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The Story of Jesus



What follows is historical, as far as I can tell. It contains no statements of faith, presupposes no belief in anything Jesus-y, and attempts to do nothing other than tell the story of what actually happened.


Jesus did die on a cross, but not to save us from our sins. He did rise from the dead, but not by walking out of an empty tomb. He did not perform miracles, but he did heal peoples’ psychological wounds inflicted by massive oppression. His story got twisted.

The Story of Jesus

1. Where the Story Begins
I am neither a biblical scholar nor an expert on first-century Christianity, but I have the feeling that for 2000 years Jesus has been muted, if not kidnapped and imprisoned by people of wealth and power, and that it started right in the first-century church. Ever since taking my first college course in religion, I have known, so aptly put in Porgy and Bess, “The things you are liable, to read in the Bible, they ain’t necessarily so.” But what I have only recently come to realize is that the history of first-century Christianity reads like a giant who-dun-it, a detective story, yes, even a murder mystery. 

We might be inclined to think that the narrative begins with a babe in a manger, followed by the rest of the story. In actuality, the story begins when a few men and women were so impressed by Jesus that they became members of an extended family that he was gathering. Had they not been personally changed by him, Jesus would have been just another person lost to the dustbin of history, a fact that is difficult for many people to accept. It may be the case that Jesus was a child prodigy who confounded scholars when he was only 12 years old, or that eastern philosophers followed a star to his manger-turned-crib, but we have to recognize that these episodes are creations of the later church who wanted to make Jesus bigger than life. 

The first of Jesus’ disciples were, with Jesus, disciples of John the Baptist. John was a radical preacher who, as a sign of a new repentant life, dunked attendees in the River Jordan. He did not promote rebellion, but the crowds who came to hear him were always incitable, and the government kept a close eye on him lest matters get out of hand. Jesus was there, and was dunked by John. Something happened to Jesus while he was with John, the clue being, not that a voice boomed out of the sky at the baptism, but that Jesus left John to head out on his own, and a couple of his friends went with him. We don’t know why they left. Maybe John was too conservative when it became a matter of fighting oppression and creating that long-anticipated Kingdom of God in the here and now. Maybe John was too successfully rooted in preaching to the crowds that flocked to him, whereas Jesus was more interested in an itinerant lifestyle. We just don’t know what went on in Jesus’ mind. What we do know, however, is that this is where the story begins. Had his charisma not impacted anyone, including those disciples of John, we wouldn’t be talking about him today. It was those encounters that led to oral reports about him, that in turn led to written reports that led to the collections we call  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. No encounters, no New Testament.

2. The End of the Story
If that’s when the story of Jesus began, when did it end? It wasn’t that long ago when I was shocked to realize that where the infant church wound up at the end of the first century was pretty much diametrically opposed to what Jesus had in mind. We have yet to describe what Jesus said and did, and yet to unravel the story about how the church ended up where it did, but sometimes knowing the ending helps to understand the process of how we got there. It was finally discovering the ending that prompted me to ask how such an outcome was possible. How could such a drastic change take place? I have quoted the following selections in other essays, but the shock value of repetition here is a good thing. Remember, Jesus started out preaching love for all and gathered a family of disciples who cared for and shared with one another a style of life that challenged the current system of patriarchy and patronage that enabled the rich and powerful to steal from the poor. Fasten your seatbelts. The words that follow are from the later books of the Bible.

1. From the First Epistle of Timothy, written between 90 and 140. 

-First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, . 1 Timothy 2:1 

…women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. 1Tim 2:8ff 

-The saying is sure: If anyone aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil; moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, or he may fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. 1Tim 3:1ff 

-Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor… 1 Tim 6:1 ff 

2. From the Epistle to the Colossians, falsely attributed to Paul, written late 1st century. < -Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands…
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything…3:22ff 

3. From the Epistle to the Ephesians, falsely attributed to Paul, written 70-80.  

…let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.  5:22ff 

-Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; 6:5f 

4. From the book of Titus, written between the end of the 1st c and the end of the 2nd. 

…train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands… 2:1ff
-Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient…3:1 

5. From the First Epistle of Peter, written between 80 and 96. 

-Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him  2:13

-Fear God. Honor the emperor. 1 Peter 2:13 ff 

These changes in the early church did not occur in a vacuum. There was a Jewish peasant revolt that lasted from 66-70 CE, ending with the legions of Rome totally devastating Jerusalem and, thereby, most of Judaea. In such an atmosphere, it became dangerous to criticize Rome and its lackeys. But the question remains: did these injunctions about women and slaves and government arise out of a fear of Rome, or had something else previously been going on in the early churches? And even if the situation was dangerous, it was no more dangerous than it had been while Jesus was alive. Something had happened in and to the church that led to these injunctions. We can’t blame the change in the church on the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. We have to dig deeper.

