These questions are very difficult because no one knows for sure if the words of Jesus in the gospel are his actual words, but we’re fairly certain that some of them definitely aren’t. There is even a not-very-good argument to be made that Jesus never existed at all.
However, most biblical scholars accept that Jesus probably did exist, and that at least some of the words attested to him in the bible were probably spoken by him, with varying degrees of accuracy. Keep in mind that I could be wrong about all of this, as this is a particularly murky area, historically.
Did Jesus want to establish Christianity?
The standard Christian view of the New Testament account is that God lived among us as a man and came back from the dead so we can all bask in the glow of his sacrificial act. This view incorporates the idea that Jesus intended to set up a more open church divergent from Judaism called Christianity.
This view, however, isn’t supported by the gospels apart from a few scattered quotes which are so at odds with the general trend, they could well be later interpolations (meaning verses added much later by “concerned citizens”).
For instance, the famous line “thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” is almost certainly an interpolation from an over-zealous copyist who didn’t make much of an effort to hide his work. Both gospel allusions to the Trinity are also considered interpolations (even by Christian scholars) for equally good reasons, chief among them that the doctrine of the Trinity was not developed until third century AD and any mentions of those verses which can be reliably dated to before that time do not mention the Trinity.
So, if the verses where Jesus looks like he’s setting up a doctrinal basis for a new church were added after that church was set up, what can the remaining original verses (if they can even be regarded as such) tell us about what Jesus was actually trying to do?
The religion of Jesus
Jesus was a Jew. He was circumcised, went to temple, and observed all the Jewish traditions and holidays and rituals from his birth until his death (which, in his defence, would slow anyone down). The twelve apostles were all Jews. They were all circumcised, went to temple and observed all the Jewish traditions, holidays and rituals, even after the death of Jesus. It seems reasonable to conclude that Jesus and his apostles all saw themselves as fundamentally Jewish rather than some new religion, perhaps even more Jewish that the Pharisees and the Sadducees, with whom Jesus is portrayed as getting into some fairly hot arguments.
His identity cannot be understood apart from his Jewishness and without exception his teaching can be explained entirely through the Judaism of his time. In one gospel, Jesus unambiguously avers: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
It’s reasonable to suggest that Christianity as we know it today was invented by Paul and that Jesus, for the reasons stated above, would be horrified at the shambling mess Paul made of Judaism in order to create this new religion.
First, the early apostles did not call themselves Christians, at least until they gathered in Antioch many years after the death of Jesus. Until then, they were referred to, and regarded themselves, as Jews. As Alister McGrath put it, “they seemed to regard Christianity as an affirmation of every aspect of contemporary Judaism, with the addition of one extra belief – that Jesus was the Messiah.”
Second, while the New Testament is presented as the gospels being expanded on by the Pauline epistles, it’s generally accepted that the letters of Paul pre-date the gospels. The (weak) possibility exists that the only reason the gospels were written in the first place is to “fill in” Paul’s writings, which are notoriously thin on detail when it comes to anything about the life of Jesus. For Paul (and I guess all Christians), things only got interesting when Jesus died. By his own admission, Paul never met Jesus, never spoke to him, and developed his understanding of the mission of Jesus entirely through, er, “personal revelation”.
Third, and for me the most convincing element in understanding that Jesus may not have envisioned a “Christianity” as such, the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s own letter to the Galatians describe a serious rift in approach and understanding between himself and Peter (official BFF of Jesus) and James (one of the brothers of Jesus).
Peter, James and the Jerusalem squad strongly believed that they were Jewish, and anyone who followed their movement would have to also be Jewish, i.e. follow all the laws, including the dietary prohibitions and circumcision. This would make it hard to convert Gentiles, who were more emotionally attached to the foreskins than the Jews. They were so hardcore that the Jerusalem crew confronted Peter when they heard he had merely shared his religious opinions with some goyim over a meal. Everyone before Paul seemed to strongly believe that the Jesus club was strictly Jews-only.
It seems very implausible that everyone who knew Jesus, his closest friends and family members, would somehow be mistaken about his intentions, but a man who never met Jesus and knew nothing about him personally would get the correct information from the voices in his head. And yet almost all Christians are currently engaging with their religious beliefs along the lines outlined by Paul and not by Jesus.
Back to Jesus
If you’ve made it this far, thanks. I understand there are lots of words in this post. We’re nearly done.
Throughout the gospels, there is a sense of impending doom (which reaches a hullincatory crisis in the Apocalypse). The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of heaven is at hand, this generation shall not pass until these things are fulfilled, some of you will still be alive when the kingdom of god rolls in, stay awake, this could happen any minute now. The events of the Apocalypse will “shortly be done”. And so on.
This is why Christians from every time period, and evangelicals today, seem to honestly believe that Jesus is going to come back in their lifetime. It’s almost impossible to read that thing and take it in any way seriously without coming to that conclusion. Try it. Try reading the Apocalypse and imagine that you believe the basic thrust of Christianity. It’s both terrifying and urgent. Now, now now!
So Jesus never intended to abandon the Jewish religion; just to provide a new way of interpreting it. For many years after his death his followers still hoped to reform Judaism. Only when that effort failed did Christianity become a new religion.
Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi outside the established system (in that he was not a Pharisee, a Sadducee or an Essene) who railed against it much like the prophets in Old Testament times. The only times the gospels show Jesus as genuinely annoyed are around the corruption, greed and hypocrisy of people who regarded themselves as “good” Jews.
When it looked like he was preaching in opposition to the Jewish law, he always made sure to explain why this was not how he saw it; quite the opposite. When asked to boil down the entire teachings of the Torah to a single sentence, he said to honour god and treat people how you would like to be treated, something which was preached in almost identical terms by the influential Rabbi Hillel (who was never accused of debasing the law) some fifty years before him.
Jesus may have seen himself as the natural end-point of a long chain of prophets and rabbis during what must have looked like a very end-pointy time to the Jews of Judaea. His friends agreed that he was the Messiah and proceeded on that basis. When he died, that dream did not die with him. In fact, the dream stayed very much alive until Paul, through hard work and sheer determination,
personally beat it to death.
This post is dedicated to the regional coordinator of Atheist Ireland and my friend, John Hamill. Well, I say “friend”. He’s not “nice”, exactly. In fact, during our Twitter spats, of which we have many, he’s often quite unpleasant. But he’s always interesting, he’s willing to engage intellectually with anyone and he’s definitely worth a follow. Yeah: friend. Why not?