Seeing Jesus as a revolutionary heretic

The Royal Chapel of King Henry II at Dover Castle in Kent

The Royal Chapel of King Henry II at Dover Castle in Kent

Although it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Environment, I would like to mark the Jewish festival of the Passover – and the Christian celebration of Easter – by inviting all readers to pause for a moment of reflection: To take a moment to consider the story of the Last Supper (i.e. Jesus sharing the Passover meal with his followers the night before he was arrested) from the perspective of those who were actually there. To do this, it is necessary to understand the religious beliefs and practices of Jewish people 2000 years ago. Therefore, if you will bear with me for a few moments, that is exactly what I will now do – with reference to one particular chapter of one book within the Old Testament (OT). The Pentateuch is the Latin word used to describe the first five books of the OT (i.e. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, & Deuteronomy). However, scholars like to make things complicated and – therefore – divide these 5 books into 6 parts, as follows: (1) Pre-history [Genesis Ch.1-11], (2) The Patriarchs [Genesis Ch.12-50], (3) The Exodus [Exodus Ch.1-18], (4) The Law and the Tabernacle [Exodus Ch.19 – Numbers Ch.9], (5) The Wilderness [Numbers Ch.10-36], (6) The Speeches of Moses [Deuteronomy]. Leviticus lies wholly within part (4). It is, however, a great deal more than just a book full of Laws: It also forms the basis of much Jewish and Islamic teaching; provides a context to understand the rest of the Bible; and highlights the radical way in which Jesus fulfilled a great deal of OT prophecy. Chapter 17 of Leviticus is possibly one of the most challenging aspects of the latter because, in it, God is reported to have said:

I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar… (Leviticus 17: 10-11)

This command, not to eat blood (deliberately or otherwise), must be seen in the context of contemporaneous pagan practices – and those discovered since (e.g. cannibalism) – all of which were based on the belief that drinking the blood of sacrifices empowered those who did it. Non-Christian theologians often say that Jesus hijacked the Passover. But, in fact, he seems to have done a great deal more than that: There are four accounts of the Last Supper in the New Testament, and all four of them describe Jesus identifying his blood with that of a sacrifice; and/or commanding his followers to drink the wine as if it were his blood (which they clearly did). Jesus therefore identified himself with the Lamb of the Passover, but he also identified himself with another important date in the Jewish calendar – The Day of Atonement – as described in Leviticus chapter 16. This involved the selection of two goats: the first of which was sacrificed as an atonement for sin; whilst the second was sent away into the desert having had the sins of all the people ceremoniously transferred onto it (i.e. ‘the scapegoat’) by the High Priest. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” However, in fulfilling it, Jesus appears to have rendered its continued observance unnecessary. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews perhaps puts this best: “But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10: 3-4). As it happens, both Jews and Muslims seem to have realised this some time ago – as neither routinely make ritual sacrifices anymore! However, both still observe the practice of not drinking the blood of animals. Leviticus 17 is also the basis of the opposition of Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) to having blood transfusions. From its very earliest days, therefore, the practice of those that came to be known as ‘Christians’ to meet to re-enact the Last Supper was the main reason for Jewish opposition. It is also one of the reasons why, even today, Christianity is seen as heresy by Jews, Muslims, JWs, and many others. If I have not already upset you enough by this very politically-incorrect post, there is one other way in which I think the existence of Leviticus 17 should inform our attitude to the central message of Christianity: I have a scientific background and, as such, I know – and have known – many people who invoke the ‘Christianity is a myth’ reason for not considering the message more carefully. According to such people, Christianity was invented by the followers of Jesus after his death or – even more outrageously – by St Paul (who was an expert in Jewish Law). One of the main reasons this argument has become so popular today is that it is now widely understood that St Paul was the first to actually write down the story of the Last Supper. However, there is absolutely no reason why any self-respecting Jew – let alone St Paul – would make up a story like that of the Last Supper because it directly contradicts chapter 17 of Leviticus. Similarly, they would not have made up the story of the Crucifixion because they believed the long-awaited Messiah would lead them to a great victory over their Roman oppressors. In short, if you were a Jew, ‘You could not make this stuff up!’ I shall leave the final word (almost) to one of the greatest Christian philosophers of the last century, C. S. Lewis:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. (C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity)

Happy Easter to one and all. (Normal service will be resumed shortly)

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About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
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