An Urgent Reassessment of Jesus

Many Christian churches opt for comforting their parishioners with reassuring ceremonies, banal sermons and even appeals to popular nationalistic sentiments rather than challenging them with the tough calls from Jesus for social justice, a grave failure, says Rev. Howard Bess.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

Our knowledge of the Jesus of history is growing rapidly with many good scholars looking at the context in which Jesus grew up, lived and taught. Context is the key word.

Over the past 30 to 40 years, scholars have begun placing the words of Jesus into the context into which he spoke them with the meaning of Jesus’s teaching becoming clearer. We now know that Jesus delivered his teachings to a huge poverty-stricken peasant population. Further, Jesus’s teachings were spoken in the primary seedbed of the Zealots, a radical movement that advocated violent rebellion against the wealthy and the powerful.

Jesus delivering his Sermon on the Mount as depicted in a painting by Nineteenth Century artist Carl Heinrich Bloch.

Jesus delivering his Sermon on the Mount as depicted in a painting by Nineteenth Century artist Carl Heinrich Bloch.

Authors of the Greek narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote decades later. They used original Jesus materials passed down through oral tradition from the Aramaic that Jesus spoke but put them into a completely different context. In the process, they gave meanings to Jesus’s teachings that he never intended or would have accepted.

The insistence of recent scholarship is that the teachings of Jesus from Nazareth be carefully removed from the context created by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul and reinserted into the context in which Jesus lived and taught, an advanced agrarian society in which poverty overwhelmed the population, violence was commonplace, and injustice reigned.

Thus, the key to understanding the Jesus of my Faith is not found in the Greek of the New Testament but in Jesus himself, a native of the town of Nazareth where he grew up. It was the Galilean area where he carried out his career as a popular teacher and story-teller. To understand the teachings of Jesus, the material must be placed in the context in which he lived and taught.

Jesus’s teachings have survived in two primary forms, his parables (stories) and his aphorisms (short sayings). Most scholars now agree that these two literary forms used by Jesus survived a transition from the Aramaic that Jesus spoke, into the Aramaic oral traditions of Jesus’s listeners and finally to written Greek over a 40 to 60 year period. These stories and sayings survived because they are easily remembered and this process of survival of Jesus teaching material is not seriously disputed.

In preparation for ordained ministry, I studied a lot of Greek, Greek being the original language of what we now call The New Testament. But I look at current New Testament scholarship and conclude that reading Greek was not as important as I thought.

Today’s Churches

These implications of recent scholarship beg to be recognized by Twenty-first Century Christian churches and these churches ignore this very good scholarship at their own peril. After all, the basic message from Jesus is blunt and real: his spirituality was a direct result of his involvement in the political, social and economic issues of his own day. Justice was at the heart of his spirituality.

Yet, today, ordained clergy are at the heart of the churches’ dilemma. Many have been trained in seminaries and have been taught what I have described in reference to the stories and sayings of Jesus. Thus, they know the social and economic implications of the Jesus material, but most seminary-trained clergy choose to side-step the justice messages of Jesus.

Clergy become adept at conducting baptisms, communion services, funerals and weddings and preaching innocuous sermons. They bless public gatherings with polite and meaningless prayers of invocation and benedictions. However, they will not speak from pulpits or public platforms about income disparities, paying employees a living wage, universal health care, or the welcoming of immigrants.

Another huge shortcoming of Christian churches is that they have lost their ability to discuss and argue the hard social and political issues that emerge from the Christian gospel. The parables that Jesus told were not told to make audiences agree with the story-teller or one another. They were told as discussion starters intended to produce understanding of the social-political conditions of the day and elicit a commitment for a just society. The lack of vigorous discussions in Christian churches about social justices is nothing less than scandalous.

The earthly ministry of Jesus was not about the saving of souls for an eternal heaven. A serious study of his parables and aphorisms produce a very different perspective. The messages of Jesus were about people who needed to be restored to communities of justice, caring and love.

Christian churches have lost their way seeking social acceptability and comfort for the elite. In the process they have claimed the presence of their Christ in a cup of juice and a bite of bread. The distortion is disastrous. The need for Christians to take a new look at Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings is urgent.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptists minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.  

15 comments for “An Urgent Reassessment of Jesus

  1. Donald Paulus
    June 12, 2015 at 17:20

    Ever since the Christian Church was afflicted with the edifice complex it has had trouble in sorting its message out. Take a hard line position on the dangers of money – you know that line about the difficulty of getting into heaven and a camel going through the eye of a needle – and there go the wealthy parishioners. And, with them gone how are you going to add on additions? Maybe, the problems is buildings. The church is better off without them leastwise it can keep its message straight.
    And, maybe we don’t need hierarchies either, spiritual bureau-
    cracies belong to the Devil. Just keep things simple, and place an emphasis on being open. The message of Jesus is not that complicated: love God, love your neighbor. Really. folks, what’s the problem?

