SUMMARY OF STORIES (Please see note at the end)
(primary source: Aidan Kelley, Doctor of Divinity)
The birth story about Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew explains his name. Yehoshua = "God will save." It's often written Joshua, one of the most common Jewish names of his time. Jesus is a Greek form of the name Joshua. He spoke Aramaic, his family language, and Greek, for talking with the Romans.
In Judaism there were two dominant traditions. The HOUSE OF SHAMMAI was the more rigid and conservative that emphasized adherence to the letter of religious law. The key ethical principle seems to be adherence to it's very detailed, highly legalistic rules. The HOUSE OF HILLEL, by contrast, followed the great Jewish teacher Hillel and was the more liberal side that emphasizes openheartedness. We always know more than we can say, more than we can write down, it maintained. At an early age Jesus became a Rabbi of the House of Hillel. He saw himself as a reformer, trying to work within his own tradition to improve it. There is no evidence that he intentionally set out to found a new religion. He doesn't seem to think he was doing anything new or unexpected. He seems to have picked up a number of Old Testament prophecies and figured, "this must mean me," and this apparently included saving his people through suffering and death. There are all kinds of things in Matthew like, "And Jesus did that because it is written." Jesus was especially given to quoting the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. The term "Rabbi" literally means "my master", a term which turns up frequently in the gospels. The word usually translated as "master" or "teacher in the new testament is in fact written as "Rabbi" in the Greek texts from which the English has been translated.
Where in the Bible Jesus attacks Jews for being legalistic and lacking in compassion, he is siding with the House of Hillel and attacking the House of Shammai. At this point we have an internal philosophical debate within Judaism, not Jesus as an outsider. Jusus said, "the letter kills but the spirit gives life." This was the Hillel side of the debate--for compassion. (If Jerusalem had not been destroyed, we might have found Jesus quoted along with other Rabbis. There are many close parallels to Jesus' teachings in Jewish writings, such as the Mishnah, The "Sayings of the Fathers," which dates from the 2nd or 3rd century B.C. Many of Jesus' teachings are almost identical to those found there. Lots of little bits and pieces of the Mishnah still exist in the Catholic blessing of the Eucharist.") After several centuries it came to be generally agreed within Judaism that the House of Hillel was right.
In fact, Jesus did not teach a new set of ethics. His ethics were no different from those of Hillel. Christianity focuses not on what he taught but on who he was. For example, the story is told that someone said to Hillel, "Teach me the whole of the gospel while standing on one foot." Accepting the challenge, Hillel stood on one foot and said, "Love the Lord with your whole hear, mind, and spirit, and your neighbor as yourself&emdash;all else is commentary." The central belief wasn't about heaven and hell, but about spiritual resurrection.
Jesus was, however, a reformer in emphasizing the right of women to sit with the men and learn with the men, and in emphasizing the compassionate aspect of the ethics of Hillel even more than Hillel himself did. His emphasis was on openheartedness and loving kindness. The greatest tragedy was in being spiritually dead. Where the House of Shammai said: "You get what you deserve," Jusus said, "What we get is a gift, because God is a loving parent." The Lord gives you things as a gift, said Jesus. God is unconditional love, and he's forever giving away the store to people who haven't earned it.
There was also a very heavy patriarchial, anti-woman bias in traditional Judaism. Jesus, by contrast, was notorious for conversing openly with women. He was very pro-woman in a culture that was very anti-woman. He was a leading advocate for women's liberation in his time. The Gnostics insist that Mary Magdalene was his wife and that much of their understanding was transmitted through her. The Gospels do not say at any point that Jesus was not married, and Rabbinic law awas very clear on the point that you could not be a rabbi if you were not married. When she is weeping at his tomb on Easter morning, she spoke words that mean, "My Lord and Master&emdash;my husband." The evidence seems pretty clear that Mary Magdalene was his wife. Mary Me Gadallah in Hebrew means "Mary who was great." She was also nicknamed "Mary the magnificent."
It is conceivable that if Jesus had not been killed, he would have discouraged attempts to set up a new religion in his name and would instead have been viewed as a Jewish teacher even greater than Hillel.
STORY 4: THE BISHOPS WON, AND SET UP AN AUTHORITARIAN RELIGIOUS HIERARCHY THAT HAS ENDURED FOR TWO THOUSAND YEARS
THE STORY CONTINUES: AFTER JESUS' DEATH, HIS FOLLOWERS BAND TOGETHER.
