A conflict of visions
Two competing moral visions dominate the modern Christian mind: the patriarchal vision and the egalitarian vision.
The patriarchal vision seeks to maintain certain socio-political inequalities so as to preserve the national identity—understood to be both primordial and immutable. In this task fathers, husbands, and men generally are divinely-appointed to rule over their households, tribes, and nations in accordance with the ancestral customs, traditions, and most importantly, cults. By upholding one’s own particular ethnic manifestation of the patriarchy over and against other ethnic manifestations of it, nations were thought to attract the blessings of their heavenly fathers (e.g. fertility, prosperity, power, etc.) and avoid their curses (e.g. famine, invasion, civil war, etc.).
This patriarchal moral vision prevailed in the pre-modern world. For the Deuteronomistic Historians who attempted to make sense of Israel’s ruin, for example, the ancient Israelites had struggled under the might of neighboring nations because they proved unwilling to devote themselves solely (or correctly) to their own fathers—to Jacob, to Moses, to David, and to YHWH, the God of their fathers.
The egalitarian vision, on the other hand, seeks to subvert certain socio-political inequalities so as to allow each individual the freedom to pursue his or her happiness and actualization without hindrance. Egalitarians therefore view many social hierarchies (e.g. patriarchy) as repressive to self-expression and thus harmful to free society. Within this humanistic moral framing, matters of identity, association, and (cultic) obligation are held to rest in the hands of each rational person, not in the hands of fathers, elders, priests, or any other patriarchal guardian of the ancestral traditions. Indeed, the egalitarian thinker often views the nationalistic impulse in an antagonistic light—as the suppression of individual liberty and individual expression so as to achieve what amounts to a restrictive social construct.
While neither of these value-systems are exclusive to Christianity, most modern Christians subscribe to one or the other in some accommodated form.
All things to all men
Although these two moral visions are incompatible in how they conceptualize the nature and purpose of human society, members of both ideological camps claim Jesus as their own. Jesus is at once the champion of patriarchal rule and the pioneer of democratic society. He is both the ethical ideal for the traditionalist and the ethical ideal for the progressive; both the archetypal reactionary, jealous for his people and his cult, and the archetypal revolutionary, grieved by chauvinism and oppression. He is all things to all men.
But who’s right? Is Jesus the master of the patriarchal order? Or is he the sage of the liberated individual? As it turns out, probably neither.
A man of the past
Unfortunately for the egalitarian, Jesus was a man of the ancient past. He did not contemplate issues of ethnicity, gender, slavery, etc. in accordance with democratic ideals. For all intents and purposes, rather, Jesus was a Jewish patriot and a patriarchal teacher of his ancestral law; he was unperturbed by hierarchical social structures in and of themselves. Glimpses of his much-too ordinary-moral disposition appear throughout the Gospels. Consider, for instance, the ways Jesus speaks of masters and slaves; how he responds to interested gentiles; how he excludes women from his inner circle. The Jesus of the Apocalypse, moreover, commits acts of righteous violence against heretics and religious outsiders (2 Thessalonians 1:5-12, Revelation 2:14-16, 3:9); sexually-rebellious women are included among his casualties (Revelation 2:20-23, 17:16-18, 19:1-3, cf. Ezekiel 16:35-42).
Yet Jesus also taught, many will retort, in ways that subverted the patriarchal order of his nation: he consecrated poverty, rebuked the rich and privileged, disavowed violence and coercion, rejected political power, trivialized natural family relations, and disabused Jews of their ethnic self-confidence. Some theologians propose from this, I think rightly, that Jesus formulated what can be called a “cruciform” ethic—a pattern of self-sacrifice and self-debasement in response to injustice and inequity.
Surely this Jesus is a worthy role-model for the egalitarian Christian.
In virtue of the apocalypse
There is, however, a problem with this line of thought. For all his charisma and plausibility, the egalitarian Jesus is a construct of the modern Liberal mind. He is flesh without bones, blood without veins, content without context. He represents the splintering of the dominical teachings from the hermeneutical architecture that originally gave those teachings meaning and intelligibility. Here’s what I mean.
