I would argue that most of Jesus’ ethical teachings are entangled in his false apocalyptic paradigm and are disastrous if taken seriously (see: a previous post). Obviously not everyone agrees (even in the secular world) and I’d like to see if there are any good arguments to be made to reasonably salvage some good Jesus. As far as my ongoing “Judging Jesus” project goes, one might call this a matter of, “seeking disconfirming evidence.”
In the past I’ve actually taken the time to highlight with different colors in Adobe Reader X all the moralizing from Jesus in a PDF of the 4 gospels (red letter edition, of course). I wanted to have some overall idea of whether or not I was just picking on a few bits of Jesus, whether he was about as much good as bad (as Sam Harris often refers to as, “Jesus in half his moods…”) or whether there was much anything that I didn’t find messed up to some degree for some reason. I care about policing my biases here and will continue to do so. There wasn’t much that I could endorse wholeheartedly and that was like 5 years ago. It’s just gotten worse as I’ve learned more about canonical gospel Jesus and I’ve found even more consistent and comprehensive perspectives.
For what it’s worth Dr. Hector Avalos in his latest book, “The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics” relates that a professor of religious studies, Jack T. Sanders, in his book, “Ethics in the New Testament” argues (presumably) as I do, that Jesus’ ethical paradigm is basically irrelevant as it is consumed in apocalypticism. Although Dr. Avalos himself was asked in a podcast if there was much good to Jesus and he said, “No, not really,” as I recall.
However in chapter 12 of “The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails,” John Loftus relates a trend in Jesus studies that backtracks somewhat on the full relevancy of the “false prophet” status. Loftus says, “…there is no ‘thoroughgoing eschatology’ found in Jesus or in the NT,” but instead, “…as Schweitzer claimed, ‘leading scholars’) still think eschatology is a dominant theme.” New Testament scholar Dale Allison is then quoted as saying (pg. 324):
[Jesus] did not proclaim the wonderful things to come and then pass by on the other side of the road. He rather turned his eschatological ideal into an ethical blueprint for compassionate ministry in the present, which means that, in addition to saying that things would get better, he set out making it so. Jesus eschatological hope and his humanitarianism cannot be sundered because they were both products of his infatuation with divine love. God’s loving devotion to the world requires that it not suffer disrepair forever, and God’s love shed abroad in human hearts … cannot wait for heaven to come to earth: it must, therefore, before the end, feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
It is in a strict sense true that Jesus did not tell everyone he met, “I’ll heal you later,” even though it seems most of his healings function as a photo-op like advertisement for the Kingdom of Heaven. Why can I say this? Well because of how each episode tends to be framed and it’s not like Jesus set up a school of faith healing and solved Israel’s sickness problem in the intervening time between 30 AD and the apocalypse that never came.
It is dubious to only have three categories here. One category of “make the world a good place,” another of “save everything for later,” and another of complete balance between “be a good steward on earth in the fullest sense” and additionally “the Kingdom of heaven will fix everything later.” There’s also the category of “unsustainable compassion coupled with eschatological fulfillment later” that I don’t see *anyone* talking about. I would argue this 4th category is what we find with Jesus.
Let me illustrate from one of my presentations on Jesus’ economics:
…a man comes up to Jesus and tells him that he’s followed all of the commandments his whole life. Jesus tells him, “if you want to be perfect go sell all you have and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21). But what exactly is this getting at? Is it aimed at helping the poor? Or is it just a misguided way to attempt to be perfect for the sake of the rewards of heaven?
