Category Archives: christology

New Book by Richard Smoley

Longtime scholar of religion Richard Smoley has written a fascinating book about the origins of Western religion titled, How God Became God:

The book follows the historical, historical and ecclesiastical path of religion in the West, and therefore concentrates on Judaism and Christianity. Much attention is given to ancient Israel and the origins of its deity. Or perhaps we should say, “deities”.

As Smoley shows (and here his work dovetails with that of Margaret Barker and the late Alan Segal), in pre-Deuteronomic times, Israel had a binitarian theology. That is, the ultimate God was held to be El Elyon (the Most High), but this topmost father-god had a multitude of “sons”, who were conceptualized as other, lesser gods – or as angelic beings – who constituted El Elyon’s high council. At one point, the Most High appointed each of the world’s nations to an angel, a process by which the Council’s god/angels  became a protector, benefactor, and judge of a particular earthly nation. Surprisingly, this scenario is embedded in the Jewish Bible itself,  in Deuteronomy 32:7-9:

7 “Remember the days of old, Consider the years of all generations. Ask your father, and he will inform you, Your elders, and they will tell you. “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, When He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples According to the number of the sons of Israel.  9 “For the LORD’S portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.… (Bible Hub)

From the inception of this belief, an ancient tradition looked to the “second God” or “Great Angel” of Israel as that nation’s guiding, tutelary, and judging deity, a literal Son of the Most High. He went by several names such as Yahoel, Son of Man, Heavenly Adam (Adam Kadmon), and Metatron, but for religious and historical purposes, his greatest name is Yahweh.

Far from the traditional, commonly received picture of Yahweh being the high God, in the earlier picture, Yahweh was God’s (El Elyon’s) Son, representative, servant, and Israel’s particular “deity”. Of course this means that Judaism, at least in part, contained a conception of “Two Powers in Heaven” – El Elyon and his Son, Yahweh. The situation is even more complex, per Barker, when it is realized that Yahweh the Son had a female consort – possibly a mother figure or simply a spouse. Thus a royal-divine dyad on earth was worshipped in Israel, along with a most high Father. Some of the prophets raged against the divine consort and urged that her symbols be permanently removed from the Temple. And, in any case, the ancient El Elyon-Yahweh dynamic plays a huge role in New Testament christology.

The New Testament Jesus identified himself with a Jewish figure called the Son of Man. In certain texts, he uses it as a circumlocution for “this guy”, i.e., “me, myself”. But in others, he seems to be speaking of the heavenly Son of Man who is enthroned next to the Most High, in which case he would have equally have been speaking of the Angel, Adam Kadmon, or of Yahweh (again, not as topmost deity, but as son of El Elyon). This makes sense of Jesus’ answer to the high priest Caiaphas’ question about his identity, where Jesus says that people will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with “Power” (another circumlocution designating God). And it would mean that Jesus’ frequent New Testament references to his own sonship in relation to God could in reality represent the ancient view of Yahweh’s son-like relationship to El Elyon.

This christology would mean that the New Testament Jesus is actually saying that he is not the high God, the Most High, but rather that he is the son of the Most High,  Israel’s Great Angel. This in turn might explain why the earliest Jewish-Christian sects held that Jesus – unlike his later Trinitarian counterpart – is a divine Son, but of course cannot not be the Father-Creator-Most High. And this notion is supported in Patristic reports of several early Jewish “Christ cults” which claimed that Jesus had been a righteous man in whom the heavenly Messiah-Christ, the heavenly Adam (Adam Kadmon) “incarnated”.

The El Elyon/heavenly Father-to-Jesus/Yahweh/the Son relationship is only one of many refreshing and informative points of interest in Smoley’s book, which I strongly recommend for anyone interested in religion, religious history, and christology.




A Great New Book

Disciples: How Jewish Christianity Shaped Jesus and Shattered the Church, by Keith Akers. Apocryphile Press, Berkeely, 2013.

Keith Akers takes us back to the origins of Christianity in a new way. Disciples delineates in an unprecedented manner the history of the Ebionites – “the Poor” – Jesus’ first Jewish disciples.

