In my youth I read Jews, God, and History by Max I. Dimont. A section of that book is about Simon bar Kokhba, leader of the second century Jewish revolt against Rome, 132 – 135 CE. Bar Kokhba, meaning “son of a star”, was proclaimed to be Messiah by respected Rabbi Akiva. That led to Akiva being tortured to death by the Romans. A brutal war ended with the defeat and death of bar Kokhba. This being at least the third major revolt in 70 years, the Romans dispersed the Jews from Judea and even changed the name Judea to Syria Palaestina. It has been Palestine to some ever since.
It certainly seemed that bar Kokhba had more support for being Messiah than Jesus did when Jesus was alive. Dimont’s book portrays bar Kokhba as very much the hero. Another side of this man came out when letters were discovered from bar Kokhba to his followers in the sixties. The letters speak to punishment and reproach. They are short, so there’s not much to go on to know exactly what the personality of bar Kokhba was, but you know, he might not have been a nice guy, this Messiah. Histories already had described a harshness to the man, such as this, “Christian author Justin Martyr tells that Simon commanded Christians 'to be lead away to terrible punishment,' unless they denied Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and cursed the man from Nazareth (First Apology 31.6).”
Was Jesus really a nice guy despite facing the same messianic challenge? The gospels say He was, except when He was angry, which turned His words harsh as in John 8: 44 or turned His actions violent as in turning over tables in the temple. The latter always struck me as enough to get someone crucified. Of course the gospels were written at least 40 years after the fact. How sanitized were they? Who was the real Jesus?
It’s impossible to know. Bar Kokhba was indeed the military leader people expected the Messiah to be. So of course he barked out orders and expected to be obeyed, son of a star and prince of Israel that he was, or the disobedient would be punished. It’s hard for me to picture him as a nice guy even when he wasn’t barking out orders, though. Jesus was a different sort of Messiah. How much different?
It’s always interested me that my fellow liberals mostly accept the same source for who Jesus was as conservative Christians do, the gospels. Some point out how different from this the historical Jesus might have been. I forget which one of John Dominic Crossan’s books I read that lists the very many ways the “real” Jesus has been portrayed, from illiterate to a well-trained Pharisee, from political to apolitical, from humanitarian to someone quite separate from people, from impoverished to middle class. What was His true cultural context, anyway?
Then there’s the issue of how crazy was He? Of course no one would follow a floridly psychotic man, but a lesser degree of lunatic might be just what God needed, to have followers as Jim Jones or David Koresh did, though not with such selfish intent. I would guess Jesus was at least as crazy as bar Kokhba. Something commanding had to well up within Him to attack the temple and get Himself crucified.
This came to me today as a result of Rob Knop’s follow-up post of why he is a Christian. Rob thinks Jesus was a cool dude. Now I suspect no one in first century Judea was a cool dude, but Rob goes on for a few paragraphs to specify his admiration for Jesus, why he has no problem with Jesus as leader of his religion, even God incarnate, whatever that means. Rationally minded people feel the need to give rational reasons.
I might give rational reasons for following Jesus myself in some other setting. I certainly admire things about Jesus. I admire His saying, “Not my will, but Yours” during His last night before His death. Whether that was the real Jesus or the character Jesus, I admire it.
But there are no intellectual reasons sufficient for me to follow Jesus. He might have been just as distasteful to me in person as it seems bar Kokhba would have been. Apart from the Spirit I wouldn’t be a Christian. Apart from that road-to-Damascus experience 18 years ago and its confirmation in many experiences since then, I wouldn’t believe in a personal God. I wouldn’t believe there is very likely a non-physical side to reality, even though I can’t prove that. But I became convinced, and a couple years after my first experience, the Holy Spirit led me to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. It wasn’t rational. It wasn’t crazy either. It was experiential.
Imagine trying to explain that on ScienceBlogs, and how that does not require me to compromise my beliefs in mainstream science. The non-physical side to reality is not about science. I try to be empirical about it, but it is a more personal and subjective empiricism than science is.
I am a liberal Christian. The Bible reads to me as if it was written by men, not by God. While my basic belief is that God is whoever and whatever God is, Jesus as well, I doubt the virgin birth. I think Jesus was biologically like anyone else. I doubt a flesh and bone resurrection. If God had such power over biology for either of those events, I think we’d see Him using it a lot more today, if only in smaller ways.
So I am not traditional, but I am very mystical, and some rationally minded liberals would reject me for that just as much as atheists and fundamentalists would even without being clear on the concept of liberal Christianity.
Everyone has their stories, atheists why they’re atheists, Bible-believing Christians why they rely on the Bible, Rob Knop on why Jesus was a cool dude. For each one I think of how they could be wrong, as I almost always do reading politics or religion. Partisans don’t see the possibility of being wrong. They were blinders in some sense. Their mission is to speak for their cause, not see the weaknesses in it.
This is what people do. It’s full of lies. What if Jesus really was just like Simon bar Kokhba? Then He is still my Lord and Savior as the Spirit has led me. What if the culture said Simon bar Kokhba should be my Lord and my Savior? A visceral revulsion grew in me as I wrote that. So many atheists say that’s a meaningless emotion, that one can only trust reason to make such judgments. Anyone who says that does not have the Spirit within him or her. Spirituality is not mere emotion. It involves the integration of everything we are, both emotions and reason, and even then there seems to be more, more that lets me go into a prayer confused and let God reorder my priorities, very quickly coming to a direction that I can't manage just sitting and thinking. Nonsense, some would say. It’s a free country.
Jesus is my Lord no matter how crazy or harsh He was. Bar Kokhba cannot be because the Spirit that lives in me and I in the Spirit says “no”, in terms that are clear to me. To describe them to others, I’ve tried that several times. I think it’s impossible. People will believe what they want to believe. Then they’ll die. It was amazing how many people didn’t understand that Rob Knop was describing ordinary, rationally minded, liberal Christianity, not invented by him, when that’s an easy faith to understand. There’s so much more than that. Few want to know.