Looking at Jesus :
Jesus, the Five Gospels, and Liberal Christianity
The Reverend Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
It is safe to say that there would be no Christmas season as we have come to know it without the man, Jesus of Nazareth…
Yet, for all the volumes and tomes about him that fill vast libraries like no other theme, person or topic, little is truly known, and even less is taught about the variations in what we know about this remarkable teacher and proposed author of our Western religious traditions called Christianity.
What we can say is this: Physically, he was a Mediterranean man- that is dark haired, bearded, and his skin was heavily tanned as befits anyone who worked out in the sun, and walked extensively around his geographical area… Was he handsome?
We might never know beyond our reverent and often pious pictures- what we can affirm is that he never was that ideal image of an Northern European Christ that decorated so many Sunday School walls…. A blond, blue-eyed Jesus is truly out of the question! Jaroslav Pelikan wrote a book on the many faces of Jesus that describes how Jesus has been depicted in art through the centuries…)
We can conclude from the best sources looking into the sociology and anthropology of his times, that he was born and lived in a culture and an ethos that is similar to ours today- similar, but far from the same… When we exclude the advances of science and technology and focus on the essential facts, needs, and concerns of people, then, as now, human needs and priorities remain the same: the problems of peace and justice, hunger and homelessness, love and family are timeless. Life in Jerusalem, or in the major cities of the Ancient world like Antioch and Alexandria were teeming with a wide diversity of experiences, legalities, and varieties of belief; these places were also the centers for cross cultural trade, language, learning, religion and sociopolitical ideals….
In other words, similar to New York, Boston, Washington on our Eastern coast, or in the modern film, Jesus of Montreal.
The two eras and societies remain similar in other ways- most notably that both worlds had within them conflicting and contrasting religious views and values, with no one consistent guiding philosophy for their lives. With these facts as our givens, we can ask what in Jesus’s world view remains applicable and valid for us today?
Our more conservative sisters and brothers would exclaim “Everything!” But we as more critical and hopefully more discerning appraisers have to ask those cogent questions of our selves in order to reconcile and redeem all the negative past associations and inflictions of theology and nonsense that we were given during our childhood training or religious experience…. That means that we need to go beyond those childhood notions or be willing to discard and disregard those previous negative associations. As responsible and searching adults, our need is to look at the person of Jesus freshly- appraising the writings and the teachings about him in a way that is free of all the lingering anger and resentments you might still feel. We have to be willing to throw out all the old moralisms, trite clichés, or forced and rote cathcetical answers to begin again… (Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossen, Matthew Fox, and Bishop Spong’s Books)
But this time, this time in your adult search, you will fully engage your reason and apply your intelligence as you separate the wheat from the chaff, the gold from the dross in Jesus’ words. Freshly and completely, you can begin to discern the true from the false, the inspirational and the wise from the dubious or incomprehensible.
Before you react too hastily, that it is neither worth the effort or would reveal nothing new for you, let me remind you that it is an important part of being religious and inclusive means that we acknowledge gratefully all the past contributions, as well as courageously and independently stay open to new interpretations.
As this refers directly to our claims to intelligence, literacy and sophistication, I affirm that if you are Biblically illiterate, you have little chance of considering yourself an educated person- Most of Western art, music and literature contains Biblical allusions and references, so to be familiar with its contents is a mark of a well rounded intellect and refinement. If thus is your situation, maybe you should sign up for my course on a Bible Study for Seekers and Skeptics???!
Today, it is my intention to provide you with a groundwork for your refamilization. By assisting you with the insights from some of the latest research, and what the consensus of current scholarship reveals: Namely, that there is a religion of Jesus- his ideas, principles and the spirit of his teachings as he lived and taught them, from the words collected and given to us as the Gospels and then there is the religion about Jesus that was created by the Early Church through to the Reformation Church that became the standards of acceptable belief that defines orthodoxy or outlines mainline Christianity. First point for you to consider seriously- They are not the same, and often are in conflict in both belief and practice. (formally known as Orthopistis and Orthopraxis)
We find our sources for both points of view in the edited or redacted collection of writings and sayings known to us as the 4 or 5 (?) Accepted canonical Gospels.