The Ebionites represent a religious movement that had its origins in ancient Judaism, a movement that was opposed to animal sacrifice and the temple, and which supported vegetarianism, simple living, compassion, and the cultivation of spiritual wisdom (“knowledge”). This is not some oddball New Age notion. It’s expressed in the Hebrew Bible and by some of the Prophets. Historical Judaism is so associated with the temple and priesthood in the public mind that at first it is hard to accept the idea of an anti-temple form of Judaism. But there it is: in the Hebrew Bible, in the New Testament, and in Ebionite sources … and in Jesus’ ridding the temple of buyers and sellers of sacrificial animals.

Christologically, the Ebionites regarded Jesus not as the founder of Christianity, but rather as the manifestation of the True Prophet, who was sent to elucidate the eternal Ebionite principles for his own generation. As such, in Jesus, the true prophet was seen as a gift from heaven. Similarly, some Ebionites also acknowledged another such gift: the incarnation of a heavenly Christ who came upon Jesus much like the Spirit came upon him in the Gospels. The True Prophet and heavenly Christ incarnated in Jesus; but these immortal figures also incarnated in other people in other eras, as the divine will ordained. Jesus was  the most successful, authentic exemplar (but not the only one) of the ancient movement, for which the Ebionites revered him. The book is filled with such exotic information, from christology to “Saint” Paul’s objections to Ebionite dietary concerns. But let’s hear what Keith Akers himself has to say.

Understanding “Jewish Christianity” has been a special project of mine for over 30 years. It became clear to me that the history of these early Christians was not just a vegetarian fantasy. Schoeps himself was neither a Christian nor a vegetarian, but an objective historian of religion with no axe to grind.  Other nonvegetarian scholars, such as Walter Wink, also saw the truth of the vegetarianism in early Jewish Christianity (The Lost Religion of Jesus, p. xi).

I have been continually astounded that — with a few exceptions — modern Christians and modern scholars know virtually nothing of Jewish Christianity. Those who are at least aware that it exists typically dismiss Jewish Christianity with statements like “some of Jesus’ followers didn’t understand that Jesus was to liberate us from the confines of Jewish rituals.” This blindness of Christians to their own history is the deeper lesson which the history of Jewish Christianity holds for us today.

Why should people so casually dismiss the idea that the Prince of Peace might make compassion for animals a key part of his program? This idea of compassion is hardly foreign to the history of religion. Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism take the idea of vegetarianism seriously. No orthodox Hindu will eat beef, and Buddhists honor as their very first precept “not to take the life of any sentient creature.” In the modern era, even atheists and humanists like Peter Singer understand the vital importance of compassion to animals. Do these people understand something that Jesus didn’t?

Even in the West this philosophy of compassion had a strong presence at the time of Jesus. Pythagoras, who coined the term “philosophy,” was a vegetarian, as well as his follower Plato and at least some sects of the neo-Pythagorean Essenes. The Jewish tradition held that God created the world vegetarian (Genesis 1:29) and would one day return the world to that state from which it had fallen (Hosea 2:18, Isaiah 11:6-9). A vegetarian Jesus would hardly be introducing a completely new idea out of the clear blue sky, and there are even hints of these ideas in the gospels, where Jesus declares sympathy for the “least of these,” and says that God will not forget even a single sparrow.


I simply cannot recommend this book strongly enough. Akers’s incisive mind and scholarly data sharpen our picture of “the first church” and disentangle the twisted knots of history, rumor, and speculation that surround this complex subject.

The book is available here:


For volumes of more information, please visit Keith Akers’s excellent website, Compassionate Spirit, at:



Another Trinitarian Problem

Trinitarianism holds that Jesus Christ is composed of one divine Person (the Son or Second Person of the Trinity), who possesses two Natures (human and divine). Yet a glaring problem arises when the New Testament says that Jesus prayed to God.

First, and most obviously, since God is omniscient and omnipotent, it is logically inconsistent to picture God praying to himself, or having a need to pray to himself. The plain meaning of Jesus’ praying to God is simply that Jesus is not, and cannot be, God.

Second, Trinitarianism attempts to circumvent this issue by saying that Jesus was only praying “in, or from, his human Nature”. However, this immediately creates a new problem, one that violates the pre-established condition that Jesus is only one Person.

