Jesus vs. Christ

(Written five years ago by my Canadian friend, Wendell Krossa, and still hidden at this article explains where and how Christianity departed from Jesus’ teaching and constructed the myth of their salvation theory. Jesus’ real message of God’s humanitarian justice became lost in their myth of a Christ as their Lord and Savior. Such a faith must be challenged and reset on the path of Jesus’ original teaching!  – Henry Hasse, November, 2010)

Modern Evangelicals have largely ignored the historical Jesus, whose residual image is still visible in the gospels, to focus almost exclusively on the Christ of the rest of the New Testament. The character of this Christ is something entirely opposite to that of Jesus. Note for instance the book of Revelation where the Christ slaughters his enemies with a sword. Where Jesus urged love for enemies, the Christ destroys his enemies. This fundamental contradiction is glossed over in Christianity.

Other points of Christian theology also expose the fundamental difference between Christ and Jesus. Note that Christians consider a man coming to make peace (the Anti-Christ) as evil, while a war-mongering Christ is considered the epitome of good. Unthinking loyalty to a dehumanizing mythology can confuse the mind. The anti-Christ is actually more like the historical Jesus than the Christ is. How far Christianity has departed from the message of Jesus. How far it has slid down the slippery slope. In the Christian Christ, one of history’s most humane persons has been refashioned into one of history’s most monstrous tyrants. This Christ has a long history of validating the darkest of human impulses for vengeance and destruction.

Despite the inclusion of more human values, the gospel of the Christian Christ is essentially a gospel of fear, exclusion, domination, hate, and destruction. It is entirely opposite on all points to the teaching of the historical Jesus who advocated unconditional forgiveness, inclusion, service, and love for enemies. Christianity has done immeasurable harm by burying the message of Jesus under the distortion known as Christ. Where Jesus advocated love of enemies, the Christ advocates punishment and destruction of enemies. This harsh emphasis on vengeance and punishment has validated a long Christian history of cruelty, conflict, torture, banishment, and out right war against the perceived enemies of Christianity.

The maxim that you can’t serve two masters was never more applicable than to this issue of Jesus versus Christ. You can not synthesize love and hate. You can’t merge the historical Jesus and the Christian Christ into one and the same person. They are entire opposites. And in employing the metaphor of master I am not suggesting that Jesus is any more of an authority on anything than you or I are. To view him as an authority figure is to also distort his message of inclusiveness, mutual service and love. The value of Jesus lies in his unique expression of humane response which many believe is an expression of the image of God (“do this and you will be like your Father in heaven”).

The Christian Christ has had a highly damaging influence on Christian consciousness and the wider human consciousness over the past two millennia. It is time we took the research of the Jesus Seminar seriously and once again differentiated clearly between Jesus and Christ. Their presentation of the teaching of Jesus in The Five Gospels is an immensely helpful resource for making such a distinction.

We know a lot more today about the man named Joshua Ben Adam (Jesus- the human one). He lived in Galilee of some two thousand years ago, a time that was known for its wandering sages. We know, for instance, that quite possibly he may have been the child of a military rape. He was slandered by his contemporaries with the humiliating question about who his father was.

We can also assume that he was illiterate as very few people in rural Galilee could read or write. And he was no doubt quite poor as were most of his Galilean contemporaries. Overall, the Galileans were considered to be ignorant hillbillies by their urban counterparts.

We don’t know much more about this man except that he lived, he passed on some sayings and then he was crucified. We know several important features about him from the sayings that he passed on to followers.

To detect the authentic sayings of Jesus we first need to recognize that the gospel writers were not ‘inspired’ by God to infallibly record the exact words of Jesus. To the contrary, what they wrote was inspired by faulty memory, a tendency to attribute common sayings to heroic figures, an emerging view of Jesus in terms of Hellenistic mystery religions, a desire to interpret him in light of Old Testament prophecies, an understanding of his life in terms of some cosmic scheme of salvation, Gnosticism with its alien redeemer come from outer space into an evil world to rescue enlightened ones, and the clouding distance of some three to seven decades (in The Five Gospels we are told that the oldest surviving copies of the gospels date from some 175 years after the death of Jesus but the originals were written around 3 to 7 decades after his death). All of the above, along with other factors, inspired the early followers of Jesus to begin creating a religious Christ who would undermine and eventually bury the message of the historical person. Remember, some eighty percent of the words attributed to Jesus were not actually spoken by him (Five Gospels, p.5).