Jesus was framed by the local Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, who was afraid he was gaining too wide a following and stirring up the people. Two "witnesses" testified that he was inciting the people against the authorities and stirring up rebellion with the intention of becoming the King of Israel. Jesus admonished them for lying and said told the Governor there was no need for him to demean their dignity by paying them to lie, because he was perfectly capable of condemning the innocent without such testimony. All the judges who were present refused to endorse Pontius Pilate's condemnation of Jesus and got up and left, saying they would have nothing to do with this condemnation of an innocent man.
After the crucifixion, Jesus' friends did believe that they had seen him alive again. That's history. To believe they were right is to step into faith. Jesus and his apostles, (his chief followers) were simple working people from his home town. Fisherman, tax collector, etc. Eventually they were all, or almost all, killed for telling this apparently ridiculous story about him.
Jesus' followers also believed he would be right back at the head of an army of angels to throw out the Romans. But about 40 years later the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. After that people realized that they hadn't gotten was Jesus was saying entirely straight, and they'd better start writing things down.
Up to the point at which Matthew was writing, all Christians were Jews. Judaism wasn't a religion, but a civilization. The Romans, at least in their treatment of the provinces, were thugs with power and money. Not a legitimate government. They terrorized their subjects and killed someone whenever they wished. The idea of a fair trial in Roman times is a historical fiction (except perhaps close to Rome itself, under the very few most enlightened emperors).
After Jesus' death, gradually Jesus' followers began more and more to baptize people as Christians. When Christians refused to stop baptizing Jews, Jewish Rabbis threw the renegade Christians out of Judaism. When that occurred they lost their priveleges that the Jews enjoyed under Roman law and began to be persecuted. John was writing as that occurred. By the time of Luke, Christions were identified scapegoats, persecution was widespread, and the situation was very dire.
There were a great many different groups that identified themselves as Christians. Among these were the Gnostics, who were also originally Jewish. They were a loose collection of groups that were not terribly interested in being "organized." As Roman persecution intensified, however, there came to be survival value in having some kind of organization. The various followers of Jesus found that without some degree of coordinated response to Roman persecution, they were hunted down and killed, group by group. Some of the Christians agreed to a centralization of authority and power as a temporary measure to respond to the crisis. "Bishop," in the ancient languages, means overseer, supervisor. Those who were tapped to run the show were designated "bishops." The early Christians didn't know that the crisis would go on for more than 200 years, and that the bishop structure would become entrenched and they'd end up stuck with it. Jesus taught that we are all equal in the sight of God. To make someone our "spiritual superiors" whom we must obey violates the most basic principles of his teachings.
But by 200 A.D. Christianity had become an institution headed by a three-rank hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons who had decided that they were guardians of the only true faith and all who disagreed with their interpretations were guilty of heresy. Anyone who challenged their consensus, and wished to practice other forms of worship or who held interpretations of Christ's teachings different from their own, were declared to be heretics and expelled. The Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, and the other Gnostic Gospels that were not unearthed until1945 had all been suppressed by the hierarchy of bishops. "The Church" became the authority, and major parts of Jesus own example and teachings were pointedly ignored. To the organized bishops, all who considered themselves Christians but remained outside the groups that banded together under the bishops' authority, hierarchy, and doctrines were considered heretics. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, makes this quite clear: "Let no one do anything pertaining to the church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by the person whom he appoints. . . . To join with the bishop is to join the church; to separate oneself from the bishop is to separate oneself not only from the church, but from God himself."(Pagels 105)
In the late Roman empire, by the fourth century the Emperors had increasing difficulty governing and the Bishops of the Church had become extremely powerful. Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the empire. By that time the doctrines of the Bishops were well entrenched, and Constantine called a Council in Nicea in the year 325 to unify warring schisms within the Church. The Bishops viewed it as their best opportunity yet to silence dissent from their "official line." Pope Sylvester I, who was ill, was represented by priests. Jesus teachings against wealth had come to be widely ignored, conveniently so since the Church had become the richest institution in the Empire. The Councel was held in an imperial palace. The Trinity that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (whatever that was) were a single being was enshrined as official church dogma. The council approved this creed, which became fixed Church doctrine forevermore, was:
That, and not anything having to do with ethics, or the raising of consciousness, or any inward search, became the cornerstone (and some would say the tombstone) of Church doctrine, and then there was only the church, which essentially ruled the empire. The only two bishops who refused to sign this formula and they were thrown out of the Church, exiled by the emperor, and all books by Arius, who viewed Christ as a created being rather than identical to the father according to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, were burned, and concealment of any book by Arius was made punishable with death. (Contrast that attitude with Jesus attitude in the story of the adulterous wife when he said, "Let he who is guiltless throw the first stone.) The Empire was ending, the Middle Ages had begun, the Roman and Eastern branches of the Church began tearing at each others' throats and continued to do so until about 1000 AD when their split became irreconcilable, and for a thousand years no one dared openly question Church doctrines. The book burnings that followed the Council of Nicea were one of many in the history of the Church. The organized bishops had become the Church, and the Church had become the Western World's dominant power. But in that power, where was the transcendent love and the openheartedness that Jesus taught?