If you give up all your wealth, that means you don’t have money in an ongoing sense to support yourself and to *continue* to give to charity. Now someone else has to take care of you since you jerked your virtues off so hard that one time. Jesus could have suggested that since the man was so wealthy he could afford to give a great deal more than the standard tenth of his regular earnings to charity. Instead he had to give it all up *in order to be perfect.*
It’s not like Jesus didn’t have some surprisingly good precedents to work with. Moses was quite the socialist Robin Hood in Leviticus 23:22 where it tells farmers, “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.” That actually sounds sustainably compassionate in an ancient socioeconomic context. Notice what Leviticus doesn’t say? “Sell your farm and wander around preaching the gospel of Moses to be perfect.” Because that would just be stupid wouldn’t it?So by only granting a false trichotomy Allison enables a false view of Jesus as someone who can be both still relevant on the one hand and wrong on another count. The evil superstitious perfectionism theme is ignored along with the irresponsible aftermath of the virtue explosion that makes the most sense only if you are expecting to be beamed up by the proverbial mothership any day now and/or if you superstitiously believe that the proverbial manna will always fall from heaven for you (as Jesus did). Jesus was wrong about the end of the world and mostly irrelevant as you have to implausibly ignore the details of his actual interactions with people on the subject of economics and compassion in order to get to Allison’s falsely balanced bottom line. I have more to say on the a-economical space cadet that Jesus was in a later post and video, but I merely want to point out the general idea here.
Generally I find Allison in his books I’ve read to be quite reasonable on the topic of Jesus (much more reasonable than most scholars it would seem), but he is still a Christian deriving some meaningful utility from the Jesus meme and correspondingly Biblical scholarship in general can’t go *too far* in undermining Jesus for the public. That is, for the public that even cares at all about what leading scholars may say. I’ve pointed out some of Allison’s biases in my review of his book, “The Historical Christ & the Theological Jesus.” Dr. Avalos’ “Bad Jesus” book is basically a tour of endless “Jesus can do no wrong” fallacies from those who wield their educational powers in irresponsible service to their sacred cows. Non-scholars have a right to be wary and skeptical about dubious attempts to salvage Jesus even from scholars who may have most of their ducks in a row.
Anyway, so this is where I currently am on the topic. Pretty much anything Jesus advocates is morally shipwrecked in apocalypticism and/or other dubious elements and you have to make only the most vague summaries of it to distill a decent message. The episode of the rich man who presumably was not saved from eternal punishment as a result of not giving up all his wealth (despite following all the commandments!) cannot reasonably be summarized as merely advocating a, “HULK think charity good!” message. That’s incredibly dishonest and white washes the hurtful experiences of any Christians or former Christians who were actually under the grind of trying to make that bullshit work somehow. “Charity is good!,” was not the problem!
I’m looking for an example (or more) of a teaching of canonical gospel Jesus that is designed to have meaningful staying power in worldly terms. It has to be a *better* explanation than the mostly superstitious Kingdom of Heaven-aimed sociopathology framework. That means you have to be able to argue from canonical gospel Jesus stuff that Jesus *probably* meant it in the way you’d like to think he does.
Whatever it is should pass a “Harold Camping test.” No one bends over backwards to save the salvable bits from Harold Camping’s sermons. If a metric proposed to salvage Jesus salvages Camping, who cares? I’m sure Camping hosted a successful bake sale or two even with his end of the world just around the corner. That’s not the reason we’d put him on a pedestal or the reason we should disregard him. Camping largely led his flock to financial ruin and Jesus’ advice is littered with largely extremist points of advice that would lead someone to similar ruin if taken seriously. It is the *morally responsible thing* to disregard Camping and look for other luminaries who aren’t so abysmally wrong about their core moral realities. But who knows, maybe Camping had great advice otherwise and really was just wrong about that calendar date. Feel free to educate me.
One wonders how many pervasive systemic evils in Jesus’ ethics that there have to be before it is the moral thing to do for us to reasonably deep six his reputation? Plotting to set billions of people on fire because they’re morally imperfect seems pretty bad. Prescribing extremist advice empowered by magical thinking and based on the idea the world is ending seems pretty messed up. Trying to start an oppressive celibacy cult that ends marriages for everyone in the afterlife doesn’t seem like a compassionate idea and largely maligns the human condition if taken seriously. Etc. But it’s really all about love!
Oh well. I can find plenty of things horribly wrong with Jesus and I’m more than happy to point them out throughout my “Judging Jesus” YouTube series. Feel free to sell me on some good Jesus stuff in the meantime.