  2. Robert Bruce
    June 10, 2015 at 22:07

    I agree with your perception of what the modern day church is, you are spot on with that, but for Jesus not trying to prepare his followers/ the people for the next life to come is just plain heresy. How many times does Jesus talk about eternal life in his kingdom? His call for repentance, etc? Do you really think God would send his son to die such a grisly death for something as meager as social justice in a fallen world? Jesus preached love and peace, he worked miracles and healed the sick, but he preached his kingdom most of all, and he called for repentance of sins as well as their forgiveness. Chris Hedges is right about how the Christian Right has totally corrupted the scriptures and Jesus’ teachings, but the progressives are just as bad with their abuse of grace, etc. Reducing Jesus to a mere social critic and reformer totally undermines his message of hope and redemption. To clarify my point with regards to American politics and social problems is that the one percent crowd is indeed screwing the masses over with their greed, lust for power, etc, but the masses make matters worse by just shrugging off the moral code that is a big part of the Judeo/Christian religions. You can’t totally blame the one percent crowd if you are living way beyond your means, or having illegitimate kids that you can’t really take care off, etc. Jesus attacked the money changers in the Temple, but he spoke openly about how the debauched can’t attain eternal life in his kingdom without repentance.

    • Robert Bruce
      June 10, 2015 at 22:20

      You spoke about how the clergy of today’s church avoid talking about social reform, or other political hot topics, although they sure push the almighty state and militarism up the wazoo. The fact that they are tax exempt is a big reason why they shut up on these matters, or they are afraid the top members of their flock will take a hike and hurt revenue. With the advent of the mega church, the whole game changed, with the watering down of Christianity in the West(USA for the most part). It is a business anymore, and to keep the $$$$$$$$ no pastor better rock the boat, so they don’t. I think more pastors need to talk about social issues, etc, and give their flocks a true Christian perspective, but their main job is indeed to preach Christ’s Kingdom and repentance. Things are getting worse because so called Christians for the most part aren’t really Christian. They have been receiving the wrong messages for the most part.

  3. Walter S. Moss
    June 7, 2015 at 00:02

    Dear Rev. Bess, thank you for the insightful article. And thanks to Consortium News for publishing it.

    Would you be able to comment more on the current scholarship in future articles? Sources where folks could read more? Thanks.

  4. Brad Owen
    June 4, 2015 at 14:38

    I appreciate Rev. Bess’s essay. Much can be gained from simply meditating upon Jesus’s 2nd Commandment to LOVE thy fellow man, and all that this implies…the morally-inspired social activist’s creed for external action, one can perhaps say. Jesus also issued the Commandment to LOVE God…the Mystic’s creed for internal prayer/meditation/contemplation. So: Jesus-as-Avatar (the Hindu concept of a Divine Incarnation to re-establish Righteousness when it is found waning; and protect The Good while destroying The Evil, when Evil has grown over-whelming)…or Jesus as Psychopomp (the Guide of Souls for their Return-to-Heaven, after Awakening Them from this mostly-bad “Dream of the Play-of-Creation”). Nobody but the individual can decide which direction to take, or even if one necessarily cancels the other…THAT is the glory of a modern, SECULAR, Society, the freedom to sort things out, and choose for oneself.

  5. Michael Gillespie
    June 4, 2015 at 12:50

    The best-kept open secret on the planet is The Urantia Book, published in 1955 and known early on as “the President’s book.”

    Countless numbers of Christians and others have found inspiration in it’s Part IV retelling of “The Life and Teachings of Jesus” despite (unsurprising) efforts, including punitive litigation, to suppress and marginalize the text and co-opt reader organizations..

    (195:10.7) No social system or political regime which denies the reality of God can contribute in any constructive and lasting manner to the advancement of human civilization. But Christianity, as it is subdivided and secularized today, presents the greatest single obstacle to its further advancement; especially is this true concerning the Orient.

    (195:10.20) Christianity suffers under a great handicap because it has become identified in the minds of all the world as a part of the social system, the industrial life, and the moral standards of Western civilization; and thus has Christianity unwittingly seemed to sponsor a society which staggers under the guilt of tolerating science without idealism, politics without principles, wealth without work, pleasure without restraint, knowledge without character, power without conscience, and industry without morality.

    (195:10.21) The hope of modern Christianity is that it should cease to sponsor the social systems and industrial policies of Western civilization while it humbly bows itself before the cross it so valiantly extols, there to learn anew from Jesus of Nazareth the greatest truths mortal man can ever hear—the living gospel of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.

  6. Minnesota Mary
    June 3, 2015 at 23:48

    I think a lot of people are going to be in for a rude awakening when Jesus comes again to judge the living and the dead.

