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Mahlon H. Smith
Rutgers University

And he said:
"Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"
--- Mark 4:9 

 

I am a creature of the twentieth century, who has had the good fortune of surviving, with most of my marbles, into the next millennium.  Who I am, and what I think, have been shaped by myriads of persons and events I happened to encounter during the more than 28,000 days of my existence to date.  Yet, not all have had an equal influence.  Some—family, friends, teachers, great books and current crises—have made a greater impact on my mind and life than others, in forming and transforming how I view the world and existence in general.  In retrospect, however, I would have to say that none has played a more persistent role in the evolution of my life than a person from a culture and era far from my own: a first century Galilean Jew, known to his contemporaries as Yeshu bar Yosef of Nazareth (John 1:45) but more commonly referred to in my culture simply as Jesus.

I have no memory of my first encounter with this Jesus.  As the son of a Methodist preacher, I heard this name and was encouraged to probe the implications of his purported words, deeds and fate for my life as far back as I can recall.  My father had a gift for making biblical stories relevant to contemporary life – not just for me, but for thousands whose lives he touched in a ministry that spanned forty some years.  Thus, I could never identify with reports of the experience of Christians who claimed to have “found Jesus” or to have been “born again,” for Jesus has always been a persistent presence in my world – at least, the world as I came to imagine and experience it.

Presence, as I understand it, is not necessarily visible. Even though the operations of my brain and my other internal organs are not visible to me as I write this, I am confident that they are present and functioning in the world as I now experience it. Although I cannot see with a naked eye the molecules and atoms that constitute me and the world around me, I am sure that they are actually here.  Without their presence I would not be what I am.

Likewise, persons other than myself can be present to me even when they are not immediately perceptible to my physical senses.  They are present insofar as they still impact my memory and current patterns of thinking and acting. As a child, I was never bothered by the fact that the presence of the person named Jesus was not immediately visible to me. For even though my own father was physically absent from my daily life during many of my early years, while he was serving as a naval chaplain during World War II, I was confident that he was alive and really with me – in spirit, at least, if not in the flesh.  His pictures on our mantle and end tables kept his face fresh in the minds of our family; and his periodic letters kept us in touch with what he was currently – or at least recently – thinking and doing.  By analogy, Jesus was and is present to me insofar as his words and graphic stories about him continue to shape my fundamental values and how I relate to the world. In this sense, persons only cease to be present to us when they cease to influence our daily lives or when we discover that the images and echoes in our minds do not accurately represent them.

My concern for an accurate image of Jesus and clear understanding of his words and deeds antedates – by more than a decade – my formal introduction half a century ago to the modern scholarly “quest of the historical Jesus.”  I trace this concern to the weekly Sunday dinner table debates over the morning sermon between my socially liberal, preacher father and his own more conservative, pietistic sire.  The fact that these intense father-son debates involved rigorous questioning of the sources and logic assumed by each party taught me that any person’s claims or statements of fact need to be carefully subjected to close critical cross-examination before they are accepted as true.  The added fact that my father and grandfather conducted their on-going debates with due respect and clear affection for each other also taught me to respect those whose views are at odds with mine and to avoid ad hominem attacks in a mutual quest for truth. 

It is such experiences that have made some pragmatic sense for me out of Jesus’ paradoxical teaching to love one’s opponents (Matt 5:43 // Luke 6:27, 35).  Without an opponent’s challenge I probably would not bother to examine my current opinions and beliefs or bring them into closer conformity with the actual evidence.  It is in this sense of a dialectical "opponent" – a dialogue partner, that is, who persistently provokes me to reexamine my facile presuppositions – that Jesus has been a presence throughout my life.

My lifelong training in dialectics – the art and science of interaction between those with conflicting perceptions and convictions – has convinced me that absolute truth cannot be the property of any statement, argument or text composed by a human mind.  While any formulation using a human language may seem true to the person who composed it and those who accept it at face value, every such statement is in fact the product of a particular mind or group of minds and, therefore, inevitably only an expression of the author(s) personal view of reality at a particular point in time.  Moreover, since the experience of all humans is limited by the conditions of their historical existence, any assertion of truth by any human is never anything more than a declaration of what that particular person believes to be true at that particular moment.  The adequacy of such affirmations of faith is always open to question by any whose outlook and experience differ or whenever new discoveries challenge the adequacy of the evidence presupposed by those formulations.  

