Bill and Nancy van Doorninck: A fraudulent Jesus?
In response to Jan Losh’s opinion piece of June 5, a different view may be of interest. It was uncomfortable to be confronted with provocative statements about having to define Jesus as a fraud and charlatan if one does not define him as the Son of God and “the only link humanity has with God.” But we can also be glad for the opportunity for dialogue.
It has been useful to dig through the written records and informed commentary for a glimpse of the Jesus of history. The Jesus of history would be the one to confront social customs, including religious traditions, that exclude and demean others. He would be the one to turn our habitual and acculturated ways of thinking upside down, so that we have empathy for those we would condemn out of habit or social pressure. He would be the one to expand our concepts of who is our neighbor and to experience connection with them. He would inform us with teaching stories (parables) about the noblest attributes of love and social justice (“The Kingdom of God” idea). He would say that he had a divine connection, and we do, too. He would say that “Heaven” is in the place and time where you are now. We only have to search for it and claim it. He would say that whatever he did, we can, too. He would emphasize personal responsibility over dependence on an intermediary. He would say that his role is to be a guide for us. Although he confronted destructive practices, he was generous and inclusive. He considered his insights capable of setting us free from our self-defeating habits. His insights are not exclusive. They are shared and expressed by many other inspired teachers who appeared before, during, and after Jesus’ time. No one from a different religious tradition or culture should feel excluded because Jesus happened to live his life in an economically impoverished, rural, and oppressed Jewish community near the Sea of Galilee.
It has been useful to separate the actual experience of being human from the explanations that we feel compelled to make about powerful forces beyond our comprehension and control. Fundamental human experiences include the awe and terror of nature and other people and the fear of loss and chaos. The earliest writings in all of history explain these forces are the attributes and acts of external gods. As the circumstances of a people changed, so did their descriptions of God’s attributes. It was also recognized from the earliest records that the divine or creative energy cannot be known, named or defined. But it can be experienced. This mysterious force is certainly within each of us. We and the rest of the natural world are certainly connected by it. So it is of no use to define an unknowable force. How individuals, cultures and religions define God or Jesus can only be a symbol or metaphor for our own experiences, needs and fears. These metaphors can be helpful to a people; they can also be destructive, and they can lose their utility.
It has been useful to understand the evolving themes and metaphors in the written records of the oral histories after Jesus’ time. The earliest writings appear to be the most historical about what Jesus said and did, and how he defined himself. Later ones introduce themes that reflect the changing concerns of various Christian communities. As one example, the Gospels written later introduce an anti-Jewish theme, which can be understood in the light of the political pressures Roman authorities were placing on the Christian communities. It is hard to imagine Jesus himself was anti-Semitic. Rather, he seemed to focus on enlightening his Jewish community. How the Gospel writers defined Jesus evolved as well. Later still, a group of Roman Bishops decided which writings to include in the New Testament, and which ones to exclude and to label heretical. Many of the rejected ones offered valuable insights into the meaning of Jesus’ words and deeds. The greater the distance in time from Jesus’ life, the greater the overlay of mythological or doctrinal material that compete with Jesus’ original meanings. The following commentators, while not an exclusive list, have been helpful to us: Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, Elaine Pagels, and John Shelby Spong.
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