Jesus of Nazareth was born around 2,000 years ago in an obscure outpost of the Roman Empire called Galilee. Raised in the family of a carpenter named Joseph, as an adult he began a career of itinerant preaching and healing that ultimately led to his arrest and execution by the Roman authorities. Regardless of these obscure beginnings and his outwardly ignominious end, Jesus' doctrine, spread by dedicated followers, eventually took over the Roman Empire itself.
Everything we know about Jesus comes to us through the writings of his followers, particularly through the four Gospels found in the Bible. That these writings were composed decades after his death, and by whom we are not certain, makes it difficult to gauge their historical reliability. The questions raised are many: Do the Gospel writers quote Jesus accurately? Do they give the actual facts of his life? What exactly did Jesus teach, and can we ever really know his original teachings? Do the doctrines of the different churches correspond to Jesus' teachings? And finally: Is there anyone, whether scholar or church leader, who can provide trustworthy answers to such questions?
Among readers of this introduction I'm hoping there are some who believe the major religions are a sham and that the Christian religion is a more dangerous sham than most. I'm hoping so because I know very well the perspective such readers come from, as I was in agreement with them for many years. Certainly I see the strong arguments against even considering the possibility that Christian preachers are right in what they say. I'll even grant that, yes, Christian preachers are not right. They're wrong. And I'll lay my cards on the table by saying straight off that I'm a Christian myself. And that I am wrong too.
If you can get your head round such statements, or at least entertain the possibility there may be something to them other than nonsense, you're quite generous. I hope you continue reading.
There are myriad ways in which Jesus' teachings have been understood over the centuries. The debates stretch back to the very beginning. Recent discovery of the lost Gnostic gospels in Egypt has brought home to us the breadth of interpretation that was current in even the first centuries of Christianity. But one needn't go to suppressed gospels to see a range in the ways Jesus was understood. Anyone who carefully studies the New Testament can see that the writers of the different books not only factually contradict each other on many points, but even seem to write from somewhat distinct theological positions. So the Bible itself does not really give a final, unanimous decision.
Our modern perspective on these problems is at once more focused and more complex. Though advances in scholarship have added new dimensions to our understanding (dimensions neither the ancient Gnostics nor the Protestant reformers could have had) these advances have not decided the debates. If anything, the possibilities for differing interpretations of what Jesus intended seem only to have increased during the past two centuries. [For a rough presentation of some of the current spectrum see: HISTORICAL JESUS] In the current climate, the situation of those who want simply to "understand the facts" becomes thorny: stuck between religious people claiming certainty on the one hand, and historians and scholars posing probing questions on the other (and disagreeing among themselves) many will wonder if there's anything about Jesus that can be pinned down so as to get at least a rough idea. Are there facts all sides agree on?
To simplify greatly, one might say that most modern people who know something about Jesus take one of two views:
1) Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the only Son of God, who was incarnated on this earth in order to die in atonement for the sins of mankind. Jesus of Nazareth was both man and God.
2) Jesus of Nazareth was an itinerant healer in first-century Palestine who preached a doctrine of "the kingdom of Heaven." He may or may not have considered himself the promised Jewish Messiah. His doctrine stressed voluntary sharing, unselfish love of others and indifference to material wealth. It was also characterized by a belief in the imminent coming of God's kingdom through divine intervention in history. Considered subversive, he was arrested and executed by the Roman authorities.
Of course orthodox Christians take the former view, while most secularists take the latter. Regardless of which view one takes, however, one thing is clear: the best sources available for the life of Jesus are the New Testament Gospels. Though orthodox Christians may believe the Gospels narrate events that actually happened--i.e., that happened as described--and secularists may insist that any historical truths found in the Gospels are shrouded in legend, in either case the fact remains: our best information about Jesus is in the Gospels.
The Durationist Gospel is in the main a collection of documents introducing the best elements of this best source of information about Jesus. I haven't prepared this collection in order to present either a new view of Jesus or any particular old view, but simply a solid introductory view. I wanted to offer an introduction to Jesus, to the question of Jesus--a question in many people's minds, whether secular or religious. Because even for those not attracted to Christianity--and I believe there are good reasons to be repelled by some of the social phenomena attendant on Christianity--the question of Jesus remains a fascinating one. The historical variables that come into play when one tries to figure out what he actually taught, the variety of witnesses, the odd combination of agreement and disagreement in the different documents--it all makes for a compelling historical mystery.
