The life and lessons of Jesus Christ have been the subject of contestation for millennia, and like many lives, events and writings have been used in various ways and for various ends. In this Christmas edition of Radical Lives, Father Vlad Nikiforov revisits the life of Jesus to explore the revolutionary elements of his thinking and actions.
What can we know?
For years after Jesus’s death various communities of followers kept his story. Then the existing oral tradition was recorded and so the gospels were composed. These were not the biographies in our modern understanding, instead summarising the faith of a community with Jesus at the centre of its tradition. The precision in describing the facts was not their concern, which is why the historical reliability of the gospel texts ranges from probable to doubtful.
There could be no secrets in the small Palestinian village of Nazareth, and Mary’s reputation suffered after she got pregnant before marriage. As an illegitimate child Jesus did not have a chance of occupying an ‘honourable’ position in society.
Jesus was born to a low class position. His stepfather was an artisan, which in agrarian society occupied a niche below peasants or merchants, only above those who had no respectable trade at all. The family’s social status was made even lower by the region they lived in—rural Galilee was widely considered ignorant, backward and religiously corrupt.
The gospels do not tell us anything about Jesus as a worker, however in his sermons he often told stories which showed a great familiarity with exploitation, injustice and labour conflicts.
John the Baptist, the mentor of Jesus.
A turning point in Jesus’s life was meeting John the Baptist, a popular radical preacher. John was a fierce critic of the moral decline of the society and invited people to show repentance and begin a new life through baptism, the ritual of dipping into the River Jordan. After receiving baptism, Jesus joined John’s circle of disciples which is probably where he learned how to preach to crowds.
The ‘kingdom of God’ and the radical transformation of society.
After John was imprisoned for his criticism of King Herod, Jesus returned to his native Galilee and began his ministry of preaching and healing, becoming a pedagogue of the oppressed.
The main theme of his preaching was the ‘kingdom of God’, which would restore the dignity of the downtrodden by ending the existing social, political and economic order, which was corrupt and morally degraded:
[Jesus said:] “How blessed are you who are poor: the kingdom of God is yours… But alas for you who are rich: you are having your consolation now.” (Luke 6.20, 24)
Jesus held that the kingdom of God would not be established solely by overthrowing the existing authorities, but would necessitate the moral regeneration of the masses. For Jesus this was not a dream of some distant future, but a real possibility initiated by action requiring disciples to be committed, convincing and prepared to challenge the existing authorities who would try to suppress social change.
A religious revolution.
Jesus’s speeches were often full of sharp criticism of the existing social order, which had religion at its centre. Religion legitimised the power of the ruling elite, the patterns of social life and cultural traditions.
The Hebrew religion of the time was built around the code of religious law. One of the ten main commandments prescribed to keep the Sabbath day holy by abstaining from work, travel and many other activities. The gospels mention several occasions when Jesus and his disciples openly disregarded the Sabbath. When asked for the explanation Jesus said:
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; so the Son of man is master even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2.27-28)
These words introduce a new religious paradigm. In Jesus’s interpretation, a religious tradition has value only if it can enhance the value of human life. To put it simply, religion should be humane. The embryonic form of religious humanism is already present here.
The good Samaritan and the criticism of religious law.
Jesus told a vivid story illustrating the previous point:
“A man was once on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of bandits; they stripped him, beat him and then made off, leaving him half dead. Now a priest happened to be travelling down the same road, but when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side… A Samaritan traveller who came on him was moved with compassion when he saw him. He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. He then lifted him onto his own mount and took him to an inn and looked after him… Which of these three, do you think, proved himself a neighbour to the man who fell into the bandits’ hands?”
[The lawyer] replied, “The one who showed pity towards him.”
Jesus said to him, “Go, and do the same yourself”. (Luke 10:30-31, 32-37)
In the story the absence of clothes means that the wounded man’s ethnic or religious identity was not possible to establish: he was just ‘a man’. The priest’s decision to ignore him was not an individual one—touching someone who might be dead would make the priest unable to perform his duties in the Jerusalem temple—rather he had to be inhuman because it was prescribed by his religious law.
Samaritans were a religious minority in the Kingdom of Israel. Jews and Samaritans normally hated each other, but the Samaritan helped the man he knew nothing about despite the tradition of his religion. The idea that compassion should be above the borders set by a religion is yet again a revolutionary turn: from an exclusivist model of religion towards a charter of universal compassion.
Jesus and gender.
The prevalent gender politics of the ancient Mediterranean world confined women to the domestic sphere, and although Jesus did not leave a clearly articulated teaching about gender, his treatment of women broke away from the standard model of his time.
The gospels mention a large number of women in contact with Jesus not in the home but in public—both in his ministry and in the community—and women were among the disciples of Jesus. They were often the central characters of his stories, such as when he saved a woman charged with adultery from death by stoning which had been prescribed by religious law.
Fr Vladimir Nikiforov was born in the USSR. While receiving a free university education he organised an underground Christian community for dissidents and non-conformists—a sideline that attracted the attention of the secret police who put him in prison. He was later given political asylum in Sweden before moving to the UK to study, teach and work at multiple universities. He took part in student demonstrations and occupations in 2010 and now lives in Sussex.