Many people from traditional Christian backgrounds may find this…shocking and offensive. That is understandable.
The passage above is from the first page of Stephen Mitchell’s book Jesus, What He Really Said and Did and the way I will begin this story. So, please note: if you believe the Bible is the literal word of God, this column may not be for you.
Mitchell is an accomplished author who has (re)translated many of the world’s great religious texts, including the teachings and life of Jesus as found in the four gospels of the Bible. He is not looking to denigrate Jesus, in fact he believes Jesus spoke “in words so alive and beautiful and compelling that they have as much power today as when they first came out of his mouth.”
What Mitchell does try to do is clear up a few misconceptions about Jesus as he sees them, including one very big one–why did Jesus die? I’m a lapsed Catholic and from a young age it was drilled into the heads of me and my fellow Catechism classmates that Jesus has died for our sins. Why? So that we could be forgiven.
Mitchell reminds us that this has long been the view of the church—and quickly dismisses this notion:
St. Paul and other early Christians believed that he “died for our sins.” This is an idea Jesus couldn’t have approved of. God, as Jesus knew, is unconditional love.
God is unconditional love. It’s a sentiment I agree with and you may too, depending on your personal view of God. Do you believe in a God that passes judgement on others, striking down the wicked, ruling with an iron fist from the heavens above? Or do you believe in a just and caring God who is the essence and embodiment of love? As Mitchell puts it:
God is not some tyrant who demands the blood of an innocent victim in order to forgive people’s sins. God’s forgiveness is always present, whenever people are ready for it.
Jesus may well have accepted his death, because he ultimately believed it was God’s will, part of a master plan that was beyond his comprehension. But to pin his death on retribution for our sins is to paint a picture of a God that I do not believe in or would want to believe in.
Over the course of Jesus, What He Really Said and Did, Mitchell calls out several other misconceptions about Jesus. Here are the ones I found most interesting, as they point out common misunderstandings of Jesus’s life and actions here on earth.
Jesus never wrote anything himself. The earliest account we have of Jesus is the Gospel of Mark which dates from around the year 70, a full forty years after Jesus’s death. The other 3 gospels were written one to three decades later.
Jesus didn’t intend to begin a new religion. Jesus was a Jew and wouldn’t have even known what the word Christian means. He went by the names Yeshua or Yeshu and wouldn’t have recognized the name Jesus Christ as his own.
Jesus knew that he was not the only son of God. He believed that all of mankind were the sons and daughters of God. Mitchell writes that, “anyone who acts with unselfish love is God’s beloved child.” Even Pope Francis has gone so far as to say “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of the same God.”
Jesus was probably an ordinary small-town kid. The gospels talk about the birth of Jesus and pick-up the story when he was about 30, the time he began healing and teaching people. What happened in those intervening years? No one knows for sure, but he may have led a mostly unremarkable existence—until the spirit of God entered his life.