The gospel writers often invented a context for Jesus’ sayings, a context that provided a Christian interpretation to his sayings which then entirely distorted the original meaning of those sayings. For instance, Jesus did not fast but when Mark records Jesus’ saying regarding fasting: “The groom’s friends can not fast while the groom is present”, he adds his own Christian expansion to this saying: “But the days will come when the groom is taken away and then they will fast” (Five Gospels, p.22). This addition by Mark distorts the original saying of Jesus which does not advocate fasting and makes him appear to support this religious custom. This practice of interpretive addition was common among the gospel writers.

The gospel writers also borrowed from the common fund of sayings circulating in those days and put many of these in the mouth of Jesus. This led to several more types of distortion. One was that the hard sayings of Jesus were often softened or contradicted. More important, Jesus was made to support early Christian theology regarding salvation. This is notable for instance in regard to the view of justice as payback. It is clear that the historical Jesus did not believe in payback justice (punishment for sin). He advocated endless and unconditional forgiveness and inclusion with no threat of punishment. But his early followers made him speak like a Christian who believed that God punished all sin by offering his son as payment. Christian theology on atonement is payback oriented with no sin being forgiven until the debt is paid in full. This idea that payback must be made before forgiveness could be offered is entirely opposite to the unconditional forgiveness advocated by Jesus.

So let’s be clear on this point- Jesus was not a Christian. He did not believe as Christians do that God punished sin. To the contrary, he believed in forgiveness- unconditional and endless forgiveness (seventy times seven, which is to say, endless). Further evidence that Jesus did not believe in payback justice is found in his statement: “You should come to terms quickly with your opponent while you are both on the way to court or else your opponent will hand you over to the judge and the judge will hand you over to the bailiff and you will be thrown in jail. You will never get out of there until you have paid the last dime” (Matthew 5:25-26). Jesus advised his followers to settle out of court because, in his opinion, human courts were merciless. His view of justice had nothing to do with such cold and calculating payback but was oriented to endless mercy and forgiveness.

Now, how can we discern the authentic sayings of the historical Jesus? The Jesus Seminar offers a number of guiding criteria. For instance, his sayings were distinctive in that they overturned the social and religious conventions of his time. They also shocked and scandalized by reversing roles or common expectations. Note the story of the laborers that were hired throughout a day by a farmer who then paid them all the same amount even though they worked widely varied hours (p.31).

It also becomes clear from the Jesus Seminar research that Jesus was a secular sage. “Jesus use of secular proverbs is one basic reason why many of the (Jesus Seminar) Fellows are inclined to regard Jesus as a secular sage who perhaps acquired his knowledge of common lore from itinerant philosophers who visited Galilee while he was growing up” (p.287).

This secular orientation is also evident in the fact that he did not quote scripture to validate his positions on life or human behavior. He did not appeal to divine or religious authority but, instead, he referred to his own sense of what was the human thing to do. In general, he did not endorse religion or the pursuit of religion. He was not an institution builder. He did not “set out to organize a movement by recruiting disciples…he did not have it in mind to found a church like the one that eventually came into being” (p.41). Using him to validate a religion like Christianity is like employing Karl Marx to validate capitalism. Christianity is on all points the opposite of what Jesus intended.

Jesus was also scandalously inclusive, hanging out with tax collectors, prostitutes, and a variety of other social outcasts and non-conforming outsiders. He purposely ignored the purity regulations of the Jewish religion which distinguished clearly among faithful insiders and disobedient outcasts. In fact, he ignored all social barriers, statuses, and divisions. He congratulated the poor, the irreligious, and the down trodden, claiming they were the favorites of God. “This reverses a common view that God blesses the righteous with riches and curses the immoral with poverty” (p.504).

