Recovering Jesus, Chapter One: Who Was Jesus?

Just about everyone, when asked, will place Jesus at the center of Christianity. Those same people, however, base their conceptions of Christianity on what other people said about him, rather than what Jesus said himself.

As I like to put it, Christianity isn’t the religion of Jesus, it’s a religion about Jesus.

To pick a glaring example of this, Jesus never said a word about being born to a virgin. Other people hold that as a central pillar of their faith, but Jesus didn’t think it worth mentioning, if he believed it at all.

What we’ll be doing in this chapter is making a positive case for who Jesus was. We’ll itemize his most obvious characteristics, but we’ll do it completely divorced from what other people said about him. That is, we’ll ignore all the things people have believed about Jesus, and cover only the things he said and demonstrated himself.

So, here’s my list of things Jesus showed and expressed. We’ll continue by expanding upon each item.

Jesus was…

  • a man who continually taught others how to elevate, and who thought this elevation was wildly good news.

  • a man who taught organic progress, not magical transformations.

  • a man who taught growth rather than restraint.

  • a deeply compassionate man.

  • a man who looked after his friends.

  • a man with a thoroughly different view of what makes actions right or wrong.

  • a man who wanted people simply to believe him, not to believe in him.

  • an unauthorized man who based his teachings upon no previous authority.

  • a man who chose to teach only in parables.

  • a man who held power to be a large and inevitable threat.

  • a man who directly opposed hierarchy.

  • a man who opposed tradition as a virtue.

Who Jesus was – in his own eyes and as he actually demonstrated – is far more important than what other people said about him, even if the “other people said” version gets all the attention, and has for many centuries.

Now, let’s go through at these statements with some specificity:

A man who continually taught others how to elevate, and who thought this elevation was wildly good news.

Modern readers tend to pass over the word “gospel” very quickly, as if it were the title of a book. Jesus, however, took the word very seriously. In fact he used the term quite a bit, especially as a general description of his teachings. That’s significant. Jesus named his teachings “the good news,” and he wanted the people listening to him to conceive it in that way.

Let me say that another way: Any version of Jesus that doesn’t major on “good news” is a misguided version. Either we take Jesus seriously or else we make him a mere symbol… a stick figure onto which we paste our favorite doctrines.

Furthermore, Jesus was very clear on the content of this good news. In modern terminology, we’d call it, “the way of the higher realm.” In other words, we’d translate Jesus’ first and foundational statement in the first of our four “gospels” (Mk. 1:15) this way:

The time is has arrived and the way of the higher realm has come to you. Shift your consciousness and absorb this good news.

The way of the higher realm” here is my rendering of “kingdom of God/Kingdom of heaven.” You can find a lengthy explanation of my reasons in a book called Discourses of Judaism, Jesus and Christianity, but this rendering is far closer to what Jesus said and meant than the “die and go to heaven” interpretations of our time.

First of all, the kingdom of God, by any translation, had to be something that was present while Jesus was speaking. That is, by 30 AD or so. “The time has come,” is abundantly clear.

Secondly, the modern idea of “heaven” was simply not something that people believed at that time, and didn’t for quite a long while after. Early Christians believed in the resurrection, not “going to heaven.” Here, as an example, are a set of death records called the Annales Cambriae, from an Welsh monastery:

547: Maelgwn… died… ‘The long sleep of Maelgwn’.

574: The sleep of Brendan of Birr.

735: Bede the priest sleeps.

736: Oengus king of the Picts died.

777: Abbot Cuthbert dies.

808: Rhain king of the Demetians and Cadell of Powys die.

809: Elfoddw archbishop in the Gwynedd region went to the Lord.

What we see from these records is that prior to 736 AD death was recorded as “sleep,” a reference to the resurrection, when the person would awaken. After 735 this term was supplanted by “died,” and in 809 by “went to the lord.” So, the modern “die and go to heaven” didn’t reach Welsh Christianity till the 9th century.

It is also worth noting that the author of our Matthew gospel purposely changed Mark’s “kingdom of God” to “kingdom of heaven.” You can see my earlier work for details, but it is clear that this was purposeful, and that the author of Matthew made this change because he thought “kingdom of God” didn’t give the full or right sense of what Jesus said and meant.

The good news, then, is that Jesus was teaching people how they could stop living fruitlessly and change over to the way of the higher realms. “You can now live the same way God and the angels live” might seem a bit theatric, but this or something very much like it is what Jesus was saying. And that would certainly be great news.

