If you know me well, you probably already know I don't really understand the concept of organized religion well. Most likely my distaste stems from my parent's experiences as well as my own, so you can imagine my dismay when I discovered I was placed into a course entitled "Jesus and Moral Life" during my first semester at Elizabethtown. My immediate thought was "Oh my GOD, where is the DROP button?!"... I pictured in my head lugging a huge King James Bible to class every day only to listen to the professor, a short, stubby, narrow-minded man, drone on about how we're all going to go to Hell for consuming alcohol, getting tattooed, and engaging in possibly risque behavior.
By the end of the term, though, I never wanted to leave the class. It was fascinating. Dr. Michael Long, the professor (to which none of the adjectives above describe), at 9:30 in the morning, managed to completely capture my sleep-deprived conscience to actually have the true desire to care about what he was teaching. God, he is a tremendous professor.
His class wasn't a cake walk, though. There was a fair amount of required reading, which was time consuming, but even now, I haven't resold any of my books because I find them interesting to flip through and read parts still (yes, I am a closet nerd). His assignments and midterms involved truly knowing the information. Below is a paper I wrote for his class on why Jesus was the man that he was. (It's lacking a works cited due to the fact the class all used the same sources.) All of this was written from memory, a requirement for his papers, which let me tell you....it was a bitch to try to recall information at times. But...here it is. It got me an A, although it could me much more organized. My apologies on the vagueness at parts.
Explain the social world of Jesus plus the Jewish World
When a child is born into the world, some parents do everything in their power to care and protect their child from any influences to which they might not want their child exposed as he grows. Try as one might, this battle is one impossible to win, unless a parent keeps his child in a ‘bubble’ of protection, or a shelter from the rest of the world. Parents, too, will play a large role in the shaping of their child. He will most likely go to school, only to be influenced by his classmates and his teachers. The cartoons the child turns on in the afternoon will impact him somehow. If the parents are religious, the child will most likely be exposed to their religion as well. All of these factors and many, many more added together make up what is known as the social world in which one lives.
Social worlds are not a recent discovery or creation in society: They have been around since the dawn of time. Try as one might not to conform to a social world, one still must recognize it. One must either chose to accept the social world in its entirety or parts, or reject all or some of it. No matter who a person is, the social world is always prevalent in one’s life; even for a very extraordinary man like Jesus. Jesus was the man he was, as well as his conveyed message and beliefs, because of how the social world of his time shaped him.
If one were to analyze the societies before Jesus’, it would evident that large cities had not grown yet. Because of the lack of metal, most people lived in small, nomadic groups. As years progressed, tribes started growing more food in settled places instead of seeking it out. These groups were early horticulturists, due to the fact they were harvesting produce but had not yet domesticated animals, nor had they started to expand into larger plots of horticulture, also known as agriculture. The third group of people did start to expand into early agriculturists. They had domestic animals, and were starting to settle into small towns. One may question after analyzing these facts that perhaps Jesus was born at the perfect time: If one considers Jesus being born in an early nomadic society, how would his message have been conveyed to as many people as in Nazareth and Galilee? Perhaps Jesus would not have been as well known. All three of these early societies described above helped to form the one in which Jesus lived. Jesus’ society consisted of two additives that formed his social world: The Roman Empire and the life of the Jewish people. According to Borg, these two parts formed what is known as the preindustrial, agricultural, imperial domination system. One will see that this social world butts heads on more than one occasion with another main part of Jesus’ life: The practice, the Torah, and the Temple of the Jewish people.
In the society in which Jesus grew up, played, and worked, there was a distinct difference between the classes. The largest class was the peasant class, a group consisting of up to roughly ninety percent of the population. This class performed much of the manual labor, especially activities that involved agriculture. Although the peasants worked very hard, many did not see the returns of their hard work. The wealthy class, which made up approximately the other ten percent of the population, gained control over peasant lands. The wealthy class, or urban elites, was also the ruling class, which ‘entitled’ them to take away peasant lands or indenture peasants if the workers went into debt. Life for the peasants was extremely hard, and they lived day to day, just getting by. These two classes helped to form the preindustrial, agricultural, imperial domination system.
