The title of this article implies that there was a gospel preached before there was such a thing as Christianity or the Christian Church. This original gospel (meaning “good news” or “glad tidings”) was the teaching of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. It was not a teaching about Jesus as the gospel came to be in Christianity, but simply the teaching of Jesus.
The best scholarly research into the historical Jesus indicates that he had little to say about himself. The core parables and aphorisms of Jesus were not about Jesus. As shocking as this may sound to Christian ears, the gospel of Jesus had nothing to say about his death or resurrection, nothing to say about about the Church, nothing to say about about his so-called Second Coming, and most importantly, nothing to say about Christology.
The bottom line of all the best research into the historical Jesus indicates that Jesus was not on about himself, did not preach about himself, and used parables that made no mention of his person or work.
The very core of this “gospel before Christianity” is found in just two slightly different versions of these words of Jesus in his so-called Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said,’Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist[respond with any kind of payback or retaliatory justice] to an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be the sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your comrades, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be complete [inclusive and unconditional in your love], therefore, as your heavenly Father is complete [inclusive and unconditional in his love]. Matthew 5: 38-48
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give help to everyone who needs it without hoping you will get anything back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you help those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners help their own, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and help them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great in that you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Luke 27-36
In these few words cited above we have the substance of the Gospel according to Jesus. Not according to Paul. Not according to the Christian Church. Just the gospel according to Jesus himself.
This teaching of Jesus was new – astoundingly, breathtakingly new. It was not found in any sacred scripture of that day. His critics recognized it was new, and Jesus himself likened it to new wine that should not be put back into the old wineskins of the old religious paradigms.
Instead of addressing what Jesus said, his opponents played the ad hominem card. They raised all sorts of questions about the bona fides of the teacher. By what authority does he teach? Where does he come from? Who was his father? Has he ever been trained? By what authority does he say such things?
Jesus refused to address the matter of his authority. He also refused to perform a miracle as a sign of his authority – at least this is clearly stated in the Synoptic Gospels. Unlike the Old Testament prophets, he did not say, “The word of the Lord came unto me saying…” He did not preface what he had to say with “The Bible says…” Unlike St. Paul, he did not cite a vision or a revelation from heaven. All these kind of appeals to authority are the stuff of religion. As Alfred Nolan points out in Jesus Before Christianity, Jesus believed that the authority for what he said was found in what he said. The words were self-authenticating in that they appealed directly to one’s innate sense of what is truly human and right.
That age was not ready to accept that the truth about what is said does not depend upon the authority of whoever said it. If what is being said is true, it would be just as true if it came from the mouth of an ass. The scholars in the Middle Ages would debate how many teeth a horse had according to Aristotle instead of looking into the horse’s mouth to count the teeth for themselves. Truth was supposed to rest on some authority. A thing was “proven” to be true by virtue of who said it, not by the examination and testing of what was said.
As soon as mankind was ready to grasp that it must pay attention to the what instead of the who, the age of the Enlightenment and real human progress was born.
Some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in history have been made by persons saying things outside of the area of their recognized expertise. In the matter of science, which is simply the world of reality, the truth of any finding is independent of the researcher or the presenter. The question of whether the revolutionary insights of Copernicus or Darwin or Einstein were true could not be decided by asking questions about who they were. We do not prove that the earth moves around the sun or the theory of Relativity (E= MC2) by making claims about the miraculous powers of Copernicus or Einstein. The ancients were all too prone to say that extra-ordinary wisdom came to the progeny of women who had been impregnated by the gods – as they said of Plato the philosopher, Asclepius the healer, or Alexander and Augustus the rulers. The translation of the Latin logo for the Royal Society (the oldest scientific body in the world) says, “Take no man’s word for it.” Who said it is irrelevant. The only thing that needs to be evaluated is what is said.
So Jesus, truly a man before his time, refused to appeal to any authority for what he said other than what he said. His critics, however, focussed on asking, “Who is the person saying these things?” Unfortunately, the followers of Jesus did the same thing. They responded to their critics by making all kinds of claims about the person of Jesus. By doing this they bought into this false premise that the truth of what was said depended on who said it.
