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Universal Gnostic Ministry & Study
Affirming Unity + Celebrating Diversity

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By Mark Aelred




Jesus versus the Merchants of Death:
An Open Letter in Response to John Shelby Spong

Dear Bishop John,

Greetings in Christ. I write as a fellow bishop. There is much we agree on, and I applaud many of your endeavors and positions, especially your open-minded and progressive approaches to church doctrine and to sexuality. I hope my criticism below, on another subject, will be received as given in good will.

In your recent online column, you write:

"I am not sure that anyone can say why Jesus died. The fact is that he did and it appears to have been violent. It left his disciples with many questions about the meaning of both his life and his death. ... Paul started us on the track of saying Jesus "died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.' Mark built on that idea by referring to Jesus' death as a "ransom." Behind both of these understandings was the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) when a lamb was sacrificed for the sins of the people, to ransom them from the punishment that their sins required.... When Christianity left its Jewish world, those ideas got understood in terms of a legal contract and God became an ogre who demanded a human sacrifice and a blood offering. Jesus became the victim of an abusive heavenly father and you and I became burdened with the guilt of having been responsible for his death".
-- Bishop Spong Q&A on Resurrection, 9/21/06

You mention the roots of blood atonement for sin in the Jewish tradition, but then seem put the blame on abandoning this tradition for the idea that the death of Jesus was a blood atonement for sin. It seems you are contradicting yourself and trying to avoid naming the real cause of this idea -- the rampant animal blood sacrifices that occured within the ancient Jewish world.

You also say we don't really know why Jesus died (i.e., was killed). Again, it looks like you are trying to avoid the same unpleasant truth. The Jewish temple cult had centuries before Jesus already turned their god into "an ogre" who demanded regular blood offerings. Even as substitutes for human sacrifices, this left the symbolism intact. An astonishing number of animals were sacrificed daily and at Passover to this bloodthirsty ogre and its priests. This may be the real reason (rather than anti-Semitism) that the Gospel of John has Jesus refer to the god of the temple priests as Satan.

If the New Testament can be interpreted literally at all (and this is another question), the historic Jesus was a Jew who challenged the Jewish religious establishment that was (as we know from historic sources) corrupt and in cahoots with the Roman occupying force. According to the written tradition, Jesus disrupted the system of temple sacrifice when he drove out those who were buying and selling animals for ritual slaughter. And the canonical gospels clearly give this as a reason the temple priests plotted to kill him. The connection is there, but you plead ignorance and so mislead your readers. Sorry, but I wonder when established church representatives will stop misleading people and covering up the record of cruelty and killing in the name of religion.

Jesus' provocative claim to be king of the Jews was put into practice when he drove out the temple's merchants of death. In response to this claim, and to this direct action that backed-up the claim, the blood-stained temple priests (not the people, who followed Jesus) delivered a fellow Jew into the blood-stained hands of the Roman occupiers. He was crucified as "Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews" -- Nazarenes were known to be vegetarians who opposed the temple. Jesus's successor, his brother James, became the new leader of the Nazarenes, and is universally described as a strict vegetarian.

The Nazarenes eventually became known as "the Ebionites", which means "the Poor", as in "Blessed are The Poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." They continued on the Way of vegetarianism and nonviolence as they understood was taught by John the Baptist and his cousins Jesus and James. Even Paul is reported as taking a Nazarene vow to not eat meat -- perhaps, as he writes, if only to avoid upsetting his comrades in faith. The Psuedo-Clementine literature indicates that Peter and the early Christians were vegetarian and regarded baptism as replacing blood sacrifice. Eusebius later records that vegetarianism was an original practice of Jesus' first apostles. It would be odd for him to have volunteered this idea unless it was already a well-known and accepted tradition. It would be odder still if the first apostles were vegetarian and Jesus was not. Finally, that Jesus was vegetarian is the tradition of the Jewish Christians themselves, and their tradition is most likely the closest to the original teachings.

It's easy to see how Jesus' bloody death was later interpreted as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. But Jesus opposed and sought to abolish the system of blood sacrifice before his crucifixion. In the NT, he quotes the anti-temple prophetic tradition: "I require mercy, not sacrifice." According to Epiphanius, the Ebionites preserved another saying of Jesus: "I have come to destroy the sacrifices." The Ebionites rejected as false the scripture passages that claim the God of the Jews ever required or desired blood sacrifice. The Gnostics, similarly but differently, rejected as false, not so much these scriptural passages, but the god itself that these passages described. They were branded heretics by the new church hierarchy for, among other things, rejecting the doctrine that Jesus' crucifixion was required by God as a blood atonement for humanity's sins.

Good research on the Ebionites is beginning to emerge, and much of it can be accessed through the work of Keith Akers, his book The Lost Tradition of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity, and his website, which includes various articles including "Who Were the Ebionites?": http://www.compassionatespirit.com/ebionites-article.htm

The Jewish Christians (Ebionites) seem to have preserved intact both Jesus' opposition to blood sacrifice along with their own logical extension -- opposition to the Roman church doctrine of Jesus' blood atonement. To this extent you are correct in saying that leaving their Jewish roots behind led (many) Christians to interpret Jesus' crucifixion as a blood sacrifice. But this happened because Roman Christianity rejected its Jewish anti-Temple roots -- in favor of a pro-Temple Jewish tradition and its (false) scriptures. By doing so, the Roman church sought to justify its own priesthood by seeing it as the replacement for, and heir to, the blood-sacrificing Jewish priesthood that ended with the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE.

The emerging Roman church heirarchy seemed to forget that the Resurrection was (and still can be) seen as a sign vindicating Jesus' prophetic mission of abolishing the doctrine and practice of blood sacrifice, along with the hereditary priesthood that foisted it upon the people. He replaced the heriditary priesthood with direct worship based upon "mercy, not sacrifice" -- the inherent priesthood of all people "according to the order of Melchizedek", the eternal high priest who offered bread and wine, not slaughtered animals. The kingdom of God envisioned by Jesus was a return to Eden -- the Original Unity wherein all of nature, animals and humans, live together in peace and harmony. In the end, Jesus can be understood as rejecting the physical temple made by human hands, with all its violence and corruption, in favor of one "in Spirit". It is a Way that he called others to follow -- and one that we can follow even today.

Sincerely yours in Spirit,

+Mark Aelred
Circle of the Free Spirit
Box 230316 Ansonia Station
New York, NY 10023


November 23, 2006
Thanksgiving Day