The main theme of his teaching was the kingdom of God and here is where Christianity has distorted the message of Jesus most damagingly. Jesus spoke of this kingdom as a present reality. It was in and among people. It was present here and now. Jesus taught that it was a society of love, equality, freedom, service, and mutual cooperation. This central message of his was about a radically humane lifestyle. It was a lifestyle that would express the society of God or the image of God. Do this and you will be like your Father in heaven.

Jesus’ message of the kingdom was never a message about himself. And on the basis of his general self-efficacy we can conclude that a lot of the “I am” claims of John are not authentic sayings of Jesus. He did not go around claiming “I am the Light of the world” or “I am the Bread of life”. He certainly did not claim to have come from somewhere else to redeem the world or to become a king in his own kingdom.

The great error on which Christianity was founded was to forget Jesus’ message of a present God and to begin to think that the kingdom of God was yet to come in the future when Jesus would return to rule over humanity with an iron fist. The Christianized vision of the kingdom was about kingly domination and absolute subservience to Christ up above or up ahead in time. It was a vision of long distance and future time, not here and now. Early Christianity also abandoned the peaceful message of Jesus for its own understanding of violent apocalyptic intervention that would bring about the rule of the vengeful Christ. The historical Jesus held no such apocalyptic understanding of violent divine intervention to establish divine rule in the future. He did not accept that God would return to punish humanity in the future.

In his message on the kingdom of God, Jesus argued that God was already present and had, in fact, been present from the very beginning. In Thomas 113:2-4 Jesus says that the kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth but people don’t see it. In Thomas 3:3 it is stated that the Father’s rule is within people and around them. In the Gospel of Mary there is this statement: “Be on your guard so that no one deceives you by saying ‘Look over there’ or ‘Look over here’. For the seed of true humanity exists within you” (p.531). This statement affirms the kingdom as having to do with humane response toward others in the here and now.

In general the teaching of Jesus on the kingdom affirms that God had never left humanity. He had never been separated from humanity. Consequently, all people were saved and always had been. There was, therefore, no need for salvation or a savior or some future intervention to bring God back to save humanity. Jesus also advocated unbrokered access to God. Everyone had the same immediate access to all of God without the need for priests, gurus or any other religious authority to mediate for them (see Thomas Sheehan’s ‘The First Coming: How the kingdom of God became Christianity’). The kingdom of God as taught by Jesus was on all points the opposite of the kingdom as taught by Christianity.

He also spoke of the kingdom in terms of a common weed known as mustard. This was a parody that mocked conventional visions of God’s kingdom as some mighty tree or a world empire. It was a statement that the kingdom of God was ordinary and commonplace, not spectacular and overwhelming. He was fond of humorously putting down high and mighty visions. He tended to “portray the kingdom as having to do with the unnoticed or unexpected or modest” (p.524).

And Jesus challenged the very core of social structures and relationships in arguing that loyalty to God’s kingdom or society must come before even loyalty to one’s own family. He was arguing that we must broaden our loyalty to include all of humanity and not just focus it on our immediate family and friends. We were to love even our enemies just as we loved our own families.

Another striking thing about the authentic Jesus was that he liked to eat and drink. As the authors of The Five Gospels state, he was “a party animal” (p.49). He fully engaged life and did not try to escape it. The Gnosticism of John and Thomas portrays him as an alien Redeemer who comes down from heaven into an evil world. He comes to rescue enlightened ones and then escapes with them back to the safety and purity of heaven. While enduring life in this fallen world, enlightened ones were required to practice an ascetic lifestyle. This was essential to their salvation. But the historical Jesus did not seek to escape life through asceticism or denial. He fully engaged and enjoyed what life offered. Unfortunately, Christianity grew increasingly ascetic as it developed (p.517). In this it further turned away from the message of Jesus.

Jesus also refused to indulge esotericism which is to hide religious secrets from the uninitiated. He did not advocate that the kingdom of God was a secret available only to initiated insiders, like his circle of followers (p.306). The very idea of secret teaching passed on only to those in the inner circle “would have been inimical to the openness and inclusiveness that was characteristic of Jesus” (p.322). Instead, the historical Jesus spoke in terms of daily, ordinary things that were easy for his listeners to understand. He communicated truth in terms of seeds, farming, plants, birds, farmers, workers, wages, parties and such. “His rejoinders tended to be more of a secular nature rather than subtle arguments about the Law” (p.68).