For me, these insights not only confirm the wisdom of the American forefathers’ principle of religious tolerance, they also underlie my lifelong support for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue.  For one can only recognize the limitations of one’s own current view of reality, when one takes seriously the views of those whose experience makes them think otherwise.

It is for these reasons that, as far back as I can remember, I never considered the Bible to be literally, simply “the Word of God.”  Insofar as the biblical books were demonstrably written long ago in archaic human languages, by various authors who did not claim themselves to be divine, for audiences that lived in historical circumstances quite different from my own, I could never pretend that the text of the Bible was the “Word of God” addressed personally to me.  From my point of view, anyone who makes such a claim is bound to confuse the different voices and mindsets that actually formed the biblical texts and, thus, to mistake what each passage in scripture was originally formulated to say. 

Whenever anyone other than the audiences to whom the different authors of the various biblical books first addressed their words reads a particular scriptural text, s/he is, in effect, reading someone else’s mail.  Failure to take this into account has led to countless distortions and conflicts, holy wars and holocausts, pogroms and crusades throughout Jewish and Christian history, since those who view the Bible as the Word of God are often prone to mistaking their own very human and selective reading of the text for absolute truth. 

But if the Bible is recognized for what it really is – a collection of faith declarations by humans who did not all believe alike or exactly as I do – and is read with historical perspective, it can be a salutary tool in promoting mutual understanding and common cause between persons with quite diverse backgrounds and individual agendas.  Over the years I have found that there is greater openness to honest dialog and exchange of insights across religious divides between scholars who have been trained to study the Bible as a historical artifact than even among confessional peers who take it upon themselves to defend what they – individually or collectively – hold to be the truth of “holy” scripture.

That said, I do believe that passages from the text of any scripture – canonical or otherwise – can have a formative or transformative influence on the lives of persons who lived long after those who formulated those words were dead and gone.   Witness Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther or John Wesley.  Whenever and wherever recorded human speech has a seminal influence in shaping or altering any human life, then I am prepared to grant that it has become the living “word of god” (metaphorically speaking) for that particular person.  It is only in this sense that I would acknowledge words credited to Jesus – taken as a foundational formula or pivotal principle in a particular person’s life – have the power to become a creative “word of god.”  Whether that “god”– the driving force in such pivotal experiences – is, in fact, the same that inspired the author of those words depends entirely on whether the consequences remain consistent with the inherent logic of the source.

This is equally true of any passage, not just in the Christian church’s collection of canonical texts, but in any scripture or great book that is held sacred by any human anywhere, whether s/he would identify her (or his) social formation as “Christian” or not.  I come to this conclusion, not from agnostic or secular presuppositions, but from a close reading of the canonical biblical texts themselves.  For the “God” depicted in both Old and New Testaments is not limited to revelation through a particular book or set of books canonized by any earthly authority. 

On the contrary, the Bible itself begins by portraying ha Adam – “the earthling”: i.e., the human species per se, female as well as male – as in essence a reflection of the primal Force that generated the stars and the rest of the universe (Gen 1:27).  The Hebrew prophets assumed that this creative Power addressed its revelation to all nations; and even that first-century Christianized Pharisee who identified himself simply as Paul protested that the “power and nature” of this “God” was evident for all humans to find, not through studying sacred scripture, but through exploring the fabric of the cosmos itself (Rom 1:19-20). 

Thus, from the perspective presupposed by the scriptural canon itself, any alleged conflict between faith and reason, revelation and science, is a false dichotomy.  Instead, biblical texts regularly present rational arguments to counter false beliefs and encourage clear-eyed study of the real world to challenge superstitious traditions and hypocritical piety.  Therefore, I never thought that to take something “in faith” means to swallow it without question.  Rather, my Wesleyan heritage prepared me to view the story of wrestling Jacob (Gen 32:22-32) as paradigmatic of the human condition.  One often has to grapple with the presence of the Unknown to come to a clearer view of whom or what one encounters on life’s journey.  When such experiences involve ultimate questions of existence, one’s prior convictions are not apt to emerge unscathed.  Rather, like Jacob, one may gain a more realistic image of oneself and the forces one faces only by risking permanent dislocation of one’s prior self-understanding.