3. Women Disciples 
We don’t have to dig too deep to know that women were equal and essential members of Jesus’ gathered family. There are some dimensions of the community that will take some sleuthing, but not this. We have the names of half a dozen women disciples, “and the others,” some of whom financially supported the peripatetic band, and there are indications that they were the first to come to believe in a resurrected Lord. On top of that, women church leaders figure prominently in Paul’s letters to the various churches. Today we think there were twelve male disciples who represented the twelve tribes of Israel, and to whom were given the “Great Commission” to go and tell the world about Jesus. This view is based on the gospels, the earliest of which, Mark, was written about 70 CE. We must remember that the gospels were compiled from different sources originating in different oral accounts. Nevertheless, it is incredible that one and the same document, all four gospels actually, could say in one breath that Jesus had many women disciples-naming half of them-, and with the other say that there were twelve males who were the “real” disciples. Come on. Something happened to create this turnaround. And what might that be? This is as good a point as any to draw back the curtain and uncover those lurking in the hidden background. And…voila! Who are they but the same forces that crucified Jesus. Those responsible for the death of Jesus are the same as those who refused to acknowledge that women were equal to men in the new movement started by Jesus. What’s the connection? How do we know this?

4. The Social Context
We have to remember what life was like in the time of Jesus. There is an excellent 2016 essay, “Poverty in the first century Galilee,” that provides a wealth of information about the situation not only in Galilee but throughout the Roman empire. The long and short of it is that the vast majority of people were peasant farmers, subsisting at or below the poverty level. Inequality was the social basis of empire, owner over slave, husband over wife, patron over client. Status and wealth were achieved through connections with those above you in the patronage system. You do the king or emperor a favor, and you are rewarded with land holdings or a position. It would take only one bad crop for a farmer to be unable to pay the threefold tax, due to the emperor, the king, and the temple. Forced to borrow from the usurious wealthy urban elite at exorbitant rates of interest, it was a slippery slope from farming your own land to indentured servitude, banditry, or begging. The rich and powerful oppressed the poor majority. It’s as simple as that.

What does this have to do with women? and Jesus? The answer, it seems to me, is that the maintenance of the peasant family and household was key to the functioning of the system, and maintaining the household was the function of the wife and mother. This may seem a bit far-fetched, but the demographic news out of China [and a bunch of European and Asian countries] clearly illustrates that barring more slaves, peasants having babies is essential to the continued wealth of those in power. It is projected that the population of China will be cut in half in this century and that reverberations will be felt around the world. Chinese women refusing to have babies is an economic earthquake.

Now along comes Jesus inviting women, as well as men, to join his movement, a large extended family wherein everyone felt they had discovered a new way to live and wanted to share it with others. Not only so, but they literally shared what they had and cared for one another. And so Jesus encouraged women to be, not keystones to the family and household, but Women Missionaries! No, no! Be modest, stay home, and have babies, say those various voices in the later New Testament. Why? Because that is key to the economic system whereby the rich and powerful retain their wealth and power. Of course, the wealthy of Jesus’ time would not say that. They would appeal to the insecurity of the male of the species. A peasant woman speaking in the marketplace? Outrageous. The Way suggested by Jesus was subversive, not so much of government, but of economy, and therefore also of government. The Kingdom of God that he preached was a society founded on love and equality, not oppression, and his inclusion of women was a bold signal of what a new economy entailed.

Have we gone too far? I don’t think so. And what becomes clearer is the connection between the subjugation of women in the church of the later first century [and today] and the crucifixion of Jesus. The events come into focus. They both grew out of the rich and powerful responding to a threat to their monied position. 

Critics will argue that Jesus had only twelve disciples, and they were all men. Peter was number one and they were commissioned to expand the church. And they will argue that the proper role of women is indeed to have babies and keep the house. Just like in the later first-century church. 

[Even today in America there is a group of fundamentalists called Quiverful who believe exactly that. And, of course, there’s the Catholic church, historically in the US, encouraging families to have lots of children. Why? What other explanation than to increase the economic and political power of the institution. Although we have not the time here, we might ask: why does the church oppose abortion and contraception? Why did a US Supreme Court, filled with conservative Catholics, overturn Roe? Why is the role of priest reserved for males?]