As with dancing the tango, prayer requires (at least) two persons to engage in the activity.

Now, if Jesus is only one Person – the divine Trinitarian Son – then as God he cannot be praying to God the Father, for the simple reason that both Persons are already God and have no need to pray to one another. This would be a case of one “God-part” praying to a separate but equal “God-part”. So an ontologically divine Jesus praying to the heavenly Father is no different from “Jesus-God” praying to himself. The aforementioned logical inconsistency triumphs here and defeats the Trinitarian claim.

Recalling that Jesus is only one Person, we can only think of him praying to God as a human, not a divine, Person. Of course, Trinitarianism will not permit us to do so, because Jesus has a human Nature, but he is not a human Person. He is God – a divine Person. So Trinitarianism does not allow us the naturalistic and plausible picture of Jesus (say) as a devout Jewish mystic praying to, and being spiritually “one” with God or God’s Spirit. No: Trinitarianism insists that a divine Person is praying to another divine Person.

At this point, a third conundrum implicitly arises:

Trinitarianism claims that God incarnated in Jesus. But Trinitarianism is clear that neither God the Father nor God the Holy Spirit was the Person who explicitly and particularly incarnated. The divine Person who incarnated in the human being called Jesus is held to have been precisely the Trinitarian, ontological Second Person, the eternal “Son”. This immediately opens a new question, namely:

Why is it, if it was the Trinitarian Son who incarnated, that Jesus prays only to the First Person (Father) or the Third Person (Holy Spirit)?  That is, if Jesus is “praying to God from/in his human Nature”, then why is not his human Nature praying to the single one closest manifestation of the incarnating God nearest to hand – namely the Trinitarian Son?

Jesus’ human nature – his “flesh” – is supposedly the vessel for the incarnating Trinitarian Son, yet Jesus never once prays to – nor does he ever mention the existence of – this divine being Who is (purportedly) so utterly entangled with Jesus’ own “flesh”. The biblical Jesus prays to his heavenly Father and on occasion to the Holy Spirit. But he never acknowledges the Trinitarian Son who is, we are invited to believe, God’s specific incarnation within him. The plainest solution to this quandary is that there is no biblical Trinitarian Son, and that the biblical, if not the historical, Jesus was a divine union mystic in the stream of Jewish mysticism, “one with” God the Father, and conversant with the Spirit of Yahweh who was said to have descended upon and dwelled within him.

This simple scenario explains Jesus’ “I am” statements as well as his sense of mission, his cures, exorcisms, claims to know the secret things of God, his sense of sharing in God’s timelessness (“before Abraham, I am”), his oneness with God (“the Father and I are one; who sees me sees the Father”, his “authority to forgive sins” (as God’s adopted “son” and messianic agent), as well as a host of esoteric Jewish-sectarian items which seem possible, even plausible – granted Jewish monotheism and Second Temple mysticism – without needing to inflate and pseudo-sacralize them with the hot air of Trinitarian claims.


A Non-Trinitarian Jesus 1

This is the first of some brief comments aimed at refuting the traditional but erroneous notion that “Jesus is God”. Nothing complex or daunting at first, just some thoughts “off the top of my head”.

By definition, the Christian God is said to be both omniscient and omnipotent. In the NT (New Testament), Jesus constantly prays to God. If Jesus were God, these prayer-instances would convey an utterly incoherent picture, namely “God-Jesus” praying to God. But God cannot pray to God. Thus, because Jesus prays, he himself can’t be God.

The NT Jesus himself gives no support to the notion that he is God. For example, in John’s Gospel – the Gospel said to contain the highest christology of all NT works – Jesus says things like, “I am a man who heard God’s word, and I obey it”; “I cannot do anything on my own, only as my Father commands me”; “the Father is greater than I”; “I ascend to your God and my God”, etc. From these passages it is clear that, far from being God, Jesus has a God, to whom he prays, and whom he obeys.