To borrow a metaphor from the mystics, my own night-long wrestling match with God – more precisely, with the images of God in biblical texts – began with passages presenting Jesus material.   The fact that the New Testament stressed Jesus’ crucifixion and death, convinced me that – whatever else he was – he was fundamentally a mortal human, like me.  I never doubted my own inevitable mortality or naïvely thought death was divine punishment for sin, since observation of the real world told me that all species of living creatures were also mortal.  For me, the eventual death of any organism, myself or Jesus included, is nothing more than evidence that no single creature or species can rival or avoid the ultimate undying Power that generated and remains operative within this ever-changing universe.  If Jesus was really born and really died, then he was a mortal human, like you and me, plain and simple.

The authors of Jewish scripture were unanimous on one point: the Creator tolerates no rivals. There is no place for a plurality of persons in Israel’s view of the Godhead. Hebrew prophets, who presumed to speak for this God, predicted and celebrated the demise of all earthly entities that dared to claim or try to exercise totalitarian power, as dramatic evidence that their God was in fact active and supreme.  Therefore, if Jesus and his first followers were in fact Jews, as New Testament authors assert, neither he nor they would have claimed that he was God.  For, if they did, they would have been rightly regarded by Jewish contemporaries as blasphemous pagans and their movement would have effectively ended with Jesus’ death.  Since the latter obviously did not happen, I have long concluded that much in the development of gentile Christian images of Jesus as a divine being has been misguided.  Not only could the historical Jesus not have uttered many of the claims ascribed to him in the gospel of John, it is highly unlikely that he would have approved of the general tendency of Christians to elevate him personally to the status of sole mediator of divine authority.

But my personal struggle with the images of God that I inherited from orthodox Christian tradition was far more existential than the intellectual challenge of trying to reconcile the logical paradoxes of post-biblical Trinitarian creeds with the claims of scripture.  It was precisely because I firmly believed those biblical voices that claimed that the Force that ultimately directs human history supports social justice rather than ritual worship that my faith was tested and shaken to the core. 

The accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion by other humans that I had heard since childhood shaped my understanding of the unmerited fate of any martyr for a just cause, such as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King.  For study of history assured me that injustices can have the paradoxical effect of galvanizing other advocates of the martyr’s cause and attracting enough support to alter the eventual course of history.  I remain confident that even the horrific injustices in Hitler’s Holocaust can have humane consequences, providing their recollection leads enough people of all religious persuasions to dedicate themselves to opposing any policy of genocide or ethnic cleansing.  But the paradigmatic power of such senseless events depends entirely upon the ability of those who recall them to eliminate ethnic prejudice from their own worldview.

While I had little trouble reconciling the fact of human injustice towards fellow humans with an understanding of a just God, my worldview was severely challenged by events in my young adult years that were closer to home. Since I, like my Pilgrim ancestors, truly believed in a divine Providence that tends to support social underdogs and topple tyrants, I was ill-prepared to come to terms with my own mother’s twenty-two year painful deterioration into complete paralysis and eventual death due to Parkinson’s disease. Here was a brilliant, articulate woman who had devoted her whole life to helping others, who – through no fault of her own – was slowly being reduced to total silent impotence. It was not contemplating the inevitable death of a parent that troubled me, but rather the helplessness I felt in having to watch her prolonged suffering without being able to do anything to relieve it.  While my mother bore her deteriorating condition with grace and even self-effacing humor, her family was crushed.  Despite our deep-seated faith in a just and loving God, there was no miraculous healing.  Gospel stories of Jesus’ cures became for me mocking myths.  For in this case, at least, the lack of positive results could not be blamed on either the perversity of the patient or the weakness of her family’s faith in Jesus’ vision of God.

The concrete facts of this inescapable situation made post-modern analyses of the absurdity of the human condition seem more realistic to me than any optimistic scriptural promise of eternal life.  For a time, the only biblical texts that made any sense were the poetic core of Job and Ecclesiastes.  But neither gave much spiritual solace.  Since no one in our family could rightly be charged with hubris, we did not need such a prolonged encounter with the existentially devastating effects of the cosmic storm to teach us that the ways of the Almighty are often inscrutable.  While I could heartily second Qoheleth’s conclusion that the unpredictable vicissitudes of life revealed human existence to be a mere vapor in the cosmic Void, the realities of my mother’s condition precluded me from heeding his advice to content myself with my work. 

