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At the Holiday Season: What This Jew Believes About Jesus

01/01/2014 10:14 pm ET | Updated Mar 03, 2014

From the jump, let me say that what I believe about the man is not devotional. I don't hold with the idea that any remotely Jewish notion of God -- and we do know that he emerges, in Christian texts themselves, wholly sprung from Judaism -- can sustain the idea of human blood atonement for sin (or for anything else). Judaism quite early and decisively rejects that idea when God's messenger explicitly forbids Abraham, wholly prepared to show obedience to the idea of the One God by slaughtering his son, from wielding the dagger. I cannot imagine any Judaism or anything born of Judaism reversing the paradigm. That story, it seems to me, is about ultimate loyalty to The Unseen and the thorough rejection of anything remotely condoning of human blood atonement for any purpose.

Yet, short of the divine, I am thoroughly comfortable with a Jesus of remarkable presence, intellect, charisma, philosophical nuance. Prophet? I don't know. What I do know is that he grew up in a world increasingly economically and politically strangled by foreigners for hundreds of years and by, in his day, the most routinely brutal regime in western history before the Nazis.

--In Judea (southern Israel) alone, Rome records 50,000 Jews crucified in the fifty years after his birth. You can do that math and know how routine a sight the lined up corpses were. And that was the point: while crucifixion was used all over the empire, it was used in Judea daily precisely because Rome knew that it was a slap to the oppressed person's religion to allow a body to remain in the open after sundown.

--In the twenty years prior to and after Jesus' murder, hundreds, if not thousands, of miracle-men went out to the Judean desert, starved themselves silly, returned through the city gates ranting about the Coming and the Presence, nearly all cast off as lunatics by their own families let alone by the religious authorities and the mob. We read of the more successful ones, men who were likely not loons, magicians such as Honi-The-Circle-Maker, credited with mass- and random healings and feedings and many other good works.

Josephus even speaks of a man, Jesus (another Jesus), so loud in his messianic assurances to the sleeping city night after night four years or so after The Crucifixion, that he was taken up by the citizenry who just wished to sleep and the poor man was never heard from again. And there was yet another Messiah who, three or so years before the Gospels' Jesus, threw rock after rock at Romans with arrows and bows in the Temple Precinct, and again, at The Passover. One of them couldn't take it any longer, shot the man from a Temple parapet, and caused a panic in which 30,000 Jews and Romans were killed and trampled in a matter of minutes.

What does this tell me?

If nothing else, it tells me that the Gospels' Jesus was, without question had to be, a stand-out among stand-outs, among the most spectacularly remarkable men of his or of any generation. None of these others, not a one, gets the ink, the serious, ink, anything remotely like the painstaking devotional histories this man received.

And understand: in the ancient world there was no history, no biography among the masses (even in oral literature) that looked anything like what we'd agree is biography. All biography was inseparable from the devotional. Even the court biographers of the Emperor Augustus/Octavian wrote of a miraculous winter solstice virgin birth, and that, a hundred or so years before the Gospels' Jesus.

And this isn't to denigrate Jesus.

It is a measure of what must have been his overwhelming interpersonal power and philosophical vision in a radically anti-Roman, Jewish theological context that an almost certainly illiterate Galilean carpenter's boy became the subject and object of this fierce reaction and devotion.

He was a man, a one-of-a-kind performance artist, an interpersonal genius who could lay out a potential for a world free of oppression, full of decency...it is all laid out here before you....That is the very essence of the Jewish idea that the Kingdom of Heaven is here, is now, if people will only be willing to eat at a common table, multiply loaves and fish through a desire for common uplift and not just that of the few, and not a world of venal division based on greed. It's an essential vision, about as powerful a personal and political and economic vision as you can find, one wholly embedded in his communitarian Jewish tradition.

Consider the raw visceral and heady power this man must have had to convince so many, in his own rather barbaric time and place, that the justice vision of prophetic Judaism to which he passionately subscribed, that it was, that it remains, possible.