“In his ethical code there is a sublimity, distinctiveness and originality … If ever the day should come and this ethical code be stripped of its wrappings of miracles and mysticism, the Book of the Ethics of Jesus will be one of the choicest treasures of the literature of Israel for all time.”
Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, 1922
Perhaps that day has come. We may now witness the ethics and wisdom of Jesus as we witness the ethics and wisdom of any other figure in history, Socrates, Buddha, Lao Tzu, or Margaret Fell, the Quaker founder who said in 1652:
“We are all thieves; we have taken the Scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.”
The voice of Jesus survived decades of oral transmission before written records appeared, and then centuries of revision thereafter. Jesus wrote nothing and spoke in Aramaic. The gospel authors composed in Greek, and some forty years elapsed between the execution of Jesus and the first written narrative accounts. The earliest surviving complete manuscripts of the popular gospels appear three centuries later. Scholars presume that versions of the gospels appeared earlier than the surviving manuscripts, but we possess no originals and hundreds of variant copies.
We might wonder then: How accurately did the message of Jesus survive decades of spoken discourse and centuries of revision?
Historians and text scholars have developed advanced methods of analyzing language to reveal layers of borrowing and revision in ancient manuscripts. The Matthew and Luke gospels, for example, appear to copy the Mark account and early collections of sayings. Portions of these early sources have been discovered in manuscript fragments. Meanwhile, startling new texts – the gospels of Mary, Thomas, Philip, and others – have risen from their desert graves to provide fresh sources of Jesus sayings.
For The Jesus Sayings, I reviewed and compared some 200 significant historical accounts that contribute to the search for the sayings and deeds of Jesus, taking us far beyond the boundaries of the four New Testament gospels.
In 1760, German linguist Hermann Reimarus observed that distinctive language in ancient texts helped him distinguish later doctrine from the likely words of a first century Jesus. Thus began what modern researchers call the “quest for the historical Jesus.” For example, some later writers place Jewish scripture on the lips of Jesus, but they quote from the Greek translations, revealing that these passages reflect a later voice. Reimarus posed two questions for himself and his academic colleagues:
Which events reported in the gospels actually happened?
What ideas and teachings from the surviving record can be traced to the historical Jesus?
They are fair questions. They do not preclude other interesting questions – such as: What do gospel stories mean metaphorically? – but they remain important questions still relevant today. In Excavating Jesus, published in 2001, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed posed another important question:
Why did Jesus and his movement flourish in first century Israel?
In the first century, the ancient vision of a promised kingdom for the righteous reappears in the revolutionary desert movement led by John the Baptist. Roman and Jewish authorities considered John’s movement subversive, and Jewish rebels threatened independence in Israel and Judea. Rome interpreted peasant gatherings as open sedition and they responded with mass crucifixions to terrorize the populace. Into this world of hair-trigger social conflict, during the reign of emperor Tiberius and his surrogate Herod Antipas, along the Jordan River, John the Baptist and Jesus step into recorded history.
In The Jesus Sayings, I raise two more questions, presuming that we might approach some understanding of Jesus’ authentic message.
How did that message get confused or misrepresented?
What relevance does that message offer us in the twenty-first century?
To answer these questions, I’ve examined the research of scholars such as Crossan and Reed, Robert J. Miller, Elaine Pagels, Burton Mack, Bart Ehrman, Karen King, Margaret Starbird, Nicholas Wright, Robert Funk, Westar Institute’s Jesus Seminar, and the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion’s Jesus Project. These scholars attempt to answer the questions raised by Reimarus: What can we reasonably say about the historical Jesus, and what did this person teach?
“Some of the words attributed to Jesus were not actually spoken by him … While this is not news to scholars, it is news to the … public.”
Robert J. Miller, editor, The Complete Gospels
By identifying the earliest, most widely attested sayings; by separating early verses from later additions; and by distinguishing Galilean, Aramaic language from European, Greek doctrines, scholars have uncovered a consistent thread in the historical record regarding the actual words, deeds, and teachings of Jesus. This authentic message is as useful today as ever:
The gospels of Thomas, Mary, Philip, the Ebionites and others – banished and long hidden from human history – rose from their desert graves during the last century and now provide astonishing revelations about Jesus and his followers:
The Gospel of Mary – found in Akhmim, Egypt in 1896 and first published in 1955 – merits particular focus due to the purging of the feminine voice in the historical record. This voice may be needed more than ever in the twenty-first century.
