What Did the Flesh-and-Blood Christ Really Believe?

The Sea of Galilee: stomping ground of Christ and his disciples. (Photo: Daniel Weber / Flickr)

The Sea of Galilee: stomping ground of Christ and his disciples. (Photo: Daniel Weber / Flickr)

(Though this post may seem tangential, at best, to foreign affairs, at least its set in Palestine and Israel, areas crucial to U.S. foreign policy.)

Few are aware of the impact of Jesus’s brother James, often overshadowed by Peter and Paul, on Christianity. After the death of Jesus, he led the early Christian community for nearly three decades. In Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013), about which I posted recently, Reza Aslan wrote that “one sure way of uncovering what Jesus may have believed is to determine what his brother James believed.” How “may” not just qualifies, but contradicts, “sure way” must have gotten by an editor. We can be sure of little about times and regions that were sparsely documented. That said, the “first thing to note about James’s epistle,” continues Azlan

… is its passionate concern with the plight of the poor. This, in itself, is not surprising. The traditions all paint James as the champion of the destitute and dispossessed; it is how he earned his nickname, “the Just.” The Jerusalem assembly [core of the Christian community at that time — RW] was founded by James upon the principle of service to the poor. There is even evidence to suggest that the first followers of Jesus who gathered under James’s leadership referred to themselves collectively as “the poor.”

“What is perhaps more surprising about James’s epistle,” writes Azlan

… is its bitter condemnation of the rich. “Come now, you wealthy ones, weep and howl fro the miseries that are about to come upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. You gold and silver have corroded, and the venom within them shall be a witness against you; it shall eat your flesh as though it were fire” (James 5:1­­–3).

Yikes! Aslan continues:

For James there is no path to salvation for the wealthy who “hoard treasures for the last days,” and who “live on the land in luxury and pleasure” (James 5:3, 5). Their fate is set in stone. “The rich man will pass away like a flower in the field. …” (James 1:11). James goes so far as to suggest that one cannot truly be a follower of Jesus if one does not actively favor the poor. “Do you with your acts of favoritism [toward the rich] really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” he asks. “For if you show favoritism, you commit sin and are exposed as a transgressor of the law” (James 2:1, 9).

Geez (no disrespect intended to Jesus. Okay, some), today you don’t hear that kind of rhetoric anywhere on the left, this side of anarchists anyway. Of course, it eventually got James killed by the high priest Ananus, writes Aslan, likely “because he was doing what he did best: defending the poor and weak against the wealthy and powerful.”

Jesus aside, would that the likes of James were alive today.