Was Jesus Progressive For His Time?

Was Jesus Progressive For His Time? February 12, 2014

Liberal/progressive/leftist Christians like to paint Jesus as an exceptional figure who fought for human rights centuries before anyone else did. You’ve probably heard, or said something like the following (I know I have):

Jesus was the first feminist, the first Marxist, the ultimate humanist/democrat/anarchist.  Jesus was [fill in the blank depending on your preferred political associations].

I’m sure most people who use these statements use them as attention grabbers and conversation starters and not literal statements. They know that we don’t know enough about the historical figure of Jesus and his culture to really place him in these categories that are framed by our modern, Western world views. We all know that Jesus wasn’t really a feminist. But when you walk into a room of conservative complementarians and say, “Jesus was a feminist,” you definitely shake things up a bit. That can be a good thing.

A problem comes though, I believe, when we begin to say that Jesus was the ultimate feminist. That Jesus was the first humanist. That Jesus was exceptionally progressive for his culture. Sometimes, in our efforts to put Jesus in modern categories like “feminist,” “humanist,” etc., we end up presenting an incorrect, unfair picture of the culture that Jesus was born and raised in.

The liberal Christian narrative of Jesus as the ultimate feminist/humanist/etc. too often goes like this:

Jewish culture in Jesus’ day was horribly misogynist, ageist, classist. Women, children, and poor people had no agency at all, and were just helpless victims being oppressed by barbaric Old Testament religious customs. Then Jesus descended from heaven as a baby–the perfect, objective male child who would not be influenced by his terrible culture. He brought with him all the modern, enlightenment sensibilities that these Pharisees were missing out on and he saved the day! 

With this narrative, we end up continuing a long, ugly tradition of Christian imperialism and anti-semitism. The whole “folks from the Middle East are savages that need Christians to rescue them from themselves” trope has led to colonialism, genocide, hate crimes, oppression.

Though we white, left-leaning Christian folks are quick to mock representations of embodied Jesus that depict him as white, we still promote a “white Jesus” mindset when we repeat this narrative.

When we divorce Jesus from his Jewish culture, when we treat him as exceptionally progressive and contrast him with the Jewish world around him, we are promoting “white Jesus:” Jesus as the white, Westerner who drops in from a higher, more enlightened and objective world, to save Middle Eastern people from themselves.

This is wrong. We need to do better.

Would  Jesus have been considered a “progressive” person in his culture? I don’t know enough about history to say that for sure. But I can say this: Jesus was not the progressive person in his culture, and Jesus was not progressive in a way that was somehow outside of his culture.

In the gospel narratives, Jesus often treated women with respect. He invited them to sit in the places reserved for his disciples. Is this because Jesus was the first feminist? No. As Sharon H. Ringe points out in The Women’s Bible Commentary, 

Palestinian Jewish life in Jesus’ day is probably mirrored in the ambivalent picture of women’s roles in the teachings stemming from the Jesus movement…While it seems that women were active among the followers of Jesus, their roles in that context were probably similar to those of their other Jewish sisters in the religious life of their families and local congregations. (p. 7)

Ringe believes that women in Jesus’ movement were likely treated ambivalently, as were women in other religious movements of the time. The women in these movements likely faced their share of  intersecting oppressions, but they also probably didn’t fit the stereotype of the “silent, veiled Jewish women shut away in her kitchen.” (p. 7) The gospel narratives show women speaking their minds, but they also show at least one woman having to correct even Jesus himself for being oppressive toward her because of her ethnicity.

In Luke’s and Matthew’s gospel, Jesus scolds his disciples for turning away children. This is another passage that is often used by left-leaning Christians to show how Jesus was above and beyond his culture, giving extra attention to the marginalized.

Of course Jesus’ words can be challenging and influential in a society (like much of the current U.S. society) where children are often treated as less than. The words of his disciples suggest that at least some people at the time of Jesus were less than thrilled at the idea of treating children with respect.

Still, we forget that just a few chapters earlier, Jesus was still a child, and religious leaders allowed him to sit with them, learn from them, and ask them questions. Even if Jesus’ treating children as an important part of the kingdom of Heaven was a progressive act, he was not the first or only person to see children in this light. He learned this value from others in his culture.

These stories suggest that the values Jesus held as an adult were not unique to him because he was God. These values were instilled in him from the time he was a child, by people around him.

If Jesus was progressive, it was not because he transcended his culture and was somehow better than everyone else in it. He was likely influenced by his strong, liberation-minded mother. By his outspoken female friends. By his religious traditions and his knowledge of scripture. By the Jewish religious leaders he respected and looked up to. His culture wasn’t perfect (because no culture is) and he got caught up in his culture’s systems of oppression [update: see Wayne’s comment in the comment’s section for alternative readings of this passage that I think are important to consider] and had to be called out for that. But he also learned to work toward liberation under the influence of others in that same culture.

