Can you imagine walking around Galilee with Mary Magdalene, listening to Jesus? What do you think he was saying?
We know what Paul was saying because he wrote it down, but what was Jesus saying? Oh sure, we have the gospels, but these were written down 40 to 70 years later for people who already ‘believed’ in Jesus. What did he say years before to the Jews who knew him as just another guy? What did he say that made them want to follow him to the ends of the earth?
I don’t think there was any: ‘resurrection’ or ‘ascension’ or ‘atonement’; no ‘divine god-man.’ These were all topics that writers used who never knew Jesus. These were the ‘proofs’ put forward by Paul, and the Four Evangelists and put on the lips of Jesus for readers who needed proof. But I don’t think the original followers of Jesus would understand any of these. Obviously, I don’t believe every statement that’s attributed to Jesus in our New Testament was actually spoken by Jesus.
Well then, how can I know what he was saying? It’s hard to tell. Take Mark’s Gospel—the very first attempt at recording his words; it was written sometime after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70AD. That would be at least 40 years after all these events were over. Titus has just destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Jesus-Jews are devastated. Mark starts his gospel with the baptism by John the Baptizer and then he has Jesus saying to his fellow Jews: “Hey, the time’s up; the Kingdom of God is here already. Change your life and believe this good news.” (Mk.1:15) Do you think Mark got it right? Do you think he got the exact words of Jesus?
40 years is a long time. Do you remember what Jimmy Carter said in the 1976 Presidential primaries? That was 40 years ago, and we had full TV coverage. Do you remember anything he said in his debates with President Ford? Did you remember what he said the day he won? He spoke English; no translation needed —but 40 years is a long time.
However, let’s say Mark got it right. Let’s say that these Greek words really do come close to the actual Aramaic words of Jesus. What would they mean to a bunch of Galilean peasants who just wanted to be left alone? There was fighting going on all around them. Herod had been sent to Sepphoris (5 miles from Nazareth) about 15 years before Jesus was born, to set up a Roman military base for attacks on Jerusalem. After Herod died, Judas the Galilean stormed the base at Sepphoris to get at their armory but he failed. Rome responded by burning down the town completely, and making slaves of all the Jews. And the fighting continued—unabated—down to the time of Jesus.
The majority of Galileans just wanted to be left alone; they didn’t like the pomp and grandeur of the Roman troops riding their war-horses around the village, and they didn’t buy into the vengeance reactions of some of their neighbors. These were poor people; they just wanted to belong to some kind of group or organization that would give them their individual freedom. They wanted to live a simple but fulfilling kind of life and they looked to the Synagogue for all of this—but it wasn’t happening.
And along comes this peasant named Jesus. He lives the simple life. He wears the clothes of the hippies of his day (called Cynics) but he belongs to their own synagogue. He says it’s about time for some serious thinking about how his fellow Galilean Jews should be living, and they begin to listen intently. “Don’t worry,” he says, (about the Romans). “Forgive your enemies, and love those who hate you.” He refers to a theme they have heard nearly every week at their Synagogue: ‘The Kingdom of God,’ but unlike the Hebrew prophets who spoke about it in the future, Jesus says: “Hey guys--it’s here already. It’s right inside of you.” (Lk.17:21)
We know there were several “would-be messiahs” during this time. They were all performing ‘miracles’: raising people from the dead (there were no coroners or autopsies back then), curing and healing as they walked along the road. So what made Jesus special? What made men—and especially women—so dedicated to this particular peasant/preacher more than all the others?
I think it was the absence of religion. Jesus didn’t say: “Go to the synagogue (church) every week;” “Pay your tithes to the Rabbi (pastor)” “Just believe on the Torah (on the Lord, Jesus Christ) and you will be saved.” Instead, he emphasized unconditional love and forgiveness: “Love your neighbors and pray for those who abuse you,” “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other one, too,” etc. I think the early Church ‘got it.’ But how did we lose it? Why do we have Churchianity now instead of Christianity?