Literary scholars have found that the first written record of Jesus was simply a collection of his sayings which they now call Sayings Gospel Q (Q is short for the German word Quelle, meaning Source). But it wasn’t long before the followers of Jesus had much more to say about who Jesus was supposed to be – as if that would give authority to what he said. At first they said that he was proven to be the Messiah – the Jewish word for Christ – by his resurrection from the dead. To this they added stories about some of his miracles, none of which were in the original Sayings Gospel Q. After three generations had passed it was being said that he was a virgin- born sinless being who came down from another World. Finally, after a process that took about 400 years, he was declared to be God Almighty in the highest sense, or the second member of the blessed Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Church and State united to decree that anyone who denied this should be put to death. This state of affairs continued in the Christian West for more than 1000 years.
What happened in all of this was that the spotlight shifted from what Jesus said to who Jesus was. The teaching about Jesus replaced the teaching of Jesus. The messenger became the Message, the iconoclast became the Icon, and the gospel of Jesus became the gospel about Jesus.
Beside the Gold Coast Highway just south of Surfers Paradise there is Pentecostal Church on which there is a large sign which reads: “Our Message: Jesus.” That expresses in a nutshell the reality of the great shift from the message to the Messenger.
The supreme example of this monumental shift from the what to the who is demonstrated by the great Creeds of the Church, all of which are wholly taken up with Christology – the Christ of faith. None of the Creeds have a thing to say about what Jesus said. So the first centuries of Church history were taken up with debates about the person of Christ and the so-called heresies of Adoptionism, Doceticism, Nestorianism, Sebellianism, Arianism, Modalism, etc. There was a furious debate about whether Christ was homoiousios (of like substance) with God the Father or homoousios (of identical substance) with God the Father? Athanasius passionately argued that our entire salvation rested on the subtle difference made by this little Greek diphthong that was formed by the single letter “i”.
After the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE) finally settled the fine points about the person of Christ (Christology), Christians began debating the fine points about the work of Christ (Soteriology). These debates were designed to address the question, How do we access the salvation provided by Christ’s atonement on the cross? To what extent does accessing the salvation provided by Christ’s death depend on the sacraments and priestly ministrations of the Church? Do we find a gracious God by a faith that is formed by charity (the Catholic Council of Trent) or by faith alone that will afterward be formed by charity (the Protestant Reformers)? What are the steps the believer must take to access the saving merits of Christ’s work? Some of the most significant debates were featured in the contests between Augustine and Pelagius, Anselm and Abelard, Rome and the Reformers, Calvin and Arminius. These controversies merely drew up some of the major battle lines for further divisive arguments.
Once salvation was made to depend on the who – having the right Christology and the right Soteriology – then there was no end to clarifying and redrafting the conditions upon which salvation is attained, a process that eventually spawned 30,000 different Christian denominations with 30,000 different ways to interpret who is Christ, what he did for our salvation and what conditions must be met to obtain that salvation. Accessing this “free” salvation (they all say it is free!)
is not unlike accessing a government grant. Most applicants end up throwing their arms up in despair when they get into doing all the conditional paperwork, so they simply rely on professionals to make sure all the i’s and t’s of the application papers are dotted and crossed.
However, if we return to what Jesus said, all this hair-splitting of Christology and Soteriology becomes irrelevant.
Unfortunately, when we look at the earliest writings of the New Testament, which are the letters of St. Paul, we find that he has no real interest in the historical Jesus (See 2 Corinthians 5:16). He only has an apocalyptic interpretation of Jesus as the cosmic Christ of faith, and this replaces the teaching of Jesus – entirely! Kaseman was right when he said, “Apocalyptic was the mother of all Christian theology.” We now know that in the time of Jesus and Paul, Judaism had been immersed in apocalyptic hopes and an apocalyptic worldview for about 150 years. This had reached a fever pitch in their day. Unfortunately, the creators of Christian theology were incurably wedded to this apocalyptic worldview. So they interpreted the Jesus event through the lens of their apocalyptic expectations.
