Three days before Christmas: a good time to share some random thoughts on the reason for the holiday – the man Jesus with the title “Christ.” Jesus the man lived nearly 2,000 years ago as a Jewish subject in the Roman Empire. After he died, his followers kept his memory alive in a myriad of ways throughout that Empire. The many forms of “Christianity” that developed over the years and centuries have had enormous influence throughout the entire world, for good and ill. Despite certain beliefs that American Fundamentalist Christians cling to dearly, other facts and perspectives need to be more widely known.
Drawing on contemporary Biblical scholarship and paranormal research, without trying to smear a much-loved holiday, let us consider some current insights on Jesus that can help us think about an important topic and to grow spiritually.
- The man Jesus was most likely a Jewish sage and teacher with both male and female followers. He was not unique in this: there were many such itinerant teachers in the ancient world.
- Among the earliest sayings attributed by Jesus, known in the scholarly world as “Q” (from the German word “Quelle,” meaning “source”), depict Jesus as a wise teacher who was trying to teach his followers how to live their everyday lives. These sayings became incorporated into the Gospels of the New (Christian) Testament, whose authors used the teachings, combined with other stories and observations, for certain theological purposes. Few of the original sayings had anything to do with the afterlife, the End Times, or God’s judgment.
- Because of the annihilation of the doctrine of reincarnation from Christianity, as we have touched on earlier, it is likely that sayings and stories with a perspective supporting reincarnation and karma were expunged from Christian literature in the early Byzantine era. It is highly likely that Jesus believed in, and perhaps preached about, reincarnation.
- The nativity stories about Jesus that we all cherish probably have little basis in fact, although he had to have been born somewhere. He may well have had a mother named Mary and, similarly to most other Jewish families of the time, may well also have had siblings. It is possible that his biological father may have died in his youth, since many fathers were older than the women they married. Stories about Jesus’ miraculous birth were similar to stories of other men in antiquity who later became famous.
- The healing miracles that Jesus was reported to have done may have taken place in some ways. Healers and physicians existed in antiquity, and when methods and techniques worked, it is not surprising that witnesses may have viewed them as miraculous. Further, Jesus most likely possessed gifts that we might consider mystical in ways similar to those possessed by modern psychics and mediums; this in turn points to the likelihood of the basic truth behind the miracle stories in Christian literature.
- As far as can be determined, Jesus treated women very respectfully. Contrary to some understandings of Judaism, the respectful treatment of women would not have been unique to Jesus.
- The earliest writings in the New Testament are the letters of St. Paul, ca. 50-60 of the Common Era (CE). Paul never met Jesus in person, and some of the communities to which Paul wrote were already familiar with the Jesus story before he visited them. Paul says nothing about Jesus’ birth or early life; rather his theology focuses more on Jesus’ violent death and what early believers thought “resurrection” was. Stories about Jesus’ life on earth originally circulated in a primarily oral milieu, with the earliest Gospel, Mark, only being committed to writing around 65 CE. Therefore, the years between Jesus’ death in about 33 CE and the relatively full-blown stories of his birth and life comprise approximately 40-50 years and are thus still quite murky when it comes to facts about the man and the early Jesus movement.
- So-called “Christianity” did not develop as a separate movement and only emerged as such sometime after the Jewish revolt and the fall of Jerusalem in 70-73 CE. As Jesus believers “evangelized” throughout the Roman Empire, people interpreted Jesus, his words, his life, his death and his resurrection in a wide variety of ways. The interpretations deftly mixed historical facts with theological perspectives and mythology, creating reams of Christian literature. This early literature, some of which became “canonized” as New Testament scripture, was copied and circulated for centuries and used not only to craft beautiful music and art but also to wage wars, torture people in Inquisitions, persecute and murder Jews and other “enemies,” and promulgate creeds that Jesus probably never intended or imagined.
As we embark on Christmas this year, it might be worthwhile to preserve the positive, life-affirming aspects of the life of Jesus and put to the side the judgmental, destructive aspects of what has developed as the Christian faith:
- It doesn’t matter precisely in the Roman Empire where Jesus was born, although the notion that he may have been a refugee can spur us to have compassion on today’s refugees.
- It is highly unlikely that Jesus considered himself the Son of God, Judaism’s long-anticipated Anointed One or Christ, or anyone’s Lord or King. However, he was almost certainly a man with a strong mystical bent who was able to love his fellow human beings robustly and even to heal them, in addition to being a confident and wise teacher.
- It is abhorrent to think for even a moment that the Jews killed Jesus or that anti-Semitism is legitimate. If Jesus died by crucifixion, he died at the hands of the Romans – as a Jew himself. Similarly, Paul and the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews.
- We absolutely need to rid ourselves of the hurtful, arrogant belief that unless we accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior we will go to hell forever. This is a huge issue, but Jesus never preached belief in himself, probably did not think too much about the afterlife (except in a reincarnation/karma context), and almost certainly did not equate himself with God.
- The over-consumption and hypercapitalism of the holiday season, especially in the US, should be questioned, if not defied. Jesus and his followers probably lived at subsistence level under an oppressive regime: they were not of the middle or upper classes in a Western democratic setting! If we want or feel the need to purchase gifts for loved ones, which is a generous impulse that meshes with the spirit of Jesus, perhaps we can be more deliberate about “buying local” to keep profits in our own communities, not in the pockets of extremely wealthy CEOs. Also, the holiday season is already a time to give to vitally important charities and nonprofits, in part because of the tax advantages, but being more conscious and deliberate about this kind of support can enhance one’s own spiritual growth.
Given all this somewhat negative “reality check,” however –
The season of Christmas has much to offer in this time in our history that many of us find demoralizing, depressing, dangerous and even hopeless:
- Jesus the man appears to have been full of love and empathy toward almost everyone around him, even perhaps his enemies, according to some stories. Following his example of love is one of the best messages to emulate.
- Jesus undoubtedly had a mother, probably a very devoted one and perhaps one named Mary. Apparitions of Mary are attested around the world, and people who witness them are filled with love, joy and peace. It does not hurt to “latch onto” the image of Mary – not as a “meek and mild” puppet of God but as a strong, gentle, nurturing role model.
- Some of the most glorious, moving, inspiring music has been written based upon the stories, beliefs and myths around Jesus the Christ. Millions of people around the world have been moved to be better human beings by this music (and by religious visual art and theater); we do not need to believe every word of it – or of Scripture – in order to be so inspired.
- The best messages of Christmas – giving to others, praying for peace, holding onto hope – are worth preserving in the 21st century.
Seasons Greetings to all!
For Further Reading
Abrahamsen, Valerie A. Paranormal: A New Testament Scholar Looks at the Afterlife. Self-published, 2015. Printed by Shires Press, Manchester Center, Vermont.
Brooten, Bernadette. Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue, Brown Judaic Studies no. 36, Chico, CA, 1982.
Borg, Marcus J. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. New York: HarperSan Francisco, 1995.
Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.
Furst, Jeffrey. Edgar Cayce’s Story of Jesus. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1968.
Horsley, Richard A., ed. Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997.
Langley, Noel. Edgar Cayce on Reincarnation. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1967.
Mack, Burton L. The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1993.
Miller, Robert J. Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003.
Murphy, Cullen. God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.