Books for your Christmas list

Brian Wilson recommends four books for progressive Christians wanting to find new ways to present the person and teaching of Jesus.

Books for your Christmas list

Marcus Borg, Evolution of the Word,

Reza Azlan, Zealot,

John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel,

William R. Hertzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech.

In the reading of these books, Borg came first. My scribbled comments in the back of the book remind me of my immediate reactions to his fascinating exercise in presenting us with “The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written.” His suggestion that Luke’s Gospel and his Acts of the Apostles may have been written later than John’s Gospel (which he dates to “around 100”) may not meet general agreement. But it was certainly interesting and possibly revealing to get a sense of the way Christian thought developed in those early years, as seen in the “genuine” Pauline Epistles followed by the later “spurious” ones. I was struck by the simplicity of Jesus’ teaching, as revealed in the Gospels, by contrast with the complexity of Paul’s theological efforts to explain the significance of the Jesus event. I noted, too, the development, typical of any human organisation, from the initial inspiration of the Founder’s big idea to later institutionalisation and developing managerial structures. In the later epistles I found the intemperance of the denunciations of the backsliders ungenerous, while the original power of the moral code was weakened by the increasing irrelevance of the theological message contained in the redemptive concept of Jesus’ death.

Azlan’s presentation of Jesus was a riveting account of the life and times of an itinerant preacher from Galilee, before the mythmakers and theologians did their work. The Zealot movement only emerges some 30 years after Jesus’ death, and Jesus was no zealot; he would not have been one of those that fought at Masada or sought to persuade fellow Jews at the point of a knife. But he was simply a typical messianic Jew, full of zeal for the Lord of Hosts, determined to reform traditional Judaism, to cleanse the Temple, and to reform the Temple authorities. His “Christian” vision is the product of the early and later church, under the influence of gentile Jews of Hellenistic background. His message was revolutionary, and as such typical of the various messianic revolutionaries of his day – frankly nothing very special and certainly non-violent.

But he did represent a threat to the Jewish authorities and the stability of the Roman governance and as such was eliminated, like his predecessor John the Baptist, without compunction by the Romans and the colluding Temple authorities. He may not have believed in violence, but he was undoubtedly seeking to set up a new Judaism. His “failure” forced a total re-think among his earliest followers in order to account for it. As a result he was “re-branded” by them, because his influence and the effect of his teaching proved totally unforgettable, and as happens in human societies everywhere powerful memories became crystallised into foundation myths for the followers who first told and re-told those stories. That process continued for several centuries, until the “myth” was largely fixed in the 4th century AD by the emperor’s political diktat, which led to the Nicene Creed, whose propositions remained highly controversial among those forced to accept it. In that context, his deification by the mytho-theologians of those early days I do not find at all surprising. After all, if Alexander the Great and the Emperor Augustus (divi filius), whose kingdoms were merely of this world, could both be seen as sons of a god, surely the one who said that he had come to usher in the Kingdom of God himself could be presented as nothing less.

I found Azlan as lucid as Jack Spong always is in the presentation of his thesis. His Jesus of Nazareth (as opposed to Jesus the Christ - a vital distinction that needs to be recognised), is a wonderfully convincing human figure and his account of the historical situation and context of his mission is entirely convincing. Nothing of the book surprised me, but it certainly offered new insights and a wider understanding of the context of the Jesus movement. Anyone reared on Spong, Borg, Crossan, and Freeman will find his account refreshingly supportive.

Overwhelmingly powerful, however, has been Herzog’s attempt to reinterpret a selection of the parables in the light of what is now known of the socio-economic evolution of elite groupings in primitive agricultural communities, and their methods of exploiting the peasant and expendable classes who constituted about 90% of the population. He tries to reach back behind the Gospel accounts (which after all can be dated to between 40 and 75 years after the death of Jesus) to the essence of each original parable which Jesus himself actually told. To do so, he must free the gospel versions from the editorialising influence of their authors, each of whom has an agenda for hearers and readers of his own day. Here the Jesus Seminar’s The Five Gospels gave me invaluable supporting textual material. What emerges is a fascinating portrait of the pitiful state of the peasant society of Jesus’ time and the effects of their exploitation, both by the Roman “colonial” elite and the elite of the Jewish Temple authorities, who effectively connived with their Roman “masters” in the oppression and exploitation of the majority peasant classes. (Coincidentally the current newspaper allegations about the methods used by RBS to exploit their small business customers seemed shockingly similar).

