Friday, September 12, 2008

Jesus as Unique

There's a lot of tendency among Gnostics to compare Jesus of Nazareth to the other great teachers and religious founders of history. I was listening to a lecture this morning on Early Christianity, and the lecturer brought up a good point.

Lets take the 4 major religions that have identifiable founders: Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity.

Islam was founded by Mohammed. He had visions for 40 years, and left a fairly comprehensive social, legal, and spiritual system which was continued by his successors. It has some drift and variation in practice and interpretation, but usually most folks can say that Islam has some consistent characteristics. Islam was the beginning of a nation.

Buddhism was founded by Siddhārtha Gautama, the Supreme Buddha. Estimates on the length of his ministry vary, but one number I've seen is 45 years, starting at Age 29. Again, Buddhism has a fairly internally consistent moral, spiritual, and social system, and it was continued by his successors. Again, Buddhist practice varies widely, but it has some internal consistencies. The Buddha had many followers in his lifetime.

Judaism is said to have been founded by Moses, and we are told that he and the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. Judaism also has the internally consistent moral, spiritual, and social system, which is laid out in the Torah and elaborated on and interpreted by the Talmud. It was continued by the successors of Moses, the priesthood of the Levites. Judaism was the beginning of a nation.

And then there's Christianity. It's founder Jesus apparently had between one and three years of ministry, and his followers abandoned him when he was accused of being a criminal and crucified. He never had a huge number of followers, only 12 loyal guys and a number of the curious and interested. His collections of teachings are not a coherent system, but a series of parables, sayings, and narrative, and all are written by his followers. Followers who came to him after he had died, and risen from the dead. Jesus had a number of successors who started arguing from the first: James, Paul, Peter, Mary Magdalene. The people who accepted Christianity were Jews, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians: All very different culturally, all very different.

This band of 12 guys, frightened after the death of their leader, after the Resurrection made it known that it was their mission to convert the nations to the message that Christ is Lord. They didn't call you to a specific lifestyle. They didn't give you a law. They didn't have major requirements. They sprinkled you with water and asked if you accepted Christ as your Lord. They ate bread, drank wine "in remembrance of him".

There is a definite difference in the way these religions came about. Something unique happened in the case of Christianity.


Donald Donato said...

Interesting contrast to my thoughts, although integrally the same, I think. I'm not so sure that the brevity and small number of apostles is the key, though. We don't know how long Jesus taught, but we do know that the apostles are very special "envoys." Representatives of larger groups or ideas. I tend to think that the unique feature in the Christian path is the focus on the Incarnation of the larger spiritual impulse...but then again, I can't whistle and chew gum at the same time. Good post!

Jason Miller, said...

I think if you wanted to you could isolate the unique features of any of the teachers you mentioned. Mohammed for instance is the only one to leave his own writings: Christ, Buddha, and Abraham did not.

Similarly you could point to Buddha as being the first truly missionary religion, or point to his lack of commenting on a creator being.

Clearly Christ left an impact like no other, and did so in a comparably smaller amount of time, but how much of that stems from the political readiness at the time for something like that to come along?

Anonymous said...

I thought it it is implied in the Book of Nicodemus that Jesus had more than twelve apostles, that the twelve are just the most important. I could not cite the verse off the top of my head but it is said that his Jewish followers were called apostles and his gentile/pagan followers were called disciples. Nicodemus also implies that the gathered throngs crying out for his crucifixion were in fact crying out for all sorts of reasons - many of them demanding that he be spared - and that they are only lumped in with the Temple leaders in those gospels which approach the moment in more vague terms.

He must have been somewhat more popular than mentioned if he had the power to threaten the Temple in the manner he chose, as well. He associated with the underclasses - the crippled, the sick, prostitutes, numerous women as implied by several apocryphal books, and so forth - and as with any society we can assume that the underclasses were only outnumbered by the overclasses in power alone. I figure he must have had quite a strong following amongst these people due to his own charisma as well as the considerable charisma of his own followers, strong enough to make a serious impression anyhow when he finally road through the gates on that ass.

On a personal level: Despite years of resentment, Jesus has always stood out for me because of his role beyond being a leader of faith. He was also an anti-imperialist and an exceptional activist when it came down to making a point. He stood his ground when his political beliefs were challenged and he did not let the cultural mores of his time distract him or prevent him from attempting to challenge what he saw as a corrupt religious organization and the imperial oppressions which said religious organization supported. Some people say that to remove the divine from the man makes him less important or less impressive, but even without the divine I find him to be a compelling figure who kicked a whole lot of ass and took a whole lot of names.

Definite role model material.