To begin this appraisal, I can forward a guess that states that few of you were ever given a good grounding in Biblical knowledge as a part of your early education- if you received one at all! Few of you were given the insights that each of the four recognized Gospels contain a differing view of Jesus, and that you entirely free and accurate to choose which rendition or which blend of the various renditions that you prefer or that might speak to you or help you to appreciate the teachings in a cogent and useful way… ( the adult process to create a personal Canon of faith…)
This ability to mix and match in order to form your own conclusions about Jesus as the fully enlightened man, or as the Myth, the human ethical role model, or as the Messiah, etc., is a choice and an exploration that I feel is very worthwhile.
Now, quite briefly, I will give you an example of these differing views of the four Gospels and then I will also include one of the banned or Gnostic Gospels for your consideration as well…
The earliest or the first, according to most scholars, (and I happen to be one of the few that holds a dissenting view), is the Gospel according to Mark. Mark was written in approximately 65 CE or AD or 30-35 years after Jesus’s death. This shorter, inspirational biography was ostensibly written by Mark, a youthful follower of the Apostle, Peter. (Remember, disciple means sincere student or avid follower of, whereas the designation Apostle means someone who has had direct experience of a holy person or teacher… Please see sermon of Matthius and discipleship) Mark, as a brief, forceful and cogent account was presumably written for a Roman audience. I state these agreed on conclusions tentatively because even the most mainline scholars are not completely certain of authorship, time or the place and so we have to conclude that information about anything derived
from antiquity, means that our conclusions are educated guesses, not facts.
In Mark’s account, we are given an adult, almost Gentile Jesus… It is a Gospel of wonder and power, quite well suited to a Roman culture. Here, when Jesus is the baptized or becomes the enchristed one, he is chosen to preach a higher reality and model and higher sense of ethics. He is portrayed as a sharp, concise and demanding leader who can, at times, feel alienated and troubled by what he sees in human nature and human society. He is pictured as a religious teacher who scorns piety and any displays of self-righteousness, and adamantly tries to counter the prevailing attitudes of excessive legalism and hypocrisy.
In the Markan Gospel, we are given a Jesus who suffers on the cross as a result of the accumulated hatred of the powerful for his message of equality, justice and compassion. Here we are also given the time when Jesus was snubbed by his family and peers to the point that is his own disciples fail to understand what he taught them! In Mark, we are given the man Jesus as a prophetic herald whose command was to “watch and beware or be ready”- be ready to put your conscience ahead of your concern for convenience, ethics before expediency, and to place your reasonable understanding alongside your faith…
Originally, Mark’s rendition ends without a resurrection story, and we find a later addition or editorial that inserts it! This Gospel is a declaration that states that doing as I have done, living as I have lived, is enough for your salvation, your integrity, your sense of being, belonging, and for living justly. Because Mark avoids all the piety and projection of the other Gospels and all the difficult questions about Jesus’s birth and resurrection, it has always been the easiest version for religious liberals or those who are inclusive to accept or adopt.
There are some verses that are only found in Mark and nowhere else-The parable of the seed growing secretly… As the metaphor for how we can experience grace and how we grow in our spiritual understanding?
( One could insert a brief discussion of “Q” and the definitions of being a Synoptic , but I had to edit this into a sermon length…)
The next edited compilation in history was the Gospel according to Matthew, written about 75 CE or AD, and it is regarded to be the most “Jewish” rendition or portrayal. It gives the reader a picture of Jesus as being Lord, a Master, and as a Rabbi.
In Matthew’s version, Jesus represents the embodiment of all the Hebrew or Old Testament teachings concerning the Law and the Prophets. He is the Christ, the Messiah or the Anointed One- we are given that he is the one who was promised to the Israelites since the days of King David, who was also an anointed or chosen leader… He represents a new hope from an old promise. Matthew, then is the Gospel of faith. Matthew gives us a Jesus who is a teacher specially ordained by his unique birth who was to bring forth the Kingdom, not by power, but through service to the souls of others. Here is where we find the parables of the good servant who leads by example. Particular to Matthew are the parables about the Kingdom, Peter as the holder of the keys to heaven, and the most popular rendition of the collected words that form the text of The Lord’s Prayer.
