Seeing the title of this article, many bible believing Christians will think of me as a ragging heretic. And I understand why because I was taught and consequently believed that what the Gospels said about Jesus was authentic, and my college and theological education seemed to support such a belief.
Yes, I did question some of the information recorded things such as the human/divine nature of Jesus, the miracles of healing, Jesus’ power over the forces of nature, etc. But I did accept the basic premise of the gospels which was that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice for human sin because that has been the central teaching of the historic church for centuries.
I was disappointed that the church paid little attention to the activity and teachings of Jesus Since the time of the Lutheran reformation the church has been so fearful of members substituting ‘good works’ for ‘justification by faith’ that good deeds were often looked on with suspicion. Jesus’ call to ‘Follow me!’ was largely ignored.
My faith journey has bypassed many traditional teachings and doctrines in recent years. While doing so has led to joy and freedom, it also involved pain in that one is leaving what was once thought to be true and satisfying. While some of my recent studies have enlightened me for my most recent understanding, I don’t recall reading any author expressing the same analysis, although I am sure others have.
I was taught that the Bible is the word of God and that authors wrote as the spirit directed them. I assumed the descriptions were historical. I now realize what scholars have said for some time that the bible consisted of faith stories which were ‘more than historical’ while relating to people in a historical setting. That is my current position. To have come to this understanding has resolved many of the questions and difficulties involved with a traditional understanding of scripture.
The faith stories of the Old Testament were written with a specific purpose: to form a nation from a wandering tribe of people. Reminding the people again and again that they were the chosen people of God promised to their ancestor Abraham and that God would grant them a land in perpetuity was so successful, that it was verified as late as 1948 when Israel became a nation and was given the land.
The people’s relationship with God was solidified with the religious feast of Passover which symbolized a dramatic rescue from Egyptian slavery. As the Old Testament story unfolds, prophets called people to repentance and gave them hope through promise of ultimate victory. Read as faith stories, the Old Testament is one of the most ingenious faith story ever written.
All of this is prelude to what is, for me, a climatic thought. My focus is the New Testament’s story about Jesus. Common knowledge has accepted that the comments Paul makes about Jesus and the events described in the Gospels are descriptions of what actually happened. My response.
We need to remember that the Gospels were written forty to seventy years after Jesus’ death. There are no video or recordings of Jesus’ activities and words and there are no authentic historical records of anything Jesus said or did for us to fact check them. I will attempt to explain my current understanding of how I free Jesus from the Gospel’s dominant message that Jesus died as a sacrifice for human sin and to give eternal life to all who believe in him. We need this freedom in order to come back to Jesus’ stated mission to bring the reign of God [LOVE] to earth.
What we know of Jesus’ life is that he reached out to the outcasts—the sick, crippled, poor, those rejected by society. This led to criticism but also admiration. He attracted a following. He called out injustice by religious and political authorities who were cooperating to keep their power. When the followers of Jesus became numerous enough to pose a threat, Jesus was crucified by the state with the blessing of the religious leaders. His disciples deserted him and his followers were filled with guilt and fear.
While some stayed in Jerusalem, many fled to the various towns of Asia Minor, and being Jewish gathered with the people at the synagogue, with Jesus’ followers gathering to try to make sense out of what happened to their beloved Jesus.
Sin and redemption were significant elements of the Jewish faith and obviously the followers of Jesus sought resolution through this lens. They searched the Old Testament writings for clues. Matthew’s gospel reveals what they discovered and gives us the logic which determined how they came to terms with Jesus’ death; and how they would write the faith story to perpetuate his memory and mission.
Imbedded in the Old Testament stories was a message of hope called the messianic deliverance. In some future time there would appear a Messianic King, a descendant of David who would restore the earthly kingdom. Since the crucifixion of Jesus eliminated his becoming such a Messiah and the destruction of Jerusalem by Romans ending all hope for an earthly kingdom, the followers of Jesus viewed the messiah as a spiritual deliverer who would rescue humanity from enslavement to the power of sin and usher in an eternal kingdom with hints of eternal life after physical death.
As evidence that this is what some followers of Jesus did, Matthew quotes more than a dozen old testament scripture prophecies [often paying no attention to context and making very inaccurate interpretations] and used them as the outline for writing his gospel. Among others, these include: the virgin birth [resulting in his divine nature] birth in Bethlehem [adding Joseph to the story as a descendent of David and link to Bethlehem] the visit of the wise men, the slaughter of infants by Herod, the flight to Egypt, the baptism by John, Jesus as the sacrificial Passover Lamb which atones for sin and brings union with God, and many more similarities.
The message of the four gospels as well as the descriptions of Jesus in Paul’s writings have similar stories and this is the message which the church has proclaimed for many centuries, with the result that the message and teachings of Jesus: his concern for humans, his love of nature as proved by using examples from nature for his message according to the gospels, were largely ignored.
And here is the relative point for our time. If the early followers of Jesus could take the liberty of understanding the importance of Jesus in their lives on the basis of their personal need and their religious heritage, then we too should be able focus on those qualities of Jesus that speak to our age and our needs.
Personally, doctrines like the divinity of Jesus, or that his death removes my sin, or that we will be raised to eternal life after physical death and recognize all our deceased relatives, are no longer believable for me.
However, humanity is fractured. Injustice is the norm. Some individuals have more that they can ever dream of needing, many more are destitute. Prejudice is stronger than brotherhood. The earth is dying and many people don’t even seem to care about its future. Selfishness rules!
History proves that the traditional message of the church has limited power to transform society. The Church can no longer afford to just be a ‘comfort station for believers,’ it needs to become ‘a charging station for followers of Jesus’. It is not enough to tell Followers that they should love their neighbor or care for the earth, followers need to be challenged, we need to have our blindness exposed, we need help to let go of what enslaves us, we need emptying so that we can receive the spirit which empowers us to be faithful followers. This is an ongoing task.
It will be hard to let go of the comfort theology which has been taught for centuries, but first century faith stories are no longer adequate for 21st century Christians. We need to write our own.