Pick up any particular dogma and turn it over in your hands. You see man’s peanut-butter-and-jelly fingerprints all over it, the misshapen pieces and the un-flush edges. You see how its beauty was really just a trick of the light.
Specifically, everything we are so blessedly, absolutely sure we know about Jesus from the New Testament—all that stuff we would die for? Made up by men.
Most evangelicals assume that orthodoxy (correct ideas about Jesus) just proceeded straight from God’s mouth. That is, as Jesus was wandering the Judean countryside talking to people and performing various miracles, someone was taking notes. Creating dogma was then just a matter of responsible reporting. God acted in the person of Jesus Christ and when He did, somebody wrote it down—and orthodoxy was born.
However, that’s not how it happened.
First off, the Jesus who wandered around the Judean countryside saw himself as the Jewish Messiah. The Jews never conceived of the Messiah as a divine being who would pay for our sins. They saw the Messiah as God-sent King who would restore the Kingdom of God to Israel—and that’s how Jesus saw himself and presented Himself.
If Jesus would have promoted Himself as a Messiah of another sort, he would have, in essence, been inviting the Jews to reject Him.
When Jesus proclaimed the Good News, the news was God is setting up His Kingdom here on earth, in Jerusalem—He wasn’t preaching having your sins forgiven so you could get into heaven. The Kingdom of God would be the Kingdom of Israel. (That’s why Jesus picked twelve disciples, so they could rule over the reconstituted tribes of Israel—in Jerusalem.)
We know all this because that was what the Jews and the disciples would have responded to. They wanted the Romans kicked out of Jerusalem—now. They didn’t want heaven in the clouds someday. They would have blown off a Jesus who talked about killing the Romans with kindness.
How would that help?
Two, we don’t get words about Jesus that we’re familiar with—that He was God, that He understood the gospel as modern-day Christians understand it, that He believed in the brotherhood of man, etc—until three decades after the crucifixion. Three decades! That gave the church ample time to tinker with what they believed about Jesus.
A Jewish Messiah who would deliver Israel made sense during the time of Christ and immediately after—in Jerusalem.
But that whole shtick didn’t play very well with the pagan gentiles living around the Mediterranean. The house churches in those areas needed a Jesus who would address their issues. They didn’t give a rip about the emancipation of Jerusalem!
Jesus wasn’t about Israel any more—and the Kingdom of God wasn’t just for Jews any more.
They needed a Jesus that would sell to gentiles.
That meant, among other things, taking the Israel-centric Jesus and turning him into a Jesus who called for inter-ethnic love and brotherhood.
For example, I don’t think Jesus gave the Great Commission, which isn’t in Mark or Q. The passage: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
I think that was created by the church. To me, it seems there are a few subtle yet important clues. First off, there’s no way, it seems to me, that the sophisticated baptismal formula of “The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” was in place while Jesus was alive. Jesus was not a Trinitarian. He was a conservative Jew. What’s more, Jesus didn’t really give a rip about the rest of the world, frankly. Jesus thought his mission was only for the lost sheep of Israel.
Jesus, the historical Jesus, wasn’t about universal love—across ethnic boundaries. Jesus’ goal was to get as many Jews as possible into the Kingdom of God. Jesus thought that the best way to do that was through radical obedience to the Torah. There was no time for dawdling or prevaricating: Pluck out your eyeball if it keeps you from obeying the Torah. He was about setting up the Kingdom of God—headquartered in Jerusalem. Now.
So . . . What Would Jesus Do? Probably not what you expect.
That’s not what Christians want to hear. Christians have a lot invested in their incorrect pictures of Jesus they hold sacred. After all, Jesus was God. They want a God who loves everybody, not just the Jews, and cares for the downtrodden.
I hope God’s like that, too—but we’re not going to answer that question by reading the New Testament.
The New Testament doesn’t get us any closer to knowing the true nature of God—just like the Old Testament. God may very well be loving. Or He might me bloodthirsty. Either way, we can’t take the Bible’s word for it. God’s not sharing what He’s like with us—other than “speaking” through the facts of the universe around us. Otherwise, He’s utterly silent. There are no holy texts from God. As Michael Dowd says, “Evidence is our scripture.” The scientific method isn’t perfect. But it’s the best tool we have for understanding the universe.
For the early church that created the “truths” about Jesus, the crucial matter wasn’t that those truths were historically accurate. The real Jesus was irrelevant. The point was that those truths were helpful for gentile believers trying to spread a religion in a pagan land.
Note: A number of the ideas in this post came from Robert Wright’s marvelous book, The Evolution of God.