Last night I concluded a Lenten series of classes on the historical Jesus. As always, the course had its ups and downs. But it was faithfully attended by about 25 soul mates who, like me, remain fascinated by and somehow in love with Jesus of Nazareth.
At last evening’s final meeting, one of the participants – a fierce unflinching seeker of truth, asked the question in the back of everyone’s mind. “So what?” she asked. “If, as we have learned here, Jesus has been distorted beyond recognition by the early church (and especially by Paul and Constantine) why should we believe any of it?”
What a good question! It has forced me to pull together (for myself!) what I have learned from this latest round of studies of the historical Jesus. Let me express them in as clear an unvarnished a way as possible both positively and critically.
First of all, my positive learnings . . . . The study forced me to face the fact that the historical Jesus, un-obscured by later developments is the touchstone for authentic Christian faith. That is, the Jesus of history (vs. the Jesus of later doctrines) trumps all other conceptualizations in terms of being normative for Christian faith. The teachings of the historical Jesus were extremely simple: God is love. God is bread. Salvation consists in sharing food – bread and wine. A world with room for everyone (the Kingdom of God) is entirely possible. Empire is the anti-thesis of love and sharing. It uses religion to enslave. It finds Jesus message of liberation abhorrent. Empire is the enemy.
Second of all, my critical learnings . . . . If anything the Christian Testament makes it extremely difficult to locate the normative historical Jesus. In fact, the canonical gospels often contradict the basic revelations of Jesus. When this happens, those contradictions have to be faced, learned from, and set aside as merely illustrative of the way history and religion are routinely distorted by the rich and powerful. It is evidence of what people either used to believe before Jesus’ revelation, or what they came to believe when the faith of Jesus subsequently interacted with and was domesticated by other cultures and times.
More particularly, examination of the gospels makes it abundantly clear that following the destruction of Jerusalem in the Jewish-Roman War (66-73), the Jesus of history increasingly receded from Christian perception. In his place a Jesus of faith came to prominence. The two are at odds with each other. The Jesus of history strove to liberate the poor. The Jesus of faith became the servant of empire and the rich who run it.
The Jesus of history was a mystic, prophet, teacher, healer, and movement founder. He was intent on reforming Judaism whose leaders had sold Judaism’s soul to the Roman Empire transforming it into a religion of laws, rituals and obedience to the powerful. This Jesus called himself the “Son of Man,” not the “Son of God.” He was perceived by the poor as a “messiah” who would deliver his people from Roman domination. He proclaimed a new social order which he referred to as the “Kingdom of God.” There Rome’s domination model of social organization would be replaced by a sharing model. In God’s kingdom everything would be reversed: the rich would be poor; the poor would be rich; the first would be last; the last would be first; prostitutes and “the unclean” would enter the new order before priests, the rich and the famous.
And although he shied away from accepting the conventional messianic identity associated with “The War” (against the Romans), Jesus’ program of “Good News for the poor” along with his healings and exorcisms confirmed that identification in the eyes of the marginalized and oppressed. It did the same for the Romans and their collaborators to such an extent that they ended up executing him as an insurgent.
The memory of this Jesus of history was preserved and celebrated by the Jerusalem community called “The Way” before its eradication in the horrendous Roman-Jewish War of 66 to 73CE. In obedience to Jesus, they adopted a communal life where food, drink, and material possessions were shared and held in common. Following Jesus’ death, some were even hoping for his “second coming” in their own lifetimes to complete the task of empire-destruction his execution had prevented him from fulfilling.
This prophetic Jesus was replaced by the Jesus of faith who emerged in the post-war world after the Jerusalem church and its leadership had been slaughtered by Rome. At this point, “The Way” (Jesus’ version of reformed Judaism) was replaced by “Christianity.” This religious movement was non-Jewish. It derived from the teaching of Paul of Tarsus (in Turkey) who never met the historical Jesus, and who thought of him in terms of God’s unique and only Son. Paul was a thoroughly Romanized Jewish rabbi intent on acquainting non-Jews with the Jesus he experienced in the visionary psychic experience recorded as his conversion on the Damascus Road.
By ignoring the Jesus of history, Paul’s experience and subsequent preaching laid the foundation for an understanding that centralized a Jesus understood as God’s only Son – a divine being who would have been (and was!) completely unacceptable to the fiercely monotheistic Jews. At the same time, this domesticated Jesus was not threatening to Rome. In fact, he was completely familiar to Romans resembling the “dying and rising gods” of Roman-Greco culture who offered “eternal life” beyond the grave rather than an anti-imperial Kingdom of God in the here and now. In other words, the Jesus of history was co-opted beyond recognition by the Roman Empire.
So what’s the take-away from the study of the historical Jesus? I think the following extremely important lessons:
1. History is unreliable. It has been distorted and manipulated by the powerful to suit their own needs. (If taken seriously, this in itself is an invaluable lesson.)
2. Hard work is required to find historical truth – not just about Jesus but about what happened yesterday!
3. Empire is the enemy. It is a system of robbery whereby the rich and powerful steal resources from the poor they oppress. It is entirely contrary to the will of God (the Principle of Life). It represents a “preferential option” for the rich and powerful. It is absolutely ruthless in its eternal war against the world’s poor and in falsifying history for its own benefit.
4. Those who resist empire can expect to be tortured and assassinated. Nonetheless, from time to time courageous and insightful prophets arise from the non-rich and non-powerful with Good News for the poor. Their very simple message: fullness of life is to be found not in empire, but among the poor and simple of the world (God’s people). Salvation, these prophets teach, consists in sharing the simple realities of bread and wine. In effect: God is Bread.
5. Among the west’s best known prophets of Jesus’ God are Moses, Jesus himself, Gandhi, Bartolommeo de las Casas, Karl Marx, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, and the nameless martyrs (so many of them women!) inspired over the last fifty years by liberation theology.
6. Most people are in denial about these simple facts. They are powerfully assisted in their denial by politicians, scholars, priests, and the media who make the teachings of the prophets extremely complicated. They have transformed the prophets’ message about sharing bread and fullness of life in the here and now into “religion” and a promise of life after death. As such, religion is the enemy of humankind. Christianity is the enemy!
7. Those who accept these learnings should leave institutionalized “religion,” band together, internalize the teachings of the historical Jesus and change the world!