If Jesus is, as Christian tradition suggests, God embodied in history, we must remember the embodied part and the history part.

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  • ” He was likely influenced by his strong, liberation-minded mother.
    By his outspoken female friends. By his religious traditions and his
    knowledge of scripture. By the Jewish religious leaders he respected and
    looked up to.” <—– YES!

  • Wayne

    “If Jesus is, as Christian tradition suggests, God embodied in history, we must remember that embodied part and the history part.”

    This is SO important! When we disconnect Jesus from his historical/ethnic identity, we risk losing Jesus altogether. The feminist/liberationist actions of Jesus were never meant to be read as original to him. He was the embodiment of God’s mission through Abraham and Israel; we should expect a continuation of themes from the Hebrew Bible in the life and teachings of Jesus, not a radically new set of teachings (That said, we should expect Jesus to challenge the ways God’s people had replaced the “image of God in every person” stuff with systematized oppression. But when Jesus does, he’s calling his people back to what God had already begun, not to a rejection of Judaism).

    I do wonder, though, if our cultural perspective gets in the way of our reading of Mark 7. From our vantage point, it seems like Jesus is joining in the racism of his day, much like a white American dropping the N-word to belittle someone. However, I’m not sure that this parallel matches the historical context of the original story.

    As a wealthy Syrophoenician, the woman in this story would have been a strong representative of the oppressive colonizing class. Jewish opposition to her people is less like a white person attacking a black person, and more like a Dalit disdaining a colonizer, a Native American mistrusting a pilgrim, or even a black man’s anger toward a white man. Poling Sun does a pretty good job of presenting this case in the article: “Naming the Dog: another Asian reading of Mark 7:24-30.”

    If Jesus, as a Jew, really was representative of an oppressed rural people group, and the Syrophoenician woman represented colonial power, does this change your understanding of the strong language Jesus uses in reference to her? In other words, should we perceive a racial slur as more appropriate when it comes from the lips of an angry, oppressed individual?

    If Jesus is Jewish–not a European colonizer–are we ok with him dropping racial slurs toward a member of the oppressive class?

    • sarahoverthemoon

      An interesting point made there. I’d say I don’t know enough about Biblical history to answer that question, but I appreciate the different perspective. If you’re right about the context than I agree. There is a world of difference between an oppressors using slurs against oppressed racial/ethnic groups and oppressed racial group using a “slur” against their oppressors.

      • Kristen Rosser

        I believe Jesus was empowering this woman in ways we have not understood. I have written a blog post on it: http://krwordgazer.blogspot.com/2012/11/even-dogs-eat-crumbs-jesus-and-syro.html

        I do know that Jesus consistently broke social conventions about speaking to women in public; that he discoursed on theology with a Samaritan woman in a day when women were not thought worthy to discuss theological matters, and Samaritans even less so; and that he insisted that Mary, in “sitting at his feet” as a disciple, had chosen something better than Martha’s traditional women’s role. In short, while I agree that we shouldn’t write off 1st-century Middle-Eastern culture as hopelessly “primitive,” I can’t agree that Jesus wasn’t something astonishing and radical in his time.

        On the other hand, I think Jesus, if he walked here today, would have some pretty sharp criticisms of our society, and not least among them would be our idea that we’re so superior and enlightened. To say Jesus was the first feminist or the first progressive is to say that we’re the standard by which Jesus should be measured. I have to say that it really needs to be the other way around.

  • Mike Mayer

    “He was likely influenced by his strong, liberation-minded mother. By his outspoken female friends.”

    Yes… and possibly ALSO by his father’s compassion. Given the chance to quietly divorce Mary because of her apparent infidelity or having her put to death, Joseph chose to go another route and marry her none-the-less and to raise this child as his own.

    I do not want to belittle the role his mother and other females had in his formation. But I find it a shame that we completely dismiss the role of Joseph in his life.

    • It seems pretty clear to me that if even Jesus’ disciples really knew much about his birth and childhood, they didn’t pass it along as part of either oral or written tradition. All that we have on his birth and childhood in the Gospels have every mark of fictional additions to whatever was likely known (or cared about) during and right after his lifetime. They do not read like part of even an oral tradition and textual indications favor the fictional concept heavily, though in traditional ancient Jewish style. Therefore, we reliably know virtually nothing about the role of Joseph (or whoever was his father) in his life. What we “know” is only by inference from what we know of family life in his time/place, and the possible trade (some kind of construction) he was at least around, if not trained in.

  • Y. A. Warren

    “If Jesus is, as Christian tradition suggests, God embodied in history, we must remember the embodied part and the history part.”

