Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Jesus and Lee Kuan Yew

In a video that got 16-year-old Amos Yee into trouble for his insults aimed at Singapore's much beloved founding father Lee Kuan Yew, he likened Lee to Jesus and he said they were both "power-hungry", "malicious" and "horrible".

Left: Jesus cleansing the leper painting in a Sicily cathedral
Right: Lee Kuan Yew, Founding Father of Singapore

But was Jesus really all that? If Amos Yee's description of Jesus is correct, his criminal conviction for having offended Christians' religious sentiments surely cannot stand. Because if Jesus was really what Yee says he was, and if there is biblical scholarship that supports him, merely repeating what Bible scholars say cannot be a criminal offence against Christianity.

It's only fair and right if I state at the outset that I am a church-going, church-serving Christian but as always, I will examine the facts rationally and fairly. But before we examine the person of Jesus, it's important for us to understand that like all religious figures, Jesus can be looked at in his two personas. The first is the historical Jesus and the other is the Jesus of faith.  The Jesus of faith is the Jesus created by the church. He is imbued with super-human power and is fully divine. He is also fully man. "Very God and very man" as the Creed tells us.  The Jesus of faith is also the Son of God, the 2nd person of the Holy Trinity and his properties and nature can't be questioned but are to be accepted as dogma. That's the bummer about religion. There's no room for critical thinking. But nobody outside the church is interested in the Jesus of faith. If at all anyone is interested in Jesus, it's the historical Jesus that he's interested in.

The historical Jesus, assuming he exists, is the Jesus who really lived in Palestine some 2000 years ago.  We cannot project the Jesus of faith into a historical setting. The historical Jesus has to be gleaned from various sources and no historian is going to accept any authority, be it so high an authority as the Church, to lay down dogmas about Jesus if they're not supported by evidence. We have to examine the facts.

Because Jesus was never mentioned in non-religious sources and the very few disputed sources where he is mentioned have been shown and accepted by Bible scholars to be forgeries by early Christians, there can be serious doubt about the historicity of Jesus. However, most historians are prepared to accept that Jesus really did exist and that is the view I will adopt for this post. But bear in mind that I do not totally dismiss the arguments of those who deny the historicity of Jesus. I admit they are compelling; but for the purposes of this article, I will take the position that Jesus did exist in history.

Because of the paucity of evidence for Jesus' existence in non-religious texts, we will have to examine the Holy Gospels in order to understand the historical Jesus. Now, you may legitimately ask that if I want to find out the character of the historical Jesus, surely going to the Holy Gospels will only reveal the Jesus of faith and not the historical Jesus. Surely the Gospels will only say good things of Jesus and it is unlikely that the Gospel writers would portray Jesus as anything but the ideal God-man, compassionate and loving and slow to anger. But because there is no secular record of Jesus in order for historians to base their assessment of Jesus, historians have no alternative but to seek recourse to the only available accounts of Jesus ie the Holy Gospels and they have to look for areas in the Gospels where the writers, despite their eagerness to describe a perfect Jesus, somehow inadvertently but truthfully disclosed the other side of Jesus. This is not a simple task. To look for the Jesus with warts and all in a religious text that glorifies Jesus as God is indeed a Herculean task.

Now supposing some early biblical manuscripts do show a description of Jesus that is less than ideal or even downright nasty. And subsequent manuscripts show a different reading and a kinder word is used to describe Jesus. How would you deal with that? Naturally, a historian will have to accept that it's more likely for the original writing to contain that nasty word and a subsequent scribe (always a monk) altered the word to reflect a Christology that is more acceptable to the teachings of the Church.  So the nasty word is looked at very seriously by historians as more likely to be the original portrayal of Jesus.  And that is of course fair.

As it turns out, there are countless examples especially in the earlier texts and in the older manuscripts where Jesus is portrayed in a rather poor light but I will give only two examples from the Holy Gospels in order for us to understand the historical Jesus' true character.  If you are really interested in this subject and would like more examples, you may want to read the books of Bible scholars such as Bart Ehrman. Bart Ehrman is a renowned Bible scholar and historian. Trained in Moody Bible Institute, Ehrman continued his theological education in Princeton under the great Bible scholar, Bruce Metzger.


I will first read from the Gospel according to St Mark. Mark's gospel is accepted by all Bible scholars to be the oldest Gospel of the four. Many scholars accept that the writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke copied large chunks from Mark and there is compelling textual evidence to support this. Hence, to understand the person of the historical Jesus, it is always more accurate to look at what the earliest accounts say of him. Later books may be less accurate because the writer had had time to think of what prevailing church doctrines were and there was always the temptation to write a more sugar-coated account of Jesus.

