New Views of Christ

"Whom do men say that I am?" Jesus's own query to his disciples, asked in the oldest Gospel (Mark 8:27), has always been the ultimate question of the faith founded in his name. The answer has determined everything from core doctrine to the authority of the clergy. Even during his lifetime, Jesus's followers had differing answers: he was a rabbi with a new approach to Jewish law; he was the rightful claimant to the throne of David. After his death, it took more than three centuries of often violent contention, suppression, and historical contingency before answers emerged that still define mainline Christianity: Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God and the Virgin Mary, both fully divine and fully human; crucified for our sins, he rose from the dead and will come again to judge humanity. Orthodoxy's victory has never been final, or else there would never have been an Inquisition. Still, reinforced by church and state, and by belief in the New Testament as an exact account of events (the "Gospel truth"), the concept of the divine Christ, our Lord and saviour, became embedded in Western civilization.

That legacy still dominates Western responses to Jesus today, affecting not just what the faithful proclaim, but the attitudes of Jesus's secular admirers. But over the past century, historians, archaeologists, textual and linguistic scholars in a steadily more secular West, unable to accept the miracle-working Christ of tradition, have uncovered the all-too-human way in which early Christians hammered out their dogma and holy scripture, recovered startlingly unfamiliar texts - such as the Gnostic Gospel of Judas, in 2006 - held dear by the losers in the long-ago orthodoxy wars, and arrived at new interpretations of Jesus based on the context of his life, his essential Jewishness and the socio-political unrest of first-century Palestine.

For large swaths of the devout, little has changed. Fundamentalist Protestant churches - so-called because of their fundamental principles, one of which is insistence that the whole of the Bible is the literal word of God - looked hard at what was happening in the modern world and refused to yield an inch to modern science or Biblical scholarship. Other churches, like the Orthodox or Roman Catholic, who possess a body of tradition to buttress their scriptures, are open to viewing, and reviewing, parts of the Bible - particularly in the Old Testament - while holding fast to the divine Christ of the New Testament. Their Christ too remains an exalted figure; as does, ironically, the Jesus envisaged by so many scholars: Biblical experts have tended to feel (as much as think) that Jesus must have been a great moral teacher - and even a pioneering feminist - so incandescently holy that some of his disciples turned him into a god.

In Vancouver writer (and Greenpeace International co-founder) Rex Weyler's new survey of the latest research, The Jesus Sayings: The Quest for His Authentic Message (Anansi), for instance, Christ emerges as a revolutionary sage, a man for the ages whose "words and deeds are sublime." Even in How Jesus Became a Christian (Random House), by Barrie Wilson, a religious studies professor at Toronto's York University - which is primarily concerned with arguing that St. Paul and later "Christifiers" hijacked Jesus the Jewish rabbi through a campaign of anti-Semitism - Jesus still emerges as "a teacher of great insight."

But despite the common celebration of Jesus Christ, a chasm exists between the devout followers of the divine Christ and the seekers of the Jesus of history. Into that chasm falls the liberal church, according to Gretta Vosper, author of With or Without God (HarperCollins), a passionately argued case for a post-Christian church. Vosper is pastor of West Hill United Church in suburban Toronto and a leading Canadian voice in progressive Christianity, on the radical edge of what is already the most liberal denomination in Canada. The liberal Christian church, Vosper writes, is the original wellspring of the recent tradition-destroying Biblical scholarship, and it's liberal churches that have wrestled most painfully and - in a very real sense - least successfully with the implications of its discoveries.

Committed to the ideals of Biblical study and scholarly truth, but devoted to their own religious traditions, the liberal churches were unable to either turn their backs on modernity or to embrace it fully. So liberals tried hard to turn the now shaky parts of the Gospels (the miracles, for instance) into metaphors, Vosper writes, in order to keep time-honoured creeds and ritual superficially intact. A conspiracy of silence about beliefs also played, and still plays, its part, she adds in an interview: "The liberal clergy have an unspoken covenant with congregants - you say nothing and we'll say nothing. If the clergy do speak about their disbelief in basic doctrine, the result is often a lot of pain, up to job loss and even breakdown. There is no place of safety for them."

