By conventional agreement, this is the birthday of the rabbi Yeshua bar Yoseph, known to some as Masih Isa ibn Maryan. To mark the day, I’m republishing an old article I did about the rabbi’s life and legacy:
Like us, the rabbi Yeshua bar Yoseph lived in the shadows of a great and overweening empire that was held together by military might and a harsh judicial system heavily reliant on the death penalty. Although knowledgeable in the Hebrew scriptures, Yeshua often jostled with the religious authorities and was affiliated with no synagogue. The title “rabbi” was in fact an honorific bestowed on him by friends awed by his learning.
He survived on handouts in the manner of a street musician. Typically, he would go into a teeming marketplace or public square and gather a crowd by offering pithy epigrams that summed up complicated moral ideas, often in the form of a paradox: “Who would save his life will lose it, who loses his life will save it,” the rabbi once observed. Also, perhaps with a smiling nod to his own scruffy and humble appearance, he said: “Beware of scholars who like to wear fancy clothes.”
Living on the street like a busker, he hung out with a rough crowd: usually he was found in the company of barflies, layabouts, prostitutes, the homeless mentally ill and tough guys who used their muscles to collect “debts.” Despite his modest demeanor and low social status, the rabbi ran afoul of the powers-that-be and was targeted as an enemy of the empire. He was crucified in approximately the 16th year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberias Caesar.
These days, of course, we remember the rabbi as Jesus Christ, a name that mixes Latin and Greek. Yet I’ve always been uncomfortable with that name, it seems too abstract and historically inexact. I prefer to think of him in the terms used by his closest friends and followers: to them he was simply “teacher” or the “rabbi”.
The rabbi remains a hugely controversial figure to this day: witness the clattering hubbub surrounding the new Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ. Some fear that Gibson’s film, which apparently has vivid scenes of Jewish leaders eager to kill Christ, will be an incitement to anti-Semitism. Others question the taste of Gibson’s decision to focus on the gory details of the torture and execution of Jesus.
The politics of portraying Jesus are always tricky; it seems that every few years somebody gets in hot water by showing a Christ that seems too sexual (as in Martin Scorcese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ), too earthy (artist Andres Serrano’s urine-soaked mixed-media artifact Piss Christ), or too ethnically exotic (the theatre director Eric Hafen, who was criticized for casting an African-American actor as Jesus). Strangely enough, few people are bothered by the bland Nordic Jesus (sometimes with blue eyes and blond hair) that is the norm of contemporary religious art: an ethereal, fair-skinned messiah that bears no resemblance to any rabbi that lived in the ancient world.
The question of how to represent Christ is contentious because Jesus was a contradictory and ambiguous figure who represents many things to many people. He was born Jewish and clearly saw his life work as part of the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, whom he often alluded to and quoted. Yet after his death his followers made him into the cornerstone of a new religion, Christianity, which also borrowed from pagan culture. Given this dual heritage of Judaism and paganism, artists have a wide spectrum of aesthetic traditions to choose from.
The very nature of Christ contains dualities: according to the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, Christ was both man and God. Therefore, artists again have a choice as to what deserves emphasis: the humanity of Christ or his divinity. In the opening paragraphs of this column, I tried to sketch out a human Christ, which might jar those familiar with religious icons. Yet if we take the idea of incarnation seriously, Christ was as much a living human being as he was a divine figure.
These artistic dilemmas reverberate into the larger world: pitched battles have been fought over the question of how to represent Christ. Iconoclasm – literally the practice of destroying offensive religious icons – has been a recurring tendency within the divided house of Christendom.
Despite the vandalizing violence of iconoclasts, the Christian tradition contains a rich repertoire of holy images, which are far more diverse than commonly acknowledged.
Consider the nettlesome question of Christ’s sexuality. For many modern Christians, any attempt to foreground Christ as a sexual creature is obviously the work of irreverent scoffers and blasphemers. Hence the brouhaha surrounding The Last Temptation of Christ and many other contemporary works of art.
Yet our ancestors had a healthier sense of the body than we do. Whereas we fear to glance at the right nipple of Janet Jackson, Renaissance artists lavished attention on the penis of Christ.
In his 1983 classic The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, the art historian Leo Steinberg stated that “the first necessity is to admit a long-suppressed matter of fact: that Renaissance art, both north and south of the Alps, produced a large body of devotional images in which the genitalia of the Christ Child, or of the dead Christ, receive such demonstrative emphasis that one must recognize an ostentatio genitalium comparable to the canonic ostentatio vulnerum, the showing forth of the wounds.”
With erudite and ground-breaking scholarship, Steinberg demonstrated that these erotic images of Christ served a very specific religious purpose: they embodied the doctrine of the incarnation, showing that Christ was fully human even though divinely perfect.
Our sexuality is the deepest part of us. It links us with our parents and all our ancestors. Despite his chastity, Christ was linked up with the great chain of human procreation. For Renaissance thinkers, the chastity of Christ was a potency kept under control rather than a type of asexuality, Adam and Eve were naked in Eden, so it is not surprising that Christ should be naked during his death and resurrection, which ended the long alienation between humanity and God caused by original sin. Properly seen, the naked beauty of Christ is part of his glory. Yet in modern times we are taught to fear the undraped body. The American writer Guy Davenport recalls that in Sunday school he was told that “Jesus’ nudity on the cross was far more painful to him than the nails on his hand and feet.”
As with the sexuality of Christ, the ethnicity of Christ is a source of endless wrangling. In principle, there is nothing wrong with the WASP Jesus that we North Americans love (or for that matter the African Madonna that Chris Ofili created which provoked a conniption fit from New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani).
Yet given the history of anti-Semitism, it is difficult not to see the lily-white Jesus as part of a terrible long-standing tradition among Christians to downplay a central fact: the Jewishness of Christ. Jesus was a Jew, people often say, but it goes deeper than that. As the best recent scholarship on “the historical Jesus” makes clear, Christ lived almost entirely within a Jewish cultural matrix: his parents and all his followers were Jewish and their entire worldview was shaped by the Hebrew Bible.
“The gospel preached by [Jesus] is fire, power and poetry, one of the high peaks in the religious creativity of the people of Israel,” notes scholar Geza Vermes, himself Jewish, in his 2001 book The Changing Face of Jesus. Vermes’s book is part of an important larger cultural trend of Jews reclaiming Jesus as part of their own tradition. In a quirky way, Norman Mailer’s 1997 novel The Gospel According to the Son does something similar.
The new Jewish friendliness towards Jesus should make us aware of an important fact: Christ is too big to belong to any one group or any one religion. Jews and Christians can both claim a special relationship with Jesus, but his message has spread far and wide. In the Islamic tradition, Jesus has always been honored as a prophet. Hindus have long seen Christ as one of the many faces of God, an idea explored in Raimundo Panikkar’s The Unknown Christ of Hinduism (1964). No other religious figure is so esteemed by so many religious traditions as Jesus is.
Given the global resonance of Christ’s story, it would be tragic if Mel Gibson’s movie were used for sectarian purposes or as a spur to anti-Semitism. In fact, in order to counter Jew-hatred, we need to remember a crucial fact. Whatever else he was, Jesus was a Jewish teacher, a rabbi.