By preindustrial, Borg means that this was a time before mass production of goods. One mainly relied on oneself, since specialization was not a part of society. There were no large industries making tools to sell to buyers, since everyone made most of their own tools that were necessary to their trade. Because the society was not industrialized, it resulted in agriculture becoming the main source of wealth.
Agriculture played a key part in the success of Jesus’ society. If one considers that most of the wealth came from agriculture, it would be absolutely devastating to lose crops to a drought. Many peasant families worked in agriculture, doing hard labor, and so they depended very much on the success of their harvest. A small farmer could not afford to lose crops because the ruling class would charge him with indebtedness. If he were in debt, the ruling class would have the ‘right’ to take his land and possibly enslave his entire family for not being able to pay his bill.
The imperialistic society of Jesus plays a large part in the shaping of him. Being imperial deals with the ruling of a society, or otherwise, the governmental body in charge. In Jesus’ time period, the Roman Empire had taken control of the society in which he lived. Because of this, the Romans affected many ways of everyday life that would have a trickle-down effect onto the peasant class. Firstly, the Romans enacted a tributary system in which they allowed the native rulers, the urban elites of the nation, to stay in power. The only change made was that the native rulers must now pay a tribute to the ruling nation. Because the wealthy, ruling class did not make their wealth, but received it by taking it from the peasant class, this means that they had to take more to please the Romans. The already struggling lower class lived at even a lower level, with more peasants losing land due to this tributary system.
The second issue was Herod the Great. Although quite brilliant in his ruling, Herod the Great was also known to be cruel and spent very abundantly. This spending of money hurt the peasants because nothing benefited them directly. Also, Herod made a decision that would hurt the peasant class even more: the commercialization of agriculture. Instead of allowing the peasants to keep their land and farm it, Herod decided to take the plots and make them larger, allowing for more production. One might see this as a good idea, but inevitably, fewer peasants had sources of income because of it. As a result of their income, their crops, being taken away, the peasants were expected to use coins to buy them. Instead of being independent workers, Herod made them dependent on the coins to purchase crops back.
Once Herod died, his sons took control of his kingdom reign by dividing the ruling sectors into three. The son who took Herod’s place in Jerusalem, where Jesus lived, reigned for about a decade. After this, he was replaced by the Roman’s formulation of the High Priests. These men were somewhat corrupt, according to Borg, since the Torah directly said that they could not own land. The High Priests though, translated this as saying that no, they could own land; they could just not be the ones to sow and plow the fields. The point of appointing the High Priests by the Romans was to make sure there were people who could oversee the imperial ruling and to collect tributes to make sure they were paid.
The domination aspect of Jesus’ social world can be broken down into four parts: it was oppressive in nature, ruled by divine right, exploited the economically troubled, and involved many battles. Starting with the oppression of the peasants, many felt as if they had no say in shaping the society, which would be quite accurate if one analyzes the ways of ruling. Normally the ruling style was a monarchy, which means ruled by one. One may question, though, how did this ruler come to power if no one approved of him? This leads on into the second part, which is the right to rule by divinity.
In Jesus’ time, there was no such thing as a democracy. The rulers of a society claimed to have the right to rule based on the fact that God bestowed them with the power to rule. They claimed that this communion with God gave them permission to rule and oppress the poorer people of the society. The God that Jesus knew in later years was a different God entirely: Jesus experienced a God who did not love one person more than another, and would not want to oppress even the poorest of people. Through these experiences of God, Jesus chose to reject this aspect of his social world.
The third characteristic of the domination sector was that the peasants were economically exploited. If one considers that the peasants grew one hundred percent of the agriculture, and did much of the manual labor, one might think that they would receive most of the profits for their hard work. In Jesus’ society, since the rulers were the most wealthy and used divine right as a reason, they took most of the wealth that the peasants would have gained not only for their use, but also to pay the tribute to the Romans.
