as striking to me.  Many stress the apprehension of some “secret knowledge” as the means of initiation and salvation, though I found it a little more difficult to draw out these facets of early Christianity in what Paul wrote.  Regardless, the modern reader with access to the full cannon of scripture can easily see that, while Christianity does involve pondering some mysterious truths such as the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, it did not borrow these ideas wholesale from contemporary religions.

One of the most striking points for me was the emphasis on the Jewish background of Paul in his ethical system.  Hailing from Tarsus, he would have likely been familiar with many aspects of Greek thought, but he was a Jew from birth until death.  For him, religion and ethics were inseparable.  For the Greek, this was not the case.  For sons of Abraham, God was the basis for all virtue.  Again, this stands in contrast to the Stoic for whom reason was the ultimate basis for that which was considered virtuous.

It can be seen in some passages that Paul borrowed literary devices and catch phrases from his contemporary settings.  While some point to this as evidence that he patterned his ethics after those already in place, the subtleties indicate otherwise.  Often he would use an expression found in Stoic writing, but twist it ever-so-slightly.  Other times he employed lists of vices to be shunned (e.g. hatred, malice, jealousy) or virtues to pursue (e.g. love, joy, peace), only partially overlapping with sets commonly known in Greek culture.  It was the differences that set Christianity apart from every other.

Enslin goes into great detail covering many facets unique to Paul’s ethics, including his emphasis on unity of believers, motivation by love, and paradoxical expectation of joy in the face of hardship.  The contrasts drawn out in each chapter served to further distance the apostle’s thought from the other systems until the uniqueness of Christianity stood apparent.  It was a rather long book for me, and definitely one intended for the scholar, based on the copious footnotes and usage of in-line Greek and Hebrew.  I’m certain I missed some of the richness of the text by lacking knowledge of those languages, but the overall message of each section was easily comprehensible.

I would recommend this book to anyone desiring a deeper understanding of the world in which Paul lived and wrote.  I learned much about the competing ethical systems in the first century, including parts that I admire and agree with, even if they fall short of the truth of the Gospel.  You can find The Ethics of Paul at a used book store or borrow it from me, because apparently it’s not even on Amazon.