    Bravo, Sarah! …and remember the We are all created in the image and likeness of “God” part.

  • Jesus wasn’t a conservative any more than he was a progressive.

    Remember, “progress” is also known as “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”

    “Now archaeology is demolishing another sacred belief: that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress…While the case for the progressivist view seems overwhelming, it’s hard to prove.

    ~Jared Diamond (May 1987) The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race. Discover Magazine. pp. 64-66. discovermagazine.com/1987/may/02-the-worst-mistake-in-the-history-of-the-human-race

    And frankly, I can’t see Jesus begging the Roman Emperor to disarm those pesky Jews.

    • Wonder

      i can’t see him arguing for each individual Roman citizen’s right to keep an entire arsenal of swords, either. Almost as if that’s neither here nor there, and a complete red herring to the conversation at hand, but thanks for trolling.

      • Bible bangers use the same terms as you when they’re losing.

  • elcalebo

    While I agree with the central point you’re making, I can’t help but feel like you’re only telling half the story. Surely you can’t be a feminist without having SOME kind of sense that sometimes things do get better (whether you call it ‘progress’ or not)? Not all, but MOST contexts throughout history have been comfortably patriarchal… ours is still patriarchal it’s a lot more contested, we’re able to demand improvements, and sometimes see them. And surely sometimes the church (and the wider society – independently of Christianity or not) has got it right and followed some of the trajectories of Jesus’ teaching further than it was able to be enacted in his own time? (e.g. Jesus welcomed women, treated them with dignity and called them as disciples, but the group of twelve disciples were all men. We are now in a position to demand that in any such group of 12 people, about six are women.)

    This is not to say that all (or even most) attacks on Jesus’ Jewish context are justified. Of course we should criticise the dominant Greco-Roman culture far more than the oppressed Jewish culture that actually shared much of Jesus’ radicalness. Contrary to most Protestant depictions, Jesus confronted Rome and transformed Judaism(s) from within – but he did transform it. (On the gender thing – I think the Greco-Roman and Jewish traditions of Jesus’ time were both pretty well embedded in patriarchy, i’m not sure which was ‘worse.’ [And many Jewish thinkers of the time were influenced by Hellenist ideas, which complicates things.] I’d be confident, however, saying that Jesus, contemporary feminism and even milder gender egalitarianism are all ‘progress’ on gender compared to these contexts.)

    It’s also worth noting that even if in some ways Jesus was ‘progressive for his time’ and we’ve followed his trajectory further than was possible in his time, in many many more ways Jesus was far more radical than we have ever been. (And in many other ways, we’ve capitulated to our capitalist context and are far less humane and egalitarian than Jesus’ Jewish context, let alone Jesus himself)

    Sorry about all the extended parenthetical statements making paragraphs way too long etc…

  • Scale Lily

    Jesus was God incarnate so in that the fulfillment of the law and of love. “Before moses was I am”, is a strong claim worth stoning a man for in the eyes of the Pharisees, but I believe him and therefore he was not a liberal, a feminist or radical. They and we are the deviation from his purity; we are the radicals.

  • Yonah

    Excellent discussion. Thank you.

    In my view, the term “progressive” as currently used doesn’t apply. But, I would say “radically evolutionary”. As a Jew, I think of twos thing historically here. First, Judaism has always been an evolving civilization. Second, Jesus’ historical context was one of war-time. Liberal white western folk often forget that. I don’t know why. They may have some peripheral awareness that there was some militant armed Jewish resistance at the time…but maybe, the fact that the outmatched-ness of the Romans to the Jews serves to cause people to forget that the Jews were occupied by a cruel regime…and that just because a populace is so oppressed it can resist much…doesn’t mean it’s not at war. And for whatever reason, it’s also not often noticed that the Jews would at times break out of that lock-down and actually mount full scale armed resistance…which created successive generations of war-era culture.

    In regard to the Pharisees….boy, do they get a bum rap. Jesus’ contests with some Pharisaic leadership was not an indictment of the whole group or its movement. The Pharisees were the party of the people…as such…one should expect heated debate within the people’s house. In regard to womens’s rights, the Pharisees actually enacted major social justice reforms for women and families in Jesus’ era. Jesus’ expressed values in this regard no doubt reflect those reforms in process. You can find very detailed information on this by reading Bruce Chilton’s work in this area.

    More generally, the important place of women in Jesus’ movement and that of the very early Church inhered in that it was women, whether Jewish or Roman, who increasingly understood from a first hand basis what peril the barberous Roman regime posed for children and families. In this regard, there is a mix of the traditional and the visionary….the traditional having to do with preserving familial life, and the visionary having to do with building a new culture on nurture, not war.