- We must always refer back to the teaching
of Jesus himself. Jesus had a deep mystic experience of God and spoke about
it, lived it, in terms of the Kingdom of God. "Kingdom of God" meant for Jesus "the saving power of God
made manifest in human history." For Jews at the time of Jesus, salvation
was a matter of the community to which they belonged. For us this communal
aspect of salvation is almost impossible to appreciate except in terms of
David Steindl-Rast (1992, 57)
Any attempt to authenticate Jesus’ teachings and historicity is destined to be a matter of personal perspective. Ancient or contemporary, fundamental or liberal, mystical or scientific, emotional or “factual,” every depiction of Jesus reveals convictions of some kind—including mine. I realize that the notion of a global, cosmic, and universal Christ—to which I subscribe—is a modern and contemporary invention. I am equally convinced that the traditional orthodox Christ (who is by no means homogenous) is based on an ancient invention. While the contemporary Jesus of so-called radical theologians speaks to trans-cultural concerns such as gender and international relations and the environmental crisis, the orthodox view of Jesus speaks through legends and myths that have been historicized and teachings of eternal judgment and prophecies such as the Second Coming that have been institutionalized. Despite my obvious prejudices, neither view is complete or “true.” So what can be said of Jesus? How are his words and actions to be regarded if nothing is certain? I do not claim to have an answer, but—despite being aware of The Jesus Seminar’s edict: “Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you” (Funk, 1993, 5)—I will attempt to offer an overview of and support for the quest to universalize Christ. My attempt will take shape through five snapshots of Jesus—one that questions orthodoxy’s mythologized version, a reconstructed Gnostic one, a modern scholarly one that demythologizes Jesus, one that remythologizes him, and one based on the findings of The Jesus Seminar. My goal is not to convert the reader to a particular view (mine is admittedly incomplete), but to consider past, current, and potential future issues in the dialogue regarding an evolving Jesus.
Let me begin, however, with a couple of disclaimers. This is not a diatribe against Paul or the gospels. The mythologized or orthodox view of Jesus is clearly responsible for the success of Christianity and the indoctrination of a worldview that I believe has played an essential role in the moral development of Western culture. Secondly, there is no “one Gnostic Jesus” and the reconstructed picture I offer here is just that, a reconstruction. Similarly, the other three portraits that I discuss in this essay are admittedly incomplete compilations that are agenda-filled. If nothing else, this essay demonstrates why and ways in which modern and contemporary scholars attempt to re-envision Jesus.
The Mythologized Jesus
Jesus is a reconstructed sacred hero whose layers of legends, myths, and teachings have been debated for nearly two thousand years. The mythologized Jesus of orthodoxy, replete with a divine pre-human existence, virgin birth, crucifixion, and resurrection, was created through multiple compilations of legends and sayings that, following years of oral transmission, were penned decades after his death. Although Jesus inspired Christianity, he did not conceive it—Paul did. Because of his writings, we know more about Paul than about Jesus; however, his writings were edited and others were simply attributed to him and his purported actions are interlaced with historical and legendary reports. Paul claimed to be a Pharisee and Roman. As a Pharisee he avowed mastery of Jewish law and used the prophecies of the messiah to announce the continuity between Judaism and the coming of Christ. He also used his heritage as a Pharisee to glorify the magnitude of his conversion to Christianity. While maintaining Old Testament roots of his new faith, Paul was also able to create a “new law” that exceeded the old and to simultaneously denigrate Jews as Jesus’ executioners and adversaries of the emerging faith. Being Roman, Saul provided the perfect persona through which Paul could be born anew. A self-proclaimed convert, prophet of God and apostle of Jesus, Paul accused Jews, Romans, and other pagans and heretics of being “agents of Satan.” Far more than Jesus, Paul set the tone for Christian theology.
As with Jesus, there are rival profiles of Paul. For instance, surviving documents from the Ebionites, one of the earliest communities of Christian Jews, offer a radically different view of Paul than the one depicted in the letters and gospels. Hyam Maccoby (1986) argues that the documents indicate that Paul converted to Judaism and was not a Pharisee, that he acquired his Roman citizenship as an adult and worked for the High Priest as a “henchman.” “Disappointed in his hopes of advancement,” Maccoby asserts, “he broke with the High Priest and sought fame by founding a new religion” (17). The Ebionites’ texts indicate that Paul not only perverted Jesus’ message, he created a religion “which Jesus himself would have rejected” (60). The Jesus of the Ebionites was a human being with prophetic powers, a follower of the Torah, and a spiritual guide. They were critical of anyone who portrayed Jesus as completely divine, that included certain Gnostic groups as well as Paul and his followers. Not surprisingly, the Ebionites were considered heretics by the rising orthodox tradition, which denounced them and their teachings and writings. Maccoby identifies the Ebionites as Nazarenes (maintaining that “Ebionites” was a derogatory nickname for the Nazarenes) and suggests that their heritage stems from the original Jerusalem Church, which was composed of the earliest followers of Jesus, including Peter and James (a purported brother of Jesus). If Maccoby is right, not only was Paul’s mythologized Christ at odds with the Jesus of the earliest believers, the apostles whom Paul did meet had, at best, a very tenuous relationship with him, and, most likely, an antagonistic one.