“Although Mary is in the inner circle of disciples, there is a conflict over her presence… Peter is cast as the jealous, misogynist disciple who tries three times to silence her … ecumenical theology must call us to … oppose the systems of economic, military, and ecological violence that are threatening to undo the very fabric of planetary life.”
Rosemary Ruether, Goddesses and the Divine Feminine
The Jesus Sayings also follows the sometimes tragic, occasionally comic history of what happened to the message after Jesus, Mary, and their circle of friends were no longer around to care take the movement. It’s a complex story that involves some eighty factions of Jesus followers, homicidal emperor Constantine, his well-travelled mother, and one dubious historian. A hot-blooded Berber intellectual, Augustine, who served as the public voice for the Bishop of Milan, sums up the Roman establishment’s approach:
“There are many true things that are not useful for the vulgar crowd to know; and certain things, which although they are false it is expedient for the people to believe otherwise.”
Augustine of Hippo, City of God
We do not serve the memory of Jesus by denying the dark side of religion, the horror of children abused in religious institutions, the victims of the Inquisition, or the casualties of sectarian violence in Belfast or Jerusalem. We often don’t talk about religion’s shadow because we do not want to offend, but our silence buys suffering.
“The greatest obstacle to good interfaith relations, is a bad relationship with one’s own faith tradition.”
Perhaps if we achieve a better relationship with our religious traditions, we will find the insight and courage to make peace with other traditions. Ethics are not about beliefs, but rather about creating joy or suffering. Our actions, not our doctrines, count in the world.
“The Delusional is no longer marginal. What has happened to our moral imagination?”
Bill Moyers on religious fundamentalism
Fortunately, history is not on autopilot. History emerges as the summation of choices and actions performed by the living. Jesus encouraged his audience to wakeup. Witness yourself. Witness what is before your eyes. Be as a child, alive with wonder and natural generosity. We honour Jesus when we distinguish his teachings from the proclamations of later writers. There is no cultural value in pretending that the mythic constructions of Roman sycophants or clever rationalizations of Augustine are a substitute for Jesus.
“The church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon.”
Ferdinand Magellan, c. 1516 (according to Robert Ingersoll)
Ingersoll attributed this statement to the great sea captain Maggellan in his 1873 essay, "Individuality," about the state of intellectual inquiry in 19th century America. He wrote:
".. our entire training can be summed up in the word — suppression.. We are allowed .. to express the opinions of the majority with the utmost freedom. We are taught that liberty of speech should never be carried to the extent of contradicting the dead witnesses of a popular superstition. Society offers continual rewards for self-betrayal, and they are nearly all earned and claimed, and some are paid." The essay is worth reading for a glimpse of reppression in the pressumed land of freedom only a century and three decades ago.
Doctrine — religious, political, or economic — eventually clashes with experience because doctrine remains fixed while experience changes with circumstances and perception. Jesus — Yeshua, the Nazarene, a Jewish peasant living in poverty and under imperial suppression — seemed to know this. He taught his followers to look inside, know themselves, find the light inside and share it with the world. He taught self-knowledge and social compassion. Paradise is not in the sky, but here, spread out over the earth. As the Taoists, Buddhists, and ancient naturalists such as the peasant women weeping for Asherah, and philosophers Thales and Pythagoras, Jesus taught his followers to find paradise in the world before their eyes.
Luke (Q) 17:21, Thomas 3 (Socrates, Buddha, and the temple at Delphi)
"The kingdom is within you and it is outside you."
"Know what is in front of your face.
Our modern ecological crisis appears as a crisis of spirit, failing to see the miracle in which we live. Our distruction of the earth follows hording over sharing, private ego over common sense, dominance over humility, and addictive consumption over simple pleasures. Human civilization looked for paradise in all the wrong places, in power, wealth, in myriad heavens. We have failed to worship — to ascribe worth to — the one thing that sustains us: the living earth. A new reformation in religion and spirituality will recognize the inherent value of the earth itself, life itself, other beings for their own sake, not for private glory.
Antonio Machado, Proverbios Y Cantares
¿Cuál fue, Jesús, tu palabra?
¿Amor? ¿Perdón? ¿Caridad?
Todas tus palabras fueron
una palabra: Velad.
Antonio Machado, Proverbios Y Cantares