From the start we may set to rest an occasionally heard sound bite. Contrary to what barroom skeptics now and then assert, it is certain that Jesus existed. Jesus is not a fictional or merely mythological character. As proof of this we must consider the following: Even atheist scholars who believe the Bible wildly misrepresents Jesus' life and teachings--even they recognize that the man Jesus walked the roads of Palestine and preached one thing or another.
So the question is not whether Jesus existed. He obviously did. Nor is it whether Darwinian evolution is true or not (I think it is), nor whether Sunday TV evangelists are on the right track or are rather hypocritical idiots (I think many are). I'm hoping the "culture wars" and many of the social debates that rage between believers and non-believers can be put aside for the time, at least as regards my project here. Because the crucial question about Jesus, in my view, is what he taught as he wandered from town to town with his followers. And why these things that he taught, and his actions, led so many to follow him so ardently. These questions can be taken up by anyone without regard to most of the "hot-button" debates raging today. They are important questions because we get through Jesus, whatever he intended, one of the most influential doctrines in the history of the world, a doctrine that continues to shape our history and ourselves whether we are Christian or not.
How is it, then, that a poor teacher from an obscure town in Galilee--a man from an oppressed minority whose life was cut short by execution--how is it that he ignited a movement capable of taking over the Roman Empire itself, a movement still going strong today?
The best way to approach the question of Jesus, at least in the spirit of my project here, is to forget what one has learned about him. This is especially true for those who were raised Christian but shrugged off belief with adulthood. I'm thinking of the millions of now secular Americans brought up in one of the more right-wing, usually Protestant churches. Inextricably knotted up in their minds with a checklist of particular right-wing obsessions, Jesus himself gets unfairly implicated in homespun American hypocrisy and intolerance--he is made poster boy for the self-righteousness of people who think they have the rules of life down pat, a cult of "already chosen ones" who often lack both curiosity and social conscience. For many people, secular and religious alike, it has become hard to separate Jesus from the impressions left by this demographic.
In fact Jesus of Nazareth has little, very little, to do with this right-wing Jesus. The American right-wing Jesus is a byproduct of a particular community. What they preach from their pulpits and TV broadcasts has scant connection with the radical figure one finds in the ancient texts. That these preachers can fulminate on and on for so many years without ever addressing most of the things Jesus talks about in the Gospels is an amazing fact but finally just more proof of how good we humans are at duping ourselves.
Jesus as preached in the churches is not nearly as interesting, not nearly as troubling, as the figure we encounter in the Gospels. The problem is that most Christians go to church not to be troubled but to be comforted: to be reinforced in their rightness and strengthened in their prejudices. Aware of this, many American denominations fill their churches by flattering the masses. The antidote to this practice is of course Jesus himself--Jesus as we find him in the Gospels. But we need to read these texts with new eyes, to hear them with new ears.
Following are some paragraphs about Jesus from the scholar Guy Davenport's introduction to The Logia of Yeshua. The book is a collection of Jesus' sayings edited and translated by Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia. The introductory portrait is particularly poignant:
We do not yet know if Jesus spoke koine (common-market Greek) or Aramaic. The writers of the gospels thought that their best hope for disseminating the Good News was to write in Greek, so a Greek-speaking Jesus is what the world got.
There is a papyrus fragment of a lost gospel on which only a few sentences are legible. It was written in the first century and is therefore as close to Jesus' time as the canonical gospels. Jesus is on the banks of the Jordan, speaking to a crowd. Because of the tatters in the papyrus, the effect of trying to read it is like being present but being too far back to hear well. This must have happened often enough. "Blessed are the who? Did he say the swineherd was welcomed home?" Jesus says something about a dark and secret place, and about weighing things that are weightless. That sounds like him. But then we are told that he threw a handful of seeds into the Jordan and that they became trees bearing fruit in the twinkling of an eye, and floated away down the river.
