Biblical Tales



It's not unusual at the end of the year for the large-circulation news weeklies to turn to religious subjects in advance of the holidays. Both U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek did so in their Dec. 18 editions.

The cover of U.S. News read: "In Search of the Real Jesus: New research questions whether he was more teacher than savior," and that teaser might have led you to expect that there would be talk of Jesus' Jewish background and his fame as an explicator of texts. But you would have been mistaken. The article dealt mostly with the revival of interest in Gnosticism that's been driven by the "discovery" of the Gospel of Judas. In this ancient text, according to the article, the "notorious" Judas is portrayed as Jesus' "most valued disciple."

The Gnostics, Jay Tolson writes in his lengthy piece, which draws often upon the work of scholar Elaine Pagels, come across as "forerunners of modern spiritual seekers wary of institutional religion, literalism and hidebound traditions. Free of sexism and paternalism and unburdened by an emphasis on guilt and sin, the Gnostics' highly esoteric and intellectual approach to the sacred was one that even enlightened skeptics could embrace. At the very least, Pagels suggested, the Gnostic tradition would have made Christianity a more appealingly rational, tolerant and expansive creed had the orthodox not suppressed it and largely driven it out of existence."

The sudden revival of interest in Gnostic ideas, the article argued, worries some who fear that it might "threaten the shape of Christian faith." This was a wholly absorbing piece, but the word Jew didn't appear anywhere in it.

The Newsweek article was something different. On the cover, it was announced that the piece would consider "how first-century Jewish family values shaped Christianity."

The reporter, Lisa Miller, made clear early on that Jewish families — of which Mary and Joseph were distinctly one — "were unique given the circumstances of the time." She noted that Romans of the first century "had some regard" for family life as well, and that "Roman law esteemed married men with children above married men without children and unmarried men as part of the social order."

But Jewish "devotion" to the family "predated the Romans by thousands of years," so that, by the time of Jesus, Jewish families were far different from their neighbors.

"And so the growing Jesus would have come of age in a world that cherished procreation, family ties and the history and theology of Israel, including immersion in the Scriptures and the ancient stories of God's deliverance of his people. According to Luke, when Jesus was 12, he traveled with his parents to Jerusalem from Galilee to celebrate Passover. The family feasted there and when they were done, Joseph and Mary turned around and headed home. After a day, they noticed that their son was missing from their entourage and rushed back to Jerusalem to find him. There, the story goes, they discovered Jesus in the temple, talking to the priests and astonishing the assembled crowds with his wisdom."  




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