A Long Pursuit of the Real Jesus

For Christians, the search for the real Jesus can be a challenging pursuit, given the two millennia of doctrine, dogma and distortion that have built up around his teachings. For some followers, the key has been to strip away those traditions and find a purer historical understanding, says Rev. Howard Bess.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

Christians agree that the meaning of gospel is good news, but there is major disagreement about the content of that good news. Over the years on this subject, I have had a radical change of mind.

As my readers are aware, I was raised as a Baptist Evangelical, and my church defined the content of the good news. That story line is familiar:  I, along with all other human beings, was a sinner bearing the sin of Adam and reinforcing my sinful nature by my own choices and actions. My life was an offense to a righteous God.

Jesus of Nazareth delivering his Sermon on the Mount as depicted by artist Carl Bloch. (Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

My sins became not just offensive to God but also debts that had to be paid.  God, out of love for mankind, sent his son into the world. His name was Jesus, and he came into the world for only one purpose. He came to die on the cross as a righteous payment for my impossible debts to God.

In Jesus, God accepted me into his holy family. With all my sins forgiven, I was assured that when I die, I would go to Heaven and live eternally as a citizen in the Kingdom of God. Escaping Hell and being promised eternal Heaven was the good news. It was the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This was still my understanding of the Gospel when I graduated from college, even though college began giving me questions that I could not reasonably answer. Graduate school gave me even more questions with no answers.

I became a young pastor and in the real world I began adding more content to the meaning of the good news Gospel. I came to understand myself as a pastor who was to be good news in the name of Jesus to every person whom I met.

I lost all interest in being the judge of anyone and came to see that everyone needed love, kindness and grace. Sins were forgiven because God loves us, not because a sin debt was paid to an angry God.

A major change in my thinking took place over 40 year ago at a week-long continuing education event at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, under the sponsorship of my denomination. I took an intensive course on the parables of Jesus taught by William Herzog II, a young seminary New Testament professor.

My thinking was exposed to a very different Jesus. He did not come into the world to die for the sins of the world. He was an involved social activist who carried his message to people in Galilee by telling stories. Placed in their social and historic context, the stories were good news to poor, oppressed people.

Jesus, the teacher from Nazareth in Galilee, was good news to the people who listened to him.  He gave them hope and a new understanding of the Kingdom of God. I realized that Jesus was indeed good news but not in the same way that I was taught in my younger years.

Along the way, I had another epiphany. True to my Baptist heritage, I gave priority to what the Bible said. In my search for understanding, I faced a critical question: Were all parts of the Bible to be given equal weight? Were certain parts of the Bible to be given priority in my search?

I came to a difficult conclusion. Certain parts of the Bible were in contradiction to other parts of the Bible and the contradictions were beyond reconciliation. The parts of the Bible that present an angry, judging God were not compatible with the God of love who is presented by some of the Old Testament prophets and especially the loving Father God about whom Jesus spoke.

Through my entire journey, I have never lost confidence in Jesus from Nazareth. I have never retreated from naming him the Lord of my life. And, if Jesus is truly the Lord of my life, why not allow Jesus do the defining of the meaning of the Gospel that is attached to his name?

Once I asked that question, I realized that I had allowed Paul, particularly in the book of Romans, to interpret the meaning of the Gospel. Paul, being the earliest writer of material in the New Testament, had become the great interpreter of the Christian Gospel.

I had been making a fundamental error. I should let Jesus speak for himself. Jesus, not Paul, is the key to understanding the message of good news. Paul should at best be given a secondary role.

I am not a scholar, but I consider myself a very dedicated and committed student who is eager to know everything I can about this unique person named Jesus, who appeared in northern Palestine about 2,000 years ago.

I am convinced that the evidence is that Jesus lived and that a reliable body of his teachings was preserved, especially in the stories (parables) he told and the aphorisms (short one-line sayings) that he repeated over and over again.

The heart of his message was the kingdom of God is here and it is time for God’s people to live out the love, mercy, peace and justice that is fundamental to the reign of a loving God.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected].

13 comments for “A Long Pursuit of the Real Jesus

  1. Mad Adam
    February 25, 2013 at 10:12

    ” Know a people by the Gods they worship.” … F. Nietzsche

  2. Marnie
    February 24, 2013 at 13:07

    I am glad to see Rev. Bess has come around to my way of thinking.
    I know that is snarky and rude but.

    I am Methodist not Southern Baptist and never went to seminary so my background probably allowed me to see and deal with the inherent conflict of a wrathful and vengeful God of the Old and much of the new Testament and the teachings (rules of behavior) of a gentler, forgiving God as taught by Jesus.
    Obviously, the two cannot exist in the same time and space. One, at least, has to be flawed.

    I have long ago stopped the nit picking and parsing of translations and interpretations other than those of the Gospels. I have probably over corrected but I pretty much take the Beatitudes and the Good Samaritan and leave the rest as secondary, as those two (rules of behavior) ideologies cover pretty much everything that we do in life.

    God, if there is one, surely knows that humans aren’t very bright and so simple rules, like the parables and Beatitudes are about all we can deal with.

