Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What Would Jesus Do? Good Question

A few months ago, a former school teacher of mine shared a cartoon on Facebook, entitled What Would Jesus NOT Do?  It shows a haloed Jesus sitting on a rock looking thoughtful.  Among the things it says he wouldn't do are "beat homosexuals", "own a gun", "hate his enemies", "attack the poor", and "side with the rich".  The cartoon was shared from the Facebook page for a liberal Christian group called Christians Who Are Tired of Being Misrepresented.  So far, the cartoon has been shared nearly 9,000 times, and the comment count is approaching 3,000.

Now you may not believe this, but the comments suggest that not everybody agrees about what Jesus would or wouldn't do.  Shocking, right?  Liberal Christians mostly love the cartoon, but conservative Christians aren't thrilled with it, and non-religious types declare their indifference to the whole question.  The points of view expressed are amazingly diverse, and very often contradictory.  Here's a sampling, copied verbatim from various comments:
"I see no way in which you can be Christian and own a gun"

"If Jesus were alive today, he would own many guns and join a militia, the muslim hoards are coming"

 "Corrections, he made weapons! Come on people, in the temple? The rope, that he made into a whip? And then used it to chase the vendors out?"

"He wouldn't beat homosexuals or anyone else. But it clearly states it is WRONG."

"If Jesus were around today he'd have words of love for single mothers, homosexuals, and every down-trodden class"

"Nor would he support abortion, gay marriage, divorce, pornography, or theft :)"

"One point is that Jesus did not advocate violence at all. We are ALL loved by him."

"The bible contradicts itself constantly. How can anyone decide what it means?"
Personally, I tend to agree with the last statement, and the comments under the cartoon make me think we will never agree on what Jesus would or would't have done. Still, after reading through a couple hundred of them, I decided to take another look at the Bible, to see what impression I got about the type of person Jesus was.  I had read the gospels before, but it had been awhile, and I wanted to read them with an eye to determining how much truth there is to the liberal versus the conservative versions of Jesus.  The short answer is, I think they're both wrong.  Modern American liberalism and conservatism are responses to a completely different kind of society than Jesus lived in, and it takes some real mental contortions to cast him as one or the other.

Gospel Puzzles

Before I offer my meager thoughts on Jesus after reading the Gospels, I should say something about how I'm approaching them. As I've said elsewhere in this blog, I'm an agnostic who doesn't believe in the supernatural.  I do think Jesus had some real wisdom to offer, but I'm not a Christian in any traditional sense. I don't think Jesus was the son of God, that he was born of a virgin, that he performed miracles, that his death offered salvation to a sinful world, that he was resurrected, or that only by believing in him will I go to heaven and avoid hell.  I'm not sure Jesus believed most of these things either, and I'm deeply suspicious of the very existence of heaven and hell.

None of this means I lack respect for Christians who do believe these things.  Some of the kindest and most admirable people I know are Christians who see the Bible as the inspired Word of God.  I just don't happen to agree with them.  I'd be happy to explain the reasons why to anyone who asks, but that's not what I want to talk about in this post. Here, I want to try to understand what kind of person Jesus really was.

I'm approaching the gospels as I would any other ancient religious text about historical figures: trying to understand the mindset of the people who wrote them, and to peer past the layers of myth and interpretation to glimpse the real people underneath.  I'm assuming the gospels were written by normal humans, without the aid of God, and with all the biases and myopia humans tend to have.  I'm also assuming some of the things in them are true, some half-true, and some false.

For those who don't pay much attention to biblical matters, there are many ancient documents about Jesus called gospels, but the four that made it into the Bible are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Most scholars today believe that Mark was the first of the gospels to be written, probably around the late 60's or early '70's AD; around the time of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. This means it was written about 40 years after Jesus' death.  Matthew and Luke were probably written in the '80's AD, and John around the turn of the first century.  Many scholars believe Matthew and Luke were composed independently, using material from Mark (sometimes copied verbatim) and from a hypothetical source known as Q.  Since these three gospels are very similar, they're called the Synoptic Gospels.  John is the exception.  It's much more abstract and theological, and focuses much more on Jesus as a divine being.

People who study the historical Jesus use several criteria to try to identify the most accurate and authentic passages.  For example, the earlier the source of a scripture, the more likely they are to see it as authentic.  This means Mark is likely to be more accurate than the other Gospels, especially John.  Historians also think that if something happens in multiple gospels, it is more plausible than if it only appears in one.  Stories that would have been embarrassing to early Christians, such as the story of Judas Iscariot betraying Jesus, or Peter denying him three times, are seen as more likely to be true, because the authors had nothing to gain by making them up.