5. The Rich and Powerful React in Other Ways
We don’t know the size of the crowds that were attracted to Jesus. Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan believes that Pilate, a not-nice governor, had issued standing orders that his troops arrest and crucify anyone who seemed like a troublemaker. It was Passover, a festival that reminded the people of escape from Pharaoh and Egypt, and in addition to the indigenous population, brought perhaps 100,000 pilgrims [estimates differ]  to Jerusalem, many of them intent on fomenting revolt against Rome. We can, therefore, assume that Jesus had a sufficient number of followers, such that he was arrested and crucified before he even entered the city. This would mean that the whole in-town scenario [interrogation by Pilate, the crown of thorns, the last supper, etc.] was fabricated at a later time. The question then arises: who created this drama, and to what end? We’ll get to that, but first, we should remind ourselves that, as far as we know, Jesus never criticized Rome or any of the government officials. What he did do was to show people a new way to live in a community of love. People today are wont to speak of the teaching of Jesus as his main influence, but his followers were not swayed by what he taught, although that was certainly part of the attraction. There was also his charisma, which we’ll look at in a bit. Combining teaching, charisma, and loving community, Jesus offered folks an alternative to the desperation of their current life. He offered new life, both spiritually and economically. 

So what would you do if somebody was threatening your ill-gotten wealth? Clearly, crucify him if that was an option. Stop the movement before it spreads. It had worked with the Baptist. And so they tried the same with Jesus. Don’t even allow him into the city. But the movement did not stop. It grew. And here we enter another chapter of the story: how the rich and powerful decided to infiltrate and commandeer the movement, both by creating an organization of leadership that they could control and by changing the whole storyline. A two-pronged attack, if you will.

That’s a rather bold statement, that the church wound up so ultra-conservative at the end of the first century because the wealthy made it happen. An alternative explanation could be that the fall of Jerusalem caused the church to change the perception of Jesus from a revolutionary to a reactionary, an idea we rejected earlier. Or maybe as the older and original family of disciples died off, the new converts simply did not appreciate the radical message of their Founder. Or maybe the wealthy did have a scheme. The reason I am attracted to this last explanation is because modern studies have shown that the wealthy do not easily give up their wealth, and Jesus was a threat. 

Accumulation of money is addictive. As the riches grow, dopamine levels rise, just as surely as if you were on drugs. As wealth increases, so also does the sense of entitlement. Because I am rich and powerful, I have rights that others less wealthy do not have. And because “others” are clearly “less,” those with wealth are much less apt to be sympathetic with the less fortunate. These are not statements drawn out of a hat. They are realities proven in a lab. Addicted, entitled, apathetic. Would people such as these try to actively destroy a threat to their wealth and power? I do believe they would.

6. A New Narrative Replaces the Original
So it was the rich and powerful who dreamt up the story of Jesus’ last days prior to crucifixion, and that includes a lot – arrival in Jerusalem, last supper, trial. But why? for what purpose? Why create this whole drama ending in crucifixion? Because he was leading a revolutionary movement. That’s why. His movement appealed to the peasantry, touching a nerve with them, and therefore posed a threat that had to be crushed. The new theological model promulgated by the elite leaves behind any connection to the actual economic/political circumstances, and instead portrays Jesus as an innocent sufferer, sent by God, foretold by the prophets, and coming again in the future to gather those who believe. We don’t know when this transition took place, but inasmuch as the story appears in the gospels, it certainly was circulating before they achieved their final form. 

We might ask what the wealthy were thinking when they connected the crucifixion to being saved from one’s sins. What is the logic? There is no logic. What the wealthy knew then, as the wealthy know today, is that the down and out who turn to religion don’t want logical analysis, they just want to be saved!  Even to this day, the Christian church has no universal understanding of what the connection is between the cross and salvation. Maybe because there is no connection, and the death of Jesus was a political act. Well, that sounds like heresy! Jesus did not die for your sins! The truth is that the death of Jesus was historically tied to his leadership of a peaceful but economically dangerous movement. The wealthy took that away and substituted a personal Jesus whose death was supposedly salvation from your sins. Is it any wonder that that story, set forth by the rich and powerful, would make no sense? In fact, the Christian Writings [aka New Testament] provide ample evidence that the disciples themselves saw no salvific purpose in the death of Jesus. What it did do was compel them to turn to one another, and that made all the difference. 

