On Christmas we celebrate the birth of the man the Greek gospels call Jesus Christ, that is, “Joshua the Savior.” He is worshipped by Christians the world over as the son of God, but all acknowledge his humanity, and it is the human aspect of Jesus that I would like to consider. No man has had a larger impact on how we understand right and wrong, or on how, in consequence, we wish to behave.
It is remarkable how little we know about Jesus, and yet how well we know him. We don’t know when he was born. December 25 is just a convention, probably borrowed from the Roman carnival of Saturnalia. We don’t know what he looked like or what he sounded like, though in an age of face-to-face persuasion his physical presence must have been charismatic in a literal sense, and his voice (“Life of Brian” notwithstanding) must have carried over the multitudes.
He was a middle-class boy, a carpenter’s son from the hilltop town of Nazareth—a place with a view of the far distance. Those who watched him grow up there apparently considered him a perfectly normal person, and couldn’t imagine he would amount to much.
He was a wonder worker. While he lived, that was the quality that set him apart from other men and gave weight to his words. There was a hidden power in the carpenter’s son, a force that could be felt even in the hem of his cloak, and it allowed him to bring the dead back to life and give sight to the blind. In our rational age, this claim has been a source of embarrassment to some. Thomas Jefferson famously tried to write a gospel without miracles, which is like rewriting “Moby Dick” without the whale. Others, less well disposed (see “Life of Brian,” above), have ridiculed without mercy the miraculous side of Jesus.
From the perspective of morality, the wisest take on the subject comes from the 1953 movie “The Robe.” In it, crazed Emperor Caligula takes the skeptic’s position, screeching, “Do you expect us to believe these stories that this Jesus could heal by the touch of his hand… make the crippled walk and the blind see again?” To which Richard Burton, playing the tribune who supervised the crucifixion of Jesus, replies: “It makes no difference whether you believe them or not, Sire. All that matters is that there’s no story that he made anyone blind. There’s no story that he made anyone a cripple or ever raised this hand except to heal.”
Jesus was a teacher, a rebbe. He interpreted Scripture and Law in the synagogues of Galilean towns—including Capernaum, where a very fine synagogue of that time has been discovered. Often, he went beyond the letter of the law, to what he maintained was its true intent. He thought, along with many in his day, that a great upheaval was coming, and he preached a moral transformation to make Israel worthy of God’s judgment.
The wealthy and the powerful, the lawyers and intellectuals, earned his scorn. They were “whitewashed sepulchers,” brilliant outside but full of corruption inside. Like his miracles, the anti-establishment side of Jesus has been a problem for comfortably established Christians. His condemnation of the rich surely inspired modern-day socialists and Marxists: There is a sense in which Marxism can be understood as a Christian heresy. But one shouldn’t make too much of this. Jesus saw in poverty a glorification of the spirit, whereas Marx, a materialist, wanted to abolish it.
Jesus was probably the first pacifist. He taught, “Resist not evil.” This too was an exaltation of the spirit over physical power, and it is, I confess, the Christian doctrine I find most troublesome—though one, luckily, that has yet to be implemented in any Christian country.
I said that most people think they know Jesus well. If we were asked to wrap up Jesus in a single word, that word, let me suggest, would be “forgiveness.” He offended the orthodox because he forgave law-breakers and affirmed that God forgave them too.
Today we live in harsh times, with videos of beheadings and sexual predations just one click away on one’s smart phone. But we can form no idea of true harshness, of the unforgiving nature of the ancient world. Even the best and noblest of the ancients, like the Athenians, showed scant acquaintance with compassion. Everyone believed in winning. Everyone equated greatness with goodness. To be poor was not only a misfortune but a disgrace.
That this world is beyond our comprehension is due entirely to Jesus. He introduced into human morality a nobility far loftier than any imagined by the Greeks (though glimpsed, it may be, by Socrates, who reasoned that it was better to suffer wrong than to inflict it). The strong, we now believe, exist to protect the weak. The rich, we make certain, are taxed to support the poor.
The human spirit isn’t always, or even usually, enriched by winning: Those who retain their dignity in great adversity, those who suffer well, are the spiritual equivalent of conquistadors. First among these was Jesus himself, who cried from the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” I don’t know a more moving question in religion, or a more frightening insight into the loneliness of the human heart.
In imitation of Jesus, we seek to forgive. Being human, we often fail: We bear grudges and look to even scores. But unlike the Athenians of old, we feel this behavior is petty, ignoble, unworthy of a moral adult. We know too well how much forgiving we each require, and we hope our community—which is, ultimately, the human race—finds the generosity of spirit to wave away our transgressions. In the physics of morality, we move upward only when others are raised above us.
Happy birthday, Joshua of Nazareth.