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Tuesday, March 26, 2024

A Life of Jesus

Several months ago I ran across an article about a new movie project by Martin Scorcese. Initially I had heard the (false) rumor that he was going to do a gender-flipped movie about Jesus (with women playing the parts of Jesus and His disciples), so I looked it up to find out if that was true. After all, the last time M.S. made a film about Jesus, it was "controversial" to say the least! But it turns out the rumor was partly true - Scorcese apparently is ready to start shooting a movie based on the book A Life of Jesus which was written in the early 1970's by a Japanese author named Shūsaku Endō (no, I don't know how to pronounce it!) I immediately looked it up in my local library's catalog, and discovered that they do not own a copy, but I could get one via interlibrary loan. I made the request, and after a shorter-than-you-might-expect wait, I had the book in my hands!

The book was originally written in Japanese, for a Japanese audience. Shūsaku Endō was a rare Japanese Catholic, and he was writing the book for his countrymen. The situation, as I have read about it, is that the Japanese are more of a matriarchal society than the historically patriarchal West, and the Japanese (again according to what I read, I do not have personal experience) don't particularly take well to the miraculous. Reportedly, Endō deliberately focused on the more motherly aspects of Jesus' ministry, and I did find that to be the case. But even we Westerners who are used to the "Father and Son" paradigm can get some nice takeaways from this book.

A Life of Jesus is not a narrative retelling of the Gospels like Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice (I wrote about that book here). This book is more like sitting around with a novelist (which Endō was) who has done a lot of research about Jesus, listening to him tell you about his research. And the author clearly did his homework. He had traveled to and was familiar with the Holy Land, and he had read tons of scholarship and writings by Theologians about the life of Christ. And I agree with the starting point for his journey: there are "facts" and there is "truth", and the writers of the Bible were basically more interested in the "truth" than in detailed "facts". That's why if you read the four Gospels and pay close attention, you'll find that events sometimes are related in a different order, and different details are given about the same event. For many years I've been of the opinion that it is too much coincidence to believe that every time in the Bible that there is a crowd or an army or a city, the number of people is always a round number (as in, Jesus fed exactly 5,000 people, not 5,025 or 4,904). In today's culture, we are obsessed with finding out exact facts. The writers of the Gospels (and, indeed, the entire Bible) were much more interested in showing us who God is than, say, what Moses ate for breakfast, or what color the apostle Peter's eyes were. I think that is partly cultural, too... I don't know that middle-Eastern people living in the desert 2,000 years ago were that interested in precision. They had a story to tell, and as long as they hit the main points, that was okay.

So from that starting point and with the mind of a novelist, Endō begins to read the lines, and then read between them. And he has some pretty interesting things to say, too. For example – there was a group in the setting where the Gospels take place called the Essenes. We know about them through history, but they are not mentioned directly in the Bible. These are the group that allegedly compiled what we now call the Dead Sea Scrolls. Endō draws some interesting and startling conclusions about them. First, he theorizes that they were a political threat to Rome, and that is why the Gospels skirt around their existence – to lessen the chances that the Gospels would be seen as subversive literature and destroyed (this seems plausible to me). Second, he theorizes that John the Baptist was either their leader or someone in high leadership (okay, I can follow Endō to this conclusion). But then, oddly, he jumps to the conclusion that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist, and basically took over John's role when John was executed.

And that's the way a lot of this book went for me. I kept feeling like Endō was making some interesting points, but then going one or two steps too far. I think Jesus had a lot of respect for John, but I don't think Jesus was a disciple of John and I don't think that Jesus was just the best runner-up that people could find to follow once John was gone. I think Jesus superseded John in every way possible, because Jesus is God and John the Baptist is not. 

Another characteristic of this book is that it rarely mentions the miracles of Jesus, choosing to focus on His teachings and on what the author imagines his personality must have been like (remember, this was written by a novelist!) There is of course precedent to this – Thomas Jefferson actually constructed his own copy of the Gospel accounts by physically (with a razor blade) cutting out anything miraculous or spiritual, leaving only Jesus' teachings (at least Endō does not leave out the Resurrection, as Jefferson did!) Endō tells us that the Gospels were based on older documents containing lists of things Jesus said (probably more or less true), and that the miraculous parts were mostly added in later by the Early Church to spice things up (have I mentioned that sometimes he goes a step too far for me?) Except for the Resurrection, he essentially tries to explain away Jesus' miracles and healings. One idea that I found interesting, even though I don't believe it is the truth, is that the signs of demon possession in the Gospels could be explained away as rantings of someone hallucinating with a case of malaria. He doesn't say, but implies, that casting out demons was really just sitting with people until their fever broke. He says outright that the story of Lazarus' resurrection is symbolic and not factual.