The uncertainty surrounding Paul does not alter the clear portrayal he left of Christ. Paul asserted that Jesus was “born under” God’s law (Galatians 4:4-5), but said nothing of a virgin birth nor intimated Jesus’ divinity prior to ascension, an event that Paul claimed made Christ divine. The first “born again Christian,” Paul institutionalized the notion that Jesus died for our sins and that Christ’s resurrection equaled God’s promise to believers that eternal life awaits them. He also helped formulate Christ’s role in the futuristic kingdom that would endure Earth’s destruction and the judgment of the unworthy. Without fail, Paul assumed that his enemies were Christ’s, for whom he spoke. Ironically, Paul never met Jesus (not counting his “blinding vision” on the road to Damascus) and was not very concerned with Jesus’ teachings. Using “Christ” far more often than “Jesus,” Paul cites only six of Jesus’ sayings and alludes to only a few others. Most of the twenty plus verses that he dedicates to Jesus’ life are about events surrounding his death and resurrection (though he never mentions the “empty tomb”). Paul’s concern is with his own message, which does contain tributes to love, trust, and hope, but is also colored by intolerance and the threat of holy vengeance.
The gospel writers further mythologized Paul’s Christ. Mark shifted Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ divinity from the resurrection to his baptism and Matthew to Jesus’ birth—which meant that Jesus was never fully human, but divine from his inception. That change not only affected the understanding of Jesus’ nature, but Mary’s as well. By being a vessel or even co-creator of God’s son, Mary remained free of carnal experience and was held up as the ideal to which women should strive, however unsuccessfully. That ideal, as John Shelby Spong (1992) submits, helped the early church perpetuate its own ends:
I do not believe that the story of Mary’s virginity enhanced the portrait of the mother of Jesus. To the contrary, I believe that story has detracted from Mary’s humanity and has become a weapon in the hands of those whose patriarchal prejudices distort everyone’s humanity in general but women’s humanity in particular (3).
Following the prejudices of his time, Paul degraded women. He reiterated the early Christian (perhaps Gnostic) initiation creed, that “In Christ there is neither male nor female,” but he deemed women as subordinate in accordance with God’s law: “a man is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man” (I Corinthians 11:7-9). He contended, “Women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but they should be subordinate . . . it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (I Corinthians 14, 34f.). Though he seems to have become less biased later in life, Paul regarded women as too emotional and as agents of sexual desire—or, as closely aligned with potentially evil impulses of nature. Advancing the platonic dualism between spirit and matter, he and his partisans designated the Earth as the Devil’s “testing ground” and separated the spirit’s needs from those of the body.
Gospel writers also amplified Paul’s apocalyptic fervor. That is particularly true in John, where Jesus is identified as logos—an identification that supplied orthodoxy with a fully mythologized Jesus who was not made divine through his resurrection, baptism, or birth, but as a cosmic co-creator, was one with God as the alpha and omega. The role of Jesus as co-creator from the beginning of time also enhanced his apocalyptic role as the divine reaper in the “end times.” Unlike in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, where Jesus tends to speak in parables and aphorisms, in John, as Robert Funk (1996) explains, “Jesus is a lecturer given to extended monologues. In the synoptics Jesus speaks about God’s domain; in John, Jesus speaks mostly about himself and his relation to the Father” (126). The majority of that relationship has to do with Jesus as the “one way” to God. “In the Gospel of John,” Funk concludes, “Jesus is a self-conscious messiah rather than a self-effacing sage. In John, Jesus seems to have little concern for the impoverished, the disabled, and the religious outcast. Although John preserves the illusion of combining a real Jesus with the mythic Christ, the human side of Jesus is in fact diminished” (127). While emphasizing Christ’s eternal divinity, John de-emphasizes Jesus’ teaching of love, equality, and forgiveness. From Paul to John, Jesus becomes less human, more fully mythologized, and more apocalyptic.
The Gnostic Jesus
Amidst a wide variety of early depictions, the so-called “Gnostic Jesus” was early orthodoxy’s strongest rival. A blanket term that applies to a variety of beliefs, practices, and communities, Gnosticism has its roots in Greek mystery religions. Throughout the diverse and often loosely formed groups resides the ancient Greek conviction that a divine immanence can be actualized through contemplation and self-knowledge. Despite the disparate mystical claims and often wild and complex myths that bespeak Gnostic diversity, the conviction that God can be realized “within” unifies much of the tradition. The Greek term “gnosis” is translated often as “knowledge,” but refers to “enlightenment.” Enlightenment for Gnostics often involved following a divine sage who could show followers the path toward divinity, but enlightenment itself was an individual affair. In the footsteps of Dionysus and Orpheus, Jesus was readily accepted as a model of a divine state attainable “here and now.” Although the Gnostic Jesus’ self-discovered kingdom, attainable through love, service, and esoteric practices, shared the orthodox conviction of an afterlife (albeit a spiritual one), the Gnostic understanding that God’s kingdom can be realized by any individual in the present had no place in Pauline Christology. Unlike the apocalyptic Christ, whose kingdom is futuristic and whose God is distant, who speaks of sin, repentance, and salvation, the Gnostic Jesus offers divinity through self-knowledge. As Jesus relates to Thomas in the Gnostic text, The Gospel according to Thomas (1959):
I am not thy Master, because thou has drunk from the bubbling spring which I have measured out . . . . Whoever drinks from My mouth shall become as I am and I myself will become he, and the hidden things shall be revealed to him (83: 5-7, 98: 28-30).