Apocalyptic is all about a mythical flight from reality into a world where all the known laws that govern this real world do not apply. To put it bluntly, apocalyptic is an escape from reality into a world of religious make-believe. Another name for it is mythology.
Let’s take the crucifixion of Jesus as an example of apocalyptic mythology. If we had been present at this historical event, we would have seen what was open for anybody to see – the brutal killing of an innocent Jew by the Roman authorities at the instigation of his Jewish opponents. We would have seen a tragic miscarriage of justice to be sure, but a thing that has happened all too often in this world. So basically, we would have seen nothing more than a barbaric execution.
Apocalyptic, however, claims to unveil/disclose a hidden meaning and action of the unseen world (This is the basic meaning of the word apocalyptic). Rather than just seeing Roman soldiers killing this Galilean teacher, apocalyptic sees that something else of enormous cosmic significance is taking place. It is as if the veil that hides the unseen world is torn away to disclose that this cross on which Jesus hangs is the divinely chosen altar on which the Christ offers up himself to Almighty God as a bloody sacrifice to propitiate God’s anger on account of human sin. Somehow the cross becomes the stupendous end-time Judgment in which Jesus Christ is punished by Almighty God and thereby suffers for the sins of the world so that somehow we might find forgiveness and a gracious God rather than face an angry Judge. We say “somehow” because there are different theories of the atonement ranging from those that are rather crude to those that are more refined. None of them, however, change the basic idea of the cross being a cosmic event that is efficacious for human salvation.
This interpretation of the death of Jesus is not real history and can’t be proved by any appeal to the facts of history. On the contrary, it is about an imaginary event that takes place in a mythical world where the normal laws of reality do not apply. It is a flight from this real world into a world of religious make-believe.
So Paul preached an apocalyptic interpretation of the death of Jesus which was a flight from real history. By his own testimony he did not get his “gospel” from the apostles who had known Jesus, but he got it directly from Heaven through his private visionary experience. (Galatians 1:12; 2 Corinthians 12:1-4) He had little interest in the historical Jesus. (See 2 Corinthians 5:16) In his first Corinthian epistle he denigrated those who like Apollos were attracted to the wisdom teaching of Jesus. Paul said he wanted to know nothing except his apocalyptic vision of “Christ and Him Crucified.”
So in Christian teaching, Jesus becomes the exalted apocalyptic Son of man instead of the ordinary son of man which he modestly and repeatedly claimed to be. This apocalyptic Son of man was eventually – about three generations later – said to be no man’s son, that is, virgin born. Rather than being an ordinary man with ordinary DNA, along with 23 male-derived and 23 female-derived chromosomes, he looks suspiciously like a god who has just stepped out of a Greek myth. He becomes the apocalyptic Christ who by his passion and resurrection changes God’s relationship to the world by bridging some infinite gulf between God and man – a gulf that is purely mythical and that never existed anyway. And finally, apocalyptic must have a Second Coming to bring a final holocaust of unimaginable horror on all them that “obey not the gospel.” (2 Thessalonians 1: 6-9) Apocalyptic is always about God’s final solution to those who oppose God and the people on God’s side of the battle between good and evil.
Leaving all this aside, we return to what Jesus said in the first place. The great shift from what Jesus said to who Jesus was certainly sent the Church on a long detour. The Romans might have crucified Jesus at the instigation of some of his opponents, but the followers of Jesus did worse when they buried what Jesus said beneath their apocalyptic theology and Creeds.
Despite this, the teaching of Jesus was never wholly suppressed. Some of his core aphorisms and parables were preserved in the earliest Sayings Gospel Q, apparently by his earliest Galilean followers. This document had nothing to say about Christology (who Jesus was) and nothing to say about apocalyptic. It was simply a collection of Jesus’ most memorable sayings, indicating that the most impressive thing about the man was what he said. These sayings found their way into two of the Gospels that were composed two or three generations after the death of Jesus by unknown authors. To give these books “apostolic authority,” the Church claimed one was written by the disciple Matthew, and the other was written by Luke, a companion of Paul. None of the New Testament, however, was written by eyewitnesses of the historical Jesus. With the exception of Paul’s letters to his young churches, the New Testament documents were composed two or three generations after the Jesus event. It is even remarkable that these core sayings of Jesus made it into any of the New Testament Gospels – they are absent from Mark and John – because they stand in very real tension to the teaching of the developing Church.
