I have to confess this essay is inspired in part by a few lines from the 1980’s British punk band The The called “Armageddon Days Are Here Again”. The lines are “They’ve forgotten the message, and worship the creeds”; “If the real Jesus Christ were to come back today, he’d be gunned down cold by the CIA”; and “If he ever found out who’s hijacked his name, he’d cut out his heart, and turn in his grave”.
THE TWO JESUSES
In America today, there are two overall versions, each of which have their own variations within them, one the invention of those who apply their own bigotries to their definition of Jesus Christ, the other somewhat closer to the actual truth.
White American Jesus
The Jesus Christ that the Christian Supremacist Right in America follows is white and advocates libertarianism, misogyny, American jingoism, chauvinist Zionism, American and Israeli exceptionalism, white supremacy (read between the lines), patriarchy, homophobia (sometimes to an extreme degree), neoliberalism, plutocracy, corporatism, trickled down economics, guns, and a style of theocratic government which places a class of wealthy white ultra-conservative evangelical Christians atop all others in society imposing upon it strict guidelines of behavior supposedly guided by their twisted ideology which is all the while set up to ensure that they are impossible to keep, making it therefore possible to fine (rob), confiscate from, imprison, enslave, and execute (murder) at will any who might stand up to oppose them.
In other words, they stand for everything the “real Jesus Christ” hated; they’re the ones who’ve “hijacked his name”. It is not the name of Yahuweh written on their foreheads and left hands but that of their true god, wealth, or as the Revelation of John the Divine has it, the number 666. All of them, every last member of the right-wing Christian evangelical movement. Wealth is their ultimate god. As for why so many are less than sound economically, well, part of the “prosperity gospel” is that their god grants material riches to those whom he favors, and the rest of the faithful are supposed to look up to and respect their “betters”, in the hopes that if they humble and abase themselves enough, and are submissive to power and obedient to Authority enough, maybe one day they too will be granted material prosperity also.
Someone should let them know that nirvana is samsara.
This version of Jesus Christ is known as White Jesus, American Jesus, or Republican Tea Party Jesus, and sometimes even as Supply Side Jesus. And he is a complete ass. Nor is he anything like the real Jesus Christ, who, by the way, would have no idea who the hell you were talking to or about if you addressed him as such.
Brown Palestinian Jesus
Who was the real Jesus the Christ, without the add-ons and extensions given to him throughout the centuries since he left (died, assumed to heaven, transported to a parallel universe)?
To start off, he was brown, maybe even dark brown, shorter than the average twentieth century American male, and Palestinian rather than European. He probably had a large nose, a typical feature of Semitic people in the Southwest Asia. He almost certainly wore a beard and mustache, but unlike as he is often portrayed, probably had short hair. As he followed the Jewish version of the late ancient Israelite religion, he probably wore a kippah, a tefillin, and tzitzit as part of his daily attire.
As for religious practices, he almost certainly attended synagogue every Sabbath, fasted Mondays and Thursdays, and went to Jerusalem for the major pilgrimage festivals whenever he could do so.
His first language was the Galilean dialect of Palestinian Aramaic, and he no doubt learned Hebrew also. Given that the very Hellenistic and very Roman-friendly capital of Galilee, Autocratoris, was but a few miles from his hometown of Nazareth, he probably had at least a working knowledge of Greek and maybe even Latin. Autocratoris had once been Sepphoris until it was destroyed after the uprising following the death of Herod the Great. Herod Antipas rebuilt and renamed it upon becoming tetrarch of the Roman province of Galilaea and Peraea, making it his capital. Shortly before the Bar Kokhba War of 132-135 CE, the name was changed again to Diocaesarea, in honor of Jupiter and of Roman emperor Hadrian.
He did not go by “Jesus”. Though Clement of Alexandria and Cyril of Jerusalem both argued, if not strongly, that Iesous, the Greek form of the name Jesus, was his actual given name, he very probably did not go by that, though Galilee in the first century was much more cosmopolitan than its neighbor to the south and many had at least a working knowledge of Greek in addition to the common language, Palestinian Aramaic.
In older Hebrew, the name Jesus becomes Yehoshua. By the final centuries BCE, the more common form was Yeshua, but the older form regained some popularity in the Hasmonean era, especially in Galilee. The West Aramaic form of the name was Yeshu, and it is by this name that Jesus the Christ is referred to in the Talmud. However, Palestinian Aramaic, especially in Galilee, shared more features with Eastern Aramaic than Western, in which the name was rendered Isho. That is the name by which Syriac language scriptures that the Oriental Orthodox Churches use call him to this day.