The success of orthodoxy drove the Gnostic tradition underground, nearly eliminating its historical precedence. As Albert Schweitzer (1966) evinces, the Gnostics were the first to profess “the Messiahship of the historical Jesus.” Because “they denied the eschatological conceptions” they compelled the Early Church “to create in the Logos Christology an un-Gnostic mould in which to cast the speculative conception of the historical Messiahship of Jesus.” In other words, the Gnostic Jesus helped provoke orthodoxy into mythologizing Christ: “Prior to the anti-Gnostic controversies we find in the early Christian literature no conscious dating back of the Messiahship of Jesus to His earthly life, and no theological interest at work upon the dogmatic recasting of his history” (344). Besides reshaping Jesus, orthodox groups persecuted Gnostics and denounced their gospels as blasphemous and attempted to destroy them. Some survived. The most significant extant ones, the so-called Nag Hammadi library discovered in 1945, consist of fifty-two books that are Coptic translations made some 350 to 400 A.D. (there is disagreement on the dates of the original documents but some appear to have been written as early as the first century). The Nag Hammadi library reveals the Gnostic battle against orthodoxy. As the Second Treatise of the Great Seth (Sethians were one of many Gnostic sects) states: “. . . we were hated and persecuted, not only by those who are ignorant, but also by those who think that they are advancing the name of Christ, since they were unknowingly empty, not knowing who they are, like dumb animals” (59:22-29, Nag Hammadi Library, 1981, 333-334). As Elaine Pagels demonstrates, the authors of the Apocalypse of Peter and the Secret Book of James confirm the persecution and condemn the executions carried out by “the false believers” (93).
There were many reasons why orthodox writers feared and condemned Gnostic ideas. Gnostics tended to regard the risen Christ as spiritual, seen only in visions and, for the most part, they rejected the physical resurrection. Pagels illustrates that Gnostics not only called the belief in the physical resurrection “the faith of fools,” they insisted that it “was not a unique event in the past” but “symbolized how Christ’s presence could be experienced in the present” (11). The Gospel of Philip derides literalists: “Those who say they will die first and then rise are in error” (NHL 144). Similarly, “Those who say that the Lord died first (then) rose up are in error, for he rose up first (then) died”; hence, one must “attain the resurrection” in this life and “in this flesh” (56:16-19, 57:18, NHL 134-135). To receive the resurrection—the so-called “chrism” and “great mystery”—is to experience Jesus’ presence. For instance, the risen Christ appears as a light on a mountain speaking of “mysteries” to the praying disciples in the Letter of Peter to Philip and in the The Sophia of Jesus Christ—where he appears “not in his first form, but in the invisible spirit . . . like a great angel of light” (134:10-18, NHL 395; 91:8-13, NHL 209-210). In the Apocalypse of Peter, Jesus revealed himself to a meditating Peter saying, “ I am the intellectual Spirit filled with radiant light” (83:8-10, NHL 344). In one of the few Gnostic texts found before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, the Gospel of Mary, Jesus appears to an astonished Mary Magdalene who asks through which faculty she experiences his vision, to which he answered, through “the mind” (10:17-18, NHL 472).
Mary Magdalene’s vision of Jesus is doubted by the disciples—who complain repeatedly in the Gospel of Mary that Jesus shows her more affection than them. Mary is one of three disciples to receive “special teaching” in the Dialogue of the Savior, wherein Jesus asserts, “she spoke as a woman who knew the All” (139:12-13, NHL 235). The status of Mary Magdalene is a reflection of the esteemed role of women in general throughout the Gnostic tradition, which was another concern for orthodoxy. Tertullian, the first church Father to write in Latin some 200 AD, despised Gnostics and raged that their “heretical” and “audacious” women “are bold enough to teach, to engage in argument, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures, and, it may be, even to baptize!” (see Pagels 60). Not only were women honored and allowed to hold office, divinity was accorded feminine as well as masculine qualities. The Holy Spirit and Sophia (Wisdom) are regarded as feminine and God as both masculine and feminine in a number of Gnostic texts. For instance, the “Spirit” is “the Mother of many” according to the Gospel of Philip (59:35-60:1, NHL 136). In the Apocryphon of John, the divine vision of John’s calls herself “the one,” “the Father,” “the Mother,” and “the Son”(2:9-14, NHL 99). The feminine “Voice” in Trimorphic Protennioa refers to herself as Mother and Father, “the Invisible One with the All,” and “the Womb” (35:1-24, 45:2-10, NHL 461-462, 467). The divine feminine figure in the Apocalypse of Adam becomes “androgynous” in order to impregnate herself (81:2-9, NHL 262).
Perhaps the greatest threat to orthodoxy was the Gnostic refutation of church dogma and hierarchy. The Gnostic emphasis on personal experience, even in regards to the resurrection, relegated dogma to near irrelevance—which is why many church fathers called Gnostics “agents of Satan.” Tertullian indicted Gnostics as heretics and enemies to the apostles because they disregard tradition in favor of their own myths and perspectives. A second-century bishop, Iraneus is credited by Tertullian and others with “once and for all” distinguishing the Christ of orthodoxy from the heretical Gnostic views of Jesus. His five-volume Refutation and Overthrow of Falsely So-called Gnosis is a testament to the orthodox-Gnostic enmity. The animosity was shared very clearly in many Gnostic texts. As the risen Savior asserts in the Apocalypse of Peter, “those who are outside our number who name themselves bishop and also deacons, as if they have received their authority from God. They bend themselves under the judgment of the leaders. Those people are dry canals” (79:23-30, NHL 343). Jesus adds that those “blind ones” who “do not understand mystery speak of things which they do not understand, but they will boast that the mystery of the truth is theirs alone” (76:21-34, NHL 342). That mystery can only be experienced through gnosis, which imparts an awareness of the kingdom’s presence that—according to Gnostics—church leaders could not fathom, let alone provide. That is precisely what the second-century Gnostic poet, Valentinius, taught. A favorite target of Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others, Valentinius was followed by a school of authors that affirmed that the kingdom is not found through the church, but from within. As the Valentinian writer of the Gospel of Philip acclaims, those who experience the mystical resurrection “rise again through the image”—through gnosis here and now—“is no longer a Christian but a Christ” (3:10-25, NHL 140).