When you die you’ll go to heaven,” on the other hand, is firstly something Jesus didn’t teach, and is secondly a promise of something in the future, not the present. Thus it wasn’t the good news Jesus taught.

So, the one thing above all else we see of Jesus is that he taught present good news – the news of an immediate opportunity to elevate one’s self and the entire race – and that he characterized it as wildly good news. We can either accept that or minimize it in favor of comfortable doctrines, but it sits there all the same.

A man who taught organic progress, not magical transformations.

Once we come to grips with the fact that Jesus taught the presence of an immediate elevation and taught it incessantly, it’s relatively easy to see the operational details of that new way… the way of elevated human life. And the model of that new way of life is clearly organic.

Jesus uses organic metaphors to describe how this kingdom of God or heaven operates:

A sower went out to plant… some seed fell by the way side, other seeds fell on rocky ground, others fell among the thorns, and others fell into good ground, and produced fruit.

So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed upon the earth, and… the earth produces fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.

To what will we compare the kingdom of God? … It is like a grain of mustard seed… when it is sown, grows up, and becomes greater than all the herbs.

The kingdom of the heavens is like yeast, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened.

The kingdom of the heavens is like a man that planted good seed in his field…

The way of the higher realm, then, is sown into the world and grows, progressively and organically. This is not a model of magical transformations, as in “We’ll be instantly fixed in heaven.” And in this we see the difficulty of this model to many people:

If the improvement of mankind is progressive – first the blade then the ear – then it’s primarily our job, not something God magically provides.

The instant fix in heaven, then, is far less demanding. It promises a future gift, allows us to ignore the difficult job of improving ourselves, and all we have to do is to believe in the right doctrine.

The magic fix in heaven, then, has better marketing appeal – it requires far less and promises far more – but it is not something Jesus taught. We can do a lot of aggressive theological engineering to find a path to the free fix, but only if we ignore a great number of direct teachings from Jesus… the clearest, most direct, and most often repeated teachings of Jesus.

I fully understand that I have just thrown a stone of stumbling in front of a great many readers, but please believe that I am not trying to be difficult; these are simply the facts. Further, please understand that I believe you are fully able to get past this. Life is full of hard choices and course corrections. You’ve doubtlessly dealt with such things in the past and survived them. You’ll just have to take some time with this and decide if it’s true. Then you can grit your teeth and get on with it.

And please try to believe me that there is great liberation in this, even if it isn’t as easy as the free fix. Here’s a passage from Carl Jung that I found rather compelling in this regard:

People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. They will [do all manner of rigorous and difficult things,] all because they… have not the slightest faith that anything useful could ever come out of their own souls.

The truth is that the good and holy can grow within us, and this is the great news that Jesus was trying to introduce: A new way, by which the good and useful and beautiful can grow effectively in us, starting right now.

The fact that this higher way – this kingdom of the heavens – is sown into the world means precisely that magnificent things are ready to grow in us… are ready to flower out of our own souls. Don’t we really want that?

A man who taught growth rather than restraint.

Jesus taught growth and bearing fruit, not forcing ourselves to obey and “do the right thing.” Again that goes against a lot of modern Christian teaching, but never, in any of our records, did Jesus tell someone to “obey.” Nor did he praise “obedience.”

And notice carefully that Jesus never said “thou shalt not,” or anything like it, save in the compendium of sayings of Matthew 5 (and even this is a bit of a stretch), which are along the line of “You’ve heard it said, but I say.”

Jesus, then, wasn’t interested in you forcing yourself to obey external commands. He was far more interested in his listeners “cleaning the inside of the cup, that the outside may also be clean.” In other words, it is only by cleaning the inner man that external actions can improve properly.

Jesus cared rather little for what people said, and far more for what they they did. He wanted people who would become actually better; people with improved inner lives. And that inner improvement was, again, organic: first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.

According to what Jesus said and did, laws, following rules and forcing one’s self to do the right thing were extraneous and misguided.

And, of course, to imagine that magnificent growth – the kind of growth they enjoy in the higher realms – could arise from forced obedience would be silly. Obedience is suppressive and mechanical, growth is expansive and organic; these are different models.

A deeply compassionate man.

