10 Facts that Disentangle Jesus from Christianity and the Church

10 Facts that Disentangle Jesus from Christianity and the Church September 4, 2023

Religion and “church” has clouded our view of Jesus. Image by Dale Forbes from Pixabay.

There is one very important thing that religious deconstruction taught me about Jesus: With a few exceptions, modern Christian churches have tangled Jesus up in a huge wad of unhistorical beliefs, doctrines, and practices. I learned that by doing a sound, non-sectarian study of history, we can disentangle him from these religious falsehoods. The following 10 facts about Jesus help us do that. Once we know these historical facts, we can start to see Jesus outside Christianity, the church, and religion. I unpack these facts in my new book, Breaking Bad Faith (also my previous book, Craft Brewed Jesus). What I share here is just the tip of the iceberg. I summarize the reasons I believe these are true below. There are many resources that support this and you can find most of them in my two books and their bibliographies citing a host of other authors.

Here’s the big idea: Once you understand things like the history of the early Jesus Movement, how Christianity developed into a full-blown religion, Jesus’ historical/cultural/religious context, and how the Bible was compiled and viewed, and in many cases mistranslated, the real message of Jesus emerges. And it is distinct from Christianity in general and evangelicalism in particular. You can extricate Jesus from religion and see the real deal.

1 – Jesus did not start a new religion called Christianity.

Jesus was not a Christian but a universalistic, progressive Jew who opened up Judaism to all (Gentiles and the “unclean”). He rejected Second Temple Judaism, strict adherence to the law of Moses, and practicing the sacrificial system. A person didn’t have to convert to Judaism or a new religion to embark on his path. You could be a hated Samaritan, Roman, Gentile, or a woman and still enter the community as equals. His intention was never to found a new faith, but merely open up Jewish thought to a belief in a universalist God who abhors corrupt religious systems—priests, sacrifices, temples, or discriminatory religious codes of conduct are counter to true spirituality.

2 – Jesus did not found an institution called “Church.”

Neither did Jesus (or Paul or Peter) found “the Church.” The Greek word we translate “church” is “ekklesia,” which simply means a gathering of people. The same word is used in Acts to describe a mob that came after Paul. When Jesus said, “I will build my church,” he simply meant he would build a following of people. He never instituted any of the following: Christian priests or pastors who are top leaders of a church, professional clergy, church buildings, church hierarchy, ordination, clergy vestments, statements of faith, creeds, tithing to a church, or other church rules. The only admonition for his students or followers was to embrace the love ethic he taught. This doesn’t mean all “church” is bad. It means it’s a model foreign to the original model and it’s problematic. So going to church today is optional for anyone who says they follow Jesus or his ethics.

3 – Jesus did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible.

This takes a while to deconstruct and I suggest reading my book, Breaking Bad Faith, to get the long version. But basically it boils down to this: Jesus saw the Jewish scriptures like most of his fellow Jews did. In the first century it was a compilation of sacred writings with no definitive list of books. The Jewish people did not decide on a “canon” (a finally accepted list of books) of scripture until the second century. So, at the time of Jesus, there were debates going on about what books should be considered “sacred text” and which shouldn’t. That’s why the Sadducees only recognized the Torah. Probably most other Jews recognized the prophets and some of the wisdom writings as well. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the most popular Jewish scriptures (it was the “Bible” that the early followers of Jesus used), included 14 books that never made it into the later Jewish canon or Protestant Bibles! The Essenes had additional scriptures they saw as divine, one of them I Enoch, was even quoted in the New Testament book of Jude. Jesus entered into these debates about divine scripture and quoted texts he saw as reinforcing the true nature of God. He acknowledged that the Bible actually critiques itself and he did the same. He contradicted the reciprocal violent narratives of contemporary Jewish sacred texts. He did not believe in, nor teach that the Bible was infallible. I like to say he saw the scriptures as a set of human writings with some of God’s fingerprints on it.

4 – Jesus was not condemning everything that is non-religious in the “world.”

Rather, he was condemning the “world” of mercilessness, violence, retribution, corrupt sacrificial religion, selfish greed, control over people, and authoritative notions of political power. Jesus was not condemning partying, celebrations (he turned water into about 800 bottles of wine if you do the math), and nontraditional sexuality; he was condemning anything that harms other people. For example, he condemned casual divorce, not all divorce (see Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible and The Source New Testament). He never mentioned homosexuality. He condemned the corrupt religion of the day as well as any religious or government or economic system that hurt the poor, the “unclean,” and the marginalized, and anything that made people wealthy at the expense of the poor. Or, that imposed a violent, retributive system of control on people. That was “the world” for Jesus.

5 – Jesus did not believe in the traditional heaven/hell paradigm.

Many people have debunked the doctrine of hell. I have here and here. Suffice it to say, Jesus’ talk of the “kingdom” was hardly about the afterlife at all, but rather about the here and now. The “kingdom of heaven” or the “kingdom of God” is at hand, in our midst, and within us. It’s good news now and was to be fleshed out on earth, as it already is in heaven. What’s more, his talk of judgment was primarily about judgment on earth, not the afterlife. He spoke of “Gehenna,” the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, which was commonly known as a metaphor for judgment for the present, not after one dies (Jeremiah 7). If people did not change their evil and violent ways, he said, they were at risk of being killed by their enemies and their bodies thrown into this fiery garbage pit. That’s literally what the Romans did to criminals and insurrectionists. His talk of “eternal punishment,” was not that at all. The phrase has been badly mistranslated. Hart and Nyland in their New Testament translations rightly translate it “chastening of the age” and “rehabilitation for a set period of time” respectively, whether that meant in the here and now or in the afterlife.

