The Prophet Yeshua` (Jesus Of Nazareth)
Followers of the Way see Yeshua` as a prophet of God, a man born of normal human parentage. He was a Galilean Jew, born in Nazareth; he was a wandering sage and preacher who taught a prophetic message about the kingdom of God. On a darker note, he also warned people where violence and a lack of repentence would lead – the destruction of Jerusalem, and even exile from the Land.
For those coming out of Christianity to enter Talmidaism, it is initially difficult for such people to view Yeshua` as anything less than a demi-god, or a superman, or a super-enlightened being. This stance is perfectly understandable; one is naturally dazzled by the message, and for someone coming from a non-Jewish background, one can only conclude that a fantastic message could only have been created by a fantastic messenger. Extraordinary backgrounds are created for him to explain how he came up with that message – that in his ‘missing years’, he was an Essene, or had travelled to India, or had studied under many different Jewish and pagan mystics.
Perhaps part of this stems from the feeling that, only a person with some standing can deliver an important spiritual message. However, as long as a message in and of itself is true, and does not contradict the principles of Yahwism, it validates and justifies itself. If God had asked a crippled refuse collector to deliver the exact same message as Yeshua`, the fact that he wasn’t a super-fit man of royal lineage should not make any difference to the authenticity of the message.
From a Jewish, Yahwist standpoint, a prophet is merely a mouthpiece of God; there is no need to create a complicated biography for a prophet in order to explain the origin of his message. To a Yahwist, the prophet’s message comes direct from God – simple as that. A prophet doesn’t even have to agree with the message (eg Jonah), or be an educated man or woman (eg Amos). Amos admitted he wasn’t even the prophetic type (Am 7:14).
One has to be aware that while one remains bedazzled by the messenger, one can be sidelined and forget to look at the message. In Talmidaism, it is the message that is important, and ultimately who that message encourages us to look towards – YHVH, not Yeshua`. In order for the majesty, reputation and glory of YHVH to increase, logically the person of Yeshua` has to diminish. From a Yahwist perspective, it really does not matter who or what Yeshua` was; what ultimately matters is that YHVH is supreme, that YHVH is the initiator of the message, and that YHVH is the absolute goal of that message. As long Yeshua` remains no more than a human being, it really doesn’t matter what his background was, or who he was – not even a messiah.
He was a wise and intelligent man. He obviously knew Scripture well, and so was able to quote and use Scripture. He was a good orator, and was what today we would call a ‘people-person’. He probably also knew how to use Pharisaic debating style, even though he wasn’t a Pharisee himself, and knew of the Essenes and their values, even though he wasn’t an Essene either. However, nothing in his background would have prepared him for the full impact of God’s message. His learning may have come from other human beings, but his wisdom and his message came from God.
Historically, Followers believed that Yeshua` had been born in Nazareth, and not Bethlehem – that was a Christian invention to make it look as though he was fulfilling prophecy and was a rightful descendant of David.
Yeshua`’s natural mother was Miryam, and his natural father was Yosef who, according to one tradition, was of the Galilean house of Pandera, not the royal house of David. Yeshua` was an ordinary human man, born of rural Galilean lineage.
His father was a craftsman (in Aramaic: naggara). This word means more than just ‘carpenter’. It meant that he could put his hand to anything – he could be called upon to do plastering, lay mud bricks, put up scaffolding, lay a roof, as well as do joinery and carve wood. From clues in Yeshua`’s parables, Yosef was probably most likely involved in building houses (Matt 7:24-27), perhaps even in the newly built city of Sepphoris (Tsippori), the capital of Galilee. Sepphoris was not far from Nazareth at all.
By tradition, the son would follow the same trade as his father, but it is possible that Yosef died while Yeshua` was still quite young – too young to begin passing his trade onto him.
Miryam and Yeshua` might have been provided for by Yosef’s brother, Qlofas, who had four sons: Ya`aqov, Shim`on, Yose and Yudah (Mt 13:55-56) (see further notes on Yeshua`’s relatives below).