In the next Gospel, the one according to Luke, written in approximately 100 CE or AD, some 75 years after Jesus, we are given another, differing perspective. This account is believed to be written for a more sophisticated audience of Greeks- it is
written in a polished style and aimed at people who were familiar with the teachings of Hellenism, including the works of Plato and Aristotle. Because of this, we get a less human depiction, but not one as metaphysical as John’s.
Luke’s Gospel begins with a chronology that goes back to Adam and that prepares us for a miraculous birth. Luke is the Gospel that introduces us to Mary most completely, and in general, Luke is the story line that treats women with the most dignity and respect, and where women are often seen in a positive relationship to Jesus. The author, Luke was a Greek physician, who is also the presumed author of the Book of Acts. Because of this, we have more of the healing stories in Luke than in any other Gospel- it is considered to be the Gospel of joy, and the Gospel of forgiveness. Luke shows Jesus teaching through the unique parable of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son to emphasize how we are to care about others unconditionally and to serve one another unselfishly.
The fourth or the last of the accepted or authorized depiction’s of Jesus is given to us in the Gospel according to John. This more metaphysical account was written last- in approximately 125 CE or AD, and teaches more about the nature of Christ or the divinity in the man Jesus, than emphasizing the ethics of the man and his teachings. In John we are given the most Godlike image closer to what Paul had earlier proclaimed in the Epistles that predate John.
This is the cosmic and mystical Gospel; Some would say it is nearly Gnostic in its approach. This Gospel is infused or embodied and then transmitted to us through the man, Jesus. Here Jesus uses the ” I am” statements to represent this unique and particular authoritative and divine connection. (apotheosis)
In this account, we are given more miracles and some parapyschological considerations. Here the Logos or divine Word suffices for a nativity story and the disciples know, early on,
who and what Jesus is- The Son of God- defined metaphorically as
anyone who lives in a strict accordance with God’s consciousness. This is the Jesus who is confident and exhalted. He is the one who clearly and exclusively provides for our salvation. Here the Greek notions of duality-that the flesh is weak and the spirit is dominant- are emphasized. Of course, John’s account is the one most favored by the high, liturgical and creedal churches.
Now, a little enticement to read more than what is condoned or accepted…. While these four accounts are sufficient to give you a very different and distinct views of Jesus, I feel that the more one reads and knows, the wider and the more inclusive and adaptable will be our understanding and appreciation… With that in mind, I want to introduce the 5th Gospel-the Gospel of Thomas. This previous banned or at least disregarded text has seen a resurgent of interest and authenticity. Here we are given distinct and pithy sayings without a story- sayings whose character and nature are very similar to both Mark and Matthew, and most influentially, are attributed to the same time frame which lends credence to these statements. We have, in Thomas, a Jesus that only speaks in the present tense- in the here and now which becomes timeless source of wisdom for us. Among the better known phrases and most startling ones that were quoted by the Early Church and that now come down to us are these:
“Protect your neighbor like the pupil of your own eye”
Split the wood and I am there, lift you a rock, and I am there”, “When the inside becomes the outside, when the male become the female and the female become the male, then you are
not far from the Kingdom”…. Interesting, even intriguing, right???
Well, that is enough of a brief introduction for today… Let me conclude by asking: Why is this important? People who are tolerant and accepting of many religious points of view. Since we are willing spirits and searching minds, we too can construct a story of the Good News, a living Gospel that we can appreciate and use for inspiration and understanding. And it just might be that a revitalized look at Jesus is what the whole renewed interest in spirituality is looking for… Who knows?
Today, we can make a fresh start… We can start by appreciating our centuries long struggle to uncover a meaning of Jesus for us today, to find a way of knowing and respect that is more enlightened, that is ever-changing, ever growing so that we can choose for ourselves how best to understand the indelible and permanent impact of this story on Western thought and on our Western civilization. Once we do, we can put all the old memories and insults behind us, and begin in the words of Marcus Borg: “To meet Jesus again, for the first time”…. Amen, So Be it….