In the course of the consolidation of their power, the bishops rescinded everything Jesus had tried to do in the direction of opening society to fuller participation of women. The bishops reduced them again, as they had been under Judaism, to total domination by a masculine patriarchy. Ultimately their self-righteous, "We are right and others are wrong," attitude spread to become the Crusades, which tried to convert "infidels" by means of military might, and killed many who refused, and the medieval holocause in which more than half a million women were branded "witches" and burned at stake, alive, for resisting the Church's total domination of their lives. (Joan of Arc was the most famous of them. Five hundred years later the Church changed its mind about her and canonized her as a saint.) Jesus hung on the crucifix in every Church and from every Priest's neck, but hearts of those who dominated the Church hierarchy had become obsessed by an attitude of religious imperialism, as dedicated to the quest for worldly power as the Romans had been, and among them his spirit and teachings appear to me sometimes hard to find.
It is intriguing to consider the personal journey of Tertullian, who in his early and middle adulthood railed against heresy, deified the church hierarchy, and argued for a strict order of obedience and submission. By the end of his life, he had completely changed his mind, and scorned and rejected the conventional church as "the church of a number of bishops,"
STORY 5: THE GNOSTICS WERE THE "DEPTH PSYCHOLOGISTS" OF EARLY CHRISTIANITY.
The word "Gnostic" comes from the Greek word "gnosis," which means knowledge. That we can each strive for directly revealed, personal knowlege of the divine is one of the basic tenets of Gnostics, who encouraged each person to seek direct spiritual experiences rather than depending on priests. In 1934 Professor Hans Jonas suggests that many people felt deeply alienated from the world in which they lived, dominated as it was by the lawless Roman military dictatorship, and that gnosticism combined this pessimism toward the world with an attempt at self-transcendence. There arose many different forms of Gnosticism, and one of the movement's basic tenets was that they were all legitimate, and no one or no group could claim to be an authority that said that it's way was true and the ways of others were not. When the bishops began to turn Christianity into a centralized, "universal" creed in which all were supposed to believe exactly as they themselves decreed, the Gnostics replied that the real truth of Jesus' sayings had slipped out of the bishops' grasp. In their view, all doctrines, speculations, and myths, including their own, were only approaches to truth. They tried to find the truths of the teachings in a variety of ways that transcended ordinary everyday states of consciousness, and developed practices to attempt to deeply grasp the truths that he was pointing toward. Carl Jung declared that his lifelong work had a close affinity with the Gnostic outlook, and thought Gnostic ideas expressed "the spontaneous, unconscious thoughts that any orthodoxy requires its adherents to repress." In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says:
He also speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven:
Bette Stockbauer suggests that the gnostics were the inheritors of a wisdom tradition which Jesus relayed, in secret, to a select group of his disciples. She writes,
While Jesus was alive and during the early years after his death, the Christian movement apparently showed remarkable openness toward women. Jesus violated Jewish conventions by talking openly with women, and included them among his companions. Ten to twenty years after Jesus' death, women help positions of leadership in Christian groups and acted as prophets, teachers, and evangelists. Men and women sat together for worship. According to Professor Wayne Meeks, at Christian initiations the person presiding ritually declared that "In Christ there is neither male nor female." Paul quotes this saying, endorses the work of women deacons, fellow workers, and even one who is an outstanding apostle, but he also expresses his own (traditionally Jewish) inclination toward masculine authority over women. One group of gnostic sources claims to have received a secret tradition from Jesus through James and through Mary Magdalene, whom some scholars believe to have been married to Jesus. Valentinius suggests that the divine consists of one part, the Ineffible, the Depth, the Promal Father, and also of Grace, Silence, the Womb, and "Mother of the All." Fom the seed of the Ineffable Source, Silence brings forth all the emanations of divine being, ranged in harmonious pairs