The Jesus of history is the product not of Liberalism but of a peculiar kind of ancient Jewish reasoning—apocalytpic reasoning to be exact. According to the apocalyptic worldview, the God of Israel is about to act in history to transform the structures of international politics and, by implication, international religion. God will very soon perform Exodus-like feats on behalf of his people to free them from pagan domination and exalt them over ignorant and hostile nations. Without delay, God will act to make righteous Israel the head of these nations and David the highest of their kings. God will strike holy fear into the hearts of haughty princes. Evildoers will perish, nations will be subjected, and the righteous will be rewarded—even raised from the dead. In sum, for ancient Jewish apocalypticists like Jesus, God’s kingdom would soon arrive on earth at which point Yahweh would be confessed as Lord of the οἰκουμένη.
It is these kinds of eschatological expectations that give rise to Jesus’ teachings. A sense of apocalyptic urgency—whether for dread or for exuberance—imbues all that Jesus does and says in the Synoptic Gospels: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel!” (Mark 1:15). Jesus always speaks with this climactic horizon in view, with one eye on God’s watch.
What this means is that Jesus is not the moral philosopher of common Christian piety. His ethical considerations are historically-contingent, a means to an apocalytpic end. He speaks against the patriarchal structures of second temple Judaism—in all their power and wealth—not as an enlightened humanitarian, but as the prophet of a coming catastrophe. “Abandon ship!” he cries as he peers out upon the apocalyptic iceberg ahead.
For Jesus then, the usual patriarchal observance of Israel’s ancestral law, traditions, and cult was no longer adequate for the survival of the ἔθνος and for the fulfillment of its ancient ambitions, the covenantal promises. Not even the righteousness of the Pharisees could make God’s face shine upon his people now. Through gross covenantal betrayal Israel had now entered into a period of crisis and looming judgement. There was no turning back to more stable times. The kingdom was at hand, but so were the fires of Gehenna.
These terrifying future prospects demanded extreme measures. In order to save as many of Jacob’s children as possible Jesus set out to circumvent Israel’s entrenched and seemingly-doomed patriarchal structures. Those unbelieving fathers, elders, and lawyers, unfortunately representative of an Israel condemned to destruction, would not be allowed to consign the whole nation to annihilation. Jesus would wield a great sword (i.e. his divisive gospel proclamation) so as to cut through the sinews of his people, turning sons against fathers and fathers against sons (Matthew 10:35-38). He would usurp the role of supreme prophet-patriarch of the nation, calling Israel’s sons into his brotherhood irrespective of parental approval (Mark 1:19-20). He would demand a loyalty that superseded filial obligations (Luke 9:61-62, 14:26) and he would construct among his disciples a familial structure capable of replacing the natural family that had been left behind: “Let the dead bury their own dead” (Luke 9:59-60, cf. Mark 3:31-35, 10:28-30).
Confronted with such unusual circumstances, Jesus would call Israel’s sons to abandon their households, their fathers’ trades, even their wives and children: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Jesus’ mission to Israel was simply too urgent; the natural and patriarchal propagation of one’s family name would have to be ditched in favor of a celibate itinerancy: “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven!” (Luke 10:20, cf. 14:20, 18:28-30, 20:34-35, Matthew 19:11-12, 1 Corinthians 7:8, Revelation 14:4). Israel’s patriarchy, in other words, would have to be reconfigured around faith in Jesus and his frantic apocalyptic mission. Those who continued to enjoy natural life by “eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage and buying and selling, planting and building” would be caught unawares by the eschatological flood (Luke 17:22-30). Those who maintained table-fellowship with unbelieving family and friends would soon find themselves in the outer darkness (Luke 14:12-14).
