What *did* Jesus do and say?

Q&A With Dr. Carl Krieg

Question & Answer


Q: By Hugh

I just finished Bishop Spong’s book arguing for Matthew as 1st century synagogue liturgy. I found the arguments very suggestive and in some cases quite persuasive (I have never been a literalist). Accepting that the Gospel accounts of events in Jesus and the disciples’ lives are nonhistorical creations intended to reach Jews in a traditional Jewish liturgical framework,  what *did* Jesus do and say that made the God’s presence in human life so clear to his followers, that it was worth teaching about in synagogues 50 years later? Are there particular nuggets from the Gospels that seem more likely to be “based on a true story?

A: By Dr. Carl Krieg


Dear Hugh,

In many ways I feel unqualified to answer your question, which is an excellent one. Although I have read about Bishop Spong’s thoughts on Matthew I have not read the book, so on that you know much more that I do.

The heart of your question pertains to the person of Jesus, what he said and what he did and how that impacted the disciples. I think it is very important to differentiate between the first disciples and the second generation converts who later joined the nascent community. What happened when Jesus met and gathered those who first followed him? What were the elements of those encounters? We really don’t know. My own guess is that they saw in him both what it meant to be a fully human being and they also experienced through him who God was. It was not that he did or said anything in particular, but who he was. He was a whole person in whom the disciples could see who they really were and could become. Because Jesus was not self-centered the divine could shine through him, and so the disciples discovered not only who they were but also who God was. [For a more detailed analysis, I refer you to my article Jesus and the Void.] The written gospels, all of which appear in the second half of the century, do not offer reliable first hand accounts of these “callings”. Indeed, they do not even mention the fact that there were women in the group probably equal in number to the men.

It is difficult if not impossible to find those “nuggets” that would explain the power of Jesus’ person. Everyone would love to know what Jesus actually said and did. Even a scholarly gathering like the Jesus Seminar had to cast ballots on the probability of authenticity. We just don’t know. What we do know is that a small community followed him, and that despite the fact that Jesus was crucified, they were convinced that he was alive again in their midst, and that is what excited them and compelled them to tell the story.

But then matters changed.  As the disciples died a new generation of followers arose and the thinking and organization of the “Way” changed dramatically.  The written gospels took shape in different locales with different purposes, and so also did other Christian writings of the same period. Much of that writing makes it  painfully obvious that a reaction to the revolutionary impetus of Jesus and his disciples had set in. If Jesus had manifested equality of caring and sharing in the community of friends, much of the later writing rejects that vision, epitomized in the warning of 1 Timothy that slaves obey masters, women obey men, the church obey the bishops, and everyone obey the rulers. Not what Jesus had in mind.

Allow me to add some speculative suspicion.  It does not seem to me that any “belief” at all about Jesus was the first reaction of the disciples. They did not believe anything about Jesus. They experienced him, and that is quite different from “believing in”. My guess, contrary to common opinion, is that they did not even originally believe that he was the messiah, even though messianism was rampant. We might then ask when and why messianic conceptualization was applied to Jesus? It seems to me, and this is my speculative suspicion, that when the rich and powerful, who oppressed the poor for their own greedy benefit, saw that the Jesus movement revolution was not going away, they interjected and guided any belief that would transform the impetus for justice now to justice in the future, epitomized in a future returning messiah. I refer you here to my article Biblical Billionaires and the Taming of Jesus.

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

~ Dr. Carl Krieg


About the Author
Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC and PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith and The Void and the Vision. 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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