Moreover, still in John’s Gospel, Jesus identifies himself as God’s messianic agent-emissary, or shaliah. In ancient times, and in ancient Judaism in particular, the agent and the principle were associated so closely that they were seen to share a legal identity. What the agent does for the principle is equivalent to the principle himself acting. What is done to the agent is equivalent to doing it to the principle. Hence, when Jesus says things in John such as “Who sees me sees the Father”, “the Father and I are one”, etc., he is illustrating his closeness to God as the shaliah. He is not making a claim to be the God whom he represents. John’s Jesus does exercise a divine authority, but only as God’s agent, not as some Trinitarian “son”.

The same factor is operative in the Synoptic Gospels, where, for instance, Jesus as the messianic “Son of Man” forgives sins. The typical Trinitarian explanation is that no one but God can forgive sins, so because he forgives sins, Jesus must be God. This is misphrased, because NT christology actually connotes it slightly, but importantly, differently: “In forgiving sins, Jesus is acting like God.”

That is, Jesus as shaliah is doing what God has deputized him to do: to forgive sins “on earth”. So the question, “Who can forgive sin but God alone?” has its answer from Jesus’ own ministry: “God forgives sins, and so does His special agent, whom He has ordained to forgive sin”. When the NT Jesus forgives sin, he is doing it by virtue of the power that God invested in him. The situation is much the same in those Gospel texts where Jesus empowers his disciples to forgive sins – a gift which, for all its power, did not turn Jesus’ disciples into God. As the Father deputized Jesus to forgive sins, so Jesus passed this ministry along to his disciples -without Jesus or the disciples being God.

One biblical unitarian, Anthony Buzzard, entitled one of his books, The Doctrin of the Trinity: Christianity’s Self-Inflicted Wound. Although I disagree with much of Buzzard’s fundamentalistic interpretations, I believe that his christology is healthy and based on the monotheistic Jewish foundations of the NT. The Trinitarian “wound” fractured Yahweh’s unity and elevated his prophet Jesus to the status of “God”, thus alienating Jews, Moslems, and people of common sense throughout history. If this wound could be healed, we might see a great moving-together and new solidarity among the Abrahamic faiths. However, the task is daunting, since mainline churches teach Trinitarianism from birth, and insist upon catechizing converts into Trinitarianism. They say if one does not accept the Trinity/accept Jesus as God, then one is a heretic who has no hope of truly understanding Jesus, God’s nature … and has no hope of salvation. That is: Accept the Trinity – or else.

Since I am a Buddhist, this may not seem to be “my fight”. But it very much is my fight, because if Jesus was a human being who went through a spiritual transformation, then he is aligned with the many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in my Mahayanist tradition – mortal human beings who at some point realized their true spiritual identities. But if Jesus is eternally, ontologically “God”, then his mission and life become little more than E.T and his Adventure on Earth. Jesus moves from being a mortal human with human struggles to an “eternal Son” who briefly incarnates in a human body.

Thus, I believe that the highest teachings, mystical claims and ethics that the NT reports of Jesus are far too humanistically important to dismiss as mere Olympian proclamations of an “incarnate God”. My own bias favors the view of Jesus as a Jewish mystic in the stream of Jewish mysticism, who attained spiritual knowledge, rather than as a God laying down commandments through a temporary puppeteering of a human body. And I think the NT evidence supports this view, as does the extra-biblical evidence which has been pieced together over many decades.  More on this subject will appear in later posts.

Tired of the Trinity

Christianity’s major theological flaw is its doctrine of the Holy Trinity. This dogma has split the Church through the centuries, and has even been responsible for deaths of sincere Christians such as Miguel Servetus, the biblical unitarian who was executed in Geneva at the orders of the Trinitarian, John Calvin.

The doctrine grew out of a Hellenistic misunderstanding of the Hebrew/Jewish title for Jesus, “Son of God”. Trinitarianism has inverted the term to mean “God the Son”. Unfortunately, this idea is as unbiblical and unhistorical as the term itself.

In context, no New Testament text thinks of Jesus as God. There are one or two texts in which the title, “God”, has been applied to Jesus, but these are highly questionable translations; moreover, they contradict the rest of the NT’s non-Trinitarian christology.

“Son of God” in its original Jewish application to Jesus meant several things, all Jewish, all monotheistic, and all non-Trinitarian:

1. Jesus was “made” Son of God by God when God raised Jesus up in “the Resurrection”.

2. Jesus was “adopted” Son of God when God down his Spirit on Jesus during Jesus’ baptism by John the Immerser in the Jordan River.