  7. romanus
    June 3, 2015 at 18:54

    Ancient Jewish culture was shaken to its core by the sophistication of the larger
    Mediterranean world. To these descendants of desert-dwelling nomads, mankind’s first
    great civilizations were frightening and evil. To Jews used to being ruled by a hereditary
    priestly caste within a bewildering maze of regulations and unnatural sexual prohibitions,
    this new freedom was as terrifying as the liberation of the Nineteen Sixties was to
    traditionalists in our era.

    But in Jesus’ time Jews had long since spread throughout this world, embracing new
    opportunities and new freedoms in tolerant pagan society, even incorporating the rich
    heritage of Persian, Egyptian, and Greek theology into their primitive belief system. Nor
    were they driven from their homeland: they emigrated voluntarily to make richer lives
    than they could among the narrow-minded fanatics of Judaea. Jews were accorded special
    privileges throughout the Roman world, until the treachery and slaughter of the First
    Revolt ended Roman patience with their impossible to please subjects.

    The Christian/Jewish hyperboles of Roman oppression must be taken within this context.
    The benefits of being part of the Roman world, from indoor plumbing and paved roads
    and international travel and chances to earn the protection of Roman citizenship and to
    drink delicious Falernian wine – these and so many more must be taken in balance against
    the ravings of fundamentalists like Jesus whose fear was of losing a unique, if imaginary,
    identity in the vibrant universe of the Roman Empire.

    • Zachary Smith
      June 3, 2015 at 20:43

      Jesus was a ‘raving fundamentalist’? Never heard THAT one before.

      Regarding the “indoor plumbing” and “delicious Falernian wine”, I’d imagine both were in darned short supply in Judea.

      In early schooling I was fed the “great empire” stuff regarding the Romans. As the years passed, I came to regard them as some especially nasty thugs and goons.

      They did some decent engineering work, but on the backs of multitudes of slaves. IMO that’s not a bit admirable.

      But to each his own ‘heroes’.

  8. Mark
    June 3, 2015 at 14:09

    I suspect many have turned away from organized religion precisely because religious organizations are run by men — of whom many of those ambitious and influencial corrupt anything and everything they can for their own benefit just as we’ve seen with various religious cultures. Some “religious leaders” are nothing but pure confidence men and more akin to deceivers than truth tellers — maybe they’ve deceived themselves?

    I think we all know right from wrong, or at least enough of us do that we should be able to do the right thing collectively if we choose to. Unfortunately we are coerced, blinded and intoxicated by the prospects of personal gain and personal security, financial and otherwise (however false) while we’re encouraged to think and do the wrong thing by others that also perceive to benefit ( real or imagined, or exaggerated for other ulterior motives).

    We also have strong social needs to be accepted and will knowingly follow others down the wrong path — again for what is personally gained by doing so. Greed, selfishness and various fears including, social and financial are the main drivers in our wrong headed decisions — decisions that impose on others and create conflict as well as hatred.

    If one person or group never imposed on another there would never be one conflict between humans unless it was only a misunderstanding which normally is not the case — everyone knows when someone else is trying to rob their land or property or resources, and we all also gain an understanding (eventually) when we are being enslaved outright or by debt or any other means. Trespassing by theft or enslavement (evil if you prefer) often begets retaliation and even an attempt to overcompensate or completely vanquish the enemy — most all of us have a limit as to how much abuse of any kind we’ll put up with before we seek revenge and take matters into our own hands — America was founded because of that reason — to gain freedom from our oppressors — and blind as a bat we robbed and massacred the native Americans. In fact Euopean descendents with “God” on their side have imposed on more people around the world than any others. Lies and Orwellian doublespeak madness for personal gain is our chariot today as America attempts to rule a neclear weaponized world while thinking God is on our side and no one else has any rights at all. Collectively we are a psychopath nation.

    I’m not one who follows organized religion but do genuinely pray that America finds truth and sanity before we destroy all that the conscious and unconscious powers of the universe — God — has given us on our tiny and vulnerable planet.

    What are we left with if we don’t understand and acknowledge the truth?

  9. Stefan
    June 3, 2015 at 13:37

    Keeping them ignorant of their own faith makes it easier for sponsored and groomed TV evangelists (sponsored by whom?) to dupe the followers of their creed or sect into doctrines very far from the core of the christian faith – Zionist Christianity spiced with a heavy dose of Eschatology – and this is distinctively american in my opinion.

    The faith as interpreted by the early church fathers, and what most people can deduce by no special skills, other than to humbly read the gospels for themselves – without having been mangled by duplicitous figures for dubious purposes -, is of little interest for Machiavellian or Zionist schemes.

  10. Zachary Smith
    June 3, 2015 at 12:13

    Note: I’m going to have to adopt the Keep It Simple, Stupid posting method because the slightest error makes what a person writes a total mess, and there is No Way to correct it. So now an attempt to make what I wrote readable:

    ~~~~~~~~

    The earthly ministry of Jesus was not about the saving of souls for an eternal heaven.