Of all Gnostic documents, the Gospel according to Thomas has had the most impact on contemporary theology. 114 sayings of Jesus that are free of apocalyptic influence, Thomas reveals a mystic Jesus who proclaims a divinity discoverable by all. Thomas’s Jesus is a sage who speaks in parables and aphorisms and sees God’s kingdom as pantheistic, inclusive, and here and now: “[The kingdom] will not come by expectation; they will not say: ‘See, here,’ or: ‘See, there.’ But the Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it” (99: 14-18) (a similar claim is found in Luke 17: 21 and the Gospel of Mary 8:16-19, NHL 472). Emphasizing a here and now experience, Jesus states, “[T]he Kingdom is within you and it is without you. If you know yourselves, then you will be known and will know that you are the sons of the Living Father” (80: 25- 274). Apparently free of bias based on age, sex, creed, nationality, and social rank, the kingdom transcends hierarchies, institutions, and the temple itself—as Jesus insinuates: “Cleave a (piece of) wood, I am there; lift up the stone and you find Me there” (43). Insisting that self-knowledge is a prerequisite to knowing the divine, Jesus consistently describes the way to the kingdom in symbolic, experiential terms. Sounding like a Taoist, he states, “When you make the two one, and when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as the below, and when you make the male and the female into a single one, so that the male will not be male and the female (not) be female . . . then shall you enter [the Kingdom]” (85: 25-31, 35).
Obviously, the Gnostic Jesus is anything but clear or complete. Even Thomas presents a quixotic Jesus, whose sayings are often perplexing and even contradictory. For instance, he calls for disciples to hate their father, mother, brethren, and sisters and “take up the cross in My way” (90: 25-29). He insists that he did not come to “throw peace upon the world” but “divisions upon the earth, fire, sword, war” (83: 32-36). Although he proclaims that the kingdom is open to women, Jesus adds that only those who make themselves “male”—thus, “a living spirit”—can enter. While a number of Gnostic texts affirm the orthodox view of Jesus as a celibate, many do not. The depiction of Jesus’ relationship with women is particularly unorthodox in a number of Gnostic texts—such as the Gospel of Mary. Unlike the asexual, even anti-sexual Jesus of the Bible, the disciples report that Jesus kisses Mary Magdalene “on the mouth” in public. In one very odd Gnostic myth—recorded by Epiphanius—he creates a woman from his ribs and has intercourse with her (see Hopkins, 323). Such a sexual Jesus resonates clearly with Dionysus and the fertility god’s rites and myths while further contrasting him from the orthodox version. It also suggests the disparity of Gnostic views. Inconsistencies withstanding, the Gnostic Jesus is a clear alternative to the traditional view.
The Demythologized Jesus
Despite centuries of debates involving Christ’s “true” nature and the creation of councils and creeds that identify one perspective as different and truer than other ones, Christian myth and theology have remained remarkably consistent. Even Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, while liberating the right to practice faith free from the dictates of the church hierarchy, did not change the myths or much of the theology. The telling challenges accompanied the success of scientific thinking. By the eighteenth century attempts to intellectualize the mythology of the Bible and Jesus became a scholarly enterprise for biblical theologians with university affiliations, particularly in Germany—where, as Schweitzer (1966) contended, “the critical investigation of Jesus was started and developed” (1). The process originated with Hermann Reimarus, whose 1778 essay, “The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples,” contested that the gospel writers’ depiction of Christ was a mythological fiction that had little to do with Jesus the person. He felt that Jesus, influenced by his Jewish nationalistic hopes, preached a kingdom of this world and that the disciples concocted the rest. The nineteenth-century biblical scholar David Friedrich Strauss distinguished between the historical and mythological Jesus as well as the mythopoeic imagination that characterized the writing of the Bible and the scientific thinking that discounted all literal interpretations of the myth. His Life of Jesus (1835) discerned the “unhistorical cycle of saga-like glorification” of Jesus, but, unlike Reimarus, Strauss felt that Jesus’ teachings were apocalyptic. However, he emphasized that mythic symbols and language hold universal truths that are separate from but as valid as empirical truths (see Kee, 1970, 8). Johannes Weiss agreed that Jesus spoke of an apocalyptic kingdom, but stressed that the mythologized Christ was no longer historically or scientifically tenable. Three of the most significant scholars in the origin and development of demythologizing Jesus, Reimarus, Strauss, and Weiss helped clarify the major issue in “the quest for the historical Jesus”—namely, how can we apprehend the life and teachings of Jesus as distinct from the orthodox version?
That quest, popularized by Albert Schweitzer, led to a reconsideration of Christian theology as well as myth. The first to survey the work of biblical scholars from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, Schweitzer concluded that Jesus regarded himself as an apocalyptic figure—a conclusion shared by many twentieth-century scholars who demythologized Christ. Convinced that the only historical fact we can know about Jesus is that he existed, Rudolph Bultmann, the most influential biblical scholar of the twentieth century, codified the so-called demythologizing process and agreed, admittedly influenced by Weiss, that Jesus' teachings had an eschatological focus. Bultmann also believed that scientific inquiry invalidated the religion’s apocalyptic bent and aimed the majority of his career at re-evaluating Jesus' message free from the “end times” context and mythology. Although he dismissed the quest of the historical Jesus as fruitless, Bultmann's hermenuetics laid much of the groundwork for analyzing ways in which Jesus’ teachings were or were not coherent with orthodox Christianity and how Jesus’ message would read apart from the gospels' mythology and the church's dogma. His approach and conclusions have been the center of much controversy, a lot of which owes to his methodology, existential worldview, and the fact that he was a preacher, theologian, and biblical scholar.