Our gospels mention six separate incidents when Jesus “had compassion” or was “moved with compassion,” plus two more where he wept over tragedies. That’s a fairly striking number for a rather brief accounting of a fairly short period of time. But still more striking is this: In the rest of the New Testament, we never find these things said of anyone else. Not any other character, not even once.

This is not to say that no one else in the New Testament ever had compassion, but it’s quite clear that none had it in the same way that Jesus did.

This also is significant.

A man who looked after his friends.

When Jesus’ friends returned from their “two by two” mission to other towns, Jesus was careful to take them away to a quiet place so they could rest. I find that a touching passage, and one that harmonizes quite nicely with the section above on his compassion.

Jesus, in addition to everything else he was, was a good friend. To me that matters a great deal, and perhaps it does to you too.

A man with a very radical view of what makes actions right or wrong.

With whatever judgment you judge,” Jesus said, “you shall be judged.” If you take a moment to contrast that with the keeping of an external law, I think you’ll agree that these two models are fundamentally opposed.

The old “rules” model requires us to memorize data that we didn’t produce and may not understand, and we’re not good at that. Humans are great at recognizing patterns but bad at memorizing data. For us to remember things, we have to consider them meaningful in some way.

To state it plainly, the old model demotes our minds. It places our consciousness beneath the rule and subservient to it. The fascinating thing about Jesus’ new model is that it makes the opposite assumption and places human consciousness in the top position, not in the subservient position.

Jesus placed human consciousness and its natural operations as the essential component, overturning the ethical history of the world. And by this he shows how highly he values our potential. He sees us, in fact, as fit producers of morality. (Not perfect, but fit.)

And bear in mind that Jesus taught this self-referential model of judging over and over. Our four gospels record it between 15 and 20 times (not counting duplications) depending on how carefully you count. For twenty-some pages of unique material, that’s a heck of a lot.

This core teaching of Jesus comes out like this in modern prose:

Being by nature self-referential, you judge yourself every time you act. Treating others as you wish to be treated, you define yourself as a benefit in the world. Treating others in ways you wouldn’t like, you define yourself as a hazard. There is no escape from this arrangement, though men attempt it by ceding their will to others, as when following rules.

And please note the consistency between this and teaching growth rather than restraint.

Under the rules model, we degrade ourselves every time we “do the right thing,” since obedience requires the suppression of our will and displaces our cognitive processes. Under the new model, however, our will and processes become generators of righteousness, creating a virtuous cycle.

People have a hard time with this since the “depravity of man” has been taught, implied and assumed for centuries, but it remains that Jesus taught something quite different. And it remains that “the higher way which is presently available” implies precisely such things as this.

A man who wanted people simply to believe him, not to believe in him.

Why do you call me Lord, Lord,” Jesus said, “but don’t do the things I’ve told you?”

While writing the book I’ve mentioned earlier (Discourses on Judaism, Jesus and Christianity), I stumbled upon an important distinction: I found myself feeling a need to write “believe him” rather than “believe in him.” I quickly realized this was related to this question:

Do we believe (and thus do) the things Jesus said? Or do we merely believe in Jesus… that he is “the son of God,” “born of a virgin,” or whatever?

This difference is the same as “do we do what he said, or merely call him Lord?” And according to Jesus, everything turns upon this difference. He wanted people to believe the things he was telling them, not to pigeon-hole him in some sort of pantheon. He wasn’t trying to be known by his position; he merely wanted people to believe him.

And again, upon this distinction hangs a very great deal.

An unauthorized man who based his teachings upon no previous authority.

This will sound almost crazy to modern Christians, but Jesus never really quoted scriptures in his teachings. In the whole of the Mark gospel, for example, Jesus quotes scriptures a total of seven times; eight if you include the “haven’t you read what David did?” passage. And all of those quotations were forced upon him. That is, he used scripture only in response to challenges, because (as we may presume with some confidence) these were the things the people questioning him took as proof.

At the same time, Jesus refers to nature or commonplace events at least eleven times. He simply did not rely upon scriptures to teach. He used them when he was pushed into it (sometimes as “You’ve heard it said, but I say”), but he simply did not rely upon previous authority, even the Hebrew scriptures.

Again, I know this is a hard thing for many people to accept, but it’s clear that this is what Jesus actually did.

A man who chose to teach only in parables.

As our Mark gospel notes, Jesus used parables over and over, every time he taught:

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them without a parable.