7. Q and Thomas, Early Church Communities with No Passion Story<
There is not one biblical story about Jesus, there are four. We call them Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, but it’s not as if these guys decided one day to sit down and write a story out of the blue. They had prior documents and oral stories that they separately and individually put together to create their own narrative. Among the four, Mark was written first, about 70 CE. If you place Luke and Matthew side by side, you discover that they have a lot of material in common, almost verbatim, and that material falls into two groups. One group includes most of the gospel of Mark. That is to say, when Luke and Matthew sat down to write their gospels at different times and places, they each had a copy of Mark in front of them that they used as the basis of their story.

The other group of materials was comprised of sayings of Jesus rather than an outline of his life, which had been supplied by Mark. The parallels between Luke and Matthew -that are not Mark- are so striking that one has to conclude that there was another written document that they both had when they sat down to write their own gospel story. Not everyone believes that such a document existed, but the evidence to me is totally convincing. The name given to this document is Q, and it has nothing to do with current conspiracies. So, when Luke and Matthew wrote their Jesus stories, they had Mark and Q in front of them, documents that arose out of two distinct communities of believers. There was a Mark group of Jesus followers, and there was a Q group of Jesus followers.

Now for the really interesting part. Q has no reference at all to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Here we have a community of Jesus followers who know nothing at all about the end of Jesus’ life. 

There may have been another such community. These four [Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John] are not the only Jesus stories. They are the ones that, one way or another, made it into the New Testament, but there are others, lots of others. There is one in particular, however, that scholars believe is equally as important as the canonical books, and that is the gospel of Thomas. Some scholars date Thomas as early as 60 CE. Why is this important? Because here, as in Q, there is no reference at all to the death of Jesus about 30 CE and the resurrection of Jesus. If Thomas is contemporaneous with Q, then there are at least two groups of followers in the early church who believed that they had found new life while Jesus was still alive, a new life that had nothing to do with his death. 

8 . Stayers and Movers-on Disciples
I would go even further. Not everyone who was encountered by Jesus joined his gathered family and stayed with them. Some believed they had found new life, got excited about it, and moved on to share what they considered extraordinarily good news. The early disciples, therefore, included two groups, stayers and movers-on. Those who moved on eventually formed the communities that have given us Q and perhaps Thomas and most likely formed other communities of which we have no record. The stayers were horrified when the crucifixion took place, but as they turned to one another, they realized anew that the motivating force was the charisma, the teaching, and the community of Jesus, a force that moved outward from the center and continued to spread and grow. They would not allow the excitement they had discovered in Jesus to be extinguished by his death. 

9. The Meaning of Resurrection
The crucifixion could not kill the Spirit of Jesus that continued to inspire the community. All the disciples, stayers and movers-on, were convinced that the power of God had shown them a new way, and this inspiration could not be quashed, not even by crucifixion. No doubt, news of Jesus’ death eventually caught up with those who had moved on, but neither they nor the stayers lost the Spirit. They really believed that Jesus, though dead, was alive again, and this belief was manifest in their carrying on the revolution. The resurrection of Jesus was embodied in the movement, and it was real. Much, much more than a body walking out of a tomb. They saw it as a victory over death.

And now we are brought back to our earlier question about why the rich and powerful created the story of Jesus’ last week. As we can see now, it involved much more than a prelude consisting of a trial and a crown of thorns. It included a total revision of events. Jesus’ death was not to be seen as the act of the wealthy putting down a movement. It was God’s plan of salvation. The resurrection of Jesus was not the Spirit of God leading a down-to-earth movement of peace and love. It was Jesus walking out of a tomb, rising up into the heavens, and then coming at some future date to gather the faithful. There is nothing in this scenario about creating a social order of love, peace, and justice. There is nothing that would challenge the wealth and power of the very few. 

10. The Messiah
The death and new life of Jesus, although central, was not the only theological takeover. The idea of a Messiah was integral to Hebrew theology and was prevalent in Jesus’ times, although it included a variety of concepts. The Messiah was to be a man in the lineage of David, sent by God, who would expel foreigners from the land of Israel, rebuild the Temple, and, some future day, usher in a time of peace for all humankind. Many had claimed to be this messiah, promising to run the Romans out of the holy land. Of course, they were all crucified. 