Bultmann’s self-acclaimed task was to make the Christian faith accessible and intelligible to the modern world. His reverence of the religion was obvious, but his rebuke of the three-tiered Christian universe—heaven, earth, and hell—was adamant. Opposed to the good and evil dichotomy and apocalyptic fervor that he felt dominated the theology, Bultmann emphasized an existential understanding of the human condition and directed his understanding of faith toward challenging and consoling the human spirit in relation to that condition. By reconsidering the legends and myths surrounding Jesus, Bultmann attested that the modern reader could still find the salvation that Christ offers, but not in the terms of a physical resurrection. The aim of demythologizing, he insisted, “is not to eliminate mythological statements but to interpret them” (18). And Bultmann (1971) insisted that the only way to interpret the resurrection is not as an event that happened two thousand years ago, but an experience here and now:
The “demythologized” sense of the Christian doctrine of incarnation, of the word that “was made flesh” is precisely this, that God manifests himself not merely as the idea of God—however true this idea may be—but as “my God” who speaks to me here and now, through a human mouth. . . . The “demythologized” sense of the assertion that Jesus Christ is the eschatological phenomenon that brings the world to its end is precisely this, that Christ is not merely a past phenomenon, but the ever-present word of God (70).
One of many critics, Karl Jaspers attacked Bultmann for having what he considered an inherent distrust of myth and unyielding faith in science. Their attempt at dialogue is captured in Myth and Christianity: An Inquiry into the Possibility of Religion without Myth (1971). What is most significant to the quest of an authentic Jesus is not what they disagreed about but two very important points on which they agreed. As Bultmann confirmed, they both believed “that a corpse cannot come back to life or rise from the grave, that there are no demons and no magic causality” and that the real question is how to interpret the myths and kerygma of Jesus with that knowledge (60). For his part, Jaspers conceded that, “despite its sharpness, our dispute is not as radical as that between good and evil. Our agreement in the face of the totalitarian threat means more than any difference between us” (116). In other words, the orthodox theology that mythologized Jesus and his teachings with the legends, myths, and layers of editing was—as Bultmann put it—“over and done with” (17).
Regardless of what one holds of Bultmann’s theology, his hermeneutics have been monumental in regards to identifying biblical sources. Not only has his work helped clarify the relationships between the New Testament and its independent sources—such as “Q” and Gnostic texts, his development of “form criticism” helped refocus biblical studies. A “school” of study of the history of literary forms, form criticism helps distinguish between the linguistic idioms, nuances, and phrases of various time periods in the oral and literary transmission of the New Testament as well as the diverse traditions involved in that transmission. As Howard Kee (1970) alleges, Bultmann’s form critical methods offer “an exhaustive analysis of the gospel tradition, classifying it by type, showing how it was modified in the process of transmission, and how the evangelists brought it together in such a way as to serve their own aims” (20). Gunther Bornkamm (1975), a pupil of Bultmann’s, agreed that the gospel tradition has forever hidden the historical Jesus and adulterated his words. But form criticism has given us methodically derived clues that distinguish between “the laws and forms of the pre-literary oral tradition” and those of miracle stories and chronological anecdotes. The task of future form critics, Bornkamm concluded, is to continue determining what styles of discourse, word use, polemics, and/or rhetoric relate to the various views—orthodox and alternative—of Jesus (218-19).
The Remythologized Jesus
Remythologizers are, at most, mildly concerned with biblical exegesis, and rarely engage in hermeneutics. Assuming that Jesus has been mythologized beyond possible recognition, they tend to regard Jesus teachings as non-apocalyptic. Composed of Romantics, clergy with interdisciplinary backgrounds, Jungian psychologists, ecofeminists, ecotheologians, and others, the tradition of remythologizing employs a metaphorical, dogma-free approach in interpreting Jesus’ life, myths, and teachings. An original remythologizer, Ralph Waldo Emerson preached an ecumenical Jesus who shared a pantheistic message. Emerson (1965) indicted institutional Christianity for perverting the truth expounded by Jesus—who recognized that "god incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World." The theological separation of “holy” spirit from “evil” matter has, Emerson insists, distorted Jesus’ understanding of God’s kingdom as being here and now. That kingdom is available to anyone willing to see into “the mystery of the soul” as Jesus did, “to expand to the full circle of the universe” and to practice “spontaneous love” (86-7). Along with vehemently separating the “true” and “gospel” Jesus, Friedrich Nietzsche (1988) interpreted the “Good News” as being “found—it is not promised, it is here, it is within you; as life lived in love, in love without deduction or exclusion, without distance. Everyone is the child of God—Jesus definitely claims nothing for himself alone—as a child of God everyone is equal to everyone else” (141). Paul Tillich understood Jesus’ teachings as mystically impelled and as projecting God’s kingdom as “the Ground of Being.” Similarly, Thomas Jefferson, Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and literally hundreds of other prominent thinkers have professed a Jesus of the global community who serves as the undying potential for self-realization and social transformation. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1964) used the terms “Cosmic Christ” and “Universal Christ” to describe what he saw as the Jesus incarnate in atoms, matter, and energy as well as humans:
Christ, as we know, fulfils Himself gradually through the ages in the sum of our individual endeavors. Why should we treat this fulfillment as though it possessed none but a metaphorical significance, confining it entirely within the abstract domain of purely supernatural action? Without the process of biological evolution, which produced the human brain, there would be no sanctified souls; and similarly, without the evolution of collective thought, through which alone the plenitude of human consciousness can be attained on earth, how can there be a consummated Christ? In other words, without the constant striving of every human cell to unite with all the others, would the Parousia be physically possible? I doubt it (22).