As a child, he would have been taught Torah by the village elder in the beyt ha-sefer (school). From his knowledge of scripture, he seems to have been an eager student. Since Pharisaic expansions and explanations of the Torah were the most widespread system for sorting out uncertainties in the Torah, he would have been taught these traditions too.
When Yeshua` was old enough, he would have been duty bound to provide for his widowed mother himself. Again, from semi-biographical clues in his parables, and from what the typical life of a young man would have been like in Galilee, he probably did a lot of temporary work, and hired himself out as a labourer in the fields at sowing and harvest time, and as a house servant at other times.
With so many difficulties encountered by ordinary Galileans – poverty, high taxation, debt, corrupt officials, and not to mention a cruel, occupying Roman army – many people looked around for spiritual release and answers. Yeshua` would have been no different. It is entirely possible he might have wandered from sect to sect, teacher to teacher, absorbing a little from each, and being influenced by each in turn.
A possible involvement with the Essenes has been over-emphasised by New Agers. The Essenes were a closed society, who completely rejected the Temple. If Yeshua` had been an Essene, then he would never have been able to set foot in the Temple. He would have made speeches cursing the very institution of it. However they did practice having goods in common. Yeshua` took what was meaningful and good from each sect, and moved on.
Nor could he have been a Pharisee. After all, they had declared that there were no more prophets; if he had been a Pharisee, he could not have accepted the existence of prophets. Those who firmly believe that he was a Pharisee would have to reject his prophethood, and instead accept him either as a messiah, or as just another rabbi.
What can be said with certainty, is the teacher who influenced him the most was Yochanan the Immerser (John the Baptist). Yeshua` greatly admired Yochanan, whose message of repentance and social justice had an enormous influence on him. Throughout his own ministry, Yeshua` harboured an unwavering admiration for the man, even after Yochanan’s death (Mt 11:7-11a, Mt 11:12-14, Mt 17:10-12, Mt 21:31-32).
In the Christian gospels, John the Baptist is a minor figure who foretold the coming of the “Christ”. In reality, Yochanan was a prophet and the leader of a major sect in his own right. He preached for quite a few years before his death. Yochanan’s sect practised regular ritual immersions (“baptisms”), not just once. The one-off baptism of Yeshua` in the Christian gospels is highly unlikely. While a member of the Immerser’s sect, he would have been immersed numerous times throughout the year, maybe even by Yochanan the Immerser himself.
Followers of the Way firmly believe that Yeshua` of Nazareth was a Jewish prophet, in the same tradition of Hebrew prophets as Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah. This means that Yeshua` had a calling from God to deliver a message to his people.
There was just one slight problem with prophets in Yeshua`’s day. It was taught and believed by the Pharisees that after the Prophet Malachi, there were no more prophets. They taught that God had sealed up the gift of prophecy. One result of this was that Yeshua` could not openly speak like a prophet, who began their words with, ‘This is what YHVH says….’ By omitting these words, it ended up sounding as if the words came from him, when in fact they came from YHVH.
Another result was the following problem: what was a real, genuine prophet supposed to do when God called him to tell people where they were going wrong, and that if they continued that way, they were going to end up being destroyed or exiled by the Romans? He could not openly speak as a prophet.
Unfortunately, the only job still open was that of messiah. Yeshua`’s job was as a prophet, but human beings had closed off that option to him. Yeshua` did not want to be a messiah, but that was how people were going to see him – someone who would get rid of the Romans, restore Jewish independence, and rule Israel under the guidance of the Torah. It is possible that, after Yeshua`’s death, some of Yeshua`’s followers, simply out of fear of what was to come – in order to get people to listen to Yeshua`’s warnings – they gave in to the temptation to declare him a messiah.
Anyone with even a little bit of common sense could see the way things were going (Yeshua` often pulled his hair out when people failed to see the “signs of the times” [Matt 16:2-3]). If people didn’t change their thinking and behaviour, and return to God’s ways, the Romans would visit a terrible calamity upon them.
