Peter E. Lewis
Since writing the 2nd edition of my book The Ending of Mark’s Gospel: The Key to Understanding the Gospels and Christianity in 2020 I have come to realize how different Jesus was and that his life before his baptism was the foundation for what became Christianity. Although his mission began suddenly when he was about 30, his previous experience must have provided the motivation for what he said and did.
According to Mark, Jesus’s birth was natural, but he was very different from everyone around him and he knew it. His relatives thought he was mad (Mark 3:21) and went to take charge of him. They knew he was different, and the most likely reason for this was that he was illegitimate, the result of his mother being raped by a Roman soldier when Sepphoris, just a few kilometres from Nazareth, was sacked by Roman forces after the death of King Herod in 4 BC. So Jesus looked different, probably with non-Jewish features.
He was also different in other ways. He was obviously very intelligent and religiously minded, and as a carpenter he would have been involved in the rebuilding of Sepphoris, which was the capital of Galilee and a centre of Jewish culture. It was probably there, rather than in his village of Nazareth, that he learnt the Hebrew scriptures, and in the gospels he is sometimes called “Rabbi” meaning a teacher. As a rabbi he should have been married with children but there is no evidence for this in the New Testament, and it is reasonable to assume that he was gay.
Being gay in that Jewish environment he would have felt alone; and as Joseph, his legal father, had probably died when he was very young there was no father-figure in his life. It is therefore understandable that he should form a close personal relationship with God, whom he called “Abba” (an intimate term for “Father”) in Mark 14:36. This relationship for Jesus was a loving one.
So we have a young man who is gay, looks different and feels different, yet is steeped in the Jewish culture of his time and place. Because of his loving nature he finds consolation in his relationship with God. Although not accepted by others he feels accepted by his Creator. It might have been when he was a teenager that he identified with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 who was ‘despised and rejected.’ Isaiah does not say why the servant was despised, but as someone so different in this very religious environment Jesus probably felt the same. In the gospels there are allusions to the book of Isaiah, and several times Jesus says that the son of man, meaning himself, must suffer. In Mark 10:45 he says that he came to serve and give his life.
When he was about 30 he went to receive John’s baptism of repentance. At his baptism Jesus experienced his old life being washed away, although he must still have been aware of his gayness and accepting of it. At the same time something amazing happened: the Holy Spirit entered into him (Mark 1:10). In the Greek text published by the United Bible Society the preposition is
which means ‘into’. Jesus felt that the power of his Father was in him.
This man, so different and alone, now had a purpose in life. He could see the meaning of it all: his Father had put him in this time and place to bring in the Kingdom of God. So as a commanding and charismatic figure he embarked on his mission. He told everyone the good news, that the Kingdom of God was near (Mark 1:15), and he was determined to bring it in.
In the Kingdom everyone is loved by the Father and with his love there is acceptance, forgiveness and healing, just as Jesus had experienced it. When others believed him remarkable things happened and large crowds gathered to hear him and bring their sick loved-ones to him. The gospel writers all agree that he taught about the Kingdom of God, usually in simple parables so that the people could understand. Some readers, however, have seen Jesus as a passive character in the story, the helpless victim of a cruel world or an innocent man crushed by the wheel of fate. This perception could have derived from Isaiah 53:7 where the Suffering Servant is led like a lamb to the slaughter, but this only applied to Jesus after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. The situation was actually very different because Jesus was in control all the way.
He knew he was the Messiah but not in a political sense. The idea of a coming Messiah was in the Old Testament, and the gospels are full of allusions to passages in it and quotations from it. Some readers have suspected that the gospel writers just made up these connections to support their belief that Jesus was the Messiah. Although this was sometimes the case, as when Matthew referred to Isaiah 7:14 to support Jesus’s virginal conception, the allusions are mainly there because Jesus used them in his mission. His stage-managed entry into Jerusalem refers to the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9. His disruption of the business in the Temple, which must have caused the authorities great concern, referred to Jeremiah 7:11. Jesus knew his Hebrew scriptures and he intended to follow them in what he said and did. Even when he was silent before the high priest (Mark 14:61) it was not just a coincidence. He was following the script in Isaiah 53:7. He knew exactly what he was doing.
Jesus arranged everything according to his plan, which was also God’s plan. He had provoked the Jewish authorities to kill him, and to make sure he told Judas to inform them where he would be after their fellowship meal, which was the Passover meal in Mark’s gospel. The Passover festival was significant for Jesus’s purpose because it symbolized the salvation of the people. What is supremely significant is that during this meal Jesus said that the bread he gave them was his body and the wine was his blood, meaning that he would live in them. Like the Suffering Servant he ‘poured out his life’ (Isaiah 53:12) just as the wine was ‘poured out for many’ (Mark 14:24). He did this out of love. In the gospels the Greek word for love is
(agape) which means a self-giving concern for others. In this way Jesus gave himself for others and brought in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus would have arranged with Joseph of Arimathea, who was waiting for the Kingdom of God (Mark 15:43), to put his body in his tomb. Jesus expected that when the disciples came together to eat food after his crucifixion, they would realize that he lived in them. He probably did not expect that the Jewish authorities would remove his body to prevent the tomb becoming a rallying site for his followers, but the empty tomb proved to be an added bonus for his purpose, which was to bring in the Kingdom. Actually it was the Father who arranged for the tomb to be empty. He had prompted the authorities to think of removing the body.
Jesus had to die as the Suffering Servant died. ‘He poured out his life unto death.’ (Isaiah 53:12) It was God’s way of putting his spirit into the hearts of human beings. The Kingdom of God is thus the community of spirit-filled disciples. They are held in God’s love, which goes out to the world through them. It is amazing to think that it originated in the love that a gay man felt for his God and God had for him.
Peter E. Lewis, May 2021