As Robert W. Funk puts it, “The gospel of Jesus is not mythological. The major mythic themes of the kerygma [message of the early church] and creed are missing from his pronouncements…The language of Jesus is exhaustively focused on the mundane, the ordinary, the non-mythological… [Jesus] does not appear to resort to anything outside the domain of his secular lifeworld: his message does not traffic in mythology at any level.” (The Incredible Creed, May-August 1997)
The core of the Sayings Gospel Q is found in both Matthew 5:37-48 and Luke 6: 27-36 as cited above. Some of the aphorisms and parables of Jesus, found elsewhere in the Gospels, re-enforce this same core teaching about an inclusive and unconditional love. The word love is a translation from the Greek word agape which conveys the idea of a compassionate concern or caring for the well-being of others.
By inclusive we mean that it is a love that includes both friend and foe, those who are for us and those who are against us. Jesus radically revises the Old Testament commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” The Law of Moses repeatedly sanctioned, even commanded Israel to hate and exterminate its enemies, including women and little children, without taking any pity on them (Deuteronomy 7:16). The Psalmist reflects this attitude when he prays, “Do not I hate those who hate you, O Lord…I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.” (Psalm 139: 21-2). Jesus would have none of this tribal kind of love, but said, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even the financial predators and the charlatans love those who love them. In the teaching of Jesus, the neighbour whom we are to love includes the differing, even hostile others, the good and the bad alike.
By unconditional we mean “no matter what,” “under all circumstances.” Here is a non-violent love that never retaliates, never demands an atonement of pay-back justice, but forgives and never condemns.
Is this kind of ethic unique? It is not entirely unique because even before Jesus there were some, even among the noble pagans, such as Pythagorus, who were able to conceive of an ethic like this. But it seems that Jesus was the first to link this ethic of non-violent love to a theology of non-violent love. According to these sayings of Jesus, we should love our enemies without thought of retaliation because God does exactly this. God sends the rain and sunshine on the good and the bad alike. Or as Luke’s Gospel has Jesus say: “The Most High is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
There is no teaching of apocalyptic in the teaching of the historical Jesus. Apocalyptic is completely at odds to an ethic and theology of non-violence. Some of the New Testament story-tellers embellished the saying of Jesus with some apocalyptic threats which are clearly antithetical to his core teaching. The temptation to put a “Jesus said” in front of their own apocalyptic hopes was apparently all too much for some to resist. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew we have a Jesus who tells us not to judge others, while in Matthew 23 we have a Jesus who bitterly denounces his opponents and damns them to hell. That is why it is important to examine critically what is said instead of deferring to the authority of who was supposed to have said it. In this way we may follow the lead of Thomas Jefferson who said that picking out the genuine sayings of Jesus is as easy as picking out diamonds from a dunghill. The genuine sayings of the historical Jesus have this unmistakable voiceprint that clearly distinguishes them from the moralistic glosses of the unknown author passed off as Matthew. So too, the genuine parables of Jesus have the voiceprint of a brilliant critique of conventional wisdom. The badies of that culture become the goodies, while the goodies become the badies; the expected losers turn out to be the winners, and the winners become the losers. Matthew’s contrived parable of the ten bridesmaids lacks this element of surprise and Jesus’ biting critique of conventional wisdom. Instead, Matthew has Jesus giving us a dreary bit of moralism – to say nothing of its context about an apocalyptic Second Coming which is about as far from the genuine teaching of Jesus that one could get.
And how might we come to such astonishing conclusions? It is by simply paying attention to what is said rather than by accepting anything on the basis of who was supposed to have said it. We have absolutely no eyewitness accounts of Jesus, and no extant record of him has ever been found. Some years after Jesus died, there were apparently all too many people willing to put words into his mouth as if that would give authority to their own religious agendas. That is why we must pay attention to what is being taught rather than who said it – or who was supposed to have said it. At the end of the day, it does not matter who said it.
