Monday, May 14, 2012

Reverend Howard Bess: Hiding the True Jesus
May 8, 2012.
In reshaping American politics and society, the Christian Right has applied a distorted version of Jesus’s teachings, downplaying his pacifism and his contempt for wealth while emphasizing later revisions that didn’t threaten the powerful. That’s why Rev. Howard Bess says the search for the true Jesus is crucial.
I grew up as a devout, “red letter” Christian who hung on every word from Jesus. My Baptist church had a heavy influence on me and my faith was focused on making certain that I ended up in heaven. I learned that Jesus died for my sins and I was forever indebted to him.

I believed that the stories that Jesus told were earthly stories with heavenly meaning. To me, Jesus was a teacher of spiritual truth and divine wisdom. Then came seminary, where I was exposed to a different kind of study of the Bible.

An angry Jesus driving the money-changers from theTemple in Jerusalem,
as depicted by 14th Century painter Giotto di Bondone.

It was while I was in seminary that I learned that the Bible is like every other book in that every word, every sentence, every paragraph was written by a human being and in a context. So, everything that is reported about Jesus had a context.

Early in the modern effort to understand Jesus in context, scholars concluded that Jesus was crucified by Romans soldiers (not by Jews) because he was a social and political rabble-rouser. The Roman rulers could not have cared less about Jesus’s ideas about heaven. They killed him for political reasons.

The idea that Jesus was a universal sacrifice for the sins of the whole world was a theological construction of Paul, who never knew Jesus and had little knowledge of his life. Indeed, in Paul’s many writings, he never indicates any awareness of the life of Jesus or his teachings.

Instead, Paul said he had an experience of the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, and he developed a theology to fit his experience and his background in Judaism (with its emphasis on sacrifice, not forgiveness).

Despite Paul’s lack of contact with Jesus during his days as a teacher (and Paul’s strained relationship with Jesus’s disciples), Paul became the early church’s theologian, a brilliant thinker with unbounded energy. He was literate and wrote voluminously.

By contrast, Jesus’s disciples were not writers and none of the gospel writings can be traced to them. The gospels that we have in the Bible are collections of oral traditions reduced to writing and enlarged by unknown writers two generations after the death of Jesus.

So who was the historical Jesus, the reputational rabbi who grew up in Galilee in Northern Palestine? We have few verifiable facts of his life and it was not until the early 20th Century that the search began in earnest when Albert Schweitzer wrote The Quest of the Historical Jesus.

Schweitzer acknowledged that his quest was unsuccessful, but it kicked off a search that has never stopped. We are now in the third wave of the quest of the historical Jesus, with new research tools that have allowed a clear picture of Jesus to emerge.

The methodology of the third wave is interdisciplinary. Historians, archaeologists, sociologists and anthropologists — along with Biblical scholars — have been enlisted in the effort to construct a context in which to understand Jesus. The context that has been developed includes politics, economics and social structures.

The First Century historian Josephus has been a bonanza of information that has helped construct this context for understanding Jesus as a person, someone who emerged from the advanced agrarian society in which he lived. Jesus was influenced by the growth of aristocratic empires in the First Century as well as the power and presence of Roman rule.

New attempts also are being made to understand the Judaism of the First Century and the complex relationship between Temple leaders and Roman rulers. The Temple practices of Jews were tolerated by Roman rulers as long as Temple leaders controlled their people. Though Temple leaders did control the Jews of southern Palestine, they were not able to control the Jews of Galilee, where Jesus lived.

Even the Romans could not control Galilee, which has always been a special place in the social, religious and economic life of Palestine. The Romans built Sepphoris and Tiberius to extend their power, but Galileans despised the two cities, which were known for the unjust rulers and greedy aristocrats who lived there.

Galileans avoided contact with the two cities and there is no record that Jesus ever went to either one, even though Nazareth was a mere four miles from Sepphoris.

Rural Galilee also was a hotbed of the Zealots, who made no secret of their contempt for Roman rule and advocated reestablishment of the nation of Israel through violent overthrow. They despised Jews who were cooperators with an evil empire.

The dominant influence of the Zealots among the poor of Galilee is a key part of the context for Jesus’s life. The gospels identify Peter as a Zealot, and a Zealot of Galilee was always armed with a weapon, typically a sharpened knife. By tradition, Jesus told Peter, “Put away your sword.”

Jesus shared the Zealots’ concerns for the poor and the disenfranchised, but the material in the gospels strongly suggests that he parted company with the Zealots over the tools of revolution. He favored peaceful means for challenging the rule of the Romans and the Jewish leaders of the Jerusalem Temple.

