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Was Jesus Divine? May 8, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.
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Was Jesus divine? And why, really, should anyone care?

The fact is, outside of the Christian Testament, there is no real proof that Jesus even existed, much less that he was the “God in a man-suit” that most believers take him for today. And although virtually no one today understands this, the Bible is NOT a history book; nor was it ever meant to be a history book. That’s what historians are for!

Much of the Bible looks to our modern eyes like history — especially the canonical gospels, which are routinely confused with biographies. But every word in the Bible is theology: the ancients’ answers to humanity’s most ancient questions: Does God exist? If so who is God? What has God done? What does God want from us? To use a fancy German word, the Bible’s stories are not history but heilsgeschichte — “holiness-histories” that present theological ideas in a form within the grasp of even children and fools. This is the difference between a thousand-word scholarly essay on the value of truthfulness and the myth (invented by Parson Mason Locke Weems in his 1800 The Life of Washington but taught in school as historical truth) that as a boy, George Washington chopped down a cherry tree.

All we today can know for certain is that Jesus existed, that he preached and he probably healed, and that he was executed by the Roman Empire for sedition — that is, for stirring up resentment and resistance against the Empire. Every other statement about Jesus’s nature and actions in the Christian Testament is mythology. Everything. Even if every word of the Christian Testament were proven to be historically true — an impossible feat — it would still be mythology. (And before you get angry and defensive, remember that myths are NOT FICTION! As I said a moment ago, myths are stories that convey complex theological ideas in a form that even children, fools, and neoconservatives can understand.)

If Jesus was in fact divine, then his followers today ought to take what he taught much more seriously than what Paul of Tarsus and his followers taught about him. And if Jesus was NOT divine, if he was true human being but not true God, then what Paul and his followers believed and continue to believe is irrelevant.

The four gospels that appear in the Bible are by no means the only gospels written. At least 90 noncanonical gospels exist (that anyone knows about). Most of these “apocryphal” gospels portray Jesus as so obviously divine that to question his divinity would be ludicrous; the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, to take one famous example, portrays a five-year-old Jesus who creates life out of clay, kills with a word a playmate who jostled him, and responds to the playmates’ parents’ grief and anger by striking them blind for their blasphemy.

But these gospels of divinity are by no means the only ancient point of view. The Gospel of Thomas (no relation to the Infancy Gospel) is approximately 20 years older than the Gospel of Mark, and five to ten years older than Paul’s earliest known epistle. It is a collection of Jesus’s wisdom sayings, many of them close to identical to the canonical sayings. Most reputable scholars today believe that the (adult) Gospel of  Thomas is as valid a gospel as any of the four in the Bible. In 2003’s Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, the renowned scholar Elaine Pagels sets out a cogent and to me highly plausible argument in favor of the idea that the fourth and by far the most gnostic gospel of the Bible, commonly called John, was written specifically to contradict the Gospel of Thomas.

For the first three centuries after Jesus lived and taught, his followers fell into two camps that were roughly equal in size: The “Jesus was LIKE God” camp (the fancy word is homoiousis) and the “Jesus WAS God” camp (homoousis). In the decades immediately before the first Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, the arguments grew so heated that followers fought pitched battles, with bloodshed rivaling that of a hard-fought Manchester soccer match today. 1999’s When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome, by Richard E. Rubenstein, is an entertaining history of the epic battle between the Arians (homoiousis) and the Athanasians (homoousis). The Bible reflects the side that won this battle — scholars call it the battle over the most significant iota in history.

What bothers me most about Christianity is its insistence that Jesus was in fact “God in a man-suit” and its obsession not with what Jesus taught but rather who he is alleged to have been. At least 80 percent of every Christian worship service I have ever attended has been about what Paul considered important — Jesus’s divinity — rather than about what Jesus considered important. Christians are urged to believe that they were born sinful, that they are morally responsible for murdering God, and that they must acknowledge their guilt and renounce their sinful nature by believing in Jesus’s divinity or scream in hell for all eternity. Roman Catholics are urged to extend their belief in Jesus’s divinity to the divinity infallibility of the Roman Catholic Magisterium. Protestant fundamentalists are urged to believe in the divinity perfection of the 1611 King James translation of the Bible, which they allege to be as “inerrant” as God is.

Whatever Jesus was, he attracted “thousands” of followers during his lifetime without ever once saying, “Believe what I tell you because I am God in a man-suit.” The Gospel of Mark, written around 70 CE, even quotes Jesus as telling a follower, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (10:18). If the Jesus who is worshiped today is Superman, the Jesus who attracted “thousands” of followers during his lifetime was Clark Kent.

In 1993’s The Five Gospels, scholars of the Jesus Seminar voted on which teachings of the Christian Testament probably came from Jesus, and which words were probably put into Jesus’s mouth by devoted followers. A vote of “black” meant the scholars were certain the words were not original to Jesus; “gray” meant “probably not”; “pink” meant “probably”; and “red” meant “yes, we’re pretty sure Jesus originated this or something like it.” 1998’s The Acts of Jesus continued the scholars’ work by assigning the same color system to what Jesus is said to have done.