3. Jesus was “begotten” Son of God when God created Jesus’ conception through the “overshadowing” of God’s Spirit.

None of these ideas about divine sonship think of Jesus as God. On the contrary, God remains Creator and chief agent in the world and in the life and ministry of Jesus.

In the Gospels Jesus claims certain divine powers and rights. However, these are derivative: God has granted them to Jesus as God’s Messianic agent (shaliah), and they are not native to Jesus himself. God has ordained  and deputized Jesus with certain divine prerogatives, but God has not done the impossible, and granted Jesus Godhood.

Jesus never claims deity in the Gospels, not even in the most “divinizing” of all Gospels, the Gospel of John. John’s Jesus speaks as a “man” who has “heard” and “obeys” God’s will and God’s commands. A person who does these things is not God; on the contrary, such a person is the agent, servant, and vessel of God, and/or God’s Spirit. Jesus’ claims of power and authority are thus rejections of deity, just as much as they are proclamations of subordination and loving service.

Traditionally John’s Gospel has been mined for christological nuggets, because John presents Jesus’ unity with God so intensely. But, unlike mainstream Christian doctrine, John never ventures into (from unitarian, monotheistic perspective) Trinitarian idolatry and blasphemy. The idolatry lies in turning  human prophet/mystic Jesus into a second divine “Person” within a Trinity, an appropriate object of worship due only to the one God. The blasphemy lies in turning the human Jesus into God, thereby creating a new God besides Yahweh, and shattering the Hebrew echad, or “the One”-ness of Yahweh’s nature.

But a quick survey of Johannine material shows that John’s Jesus is still a Jewish Jesus, at least in christological terms. In John 17:3, Jesus praises God as “the only true” God, leaving Jesus himself completely out of the statement. Later, in John’s resurrection narrative, Jesus assures Mary of Magdala that he will be ascending to “your Father and my Father; to your God and my God” (John 20:17b).  Simply and obviously put: if Jesus himself has a God, Jesus cannot be God.

But, the Trinitarian will protest, what of John 1:1; 1:14:

In the beginning was the Word …

And the Word was made flesh and dwelled among us…” ?

First, John is talking about the Word, not about Jesus or Christ. It was not Jesus who was in the beginning with God, but rather the Word. Jesus himself only comes into the scene as one in whom the Word is incarnated. Jesus embodies the Word, carries the Word; but the Word, not Jesus, is the factor that is eternal with God.

Second, in John Jesus never refers to himself as the Word. The Johannine Jesus calls himself many things – Good Shepherd, Bread of Life, Son of Man, Son of God – but never “the Word”. The Word in John exists only in his Prologue (John 1:1 – 18), and nowhere else in his Gospel. (Note that the Prologue itself is probably a pre-Johannine “Hymn to the Word” which the author of John included in his first chapter in order to identify Jesus’ importance and to establish Jesus’ ministry beginning in John the Immerser’s work. In fact, John disrupts the hymn  in verses 1:6-9 in order to insert brief Immerser material, and then takes up the hymn again at 1:10-18.)

But surely Trinitarians will again object, what about John 17:5:

“And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.”

True, this is a bit of a tougher nut to crack speaking from a biblically unitarian perspective, but it is hardly insurmountable.

First, this may not be a claim of pre-existence at all.

Second, even it it is a claim of pre-existence, it still is not necessarily a claim to divinity. After all, Judaism held that there were many kinds of spiritual entities that pre-existed humankind and the world (the angelic court or court of the gods in heaven comes to mind, as does the radiant “Standing One” by God’s throne as mentioned in Ezekiel and Daniel). Pre-existence is simply pre-existence. Without supporting evidence, a claim of pre-existence does not automatically imply a claim to eternal divinity.

Later posts will explore these final two issues. As for now, it’s sufficient to note that the Gospels simply do not support Trinitarianism. The Gospels are, in this case, strikingly and surprisingly “Jewish”, in that they preserve the monotheism of Jesus and his earliest Jewish disciples.

