The Danger of Turning Jesus into a Religion

star of david cross1 Thessalonians 2:14-16

Friends, you became understudies of God’s churches in Judea – the ones that are part of the Jesus movement. You take it on the chin from your own people, the same way they suffer at the hands of the Jews – who killed Jesus and the truth-tellers, and who sent us into exile. Not only could they care less what God wants, but they’re setting everyone else back by trying to stop us from talking to anyone outside their own sect. So, they keep adding insult to injury, until at last they’ll get what’s coming to them.

This is one of those unfortunate passages that gets co-opted for the justification of Christian antisemitism. Never mind that (1) Paul was talking about a specific subset of Jews in a specific context that can’t be generalized, and (2) he has completely misunderstood the dynamics of the crucifixion.

  1. Paul was talking about a specific subset of Jews in a specific context that can’t be generalized. Paul is talking about those particular Jews in 1st century Asia minor and Greece who objected to his trying to take over their synagogues with all this Jesus Messiah stuff. Instead of doing what Jesus told his disciples to do, “shake the dust off your feet and move on,” Paul kept insisting on provoking them. I’ve never known any Jewish person who objected to people having other religions. But I’ve known a lot of people, of many religions, who objected to people insisting that you have to be their religion. Which is what Paul was doing. Neither do I know any Jews who object to people spreading the word about non-Jewish religions. What I suppose they might object to is the way Paul represented his new religion as being the pinnacle of Judaism.
  2. Paul has completely misunderstood the dynamics of the crucifixion. Paul projects his own difficulties with people who object to his ministry back into events surrounding the crucifixion, and assumes that the same people were persecuting Jesus, and for the same reasons. As a former Pharisee, Paul knew that what he was preaching was something he had vehemently opposed only a few years before. Paul was a religious zealot, both before and after his conversion. And he cast Jesus, as he casts his enemies, in his own image, making Jesus into a religious figure. But in any case, Jesus was not killed by the Jews but by the Romans, and more specifically, by a collaboration of political and economic powers, both secular and religious. Jesus, unlike Paul, was not persecuted and crucified for starting a new religion, but for inciting a popular non-violent protest against the abuse of both religious and secular power.

Jesus talked a lot about God (as anyone would in the religiously permeated social context of his time and place). But Jesus, unlike Paul, wasn’t about religion. Jesus was about what we might now call restorative social justice. Instead of being against his enemies, Jesus constantly reminded his followers to love them. Something Paul and many after him, in their religious zeal, seem to have forgotten.

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