Carl Jung and Erich Neumann remythologized Jesus as a suffering savior archetype. Symbolizing the potential for transformation and psychic growth in all humans, Jesus' crucifixion represents the death of the ego and his resurrection represents the rebirth of the unconscious-integrated ego. Jung (1965) professed that unlike orthodoxy’s “imitated Christ” who implores followers “to imitate the way taken by Christ,” the archetypal Jesus encourages the follower to pursue his or her own “road to wholeness” (280). Neumann (1973) contended that “the mythologizing process” that “christianized” the hero figure not only depersonalized Jesus, it shifted the unconscious aspects of his myths and teaching “towards the human activity of the ego” (337). The archetypal savior/Jesus was popularized by, among others, Joseph Campbell, who argued that Christian liturgy demonizes darkness and encourages a literal interpretation of the myths of Jesus that distorts Christ’s archetypal meaning. Campbell (1974) professed that the morphology of the hero’s journey and message remain the same regardless of cultural setting and costume. He described the stages of the journey—the departure, initiation, and return—as stages of psychic transformation. The departure represents the hero’s refutation of the laws and mores of conventional culture, which for Jesus began shortly before embarking on his ministry. The initiation marks the hero’s entrance into the world of the unconscious, which is filled often with obstacles such as hypocrisy and temptation, deserts and demons, and even death. The return symbolizes the hero’s sharing of the revelation of the divine secret gained in the experience of the mysterious unconscious. Jesus shared his revelation in terms of unconditional love, childlike innocence, and an attainable God presence. Christ’s incarnation functions, Campbell (1981) contended, “as a mythological image transcending the popular notion of an absolute dichotomy of nature and spirit” (62). One of many savior archetypes, Jesus opens his divine mystery and universal message to anyone willing to make “the journey.”
Many contemporary ecofeminists and ecotheologians draw their own versions of an archetypal Jesus to infuse the Christian faith with nature-centered spirituality. Although certain ecofeminists of Christian backgrounds—such as Mary Daly and Carol Christ—reject the religion as intolerably patriarchal and oppressive to women, slaves, minorities, “foreigners,” and nature, many see a remythologized Bible, God, and Christ as a potential means of healing much that is ailing the contemporary world. Rosemary Radford Reuther (1994) invokes ecofeminist sensibilities as part of Christianity’s “new quest”: “The goal of this quest is earth healing, a healed relationship between men and women, between classes and nations, and between humans and the earth. Such healing is possible only through recognition and transformation of the way in which Western culture, enshrined in part in Christianity, has justified such domination” (1). As does Reuther, who seeks to balance the transcendent masculine “Father-in-heaven” concept with an immanent feminine one, such as Gaia, Sallie McFague (1987) attempts to reinterpret the notion of God as a powerful, transcendent monarch who uses Earth as a testing ground for the souls of human sojourners. Convinced that “Earth is part of God’s body,” McFague remythologizes Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection in a way that presents the planet as our sacred “home.” The incarnation symbolizes God’s self-manifestation in nature and the crucifixion signifies the abuse and suffering that God-as-nature is experiencing now. While sin in that context involves acts that oppress all living beings and ones that exploit and poison the environment, the resurrection represents God’s immanent presence in the cyclic, ever-changing ecosystem, which changes Christ’s role as a personal savior to a planetary one. Similarly, Riane Eisler (1988) sees Jesus as an archetypal savior and as “a gentle and compassionate young Jew” who “proclaimed the spiritual equality of all” (120):
By any criterion of excellence, the figure portrayed in the Bible displays an exceptionally high level of sensitivity and intelligence as well as the courage to stand up to established authority and, even at the risk of his life, speak out against cruelty, oppression, and greed. So it is not surprising that Jesus should have been aware that the “masculine” values of dominance, inequality, and conquest he could see all around him debasing and distorting human life must be replaced by a softer, more “feminine” set of values based on compassion, responsibility, and love (124).
Ecotheologians share that conviction. Certain that the quest for the historical Jesus is becoming the quest for the Cosmic Christ, Matthew Fox attacks the religion's patristic, redeemer-redeemed theology and supplants personal salvation with Jesus’ “original” mission, to heal through compassion and communion. “The Cosmic Christ allows us, invites us, indeed challenges us,” Fox (1988) concludes, “to overcome the destructive fear of nature that lies behind so much of the pathology and matricide of our time” (148). In terms similar to McFague’s, Fox remythologizes the crucifixion as the destruction of Mother Earth and the resurrection as the rebirth of a living cosmology that promotes her wellbeing. As does Fox, David Steindl-Rast (1992) considers revelation not as an act of intervention, but as God’s dynamic, ever-present manifestation. In such a context, salvation is not a future event, but a “here and now” process of God’s unending revelation. To create that awareness was Jesus’ mission. “Jesus wasn’t proselytizing,” Steindl-Rast (1992) insists, “he was liberating. He gave witness to the dignity of every single human being in the particular setting of his time and place. To do this remains the task of Christian mission” (78). That mission dictates, as Fox, Steindl-Rast, and many others insist, a new theological paradigm that is holistic and ecumenical, one that approaches the kingdom of God as integrating the kingdoms of plants, animals, and the planet and cosmos as a whole.