If Paul and Christianity had not come along, Yeshua` would have been classified as one of the great Jewish exile prophets. Just as Hoshea was a prophet before the Assyrian exile, and as Jeremiah was a prophet warning of a Babylonian exile, so Yeshua` would have been remembered for trying to warn the Jewish people of an impending Roman exile (which horrifically came to pass in 70 CE). God forewarned Yeshua` of a terrible destruction to come, and commanded him to go to his people and teach them how they could avoid or survive this fate: by repentance and by returning to the true heart and intent of the Law, by paying heed to the messages God had given through previous prophets – to practise justice and mercy, abandon religious hypocrisy, levy fair taxes, not to exploit the poor, be honest in trade, and most importantly, by not returning violence with violence.
In the time of Hoshea and Jeremiah, the dangers turning people away from the worship of YHVH were the actual worship of false pagan gods. However, in Yeshua`’s day, this was not the case. It was more a case of parties, sects and messiahs tearing people this way and that, presenting differing solutions on how to escape from their personal and national predicaments. “Do this!” “No, do that!” “Fast on these days!” “No, fast on those days!” “Swear oaths on these things!” “No, swear oaths by those things!”
Instead, YHVH called Yeshua` to tell his people that God had already given them instructions on how to practise piety and justice, mercy and compassion; “The old wine is good enough” (Lk 5:39).
There were also those who told people it was enough to keep literally to the word of the Law. They felt that an effective reform would be to return to merely doing what Torah tells you to do. However, all the prophets up to Yeshua` had said no, that this was worthless if justice and mercy were not part and parcel of religious reform.
Was Yeshua` a political revolutionary against the Romans?
There are quite a few academics who reject the mainstream idea of “Jesus the god-man” (e.g. Hyam Makkoby, Geza Vermes, James Tabor, to mention three). However, to many of these people, the only other alternative is that of political revolutionary, who went to Jerusalem to claim earthly kingship as a messiah, and kick out the Romans.
There is a problem with this – a major one. Now, if you cut out all the narrative on the gospels, you are left with just the reputed words of Yeshua`. You can neatly divide these sayings into two groups. About 20% support the Christian idea of a god-man and messiah. The other 80% support the idea of a wandering prophet and Jewish sage who preached mercy, forgiveness and the kingdom of God (as well as castigating a few religious hypocrites along the way). In this group are sayings such as “Love your enemies”, and “Do good to those who hate you”. This does not fit into the idea of a political revolutionary. The problem is that, if you wanted to support the idea of a revolutionary, then you would have to discard the vast majority of what he is actually supposed to have said.
There is an unjustified prejudice against the Pharisees in the Christian gospels. Many sayings are directed against them, but if all the supposed criticisms against Pharisees really happened, many Pharisees (especially the followers of Hillel) would have retorted, “What are you criticising us for? We agree with you!”
I believe we have to completely re-examine to whom many sayings were directed against. In particular, those sayings which pronounce against people who do not want to forgive “collaborators” (such as tax collectors and prostitutes), or allow them back into the life of the community. The only people who would have held this position would have been the religious terrorists of the day – the Zealots.
Another example was the issue of giving tribute to Roman Emperors. This would have been a really hot issue for the Zealots. Yeshua`’s comment, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” only makes sense if it were directed to Zealots, and not Pharisees.
Yeshua` was against the murderous methods of the Zealots – “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Mt 26:52). There is a clue to his activities with this group, not from what he said, but from his results. There seems to have been an unusually large number of women who followed him (Lk 8:2-3). Now, it was not quite the done thing for a religious leader in those days to have a large number of women following him around, unless it was to their mutual advantage.
In any war or conflict, the emotions of wives and mothers are left in tatters. They would rather that their sons and husbands live, not die. Anyone who was able take their loved ones away from such a life would be an enormous blessing to them. Of course, such delicate activities could not be conducted out in the open, for fear of reprisals from both sides, Zealots and Romans. That’s why we don’t have any narrative record of it. But the results would have been obvious, and they are recorded in the aforementioned passage in Luke.
Former Zealots were counted among Yeshua`’s emissaries and followers (e.g. Simon Zelotes, Lk 6:15), and a large number of grateful wives and mothers gave him and his followers every support and assistance.