Further, he refused to make distinctions between insiders and outsiders. He was inclusive in his outlook. Hence, his custom of regularly eating with impure people, those who did not follow the purity regulations of the religions of his time. Those purity standards were very important to his contemporaries and they divided one group from another. The historical Jesus ignored such divisions to include all alike. In doing this he violated powerful social taboos. His saying: “It is not what goes into a person from the outside that can defile; rather, its what comes out of the person that defiles” (Mark 7:15) is a straightforward challenge to purity laws. As the authors of The Five Gospels say, “it challenges the everyday, the inherited, the established, and erases social boundaries taken to be sacrosanct” (p.69). Christianity has departed from this admirable stance of the historical Jesus to orient itself to “drawing appropriate social boundaries, separating those inside from those outside” (p.85). It does this with distinctions between believers and unbelievers; those possessing faith and those who don’t (the excluded and damned). Jesus rejected this exclusivism with his propensity to break down barriers in order to include all.

In one of his more well-known group of sayings (Matthew 5:43-48), Jesus urges his followers to not react violently against those who are evil. When people slap them on one cheek, they are to offer the other one as well. When someone wants to take their shirt, they are to offer their coat as well. It they are conscripted to carry a burden for one mile, they should offer to carry it two miles. They shouldn’t turn away people who want to borrow from them. They are to lend to those from whom they can not expect to get their money back. “If you lend to those from whom you hope to gain, what merit is there in that? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to get as much in return. But love your enemies, and do good, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:34-35). “You are to be unstinting in your generosity in the way your heavenly Father’s generosity is unstinting” (p.296).

These are hard sayings that urge people to respond differently to acts of aggression and requests for money. They urge people to go against natural inclinations in a strikingly different manner. If we do these things then we will be compassionate just as our Father in heaven is compassionate. We will be like God. And this is our reward. Jesus did not advocate any other reward for such behavior because forgiveness and love of enemies was its own reward. “Forgive and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). Forgiveness will produce its own reward which is forgiveness from others.

Perhaps the most striking of all these sayings is the saying to love enemies. This “cuts against the social grain and constitutes a paradox: those who love their enemies have no enemies” (p.147).

Further, Jesus subverted old animosities which portrayed enemies as stereotypically bad. He subverted these by showing that enemies were also good people. He did this with the Good Samaritan parable which drew on a longstanding enmity between Judeans and Samaritans. This challenged the ‘us versus them’ divide that people had created and eliminated another social boundary. Enemies were also good individuals just like ourselves.

Other sayings also cut against the normal human grain. “When you give to charity, don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3). Or don’t pray in public. Don’t flaunt your religion in public. Don’t look for the pat on the back from others for being such a good boy or girl.

In Matthew 6:25-30 Jesus also says a lot of things about anxiety or worrying. He urges people not to fret about food or clothing because God will provide for human needs. And of course, this does not mean just praying and not working for such things. It simply means that life is amazingly generous and what you need you will get if you put in the work required to attain such. So relax and don’t worry about life and daily needs. There is enough for everyone. Besides, worrying is wasted time and energy because it will not produce food or clothing or anything else for that matter, except emotional exhaustion.

He then adds a comment about not criticizing others. “Why do you notice the sliver in your friend’s eye but overlook the timber in your own? How can you say, ‘Let me get the sliver out of your eye’ when there is that timber in your own? You phony, first take the timber out of your own eye and then you’ll see well enough to remove the sliver from your friend’s eye” (Matt. 7:3-5). The Five Gospels summarizes this well: “Critics should concentrate on correcting themselves. This coheres with the admonition to love enemies, forgive others, and imitate divine tolerance” (p.154).

In another interesting comment, the Five Gospels challenges the Golden Rule as not so golden. It actually advocates an inferior form of love in that it argues for treating others in the same way that we want to be treated. This was an “egoistic perspective” (p.476). A more humane standard would be to advocate treating others in the way that they want to be treated. Hmmm.

