Who is Jesus, really?: the historical long view

Jesus of Nazareth was an unlikely person to emerge as a globally recognized figure. Born to migrant among animals to migrant peasants under a Roman occupation, he social standing did not exactly demand international attention over the course of two millennia.

Before we understand who Jesus was, it helps to take a long view of human history. Humans are extremely peaceful creatures, wired for cooperation. What we know about early human societies on the continent of Africa reveals that fairness and harmony are woven into our DNA. Little imbalance in power between genders, equal sizes of homes, and favorable relations with the land and surrounding tribes and creatures characterize archaeological finds. In the Americas, tribes coexisted alongside one another for hundreds of generations without any traceable strife. Violence was a rare behavior that would cause confusion among onlookers.

For whatever reason, perhaps population expansion, the advent of agriculture, or something else – humans eventually adopted violent behaviors (including systemic violence, such as power and wealth disparities). While the narrative cannot be explored so straightforwardly, some historias attribute the rise of the “domination” phenomenon largely to the Babylonians.

Now, the Babylonians had not always been gruesome, but as some of them became so, they needed an origin myth to justify the domination of other members of their species. The Enuma Elish is a tale of power struggles among the gods, who after warring among themselves, spilled blood onto the earth, from which humanity rose. This has obvious implications for the identities of Babylonians and their perceived role as a dominant group on earth.

The Hebrew creation myths as described in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 are written in the same poetic style as the Enuma Elish, even using similar terminology such as “image of god.” This leads scholars to believe these myths were written not to provide a historical account of the universe’s origins, but to challenge the interweaving of human identity and domination and violence. In these narratives, a single god creates out of free will and self expression. No violence, competition, jealousy, greed, or bickering involved.

This Hebrew creation myth and its consequential humanist vision gave birth to a whole slew of prophets who denounced injustices, sometimes with bizarre drama (see Ezekiel, for example). Certainly not all Hebrew people understood or followed this vision of community, wholeness, and peace.

So while there were examples of people trying their best to confront the rise of the phenomenon of systemic violence, no one did so with such effectivity and strategy as Jesus of Nazareth. He was the first human – at least to be preserved in literature – that lived his life in such a way that holistically confronted not only the powers that be, but the very systems, cultures, and assumptions they represented.

Much like the prophets before him, his vision was not fully understood by all, nor adopted by most. But he did launch a countercultural, decentralized, disciplined, nonviolent movement through counterintuitive strategies.

And this movement was championed by the most unlikely and unsavory of characters, whom he basically left without any guidance apart from their own experiences. They made lots of mistakes and had poor execution, yet today Christianity has reached billions in all corners of the globe (granted, with far too many violent flanks than its founders would have hoped).

This blog explores the “how.” Most of us are familiar with the “why,” and religion usually attempts to drive it into us. While meaning may be important, this blog will focus on method.

Maybe the key to our present predicament – environmental devastation, mass migration and xenophobia, neoliberalism, nuclear war, extreme wealth inequality, all kinds of “isms” – rests in understanding the past. We make no attempt here to argue that the formula for success can be perfectly extracted from a dead homeless Jew, but we do believe he has something very, very important to offer in our journey for liberation.

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