This, too, is familiar in its unfamiliarity. If he could wither a tree, he could create one. If he could walk on water, he could make an orchard stand on it. If this gospel had been known before 1935, what wonderful paintings the Renaissance would have made of it--a Botticelli is easy to imagine. We also recognize the mythic accretion that had begun before the gospels were written. Jesus probably built a metaphor around the mystery of germination. In the retelling, and retelling, the metaphor turned into a magician's illusion.
His hearers understood hyperbole and parables as if by second nature. Faith should be so strong that it can move a mountain. Only a child would take that literally, and he kept asking us to become the kind of child who could believe it . . . .
He wrote nothing. It is as if Heraclitus had not written a book but told his philosophy to grocers, fish-sellers, and housewives. True, like Socrates, who wrote nothing either, he was surrounded by disciples who understood that they were to carry on.
What they, or somebody, remembered were his sayings. When the gospels were written and by whom we do not know. "Matthew," "Mark," "Luke," and "John" are probably fictitious names. Jesus' life was already a myth (which can coincide with truth and be a more vivid and symmetrical presentation of truth). History, in a coup de theatre worthy of Beckett, swept away practically all traces of the historical Jesus. Our certainties are three: He joined as a man in his thirties a reform movement led by one John, called "the Baptist" as he had revived an ancient ritual of symbolically washing away sin by immersion in running water. He had a coherent and charismatic ethic that he preached along roads and in the open country for three years. He fell into the hands of the Roman colonial authorities, who reluctantly respected the charge against him that he was a revolutionary and disruptive presence. He was cruelly executed by being nailed alive to an upright stake with a crosspiece for the hands. Such a mode of execution is torture, not dispatch.
In the logia, we see only the eloquent, wry, amused, and angry Jesus; or, rather, we hear him. The falsest myth about him may be the Romantic and Sunday school pictures of him as a pious matinee idol with a woman's hair, neat beard, and flowing robes. History can tell us that he wore trousers of the kind we call Turkish, that he most certainly had oiled sidelocks and a full beard. A man so out-of-doors would have worn a wide-brimmed traveler's hat, a caftan, or coat. His sandals are mentioned by John [the Baptist]. We can guess a witty smile ("Behold an Hebrew in whom is no guile!") and eyes capable of extreme sternness and kindness. That he could hold an audience entranced goes without saying.
Jesus was the real ironist Kierkegaard conceals behind the face of Socrates in his doctoral thesis. Irony was his constant mode; it awakens the reflective faculties. A father loves his wayward better than his obedient son. Finding lost things pleases us more than knowing where they are. Adhering strictly to the law is strangely to disobey it. Riches are worth nothing. Heaven is not up but inside. His ironic paradoxes and his often mystifying parables replicate the strategies of Diogenes centuries before.
His paradox that stung worst was that religion anaesthetizes religion. Any two people, loving and agreeing with each other, was church enough, as it had been for Amos seven hundred years earlier. Identities aroused Swiftian satire in him, for "the kingdom of heaven" recognizes no identity but human. . . .
In the sayings we can scarcely discern the metaphysics and eschatology that the church, beginning with Paul, built around the vision Jesus had of a redeemed humanity. . . .
These lines are some of the most evocative I know on Jesus the man. Especially convincing is the presentation of Jesus as teacher and ironist. Davenport awakens a sense of the concreteness of the man, a real man in his particular cultural milieu. It is this focus on Jesus' words and actions, on what these might mean in themselves, that most interests me.
I am a Christian, though there are probably many Christians who would consider my manner of belief eccentric. This is because I relish rather than repress the variety of interpretations of Jesus that have arisen over history. I find the different versions of Jesus in the four Gospels to be a gift from God, one that should remind us of our inability to reach certainty. That we as human beings can never be certain we are right is one of the most important tenets of my own creed. To find Matthew disagreeing with Luke and Mark disagreeing with John is a humbling aspect that should teach us to accept difference and debate because, after all, difference and debate are enshrined in our scriptures. These remarks may hint at my theological difference from many of the Christians around me. Presenting my own beliefs, however, is not the goal of this project, so I won't go into such issues further.