Lastly, one must notice that it would only be logical to have some formation of an army to protect the amount of wealth that was being built up in this society. It would only make sense to protect what was one’s property. Borg states, however, that the main purpose or goal of the battles that were fought during this time was not because of greedy peoples outside of the city looking in but the greedy rulers from the inside of the city expanding their gaze to more land. Many of the wars that were fought during this time were for the benefit of gaining more land, which ultimately meant gaining more wealth. One can perhaps see why Jesus now in his teachings thought that material wealth was not of importance, and mostly should be frowned upon. In his time of living, the wealthy were the greedy, which Jesus did not respect for their ways.
In recap thus far, the Roman sector of the social world was much about dominating the poor with oppressive ways, such as taking land and throwing the indebted into servitude. The wealth that flowed to the ruling class was not brought about by their own doing but by taking the money from peasants. The other factor that leads into the shaping of Jesus by his social world is the world of Judaism, which involved the practice of Judaism, the book of Judaism, and the Jewish temple.
In religion, today some people go to church on Sundays, and that is the only time they really think about God in the workings of the world. For Jesus growing up, it was not like that. Being Jewish meant living with God in a world intertwined together. Because of his experiences with God, Jesus held God with him through every day and knew that God was interconnected with the world, as Borg believes. The place of worship, or temple, for Jesus was not the only place to feel God and experience God, obviously, since Jesus knew had experienced him in the solitude of nature. The practice of being a Jew in Jesus’ time was to not only go to the synagogue, but to live every day with God.
The book of Judaism, or the Old Testament, plus the Torah, provided guidance for the Jewish people. Many lower class people, the peasants, did not read the Torah or the Old Testament since many were illiterate. Borg says that they would have received the knowledge and wisdom from these by listening to them. It is interesting for one to analyze the correlations between the social world of Jesus and the text of the Torah. A key component to the Torah is that is a daily part of life, like the practice of the religion. It provided guidance on how to deal with societal issues, such as impurities, remarriage, etc.
The Roman rule begins to conflict with the Jewish life as one analyzes the roles of the Torah. The Torah also provided support to the peasants of Jerusalem, along with the judicial guidance mentioned above. It contained stories of oppression, but liberation, of slavery, and then freedom. The Jewish peasants could find belief and hope in these passages. Also, the Torah forms discrepancies with the Roman rule when one analyzes the usurping of land and who has the rights to do so. According to the ruling class in Jesus’ social world, if a peasant were to go into debt and have no way of paying, the land could be taken. However, according to the Torah, God is the supreme owner or ruler of the land. Land may not be bought and sold for ownership since it all will return to God in the end. These two points are key in understanding why Jesus thought the way he did. He had experienced God in such a way that he knew the real God, and that land ownership was petty in comparison to Him.
The Temple in Jerusalem also played a key role in shaping Jesus. The High Priests that resided within believed that the only place to perform certain sacrifices or cleansings of the body for impurities could be performed within the temple. Jesus did not believe this because he knew God was omnipresent according to Borg. Also, Jesus did not agree with the corruption of the temple that was caused by the High Priests. Because they were part of the domination system, they had turned a place of worship to God into a temple only suitable for the upper class.
When one adds all of these facts together, the character of Jesus becomes more simple to analyze. This was a man who had experienced God in a great way in the peace and solitude of nature. Because Jesus was born into a peasant class family, of course he would feel resentment towards the rulers who made it difficult on his fellowmen. Jesus also disagreed with the corruption of the overseers of the Temple. A place of worship should not be defiled by men who had their hands in dirty work such as the High Priests, but also, Jesus believed that one did not need the temple. God was not only present there, but right outside the doors of the temple, or out in wilderness. One did not need a structure to worship God. All factors combined helped to shape Jesus into becoming the man he was in his social world : a man with a message about the God of his experience, and perhaps not of his social world.