    No, it wasn’t.

    A serious study of his parables and aphorisms produce a very different perspective.

    On this one I disagree – it doesn’t take a “serious” study at all. Merely reading the recorded teachings makes it obvious to anybody with a half-open mind that Jesus had something very different in mind.

    So I agree with what Rev. Bess says – except for his prescription. Nothing is going to change. The churches settled into a groove centuries ago, and everybody likes the situation. Nearly every single “christian” on the planet is quite pleased with his projected path to Heaven, and has his nose in the air (in a very humble fashion, of course) about the fate of everybody who doesn’t believe precisely as he does.

    None of the Churches will tolerate deviation. Preacher Men have mortgages, monthly bills, and the ordinary desire to live a respectable life. Without a job somewhere, none of this is going to happen. So they forget every single thing they learned in Theology School and toe the line – whatever line their particular inbred sect demands.

    I’ve talked to a pretty fair range of family and neighbors, and they have Religion down to a mindless chant. The Old and New Testament teachings they don’t like are simply ignored. (assuming they’ve heard of them at all – it’s amazing how many ‘christians’ have never studied their Bible) If they have to invent some new doctrines – as the Fundamentalists have recently done in the case of abortion, some quick ‘1984’ operations and the deed is done.

    The very worst part is that these mindless believers are becoming a substantial factor in destroying the planet where humans were born, and the only suitable place for our species. They are totally on board with the everything ending in a heroic blast of trumpets followed by a Holy Bloodbath. It’s a “happy ending” kind of thing, you know.

    Their fantasy world promises to become a horrible reality. That all of creation is being destroyed because of their ignorance and arrogance completely blows by them. There is only one ‘truth’, and they KNOW it!

    Speak to a salt-of-the-Earth ‘christian’ family member or neighbor and then tell me I’m wrong.

  11. Zachary Smith
    June 3, 2015 at 12:08

    The earthly ministry of Jesus was not about the saving of souls for an eternal heaven.

    No, it wasn’t.

    A serious study of his parables and aphorisms produce a very different perspective.

    On this one I disagree – it doesn’t take a “serious” study at all. Merely reading the recorded teachings makes it obvious to anybody with a half-open mind that Jesus had something very different in mind.

    So I agree with what Rev. Bess says – except for his prescription. Nothing is going to change. The churches settled into a groove centuries ago, and everybody likes the situation. Nearly every single “christian” on the planet is quite pleased with his projected path to Heaven, and has his nose in the air (in a very humble fashion, of course) about the fate of everybody who doesn’t believe precisely as he does.

    None of the Churches will tolerate deviation. Preacher Men have mortgages, monthly bills, and the ordinary desire to live a respectable life. Without a job somewhere, none of this is going to happen. So they forget every single thing they learned in Theology School and toe the line – whatever line their particular inbred sect demands.

    I’ve talked to a pretty fair range of family and neighbors, and they have Religion down to a mindless chant. The Old and New Testament teachings they don’t like are simply ignored. (assuming they’ve heard of them at all – it’s amazing how many ‘christians’ have never studied their Bible) If they have to invent some new doctrines – as the Fundamentalists have recently done in the case of abortion, some quick ‘1984’ operations and the deed is done.

    The very worst part is that these mindless believers are becoming a substantial factor in destroying the planet where humans were born, and the only suitable place for our species. They are totally on board with the everything ending in a heroic blast of trumpets followed by a Holy Bloodbath. It’s a “happy ending” kind of thing, you know.

    Their fantasy world promises to become a horrible reality. That all of creation is being destroyed because of their ignorance and arrogance completely blows by them. There is only one ‘truth’, and they KNOW it!

    Speak to a salt-of-the-Earth ‘christian’ family member or neighbor and then tell me I’m wrong.

  12. Linda Hemby
    June 3, 2015 at 11:24

    Link to my favorite film on Mons. Romero https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0PSVqxtQm8

  13. Linda Hemby
    June 3, 2015 at 11:23

    If you are aware of and embrace the historical Jesus, the teachings and practice of liberation theology are affirming and inspiring. No wonder the new Pope – from Latin America (Argentina) where liberation theology can be found in many denominations and among agnostics – has welcomed proponents of this cause to the Vatican. Too, one of the best examples of emulating Jesus’s life is the transformation of the conservative Catholic priest Oscar Romero, a journey he begun after his dear friend (a Jesuit proponent of liberation theology) was murdered by Salvadoran death squads 3 months after Mons. Romero became archbishop. Even though he knew he would also be killed, Mons. Romero used his position to denounce human rights and social injustices, and to request that the military and its death squads and the US government funding them, “Stop the repression.”

Comments are closed.