There is so much to say about this point, however, that I’ve dedicated Chapter Four to it.

A man who held power to be a large and inevitable threat.

Jesus avoided power. And by that I mean state power; governmental power. In his time only Judea was directly under the control of Rome, and Jesus avoided it. The place Mark calls his “home,” for example, was Capernaum of Galilee, and his trips to Judea were few, often carrying the feel of infiltrations and exits.

Furthermore, Jesus can be seen sneaking away to Phoenician territory from time to time, as noted in the seventh chapter of the Mark gospel. (Tyre and Sidon were Phoenician cities.)

Jesus is never seen showing respect to rulers. He calls Herod “that fox” for example, and he made his feelings unmistakably clear in the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel:

That which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the eyes of God.

There is more to say on this – more than I’ll take time to belabor – but Jesus was clearly an outlaw, not an obedient citizen.

A man who directly opposed hierarchy.

A passage from Mark’s gospel, in chapter ten, makes this very clear:

You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you.

Regardless of how much Christians have accepted and even glorified hierarchy since, Jesus rejected it, directly and firmly.

A man who opposed tradition as a virtue.

Jesus was, first of all, very clear on the fact that he was doing a new thing. He did not, as we noted earlier, rely upon prior authority… and much of that prior authority was in the form of tradition. In a well-known passage he gets explicit:

No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed.

That passage, on its own, displaces tradition from a place of any real importance. It may be something to consider out of kindness and respect, such as when Jesus sends a healed many back to perform a tradition “as a testimony to them,” but it had no inherent value.

Jesus confirms this in another place:

This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.

To Jesus, then, authority and tradition are worthless by themselves. He sees very well how attached to them people are, and he doesn’t aggressively rip them away, but he is ever so clear that they mis-direct people from growth and truth. It is further clear that he’d prefer if they left them behind… that over time they’ll need to leave them behind.

The Full Picture

In this chapter we’ve examined a number of things Jesus said and demonstrated. We’ve seen, that is, the major pieces of the puzzle, examining them one by one. What I’d like to do now is to bring them together and gain a fuller view of this man… this being.

Imagine, please, encountering a man who is more honest, more sincere and more compassionate than anyone you’ve ever met; a man who also teaches a new and utterly different model of morality… a new morality you have difficulty grasping.

This man is simply better… more advanced… than anyone you’ve ever met or have even heard of. He’s obviously brilliant, but he teaches in a terribly odd, almost juvenile way: he tells mundane little stories. And yet, those stories stick inside of you somehow.

More than that, this man, who always teaches about a new way of being and claims that it’s the way of being known to God Himself, is focused on the present. To him, what matters is not keeping God’s traditions, but what you actually are. To this he provides no exceptions. And if the content of your character isn’t sufficient, you are to change your mind (that’s the actual meaning of repent) and start growing.

People can accept such a being as a heavenly religious figure – as a distant image – but not as flesh and blood standing in front of them. The fact, then, that Jesus had so many haters, and found it wise to hide away in the wilderness and in foreign cities, is entirely understandable.

And so it is likely that he picked his twelve disciples based upon their ability to handle his obvious advancement. Being better than other people is problem enough in our present world. How many people, back then, could have handled a person as advanced as this one?

The advanced person gives others the choice either to learn from them, to love them without too much comparison, or to despise them. The number of people who could rise to the better of those choices would have been fairly few.

Taken together, we see one thing very clearly, and that is that Jesus was a man out of time and out of place. He might belong in the future, or in some hyper-advanced civilization, but he didn’t belong where and when he was, and he wouldn’t belong on today’s Earth either. He was different and better… markedly different and better.

The sad fact is that Christians have nearly always adapted Jesus to their psychological needs. Unable to take him full strength, they had to mix him with what they already had.

Christians found ways to justify these adaptations, of course; humans are superb at finding reasons for a mandatory conclusion.

I am writing this book, then, because I am an optimist. Whether by luck, by providence or simply by being enough of an outsider, I’ve come to recognize and accept these things, and I believe that you can too.

More than that, I’ve come to believe that Jesus was entirely correct; that the elevated way of living he strove to implant is capable of lifting humankind to levels that are presently beyond our imaginations.

We really can be far more and far better than we’ve believed, and Jesus’ way is how we’ll get there.

I am convinced that we’re able to do this and that Jesus was convinced of the same. Otherwise he never would have taught it.

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