Critiquing Jesus’ Words

(This is part three of a three-part series. Part One. Part Two.)
Jefferson BibleIn part two of this series I asked you to read the Jefferson Bible. If you’ve read it we’re ready to continue. If not, then just try to imagine Jesus’ words divorced from all miraculous events.

Is what we are left with profound? Does it bespeak divine origin? Is it even original?

 

Planning Ahead

Reading the Jefferson Bible I was surprised at how often Jesus said to take no thought for tomorrow. He said to take an example from the birds “who neither sow nor reap” yet are fed by God. This is irresponsible advice. It’s also misleading; birds may not sow seeds and harvest crops, but birds do put forth an effort to feed themselves: battling for territory, migrating in advance of winter to ensure they are where the food is located, etc. Some peck insects out of the bark of trees with their beaks, other pull worms out of the ground. Their whole lives consist of “toil” in their struggle for existence. Other animals store food for the winter, so they are certainly “taking thought for the morrow.” If they didn’t they would starve. And if you don’t you will starve as well (unless you have rich relations who can tolerate a parasite — in any case it won’t be God taking care of your needs.)

 

Parables

Jesus tells many parables: analogies for the “end of the world” in which his followers will be rewarded and others will be punished: going off into “everlasting fire.” These smack of the supernatural and are useless as a philosophy of life unless you need reasons to attempt to frighten unbelievers.

Some of the parables seem to contradict the rules he made. For instance, he tells his followers to lend without interest, yet in more than one parable servants who failed to charge interest on their “master’s” money were punished.

 

Contradictory Statements

Some of what he says is contradictory. In the “sermon on the mount” he makes these statements:

  • Ye are the light of the world. Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works.
  • Do your alms in secret and your heavenly father shall reward you openly.

So, which is it? Should we do good works openly to let our light shine before men, or in secret to obtain a heavenly reward?

He makes contradictory statements regarding divorce:

  1. If you divorce your wife for any reason other than adultery then you force her to commit adultery, and anyone who marries her also commits adultery.
  2. Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.
  3. Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.

So if I divorce my wife do I force her to commit adultery, or do I commit adultery (and does it only matter if it’s on grounds other than adultery [the first two statements indicate Yes, the third indicates No])? In any case, anyone who marries her commits adultery. So, if you’re going to marry a divorced woman just be sure she was divorced for adultery so that you’ll have a 2/3 chance of not committing adultery by marrying her! For a further elaboration on this 3-way dilemma, please see my book: The Cure for Fundamentalism.

 

Philosophy of Life


In the Sermon on the Mount we find the famous “beatitudes”:

Blessed are: Because:
the poor in spirit theirs is the kingdom of heaven
they that mourn they shall be comforted
the meek they shall inherit the earth
they that hunger/thirst for righteousness they shall be filled
the merciful they shall attain mercy
the pure in heart they shall see God
the peace-makers they shall be called the children of God
those persecuted for righteousness’ sake theirs is the kingdom of heaven
those reviled/persecuted for my sake great is their reward in heaven

Along with their parallel “woes”:

Woe unto those: because
that are rich they have received their consolation
that are full they shall hunger
that laugh now they shall mourn and weep
that are spoken well of so were the false prophets

In short: if you’re miserable you are “blessed” because you’ll have some sort of future reward to make up for it. But if you are enjoying your life, woe to you: you will be punished in the future. Jesus’ philosophy of life is: Don’t enjoy your life: don’t laugh, or have enough to eat, or be well spoken of; you’ll lose your heavenly reward. It’s better to be poor, hungry, reviled and persecuted; for which you’ll be rewarded in heaven.

People who are in mourning are mourning a loss of some sort: usually of a loved one. But Jesus tells us that people who mourn are “blessed” because they will be comforted. So it’s good to lose a loved one according to Jesus, because then you’ll mourn and be blessed by being comforted. Better to lose a loved one than to enjoy life with them: those who laugh now shall mourn and weep [but then they’ll be blessed as mourners, so maybe laughing is all right after all(?)]

What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? I think it means being non-assertive. The same with being “meek”: not demanding your basic rights as a human being when you are trodden upon. According to Jesus, you should be a “peace-maker” with those who revile and persecute you: if they strike you, stand there and cooperate in making it easier for them to strike you yet again:

  • Don’t resist evil. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn your head so he can slap you on the other as well.
  • Agree with your adversary before he takes you to court so that you don’t end up in prison.
  • If someone does sue you, give them more than they are suing for. If someone compels you to go a mile, go two miles.
  • Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you.
  • If you forgive men their trespasses your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t, he won’t.

It is little wonder that such ideas became the favored religion of the Roman Empire. What better subjects could an imperial emperor hope for than people who would allow him to treat them in whatever way was most convenient for him, without rebelling?

When I was in Catholic elementary school I made the mistake of following Jesus’ advice about “turning the other cheek”. I ended up being bullied, lost all self-esteem, and became friendless and suicidally depressed. Great advice there, Jesus!