The Jesus Seminar
Established in 1985 by the Westar Institute and composed of over 200 past and present “Fellows” versed in biblical languages and New Testament studies, The Jesus Seminar has utilized and advanced the hermeneutics of demythologizers and constructed their own loosely framed picture of the remythologized Jesus. Meeting biannually to discuss and vote on issues relating to Jesus, the participants spent the first six years collecting and evaluating 1,500 of his sayings (taken mainly from the Q source, the synoptic gospels, and the Gospel according to Thomas). They divided the sayings into four groups: ones that assuredly belong to Jesus, probably do, probably do not, and definitely do not. Their findings were published in The Five Gospels (1993) and summarized in The Gospel of Jesus (1999). The clearest authentic words of Jesus according to the Fellows are found in his parables and aphorisms (which are completely absent in Paul and John). Jesus’ parables are a distinctive part of his voice, message, and personality. Always questioning and, at times, humorous, the parables are not intended to convert but to awaken, to show how simple, natural affairs such as fishing, sowing seeds, harvesting, baking bread, and the like can give insights into ways to live in accordance with God’s kingdom. The parables are also a primary means of Jesus’ revolt. As Bernard Scott (1997) imparts, they offer listeners “an openness to experience” and poetically depict a “counterworld” that distinguishes the Roman empire from God’s empire—one that can be alluded to but never pinned down (11). Lane McGaughy (1990) identifies a distinct pattern used by Jesus to show “there is something about the parable as a whole which is like the Kingdom of God.” Noting that “none of the parables is about a specifically religious topic,” McGaughy describes the pattern as beginning with an event drawn from daily life that leads to a narrative “twist” that is quite unbelievable and ends with an expected conclusion that carries a new perspective. Without defining the kingdom but distinguishing it from the apocalyptic one, Jesus reveals a glimpse of a “new, but not fully defined, vision of reality” (10).
“The Good Samaritan” (a title coined by Martin Luther) is one of McGaughy’s examples. The parable, which occurs only in Luke and is regarded as highly authentic by the Fellows, begins with a poor man who, walking a dangerous road, is mugged and beaten. The twist begins with the priest who, considered righteous by Jesus’ target audience, unexpectedly moves to the other side of the road to avoid the victim. So does the levite. It could be anticipated that a Jewish layperson would be next, but the Samaritan, who would be despised and even “hated” by many of Jesus’ listeners, is struck with compassion and helps the victim by oiling his wounds, bringing him to an inn, and paying for his amenities. The parable ends with Jesus asking whom of the three acts as a neighbor to the victim. The answer, though rhetorical, forces the listener to confront unfamiliar territory, consciously or unconsciously, such as what is considered good in a universal and not merely in a comfortable, socially expectable context. John Dominic Crossan (1992) regards the Good Samaritan as one of many of Jesus’ “parables of reversal.” Besides offering a clear moral, parables such as the Good Samaritan flip social conventions and invite an experience of “the mystery of the Kingdom’s advent” (53). What the Samaritan did was good in any context, but the twist on the social presuppositions that the parable subtly presents fosters a re-examination of any perspective that is not universal. In Crossan’s words,
The metaphorical point is that just so does the Kingdom of God break abruptly into human consciousness and demand the overturn of prior values, closed options, set judgments, and established conclusions. But the force of the parabolic challenge is that the just so of the metaphorical level is not ontologically distinct from the presence of the literal point. The hearer struggling with the contradictory dualism of Good/Samaritan is actually experiencing in and through this the inbreaking of the Kingdom (64).
Crossan considers the parable of the “Dutiful Son” and the “Prodigal Son” as “reversal” figures that parallel the “Samaritan” and the “priest and levite.” The parable is presented in halves, the first revealing the literal meaning that any father should forgive and receive his repentant son—as the preceding Lukan parables about the “lost coin” and the “lost sheep” make clear. The other half concerns the dutiful son who cannot fathom that his father would honor his errant brother. Like Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, and Joseph and his brothers, the sons are depicted as rival siblings. The terms of justice presented to the elder son were “unfair” from the social, good-and-evil perspective that Jesus was subtly attacking. As he does consistently, Jesus emphasizes that no one is exempt from divine grace and love. The story ends without saying whether or not the dutiful son, whose father beseeched him to come inside with the proclamation that “what is mine is yours,” actually goes inside. The ambiguous end is purposeful for it is left to the listener to determine what he or she would do—again, engaging the actualization of the kingdom, which one, like the dutiful son, is called upon to either reject or accept. There are no favored or chosen people in that kingdom for everyone is invited. As Crossan demonstrates, parables involving the “Rich Man” and “Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31), the “Pharisee” and the “Publican” (Luke 18:10-14), the “First-seated” and the “Last-seated” (Luke 14:7-11), and the “Invited Guests” and the “Uninvited Guests” (Luke 14:16-24; Matt. 22:1-10; and Thomas 64) all contain reversals that exemplify “the challenge the Kingdom brings to the complacent normalcy of one’s accepted world” (74).
Many of Jesus’ aphorisms or “one-liners” share similar revealing twists that mark his teachings. To “turn the other cheek” after being hit, to give your shirt to the one who takes your coat, and to walk an extra mile if being conscripted to go for one mile are demands meant to counteract natural human inclinations with unconditional compassion (see Matt 5:38-41; Luke 6:29). To love one’s enemies is more difficult than loving those who love you and, hence, more commendable (see Luke 6: 34-35; Matt. 5:44-46; Thomas 54). The fact that God causes the sun to rise on the good and the bad and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust demonstrates divine love is not a matter of reward but a constant state of God’s grace (see Matt. 5:45). The beatitudes also share reversals that indicate the advent of God’s kingdom: the last shall become first, the hungry will feast, the sad will be happy, and the poor will receive God’s domain (see Luke 6:20-26; Matt.5:3-12; Thomas 68:1-2, 69:1). But that advent, as the Fellows testify time and again, is non-apocalyptic. As McGaughy explains, Jesus offers parables and aphorisms “as gateways to the kingdom of God rather than mythical descriptions of the future” (25).
