“Father, forgive them…”

The mark of a real religion is having compassion at its center. Well, consider this.

Cynthia Tucker writes an excellent newspaper column. In one from the summer of 2015, she says that after decades of Fox News and Rush paranoia, many Americans are “fearful of a country whose demographics are changing quickly. They can’t quite get their bearings with a black man in the Oval Office, a mosque under construction across town and a lesbian couple across the street. As an aging (and angry) white Southern reader once said to me, ‘I’m being told that everything I was taught as a child is wrong!'”

So let’s not automatically condemn those who just can’t keep up. Change can challenge the best and brightest. That Tucker could describe this reader with compassion sets an example for us all.

The Historical Jesus

I’ve seen many people astonished at the news that Jesus was a real guy. Historical. Actually lived. Yes, we have enough information outside of the Bible to say this with certainty.

Of course,  history that far back was written differently. The author could assume a name, as probably happened in all or parts of some biblical books. For instance, we can’t swear that the apostle John wrote John’s gospel and apocalypse, or that Paul wrote all the letters bearing his name. And details often got added, redacted, or altered by the writer or copyist.

But they and we can conclude that somebody named Yeshua bar Yusef, whom we call Jesus today, was from or at least grew up in Nazareth. The Bethlehem story might have been added to fit prophesies; it’s hard to know. He was probably born a bit earlier than the beginning of the Christian calendar and was tortured and executed in his thirties by the Roman occupiers.

What did he look like? Certainly not much like the handsome, pious, white guy in zillions of paintings. That pic on this site’s first page is one of those. Consider where he was from: Asia, not Europe. Yes, the so-called Middle East is western Asia. White Americans obsess about skin color, and probably have a tough time with an accurate portrayal of Jesus with brown or olive skin, black beard, probably kinky or very curly hair, who today would never make it through security, because he would look so much like an Arab terrorist. He was a Palestinian, after all.

And forget those layers of flowing white robes. Before bathrooms and laundries, people looked and smelled dusty and sweaty. A common man’s whole wardrobe was often a long garment that looked like an old fashioned nightgown, in off-white, darkened with use to desert beige with stains, and maybe a loosely wrapped top layer of the same material. Add sandals, and Average Joe was dressed for all occasions.

We don’t know much about Jesus’s life before the last few years, when he emerged from obscurity as one of the  prophets then wandering the province. We can be fairly sure he was well educated, considering his political situation. Apparently, he was literate, and he certainly knew his Torah, Prophets, and Wisdom scriptures, and he could argue like a lawyer.

But this sketchy looking little guy stood out from the competition, likely because he was charismatic, educated, and brilliant. As has happened with other gifted prophets, his listeners remembered, repeated, and finally wrote down striking things he said and did. The Gospel of Thomas is simply a collection of quotations credited to Jesus. Other gospels include versions of his actions, which were often seen as miraculous.

The end of his life got a lot of attention. Jesus was literally consumed by his message, that we should love each other, redistribute our wealth to take care of the weak and poor, and fear nothing, thanks to the kingdom of God inside each of us. This sounded seditious and socialist to the government, which arrested him and intended to make him an example by crucifixion, a slow, sadistic form of execution used by the Romans to strike fear into the populace.

This crucifixion would have had its desired effect if Jesus had tried to escape or bargain, or if he had broken down and made a false confession. As with waterboarding, crucifixion will make you say anything. But by all accounts, Jesus backed up what he’d been preaching by taking it all the way. That’s what got attention. He became an example, all right, but the government’s plan completely backfired.  Today, the Roman Empire is long gone, and the words and example of Jesus are still alive.