The result has been a mess of compromised integrity - "if 'Jesus is Lord' really means 'love is supreme,' why not say that?" - and institutional failure. "We have all watched the gaping wound on the right grow as those who want the 'truth' laid out for them more clearly have left for more conservative denominations happy to give it to them," she notes. "But the wound on the left has gone unnoticed and has hemorrhaged into nothingness as religious quests have become spiritual quests unconnected with church." It's beyond time for liberal Christianity, whose heritage and responsibility this all is, to act, writes Vosper. "Those who recognize the Bible's claim to be the word of God as the monster in the tub with the baby," are the ones who must throw that monster out with the bathwater. And that means, besides other painful changes, a real, radical look at the words and deeds of the faith's central figure.

Half a century ago in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis, speaking from the perspective of traditional Christianity, warned those who were busy stripping Christ of his divinity (while attempting to keep his moral authority) that the task couldn't be done. "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher [but] a lunatic, on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg," he wrote. "He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to." Traditional Christians would agree; substitute, in the last sentence, the words "the authors of the Gospels" for "he," and so would almost everyone else. For the ruthlessly edited New Testament is forthright about its agenda: detailing the transformation of Jesus of Nazareth into Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

What you take from Scripture depends on how you read it. For Lewis, who accepted the historical accuracy of the Gospels, if not the whole of Biblical inerrancy (such as the six-day creation in Genesis), Christ is not just the prophet of the Sermon on the Mount, and the healer of the sick. He is also the figure who utters the New Testament's truly terrifying statements about eternal life and death. It was Jesus who promised to separate humanity into sheep and goats, shepherding the former to heaven and casting the latter "into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25: 41). It was Jesus again who said that on Judgment Day, even some who preached in his name would hear the words, "I never knew you, depart from me" (Matthew 7: 23). Such a figure, in Lewis's opinion, were he only a mortal man, could rightfully be judged mad.

But modern historians sweep all that away, along with the miraculous elements, including the whole of Jesus's childhood. No virgin birth: it's found only in two Gospels, they point out, and it's clear that St. Paul, the earliest writer in the New Testament, had no time for the idea. No wise men, no heavenly choir of angels at the stable manger, no debating the elders at age 12 - all of it retroactively applied by his followers. More crucial losses are words claimed as Christ's own. A decade ago, the Jesus Seminar, the most famous (and notorious) group active in Biblical criticism, using comparative history and textual analysis, ended up being sure Christ said less than a fifth of what was attributed to him.

Members rejected verses where Jesus referred to himself, particularly in an exalted way, such as, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), and verses reflective less of his teachings and more of struggles to control the nascent church after his death: "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church" (Matthew 16:17). And since the seminar was convinced Jesus did not preach an imminent, apocalyptic end to the world, but instead a message about how to establish the kingdom of God on earth, the rejected 80 per cent of his sayings also included all the judgmental declarations. Not all scholars are in full agreement with the seminar (some fundamentalist organizations, unsurprisingly, have referred to it as "a tool of Satan"), but the broad outlines are widely accepted in the field.

Weyler's reconstruction of the authentic Jesus essentially follows those lines. His primary sources are what some scholars define as the oldest versions of three "collections": the Gospels of Mark and Thomas, and the Q sayings. (The Thomas text, the jewel of the treasure trove of Gnostic Christian writings, found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, was rejected by the orthodox 1,600 years ago, but the 114 pithy and often cryptic statements in it, attributed to Jesus, have made it a favourite among historians. Q is a hypothetical document, a lost collection of sayings assumed to explain the material common to the Gospels of Luke and Matthew that did not come from Mark's Gospel, their other main source.)

The "radical, Aramaic-speaking, Jewish Jesus" who emerges in Weyler's book makes no divine claims, requires no supernatural beliefs on the part of his hearers, and demands action now. The poor, Christ would tell his audience of peasants and day labourers, were fortunate to be suffering, for that brought them closer to the kingdom of God. The rich, especially the temple elite obsessed with rote purity, are far from God. Seek his kingdom within yourself, don't worry about food or clothing, accept your daily bread and share it, love your enemies, forgive others as you wish to be forgiven: God's kingdom is here, now, for those who have eyes to see.

