Sometimes I wonder if Jesus was a lot more enlightened than we give him credit. For all the things he said which elicit my criticism, he sure did have some insightful things to say as well when taken in context.
Since I’m one of the skeptics who still thinks Jesus was a real person, I often find myself wondering which pronouncements were authentically his and which ones were made up much later. It seems clear to me that unless he had Multiple Personality Disorder, at least some of the things eventually attributed to him were put in his mouth—they’re too contradictory. For example, one minute he’s talking like all people are on equal footing, equally deserving of value and respect, and the next he’s comparing outsiders to dogs or swine. It’s like he couldn’t make up his mind. Or much more likely: Jesus is a composite hero, a patchwork of multiple traditions woven together by multiple communities that had no good way of checking their sources to see if any of them agreed.
Which leads me to ask which stories were most likely to be true? Which teachings were authentically his and which ones were spawned by later controversies and then read back into the Jesus story? Scholars of all stripes have developed clever tools of historical and literary investigation in search of “the historical Jesus,” although their resulting portraits of the man contradict one another as badly as the gospels themselves. That’s why when it comes to nailing down the kernel of reality beneath the layers of legend, I always take my own conclusions with a grain of salt. But still I find it fascinating to wonder what the real Jesus was like, and what he said that got him in water hot enough to justify a public execution.
Did He Really Say THAT?
One statement in particular keeps coming back to me because of how radical it was, and how far-reaching were its implications if only people were to take it seriously. At one point in the gospels, Jesus was criticized for not teaching his disciples to follow the ritual rules about hand washings that had grown up around Judaism during his day. Like today’s “saying grace” before the meal, this repetitive practice had become a standard feature of Jewish life during the Second Temple era, and people took notice of how blatantly Jesus’s followers would just dive right into their meals without having executed the ceremonial preparations.
Not only did the religious leaders’ disapproval not persuade Jesus, but he also took this opportunity to publicly speak against the superficiality of the rules they were all expected to follow. If the stories of his life that we’ve inherited contain any truth, it appears that he made a habit of flaunting his disregard for their ceremonies in order to make a point. Taken in his historical context, it’s no wonder Jesus became both a popular hero as well as a reviled troublemaker, the target of persecution by the religious establishment. When confronted with censure for his disciples’ habitual noncompliance, Jesus announced:
Nothing outside a person can defile him by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles him.
The commentary within the text of the story itself goes on to interpret that in uttering these words Jesus “declared that all foods were clean.” His own inner circle couldn’t process what he was saying so he had to break it down for them again and explain that when you swallow food it passes through your alimentary canal and then exits your body on the other end. Even for dualists who believe we each have a ghost-in-the-machine (which I don’t), this argument made sense. Purity, if there is such a thing, is a matter of the heart, according to Jesus.
If this had been taken seriously —if it had been applied consistently—this could have had far-reaching consequences extending well beyond mundane topics like food and drink. If applied consistently, this pronouncement from Jesus could have had major implications for how we talk about our sexual practices. If a person isn’t made unclean from food entering the body through one orifice and exiting through the other, couldn’t the same thing be said about genitalia entering through one orifice and then exiting right back out again the same way that it came in?
Why wasn’t this logic applied to Christian sexuality? Who decided that all foods are clean but not all body parts? It seems to me that even in Jesus’s dualistic understanding of the world, this should have changed the way the church understands sexuality. But then again, since when does a religion evolve according to what makes sense?
For example, growing up Southern Baptist I always heard that alcohol was unclean. That didn’t stop my parents from drinking it, but the official church position continues to disparage the substance even to this day. The official church position* condemns the imbibing of wine, the very drink which Jesus was said to have given his disciples as a symbol of his saving work in their lives. Clearly the teaching of Jesus isn’t as normative for the church as they like to pretend it is.
But who knows? Perhaps in his young thirties even Jesus hadn’t yet had time to work out all the implications of his own thinking. Right after he makes this groundbreaking declaration about “things going into you” not making you unclean, he goes on to list “sexual immorality” among the signs of uncleanness emanating from the heart. I see an inconsistency there, and who’s to say that in time Jesus might not have changed his mind on what exactly that phrase entails? Jesus himself, we are told, lived as a bachelor, and he said some really restrictive things about sexuality in particular. Perhaps he had not yet had time to work though that aspect of what he had to say. He certainly had begun his preaching ministry in a radical direction already. Who knows where he would have wound up if he had not been arrested and killed for stirring up sedition while still in his thirties?
I often wonder what Jesus would have said—would have talked about—were he to have been born today rather than 2,000 years ago. Would he have really identified with a religion like Christianity? Or would he have identified with the more vocal critics of the religion that dominated his culture? It’s all hypothetical thinking, I know. But it’s interesting to consider, isn’t it? I wonder sometimes if, born in a different time and in a different place, Jesus wouldn’t have identified more as a humanist than anything else around. Who knows?
I reject both the notions of dualism and “purity” as it’s conceived by the religious. But taken in context, Jesus sure had his moments where he said some surprisingly enlightened things.
* As a Baptist I was trained to say that Baptists don’t have “official positions” on just about anything. Southern Baptists revel in the supposed autonomy of their individual churches, and yet they all seem to maintain a near uniform belief system even down to the particulars. Having said that, I’ve noticed that here lately the leaders of my old denomination have begun to dispense with this pretentious charade and have openly disfellowshipped with churches that don’t toe the party line on matters like gay marriage and the ordination of women. Nobody but them was fooled by their façade.