In the earliest days of the Church, before the books of the New Testament as most Christians know them were written, all in koine Greek, rather than “Jesus Christ” or “Jesus the Christ”, our subject was known as Jesus the Nazorean, or Isho Nasraya in his native tongue. In his own day, when he was on the Earth, he went by Isho bar Yossef. Throughout the remainder of this piece, I will be using the name Isho, or Isho the Nazorean.
Isho the Nazorean was a Galilean, not a Jew
The composer (or one of the subsequent editors) of the Gospel of John understood this, which is why he keeps referring to “the Jews” as antagonists of his protagonist. It is not because he is a Christian attacking adherents to the parent religion. The original author (there were at least two major writers/editors and possibly or three or more) was almost certainly from Palestine and would thus have been well aware of the difference.
In first century Palestine, the term Jew had two different meanings. In a broad sense, it meant all those who followed the Jewish faith, those who had inherited that version of the Israelite faith by birth and those who had fully converted, got circumcised, followed the Torah. In the Diaspora, there was little distinction between those of the Jewish faith whose families originated from different regions of Palestine, but in Palestine itself, this was not the case.
Among the non-Samaritan Israelites of Palestine, there were several different ethnic groups, divided by origins of their ancestors in the second century BCE. To be a Jew in first century Palestine meant one came from the core territory of Judaea, called Yehud in Aramaic and Iudaeia in Greek and Iudaea in Latin. The rest of the ethnic groups were made up of descendants of those in territories conquered beginning in the late second century BCE by the Hasmonean dynasts who ruled what was then called Iudeaia.
The first of these were the Idumaeans in the formerly independent land in the Negev also known by its Biblical name, Edom. Second, were the Galileans, residents of Galilaea, or Galil ha-Goyim, “District of the Gentiles”, so-called because its original inhabitants were an Arab tribe known as the Itureans. These Itureans were of the southern part of a broader domain; the northern Itureans remained independent of Yehud. Third were the Peraeans, descendants of Nabateans, an Aramean group, living in territory east of the Jordan River conquered by the Hasmoneans in the early first century CE.
All three of these populations were forcibly converted. To help cement their hold and get rid of undesirables, the Hasmoneans resettled hundreds of dissidents in Galilaea. Others no doubt also moved there did so of their own accord, but those who voluntarily left the “holy land” were not looked upon favorably, so Jews, in the first century definition, had little trust for any Galileans.
Without grasping this cultural fact, it is impossible to understand things in the gospels such as the Parable of the Workers, or why the author of the Gospel of John, probably a Galilean who if he did not live in Galilee was almost certainly from there originally (or just very culturally aware), constantly spoke of the “Jews” as if they were a foreign people.
The Hasmoneans also conquered their neighbors to their immediate north a couple of years later the Idumeans, but treated the Samaritans as untouchables. In large part this was due to rivalry going back to the ninth century BCE which had led to there being two Israelite kingdoms in Palestine in the first place. Then there’s the fact that even after their temple was destroyed, the Samaritans refused to accept the temple in Jerusalem as their holy place.
Some of the anomosity was no doubt jealousy; Samaraea, called Samerina in Aramaic and Samareia in Greek, was the senior of the two, founded in the early ninth century by Omri the Israelite. Before the conquest, it was also the wealthier and more cosmopolitan, and its temple atop Mount Gerizim near Shechem dwarfed that atop Mount Moriah in Jerusalem in both size and in opulence.
An analogy from twenty-first century Palestine may illustrate the overall point more clearly. The (genetically half Southwest Asian, half European as it turns out) Ashkenazim make up the majority of Jews in both the State of Israel and throughout the world. Despite there being many other ethnic groups of Jews, the rest are often lumped together under the name Sephardim because the Maghrebim, Mizrahim, Parsim, Temanim, etc. have adopted Sephardic liturgy and ritual. The only real Sephardim are those who descend from the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492; the others are more properly called by their ethnonym. The Parsim are Sephardic in that they have adopted the liturgy and ritual, but they are remain Parsim. In a similar way, first century Galileans were Jewish in that they worshipped the same deity as and followed the religious traditions of the Jews, but they were still Galileans, not Jews.