Jesus on my mind

On PBS Frontline, they are airing a two-part series called “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians” about how Christianity took shape. It is a fascinating history lesson that blends biblical writings with other known historical and archaeological findings. It interviews twelve religious scholars, theologians and historians who offer terrific insight.

I gained a greater appreciation for the role Paul played in spreading the teachings of Jesus following his death around Year 30. His followers were scared after Jesus’ death in Jerusalem as the Romans did not tolerate much dissent. So, Paul spread the word through home gatherings away from Jerusalem and through his many letters which were the first writings about Jesus. These home gatherings were usually over meals and sharing of prayer and stories. It was noted that these followers were a mixture of socio-economic classes, whereas around Jerusalem Jesus’ followers were more agrarian. Hence, Jesus’ parables had to be interpreted for more urban followers of Paul.

I also got a better understanding of the context of when the Gospels were written. Mark was the first Gospel author who wrote around forty years following Jesus’ death, but after the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem squelching the first rebellion of the Jews. He also wrote just after the deaths of three key Christians – Peter, James and Paul. Following this massacre, there was a much somber audience, so Mark highlighted the agony of Jesus’ death noting how much he suffered, just like they were now. He also wanted to record the life of Jesus, with the passing of these three principals.

Matthew and Luke years later followed with their Gospels and used some of the same words as Mark did, which gave the scholars the sense there was another document that had recorded some of Jesus’ teachings. The scholars noted they had to be working off a previous text of Jesus’ parables, as they were written in different regions by different men.These three Gospels are more symbiotic than John’s Gospel, as a result.

The scholars also note that Luke’s writings must be viewed in tandem with his second piece called Acts. They said Luke was more educated than Mark, so his writings flow more like the stories of the day. He also was writing to a more urban audience around the Aegean Sea who spoke Greek. John’s Gospel writings took a different tack as his writing was later and at a time when people were looking for something more lasting. He wrote more of a spiritual Jesus that is the basis for much of modern Christianity.

These scholars spoke of the Gospels in terms that makes sense to me. Gospel means “good news,” and that was the purpose of writing them to share the news of Jesus. But, as one scholar pointed out, these were not four reporters summarizing what just happened in a courtroom. They were writing down the stories that had been told and retold following Jesus’ death. He went on to say he would err on the side that these writings were meant symbolically and have been interpreted literally, rather than the other way around. Since four people are telling the same stories from different perspectives and times, there are inconsistencies in the stories.

Two examples would indicate this, as the day of Jesus’ death is different, where in one it is occurring at Passover where others showing it occurred later. Also, the example of Jesus’ overturning the gambling and trading tables in the temple, occurred earlier in one Gospel, while it is the reason for his ultimate arrest and later crucifixion in the others.

The final key takeaway for me is the separation between Judaism and Christianity became more prominent after these writings. Jesus was Jewish and much of the earlier teachings especially near Jerusalem were in keeping with the Jewish faith. The scholars explain that 90% of people in the Roman empire were paganists worshipping multiple gods. So, the only organized religion around one God was the Jewish religion. This is one reason the Romans feared teachings that wrapped religion and politics together, as in the Roman rule, the emperor was the supreme leader. This is also the reason Christians worshipped in secret in their homes.

The Frontline piece is excellent. It helps better understand context and the history of Jesus and those who followed him and created Christianity. Below is a synopsis of the two episodes.


19 thoughts on “Jesus on my mind

  1. My understanding is that there were more than a dozen gospels written and the four we now have were selected as the most coherent and consistent with one another. But what matters in the end, is not the history lesson but the moral lessons that we seem not to have learned (certainly the organized Church seems not to have learned them!).

    • Hugh, great point. The compilers of the bible, as we know it, considered many writings and not all were included. Not surprisingly, there was lobbying to make certain more revealing stories were included. This is a key reason we should not believe every word in the bible is true as they were written by imperfect men and different times. This is why I gravitated to the scholar’s point about viewing it symbolically.