But I wonder what most "real" Christians would think of this project, the Durationist Gospel. I think some, if they take a closer look at it, will welcome it. Others will doubtless condemn it out of hand. I will now try to explain it.
For years I've thought of compiling a brief anthology of biblical and apocryphal texts, a collection that would contain a sort of bare minimum for an understanding of the Christian message. Since for me the Christian message must be found in the life and teachings of Jesus rather than in the pronouncements of any church, such an anthology would have to present the variety of early material we have on him, especially the material with a strong possibility of authenticity.
At first the project presented itself as a challenge. As follows: If one were forced to save the essentials of the Bible, if all of the Bible were to be lost except for fifty pages, which fifty pages would one save? Of course different people would make different choices. The original draft of the Durationist Gospel represented my choices.
But the Durationist Gospel had a practical goal as well. I always thought it better, faced with someone interested in Christianity, to present them with something less imposing than the whole Bible and its seventy-two books. My initial draft was thus also an answer to a pragmatic question: Which texts from the Bible would I give someone curious about the faith, someone who wanted to read the important texts in a more focused format? Such a person, I thought, should learn the story of Jesus, but needed a basic sense of monotheism as well, and so he or she needed also to read the stories of the creation and the fall. This would be the bare minimum.
The texts compiled here will give non-Christians this most basic introduction. If these readers pursue their study further, the Durationist Gospel was worth compiling.
A third early goal of the project was to include all possibly authentic sayings of Jesus. Though I wanted to keep the length of the text to a minimum, still I wanted to have all the recorded sayings contemporary scholars thought Jesus might actually have spoken. To do this I had to compile what is usually called a "gospel harmony," i.e. a text in which the four Gospel accounts are brought together in one narrative frame, a sort of composite Gospel. I succeeded partially in this, as I explain in the textual notes below.
The opening texts of the Durationist Gospel, from Genesis, are presented in the King James translation. This may be off-putting to some readers, but it may, on the other hand, introduce them to a language and a cadence they've only heard bits of. In any case the King James translation is without peer in terms of power and concision.
The results of my efforts may be judged to be clumsy or, worse, misguided. Nonetheless I don't know of a more complete brief portrait of the life and teachings of Jesus than the one found in the following pages. I've tried to fulfill the goals stated above, goals I consider worthwhile.
The question will be asked about my title. Why have I called this anthology the Durationist Gospel? I'm still in the process of formulating an answer to this question.
Readers should feel free to copy and distribute this file to any who might be curious about the teachings of Jesus but have not yet read the Bible. A little quiet reading may awaken many who are deaf to pushy exhortations.
It wouldn't be incorrect to call this text a gospel harmony. Such a harmony was compiled in antiquity by Tatian, but has since been lost. Another attempt was made in the 19th century by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (see Tolstoy's The Gospel in Brief), but this work presented mainly Tolstoy's interpretation of Jesus' message rather than simply preserving the Gospel sayings in one frame. My own attempt would have brought together the essentials from the three synoptic Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the end I had problems completing my Gospel harmony, however, and the text as it now stands is centered on what might be called a partial harmony. I found that trying to integrate too much of the matter of the Gospels in one narrative frame was destructive to the wholeness and brevity we find as characteristic of the Gospel genre.
The Durationist Gospel is compiled mainly from Matthew, Mark and Luke, though John is also represented by a series of selected texts. Appended to the biblical material is a further selection of sayings from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas as well as five sayings from other ancient sources which have been judged by scholars to have a possibility of authenticity. But note: Out of respect for the established canon of the Bible I have not incorporated any of the apocryphal texts, whether from Thomas or elsewhere, into the narrative itself, but have placed them at the very end, after all the biblical material. In other words, there is a clear division here between texts that are biblical and texts that are not.
My seventy-some pages thus contain the following:
1) several chapters from Genesis;
2) a brief prologue introducing the partial gospel harmony;
3) most of the Gospel of Matthew, to which I've added
4) passages from Mark and Luke, appended by
5) a collection of further material from the biblical Gospels, followed by
6) a collection of apocryphal sayings, from, among other sources, the Gospel of Thomas.
This page is at http://www.necessaryprose.com/