Of course, some things make passages in the scriptures less likely to be true.  For example,take the episode in John 7:53-8:11, in which a woman is "caught in the very act of committing adultery".  Jesus challenges the people who are about to stone her to death, saying, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her".  I've always thought this is one of the wisest and most beautiful statements in the Christian tradition. I still do, but here's the thing: this passage wasn't not in the original gospel of John.  It didn't appear in manuscripts of John until the 300's AD. This means it was probably added by a scribe long after the time of Jesus.  It could have been part of an accurate oral tradition about Jesus, but it's more likely that it never happened.  It's still a great message, but somebody besides Jesus most probably came up with it.

Another thing that casts doubt on gospel passages is contradiction.  This happens quite often.  For example, while Mark (the earliest gospel) begins with Jesus as an adult, being baptized by John the Baptist, Matthew and Luke begin by describing Jesus' birth and genealogy.  In Jewish prophecies, the Messiah was to be descended from King David, who was from Bethlehem.  Matthew and Luke both claim Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but they have different stories to tell.  First, the genealogies linking David to Jesus are very different. The two gospels also differ in explaining why Jesus grew up in Nazareth, but was born in Bethlehem.  Matthew begins with Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, apparently living there.  Herod, the Jewish king who ruled Judea on behalf of the Romans, wants to kill Jesus, so he kills all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two.  However, Mary and Joseph had been warned by an angel, so they had already fled to Egypt.  Later, they settled far from Bethlehem (and who can blame them?) in Nazareth.

In the beginning of Luke, on the other hand, Mary and Joseph are living in Nazareth, but Caesar Augustus orders people across “all the world” to return to their hometowns to register for a census. They go to Bethlehem, because Joseph is descended from the house of David.  Jesus is born there, in a manger, and shepherds come to pay their respects. Matthew doesn't mention a manger or shepherds.  Instead, wise men from the east come to see the baby Jesus.  People have tried to unify these accounts, but the impression many historians get is that at least one of them, and maybe both, are false.

If the gospels mention a major event, but historians can find no record of it anywhere else, that casts doubt on the passage. Both Matthew and Luke mention just such events. Matthew tells the horrifying story about Herod killing all the babies in Bethlehem. You would think something this shocking would be recorded elsewhere, but it isn't. Just as problematic is the Roman census in Luke. There was a census in the region around 6 or 7 AD, but that is ten years after the death of Herod. Most scholars think Jesus was born around the time of Herod's death--around 4 BC--so the census was ten years after Jesus was born. Not only that, this was a merely a census of some Roman provinces in the Middle East, not a census of “all the world”, or even the entire Roman empire.  All these differences between Matthew and Luke don't necessarily mean Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem, but both authors seem to be trying hard to put him there in order to fulfill prophecies, and they are telling two different stories in the process.

The larger point, though, is that there are discrepancies like this among all the gospels (and all through the Bible as a whole). The obvious conclusion is that the gospels were all written by very different people in different places, with different points of view and agendas, decades after Jesus' death. Parts of them are likely to paint an accurate picture of Jesus, and parts of them aren't. The trick is deciding which is which.

Impressions of Jesus

I'm am not remotely competent to take on that task, so I'm just going to briefly discuss my impressions from reading all four gospels.  First of all, I'm absolutely positive Jesus didn't feel scorn for the poor, as many hardcore fiscal conservatives do today.  He was from a humble background himself, and so were most (but not all) of his followers.  He associated with the poor and unfortunate, and generally had very nice things to say about them.  Consider the Beatitudes (which may come from the Q source, and appear in different forms in Matthew and Luke).  In Luke, Jesus says "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God".  In Matthew, he says "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  The "in spirit" part probably means those who are humble, or even spiritually broken.  In either case, Jesus is showing his typical compassion for the downtrodden.

