Saving Jesus from Paul and John (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for the 4th Sunday after Easter: Acts 13:14; Ps. 100: 1-2, 3-5; Rev. 7:9, 14B-17; Jn. 10: 27-30. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/042113.cfm

As I’ve been reporting here, a group of about 25 people met weekly during Lent for an intensely rewarding study of “The Historical Jesus.” The group included members of our local Catholic church in Berea, Kentucky along with an equal number from our Ecumenical Table in nearby Richmond. In the aftermath of that experience, I find it impossible to read selections like those in today’s liturgy of the word without making connections with our little seminar.

For instance, today’s readings remind me that would-be followers of Jesus might more accurately call ourselves “Paulists” rather than “Christians.” That observation is sparked by the tension between Paul and “the Jews” in this morning’s selection from Acts. The tension reminds us that our belief system has been shaped more by Paul of Tarsus than by Jesus of Nazareth who was himself a Jew. The same holds true for the gospel selection from John the Evangelist with its emphasis on Jesus’ divinity (“I and the Father are one”). As a result of the influence of Paul and John, our faith tends to be other-worldly and de-politicized. Our Jesus tends to be one-dimensionally divine rather than the enlightened very human rabbi who graced the Palestinian landscape 2000 years ago. Let me explain.

To begin with it’s important to point out that we know more about Paul than we do about the historical Jesus. And we know more about the historical Jesus than did the rabbi from Tarsus. The reasons why are simple. On the one hand, most of the Christian Testament is written by or heavily influenced by Paul. The New Testament, then, is more Pauline than Christian.

On the other, Paul never met the historical Jesus and shows almost no knowledge of Jesus’ words and deeds in his epistles. Meanwhile, scholarship based on manuscript discoveries at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945 and at the Dead Sea in 1947 (the famous Dead Sea Scrolls) has yielded unprecedented knowledge of the historical Jesus. That means we know more about the rabbi from Nazareth than did Paul.

Think about the Pauline nature of the faith we’ve inherited. There are 27 books in the “New Testament.” Thirteen of those 27 are letters written by Paul. Then there’s the “Acts of the Apostles” which really is a travelogue about the mission and adventures of Paul written by Paul’s companion, Luke the evangelist. Luke also wrote his own Gospel, which, of course, was heavily influenced by his mentor. Finally, as the earliest entries in the New Testament, Paul’s epistles (written from about 50 to 64 CE) evidently exercised great influence on the other evangelists Mark, Matthew and John who wrote much later.

That means that nearly half of the New Testament (13 of 27 entries) is comprised of letters attributed to Paul. Fifty-five percent (15 of 27 entries) was written by Paul or Luke. And more than 66% (18 of 27 entries) was arguably more influenced by Paul than by Jesus.

I say “more influenced by Paul than by Jesus” because what we have in Paul’s letters, the Acts of the Apostles and in the gospels themselves are proclamations about Jesus rather than the proclamation of Jesus. Remember, Jesus’ proclamation was about the Kingdom of God, “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.” In contrast, the New Testament’s proclamations about Jesus are “Jesus is Lord.”

The differences between these two “gospels” are enormous and they are, as I indicated, illustrated in today’s readings on this fourth Sunday after Easter. Today’s selection from John’s Gospel (written about 70 years after the crucifixion of the Enlightened Yeshua) has Jesus discoursing about himself. He speaks of himself as a “shepherd” leading his sheep and about offering them “eternal life.” He concludes by claiming to be God’s Son equal to the Father. “I and the Father are one,” he says. (The historical Jesus could never have made such statements without being stoned by his fiercely monotheistic Jewish audience.)

However, Jesus’ discourse as reported in John’s gospel is completely coherent with the gospel of Paul. Paul, I repeat, never met the historical Jesus. In fact, as we all know, before his famous conversion on the road to Damascus, he was a persecutor of Christians. He pursued them on behalf of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court, which worked hand-in-glove with the Romans.

The Romans were hunting down Christians for the same reason they arrested and executed Jesus – because he was perceived as the Jewish Messiah whose overriding responsibility was the overthrow the Roman occupation of Palestine. With good reason, the Romans considered Jesus’ followers to be subversives.

In other words, the Romans, their Sanhedrin collaborators, and their point-man, Saulous (Paul’s name before his conversion) were cooperating in a counter-revolutionary program that targeted Jesus’ nationalistic followers.
Those followers had actually lived with Jesus. They were Jews primarily – members of a Jerusalem community gathered around Jesus’ brother, James, the apostles, and Jesus’ “inner circle” of followers including many women and numbering perhaps 120 people or more. Together they constituted a group of reformed Jews. Many of them had been eye-witnesses of Jesus’ deeds and followers of his teachings.

Those teachings centralized a new understanding of “the Law” which Yeshuaists called “the Way.” It emphasized love and forgiveness over fear, punishment and a purity code that divided people into “clean” and “unclean.” It emphasized justice for the poor and oppressed and freedom from foreign domination. The Jerusalem community of The Way recognized Jesus as the True Prophet predicted in their scriptures – a wonder-working Messiah and liberator who would usher in an era reminiscent of the Exodus from Egypt under the great rebel Moses. This Jewish messiah was human (the Son of Man) not a divine Son of God.

Paul, as I said, had never met the Son of Man. His writings show neither knowledge of Jesus’ deeds nor of specific teachings which were so important to the Jewish Yeshuaist community. Instead, Paul preached a kind of mythological Jesus who was entirely recognizable to the gentile audiences which interested him. Paul’s Jesus was born, crucified, risen and ascended to heaven. Evidently, Paul considered nothing between Jesus’ birth and death worth reporting.