Origin of the Eucharist

Following the sacrament of baptism, the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion) is Christianity’s central sacrament. Even congregations that deny the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist nonetheless celebrate it, however irregularly. Very little needs to be said, of course, about the Catholic Church’s exaltation of this sacrament. The shocking thing about this towering sacrament, however, is that there is very little chance that it was instituted by the historical Jesus, at least in its present form.

Paul says that he received his doctrine about the Lord’s Supper from a special revelation from Jesus. It is essential to recall that Paul was not an original follower of Jesus. Paul never knew the historical Jesus. Paul was never an apostle; rather, he invented his own definition of “apostle” and made sure that it was broad enough to include himself. Paul on more than one occasion vehemently eschewed any notion that his Christ-doctrine, his Gospel, was derived in whole or in part “from men” – the men in this case being those who knew and followed the historical Jesus. Therefore Paul cut himself off from, and actually disdained the testimony of those who knew Jesus – those whom he dismissed as “so-called Pillars” of the Jerusalem Church. Armed with this knowledge, it comes as no surprise to the alert reader that Paul would introduce a new doctrine that came not from the historical Jesus or his disciples, but from a special revelation from Paul’s mystical, risen, exalted-glorified heavenly Lord.

Had the Pauline Eucharist been widely practiced in the church, Paul would not need to be introducing it as a novelty to a congregation that apparently had never heard of it. What we see Paul doing is conveying a personal revelation which mandates a new ritual for his congregations, a ritual that does not go back to Jesus.

Knowing Paul, his Eucharistic testimony is a bit startling, because Paul famously gives only a smattering of data that might possibly refer to the real Jesus. For example, Paul never mentions Jesus’ miracles, exorcisms, parables, conflicts with Pharisees; beyond Jesus’ death on the cross, Paul never mentions Jesus’ final days, his arrest, his Jewish trial, his appearance before Pilate, his ascent of Golgotha, his final words, or his burial by friendly Jews. Yet with jarring obtrusiveness, abruptly and seemingly out of nowhere, Paul gives “historical” details of a final supper held by Jesus on “the night before he was handed over”, in which Jesus institutes the Eucharist, in which his “body” is identified with broken bread and his “blood” is identified with wine, to be repeated as a “remembrance” of him, and to display community awareness of his death (1 Corinthians 11: 23-30). Paul seems to believe that the rite is a real link with Jesus, because he warns against partaking of it “unworthily”, and recommends an examination of conscience before consuming the ritual elements.

Obviously, Paul did not derive the Last Supper tradition from the Gospels and certainly not from Jesus’ Judean disciples. Rather, he himself is “instituting” it by conveying it to his audience. There is no compelling reason to charge Paul here with lying or “making stuff up”.

Paul was prone to mystical states, visions and revelations. His Eucharistic revelation seems to be just one more example of his mystical tendencies. Paul may have received his Eucharist from the glorified Jesus; from his own creative unconscious; from Judaic tradition or from (say) the Mithraic or other pagan myths that prevailed in his culture. The pagan explanation seems to be the least satisfactory because elsewhere, Paul is vitriolic in his condemnation of pagan ideas and rituals. The Judaic explanation hits a little closer to home, if only for the simple reason that Jews traditionally lcelebrated bread and wine consumption, both at regular meals and at Passover. But none of them associated home-blessed meals and Passover feasting with the symbolic consumption of a prophet’s flesh and blood. The real answer to where Paul got his Eucharist lies hidden in the depths of his own psyche. Yet the Eucharist is mentioned in all four Gospels, and is a widely-attested practice in primitive Christianity. So the question then becomes: what did the Eucharist mean for early Christianity, and why was it so universally ascribed to Jesus’ institution?

Most Eucharists were celebrated with bread and wine or bread and water. Many Eucharistic liturgies were sacrificial, in that they were linked to Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, and re-presented it in a non-bloody manner. However, the famous Didache, an early Eucharistic manual with strong Judaic affinities, did not primarily link the bread and wine to Jesus’ salvific death. Apparently there were different Eucharists for different congregations. Yet all seem to share with Paul the idea that Jesus held a special meal just before he died, wherein he ascribed special significance to the meal’s bread and wine.