What Herzog tries to show is how the Gospel writers themselves may well have misinterpreted their Founder’s stories and in so doing gave to subsequent generations of Christian readers a false understanding of what those stories were really trying to do. This was to make explicit to the largely illiterate peasant listeners, in stories that reflected the techniques by which it was effected, how they were in a way conniving in their own exploitation. In so doing he sought to help them break out of the chains of exploitation by which they were shackled, well illustrated in the parable of the unjust judge. Herzog shows all too clearly how, in all early agricultural communities, the unholy alliance of the elite (say 1% of the population) and their retainer class (say 9%) conspired to enhance their own status and to preserve the socio-economic status quo to their mutual advantage. Their stewards and agents supplied the administrative mechanism and took much of the odium, the priestly classes through religious mystification supplied the ethical and moral justification for the domination culture which prevailed. In the parables the shameful excesses of the dominant and self-perpetuating elites are made explicit for those that have eyes to see and ears to hear. To recognise abuse as abuse is the first step toward escaping from it. That was what made Jesus so dangerous to the authorities; that explains, what the gospel accounts could not explain, why they had to get rid of the man whose teaching as purveyed through the gospels sounds at best admirable and at worst harmless – and certainly not deserving of execution even in those intolerant days.

I should have read Zealot and Parables before Spong’s excellent The Fourth Gospel, not after, to get the full effect. The Fourth Gospel, sub-titled Tales of a Jewish Mystic, was a scholarly and fascinating piece of work, and a fine summary of a lifetime’s study of the subject. He brings together here the full argument about the inadequacies of the fourth Gospel as historical evidence with characteristic lucidity, just as these other authors show the limitations of the synoptic gospels.

If I have understood him correctly, Spong’s suggestion (and Borg’s) is that the context within which the Gospel was probably produced was schism within the “Johannine Community” (probably based in Ephesus), and the desire to unify that community, which had been traumatised by the split with Judaism first, and then by its own internal divisions, between those who could accept the new understanding of Jesus, in his developing “Christ” manifestation, and those who could not quite shake off the shackles of their Jewish inheritance. Hence the development of his suggestion that the Gospel’s author – or up to three authors – was a Jewish mystic, seeking to offer a new vision and understanding of what Jesus’ unique “idea” was about.

Here I ran into difficulty – being inclined to the rational approach in such matters, even though I love poetry and argue strongly for a poetic approach to Bible evidence and theological expression. The problem with mysticism is that it is – almost by definition – beyond words, and whenever Spong ventures into that sort of area I find he becomes less than coherent and somewhat repetitive; it is probably inevitable when one is trying to express the inexpressible. I have been advised to read Richard Rohr and Matthew Fox as a way into a clearer understanding of mysticism as a source of challenge to orthodoxy and thinking outside of the box. But they are a pleasure yet to be pursued, and for me mysticism can too easily slide into the very mystification, by which Herzog’s elite contrived to reinforce their domination.

But the effect of the book is to convince me, if I needed much convincing, that this Gospel to a greater extent even than the Synoptics, is a piece of creative writing trying to make sense of the Jesus phenomenon, and has limited historical value. It is, in fact, a supreme example of “creative explanatory fiction” – the phrase is not mine. Some of the characters who appear are symbolic, not there to describe the actions or character of any one individual, but to stand for or to express an idea or a group or a type (eg. Peter or Nathaniel or Thomas), and the whole gospel is there to suggest that Jesus was a mystic, who strove to teach his disciples and his followers how they might achieve a one-ness with God. As such John, the Beloved Disciple, was not a disciple; rather he stands as a symbol of all disciples who lovingly and faithfully strive to follow the teaching of Jesus. But over the post-“resurrection” years the author’s internal experience of God was externalized into a pseudo-historical tale, which for the next 2000 years has been taken literally instead of poetically or symbolically.

It is when I encounter phrases such as “Jesus achieved the mystical oneness with the God who is the source of life…” that in my sceptical mind I begin to wonder whether this is anything different from a sophisticated expression of pantheism, being reminded too that this Gospel nearly failed to make it into the Canon owing to its perceived Gnostic tendencies!

All this complements and in no way undermines the historical dimension of my other reading. The combination allows me to see Jesus as the son of a man (called Joseph, perhaps) rather than the biblical Son of Man, and as a supremely subversive thinker; I admire (and however feebly strive to follow) his teaching, as one might any great political, philosophical, or moral and ethical thinker. To be able to dispense with the supernatural elements of the Jesus story sets one free to pursue the vision beautiful expressed in a lifelong search for God, whose existence (or not) is in no way affected by this understanding of Jesus, and whose realm is, one hopes, our ultimate destination outside of time and space.

My reaction overall has been a somewhat incoherent satisfaction that the reasons for my general problem of theological scepticism are reinforced by what these four authors have written. The difficulty is, as usual, how to find a new way of expressing faith and belief in God and Jesus’ vision of him. Reading these books has pulled together the threads of fifty years of reading since I first read Honest to God, but especially of my last ten years of study. I feel that I now have (for myself at least) a convincing account of where, like Luther, I now stand “because I can no other” – until someone more persuasive comes along.

Meanwhile the various celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Honest to God, including the PCN-B weekend Commemoration in Derby last November have helped me further to pull together the disparate threads of my understanding of the Jesus of History. I find it helpful to realise that the Christ of the Christian Churches is the creation of the succeeding centuries, in which he was metamorphosed by a politically dominant, increasingly authoritarian, and always exploitative Church into the Christ figure of what became known as Christianity, a religion that one wonders whether Jesus himself would have recognised.

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