Opinion Columns & Blogs

Was Jesus really a rebel?

Evan Mott, an architect and one of our very intelligent readers in Savannah, asks me what I believe. Well, Evan, I really want Jesus to be a rebel and to violate his Kosher/Roman customs every valid chance he gets. I know the Jews had strict dietary and even “meal-eating” restrictions, coming from Gen. 9:4 and Lev. 3:17 and Deut. 12:16 and elsewhere. And so did the Romans. (Kosher Jews can now eat with non-kosher people but Jesus couldn’t.) So I always cheer him on when he eats with tax collectors and sinners (Matt. 9:11). “Go Yeshua!”

I want Jesus to show them how these things mean very little when it comes to love and compassion and kindness. I love it when I read about his picking the wheat on the Sabbath, and talking to the Samaritan woman at the well: two things you just couldn’t do in those days and be a Kosher Jew. And Matthew’s gospel says he did this.

However, I have just finished reading Robert Eisenman’s brilliant book: “James, the Brother of Jesus, the Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls.” And now I’m stumbling over a bunch of questions.

First of all, it’s now clear to me that “big brother James” would never do these things. James had lived with Jesus at home, grew up with him as he preached, and carried on his teachings after he died in Jerusalem. James was a strict Kosher Jew. Both Paul in Gal. 2:1 and Luke in Acts 15:1-13 state that James — who ran the early church — was willing to let Paul allow his Gentile converts do these “non-Kosher” things, but he wasn’t about to change his own Jewish customs or those of the early Jewish-Christians.

Now my question: if Jesus had really switched and become non-Kosher, as Matthew tells us, why wouldn’t James, his brother, have followed his example?

Then there’s Paul. He was a Jew who made the non-Kosher switch to please his Gentile converts. Paul had never met Jesus so he had no idea whether Jesus would have agreed or not. Paul accepted the three major Kosher rules of James: no eating of food that was sacrificed to idols or strangled, no blood, and no sexual immorality. But circumcision and keeping Kosher was out!

Maybe James was just an oddball. We know he was Nazarite. A Nazarite was not a man from Nazareth, but a vegetarian Jewish man who never got a haircut, and kept a vow of celibacy as well as strict Kosher dietary laws. We know James made Paul subject himself to seven days of Nazarite living to prove to the Jesus-Jews in Jerusalem that Paul was “careful about observing the law.” (Acts 21:24). I wonder how Paul handled that!

So what about Jesus? Why does Matthew’s gospel — written 50 years after the death of Jesus — tell story after story about a non-Kosher Jesus? Why would Matthew — the most Jewish of all the gospels — seemingly invent non-Kosher statements and parables that obviously puts Jesus at odds with his own brother and violates the sacred traditions they both held true?

I really don’t want to believe that Jesus and his big brother James thought alike. I want Jesus to be the rebel. But I get caught: somehow a Jesus/James brotherhood synthesis makes a lot more historical sense than Paul’s rebellion. I hate going back to Matthew’s gospel where my politically incorrect Yeshua is acting just the way I want him to act, and then find out that there are many good reasons to question this. Which is it? Did Jesus switch and James missed it (not likely) or did Matthew make this switch 50 years later? This is a big deal. It’s not just a question of Kosher or non-Kosher; it’s a question of the gospels switching the historical facts to meet their current circumstances.

Why would they do that? It’s obvious from both Paul’s Galatians and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles that James was the head of the church of Jesus. He was the bishop (as Eusebius tells us later). Peter and Paul obeyed James. When a decision was made, it was James, not Peter or Paul, who made the decision. Now that’s a fact. So why did the Christian church follow the non-Kosher Paul instead of the Kosher James?

In spite of all my questions, and in spite of all the contradictions and scriptural inventions and redactions that I see, I will always imagine Yeshua, my Jewish Jesus, sitting down in a Galilean pub with a group of socially unacceptable men and women, eating and drinking and singing. I just won’t have it any other way.