My very tentative theory is that the Eucharist combines three elements:

1. The Pauline mystery previously discussed

2. Jesus’ practice of “table fellowship” or “open commensality” (John Crossan’s term)

3. Jesus’ substitution  of bread and wine for the temple’s sacrificial elements of animal flesh and blood;

See Bruce Chilton’s theory in the article at:

One of the most striking features of Jesus’ ministry was his openness to the marginalized elements of his society. He was prone to traveling for days in open air with prostitutes, the possessed, tax collectors, and a host of social “rejects”. This policy was especially noticable in Jesus’ selection of meal partners. He could be found at meals, from the poorest celebrations to dinners with prominent teachers, Pharisees, and businessmen. The basis of Jesus’ cross-social meal fellowship was most likely an illustration of the universality of the Kingdom of God. All were invited to the table, but the marginalized and condemned would very often be the first to be seated. So already during his ministry, Jesus was using meals as examples of what life on earth should be like; life lived already in God’s Kingdom.

It is only a small stretch to picture Jesus developing open commensality to an even finer point among his most intimate disciples. It is easy to picture Jesus – in this private arena – attaching teachings to such a confidential, sequestered practice.

It seems that Jesus was in conflict with the current temple sacrificial system. He spoke against it, and finally he organized a protest demonstration that interrupted temple animal sacrifice. In this, Jesus was not being un-Jewish. Rather, he was reiterating a long-held minority-prophetic condemnation of temple sacrifice, as voiced in:

Jeremiah chapter 7: “Has this house, which is named for Me, become a den of robbers? … For I said nothing to your fathers about burnt offerings in the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt; but this I commanded them, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be my people…’ ”

And Hosea, “Loyalty is my desire, not sacrifice; not whole offerings but the knowledge of God”; “the Lord has no delight in sacrifices”.

And Isaiah, “I have no desire for the blood of bulls, sheep, he-goats – who asked you for this? There is blood on your hands – go wash yourselves clean” … “Who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a person”.

And Amos, “I will not accept your offerings  but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”.

And Psalms 40:66, “You [O Lord] did not desire sacrifice and offering … you have not required burnt offering and sin offering”.

Perhaps Jesus attached his own temple-protestation to his intimate meals with his disciples, and perhaps his final meal was regarded as the culmination of his revolt. In such a case, as Bruce Chilton has suggested, Jesus’ “words of institution” are transformed:

“This, my flesh” does not mean Jesus’ own body. It means that he is substituting bread as his choice of sacrifice. No more animal flesh is to be offered, but only the wheat-offering that Jesus and his disciples will present as a new form of sacrifice.

“This, my blood” does not mean Jesus’ own blood. It means that the sacrifice he and his disciples will bring to the altar will now be wine, not animal blood.

According to this interpretation, the traditional mistake has been to think that Jesus was speaking personally and autobiographically, as if he were identifying his own flesh with bread and his own blood with wine – whereas his real intent and usage  of “my” and “mine” is entirely possessive, not subjective. His “my” simply means, “Here is MY new substitute for flesh; here is MY alternative ‘wine, not blood’ sacrifice.”

Perhaps a blending of Pauline mystery, a memory of the open commensality that Jesus practiced during his ministry, plus a new sacrifice/anti-temple teaching attached to his final meal(s) account for the rich symbolism of the Eucharist as we have it today.

What Christmas Means … To Me

To me, Christmas means several things:

1. A time to celebrate Winter

2. A time to celebrate family and friendships

3. A time to celebrate the Nature-based “Pagan” solstice

4. A time to celebrate the birth of Christ

The only controversial items on this list, of course, relate to religion. Pagans may still constitute a minority in American religion, but they are not to be dismissed. After all, theirs is the oldest Winter celebration known in the Northern Hemisphere. Evergreen boughs are gathered; candles lit; trees are cut down, brought into homes, and decorated … all in an ancient Winter feast which, charmingly, also  anticipates Summer’s return.  As Doctor Who so recently commented, Yule is the time when we acknowledge that we have survived half of the dark months; and now we anticipate, with the sun’s ascendency, the great Greening. Yes, the sun has died on the year’s shortest day. But then it begins to rise again. In the darkest of Winter, Christmas – or Yuletide in Pagan terms – celebrates the sun’s resurrection. For most people who enjoy natural beauty and the change of seasons, Christmas as the Pagan Yule-solstice strikes deep chords of resonance, and all but the most cultish, hard-headed Abrahamists seriously object to it. It needs no deep or detailed explanation or apology.