Jesus also had been crucified. He hadn’t directly threatened Rome, but the aristocracy could not allow his followers to take up where he left off and start a rebellion. We have already seen how they recast the death and resurrection, but now we need also see how they chose to focus on the future role of the messiah as opposed to the present. Jesus was not concerned with justice in the here and now, the Kingdom he sought was in the future, when he would return. Say no more. The rich and powerful directed the role of messiah into the someday future that would never come, so that for now, they could continue their oppression of the peasantry. I remember as a kid in Sunday School hearing about how Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that the Jews expected, that is, one who would drive out the Romans. He was something else, in the future. Nobody ever told us that he was against the oppression of the poor, today, the other role of the messiah. 

The Greek word for messiah is christos, anglicized to christ, used as both a name and a title. The family gathered by Jesus believed that the new age had come, not finished, not fulfilled, but begun- in him and in them. It was the wealthy that pushed it off into a never-to-arrive future.

11. Holy Communion
Call it the mass, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, whatever, but its place in the earliest church is subject to question. Apparently, there were two common meals celebrated by the early church. One, styled no doubt after meals that Jesus and his gathered family shared, was a meal wherein those who had, shared with those who did not. It didn’t always work out. Paul wrote a couple of letters to the small church he had founded in the maritime city of Corinth, comprised of rich and poor alike, where the rich ate and drank to their fill while the poor went hungry. Not what Paul-and  Jesus- had in mind, and so Paul scolds the wealthy. But in that scolding he alludes to the Lord’s Supper.

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for[f] you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” 

It seems as though when the early communities got together, there were two types of meal going on, the common meal and the proto-sacramental bread and wine. These meals arose between the crucifixion and the writing of Paul’s letter in 55CE. Sometime between then and the end of the century, the two were separated. One might add that it certainly appears from Paul’s letter that the two had already been separated, at least in spirit, before he wrote his scathing attack on the wealthy. I would guess that it was not the poor who separated the common meal from the commemoration of the Last Supper, but the rich who had been convinced by Paul to join the church. The ones who really did not want to share. Who ate their fill and became inebriated before the poor even showed up. I suppose it could have gone either way, keep the common meal, or keep the remembrance. The latter cost nothing and required no sharing. One way or another, the wealthy managed to steer the church toward the sacrament, wherein an individual became one with the crucified Lord, and away from communal sharing, wherein people actually shared.

12. Infiltrating the Organization
Transforming its theology to undermine the movement was not the only tactic that the aristocracy utilized to stop the Jesus movement. They also transformed the structure of organization to benefit their interests. 

Whatever structure there was in that earliest group of 25 disciples, it was replaced by a system based on priests and bishops. These select few organized the various groups, meted out discipline, and, perhaps most importantly, assuming they were literate, were the interpreters of the story of Israel and of Jesus. I say story because there was no canon, no gospels, and Paul’s letters were still just letters. But each location had its collection of reports about Jesus, copies of his words and deeds, and to be able to tell and interpret those sources to the 97% illiterate imbued the clergy with great power in the fledgling churches.

But I wonder: why did the various groups not develop after the model offered by Jesus and his gathered family? Small groups of people who came together, sharing with and caring for one another, inspired by what they believed to be the Spirit of a living Lord? Sometimes a whole household became followers of Jesus, perhaps inviting neighbors to gather with them. Why would they need a priest or bishop? Despite reports that 5000 came to believe at once, the truth must be that the Way grew organically and slowly, not a wildfire, but scattered sparks that ignited the growth. Indeed, where would priests and bishops fall in this type of community? Centralization of power and, therefore, of wealth, is key to the maintenance of an elite, and growth of the Christian movement after the model of Jesus was uncontrollable. There was no way to keep it in check without it having a centralized organization. I don’t know precisely how professional clergy entered the picture, but I do know that they fit nicely into the scheme of the wealthy.

[A short side note: The Amish of western PA that I knew years ago followed the pattern of growth modeled by Jesus. Amish members in a given neighborhood gathered weekly or bi-weekly for a day of worship, food, frolic, and fellowship. And of course, a sermon or two. One man was elected leader for a term. When the group becomes too large, they split off a new group. And each small community set its own rules and expectations. From what I could tell, it worked just fine.]

13. Charisma
The power of Jesus to inspire followers is the essence of his story. Without that appeal, there would be nothing. So we need to ask: what was it? I remember years ago pondering that question for three days. What was there about him that caused such a stir and led some to follow? There are those who argue that people were impressed by his miracles. I don’t think so. The nature miracles, like walking on water, turning water into wine, raising the dead, etc., are a clear violation of scientific possibility. Additionally and more importantly, the stories were never intended to be taken literally. 