It was only as an adult, after having abandoned Jesus’ philosophy, that I learned how one can be ethically assertive. The emotional scars of childhood, however, have never fully healed.

 

How did Jesus come to terms with his sexual appetite?

He states that looking at a woman with lust is committing adultery in one’s heart. This shows a lack of understanding of the human makeup. We have hormones which give us desires. A basic animal instinct is to procreate. Yes, we temper this desire with civilized constraints, but that doesn’t mean we can humanly stop looking at each other with desire. Unless, of course, we take drastic actions to eliminate our hormones:

“…there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”

Yes, Jesus actually recommended castration! (This accords well with his other sayings recommending we mutilate the part of our body that is causing us to sin: If your eye or hand offends you, cut it off; it’s better than your whole body being cast into hell.)

In short, Jesus recommends unhealthy guilt for having healthy sexual desires. When I was a Jehovah’s Witness I dealt with these desires in the most innocuous way possible: masturbation. The Watchtower (and the elders) told me this was a sin worthy of disfellowshipping. It convinced me that I was worthless and unable to live up to the standards that others [I naively thought] were able to maintain. This time the depression led to a very real, and nearly fatal suicide attempt. Way to go, again, Jesus!

 

 

How did Jesus regard acts of altruism (i.e. “charity”)?

Once again the answer is a confusing mess. Not only does he tell us to hide and show our good works at the same time, he tells a rich man that in order to be saved he must sell all that he has and give the proceeds to the poor. Yet he tells Zaeccheus, a rich publican who gives only half of his goods to the poor (while admitting to taking things from men by false accusation): “Salvation has come to this house!” When expensive ointment is poured on Jesus’ head and his disciples ask why he didn’t sell the ointment and give the proceeds to the poor, he dismisses their plight with: “the poor are always among us“.

 

How did Jesus regard hygiene?

The Pharisees complained more than once that he and his disciples did not wash their hands before eating. Jesus said “There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him“. He evidently knew nothing of germs. When he did wash, he didn’t believe in doing a thorough job of it: “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit“! Jesus and the disciples must’ve been a smelly lot (other than their feet)!

 

Conclusion

Having found too much to dislike in the Jefferson Bible I have created the X Bible. This is an abridgment of the NT with all of the dross removed. Here it is:

  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • It is better to give than to receive. [The single instance of Paul claiming to quote Jesus; though it’s not in any Gospel]
  • Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
  • Beware of greed, because a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.
  • Why do you not decide for yourselves what is right?

The above were platitudes even in Jesus’ day, albeit good ones. (There are exceptions to them as well.) But they are all things that would occur to you naturally if you allowed your inherent empathy to co-rule your life along with your reason [what I like to call “rational, compassionate living”]. All of which means in the end that we can do without the NT as a guide for our lives, especially since there is so much in it that should not serve as a guide.

For more on the questionable ethics of some of Jesus’ actions, please see my article: What Would Jesus Do?

2 thoughts on “Critiquing Jesus’ Words

  1. Interesting article…I would like to point out that you may have missed some cultural idioms that would help you interpret Jesus’ words more accurately – in some cases . I don’t deny that some of His actions are hard to understand but you shouldn’t throw out the baby [Jesus] with the bathwater! Let me give you an example since you quoted turning the other cheek. I also got bullied really badly and part of me wishes I had planted one of the bullies noses a few times. I may have got hurt but probably would have been left alone eventually. In the book the Secret Message of Jesus the author points out that turning the other cheek was a sign of assertiveness in that culture – one you had turned the cheek your master/friend (!) would have to slap you as an equal with the hand he used for friendship rather than the hand for wiping his bottom. And go the extra mile – Roman soldiers were legally only allowed to force someone to carry possessions one mile – beyond that was a crime! So if you kept on carrying it you were actually putting the power in your hands. So Jesus seems to be teaching ethical assertiveness himself! You just need to work out our cultural approximations. By the way – I really don’t believe most people will walk the way of inherent empathy and rational compassionate living – I mean, look at the world around you – maybe even look at yourself over a year. That is not an insult btw! just an observation. We need Jesus’ overall example whilst we try and understand the hard bits. Kind regards, Joshua

    1. Interesting comments, Joshua.
      I’m not finding a lot of proof for these assertions, however.
      But, I think it’s revealing how theologians will teach something a certain way for centuries (e.g. the meaning of “turn the other cheek”) but then when secular humanity has matured ethically beyond such things, the theologians will turn about and say, “Oh, it doesn’t really mean what it says at all, but actually the complete opposite!”
      I appreciate how trying to save face forces them into playing catch-up, and it’s a good thing for the world that they are. But from a broader perspective it doesn’t erase the damage the literal meaning — that was accepted and encouraged for centuries — has done.
      So, no: we don’t need the example of Jesus; we figured ethics out on our own. But, for Christians stuck in playing “follow the leader” it’s nice if clever men can reinterpret Jesus’ words to match some of what we have progressed to.

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