6 – Jesus was a non-religious progressive who called for a new way of life.

A life that treats everyone the same and pursues social justice. Once you understand that Jesus did not start a new religion and was not instituting a religious church movement, you can see this clearly. He called people to “repent” (which means change your mind), about the religious and imperialistic ways of the world and start to believe and act on the good news of the kingdom. The “kingdom” is not religious or political, but simply the reign of a loving God who desires an egalitarian society and tells us to start to love one another including our enemies and have compassion on the poor and the marginalized in our midst.

7 – Jesus was nonviolent and restorative, not retributive.

I make this case in Breaking Bad Faith. Once we see his view of accountability was not to punish people for punishment’s sake or to follow the reciprocal violence of the Torah or to send people to hell if they don’t measure up, we see he pointed to restorative justice as the solution to wrongdoing and evil. He won over Roman soldiers, tax collectors, and violent offenders (Paul). He welcomed anyone who responded to his love. He forgave all without conditions. He told God to forgive his torturers and murderers “for they know not what they do.” He did not retaliate when unjustly arrested, told his students not to take up the sword, and did not call for revenge after his resurrection.

8 – Jesus taught accountability for evildoers but not in the way you may think.

According to the gospels, Jesus often challenged the corrupt teachers of the law, Pharisees, the rich, and anyone who harmed their neighbor. But his accountability was always restorative. He said those who refuse to change their minds and hearts would face some kind of trial or judgment, but for the purpose of correcting them. Street workers and tax collectors enter the kingdom of God before corrupt religious leaders. But the latter will still enter one day once they learn to say “blessed is he who comes in the name of Lord.” Judgment for some who didn’t help “the least of these” among his brethren, will be the “rehabilitation of the age,” not eternal conscious torment. The lost will be found. Jesus didn’t come into the world to destroy people but to rescue them.

9 – Jesus did not die as a substitute for our sins.

This is another one that takes a while to deconstruct. I do it in chapters 2 and 6 of Breaking Bad Faith. The penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) view was not fully articulated until the 16th century by John Calvin. Earlier, a man named Anselm taught a similar view called the “satisfaction” theory in the 11th century. History tells us the earliest followers of Jesus had other ideas about the atonement or the meaning of the cross, but those did not include this notion. The most common was the view that Jesus died to show how a God of love handles the violent wrath of humankind with forgiveness so that sacrifice and a transactional view of God is no longer necessary. PSA was not part of the original meaning of the cross. The Eastern church and today’s Eastern Orthodox never taught it.

10 – Jesus did not believe, or teach, that he would return to earth thousands of years in the future to judge the world and set up his kingdom.

No early followers believed this. “The idea of a second coming of Christ in a far distant future was alien to early stages of Christian thinking.” (Shanks, Partings: How Judaism and Christianity Became Two, 21.) Nor did he teach that he would physically return within the lifetime of his followers. Jesus used very common cosmic imagery from the Jewish prophets to describe the end of the Jewish sacrificial age (Second Temple Judaism). He was not speaking about the end of the world, but rather the end of an era. His language describing the “coming of the son of man” was not about some far-off futuristic-yet-primitive form of space travel in which he would embark upon his return to earth (nor a “rapture” of believers who would join him in the sky). Instead, it was a statement that he and his good news of peace would be vindicated. The word “coming” is more properly translated “appearing.” It does not mean a return to earth (See DeMar, Last Days Madness and N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God) because, in fact, it doesn’t stipulate what direction one is going. It fits better that Jesus is “appearing” at the “right hand of God” as he stated once in this context, similar to other apocalyptic imagery used in the Old Testament, that wasn’t literal (e.g., Isaiah 19 says God rides on a cloud). As for the tribulation time he predicted, he said it would happen within the generation of his hearers, which it actually did in the late 60s CE up to 70 CE when the Romans destroyed both Jerusalem and the Jewish temple in response to the Jewish revolt.

Now what do we do with Jesus?

So, after learning these historical points, now what do we do with Jesus? If we start looking at him this non-religious way each of us can decide whether to follow his love ethic. If you have deconstructed evangelicalism, it’s your choice and Jesus does not condemn you for erring on the side of avoiding abusive religion. What matters most to Jesus is how we treat other people and how we follow the path of restorative love and peacemaking. I argue it doesn’t matter if we do this inside or outside of church or Christianity. Why? Because Jesus never was about that.

Note: Thanks to Jim Palmer for giving me the idea for this blog in his podcast episode, “What do We Do with Jesus?”

Michael Camp tends the Spiritual Brewpub, which helps disillusioned or post-evangelicals uncover historical facts and insights that help them deconstruct, rethink, and rebuild a more authentic faith or philosophy of life. He is the author of Breaking Bad Faith: Exposing Myth and Violence in Popular Theology to Recover the Path of Peace. To get specific help deconstructing conservative Christianity and rebuilding healthy faith, see Michael’s Religious Deconstruction Workshop. To hear fascinating interviews with leading voices in the deconstruction community, listen to the Spiritual Brewpub Podcast.

About Michael Camp
I spent twenty-five years in the evangelical movement as an ordained missionary to Muslims, a development worker in Africa, and a lay leader in independent, charismatic, and Baptist churches. Today, as an author, podcaster, speaker, Rotarian, theology nerd, and bad golfer, I help people find a more authentic spiritual path along Jesus’ subversive way of peace. I am also active in a Rotary Club in Bainbridge Island, WA, where I work with colleagues to help facilitate microfinance and development projects in Africa and Asia. You can read more about the author here.
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