A few years ago, for my own curiosity, I went through both of these books and tweaked out everything the scholars had voted as either red or pink. What is most striking is that none of these sayings and actions focused on Jesus himself. The pre-resurrection Jesus was wholly uninterested in being idolized and adored. What concerned Jesus, what he taught during his human lifetime, was why and how to love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind and strength, and how to love the rest of God’s creation as much as one loves oneself. One passage that sums this teaching well for me is this black-gray-pink:

The Scriptures say, ‘Do no murder,’ and ‘Whoever murders is subject to judgment.’ But I say, it’s not just murder that’s wrong, it’s anything that hurts someone else. It WILL boomerang on you. If you’re angry, you’ll be taken to court. If you say to a friend in your worship community, ‘You’re a moron,’ you’re guilty. If you say, ‘You’re an idiot,’ you deserve to be thrown into the trash incinerator. So even if you happen to be in a worship service, getting ready to give your money to God, stop right there. Go and get right with your friend, and only then return and offer your gift to God. If you’re on your way to court, settle with your opponent while you’re still on the way, or your opponent will hand you over to the judge, the judge will turn you over to the bailiff, and boom, you’re in jail. I swear to you, you’ll never get free until you’ve paid the last red cent.” (Matthew 5:22-26; my translation)

And here’s another:

Jesus said, “You phony! You see the speck in your friend’s eye, but you don’t see the two-by-four in your own eye. When you take the redwood out of your own eye, then you will see well enough to remove the speck from your friend’s eye.”  (Matthew 7:5; my translation)

The pre-resurrection Jesus taught love, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy. The few red sayings include (but are not limited to) turn the other cheek; love your enemy; congratulations to the poor, the hungry, and the sad; the parables of the Good Samaritan and the dishonest manager (good luck figuring that one out!); and a few sayings about what God’s Perfect World will look like when it arrives. (More on GPW in a moment.) The pink sayings, of which there are 75, include the parable of the Prodigal Son and the friend at midnight, and the rueful-sounding comment about how no hometown-boy-made-good gets any respect from those who knew him back when he was a snot-nosed brat.

Nothing about Jesus himself, much less his own alleged divinity. Nothing about hating and persecuting (women, minorities, gays, abortionists, liberals, illegal immigrants, fill in the blank) in Jesus’s name. Nothing about heaven and hell — nothing about the afterlife, period. Nothing about who God loves and who Love hates. Absolutely not one word that could be construed as “Believe what [the pope / James Dobson / Joel Osteen / Glenn Beck] tells you about Me or scream in hell for all eternity.” The pre-resurrection Jesus was just not interested. The one who attracted all those followers. The real-life Yeshua bar Maryam on whom the mythical post-resurrection Jesus is based.

In Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999), scholar Bart Ehrman comes to the conclusion that while he was alive, Jesus believed sincerely that during his own lifetime, or at any rate well before 70 CE, “one LIKE a human being” (Daniel 7:13) would overthrow the Roman Empire by force of arms, single-handedly, and found a new empire in which God would rule the Earth. This Rambo-led perfect world of peace and justice is called “the kingdom of God” in the Christian Testament (and it is this world, not any sort of hereafter). But God has no physical body, and therefore can have no gender; furthermore, the Hebrew Scriptures, which waste not a word, tell us twice that God created women in God’s image (Gen. 1:27 and 5:1-2).

I believe that Jesus’s entire message — the red and pink portions, that is — can be summarized as, “Live as if the world were already a perfect world of peace and justice, so the imperfect world can see what a great place that would be.” What the Christian Testament calls “the kingdom of God,” and what I call God’s Perfect World. As I phrased it for my Twitter account: “Live as if the world were what it should be, so the world can see what it could be.” If you’ve ever been confused by the Christian Testament, think of it this way: GPW is already here, all around us (and our job is to see it); and GPW is coming soon (when we start living there and get others to join us).

Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. Love the rest of God’s creation as much as you love yourself. Forgive “seventy times seven,” or in other words, forgive every hurt, every insult, every crime against you. Love your enemies (accepting that in an imperfect world, you will always have enemies). Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who persecute you.

(Have you noticed that not one Christian church in a hundred thousand prays for Osama bin Laden every Sunday? I have never in my life attended a church that prays for its enemies on Sunday mornings! — only U.S. fighting forces in the Middle East.)

Do all this NOT for the benefit of those whom you love, bless, forgive, and pray for. Do this because it’s good for YOU. Nursing anger and resentment is like letting the one who hurt you live rent-free in your head. Forgiving, blessing, and praying for the one who hurt you leads directly to “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). What Jesus, the red-and-pink Jesus, cared about was who you are, not what you say you believe.

And remember, the “Christian Pharisees” who parade their piety and rant about heaven and hell, while practicing hatred, judgment, and exclusion in God’s name (especially of gays, abortionists, and uppity women) have their reward now and can expect no special treatment later. “God is Love” (1 John 4:8), and Love has nothing to do with hatred, judgment, and exclusion.

Was Jesus divine? I don’t know. I have no way of knowing. What’s more, I don’t care. The pre-resurrection Jesus didn’t give a flying fig about his own alleged divinity, so why should I?

If Jesus was in fact “God in a man-suit,” he knows my heart and loves me just as I am, without requiring me to believe in papal infallibility, biblical inerrancy, or flat-Earthism. And if he was not “God in a man-suit,” nothing said about him by the pope, James Dobson, or any other Christian is remotely relevant.

Was Jesus divine? Who cares? I gave up following Paul of Tarsus years ago. I follow Yeshua bar Maryam.

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