He also basically says that any fulfillment of prophecy that you see in the Gospels (such as Zechariah 9:9 which is fulfilled in Matthew 21) were added later by the Early Church. They knew the prophecies, he argues, and made up stuff to match them. I think there are two things that are more likely than that. One of the things is that the prophecies were of something that was going to happen in the future, and it happened, because that's what a prophecy is. The other possibility in my mind is that Jesus knew the prophecies, and when the time was right, He did what God had lined out for Him to do and deliberately fulfilled the prophecies out of obedience to His Father. I believe the truth has a little of each of those things in it. What I don't think is that the Early Church deliberately manipulated the accounts of Jesus' life in order to make them more exciting. I tend to think Jesus' life was already plenty enough exciting!

But Endō doesn't seem to think so. He paints a pretty plaintive picture for us of a moody, saddened Jesus who walked around thinking about how nobody really understood Him. He goes so far as to say that when Jesus sent out His disciples to minister, it was because Jesus Himself was going into hiding because the crowds were mean to him. I tend to think Jesus was much more concerned with the actual needs of the people than with what people thought of Him.

The author also asserts that Jesus never actually said He was the Messiah. I think the Bible text directly contradicts that idea, and I don't think that the Early Church added that in. He also rejects the idea (from the Gospel accounts) that there was an actual period of darkness and Jesus' death, at which time the earth shook and the temple curtain was torn from top to bottom. I'm not sure why you would believe that Jesus rose from the dead but also reject outright that lesser miracles might have happened when He descended into death, but the author does.

I wish I felt like I had the liberty to assume that entire hunks of the Bible were added later, like fan fiction, but the problem is that I'm convinced that the Bible says what it says for a reason. I don't think there are things in there that are factually untrue. The details are sometimes different, as they will be when two people tell the same story and don't collaborate beforehand, but I tend to think that except for minor details (like that five thousand and first person Jesus probably fed) the things recounted in the Gospels actually happened that way. Ironically, Endō once or twice adds in details from the extra-Biblical Catholic tradition, such as the "falls" of Jesus on the way to the Cross. There's your fan fiction.

He paints a strange picture of Jesus' perception of God. Despite the Gospel reports of Jesus repeatedly using the term "Father" in prayer, Endō tells us this: "He believed that God by his nature was not in the image of a stern father, but was more like a mother who shares the suffering of her children and weeps with them..." Now, understanding that Endō was writing for a specific audience, and that he did not say that God is not a father but that God is not a stern father, I still think this misses the mark a little bit. I think that Jesus experienced and empathized with human suffering, but that was because Jesus actually became a human being. God the Father loves us, and maybe even weeps with use when we are in pain, but He does not suffer, and I don't think Jesus thought He did. The Gospel writers did not presume to put unspoken thoughts in Jesus' head, but 2k years later, Shūsaku Endō somehow thought he could. I'll say it again, though - Endō was a novelist, so his natural mindset tended to work in character development and coherent plot in places where they are absent from the Gospel narratives.

I do think his characterization of Judas Iscariot is interesting. Endō essentially saw all of the disciples as looking for a political victory over Rome, and that's probably not far from the truth on one level; I think they sensed something spiritual happening too, but from their perspective, Messiah was to be their savior from Rome. Judas, on the other hand, is characterized as maybe the smartest in the bunch, seeing potential for political victory but also realizing way ahead of the others that Jesus wasn't going to be a military leader, and that the story of his objection to the woman pouring perfume on Jesus' feet amounts to him implicitly admitting this. The Gospel accounts paint Judas with a broad, vengeful brush, but I almost agree with Endō that they are harsh on Judas a bit unjustly. After all, all of the disciples cut and ran away when the chips were down. I imagine that if nobody had given Jesus up, Jesus would have found a way to surrender himself anyway. Judas did nothing to Jesus that God hadn't planned for ahead of time.

I wouldn't read this book as a devotional handbook. In my opinion, its flaws are too extensive for that. If you are not secure in your understanding of the Scriptures, this book could really introduce some unnecessary confusion and uncertainty. Endō asserts that nothing but a true resurrection of Jesus from the dead could have turned the weak-willed disciples of Jesus into the strong leaders who spread His message all over the world and, tradition tells us, most of whom eventually faced martyr's deaths themselves. But if you are willing to accept the most unlikely miracle of them all, a man coming back to life after being killed, why would you discard other lesser miracles such as healing the sick or casting out demons? And why, with the ultimate miracle in their toolbelt, would any early writer presume to fabricate other lesser miracles? I think this book holds some interesting stuff for someone who isn't easily swayed in their convictions, but in the long run, there are probably better books if you're looking for truths from the Word. For example, start with the Word itself - get comfortable with what it says! Then if you read something like this book, you won't be toppled over by "steps too far" like the ones I see in this book!

Happy Easter!

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