Also in the miracle category are healings and exorcisms. What sense are we to make of them? There is no doubt that living under an oppressive regime can distort and destroy a person psychologically, and I do believe that there was something about Jesus that could heal the broken. Inasmuch as a human is a psychosomatic unity, it seems quite plausible that Jesus could restore a healthy unity. The question remains, however, what was it about him? 

Here, of necessity, we have to move beyond pure history and entertain a bit of speculation. I am convinced that when Jesus encountered a person, that person could sense in him who they really were and could now become. That’s a strange sentence, mixing tenses of verbs, as it does. But people could see in him what it meant to be a fully human loving being and were inspired and empowered to become that in their own life. Jesus was challenging them to become themself.

Can we be more specific in describing that fully human self? I think we can. And in so doing, we come to understand how Jesus impacted people and why they chose to follow him. There are four general characteristics of human life that are relevant here. I have often spoken of them elsewhere and will here offer just a summary.

a. Humans are egocentric. We develop a perspective in life and color everything through that perspective, seeing what we are predisposed to see. 

b. Humans search for meaning in life. Locked in our egocentricity, cut off from unadulterated encounter with the world, we feel a void, a longing, an emptiness, and we seek to fill it.

c. On occasion, we experience a moment when we are set free from our egocentricity and thereby enabled to genuinely be in open relation with the other, be it nature or a person. The moment can be fleeting, or it can last a bit, but it does leave, and we wait for the next.

d. We are social beings. We blossom with others who are respectful and kind. They help set us free from our egocentricity. They support our search and uplift our spirit. If the covid pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we can’t live in isolation.

You might guess now what I am about to suggest concerning the charisma of Jesus. He was not egocentric and was instead able to fully understand and relate to those whom he met without imposing his own perspective. As a consequence, everything had ultimate meaning for him. There was no void, no search. Put otherwise, each and every time for Jesus was a moment of loving contact with all that surrounded him, persons and nature alike. Lastly, tying it all together, he was in community with everyone and everything. Community does not mean that you lose your individual identity, but it does mean that your ego never stands between you and others. As such a person, it seems to me that people were able to see in Jesus who they really were and could become. 

But the disciples’ faith in Jesus doesn’t end there. This is again from a purely historical perspective. They believed that the new life experienced through Jesus could not be overcome by destruction and death. That is a huge statement. Though crucified, the faith permeated the movement that Jesus lived again, not to be understood as walking out of a tomb, but as the motivating force leading the movement forward, a living spirit/force that transcends our ability to understand. The shorthand was: “He is risen.” Extrapolating, this faith meant for them that the forces of evil manifest at the crucifixion were overcome, and that divine love is the essence of all that is. Again, a major statement. The power manifest in Jesus pointed not only to initiation, the beginning of a new life but also to consummation, the ultimate nature of reality. Faith in the ontological priority of love propelled the movement, offering the certainty that their experience of new life could not be taken away, not even by death itself. That conviction led to another, that oppression is incompatible with the nature of the universe. It was, ultimately, that conclusion that put the rich and powerful on the counterattack.

So there you have it. We have before us two competing storylines. One describes a charismatic itinerant teacher who presented people with what they believed was an incarnation of what it meant to be a loving human being. Without compromise, Jesus opposed the oppression of the poor by the wealthy and created a microcosm of how he believed humans could live together. He gathered a family of friends who shared with and cared for one another, a style of living quite contrary to the greed and selfishness prevalent in elite society. Unable to envision a new world and unwilling to relinquish their power, the wealthy had him crucified. But that was only the beginning. They retold the story about Jesus, changing the essence of the story in the many ways we have seen. Furthermore, they infiltrated and commandeered the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Despite this two-pronged attack, they could not destroy the movement. The reason is simple. The dispersed disciples were absolutely convinced that Jesus lived on with them in their movement, that God was with them, that the universe was a creation of love, and that death could not separate them from God.

The other story has survived to this day, claiming to be the true story. God sent his son to die on a cross to save you from the consequences of your sin. He walked out of a tomb, ascended into heaven, and will come sometime in the future to take the faithful into heaven. The transition from one story to the other seems to be the work of the elite aristocrats, rich and powerful as they were. 


Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith,   The Void and the Vision and  The New Matrix: How the World We Live In Impacts Our Thinking About Self and God. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife Margaret in Norwich, VT

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