by Pastor Doug Kings
Recently, retired Baptist pastor and nondual Christianity teacher, Marshall Davis, posted a video titled “Jesus Was Not a Christian.” In it he responds to a meme he saw on Facebook (he thinks) which goes as follows:
Buddha was not a Buddhist. Jesus was not a Christian. Muhammed was not a Muslim. They were teachers who taught love. Love was their religion.
Davis says he appreciates the ecumenical spirit of the concluding saying and its attempt to promote religious tolerance. But saying that these spiritual leaders all taught love is somewhat simplistic and misleading. That is not Davis’ primary interest in the video, however. Rather, it’s the notion that Jesus was not a Christian, and with that he agrees, and so do I.
Jesus, of course, was a Jew and never rejected that identity. Christianity was developed as a separate religion by his followers after his death. But Christianity is based on Jesus’ teaching and example, isn’t it? Here is where Davis gets interesting because he says no, actually it’s not. And I would agree with that, as well.
Scholars describe what happened among his followers after Easter as the “Jesus movement.” We only have a very sketchy understanding of those earliest years. You might think of it as the fog bank out of which Christianity and the church gradually emerged. Within a century, however, Christian writings are in use in Christian congregations, worship practices are becoming formalized, and pastors and bishops are being appointed. And people identifying as Christian, while few in number, can soon be found across the Roman empire.
We are now more aware of Christianity’s great diversity in its first few centuries. But that diversity was not harmonious. From the start, Christians squabbled among themselves over just about every aspect of their new religion. The New Testament itself provides ample evidence of that. Paul’s letters are mostly his attempts to correct the teachings and practices of fellow Christians, often vehemently contradicting other church leaders, like Peter and James.
How could a religion start by going in so many different directions at once? The New Testament again provides a clue: namely, the fact that there are four gospels. Why would there be four different accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible, plus others just as ancient that were also popular but were never officially recognized? For the well-known but often forgotten fact that no one during Jesus’ life wrote anything down. Jesus didn’t, nor did any of his followers, nor did anyone else.
The earliest writings we have, from about 20-30 years after Jesus’ death, are the letters of Paul who, by his own admission, never knew Jesus. Not surprisingly then, he says almost nothing about Jesus’ teachings or the events of his life. Paul’s interest was in the meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection.
The gospels, from which come almost all our knowledge of the historical Jesus, were written 40-70 years after Jesus’ death. Today most scholars agree that neither the gospel writers nor anyone they might have known were witnesses to Jesus’ life. The closest thing the gospels have to historical sources is what is called an “oral tradition.” In other words, stories about Jesus, which people told and retold in the decades after him.
That isn’t, by any means, to say that people just made things up. In minimally literate cultures, oral tradition was important and pretty reliable. But it was very subjective and fluid. Writing something down served to put boundaries on that fluidity. That’s why the gospels were written and why each writer had different ideas about what those boundaries should be.
But what is also obvious is that Jesus himself had little concern for what might come after him. He certainly didn’t plan for a new religion or develop a systematic theology. The primary topic of his preaching and teaching was the kingdom of God: the presence of God hiding in plain sight and available to all through faith, rather than through the performance of religious ritual or obedience to religious law.
That such ideas could have been or should have been turned into a new religion is not at all obvious. We can only imagine what Jesus would have thought of the religion that followed and bore, not his name, but the title given to him by his followers.
That, too, was a disputed interpretation. Many scholars doubt Jesus called himself or thought of himself as the Messiah. The vast majority of Jews, of course, did not accept him in that role, whatever they may have thought of his life or teachings otherwise. The Greek word for messiah, “Christ”, basically became Jesus’ second name among gentiles, many of whom probably didn’t even know of its Hebrew origin or meaning. Thus, followers of the crucified and risen Jesus were soon called, not “Jesusites”, but Christians.
But even among gentile Christians there was much disagreement over Jesus’ identity and significance. As the church grew and developed, many of its leaders found this lack of unity intolerable. By the 2nd century, ecclesiastical fights began breaking out over a range of issues. Then churchwide councils were called to try to resolve the differences and formal doctrines and creeds began to appear.
In the 4th century, the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the new state religion and demanded the squabbling end and basic beliefs agreed upon. The Nicene Creed is the most well-known result of that effort, but complete church unity was never fully realized then or since.
I agree with Davis that where Christianity went off the rails was in its obsession with right beliefs. The Jesus we find in the gospels is not concerned with ideas but with experience and behavior, with living a life centered upon knowing God. And such a life is possible for anyone, for “the kingdom of God is in your midst” and “within you,” Jesus says. The commitment and trust of faith is what is important, not having the right ideas.
Rediscovering that Jesus is essential for the church’s renewal. No one cares anymore about the theological “food fights” (as Richard Rohr calls them) that have embroiled the church over the centuries. In a world that seems to be going off the rails, people are looking for the meaning and love that is the fruit of spiritual awakening. They are looking for a connection with God as their center and “ground of being”, as Meister Eckhart and Paul Tillich say. And this is the concern of the Jesus we encounter in John, when he says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Blessings in your life and ministry.