The only immediate benefit that I found in such a situation was that it motivated me to devour the works of a wider range of philosophers and theologians than I might have otherwise.  It was only after my mother died, when almost a thousand people attended the service of thanksgiving that she had requested instead of a funeral, that I began to put this experience into a more positive perspective.  For most – including many who had known my mother only as an invalid – made a point of telling us that the way in which she faced her condition had helped them deal with troubles of their own.

While benign consequences of human suffering and tragedy are never assured, I have come to think that Paul’s eudemonistic pronouncement that “all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28) is not so much of an exaggeration after all.  So long as one sees that forces inherent in the on-going evolution of this ever-changing cosmos really tend to generate and support the development and triumph of life – if not the life of the individual creature, at least the lives of others – there is no situation or experience that can ultimately destroy faith or hope. As an intellectual historian who has spent more than half a century tracking trajectories in the development of Christian theology, I have found that the most persistent pious distortion of biblical texts can be traced to a widespread gnostic mindset that views “the world and the flesh” per se as the handiwork of “the devil” instead of the field for the cultivation of a triumphant faith.  I myself could have easily succumbed to such a view that this world is inherently evil – or at least absurd – if historical circumstances had not kept me grappling with the logic inherent in the words of Jesus.

Close reading can convince any unbiased reader that sayings ascribed to Jesus in the gospels cannot be taken as verbatim utterances of this Galilean.  The wide range of divergent wordings of the same saying in different gospels makes it clear that at best these are translated paraphrases of something that the author recalled that Jesus allegedly said.  The historical question of whether such recollection was accurate cannot be easily answered by either a leap of faith in the basic honesty and reliability of the gospel writers or a blanket skepticism that a priori proclaims all elements of their narrative portraits figments of their vivid individual or collective imaginations. While either thesis remains theoretically possible in the abstract, the accuracy of such conclusions depends entirely on whether it is supported by the details of the texts themselves.

Creations de novo are extremely rare – rarer, in fact, than any creationist would care to admit.  Since most things in this cosmos are the product of the impact of one thing upon another, the probable source of anything can be accurately identified only by careful analysis of trace elements in its composition.  Thus, it is important to sift and compare the actual data, before accepting or rejecting the accuracy of anyone’s ascription of the logic of any statement to Jesus.

The gospels themselves authorize and encourage the task of distinguishing the voice and worldview of Jesus from those of others.  While the story of Jesus’ transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8//Matt 17:1-8) may owe more to the mythic imagination of some early Christian than to recollection of any particular historical event, it clearly illustrates the tendency of Jesus’ would-be disciples to confuse his voice with those of others whom they regarded as agents and revealers of God.  Though the synoptics’ portrayal of Jesus’ disciples as persistently misunderstanding his message may be an exaggerated caricature, almost forty years of teaching have convinced me that most students are more apt to misinterpret their teachers than not.  Selective hearing and misinterpretation are the rule rather than the exception, particularly in oral communication.  We all tend to hear what we are prepared to hear; and when we listen to someone else we are naturally prone to be more concerned with reconciling what we thought we heard with our own a priori worldview than with trying to understand the presuppositions of the speaker.  Thus, the voice at the end of the transfiguration account that urges disciples and readers alike to listen to the voice of Jesus alone justifies a historical hermeneutic that distinguishes the logic of Jesus from that of other voices in either the Jewish or Christian traditions.

Despite recent scholarly attempts to discredit this criterion of double dissimilarity, distinguishing the characteristics of one phenomenon from those of another remains the fundamental human tool for developing an accurate detailed understanding of anything in this universe.  It is only by focusing on the differences in the characteristics of elements, or persons or things that we can tell one from another.  Concentrating on such differences is a necessary prerequisite to separate the wheat from the chaff or finding a needle in a haystack. Thus, if one is concerned to develop an accurate description and understanding of Jesus as a historical individual, one must concentrate on elements in the gospel record whose inherent logic is distinct from and in tension with that of other voices in the biblical tradition.

There is neither time nor space here for me to lay out a complete inventory of items in the gospel accounts that I think, after critical examination, can be reasonably accepted as accurate representations of the Jesus’ thinking.  Sayings that I am convinced reliably reflect things that he actually said are the subject of following essays in this collection. Nor is this the proper occasion to attempt a detailed portrait of Jesus himself by drawing lines between these dots.  Provisional sketches of the historical Jesus are the focus of other essays that follow. I conclude, rather, by summarizing some of the traits that I find in Jesus’ sayings that have left a lasting impression on my understanding of my own existence.