      We seem to lose sight of the overarching morals. Former President Jimmy Carter, who taught Sunday school, wrote often how certain phrases are taken out of context to make specific point. He was speaking primarily of the maltreatment of women and that the bible does not support denigrating women. This Frontline piece notes some of the homes where these church sessions were held were owned by women.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Keith

  2. That sounds like an interesting program. I recently attended a lecture about the myths (a la Joseph Campbell) found in various religions of the world. It really is fascinating how many similarities there are. I think problems arise when symbols are taken literally and people build their lives around fairy tales, rather than see the beauty and wisdom of the underlying message.

    • Janis, please check out, as if you like that program, you should like this one. When folks take this literally, they are saying that each person’s recollection or history they heard is 100% correct. As these scholars note, there are inconsistencies. Now, many of these folks were devout, so they were not denigrating at all, they were just pointing out that we need to understand the context when things were written.

      They had other examples. The mountain fortress of Masada was a last resort for the Jewish rebels in the first rebellion. Biblical legend says that the rebels committed suicide when they realized the Romans would breach the fortress. Yet, there is no archaeological evidence of such a mass suicide. They also note Nazareth was very close to a seaside city where many richer Palestinians lived. Due to commerce, Jesus likely spoke three languages and was more worldly learned than a carpenter might have been.

      Happy holidays, my friend, Keith

      • Roseylinn, this looks vaguely familiar. It is interesting is this was filmed just prior to a decline in active organized religion participation in this country. I believe it is due to more exclusive rather than inclusive teachings which have turned more folks off. Thanks again, Keith

  3. Very nice review; thank you!

    This past week while driving from the coast back to the cloud forest, I pondered the people in the tent communities, the approaching rainy season, the slow progress for most- unless they are of the higher class, etc.. and if I should observe quietly, help in token ways – especially in giving unconditional love and a quiet ear, etc… I pondered writing new posts, which would repeat the same messages stated in earlier posts, and maybe it wasn’t my place to intervene – the people sometimes need to reach down and find creative ways and by doing so, they grow emotionally and in spirit, etc… Here and there I witness people rebuilding on a pauper’s budget, so they’re rebuilding back with equally-inferior construction… This past trip I saw a two-kilometer stretch of total deforestation… hills stripped bare, either for crops or a new development…my heart hurt…. and then the thought, “What would Jesus do if he were walking this earth today?”

    I hit an intellectual/spiritual wall.. I don’t know what he would do, aside from stretching the food and healing and teaching and — and then I thought, “What kind of house would Jesus live in? Where would he stay? Would someone drive him? Would he mysteriously appear in an area and quietly move on?”

    I should probably present that in a post?…

      • Oh, what a great reply!!!!

        For sure, he would have enemies, and he might be arrested for healing others without a license/medical degree.. or for serving food without the paperwork…. and surely there would be lawsuits….

      • Lisa, Hugh, my guess is he would spend most of his time with the disenfranchised. He would likely be perturbed with the prosperity church leaders and phony leaders like our President-elect or evil leaders like al Assad or Duterte. He would likely be called a blasphemer by some of the very people who worship him, as they would not believe him.

        Given Social Media, he would have unwanted attention that would short circuit his message. It would be an interesting story to see unfold. Keith

      • Dostoevsky has a chapter in The Brothers Karamazov where Christ comes back to Spain during the persecutions. He is arrested and questioned by the Grand Inquisitor during which He remains silent. He is told He must be punished because the Church has taken years to correct the mistakes He made while on earth — particularly offering men freedom when they really want bread and miracles.

      • Hugh, very interesting take. I think the inquisition would just accuse him of blasphemy. How dare you say you are the son of God? Maybe we could modernize it and have him testify in front of Senator Joseph McCarthy about his communistic sharing of loaves and fishes. Keith

  4. Note to Readers: I recognize some followers are not religious or are not avid Christians. I ask people to look to the words of Jesus, as many lessons are found across religions. And, even if people are atheist or agnostic, there are things that can be taken away from his words. Here are a few:
    – treat others like you want to be treated;
    – let he who is without sin cast the first stone;
    – when you take care of those who have the least, you honor God; and
    – he taught us how to pray and asked us to forgive those who trespass against us.

    There is so much more, but think of these four lessons: treat people well, help those in need, don’t disparage others because you aren’t perfect and forgive people who have done harm to you. Pretty simple rules to follow.

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