However, Christmas as a religious celebration of Christ’s birth does not get by so easily in modern American society, bemused as it is with philosophical and economical materialism. A fashionable “new” atheism pounces on the holiday as an irrational, irresponsible reversion to archaic myth. The anti-Christmas sentiment, if not the “war against Christmas”,  is so prevalent that public acknowledgments of Christmas, and even sometimes the well-meant expression “Merry Christmas” are often met with displeasure and uttered in fear of offending  “non-Christmas” people. It has come to the supremely ironic point that celebrating Christ’s birth on the traditionally designated day is looked on as absurd – as an observance, which, simply because it is religious, is necessarily meaningless and silly, and ought to be embarrassing to those who do take it seriously.

I take Christmas seriously. I am not a Christian and have no significant connection to the organized Abrahamic faiths. I celebrate this holiday for all four of the reasons that begin this article. And I do not exclude the Christian perspective. When I – a non-Christian – celebrate the birth of Christ, I celebrate different things, inclusive of but not limited to the following.

1. The birth of a messianic leader, “messianic” in the sense that everyone who does “righteousness” is already participating in a messianic agenda. This dignified ideal of ancient Judaism found its way into Jesus’ sectarian movement and from there into the Gentile-Hellenistic world.

2. The birth of an enlightened sage who would teach a godly form of compassion and wisdom and establish in the world a community for embodying the virtues of his teachings – the founding of a heavenly kingdom on earth.

3. The birth of the Jesus of Nazareth who would embrace all people, but especially the ignorant, ill, crippled,  “sinful” and socially unacceptable, and proclaim that they are the first to enter heaven’s kingdom.

4. The birth of Jesus, whose parables, in Robert Funk’s words, point to a fabulous “beyond” which is nevertheless embedded in the common reality in which we already participate:  Jesus who said, “The Father’s kingdom is spread over the earth, but people do not see it.”

5. The birth of Jesus, whose infancy stories invert common social values and challenge unjust domination systems. If Christians have Jesus as their “Lord”, they cannot also have Caesar as their Lord-Emperor. The implications are obvious: Jesus taught his followers to trust in an ever-present divinity and living Spirit, not human socio-political institutions that all-too frequently exploit the poor for the sake of the rich. Even the infant Jesus, whom the “wise men” of the world once paid homage, was already a threat to Empire, then and now.

6. The birth of Jesus, a Jewish mystic in the stream of mystical Judaism, whose socio-religious reforms were founded in his experience of divine union. “The Father and I are one,” he said, adding “I pray that they all be one, even as you and I, Father, are one.” Jesus was confident that his experience of divine union and hence divine sonship could be shared with and known by others. Hence the second letter of Peter  famously says that Jesus’ work was “to make us partakers in the divine nature”.

7. The birth of Jesus, who like the Buddha, taught a way of death followed by resurrection: “To find yourself, you must lose yourself”; “Take up your cross daily, and follow me”; “To lose your life for the Kingdom is to gain eternal life”. A daily dying to self (the false self or  ego defined as “the anxious, grasping self”), will, in Jesus’ view, result in entry into the Kingdom. Similarly, dying to ego will, in the Buddha’s view, result in entry into Bodhi. For both enlightened teachers, ego is at the root of all discontent, blindness, and selfishness. For both, “salvation” consists in a “dying” to an old self and a “rising” into a new self. Inasmuch as I affirm and value the Buddha’s path, so too do I affirm and value Jesus’ path: the path of ego-transcendence and spiritual transformation.

8. The birth of Jesus, whose spiritual and ethical teachings, if rightly applied, could bring a new measure of real peace on earth. Jesus is not called “the Prince of Peace” for poetic and religio-political rationales alone. If Christians and others practiced what Jesus preached, it is possible that our current society would be far less enmeshed in the final spasms of a fading empire, and more open to sharing with, rather than dominating, the world. And that consideration alone is a sufficiently meaningful to prompt celebration of his birth.