No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

Jesus of Nazareth, by Paul Verhoeven

I found Jesus of Nazareth fascinating on many levels. I worried that the book would receive plaudits for the same reason one applauds the dancing dog, not that it does it well, but that it does it at all. The director of Total Recall and Showgirls takes on the historical Jesus? But it quickly becomes clear that Verhoeven is no dilettante, and his membership in the Jesus Seminar has, if nothing else, brought him into contact with enough experts that he is, at the very least, an expert by osmosis. The book is as scholarly as one could wish, with copious endnotes and references to the literature. Verhoeven certainly has his own take on the life of Jesus, but he can point to various authorities to support his assertions. It's not as though he pulls these ideas out of his own butt -- he has several centuries of scholarly butts out of which to pull these ideas, in order to assemble his story.
And a story it is. Perhaps that's where Verhoeven most brings his own craft to bear on the issue. Very rarely, he discusses how he would shoot the scene, if he were making a biopic. But more often, I think his storytelling chops help him to negotiate the various takes on Jesus to produce a story that is believable (rather than compelling or miraculous). I'm not competent to judge the validity of the Jesus Seminar (not that Verhoeven swallows its results whole) or the various shadings of meanings from the Greek, but I think Verhoeven has assembled a believable story and one that accords with my own thinking about who Jesus was -- a religious figure of his time and place, preaching the immanent arrival of the Kingdom of God, and then caught up in the politics of his time and place, and later deified by followers who left the primary texts we have to work from. It is hard to summarize that in a pithy word beginning with L, but this story is a suitable response to CS Lewis' trilemma of Lunatic, Liar, or Lord.

Just a few of the details that caught my eye.
During Jesus' career as an exorcist, there is the story in Mark 2 of a palsied man brought to Jesus on a bier. "And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was: and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay." The italicized phrase is somewhat suspicious. The implication is that due to the crush of other people, the palsied man cannot be brought through the door, but must be let in through a gap in the roof. But surely tearing apart the building would require a certain amount of cooperation. If it were that important to get the man inside to see Jesus, surely the crowd could be convinced to let him pass, rather than resorting to destroying the roof. So what the hell is going on? Magic, of course. Verhoeven draws parallels to other exorcism traditions, in which demons can only exit a building (or a person) from the same place they entered. So the demon comes through the roof, the exorcism drives the demon out through the roof, and then the roof is replaced, preventing the demon's return.
Although more complicated than 'because of the press of the crowd,' this reading just smells right. Ostensibly, it tells us nothing of the reality of demons or the divinity of Jesus, but it puts Jesus' practices into a context of tradition, and more importantly, if this reading is correct, it shows that the author of the gospel knew that the man was brought in through the roof, but didn't know why. He made up some plausible explanation, but in reality he just didn't understand Jesus.
Other exorcisms/healings also seem more like magic of a particular culture than the miracles of a transcendent being. Far be it from me to tell Jesus how to do his job, but it does strike me as surprising that to heal the blind man, he spat in his eyes. Spit is also involved in the healing of the deaf-mute. Coincidentally, the Emperor Vespasian also cured blindness by spitting in a man's eyes, as reported by Tacitus.
Verhoeven's next chapter is titled "Jesus flees". It presents a convincing argument that, despite the denials of other commentators that "it is doubtful that Jesus' withdrawal [anchoresis] should be seen as a flight from the murderous plans of his enemies," (Verhoeven quotes several similar statements; this one is J. Gnilka) it should indeed be seen in that light. Jesus 'withdraws' or 'departs' all over the place, and though Mark points out the enmity of the Pharisees and agents of Herod Antipas, in the very next breath he again blames 'the crowd' for why Jesus asks his disciples to keep a boat handy. Verhoeven makes the comparison with Che skulking about Bolivia. But the essential point is to see Jesus in the context of his times.
It's refreshing, yet disappointing, to see the really miraculous miracles dismissed as just fables. Since they have no historical content, there is no need to 'explain' them away, or even discuss them. Verhoeven does take a brief look at the resurrected Jesus, comparing his parables (which Verhoeven dissects at length, and with interesting conclusions about their meaning) and his tough words about setting families against each other, and his moral teachings, with the rather prosaic things that 'Jesus' has to say after his resurrection -- things like: "Do not be afraid." "Touch me and see" "Come and have breakfast." "Feed my lambs." "Tend my sheep." They describe a live Jesus -- not merely a vision -- who can eat with his disciples and tell them to continue his work, but not a very interesting Jesus.
There's also a fascination appendix on the history of the 'Secret Gospel of Mark'. Verhoeven thinks the evidence "seems to point" to it being a modern forgery, and I'm inclined to agree, but the story is a captivating mystery.
Tags: book, history, religion

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