Jesus has far less encouraging things to say to the rich.  In Luke, Jesus' four blessing are followed by four "woes", beginning with, "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation."  Apparently, the rich should enjoy their riches while they can, because they will have a very hard time entering the kingdom of God.  Of course, this doesn't appear in the other gospels, so the author of Luke may have added it.  Still, Jesus reinforces this message in other places. In a famous episode which appears in all the synoptic gospels, a rich young man comes up and asks Jesus what he should do to have eternal life.  Jesus tells him to follow the commandments.  When the man replies that he already does that, Jesus says "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."  The rich young man leaves in despair, unwilling to give up his worldly goods.  Jesus turns to his disciples and says, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God".  Now, people have tried to explain this away, saying the "eye of a needle" was once a small gate into Jerusalem, or that the word translated as "camel" really meant "cable".  But there doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence for these interpretations.  I think Jesus probably meant exactly what he said.  To compare for yourself what Jesus said about these things, take a look these two links: poor, rich

Throughout the gospels, Jesus seems to be saying that in the coming kingdom of God, society will be flipped on its head.  The poor and oppressed will be glorified, while the rich and powerful will suffer, or not make it into the kingdom at all.  At the end of the episode with the rich young man, Jesus says "But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first". Similar sentiments show up throughout the gospels.  Some people have argued that Jesus was trying to bring about a social revolution in this world, and that he was a sort of a religious proto-socialist.  Maybe, but I think it's more likely that he was actually talking about a coming kingdom of God, in which the world as his contemporaries know it would end cataclysmically.  The righteous, kind, and humble would be in heaven, while powerful, hypocritical people like lawyers and priests would be cast out, or even go to hell.  I tend to agree with those who think Jesus believed the end of the present world was coming any day.  Even after his death, many early Christians seemed to think the apocalypse was near, and some Christians have thought that ever since.

While Jesus was all for poverty and modesty, and even for drastic upheavals in the social order, he certainly wasn't a hippie born 2000 years before his time.  He believed in upholding the commandments, and he would have had nothing to do with a free love lifestyle.  He was against divorce, and said that not only should one not commit adultery, but that "anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart".  But he wasn't a stickler for following every restriction in the Jewish law.  He ignored many of the laws about what to eat, whether you can touch unclean people such as lepers, and whether you can do necessary work on the Sabbath.  He seems to have been a "spirit of the law, not letter of the law" kind of guy, but he held the spirit to a pretty high standard.

The "hippie Jesus" idea also seems misguided to me in another sense.  I don't think Jesus was necessarily preaching a message of peace and coexistence.  When George W. Bush (an evangelical Protestant Christian) said "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists", he was actually echoing a remark by none other than Jesus.  When Jesus was accused by Pharisees of casting out demons using the power of "Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons", Jesus took offense, saying it was by the Spirit of God that he cast out demons.  He tells them it is blasphemy to call the work of the Spirit of God the work of demons, and says, "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters."  Jesus clearly thought there are two sides in this world, and woe unto you if you are on the wrong side.  While Jesus told his followers not to judge others, he did seem to think God would judge people, and harshly.  He often talks about the violence and sorrow that will befall evil people in the final judgement, and seems to think many will go to hell (though it's debatable what his concept of hell was).  Bush's black and white view of the world was terrifying to me, but Jesus may have had similarly stark views about good and evil (albeit wildly dissimilar views about wealth).  This is a case where I look at what Jesus most likely thought, and think "I can't agree with that".

I think Jesus would have also differed with George W. on the use of violence.  I don't think Jesus advocated violence, at least not deadly violence.  He did overturn tables, and possibly even use a whip made of ropes, when he drove the money changers from the temple.  And it may be that, just before he was arrested, Jesus told his disciples to sell their cloak and buy a sword (but only in Luke).  However, he may have wanted a couple of his disciples to have swords in order to fulfill a prophecy in Isaiah, because his very next statement is, "For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, 'And he was counted among the lawless'; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled" (Luke 22:37; Isaiah 53:12) .  When Jesus was arrested, one of his disciples cut off the high priest's slave's ear.  In all the gospels but Mark (the earliest), Jesus tells his disciples to stop fighting.  In Matthew, he famously says, "all who take the sword will perish by the sword", while in Luke, he even heals the slave's ear.  Jesus seems to become more of a pacifist in the gospels written after Mark, but he's certainly not an advocate of violence even in the earliest portrayals.

