What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Human Freedom (What If—21)

I apologize for the long silence. I have been chasing many things lately and these blogs do take significant time to write. Hope they are worth the wait.

People think of Athens as the birthplace of intellectual freedom and democracy, and in a real sense it was. But the freedom that Athens initiated was only for the elites of society, it didn’t apply to the common people. And it was fairly limited even for the elites. The elites of Athens could vote but they had no protection against abuse by the majority, whatever they decided. The state was considered more important than the individual. That meant that the individual of Athenian society was subject to the whims of the collective body. It was the “tyranny of the majority”. There was no idea of “individual liberty” in Athens. The classic example of that was the fate of Socrates, who was condemned to death by a vote of 280 to 220. So Athens made some important contributions to the idea of human freedom, but did not go nearly far enough.

The Jewish world in ancient times contained many examples of abusive leadership in both the political and religious spheres (think Rehoboam and Caiaphas, among others). But the Israelites had a strong love for freedom, grounded in the Exodus experience. They remembered that they were slaves in the land of Egypt and that God had brought them out of slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deut 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21, etc.). The same God also instituted the Jubilee, a once-in-a-lifetime event when liberty was proclaimed throughout the land (Lev 25:10).

An additional Jewish contribution to human freedom was the idea of human equality. After all, if everyone was created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), no one is less so than any other. Equality was reinforced by Deuteronomy 10:17-19, where God is declared to show no partiality. His love is not centered on the rich and powerful, He loves orphans, widows, and foreigners, people who can usually offer nothing in return.

God’s commitment to impartiality and freedom is also seen in the law of two or three witnesses (Deut 19:25). We recognize that having two or three witnesses to establish the truth of a matter is a good idea. But the implications of such a law go even further. Requiring two or three witnesses meant that no one, not even the king, could arbitrarily deprive someone of life and liberty. This was a shocking limitation on kingly power in the ancient world. It also meant that no one is above the law, not even the king. This was a radical idea in ancient times.

Finally, it could be argued that the Ten Commandments are the very foundation of universal human rights. The Ten Commandments meant that Israelite law was designed to protect the family (commandments five and seven), to protect life (commandment six), to protect property (commandments eight and ten) and to protect truth (commandment nine). From these flow a high regard for human rights to life, liberty, property, and the family as the glue and backbone of society.

Then Jesus came. Building on the foundation of Judaism, He underlined the importance of freedom, equality and equal treatment of all. In John 8:32, 36 He noted that the purpose of truth is not to restrict people but to truly set them free. Paul underlined this teaching of Jesus when he wrote that wherever the Spirit of God is found, there is true liberty (2 Cor 3:17). In Matthew 22:21, Jesus articulated the importance of keeping the church and the state separate. His followers were to be supportive of the highest goals of state and society while keeping the things of God central to everything they did. He highlighted the character of God, which is exhibited in the sun and the rain, realities that affect all people equally (Matt 5:45-47). He encouraged all to be like God in His impartial treatment, even of those who are opposed to His principles (Acts 10:34-35). There is no more distinction of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. Followers of Jesus and Paul were to treat everyone equally, without distinction of gender, race or social standing.

While these principles could be found within the teachings of Judaism, there were seriously absent in the Greco-Roman world into which Jesus was born. One of the first things one would notice about the Roman Empire is that it was not a free place. More than seventy percent of the inhabitants of the Empire were slaves. The Emperor had power of life and death over just about everybody. And slaveholders had power of life and death over their own slaves. The inklings of freedom and democracy that had stirred Athens were long gone by the time Jesus came. As in so many other areas, His arrival was a turning point in human history.