Rescuing Jesus from the Christians

October 19, 2010

Following on from my previous post, this was my dad’s essay on the subject of “Rescuing Jesus from the Christians”. One of these days I’ll explain to him how he can publish things on his own blog, but until then it will live as a guest post on this one. In my objective assessment of the two rival posts, I think I score higher for “use of profanity” but my dad wins on “actually knowing what he’s talking about”. Enjoy.

Very little is reliably known of Jesus of Nazareth. A vast amount – enough to fuel a world religion for almost 2000 years – is claimed of Jesus of Nazareth. One of fewer than a handful of authentic contemporary references to the Jesus of history, the Jewish historian and turncoat [he changed side to join the Romans in the first great Jewish Revolt against Rome in the late-60s C.E.], Josephus, writes in the second half of the 1st Century C.E. of a “tribe of Christians”. He is referring to the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. They had by now attached to the not-long-dead, illiterate, teacher of startlingly original ideas on how people ought to live, the title ‘Christ’ – the Greek version of the Hebrew word Messiah. The Messiah, a figure evidently prophesied in the Jewish scriptures, was expected to rescue Israel from the dire straits into which she had fallen. Most Jews continued (and continue) to wait. The tiny minority who now believed he had just been (and not quite gone) were joined by Gentiles (non-Jews) and a Jesus Movement began to take root. And the movement, inspired by a charismatic, illiterate Galilean peasant, was soon to be driven along by a (Greek) narrative which has ever since been widely seen as a work of actual record and history – which it most certainly is not. Only in modern times and with the benefit of almost two centuries of painstaking scholarship [matching the scholarship that has accounted for the progress in understanding the Natural Sciences] is it possible to appreciate the proper context in which the scriptures should be understood.

First of all, all that is ‘authentically Jesus’, amounts to a small fraction of all that appears in the four Gospels, Acts, and the Letters [I’ve no idea what appears in Revelation]. It is believed that the essential teaching of Jesus, focused as it was on the here and now, devoid of reference to Heaven and quite miracle-free, survived in an oral tradition (only conjecturally in a written form) until the second half of the 1st Century C.E. At this point the Jesus Movement began to produce its own literature.

Secondly, as ‘Christian’ literature was written, the representation of Jesus changed. For example if Jesus was to be the Christ (Messiah), he had to have been born in Bethlehem [whereas he was almost certainly born as his name implies, in Nazareth] to ‘plug-in’ to the prophetic texts of the existing Hebrew scriptures. Appreciation of the ‘plug-in’ or ‘continuity’ factor is essential to the understanding of the New Testament. Pithily, writing specifically of the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus, the biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossan [Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography] reminds us that “the details of our Gospels, are, in any case, prophecy historicized and not history memorized”.

Finally, Christian literature was, over time, submitted to ruthless editing. The most widely known Christian scriptures comprise the agreed ‘canon’ (that, is the scriptures that were to be included as against those – quite a lot actually – that were to be rejected) of books comprising the New Testament. Agreement on the canon came about under the civilized auspices of the Roman Empire. Astonishingly, in the light of the origins of the Jesus Movement and the several subsequent episodes of Roman persecution of Christians, the Empire became, after the ‘conversion’ of Emperor Constantine in 312 C.E. the ‘major sponsor ‘ of the heir to the Jesus Movement, Christianity. It may be strongly argued that this sponsorship was crucial in enabling the long-term survival of Christianity.

So where does all this leave Jesus ? Well, back in the desert talking a very new and eternally useful sort of sense. The Jesus who enjoins us to do to others only what we would not mind having done to ourselves and to forgive our enemies, is a long way from the eye for an eye man of wrath. The Jesus who enjoins us to live simply and charitably, is a living challenge to the consumer society which tries hard to turn its face away from poverty and inequality. The Jesus who preaches that the Kingdom of God is here and now and not pleasure deferred, invites us to remake and improve this world rather than imagine, or live in terror of, another one somewhere else.

Many centuries before Jesus of Nazareth was born, as far as we have been able to discover, the object of religion began to shift away from ritual and worship towards the central, ethical question of how to live a good life, harming no-one and behaving well to everyone we meet. The prophet Jeremiah, in Jesus’ own tradition, the Buddha and Lao Tzu, far to the East, all knew this to be the point of religion. Socrates (and friends), in Athens in spite of their polite acknowledgement of the Olympian crew of questionable morals, sought, with the aid of reason and philosophy, to define the goodness that our lives should display. Jesus would have got along well with his distinguished predecessors. The Big Question of Religion remains ‘How Should We Live ?’ (not where do we go next or whether the universe is explained by a ‘who’ rather than a ‘what’). Almost 20 centuries on from his death, Jesus is (deservedly) still around to help us answer the big questions – and the Christians are welcome to join the discussion if they have anything helpful to say.


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