Although many historians would not find Jesus's message as radical a break from the past as Weyler does, in his intense Jewishness, Weyler's Jesus fits comfortably with the historical figure now envisaged by almost all scholars. What kind of Jew is an entirely different matter. More than a decade ago, John Dominic Crossan, one of the most prominent Roman Catholic experts, noted no fewer than seven distinct types of Jewish Jesus, ranging from political revolutionary to charismatic seer. More, including Weyler's Galilean peasant preacher at odds with the Judaism of Jerusalem's Temple elite, have emerged since. Many of them are much more worldly than Weyler's, and just as novel.

Consider the head of the "family firm" who emerges in James Tabor's The Jesus Dynasty (2006). Traditional Christianity has always had trouble with Christ's "brethren" - James, Joses, Simon, Judas and unnamed sisters. Orthodox Christianity accepts the brethren as step-siblings, the children of Joseph's first marriage; Protestants take them as half-siblings, the children of Mary and Joseph born after Jesus, the son of Mary and God; Roman Catholics, who proclaim the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity, have to view them as cousins. Every time they appear in scripture identified as family, the Gospel writers stress they are not among his followers. That means they have to gloss over the fact that St. Paul writes that the risen Christ appeared to James, and that James - Jesus's oldest male relative in a family-dominated society - took precedence over all other followers and became leader of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem.

In Tabor's family saga, Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist considered themselves to be the two messiahs: John as a descendent of Moses's brother Aaron, was to be the new high priest; Jesus, the descendent of King David, the new king of the Jews. His brother James was more than Jesus's heir, he was the "beloved disciple" of the Gospel of John, commonly reckoned to be John himself by most Christians (although Mary Magdalene is the favourite as the "beloved" of Da Vinci Code fans and many feminist theologians). And Jesus's other brothers, far from rejecting his mission, are actually hiding in plain sight among the lists of apostles.

Jesus's Jerusalem followers were the original "Christians," although Barrie Wilson would argue they would neither recognize nor accept the name. Now commonly called Ebionite Christians, from a Hebrew word meaning "poor ones," they were Torah-observant Jews as well as followers of Jesus, who regarded him as a human messianic prophet but not as divine. Their concern, embodied by James - known as "the Just" to Jews as well as Christians - was to live rigorously ethical lives. And, under the rule of the "royal" family, they were the dominant strand among the Jesus movement, even while Paul tirelessly travelled the Mediterranean converting Gentiles.

Most scholars argue it's impossible to know what path Christianity might have taken if the Jerusalem church had not become caught up in the greatest cataclysm ever visited on the religious traditions of ancient Israel. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE, the Gentile church began its ascendency. By the second century, the forces of orthodoxy began to turn on the Ebionites, and by the fourth century they disappeared from history.

In current scholarly trends, Jesus emerges as ever more Jewish and ever more human - a teacher, a rabbi, a claimant to Israel's ancient throne - who was transformed by Paul, a preacher of genius, in cultures far from his Jewish roots, into the divine saviour of mankind. But crucial as these claims are for orthodox Christians and for the scholars and writers involved, they are increasingly irrelevant for progressive Christians. They long ago lost their stake in the divine Christ, and their interest in which of the evolving paradigms best captures the historical Jesus is fading.

When Gretta Vosper looks at the emerging historical Jesus she sees no rock on which to erect a church. "In trying to capture exactly what he said, we have found, quite by accident, that what he said has little power." But when she weighs up the Jesus legacy in terms of its validity and usefulness for the church today, she considers the entire Gospel tradition - not just the Jesus meek and mild of the scholars and spiritual seekers, but the divine Christ too. It's all part of the Christian heritage in her view. If the liberal church is going to refuse to face the implications of its own beliefs, then what matters is what is in the Bible, what has been proclaimed truth for centuries: "If we say we follow Jesus without clarification, we allow the assumption that we agree with all of his ideas, including the bad ones."

