Part 3. The Recovery of Jesus’ Teaching

Lloyd Geering

From The Fourth R
Volume 17-4
July–August 2004

This is the third in a series of four lectures delivered in Wellington, New Zealand, in the Spring of 2004 and published in The Fourth R.

Read Part 1. Christianity at the Crossroads
Read Part 2. Excavating Jesus
Read Part 4. The Diverse Futures of Christianity

The Fellows of the Westar Institute spent nearly fifteen years searching the ancient records for the footprints and voiceprints of Jesus of Nazareth. They removed the mantle of the heavenly Christ figure, under which the early church had long hidden the original human Jesus and they uncovered the latter’s footprints and voiceprints. Then they devoted their autumn meeting in 1999 to the theme of ‘The Once and Future Jesus’. They began to explore what the original Jesus could mean for the modern world. For this task they would use the database already assembled of what Jesus really said and what he really did.

The Once and Future Scriptures

Available from Polebridge Press

So first I shall sketch the teaching of Jesus, using their database. We find it falls into two categories—short aphorisms (or one-liners) and parables. Now that is exactly the same genre as we find in the Jewish sages of the Israelite Wisdom tradition. That in itself is quite a discovery for, if Jesus spoke chiefly in aphorisms and parables as the sages did, then he was closer to the Israelite sages than to the Israelite prophets.

To appreciate this we must turn back to the Israelite sages. There are four main streams of thought in the Old Testament—the Priestly, the Prophetic, the Royalist and the Wisdom tradition. The Priestly tradition (found in the Torah or Books of Moses) became the basis of Judaism. The Royalist tradition (found chiefly in Samuel and Kings but reflected elsewhere) became the basis of Christianity, since it claimed Jesus to be the Messianic King. The Prophetic Tradition (chiefly in the books of the prophets) was later revived by Muhammad and became the basis of Islam.

But the Wisdom tradition was largely neglected by Jew, Christian and Muslim. It is found in Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, some Psalms, the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus. Once we look exclusively at the Wisdom tradition we find a strange thing. The sages, unlike the prophets and priests, showed little interest in the Exodus Tradition, the Davidic Dynasty and the destiny of the Israelite people. They focused on the issues of everyday life, as experienced by all humankind.

Modern scholars have called the Israelite sages the Hebrew humanists. They were not concerned with religion, as that term is commonly understood today. They were interested in how to deal with life’s problems and frustrations. They did occasionally refer to ‘God’ or ‘the Lord’, and even spoke of reverence for God as the beginning of Wisdom. But they introduced the divine name as if it referred to the cosmic order of the natural world. (We need to remember that there was no word for ‘nature’ in the Hebrew language.) ‘God’ symbolized for the sages the way the world operates. For them, reverence for God meant reverence for nature, that is, learning to accept the way the world works and responding to it appropriately.

Jesus the Sage

Once we remove from the gospels the sayings that the gospel-writers created and put into the mouth of Jesus, we find that Jesus, just like the sages before him, did not say much about religion. Indeed, his mode of discourse was what we today call secular, meaning ‘this-worldly’. He talked about daily life, the need to care for one another, and the problems that bring divisiveness and hurt in personal relationships. He made frequent reference to daily scenes such as vineyards, shepherding, building, the hiring of workers, the lending of money and the like.

Also like the sages before him, when Jesus referred to God, he was talking chiefly about what we call nature. Ecclesiasticus said, ‘Good things and bad, life and death, poverty and wealth all come from the Lord’. Similarly Jesus said, ‘God causes the sun to rise on the bad and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust’. But Jesus saw nature as a fatherly figure, much as we speak of nature as mother. Jesus was identifying the Heavenly Father with what we call Nature when he said ‘Take a look at the birds of the sky: they don’t plant or harvest, or gather into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Notice how the wild lilies grow: they don’t slave and they never spin. Yet let me tell you, even Solomon at the height of his glory was never decked out like one of them. If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t God care for you even more?’

The Israelite sage closest to Jesus is Ecclesiastes for both deal with issues common to all humans irrespective of their cultural differences. They were both concerned with the best way to find personal fulfilment in life in the face of all the enigmas that life presents. But Jesus far surpassed him and the other sages who had gone before him. In the quality and depth of his teaching Jesus lifted the Wisdom stream to a new level. In the course of this he developed the parable into a unique new genre for which he rightly became famous during his own lifetime.