First, and most important, Jesus illustrated the realm and activity of God by focusing his hearers’ attention on the observable behavior of phenomena that they themselves could observe in the physical world around them rather than by reporting his own personal mystical visions of another-worldly paradise.  Moreover, in comparing God’s rule to the natural behavior of leaven (Matt 13:33//Luke 13:21f) or mustard seed (Mark 4:30f//Matt 13:31f//Luke 13:18f),1 Jesus not only called his hearers’ attention to phenomena that they might otherwise overlook or disparage as unworthy of theological insight, he pointed them to an understanding of the organic, evolving character of divine activity within the universe.  This convinces me that, were he a child of our current era, Jesus would side with natural scientists rather than biblical literalists or apocalypticists.

Second, Jesus’ parables and aphorisms challenged conventional family, social, and economic values.  This is not something that makes me comfortable, so I can hardly be accused of reinventing Jesus in my own image.  As an obedient son who feels fortunate in having been blessed with understanding and supportive parents, I am constitutionally inclined to empathize more with the dutiful older son in the parable of the prodigal than with the spendthrift who wasted his inheritance in excess and debauchery.2  As a father who feels proud of his children, I find Jesus’ sayings involving parent-child relations deeply disturbing.3  And as a child of the Great Depression, whose family often had to struggle to survive from one day to the next, I never saw any sense in “selling all” and depending on God to provide me with my daily bread.4 While I have long viewed such sayings as rhetorical exaggerations, I have never been able to dismiss them as fictions invented by either Jesus’ Jewish followers or gentile evangelists.  To me they remain dramatic warnings against endorsing the agendas of nominally Christian champions of the so-called moral majority or traditional family values.

            Finally, genuine Jesus tradition proves that he did not think of himself as better than other people.5  On the contrary, he identified himself with those with least influence and power.6 He fraternized with and defended those whom law-abiding religious contemporaries criticized and avoided.7 Instead of posing as sole “son of God,” he encouraged others to see themselves as offspring of the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, who could dare to appeal to their cosmic parent directly rather than through himself or any other religious mediator.8  And he warned them not to imitate those who flaunted their righteousness or authority.9 

            Such observations make much in Christian religious tradition problematic for me.  If Jesus was a child of our own era, I am sure that he would be a secular social gadfly rather than the founder of any religion. While I firmly believe that, in the balance, the historical triumph of Christianity over the religious alternatives in ancient cultures has been for the good, in the process Christian triumphalism has too often deafened self-proclaimed Christians to the voice of Jesus himself. 

Given the evidence, Jesus will always be a disturbing presence in history.  Everyone is going to have to decide for her- or himself whether to listen closely to the logic inherent in things he most probably said or to give the promptings of other voices priority in shaping one’s values and views of the real world. While others are free to come to other conclusions, I for one have found that Jesus’ view of God as the often paradoxical Parent of all humans who helps even the lowest life-forms flourish by providing the basic conditions for life – food, sun and rain – for all without regard for their moral merit (Matt 5:45) is a far more realistic understanding of the transcendent Force that actually propels this universe than the image of God as an other-worldly Judge who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.  Jesus’ view of the irony of this God who sometimes motivates even those whom we perceive as enemies – like the Samaritan in the parable (Luke 10:30-37) -- to do good while those who are concerned for religious purity pass by on the other side is, in my eyes, a far more accurate paradigm for human history than that of preachers who promise paradise for the faithful and consign all sinners to hell. Learning to distinguish the logic of Jesus from that of conventional voices in scripture has clarified my vision of God.

1. See my Synoptic Gospels Primer for detailed analysis of the various versions of these parables and surrounding passages.

2. See "Israel's Prodigal Son: Reflections on Reimaging Jesus" for analysis of this parable & its historical significance.

3. E.g., Matt 10:34-38//Luke 12:51-53, 14:26.

4. Mark 10:21//Matt 19:21//Luke 18:22.

5. Matt 11:7-11//Luke 7:24-28.

6. Mark 9:33-37//Matt 18:1-5//Luke 9:46-48.

7. Matt 11:16-19//Luke 7:31-35; Mark 2:13-17//Luke 5:27-32//Matt 9:9-13.

8. Matt 7:7-11//Luke 11:9-13.

9. Mark 12:38-40//Luke 20:45-47//Matt 23:1-11.

 

 

Copyright © 2017 by Mahlon H. Smith
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