Following the analysis of Jesus’ teachings, the Fellows spent the next five years collecting and reviewing 387 reports of 176 events regarding Jesus, which they published in 1997 as The Acts of Jesus. Admitting that the closest they could come to an historical fact regarding Jesus is that he existed, the Fellows drew from the few “stories that probably preserve distant historical memories” to create fragments of a picture that can only be speculatively put together. The Fellows agree that Jesus was born in Nazareth (the manger birth in Bethlehem was determined to be a later Christian fiction) around the time of King Herod’s death, about 4 B.C. Jesus probably had four brothers and more than one sister; Mary was his mother and his biological father might have been Joseph. He was probably a disciple of John the Baptist but returned to Galilee to start his own social program as an itinerant sage, perhaps near the age of thirty. He probably preached in synagogues but spent most of his mission, that lasted one to three years, traveling to various rural communities where he would eat, drink, and celebrate after healing, sharing his message, and/or exorcising what were probably considered demons. His miracles, such as walking on water, raising the dead, and turning water into wine were later legends. He probably spoke a dialect of Aramaic and was proficient in Greek, though he might not have learned to read and write. He was considered a social deviant because he consorted openly with outcasts and infringed on certain codes of kosher and laws regarding the Sabbath. Jesus prayed in seclusion and had disciples and followers such as Peter and Mary of Magdala. Although most of the passion narrative was invented later, he was arrested in Jerusalem and most likely flogged before being crucified by the Romans before the end of the procurator Pontius Pilate’s rein, 36 A.D. The empty tomb is considered a fiction and the belief in the resurrection belongs to the proselytized visions of Mary, Peter, and, most significantly, Paul.
Now in the third phase, the Fellows are creating their own profiles of Jesus. The three that have received the most notoriety are from Robert Funk, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan. Funk founded the seminar and in his 1991 profile summarizes what he sees as the seminar’s quest: “to set Jesus free from the scriptural and experiential prisons in which we have incarcerated him.” Funk views Jesus as an uneducated but self-realized person who, unlike John the Baptist, refuted a cosmic holocaust and “thought God’s kingdom was arriving unnoticed.” A visionary, sage, humorist, avid drinker, and “an iconoclastic Jewish poet who spoke three languages: Aramaic, Greek and parable,” “Jesus practiced and advocated an unbrokered relationship to God: for him temple and priests were redundant.” Funk believes that “the pale, anemic, iconic Jesus” of the Bible “suffers by comparison with the stark realism of the genuine article.” He considers Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom as being completely inclusive. However, by exchanging “the vision for the visionary,” Jesus’ followers “turned the iconoclast into an icon,” supplanted the inner kingdom for a futuristic eschatology, and confused Jesus’ integrity and compassion with a “blood sacrifice” (17-20).
Borg (1994) focuses on Jesus as an “ecstatic religious type because it seems foundational to what else is in the traditions about him, as healer, wisdom teacher, social prophet, and movement initiator” (14). Borg contends that because of Jesus’ ability to enter into mystical states of consciousness he was able see what most people cannot, most pronouncedly “the Kingdom of God as spread out upon the earth” (12). That ability, cultivated by years of contemplation, prayer, and meditation, accounts not just for Jesus’ visions and wisdom, but his success as an ecstatic healer (particularly of psychosomatic disorders, including so-called exorcisms). Borg believes that Jesus was trained in organic medicine and not only healed illness but probably cured diseases. As a wisdom teacher, Jesus taught in parables and aphorisms because they offered him a way, without preaching, to invite listeners into God’s kingdom here and now. Similarly, Crossan (1994) deems Jesus’ “ecstatic vision” of God’s kingdom as giving rise to a “social program” that “sought to rebuild a society upward from its grass roots.” Based “on principles of religious and economic egalitarianism, with free healing brought directly to the peasant homes and free sharing of whatever they had in return,” the Mediterranean Jewish peasant spread his vision door to door in the villages of lower Galilee (196). Unlike Paul who spread Christianity along trade routes in and between urban centers, Jesus visited rural villages and brought “a miracle and a kingdom” to those who offered him and his disciples “a table and a house.”
Despite an identifiable sense of solidarity, the Fellows have admittedly reached convergence on only a few issues, let alone pronouncing a once-and-for-all Jesus. But there seems to be consensus that, as Crossan (1994) summarizes, “there will always be divergent historical Jesuses” and the best that Christianity can do is, “generation after generation, make its best historical judgment about who Jesus was then and, on that basis, decide what that reconstruction means as Christ now” (200).
Each depiction of Jesus that I have briefly discussed here belies the convictions and agendas of its adherents. Nevertheless, by nearly all accounts—ancient as well as contemporary, Jesus emanated a compassionate, nonviolent nature. He appears to have taught that we should love unconditionally, forgive persecutors, not judge others, not fear death, and lead a moral life. He likely engaged in ecstatic practices and taught followers to find ways to experience God not as text or creed but as a presence—one conveyed by mystics in all religious traditions. But how much of that or any Jesus is myth, legend, and polemics? What if Jesus’ understanding of his own mission evolved along with his words and acts? What if he didn’t see himself as even having a mission, particularly a divine one? What if his message was not concerned with a kingdom of any kind? While convictions run rampant, little is certain. What is clear, however, is that much of Jesus’ mythology and purported teachings belong to an amalgamation of ancient ideas, stories, and testimony, much of which has little to do with the contemporary world. The Jewish messianic expectation, the savior gods of the divine mysteries, and the Christology of Paul, Augustine, and Aquinas helped create and sustain a mythologized Jesus. While neither demythologizing nor remythologizing Jesus has made his life or teachings any more “factual,” both disciplines have underscored convincingly that Jesus was not sent here as a sacrifice to conquer evil in a cosmic war decreed by God and the Devil. That mythology, used to separate “believers” from those damned to eternal torment, is not only bankrupt, it is harmful. For Christianity to retain social and moral relevance, Jesus' myths and message need to be—and are being—re-envisioned. I cannot foresee what that re-visioning will bring or imagine the mainstream impact it may have, but I hope it emphasizes Jesus’ teachings of love and forgiveness and releases the apocalyptic Christ.
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