Jesus taught people to look into the future with faith and hope, but he never encouraged people to let God take over their lives and make all their decisions for them, as do some evangelicals today. Rather, like the sages before him, he urged people to take full responsibility for their lives and to make every effort to make the right decision in every situation. That is why he told the story of the foolish man who built his house on the sand and the wise man who built his house on a rock. We should note that it was not because of divine providence that the one house stood firm while the other perished. It was due to the wisdom of the man who built it.

Similarly Jesus urged, ‘Struggle to get in through the narrow door; I’m telling you, many will try to get in but won’t be able’. He encouraged people to take full responsibility for their actions and to work for the common good. This was lost sight of in the later church when, through the influence of Augustine, all the emphasis was put upon faith (which entailed believing that Christ’s death brought forgiveness). When the fifth-century Christian monk Pelagius tried to call his fellow-Christians back to the moral exhortations of Jesus, the church condemned his philosophy as heresy. If Jesus had been miraculously transplanted from first-century Palestine to the mediaeval world of Christendom, he could well have been burned at the stake as a heretic.

Jesus, being a Jew, was more concerned with how people acted than with what they believed. To this day the Jewish Way is known as orthopraxy (right action), in contrast with what became the Christian Way of orthodoxy (right belief). In urging people to right action, Jesus manifested a surprising measure of freedom in relation to the culture in which he was reared and he encouraged others to do the same. Take for example what he said about sabbath observance—one of the basic Ten Commandments. ‘The sabbath day was created for Adam and Eve, not Adam and Eve for the sabbath day. So the son of Adam [that is, humankind] lords it over even the sabbath day’. Similarly, Jesus did not feel bound by the Jewish dietary laws of his day. ‘Listen to me all of you, and try to understand! It’s not what goes into a person from the outside that can defile; rather it’s what comes out of the person that defiles.’ He advised people not to become imprisoned in the traditions of the past—’And nobody pours young wine into old wineskins, otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and destroy both the wine and the skins. Instead, young wine is for new wineskins.’

So Jesus talked much more about how to live wisely and act righteously than he did about what to believe about God. That is why the well-known Sermon on the Mount is so different from what is put into the mouth of Jesus in the Gospel of John.

The Kingdom of God

The chief theme running through the teaching of Jesus was not God but the kingdom of God. Jesus did not invent this term, for we find it occasionally in the earlier sages. Jesus fastened upon it, however, and made it central to his teaching. Perhaps he did so because many of his fellow-Jews hoped for the restoration of the kingdom of David as the answer to the Roman occupation of their land. But the kingdom envisaged by Jesus was different from both the Empire of Rome and the former kingdom of David.

In the ancient world the kingdom was the normal social institution that had evolved for the ordering of society. The king dispensed justice and his royal authority prevented society from falling into disorder and chaos. But since even kings could become despots and dictators, Jesus used the term ‘kingdom of God’ to refer to the ideal way of ordering human society.

Kings and emperors imposed their authority from above. But when Jesus spoke of the ‘kingdom of God’ he was not referring to a power structure that would be imposed from above—not even by a supernatural God. Some of the early Christians, however, found this very difficult to understand. Following the lead of John the Baptist, they put into the mouth of Jesus the apocalyptic description of the arrival of the kingdom as a sudden cataclysmic event. That is how Jesus, even by the time of Paul, was already being turned into an eschatological prophet, who had come to announce the imminent end of the world.

These apocalyptic warnings of a devastating end-time about to arrive are in conflict with what Jesus actually taught. He said the kingdom of God would come quietly and unobtrusively. ‘You won’t be able to observe the coming of the kingdom of God. People are not going to be able to say, “Look, here it is!” or “Over there!” In actual fact, the kingdom of God is right there in your presence.’ So Jesus likened the spread of the kingdom of God to leaven working its way quietly through the dough. Unlike the kingdoms of the world, which impose authority from above, the kingdom of God would spread from the bottom, as people developed self-discipline and mutual concern for one another.