The problem of Judas Iscariot
In Christianity, Judas was divinely ordained to betray “Jesus Christ”, to a death he was supposed to suffer anyway (doesn’t that logically mean Judas was doing him a favour??) At the other extreme, to those who believe Jesus was a political revolutionary, Judas was his accomplice, and was later unjustly recorded as being a traitor.
There is however a third alternative. Judas was himself a Zealot, and firmly held that Yeshua` was the messiah. However, Yeshua` himself opposed messianism, because of its inherent violence, and reliance on a human saviour rather than on YHVH. All those times Yeshua` said, “Don’t call me Messiah”, he wasn’t trying to keep it a secret, he actually didn’t like messianism as a concept.
When Judas realised that Yeshua` rejected messianism, instead proposing peaceful resistance to Rome, Judas became angry, feeling that Yeshua` had betrayed Israel and the Jewish people; in his eyes, non-violence was tantamount to surrendering to the Romans, so he planned to give Yeshua` over to the Temple heirarchy to try him as a false prophet.
Yeshua` had always known that, by speaking against the Temple authorities, he would be arrested by them and tried as a false prophet; this is the reason why he fully expected to die. What neither he nor Judas expected was that the Romans would get involved. Yeshua` reasoned, “I’m not claiming to be the messiah. If anyone claims that I am, I tell them to keep quiet, therefore the Romans have no need to get involved. False prophecy is a Jewish crime, therefore if anyone arrests me, it will be the Temple police and the Sadducees”.
Another possibility is that the Zealots realised the best way to get rid of Yeshua`, would be to delcare him a messiah; that way the Romans would arrest him and execute him. They knew that to declare anyone a messiah was to pronounce a death sentence upon them. They would effectively be rid of a thorn in their side.
When Judas realised that the Romans were involved, and that he was actually handing a fellow Jew over to the very people he despised, he began to have second thoughts. And when he finally realised what Yeshua` had been trying to tell him all along, and that he had in fact handed over a man of God to the Romans, he committed suicide.
To Christians, when they see an image of “Jesus” on a cross, flesh torn, bleeding, dying, they get a warm glow inside, because it is a reminder to them that they have been “saved”. In their view, this was the whole point of his being here. To Paul of Tarsus, “Jesus” lived only to die. Paul wasn’t interested in his life – he never quotes Yeshua`’s words, and has no interest in what Yeshua` did while he was alive.
To Followers of the Way (who have a completely different view of salvation), the whole point of Yeshua`’s ministry were the words he spoke, and the hope he gave to people during his life. What we feel at his death is a sense of outrage at a gross injustice. An innocent man was tortured almost senseless, and executed by the Romans on a Roman cross, for a crime he didn’t commit, under a title (messiah) he did not even want. Romans and messianists put him on the cross, not our sins.
To the Jews, a messiah was a national deliverer who would overthrow the Romans; to the Romans a messiah was a Jewish agitator and troublemaker, who led terrorist attacks on Roman citizens. On both of these counts, Yeshua` was completely innocent.
If you claim Yeshua was a messiah, then according to the Jewish definition of the term, he failed. He died, without doing what a messiah was supposed to do. So Gentile Christians had to invent a different kind of messiah. They scoured the Bible to re-invent the role of a messiah, and solved their problem by claiming that he died “to save us from our sins”. Well in fact there’s no problem in the first place, because he wasn’t a messiah, but a prophet. God charged him to deliver a message, and this mission he fulfilled and completed admirably. If an innocent man dies, one should feel outrage at the tragedy, not happiness and joy.
It was people’s belief in messianism which handed an innocent man to the Romans, and a brutal occupying army executed him on a Roman cross.
This is why I believe that messianism is a bad idea. I prefer to centre my faith in the real, active, living presence of YHWH in the here and now, rather than in the dubious coming of a messiah at some time in the future. People seem to be waiting for someone to come in the future before events can have permission to happen. I strongly feel that, if we believe YHWH has the power and might to do real and wonderful things in the present, these things will happen in the present. I have a strong feeling that Yeshua` thought that way too.