In later chapters Matthew indulges a lot of vengeful wishing for apocalyptic destruction of the enemies of Christianity, those who refuse to convert. This is a radical departure from the message of Jesus. “Jesus did not share the common apocalyptic view that the end of history was near, nor did he threaten judgment” (p.332). He did not believe in coming judgment, exclusion of unbelievers, or condemnation but instead advocated forgiveness, mercy, inclusiveness and love of enemies. All the damning of towns and people that rejected the Christian message (see for instance, Matt. 11:20-24) was clearly not from Jesus because he told his followers to love their enemies. “Jesus would not have condemned the towns that did not accept him. He would not have told Capernaum to go to Hell after instructing his disciples to love their enemies” (p.320). This fact is a clear repudiation of the Christian Christ who violently pursues vengeance on enemies.

There are other authentic sayings that have to do with critiques of the well-dressed, the well-to-do, the powerful, and the overtly religious who sought first place at banquets and longed for public admiration. Jesus was not averse to a little fun at their expense. “Everything they do, they do for show. So they widen their phylacteries (scripture containers worn on the body) and enlarge their tassels (religious dress symbols, kind of like the robes and bling of priests). They love the best couches at banquets and prominent seats in synagogues and respectful greetings in marketplaces and they like to be called Rabbi by everyone” (Matt. 23: 5-7). With his usual subversive stance, Jesus instead favored the poor, the outcasts, the sick, the hungry, the weeping, and the neglected. He said that these were to be congratulated; they were God’s favorites. His teaching repeatedly “overturns the common inclination to esteem people on the basis of their social rank” (p.315).

In Matthew 20 we find another example of Jesus rejecting the conventional views of strict payback justice for a scandalous view of mercy and generosity toward the undeserving. This is evident in this story of the owner of the vineyard who throughout the day goes to the market to hire workers. At the end of the day he pays all the workers the same amount even though they had worked widely varying hours. He was a man who was not bound by conventional views and practices. He was free to be scandalously generous toward others. This parable subverts conventional payback thinking which argues that people get what they deserve.

Christianity has erred profoundly in abandoning Jesus for Christ. It has turned from a message of radical love to advocate a gospel of fear, hate and revenge. It has turned away from a message about the nature of humane existence to frivolous speculation about the identity of a Gnostic Redeemer, the Cosmic Christ. It now excludes and expels people who refuse to adhere to statements of dogma about this Redeemer (e.g. Is Jesus the Son of God?). This stance of exclusion is a denial of the message of the historical person who advocated unconditional inclusion, forgiveness and love.

The insights of the historical Jesus are profound in their simplicity, their anti-conventional stance, and their power to change history. What could more effectively end human conflict than the precepts to not retaliate, to forgive and to love enemies? Our conventional patterns of response and behavior have only gotten us into endless dead-ends. Our stubborn insistence on justice as payback (getting even or punishing the bad guys) has only led to the downward spiral of cyclical violence. This rigid payback thinking needs to be overturned with the surprising, shocking, and sometimes even offensive teaching of Jesus to forgive and to respond with scandalous generosity to the most undeserving. This teaching has the potential to liberate humanity from the endless conflict that has plagued our history. It can lift us to a higher and nobler level of consciousness and humane existence.

However, the sayings of the historical Jesus are hard sayings- to forgive without limit or without pre-condition or expected return. And to be generous with life’s bounty, giving without expecting payback in kind. But the reward is immeasurable in terms of turning life toward a more humane existence for all.

We find this humane insight in the sayings of the historical Jesus, the one that forums like the Jesus Seminar are trying to rescue from the distorting accretions and projections of the Christian Bible. The distortion of Jesus in the Christian Christ has lessons for all of us regarding our own systems of meaning. It shows how humane ideals can easily be subverted by the inhumane. It shows how blind submission to divine authority can lead people to accept the most brutal ideas imaginable.

We need to beware of the Jesus that we admire or worship. As The Five Gospels note, “Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you” (p.5). He may be more in our own image than we dare admit to. As James Carrol (Constantine’s Sword) has cautioned, “If the face of the Crusader was cruel, well, so was his God”.

The Five Gospels is a helpful step toward recovering the long buried message of a genuinely humane individual.

Wendell Krossa

Copyright 2005

Published in: on November 7, 2010 at 11:50 am  Leave a Comment  

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