Many of the parables of Jesus start with the words, ‘The kingdom of God is like. …’ Here we find Jesus talking about human attitudes to life and the nature of human relationships. Jesus taught people to look into the future with faith and hope and not to get worked up and over-anxious. ‘Don’t fret about life—what you’re going to eat—or about your body—what you’re going to wear. Remember, there is more to living than food and clothing.’ In the kingdom of God people were to get the best out of life, both for themselves and for others. That is why someone later put into his mouth, ‘I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly’.

Jesus had a great sense of humor. He used hyperbole to great effect; his pithy sayings were so striking that people remembered and retold them; yet, once they became recorded in Holy Scriptures, solemn readers of the Bible in later ages often missed the humor.

‘It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of God’!

‘Why do you notice the speck in your friend’s eye, but overlook the log of timber in your own?’

‘When someone wants to sue you for your coat, let that person have your tunic as well’.

There would have been howls of laughter at that remark, for since people in those days wore only two garments (an inner and an outer), it would have left the person naked.

There is almost universal agreement that the most important injunction in the teaching of Jesus is brotherly love, the subject of perhaps his best-known parable—that of the Good Samaritan. Christians have long taught that the two most important commandments given by Jesus are these: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. And love your neighbour as yourself’. But they too often forget that Jesus did not formulate these; as a good Jew, he was simply quoting from the Hebrew Bible, where these words are found, respectively, in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.

The place where Jesus was wholly original was in the now famous words — ‘Love your enemies’. This was a quite revolutionary statement and it still is. He expounded it further:

Tell me, if you love those who love you, why should you be commended for that? Even the despised toll collectors do as much, don’t they? But I tell you—Don’t react violently against one who is evil: when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well. When anyone forces you to go for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to the one who begs from you; don’t turn away the one who tries to borrow from you.

The injunction ‘to love one’s enemies’ is not only unique to the teaching of Jesus but is so revolutionary that many reject it as absurd. In my own country, New Zealand, in 1942 a Christian pacifist was pleading his case before the tribunal. He explained that, as Christian, he was bound to love his enemies and therefore could not participate in military action. The magistrate poured scorn on him and said it was absurd to suggest that one could love Nazi Germans. Similarly, American Christians today think it is absurd to show love to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

So the human Jesus was a sage who taught some quite revolutionary things in describing the human behavior appropriate to the kingdom of God. His teaching caught people’s attention and made its mark on their memories because it was so different from what they had heard before. ‘They were astonished at his teaching’, wrote Mark, ‘since he would teach them on his own authority, unlike the scholars’.

While some of the aphorisms of Jesus were quite direct in their challenge to the current mores of the day, some of what he said was intentionally puzzling. People were left to work out the implications for themselves. Even his parables sometimes had an unexpected sting in the tail. Jesus did not set out to replace the Ten Commandments with a set of new directives. He encouraged people to work out for themselves what was the right action to take and to do so on the basis of a few basic principles, the chief of which was love.

Even in the small amount of reasonably authentic teaching of Jesus that has survived, we have ample evidence to show why this most unusual person aroused antagonism—sufficient to bring about his death. The priests, the influential, and the highly respected people of his day were clearly very upset by his utterances. The religious authorities were incensed when he said of them, ‘Look out for the scholars who like to parade around in long robes and insist on being addressed properly in the marketplaces, and prefer important seats in the synagogues and the best couches at banquets’.

Similarly, rich people were not all impressed when he said, ‘It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a wealthy man to get into the kingdom of God!’ Capitalists did not want to hear, ‘If you have money, don’t lend it at interest. Rather give it to someone from whom you won’t get it back.’ Indeed, even today wealthy Christians prefer to ignore these utterances.

Some of his teaching seemed to be so outrageous and ran so counter to everyday wisdom that a few began to question his sanity. One tradition does relate how the people of his own town thought he had gone mad. Further, the fact that Jesus frequently spoke about the coming of a new kind of kingdom was sufficient to put the Roman authorities on the alert and to find in him the warning of a coming insurrection and threat to Roman rule. His teaching shows us why both Jewish and Roman authorities came to regard him as a public nuisance that had to be put out of the way. Had not John the Baptist, the original mentor of Jesus, already been beheaded for offending King Herod?