In Jesus’ new teaching about God, we penetrate to the heart of what Jesus called “the gospel” – good news that calls for unprecedented celebration. It is not a gospel about himself as that sign on that Pentecostal Church proclaims. Jesus does not call us to practice non-retaliating love in the hope that God will one day mete out retribution upon our enemies on our behalf. Unfortunately, this is what Paul teaches when he says, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Romans 12:19). Unfortunately, Paul was never able to move away from a God of vengeance and wrath. His letter to the Romans abounds in statements about God’s wrath toward sinners. His doctrine of Christ’s blood atonement is about an act of violence that is said to placate God’s wrath, and his doctrine of a Second Coming expresses an expectation of the same kind of violence against the great mass of mankind (See 2 Thessalonians 11-8-9).
It is impossible to reconcile Paul’s apocalyptic theology of violence – which was to become orthodox Christian theology – with the theology of non-violence so clearly announced in the gospel of Jesus. In one fell stroke Jesus gets rid of all the angry, threatening spirits and gods that have haunted humanity from the beginnings of human history. What Jesus said is that behind all reality there is an Ultimate Reality of inclusive and unconditional love that is never violent and never resorts to retaliation against human imperfection. This love is not contrary to justice because it is a healing and restorative kind of justice rather than a punishing kind of retributive justice. This is the teaching that is reflected in all the genuine aphorisms and parables of Jesus – such as the parables of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan and the Vineyard Workers.
In linking his ethic of non-violence to a theology of non-violence, Jesus rules out a theology of retaliation and pay-back justice. His teaching rules out any theology of forgiveness of sin made possible through an atoning sacrifice. The Christian Church went into the world to preach a Gospel about a Christ who by his death on the cross bridged the gulf between God and man, but in the Gospel of Jesus there never was a gulf between God and man. No mediators, priests or brokers are needed to access God’s love and forgiveness. Jesus taught that God is among us and in us, nearer to us than our breathe or heartbeat, a Spirit of forgiving generosity that does not have to be won by a brutal and bloody human sacrifice. To be embraced by an eternal love that will never leave us or forsake us is grounded in the unfettered and overwhelming generosity of God. The ethic of Jesus was grounded in and flowed from this kind of theology.
When Jesus talked about God – the highest Good – he had this unique way of reasoning from a mundane level. For instance, he would say, If you being imperfectly human know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will God be ready to give good gifts to you. If we can accept that a true love of neighbour will be inclusive and unconditional, how much more will the love of God –the supreme Good – be inclusive and unconditional? If we being imperfectly human can promise to love another human being “for better or for worse,” or if there are parents who will love their children no matter what- like that father in Jesus’ parable of the wayward son – then how much more – infinitely more- will God’s love be inclusive and unconditional. And non-violent toward all – always.
By linking his ethic of love and non-violence to a theology of love and non-violence, Jesus makes his theology as rational and as winsome as his ethics. This is why his teaching has appealed to theists and atheists alike. It has the ability to appeal to people of all religions and of no religion. Especially at this moment in history when the world is struggling with the issue of religious violence, here is a teaching that strikes at the heart of all religious violence.
There is a ring of truth to what Jesus said that has commanded the respect of a whole range of thinkers outside the Christian faith – Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, Jack London, Ralph Waldo Emmerson and Geza Vermes, just to mention a few. Jefferson said that the teaching of Jesus was “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has even been offered to man.” Gandhi said “he was one of the greatest teachers humanity ever had.” They did not say such things because they were impressed by who Jesus was supposed to be according to Christian teaching. It was solely what Jesus said that spoke so powerfully to their reason and human consciousness. As Jefferson concluded, his words expressed “sublime ideas of the Supreme Being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence…humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners…with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.” Or as Stephen Mitchell puts it, “Here, in the essential sayings, we have words… that can shine into a Muslim’s or a Buddhist’s or a Jew’s heart just as powerfully as into a Christian’s.” (The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 7).
In summary: the gospel of Jesus is a teaching about the non-retaliating, non-violent, unconditionally forgiving love of God for all mankind; and the ethic of Jesus is about behaving toward others just as God behaves toward us.