of masculine and feminine energies. In the Gospel of the Hebrews, Jesus speaks of "my Mother, the Spirit." In a gnostic poem called Thunder, Perfect Mind, a feminine power says, "I am the first and the last. . . I am the whore, and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin, I am [the mother] and the daughter. . . ." The Dialogue of the Savior includes Mary Magdalene as one of three disciples chosen to receive special teaching and even praises her above the other two, Thomas and Matthew: ". . . she spoke as a woman who knew the All." In The Gospel of Mary, Peter continually gets angry at Jesus for talking privately with Mary Magdalene and at Mary for teaching. Mary tells Jesus, "Peter makes me hesitate. I am afraid of him, because he hates the female race." Jesus replies that whoever the Spirit inspires is divinely ordained to speak, whether man or woman. (Pagels 65)
Christian gnosticism enjoyed a wide following between 50 and 250 AD, but as the the institutionalized Church became increasingly powerful it also became less tolerant. After it became wedded to the political power of the Roman empire, it essentially declared war on the gnostics, and by the end of the fifth century Christian gnosticism was almost completely silenced. There has been a kind of small, quiet "Gnostic revival" since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, which articulate a number of Gnostic perspectives. (The Dead Sea Scrolls, found two years later, represent an earlier, Jewish form of Christianity.)
STORY 6. BACK TO THE SOURCE. Do your best to "bracket" everything you think you know about Jesus and Christianity while you read "The Teachings of Jesus" in your reader, forget for the moment the other stories above, and listen to what he himself is saying there.
I created that compilation long ago and it reflects my own conclusions about which of Jesus alleged statements and actions were truly his, in contrast to later editorial embroidery or transformations by others. My primary criterial was, "Which reflect the openheartedness and the transcendent level of conscious that we could expect from one of the greatest religious figures in history (or if you prefer, the incarnation of God in human form), and which reflect the pettitness and smallmindnedness that might characterize later editors of his work, but not the Master himself?"
Another kind of attempt to grasp what Jesus was really saying is The Five Gospels: A Report of the Jesus Seminar, by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, & the Jesus Seminar. (Harper SanFrancisco Polebridge Press.) This was a long-term effort by a group of biblical scholars to destinguish between what Jesus definitely said, what is doubtful, and what he pretty surely did not say. Now they are meeting each year to determine the probably authenticity of the various actions attributed to him, and are finding that task more difficult. The text is color coded, and the introduction to it suggests that an "unofficial but helpful interpretation of the colors" is:Red: That's Jesus! Pink: Sure sounds like Jesus. Gray: Well, maybe. Black: There's been some mistake. A scholarly critique of the work of the Jesus Seminar, and alternative interpretations, is presented by Richard B. Hays of Duke University Divinity School in "The Corrected Jesus," Copyright (c) 1994 First Things 43 (May 1994): 43-48, available online.
We can also reflect on The Community Rule Scroll, one of the the Dead Sea Scrolls, found in a maze of caves above the Dead Sea. These scrolls appear to reflect an earlier, more explicitly Jewish form of Christianity (if indeed we can consider them definitely Christian) than Gnostic teachings: "According to his insight he shall admit him. . . . He shall keep his council in secrecy in the midst of the men of deceit and admonish with knowledge, truth and righteous commandment those of chosen conduct, each according to his spiritual quality and according to the norm of time. He shall guide them with knowledge and instruct them in the mysteries of wonder and truth in the midst of the members of the community, so that they shall behave decently with one another in all that has been revealed to them. . . .He shall instruct them to do all that is required at that time, and to separate from all those who have not turned aside from all deceit."
AN INTRIGUING QUESTION
Note: I make no pretense to being a scholar of the sources cited here, but I have relied heavily on such scholars in putting together this brief lecture. I am merely a professor of psychology with an interest in transpersonal psychology. For more information, try a search using Metacrawler, with such search terms as Gnostics, Scriptures, Nag-Hammadi, Dead Sea Scrolls, Gospels, etc.