Ethics after apocalypse
The apocalypse of early Christian anticipation, real or imagined, therefore, has thus fixed a great chasm between the historical Jesus and the modern Christian. As we read the Gospels we look upon not the ideal human being, fit to be followed in all times and all places, but the ideal Jew under the conditions of pagan hegemony at the end of the age. He is, for us, an inimitable Jesus—a Jesus who resists our desire to follow him. Neither egalitarian nor patriarchal, his moral vision extends only to the edge of his eschatological horizon, to the edge of the apocalypse.
Two interpretive avenues are left to the believer, I believe: 1) Retrieve Jesus’ imminent eschatological expectations along with his radically ascetic and cruciform program or 2) Prophetically construct a system of ethics for this new period in the history of God’s people, after the apocalypse, after Christendom.
8 thoughts on “The inimitable Christ: Christian ethics before and after the apocalypse”
Retrieving Jesus’ imminent eschatological expectations along with his radically ascetic and cruciform program won’t happen; however, prophetically constructing a system of ethics for this new period in the history of God’s people is what Christians have been doing for centuries (and what they will continue to do for centuries to come).
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That’s right. And I don’t think we need to pretend as though this Christian ethical construction is simply the imitation of Jesus. It’s much more complicated than that and it always has been.
I think that Jesus held unusual views about the relationship between women and men. There were women in his companionship (Luke 8:1-3). The prominent role of Mary Magdalene as an apostle to the apostles is noteworthy. The Gospels more often mention women compared to other texts of the same era. Jesus spoke to women in public (Luke 7:11-17), and he was compassionate for them and respected their dignity, even when they were sinners (Luke 7:36-50, John 8:3-11). At this point, Jesus ignored traditional Jewish law. His views on marriage were even more unusual. Divorce was out of the question. Because Jesus lived in a patriarchal society, and the Gospels were written decades after he preached, we can infer that his views may have been even more radical.
Consider the following. Scholars think 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is a later addition. It claims that the man is the head of the family. The same applies to 1 Corinthians 14:34–35. It orders women to be silent in the churches. A reason for suspecting that the latter passage is added is that several manuscripts have it at the end of the chapter instead of its usual location. Textual critics see this as a sign that a note has been copied into the body of the text by a scribe. The First Epistle to Timothy argues not to permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man and that women must be quiet (1 Timothy 2:12). Paul most likely never wrote this letter. It probably is written after Paul’s death by an unknown author.
The most plausible reason for these modifications (or should I say falsifications) is that in early Christianity women were equal to men and that patriarchy only reestablished itself after several decades.
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I’m hesitant to conclude that Jesus’ kindness toward women was all that unusual or explicitly subversive of Jewish patriarchal norms. Jesus seems to have anticipated the renewal of a tribal Israelite governing body among his all male disciples (the twelve tribal heads & the 70/72 elders at Sinai).
Regardless, I would argue Jesus’ apocalyptic circumstances gave rise to whatever breakdown of gender norms that might have occurred in earliest Christianity. When the propagation of the family line no longer matters, the roles women can play in an ancient Jewish patriarchal culture expand/change.
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Excellent, I wrote something related here:
Curious what you think.
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Good article. Even among modern post-Christians our attachment to Jesus as symbol of ideal morality is powerful and engrained. But you are right that religion and politics are two sides of the same coin; there is no original (liberal) Christianity that has been overshadowed by more suppressive/hierchical expressions of the faith through the centuries. Even going back to Jesus, a strange, intolerant, and political apocalypticism motivated his every thought.
Right. If he was transported to today, his political beliefs would fit nowhere along any modern political spectrum. Who from that time could have imagined a thousand things baked into our world view? I think that is a problem with all Bibical exegesis, what the authors meant is probably based on assumptions that are hard to wrap our modern minds around.
Of all the things written by Christians in antiquity, I am not familiar with any that complain that it’s wrong to execute someone for their political views. They all took that for granted as a natural right of governments.
Thanks for reading, your opinion means a lot given the level of your scholarship.