Looking over the New Testament, Vosper notes numerous bad ideas, some of them deep within Jesus's core message. His teaching about love and forgiveness long predate him, within his own Jewish tradition and without. And those are the helpful parts of his beliefs, which, Vosper argues, mix freely with parts liberal Christians no longer accept: no divorce, hell, eternal punishment. He taught acquiescence in oppression, "a stance not at all helpful in ending slavery, racism, patriarchal hierarchy, and so on." There is disdain and derision for those who don't agree with him, "but I suggest that we now hold dialogue, diversity and community as higher values."

Living without care for the future, keeping all assets in common, giving all we have to the poor, are other key parts of the authentic teaching as identified by Weyler and others. That utopian idealism was perfectly natural to the hopes of an oppressed peasant society, Vosper writes, but humans have never managed to put it into practice, and surely never will. To try to act that way only serves "to abdicate the responsibilities we have to one another - conscientious, ethical oversight of our resources is a more prudent and potentially beneficial response." In short, "Jesus's moral teaching is not outstanding," and it's impossible to craft a moral high ground from his life, works and sayings: "His words are dead to many people. The world has changed. The words don't make sense any more."

And they aren't necessary. "Why do we need a 'revolutionary' voice from two millennia ago to guide us? We have fabulous ideas of our own, that are constantly weakened by having to tie them back to Jesus and Scripture. What if he was recorded destroying his environment, would that mean we'd no longer need to be environmentally sensitive, or have to ignore the environment?"

Vosper isn't so much prepared for the obvious questions she faces as inured to them. She's often asked, with various degrees of incredulity and indignation how, in the name of God or Love (if she prefers), she can call herself a Christian. Because, she replies, her Christianity, like that of the Ebionites, is more a way of acting than a way of belief. "Being a Christian is about taking out of my faith tradition those things that are of value in my effort to live right with myself, with my relationships and with my planet," Vosper says. "And removing those things that are toxic."

Nor is the name essential, at least to Vosper personally, except that maintaining the word Christian is encouraging for other non-theistic churchgoers. "People are hurt by being told they're not Christian: our 'beliefs' are so fundamental, even when we don't really, literally believe them, that we don't want to be told that we don't belong." Vosper doesn't "want to tear anyone's faith out of their hearts," and doesn't want to see that happen to progressives either. Three years ago, after her views became known to the wider United Church, a motion was introduced at a meeting of the church's governing body to subject her to what she only half-jokingly calls a "heresy" trial. She escaped a trial only by a vote of 14 to 11.

She wouldn't be surprised to undergo an actual trial this time around, after With or Without God arrives in bookstores this week. In the very broad United Church, clergy are expected to be in "essential" agreement with the articles of faith, "and this book," she says gingerly, "will establish just how elastic that agreement is." Vosper doesn't seem unduly concerned with the prospect of trial or with the possibility of losing, except for what it would convey to others she cares about: "Saying that I don't belong is saying that my supportive congregation doesn't belong, and that would be tragic." Her reaction to the possibility of effective excommunication is bound up with her answer to the other question frequently hurled at her: why bother? If there's no divine Christ, no miracles, no salvation, no life after death, no God - what is the point of church at all?

Part of the answer is practical. "Because we are killing each other and the world," she says matter-of-factly. "Because we have the means to do something about it - churches have so many outlets, no other single organization can disseminate important messages like the church can." Or provide, in Western culture, the sense of community that churches can offer. And because she does not want to abandon the field to fundamentalism.

Not many Christians will be able to follow Vosper down her path, even if they are conscious of the problem she's attempting to solve: reconciling a religion of revealed truth and sacred scripture grounded in 2,000-year-old experiences, with all humanity has learned since, not just about the natural world, but about the human roots of that faith. Most will not even accept Vosper as a fellow Christian. But there is no denying the problem she identifies is real for many. Millions of Christians are satisfied with the balance of faith and reason in their religion, or unconcerned with it, but millions of others remain in church only by wilfully severing head and heart. Those who cannot do that, or cannot any longer, will continue to seek a way out.

See also CHRISTIANITY; RELIGION.

Maclean's March 31, 2008