So, like Socrates who had been put to death for supposedly undermining public morality, the life of Jesus ended in his being executed by one of the common methods of the day. Yet, we do not have sufficient documentation for us to know the exact reasons why the Romans executed Jesus. Weighty books are still being written to attempt to answer that question, for early Christian tradition soon tried to shift the blame from the Romans to the Jews. But whatever were the circumstances surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus, it helped to spark off the rise of Christianity and, within a short time, it caused the cross to become its most central symbol.

Yet the world of the following centuries would never had heard of the crucifixion of Jesus, if it had not been for Paul. For that reason some claim, as we have already noted, that he was the actual founder of Christianity. Certainly he had by far the greatest influence on where it was to go in the next twenty centuries. This means that it was a man who never met Jesus of Nazareth, or heard him speak, who largely shaped the Christian creeds.

Jesus and Christian Orthodoxy

So how far does orthodox Christian doctrine truly reflect the teaching of the man long worshipped as the foundation of Christianity? In the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century the Reformers held the life and teaching of the church up to criticism in the light of what they found in the Bible. Five hundred years later, as a result of the revolution in biblical scholarship, we can now hold the Christian creeds up to criticism in the light of the original teaching of Jesus.

In the year 2000 the Westar Institute set out to explore the contours of a faith relevant to the global age we have entered in the third millennium. So its fall meeting was devoted to the theme of ‘The Once and Future Faith’. To some extent this is what Bishop John Robinson was calling for in 1966 when he wrote a book called A New Reformation? It was only three years after he shocked the Christian world with his little book Honest to God. In his new book he raised the question of whether the church had become ‘an archaic and well-protected institution for the preservation of something that is irrelevant and incredible’. He even queried whether the really significant movements of spiritual renewal were now taking place outside the church and in spite of it.

Church's Seven Deadly Secrets, by Paul H. Jones

Available from Polebridge Press

This is because the task of reforming Christian thought has proved so difficult. Those who are committed to the defence of traditional Christianity have fiercely condemned the enterprise. Others have concluded that Christian doctrine is so set in concrete that it is impossible to reform it and they have abandoned all affiliation with the Christian tradition. The once Christian world of the West is fast becoming polarized between these two extremes. However, the recovery of the voiceprints of the original Jesus has now opened up a middle way.

As soon as we reflect upon the original teaching of Jesus we find that the whole system of orthodox Christian doctrine thought that is now disintegrating is actually inconsistent with the teaching of Jesus. Indeed, when examined in the light of the words of Jesus, it sometimes even stands under moral condemnation,

The focal point of Christian doctrine is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He has been called the Savior, not because of his teaching, but because of what he achieved by dying on the cross. His crucifixion was proclaimed as an event of cosmic proportions, because it was interpreted as a divine sacrifice that brought forgiveness and salvation to sinful humankind. Christians proclaimed it as the gospel—Good News—for it saved sinners from eternal damnation and opened the door to eternal life in heaven.

The question of how the death of Jesus on the cross achieved this goal gave rise to a variety of theories of atonement (as they are called). The earliest theory of the atonement interpreted the death of Jesus as the ransom price paid by God to the Devil to rescue sinful humans from his clutches. A later theory of the atonement, avoiding the reference to the Devil, interpreted the crucifixion in terms of moral bookkeeping. It was the way in which Jesus, on behalf of us sinful humankind, repaid our indebtedness to God because of our sinful disobedience. This theory was later transformed into the theory of penal substitution, much beloved by evangelicals to this day. It states that since we all deserve to be punished for our sinful actions, and since God’s sense of moral justice requires punishment to be suffered before he can forgive sins, then Jesus by his passion and crucifixion suffered that punishment on our behalf.

Today these theories of atonement have come under strong moral condemnation. Just as an ancient Israelite sage portrayed Job as the man who charged God with being immoral for allowing the innocent to suffer, so our human sense of justice and compassion are today morally offended by the idea that God should sacrifice his son. We are appalled at the very idea that any innocent person should be made to suffer for the wrongdoing of another. And the most serious condemnation of the various theories of atonement is found in the teaching of Jesus himself.

Take for example, the well-known parable of the prodigal son, which is certainly among the genuine sayings of Jesus. Preachers have often interpreted this as a kind of allegory of God’s love for us his erring children. I remember pointing out to my fellow theological students more than sixty years ago, that if this were such an allegory, it demonstrated that there was never any need for any atoning act by Jesus. It told how a father, though disappointed by his son’s actions, was so overjoyed to see his erring son return that he welcomed him back immediately without any atoning act as a condition.