    I do want to congratulate Rev. Bess for continuing to seek and learn, there are too many who claim they know exactly what God or Christ wants, and then turn their brains off and set their hearts in concrete.

  3. teo tan
    February 22, 2013 at 12:05

    Sir, why does it take ‘Christians’ so long to see the obvious? I have read the NT four times and each time I read it the distance between bigoted and misogynistic Paul and revolutionary social reformer Jesus, widens. The tone of Paul’s epistles in now offensive to me. Jesus elevated everyone he came into contact with, especially sinners whores, drunks, thieves, outcasts etc., the lower their social standing the more Jesus extended his hand — Paul is a far cry from the liberating, INCLUSIVE message of Jesus in the Gospels; Paul need only take one step and he’s in hell. In any case the entire Bible is myth tho the Gospels are a good instructive read on social revolution and the evil of money. Yet almost every Christian theologian misses those two major themes.

  4. handsomemaggie
    February 22, 2013 at 10:12

    Rehmat, the internal inconsistencies within your post are truly so stunning that it beggars belief. Do you honestly believe what you’ve posted?!? What utter bat guano. I have no problem with atheists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, whatever. I do have a problem with fundamentalists of any stripe and with those who conflate some kind of hatred of this group or that group into this amalgamation of sheer aggressive and ignorant hatred of Jews, etc. “Zionism seeks nothing less than a Universal Satanic Republic under Talmudic rule”?!? Uh…Jesus was a Jew.

  5. Otto Schiff
    February 22, 2013 at 01:18

    Jesus the Jew would not like Rehmat very much.

  6. gregorylkruse
    February 21, 2013 at 18:33

    Oftentimes people who are not fluent in the language of religion reject anything that is said in that language as irrelevant or even despicable. My brain is very comfortable with and enlightened by study and discussion of religion along with many other pursuits. Those people who can’t agree that Mark is one of the best books ever written shouldn’t bother to comment on Bess’s articles.

  7. frankiethemc
    February 21, 2013 at 16:48

    G.K Chesterton once wrote, “The Bible is the riddle, and the Church is the answer.”

  8. Treedr
    February 21, 2013 at 16:31

    I was raised in a Christian household, but we were not “born again” Christians. When I became exposed to that fundamentalist interpretation of the religion, it turned me off like nothing else could. The bigotry and hatred is so all-consuming that it takes on the characteristics of a mental illness. A close friend spoke of his parent as a “Christnut” and said that she says that Jesus is the only true moral compass. She hates anyone who does not espouse her beliefs. I no longer follow the Christian path, but I do believe that the path of Jesus is a noble one to tred. However, most fundamentalist, such as those who commented above, do not really follow in His footsteps.

  9. Caspin Lange
    February 21, 2013 at 16:15

    The most concise way to understand the important aspect of the teacher, Jesus, which of course is simply the message of the teaching, is to contrast and compare with all wise and peace-loving teachers, ie. enlightened sages throughout history.

    Buddha, Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta, and countless others have all said basically the same thing: we are all one.

    This understanding is called enlightenment. It occurs when one is supremely curious about the true nature of existence/reality/the self. So you really don’t need teachers, so much as you need your own curiosity. We don’t need any of these books because the answers already exist within and AS us. This is what is meant by “The kingdom of heaven is within.”

  10. Morton Kurzweil
    February 21, 2013 at 14:26

    Your belief in whatever God or Supernatural power begins and ends in your need to believe. Belief is the search for certainty. The certainty in every individual of any religious form requires group support and acceptance of group values. This organized belief is a form of behavior control that provides the faithful with feelings of security. True believers need the bigotry of belief, the paranoia that provides the fear of the unknown, the anxiety of individual responsibility, and the violent response to other beliefs.

  11. Garth Spruiell
    February 21, 2013 at 13:09

    I was raised and still am a Unitarian. The very idea of Jesus seemed mythical and distant. After hearing about the Jesus Seminars in a sermon, I read, ‘The Five Gospels, What Did Jesus really Say?’ by Robert Funk and Roy Hoover. The Jesus Seminars were a collection of scholars, theologians, linguists, historians and anthropologists who for the first time, dedicated research into the question, of what Jesus actually said setting aside all questions of divinity. What comes forth is a picture of Jesus as accessible as the guy next door. My understanding and appreciation of Jesus has dramatically changed for the better. Rev. Howard Bess’ post made me think he had just read it. If he hasn’t, I hope he does.

    • Frances in California
      February 25, 2013 at 17:15

      Thanks, Garth: I wasn’t raised Unitarian; I came to it later on, the hard way. What a nice surprise to discover a lot of “Jesus-ness” in UU-ism, being that we basically question ALL authority and go exploring on our own to discover the truth underlying the hype. Bibles are no better nor any worse than other books; all books are good in that they stimulate curiosity. Once read, one finds inferior books, of course, but being “non-Bibles” is not a measure of that.

  12. Hillary
    February 21, 2013 at 12:14

    More proselytising by the Rev. Howard Bess.
    A belief in an imaginary God.

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