In Mark 1, we read of Jesus healing the leper. I will first quote from the KJV:
And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean.
We read in this passage that Jesus was "filled with compassion" when approached by a leper for healing. This may seem like a simple statement of fact to us lay folks but scholars have agonised over this for a long time. You see, the Koine Greek word for "filled with compassion" is SPLANGNISTHEIS (I'm on my phone and I have no access to the Greek alphabet and we'll have to make do with a transliteration). This word is found in many of the later manuscripts. But the earlier and more reliable manuscripts use a different word,  ORGISTHEIS which means "filled with anger" or "becoming angry".  Our earliest text, Codex Bezae which is supported by 3 Latin manuscripts and which textual experts concede goes back to at least the 2nd century uses this word which describes Jesus as angry.

Modern Bible translations today which seek to honestly and faithfully use words as close to the original manuscripts or at least adopt the readings in older and more reliable manuscripts retain the original "angry" when describing the emotion of Jesus at this scene. For example, the NIV which is a modern translation and one used by the majority of churches and Christians all over the world reads in Mark 1:40, 41:
A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’
So, the NIV retains the word used in the most reliable manuscripts and describes Jesus as indignant.

But why was Jesus indignant? Here is where Christian apologists come in. These are defenders of the faith and they will spring into action the moment there is anything that may raise a doubt among the faithful in any way. Some apologists suggest that perhaps Jesus was angry with the disease. But that doesn't make any sense and there is no textual support for this. Others say Jesus was angry with the law that makes a leper an outcast in society. But that again doesn't make sense because it's God's law, the Law of Moses, that strips a leper of all his rights in society and makes him a total outcast. Further in verse 44 Jesus commands the leper to observe the same Law of Moses after he was healed so Jesus couldn't have been raving at the Law of God.

It is interesting to note that the earliest gospel, Mark, also describes Jesus as "angry" in at least two other occasions but when the writers of Matthew and Luke copied the text, they copied everything but left out any reference to Jesus' anger.

In Mark 3:5 Jesus is described as angry in the story of the healing of the man with a shrivelled hand but in the corresponding story in Luke's Gospel we see that the writer of Luke copied almost verbatim from Mark but left out any reference to Jesus' anger. Matthew re-wrote that story and he too left out the description of Jesus as angry.

Similarly, in Mark 10:14, we read of Jesus being angry yet again. The corresponding story as related by the writers of Matthew and Luke completely omitted any references to Jesus' characteristic anger.

There are many other references to Jesus' quickness to anger even on occasions that do not merit it but these would be beyond the scope of this blog post. This is not a theological thesis.

So we have a portrayal from the Holy Gospels of Jesus as one who is quick to anger. When most people would be filled with compassion for a leper, Jesus was filled with anger.


This time, we don't even have to delve into the older manuscripts. We only need to look at one of our canonical gospels. That's because this story about Jesus was not removed in transmission and remains in Matthew's Gospel Chapter 15. You can find it in ANY version of the Bible. I'll print it here from the NIV from verse 21:
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.’ 
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’ 
The woman came and knelt before him. ‘Lord, help me!’ she said. He replied, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’   
‘Yes it is, Lord,’ she said. ‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’ 
Then Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was healed at that moment.
This is not an easy passage for the church to deal with. I have read every attempt at explaining away Jesus' racism and cruelty and I must say none of them is valid. Some apologists have tried to show that calling the woman a dog was done as a term of endearment. I'm sure I need not explain to my readers how insane such a suggestion is.

First, Jesus ignored the woman who was crying out and begging for mercy. Notice that Jesus' disciples did not once ask Jesus to attend to the woman. Instead they asked him to chase her away. Jesus' reply was that he would only attend to Jews. But the feisty woman knelt before Jesus and begged him for help. This time, he couldn't ignore her. But what did he say to her? You can read it for yourself Jesus' shocking words that I can't even bear to repeat.

It is well-known that Jews at the time of Jesus would never talk to a Canaanite woman. They were racists of course. Jesus showed himself to be no different from the average racist Jew in the first century. Calling a Gentile a dog was common in those days. In fact, even today, you may hear the same word used on Arabs by Jewish extremists.


For the historian, the historical Jesus was most probably an apocalyptic zealot. There were many such zealots in Palestine at the time of Jesus. In fact about a hundred years before Jesus, there was one such zealot by the same name as Jesus who was crucified for treason. Those who deny the historicity of Jesus believe that Jesus was a myth created a hundred years after the earlier Jesus was crucified. It is not within the ambit of this post to examine such a claim.  All I wish to say here is that the historical Jesus, as the evidence stands today, may very well be an apocalyptic zealot.

An apocalyptic zealot believed that the Romans had to be thrown out of the holy land and a Messiah would be raised by God to lead the people in an insurgency against the Romans. There is a great deal of textual evidence for the argument that Jesus was an apocalyptic zealot and a case can be made for such a claim based solely on the Holy Gospels.

When someone calls Jesus a horrible person, he is referring to this historical Jesus. Some Christians may be annoyed because they fail to see that the criticism is not directed at the Jesus of faith, the godhead in the Holy Trinity but at the historical Jesus who, even from the two passages in the canonical Gospels that I quoted above, does appear quite horrible.