Sometimes, atheist that I am, my heart goes out to Jesus. On the one hand, I see Jesus as a fellow Jew. The simple fact is Jesus was born, lived his whole life and died a Jew. He preached only to Jews. The ideas he taught were fundamentally Jewish. “Do unto others” is a graceful, eloquent, actionable expression of the Jewish concept “Tikkun Olam” which commands every Jew (every person actually) to make the world a better place simply for having lived in it. If not for Paul — and his complete repurposing of Jesus away from Jesus’s actual teachings and toward the teachings of an institutional church that Jesus could never have and would never have imagined — there would be no such thing as “Christianity”. According to the Jesus Seminar (a group of theologists and actual Bible scholars versus Bible college graduate,), Eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him. That’s 18% attributable to Jesus. For comparison’s sake, Paul himself wrote 28% of the canonical Bible.
Even by the numbers, Paul has a greater say in what we call “Christianity” than Jesus. Per Wikipedia, the Jesus Seminar “was formed by American group of about 50 critical biblical scholars and 100 laymen founded in 1985 by Robert Funk that originated under the auspices of the Westar Institute.“. Westar Institute remains active today online. The Seminar’s goal (in addition to “Honest scholarship in religion for the public”) was to try and parse an historical, real Jesus from both the texts themselves and from the real scholarship that’s been done regarding Jesus, his time and his world. In other words, the Seminar wanted to strip out the church’s dogma while focusing on Jesus himself.
Being scholars equipped with actual analytical skills, the Seminar’s participants recognized that Christianity did not drop from the sky in one piece. The early church was the product first of Paul and the message HE took to the gentiles after the Jews in Jerusalem (including Jesus’s family) rejected it. Paul never met Jesus. Never personally heard Jesus teach. His vision of Jesus occurs AFTER Jesus physically dead. We have to believe Paul literally if we’re to believe Paul at all. What inspired Paul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus? Does it really matter? He experienced it. That’s what matters — and good for Paul that he did experience it.
But the fact that he “experienced” it doesn’t make it real. J. K. Rowling “experienced” Harry Potter. She made Harry and his world seem incredibly real to all of her readers but, as we all know, Harry and his world are NOT real. Same goes for Paul. Jesus (per the Jesus Seminar) “did not refer to himself as the Messiah, nor did he claim to be a divine being who descended to earth from heaven in order to die as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. These are claims that some people in the early church made about Jesus, not claims he made about himself.” Further, “Jesus did not hold an apocalyptic view of the reign (or kingdom) of God—that by direct intervention God was about to bring history to an end and bring a new, perfect order of life into being. Rather, in Jesus’ teaching the reign of God is a vision of what life in this world could be“ (emphasis mine).
So, if we go strictly by Jesus (avoiding Paul’s spin), we get a completely different teaching. What the hell is Paul talking about? The Jesus Seminar answers that question, too: “At the heart of Jesus’ teaching and actions was a vision of a life under the reign of God (or, in the empire of God) in which God’s generosity and goodness is regarded as the model and measure of human life; everyone is accepted as a child of God and thus liberated both from the ethnocentric confines of traditional Judaism and from the secularizing servitude and meagerness of their lives under the rule of the empire of Rome.” Though preaching exclusively to Jews, Jesus sees Yahweh (that’s the “god” Jesus believed in) as a universal god. As Jesus put it (per the Jesus Seminar), “Render unto God that which is God’s and render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”.
The God that Jesus imagines doesn’t seem to need that much help being generous and good. And whenever people do intercede between God and believer? Corruption ensues! The temple priests let money changers in the temple’s front door!
Nowhere does Jesus say — “But, after ‘doing unto others’, don’t forget to join my church!” There’s a reason. To Jesus, doing unto others is as universal as his idea of Yahweh. Anyone can do it — even a simple atheist (another thing Jesus probably couldn’t imagine). Jesus taught a simple, eloquent, very Jewish message. The church that Paul created in Jesus’s name teaches a far more complicated message that Jesus himself would find confounding if not entirely contradictory. Paul didn’t care so much what Jesus said as the fact that he died for having said it (regardless of what it was he said). Paul had latched onto Jewish mythology about a messiah that had percolated orally for a thousand years.
Let’s not rush past that. It’s MYTHOLOGY. Tribal mythology. There is zero basis in reality for any of it. That’s Paul’s starting point. When he tried to preach HIS version to the Jews, they rejected it because it wasn’t the mythology they knew. But, the gentiles had no such knowledge. To them, this monotheistic mythology was brand new. It was different — especially because it featured a god that (unlike most polytheistic gods) cared about humans having personally created humans. In fact, the god Paul was pitching offered something no other deity had ever offered a human before: a way to beat death.
That, ultimately, is Paul’s (and the early church’s) message: believe in Jesus the way we’re telling you to and, like Jesus, you too can defeat death. Can we talk “genius”? Can we talk “invitation to dogma”?
Can we talk corruption?
If Jesus never said he was any sort of messiah then any institution flocking such a thing is flocking bullshit. Any institution that says Jesus’s dying is more important than the fact that Jesus lived isn’t selling Jesus. They’re selling something they invented. To sell to you. Like a money changer in the temple forecourt.
Hell, even non-believers can tell you how Jesus felt about those guys.
8 responses to “Every Church Has A Dirty, Little Secret: Jesus Taught You Don’t Need Them”
what would you say is the real difference between JC and Paul? JC does have that vicious bit in Luke 19 where he wants non-believers killed.
As always, when we refer to JC, we have to contextualize whose version of him are we discussing. An awful lot of rubbish has been attributed to Jesus – unfairly. Paul was 100% real. We know this because he wrote things down. Jesus, OTOH is a little more problematic that way.
do you think the parable of the minas is one of those “unfair” things?
If it isn’t something Jesus actually said, it’s in the “other” pile. It might as well be a parable you or I wrote.
God actually exists!
You should check out the podcast I do with my friend Randy Lovejoy who’s a Presbyterian pastor (https://faitheismproject.com/2021/05/01/the-faitheism-project-podcast-episode-34-quantum-leaps-leaps-of-faith/) — we talk about that a lot. Respectfully of course!
This was great, loved reading it even though I’ve said these things to people a MILLION times!! To me, Paul changes Jesus’ message in one very important and profound way; the achievement of salvation. While Jesus as a devote Jew would have believed it is by the Torah and your works that one achieves salvation. Paul reverses this entirely and, at least in my mind, without any concrete evidence that Jesus would have wanted this, states that salvation is only achieved by faith in Jesus Christ and the resurrection. Jesus would never have considered anything like it. He was, as you state, a devout Jew from birth to burial. (Although I do not believe that he was ever buried by “Joseph of Arimathea” or anyone else. Pilate would never have allowed the crucified body of a seditionist to do anything other than rot until it literally fell off of the cross.)
Once Paul took his version of Jesus to the gentiles, the deal was done. Any sort of historical Jesus becomes problematic for the burgeoning church institution because that’s concrete whereas the church’s Jesus could be whatever THEY needed that character to be. The church’s version of Jesus is as real as Harry Potter is real.