Our best evidence is that Jesus was a social and political radical, an advocate for the poor. Jesus had no regard for the rich and made his fateful trip to Jerusalem to rally opposition to the protectors of this aristocratic system.

Those who today want to separate politics, social ethics and issues of wealth and poverty from religion are not following the lead of Jesus from Nazareth.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is

Comment: I am a fan of the critical writing style of Reverend Howard Bess.  If you have been reading here for the last year you may recognize his name from other articles I have reposted.

I think that his argument is on the mark and there is a need to contextualize Jesus outside of the mad politics of post-liberal(ism) ideologues; and that includes near fascists like those conservatives in the US and elsewhere who defile Jesus' revolutionary struggle and message.

I shudder to think that if Jesus was to return today he would most likely be imprisoned without a trial in Guantanamo or any of the other black sites the US and its attachments use to wage their insane wars.

Of course the US could just as easily kill him in a drone strike and do so in his name and supposedly for his cause/own good.

The problem as Reverend Bess points out is in the interpretation of Jesus (I would go further to say Abrahamic religions in general).  Those who would confine him to oral and later writings often fail to see the revolution he intended.

And, for this reason Jesus is often re-constructed in benign terms that decontextualize him as a revolutionary historical figure.

It may be that for some this decontextualized and  benign Jesus is the symbol/myth needed to make sense of the existential absurdity of life.

But I am being generous.

Most of the zealots who use Jesus (or Christianity) to rationalize their oppressive mindsets and actions care little for the revolutionary figure.

For this demographic life is about petitioning self interests even if it means that Others suffer the consequences.

During my childhood I would stare at the ethereal Christian churches where apartheid ideology rationalized bigotry and killing and wonder what kind of people went there but more so, what kind of God listened to their prayers.

The processes that have repositioned Jesus into an ahistorical and rationalized banality have similarly afflicted the revolutionary figure of Prophet Mohammed.

Much like the oral traditions that were captured too late to be accurate as pointed out by Reverend Bess the stodgy and unverifiable collections of eyewitness/hearsay writings known as hadith have rendered the last prophet of Islam distant from his revolution - and in many cases, the Qur'an.

Aside from the textual inference that the Qur'an is God's last word to Muslims there is nonetheless those who will insist that the hadith is nothing less than God-inspired scriptures.

My repeated question to this mindset is simply which hadith - there is hardly agreement among Muslims about what is and is not verifiable hadith.

The other day I watched a program on a Muslim channel beamed from Britain where a sanctimonious imam explained that the hadith is inseparable from the Qur'an.

He is wrong and absolutely so.  Nowhere in the Qur'an is the hadith given sanction by God.  In effect it is so convoluted, distorted, and contested that reading the hadith is nothing short of an exercise in projection.

The Qur'an is very clear about God's final word and ultimate authority in conveying Islam:
”This day I have perfected your religion for you, completed My favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion” (Holy Qur'an 5:3)
In keeping with this verse there can be no improving perfection.  All that is needed to be a Muslim is in the Qur'an.

For this reason there is nothing Islamic about the hadith and it is not necessary for any Muslim to accept anything contained in the collective hadith - let alone read it in any form it may be (re)-constructed.

Still, I have no real problem with Muslims who use the hadith to find other thinking about issues touched on by the Qur'an.

What I do have a problem with are those Muslims who will claim the hadith as Islam(ic) and use what they find in there as 'gospel', so to speak.

In a very clear sense, this critique is somewhat what the Reverend Bess is saying about writings that are absolutely unverifiable and even where they are collected in the New Testament there is hardly agreement about its originality and efficacy.

In closing I want to say that my experience with hadith-centered Muslims (the same is true of testament-based Christians) is that they are closed minded and frankly, misguided.

In one recent instance I was berated by a former reader here who thought me arrogant to contest the hadith because she claimed it was produced by rightly guided companions or God-inspired writers.


There are no such figures because Islam is a horizontally based religion without special favors from God for anyone - there is no special classes and rightly guided anything in Islam because the Qur'an is the last word of God to all Muslims.

Even the chosen prophets in Islam, including Jesus, are no more than mortals.

In this sense, and in Qur'anic terms, anyone who believes in the supremacy of God is open to the mercy and compassion of God - Christians and Jews and other believers too.

The inference is clear then - God did not even choose Muslims over other believers.

Still, in a religion with such clear simplicity there are those who add and detract from the revolution that Islam intended much the same way that Reverend Bess is saying about some testament-bound Christians.

For this reason it is still a worthy question to ask what Jesus would do - really do that is.


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