Another passage where Jesus talks about a sword is sometimes cited by hawkish conservatives who claim that Jesus was OK with a little killing here and there. This is Matthew 10:34, where Jesus tells his disciples, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword".  This seems pretty clear, right?  Not so fast.  The passage is mirrored in Luke (and may therefore be from the hypothetical Q source), but in Luke, he says, "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!".  This suggests that the sword is a metaphor meaning that Jesus will cut social and familial bonds.  In particular, Jesus is talking about families, because in both gospels he then says he has come to set fathers against sons, mothers against daughters, and mothers in law against daughters in law.  It may come as a surprise to family values types who haven't read the gospels closely, but Jesus consistently tells people to abandon their families in favor of following him.  In some places, he seems to reject his own family, in some passages, they seem to think he's lost his mind (Mark 3:21).

To sum up, the Jesus I see when I read the gospels doesn't conform to modern American liberalism or conservatism very well at all.  He was a radically anti-authoritarian but deeply religious Jew living in a completely different world than ours.  I think he was probably an apocalyptic prophet, whose predictions of the end of the age and the new kingdom of God didn't come true as he expected.  I could be wrong.  Maybe he was speaking metaphorically, and the kingdom of God he was talking about was a social ideal, or even a spiritual state of mind that would lead to heaven on Earth if people embraced it.  Maybe I'm completely wrong, and he really was the Messiah of Christian faith, come to save the world from its original sin. Maybe he really was the son of God, and lived a life packed with miracles. I doubt it, because (and please believe I mean no offense when I say this) these ideas seem like pre-scientific ways of thinking. They don't match the universe I think we live in, which operates according to natural laws, not miracles; and, while beautiful, is amoral and entirely indifferent to our welfare. I think we probably get one life--in this world--and if we want to make it better, it's up to us.  I do think Jesus had some very good ideas about how to make it better, though I don't think we would want to follow his every command.  Is it really a good long term strategy to abandon our families and sell everything we own? 

Jesus' pre-scientific outlook strikes me most when I read the gospel passages where Jesus casts out demons.  Jesus, and most other people of his time, truly believed people with mental and neurological disorders were possessed by demons.  In one passage, he heals a boy (who is almost certainly epileptic based on the description) by casting out a demon.  Two thousand years ago, the demon possession theory of epilepsy would have seemed reasonable.  Today, we know better.  Now we know epilepsy is cause by problems with neural firing, not problems with evil spirits.  Science offers no evidence for evil spirits. Ancient wisdom, it seems to me, is most valuable when it doesn't try to offer explanations for natural phenomena.  People generally got that wrong before the scientific method came along.

What Jesus Would NOT Do

What ancient wisdom can tell something us about is human nature and ethics. One thing that strikes me when reading the gospels is that, while Jesus was quite willing to associate with sinners from the lower orders, he reserved his greatest scorn for hypocrites, especially powerful ones. Over and over again, he blasts the religious establishment--the Pharisees and Sadducees--for judging others while ignoring their own moral failings. They claim they are living according to God's law, when they are really rationalizing their own preferences and lifestyles. In Luke and Matthew (probably Q source) Jesus says, "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?...You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will clearly see to take the speck our of your neighbor's eye".

Despite the fact that Jesus spoke as forcefully against hypocrisy as he spoke against anything, for 2000 years many of those who have claimed to be his followers have lived in ways that are entirely contrary to his teachings--scorning the poor, abandoning the weak and sick, killing and robbing...and saying they are doing it in Jesus' name.  Jesus wept, indeed.

I don't claim to be any kind of expert on Jesus, but I know people shouldn't claim to follow Jesus without making an honest attempt to understand what he really stood for.  They also need to take a hard look at themselves, and ask if they are really following him, or hypocritically remaking Jesus in an image that suits them.  I wish I could say it was easy to look at the gospels and figure out what Jesus really stood for, but it isn't, and the world has seen a great deal of sorrow because of that.  As for me, I will probably never become truly knowledgeable about Jesus, because I think there are other, clearer sources of wisdom out there, from Buddha to Darwin. I don't claim to be a Christian, so if I don't follow Jesus' example, then I may be in the wrong, but at least I'm not being a hypocrite. While there are a lot of truly amazing Christians in the world--people whose selfless kindness leaves me in awe--there are also a lot of "Christians" who live for themselves, judge others freely, and despise those who aren't in their social group.  Those people need to take another look at their Bible, and another look at themselves.  The gospels may not always be easy to understand, but they are crystal clear about one thing:  Jesus was compassionate and forgiving, but he didn't suffer hypocrites gladly.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go check for logs in my eyes.



Ehrman, Bart.  1999.  Jesus:  Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

The HarperCollins Study Bible : New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books 

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