Of course, the parable nowhere indicates it is intended as an allegory about God. It is about a human parent and it provides strong approval for those mothers and fathers (of whom I have known several) who have continued to love their offspring to the end of their days in spite of being bitterly disappointed and even shamed by what their progeny have done. This is a parable about unconditional human love, love which does not demand to be paid, love which continues to be shown even when there is no apology forthcoming. If humans are capable of giving such unconditional love, how much more should any supposed heavenly Father give? This one parable of Jesus makes a mockery of the various theological attempts to see meaning in the death of Jesus by turning it into a salvation event of cosmic significance. It is not only the modern secular world that is causing the disintegration of orthodox Christian doctrine; the authentic words of Jesus themselves are doing so.

How is it then that the original teaching of Jesus became lost sight of and replaced by something else? It was already occurring quite fast during the first century. Perhaps it was someone deploring this shift who put into the mouth of Jesus, ‘Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I say?’

The Church Is Not the Kingdom

It was noted a century ago by one of the Catholic Modernists that ‘Jesus came proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God, but what we got was the church!’ Indeed, the chief topic in the teaching of Jesus—the kingdom of God—became so marginalized in Christian thought that the creeds make no mention of it at all. Instead, the creeds made the church an article of faith as in the words of the creed ‘I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church’. Even by the end of the first century the author of Matthew’s gospel was already putting words into the mouth of Jesus, which indicated that it was his intention, even during his ministry, to build his church. ‘On this rock (the faith of Peter) I will build my church’.

We can now say with confidence that Jesus had no intention at all of founding a church—certainly not the kind of church which did eventuate—any more than he claimed to be the Messiah or only Son of God. We have had some inkling of this for a century or more, but now that we have established a database of the words most likely to be the original utterances of Jesus, the gulf between what he said and what developed after his death has become even wider. We can surmise that, if Jesus could have foreseen some of the things that would be said and done in his name, he would have been absolutely shocked.

What Jesus left behind him was not the church as it came to be, but a small community of his followers. Although these communities spread, largely through the initial efforts of Paul, they did not even have their own buildings for the first three hundred years but met in people’s houses or in the catacombs when being persecuted. It was only after Constantine made Christianity the state religion at the beginning of the fourth century, that Christianity assumed a more rigid institutional form and manifested itself to the world in public buildings we now call churches.

Then after the Fall of Rome in 410, the institution of the church began to take over some of the functions previously performed by the Roman State. That is how the church in the West gradually became such a powerful institution, one which could even make kings quake. The Pope took to himself one of the titles long borne by the Roman Emperor—Pontifex Maximus (bridge-builder par excellence ). That is why we speak of the Pope’s declarations to this day as “pontifical” statements.

Someone recently reminded me that in 1968 I wrote in God in the New World ‘the church as we have known it in the past is destined to die and we must let it die. When Christianity takes to itself the forms and organization of the kingdoms of this world, it must expect those structures will suffer the same fate as those of manmade empires’. The power and authority wielded by the church through the centuries is quite out of keeping with the teaching of Jesus. He said, ‘You know how those who rule over the Gentiles lord it over them and how the strong tyrannize the weak. It’s not to be like that with you. Whoever wants to become great must be your servant. Whoever wants to be first must be your slave.’

The institution of the church as a structure of power deserves to die, as it has been doing increasingly in the last three hundred years. In spite of achieving many admirable things in its long life, the church developed a hierarchical and male-dominant character that is quite at variance with the teaching of Jesus. It is now losing its former authority by force of circumstances, instead of voluntarily surrendering it as it could have done if it had heeded the teaching of Jesus.

The institutional church will not disappear quickly even though it is seriously fragmented and growing weaker. Much less, however, will it disappear without a trace. The long term influence and teaching of Jesus is already showing signs of outliving the church structures in which it has lived in the past. (Just how that may be will be discussed in the last article of this series in the next issue, where we shall explore the diverse futures of Christianity.)

Lloyd Geering is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Honored as Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for 2001, he is a renowned and respected commentator on religion and the author of several books, including The World to Come (1999) and Christianity without God (2003).

Copyright © 2004 by Polebridge Press. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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