A Christian humanist take on Easter
For the past 2,000 years, Christians have accepted St Paul’s view that Jesus was the sacrificial Lamb of God whose death on the cross atoned for human sin, providing salvation as a “free gift”. However, in the light of recent historical research, it may be time to revise that version of Easter and, indeed, the whole Christian theological position.
Many biblical historians see Paul as out of step with the other Apostles and their leader James, the brother of Jesus. These intimate associates of Jesus saw no redemptive value in the crucifixion and remained firmly wedded to Judaism after it. They accepted Jesus as a Messiah but believed redemption would only be secured by a second coming and, in the meantime, they continued to observe the Jewish Day of Atonement. Their priority seems to have been to carry on Christ’s humanist work — his compassionate care of the poor and his campaign against the corrupt religious elites based in the Jerusalem Temple.
Professor J. D. Crossan is just one of many scholars who now see Jesus steeped in this Judaic prophetic tradition, elevating a thirst for justice and compassionate activism as “the new cornerstone”, the supreme commandment of Judaic law.
Unlike the Apostles, Paul based his position on an epiphany — metaphysical voices and hallucinations. But while his Christology gradually prevailed over that of the original Apostles, it is their more humanist perspective that dominates the four gospels, even though they were written decades after Christ’s death when Paul’s influence was at its zenith.
Indeed, for anyone not saturated in Christian orthodoxy, it is hard to find any gospel validation for Paul’s take on the crucifixion. There is only one reference in Matthew’s gospel where Christ said he was shedding his blood “to forgive the sins of multitudes” (Matt. 26:28) and Paul seems to have hitched his wagon to this verse. Yet when those words are placed in the historical context of Christ’s mission, they take on a very different meaning to the one Paul derived.
In Galilee where Christ focused most of his campaign, the “multitudes” were afflicted with widespread disease and rural poverty, often caused by the dispossession of their land. This misery was exacerbated by being connected with sinfulness. Strict “purity” rules, enforced by the religious establishment, were based on the assumption that all who suffered adversity were being punished by God for their sinfulness. The greater the suffering, the larger the sin. Thus the multitudes who endured great hardship and physical disability were also effectively outcasts in their own land, no longer worthy to be counted among “God’s chosen people”. This “poverty of spirit” — a crushing burden of guilt — compounded their dire material condition and produced a deep yearning for forgiveness.
But in what sense was Jesus “shedding his blood” for these unfortunates?
The event that triggered his crucifixion was his assault on the Jerusalem Temple. However this was not an attack on Judaism as Christians sometimes like to believe, but the corrupted form of it as practised by the Temple. By the first century, the Temple had fallen into serious disrepute. Its priests were largely drawn from the Sadducean aristocracy who had prospered under Roman rule. They imposed their own heavy religious taxes (tithes) on the countryside and accumulated vast land holdings by evicting small indebted farmers from their land. For the latter, now rendered sinful and “impure”, the only way back was to gain forgiveness through the sacrificial rites of the Temple. But that path was largely blocked by the Temple elites who had a vested interest in perpetuating this oppressive culture of guilt. They made the sacrificial offerings expensive and the processes complicated, thus closing a tight circle of oppression.
Various Jewish sects emerged in protest against this gross injustice. The Essenes completely split from Temple Judaism and set up their own communities and Christ’s precursor, John the Baptist had started a renewal movement offering an alternative means of forgiveness through his baptism ritual. King Herod, who was closely allied with the Temple aristocracy, had John beheaded. But if the Temple establishment was perturbed by John, it was incensed by the challenge that Jesus posed to their exclusive right to forgive sins. For Jesus did not just offer a symbolic forgiveness. His healing miracles actually cured people of their physical afflictions and thereby eradicated the sin altogether. Here was a competing power of forgiveness that had the potential to put “Temple Inc.” out of business. Its priests arrested him and demanded his crucifixion.
That would seem to be the real meaning of Christ shedding his blood for “the sins of multitudes”. He was compassionately responding to human suffering while also exposing the searing injustice of the oppressive Temple regime. His purpose was not to earn us a free ride to heaven. Quite the contrary, he demanded we “take up our own crosses” and follow him. For some that would also involve martyrdom though, for most, more modest expressions of compassion would suffice — even simply giving “a cup of water to a child”. Compassion could range from fighting poverty and oppression in war-torn hellholes, to targeted philanthropy at home or, simply and importantly, good parenting.
If this is the real message of Easter, it is an intensely powerful and humanist one. It would require Christians to focus far more on this world and less on the next if they are to find redemption in either. It implies our fate and destiny lies not in God’s hands but our own. We are still flawed. We will still rely on God’s strength and should dedicate all our compassionate efforts to God, seeking to glorify Him — not our egos. That is how we are most likely to find God, through compassion for suffering humanity, especially its most vulnerable members — “the least of these my brothers” (Matt. 25:32–45).
On the eve of the first Easter when he sealed his fate by driving the corrupt vendors from the Temple, Jesus did not go inside to pray or worship. Instead he proceeded to heal “the blind and the crippled”, who were brought to him there. That is how he chose to glorify God, not on his knees but in the real world of pain and torment.
This Easter, Christians might reflect on this alternative perspective of Jesus, the enormity of human suffering in this world, the true meaning of sin, forgiveness and redemption, the real purpose of Christ’s mission and what it implies about the purpose for our existence. They may conclude as I have, that it is time to sideline Paul and radically revise their theology along more humanist lines.
Tom Drake-Brockman is author of Christian Humanism: The Compassionate Theology of a Jew Called Jesus.