For Paul’s gentile audience, any wonder-working “messiah” had to be a divine incarnation like the gods Romans and Egyptians worshipped — Mithra, Isis, Osiris, the Great Mother God. These “dying and rising gods” descended from heaven, lived for a while on earth, died, and then rose from the dead. Typically, they offered “eternal life” beyond the grave to believers who ate sacred meals together sharing the gods’ body and blood in the form of bread and wine. These are the terms Paul used to explain Jesus to his gentile audiences.

As reformed Jews, the Jerusalem community along with most unreformed (non-Yeshuaist) Jews had trouble with such explanations which offended their strictly monotheistic beliefs. How could Jesus be uniquely “one with the Father?” That sounded like two Gods and was entirely offensive and unacceptable.

Moreover, Paul’s version of the gospel seemed to remove the Kingdom of God to an other-worldly heaven. It left the Romans in charge of Palestine ruled by a god (the Roman emperor) who was a rival of Yahweh, who, for good Jews, alone was God and who alone was the legitimate ruler of the Palestinian homeland. Such a gospel along with Paul’s background of cooperation with the Romans made all Jews (Yeshuaist and orthodox) deeply suspect of Paul. They remained adamant in their hope of the “Second Coming” of Jesus who would finally defeat the Romans and introduce God’s Reign to replace Caesar’s.

We pick up the tension between Paul’s message aimed at gentiles and the anti-imperial faith of Jews (including Yeshuaists) in today’s readings. In the selection from Acts, Paul proclaims his version of Jesus. And “the Jews” respond as expected. To them Paul’s (and John’s) understanding of Jesus as God’s only Son, his understanding of salvation as “eternal life” rather than messianic liberation from foreign domination was completely blasphemous. So Paul and Barnabas end up “shaking the dust” of Antioch’s streets from their feet against “the Jews.”

Eventually, Paul’s gospel (with the deeply engrained seeds of anti-Semitism) ends up triumphing completely. This is because the base of the Jerusalem Yeshuaist community (the inner circle referenced earlier) was completely destroyed during the Jewish war with Rome (64-73). In the absence of strong Yeshuaist leadership, the way was thus opened for the triumph of a divine Jesus proclaiming himself (rather than God’s Kingdom) and offering an other-worldly “eternal life” rather than a new revolutionary social order characterized by love, forgiveness, justice, and room for everyone.

That other-worldly “Christianity” was finally canonized by Constantine in the fourth century (325 at Nicaea). Afterwards, in his zeal for uniformity of belief, the emperor and his church accomplices ordered the destruction of documents reflecting anything other than the Pauline and Johannine understandings of Jesus. The rest is history. The historical Jesus was lost. We’ve been worshipping a Roman Mithra instead of a prophetic Enlightened Jewish Jesus ever since.

Luckily disobedient monks ignored Constantine’s order to destroy manuscripts reflecting understandings of Jesus other than Paul’s. That happened at the Dead Sea and at Nag Hammadi.

Thank God for their crime! At this late date it has directed our focus away from the Gospel about Jesus to the Gospel of Jesus. It calls us to work not for an after-life heaven, but for God’s Kingdom in the here and now.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

5 thoughts on “Saving Jesus from Paul and John (Sunday Homily)”

  1. Mike, your explanation makes a lot of sense to me. “Christianity” can be such a confusing doctrine.
    On the other hand, I have never bought the idea that Paul was totally wrong in all he said. The transcendent realm he sometimes spoke of is a Reality. We do live and move and have our being in That (and as That). There is also a sense in which if you have seen the reality of Jesus, you have seen the Father. Of course if you see That Reality you also realize that everything and everyone around you is also ultimately That Reality. I am That, You are That, all of this is That, and there is nothing other than That. As the Koran puts it — in that State everywhere you turn you will see the Face of God. Where is the Kingdom of God? Within you and all around you.

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    1. I completely agree with you, Mike. What you write here is more reflective of the Gospel of Thomas than of the Gospel of John, which saw Jesus as God’s unique and only son. I agree too that Paul had the mystical consciousness you describe so well. But after Constantine and Nicaea had their say, the mythology of Jesus and God’s only son was cemented in. All other understandings, like the one you voice here, like the one present in the Gospel of Thomas, were condemned as heresy.

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  2. Hello Mike,

    You wrote: “The Romans were hunting down Christians for the same reason they arrested and executed Jesus – because he was perceived as the Jewish Messiah whose overriding responsibility was the overthrow the Roman occupation of Palestine. ”

    May I share a different view?

    According to Tolstoy in “The Kingdom of God is within you” (available as a free audio book from Librivox.org) nationalism requires that we disobey God’s commandment “Thou shalt not murder.” Tolstoy outlines the panic by the Russian Commanders in the late 19th century over the outbreak of Christian pacifism in the face of military mandatory subscription. The panic stemmed from fear that pacifism would spread to many more Christians and beyond severely weakening their ability to defend their country. This is what Jesus’ Gospel, as I understand it, always threatens to do – to dissolve nations and cause the masses to “beat their swords into ploughshares.”

    I think the Romans persecuted the Christians because they knew they were pacifists who rejected ultimate submission to Rome. The early Christians with their hope in a beneficient and non-vengeful God were willing to die rather than to endorse the view that killing for one’s national or personal security was either valid or sensible. The early Christian martyrs backed up their conviction with a willingness to die rather than change their view about God and His non-violent ways. Such drastic views prompted extreme measures from Rome. First, outbreaks of persecution (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilian_(martyr) ) Then, via Constantine, the temptation of a Church-State partnership through which the Church hierachy betrayed the non-retributary vision of God brought by Jesus.

    When I study the New Testament with this lense, I find the four gospel accounts and Paul’s writings to be very congruent.

    Ref. http://www.jub.id.au .

    Thanks for your own proclamation of a non-despotic God!

    John

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