About once a year, I’ll pick up a book about Jesus in search of fresh insights on the man and his mission. My personal preference is that these books not be tied to any specific dogma or religion, but that they explore the many mysteries and myths that surround Jesus and his life. And I found just such a book in Jesus, the Human Face of God by scholar Jay Parini.
The author identifies himself as a Christian and a regular churchgoer, but he is decidedly a man who looks beyond the Bible for answers. He has done his homework and uses Gnostic and historical texts to look at the misconceptions about Jesus, as well as uncover hidden truths. Below are 10, some of which I knew but that continue to fascinate me, as well as a few others that surprised me.
- Jesus never set out to create a new religion. He considered himself a devout Jew with his own ideas on how to reform Judaism, not someone who planned to start his own religion. Even his earliest followers, who called him Rabbi or Teacher, mainly saw themselves as Jews who wanted to modify Judaic practices, not create a separate religion.
- According to Jesus, he didn’t perform miracles. Those around him did. Jesus emphasized that he wasn’t the reason miracles of healing occurred, what mattered was the faith of the person being healed. Jesus thought of himself as an instrument of God—who enabled people to be healed through their own belief. For instance, in Luke 17:19, Jesus heals ten lepers and proclaims, “Rise and go, your faith has made you whole.”
- Jesus told us a secret: how to access his kingdom. Parini reminds us that in the Beatitudes, Jesus emphasized that the kingdom of heaven was immediately available to those who practiced the same virtues that he did. These include humility, mercy, peacefulness and, of course, love. If you lived your life with these qualities, Jesus said that you too could open the doors of heaven here on Earth.
- Post-resurrection, even his closest followers didn’t recognize Jesus. After the death of Jesus, Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb—but does not recognize the resurrected Jesus, mistaking him for a gardener. Neither did several of his other disciples, including two who saw him at the shore (John 21:4). Parini believes there is a subtle teaching here: “We should not expect to recognize Jesus at first, even as he wakens within us.”
- His family members may have thought he was nuts. His family appears to have regarded him as somewhat volatile, even mad, and that his ideas were strange. When he was preaching to a large crowd one unidentified family members even yelled out, “He’s out of his mind” (Mark 3:21).
- Like President’s Day, the birthday of Jesus was combined with another holiday. Christians didn’t settle on December 25th as Christmas Day until the fourth century. This choice probably had something to do its proximity to the winter solstice—and the fact that it was near a “feast day” celebrating Sol Invictus, the official sun god of the Roman Empire.
- Did Jesus really raise Lazarus from the dead? Maybe, maybe not. Parini sees the meaning of the raising of Lazarus as potentially symbolic, not a literal raising of the dead, but a figurative one. It ties into an early-Christian belief that many of the teachings of the Bible were not meant to be taken literally. Lazarus stands in for everyone who follows Jesus and finds himself raised from the “living dead” to a new life.
- “Wake up to God…his kingdom is inside you, within your grasp.” The bold line above is Parini’s take on the true meaning of Matthew 3:2, which usually reads: “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. He believes the original translators inserted the word “repent” for an Aramaic word that has a very different meaning. Additionally, as several early Christian texts point out, the kingdom of heaven is found not above, but here within our reach.
- The letters of Paul come second in the Bible. But were historically first. The first complete versions of the gospels date to the fourth century—a very long time after the events they describe. It is also important to note, that while the letters of Paul appear after the four gospels in the Bible, they represent the earliest Christian documents. The four gospels were written after them. Also curious: Paul makes no mention of either the life or death of Jesus, only his teachings.
- To be a follower of Jesus, you don’t have to go to church. To quote Parini: Jesus never meant to found a formal church with rituals and organized practices, to ordain priests, or to issue doctrinaire statements that formed a rigid program for salvation. Other than “follow me,” his only commandment was “to love one another as I have loved you.”
This story originally appeared at my Patheos “Wake Up Call” column, March 25, 2016.