What Jesus Really Did

 
Christian fundamentalists believe that the most important event in the New Testament is that Jesus died for your sins. Those to whom this makes no sense believe that what matters most is the teaching of Jesus, epitomized, I suppose, in the Golden Rule- “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I would like to argue that neither the “sacrificial death” nor the “teaching” is what Jesus was really about.

The first concept is rather bizarre, when you think about it, and comes from a primitive notion that an angry god needs to be appeased. It may have been popularized by the apostle Paul, who operated with a legalistic frame of mind, believing that human sin broke the divine law and God needed to mete out punishment, Jesus being the only available and worthy candidate.

If sacrificial death is bizarre, Jesus’ teaching is rather common. In one form or another, love your neighbor as yourself has been around for a long time in different cultures. It appears in almost all religions and ethical systems, and it has been described as an operating principle in all fields from biology to psychology. That Jesus also taught it is not surprising.

Then what do we have? The focal point of Jesus’ life was not his dying nor his teaching, but his creating a microcosm of how human beings can live together. He created a community of disciples. This is not to say that such community never existed before nor that others have not said or done the same. What we can say, however, is that, from a Christian perspective, the re-kindling of that community love-flame was Jesus’ purpose.

Over 2000 years of church history, literature and art, we have been led to think that this community was comprised of twelve males disciples, representative of the twelve tribes of Israel. In point of fact, we have the names of about twelve women who traveled with Jesus, who attended to the group’s needs, and who supported the group out of their means, Mary of Magdala being the most well known. The core consisted of about 25 men and women, whom Jesus gathered into a family of friends.

When Jesus was a follower of John the Baptizer, he met many of John’s disciples, some of whom, like Andrew, left the Baptist when Jesus left and became disciples of the man from Nazareth. In other words, they started out as friends, and formed the nucleus of a small band that would grow as Jesus wandered the countryside of Galilee, a group that included women as well as men. And when they all went to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, we must empty our minds of Da Vinci’s 12 men sitting with Jesus at the Last Supper, and remember that the seder included all members of the family, men, women, and children. According to the crucifixion narratives, it was the women who were with Jesus, and according to the resurrection narratives, it was the women who were the first to realize that something new had happened.

Toward the end of the first century, the so-called Pastoral epistles in the Bible reveal that the concept of community had been replaced by vicarious sacrifice (Jesus died for your sins), the benefits of which were now controlled by a hierarchical church body, and the equality of women and men had been replaced by male dominance. A sad story indeed.

There is one further dimension to the demise of that early family of friends. The community that Jesus had created continued as a community after the crucifixion. It did not die when Jesus died. Instead, the disciples encouraged one another and came to the belief that the spirit of a risen Christ, a holy spirit, was empowering them to remain family.

Unfortunately, the group did not know how to grow, and new generations arose who did not incorporate the bond of affinity present in the earliest disciples. And so equality was lost, males regained dominance, and the concept of a holy spirit inhering in the group gave way to a mechanical understanding as described in the New Testament book of Acts. The spirit descended as a flame on the men and they all started speaking magically in languages that foreigners understood. What a poor understanding of loving spirit.

In short, what we find in the Bible in a complete demolition of what Jesus tried to do. His creation of a community of love degenerated into a hierarchical institution. The equality of the sexes in that community degenerated into dominance by male priests and bishops. The holiness of the communal spirit was divorced from the community in which it existed and was nourished. And, of course, for the evangelicals, the very idea of the community is replaced by the idea of sacrifice.

What then? Was Jesus a total failure? I don’t think so. From a secular perspective, the community of love that Jesus envisioned is the only goal worthy of our human endeavor. It alone fulfills the longing for the meaning in life that we so desire, and it alone guarantees our survival.

From a Christian theological perspective, God is helping us to live in love. It’s as simple as that. The Roman guard was powerless to kill the new community inaugurated by Jesus, just as through the ages “little churches within the church” have continued the vision.

Whoever we are, the communion of sisters and brothers is the power that gives us hope and meaning, and also the destiny that calls us forward. Jesus, and we, know what we are about. And that is love.

Review & Commentary

  • Pam Byers

    Amen

  • Edward G. Simmons

    The Da Vinci image of the Last Supper is one of those traditional assumptions that are accepted without thought. Good point about updating it! The earliest historical account reflecting the Last Supper is Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. It was given in a context of telling a worshiping community to stop abusing the ceremony. At the end, he refers to brothers, but clearly the community would include women as well as men. Funny how popular art overrules seeing what the Bible clearly says.

    You mention the compromises made as the community spread in the Roman world. According to Acts, the first community when it was located in Jerusalem had all things in common. But conflict entered because there were Greek-speaking Jews who began to require separate handling, indicating strains between Galileans and more Hellenistic Jews. Acts also shows the rise of a Hellenistic community in Antioch that rivaled Jerusalem and Paul was a representative of that group.

    Compromises on female participation can be traced in the pseudo-Pauline literature. Paul’s genuine letters (except for one contested passage) do not discriminate against women, but those writing later in Paul’s name show clear adoption of Hellenistic attitudes toward women.

    Isn’t it interesting that the Protestant Reformation wanted to reform bad practices of the church by going back to the Bible. Today we can see in the New Testament items closer to Jesus himself that can be used to reform society and our interpretation of the Bible.

    Thanks for this stimulating article that awakened new realizations.