How Christianity Became a Religion Jesus Would Have Rejected
By Richard Hagenston
According to Hagenston, Jesus had such a hard edge when it came to Gentiles that he coined his own unflattering term for them—dogs. He limited what he was offering strictly to Jews. Yet the religion that began in his name quickly transformed into a predominantly Gentile movement centered on blood sacrifice to obtain God’s forgiveness, a practice rejected by many Jews long before Jesus came on the scene. Furthermore the sacrifice was not just of an animal, but of Jesus himself. How did this happen? Hagenston exposes the roots of brutal justice underpinning traditional Christianity, but finds hope in a Jewish movement toward grace that preceded and influenced the historical Jesus.
“Richard Hagenston has written an incredible book … so well organized that one would have to read a thousand pages from other books to draw the same conclusions. … You may not agree with his conclusions … but you are going to understand the biblical and historical issues better when you take the time to read this concise book. … I put this one on my “must read” list and will be recommending it to others.”
—Fred Plumer, President, ProgressiveChristianity.org
From Chapter 1, “A Most Unlikely Religion”
This book is about solving a deep mystery of Christianity’s origins, one that begins with the great irony that Christianity is a religion largely of Gentiles who literally worship Jesus, for Jesus’ attitude toward Gentiles was mostly one of disgust. My professors at Wesley Theological Seminary only hinted at that and then left it alone, lest the implications become too troublesome. But there is no denying that the gospels show that Jesus disliked most Gentiles and said that what he offered was not for them.
Some of my earliest memories are the words of a song: “Jesus loves me! This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Since early childhood I found comfort in that. I would still like to think that when Jesus urged his followers to love others as they loved themselves, he would have included Gentiles like me as among those to be loved. But although that is who I want Jesus to be, the gospels offer little assurance on that. To the contrary, Jesus had such a hard edge when it came to Gentiles that he had his own unflattering term for them—dogs.
Jesus made his unfavorable opinion of Gentiles clear on many levels. He said that what he was offering was strictly limited to Jews, sending his apostles out with firm instructions to “go nowhere among the Gentiles” (Matt 10:5). Or as he put it in Matt 15:24, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He also used the Gentiles as examples of what not to do. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus introduces the Lord’s Prayer by telling his followers not to “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do” (Matt 6:7).
It is true that in Chapter 8 of Matthew and Chapter 7 of Luke the Bible records Jesus as healing a servant of a Roman soldier. Both gospels mention as reasons not just the soldier’s faith but also his admission that he was unworthy of Jesus’ attention. Perhaps Jesus assumed the servant was a Jew, because when he was asked to heal someone who was indisputably a Gentile, he said no. A Gentile woman asked for healing for her daughter, and Jesus’ first response was to totally ignore her. Knowing his attitude, his disciples urged him to silence her pleas not by helping her but by sending her away. Even when she knelt before him, he bluntly refused to help, saying that children’s food can’t be given to dogs (Matt 15:21–28). The healing came, but only after the woman admitted that as a Gentile she was a dog and pointed out that even dogs eat scraps from their masters’ table.
Further confirmation that Jesus had a very harsh attitude toward Gentiles comes from the fact that even as they sought to make converts, his disciples perpetuated a similar attitude after Jesus died. People who were not circumcised and did not live like Jews were not welcome. This drew Paul into trouble when he opened the Jesus fellowship to Gentiles. In fact, Paul writes that those who had resisted him on this included Cephas, also known as none other than the Apostle Peter, and men sent by Jesus’ brother James (see Gal 2:11–14).
And yet within a few decades after Jesus’ condemnation by the high priest and some others, followed by his execution by the Romans, many Gentiles already regarded Jesus as their savior who had died on the cross to pay the penalty for their sins. This concept of salvation through blood sacrifice, however, not only ignored what Jesus actually taught about forgiveness but could not have been in greater contradiction with it. As we will see, it was so against his teachings that it would likely have horrified him as slander against the Eternal.
To add to the irony, the contrast with who and what Jesus himself said he was expanded until he began to be worshiped as a deity, totally ignoring what he said was the most important tenet of his faith.
Measured by the teachings of the man for whom it is named, Christianity is indeed a most unlikely religion. How could it have arisen in apparent contradiction of Jesus’ own words? In this book we will examine this mystery. In so doing we will see how Christianity has presented the death of Jesus as a sin offering only by drawing on a disputed and self-serving plan crafted centuries before the birth of Jesus by some brutal, power-hungry priests. And we will see how Christianity effectively built its status and fortunes only by ignoring much of what Jesus taught. Finally, we will consider some options for what this might mean for today, including perhaps the possibility that the true good news of the gospel is one of reconciliation with God and neighbor that is even more profound than many Christians have realized.
Richard Hagenston is an ordained United Methodist minister and former pastor. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Wesley Theological Seminary and a master’s in journalism from Indiana University.