The Jesus I Know

The historical figure Jesus lived and died 2000 years ago. His public live lasted only 3 years. Prior to that we know precious little of his life. In his day Jesus was a religious leader and pointedly eschewed all things political. He rather pointed said that people should give the Cesar those things which are Cesar’s and to God those things which are God’s. That mean prior to people like John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, and their peers, he had already separated the life of politics for the religious life.

But then he said something very curious, at least according to the New Testament. It is something I believe either translates very poorly or is otherwise poorly explained. He stated that he had not come to change the law. He was referring to the ancient Mosaic law, the laws of the old Testament. And yet, that is exactly what he did. He made the state that instead of an eye for an eye, the aggrieved person turn the other cheek. Is that not a change to the old law? He also said prior to the stoning of a fallen woman that only a man without sin could throw the first stone. Again, a long held Jewish tradition, he changed.

The Jesus I know was a man who was the penultimate radical of his day. He chastised many of the Jewish leadership for their preference of worldly things over heavenly. But once again we have a departure from the traditional belief. Jews historically do not believe in an afterlife and yet Jesus, a lifelong Jew, spoke frequently of it. What did he know that the others did not?

But all those things are merely the lead-in for his more important message. The New Testaments of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are filled with “parables.” The word parable is an archaic word for story. That means Jesus told a lot of stories. It is unlikely that most of the characters in his stories were people he had known, although that cannot be dismissed out of hand either, we simply do not know. Either way, Jesus told these stories to make a point. My favorite is the story of the good Samaritan.

In the day of Jesus, Samaria was a region in the Middle East. The Samaritans were a group of people the Jewish population felt ill towards. They simply did not like them. And what does Jesus do? He puts a Samaritan in a situation where that person’s actions can only be thought of as being highly commendable. He tells us that this is the type of person we all should strive to be like.

Jesus spoken in the language Aramaic. His words were first put into the printed work in Greek, as far as we know. The book of Matthew, for example, is not a single text but an amalgam of several ancient Greek texts pieced together to give us the best and most complete version. But we must remember, someone who spoke primarily Aramaic had to tell someone who spoke primarily Greek the actions and words of Jesus. How good are you at remembering something, particular the words, spoken to you 60 years ago or more. That is exactly the situation the early writers face.

I mention all this not to take away anything from the four Gospels but rather to suggest that the words contained within them are the very best version of what happened and what Jesus said that we have. Each is a book of concepts meant to guide mankind in the years after the death of Jesus.

Unfortunately, there are Christians who take each word at face value never considering them to be a list of ideas and ideals. They prefer exacting principles to interpretive ideas. Even more, they fail to recognize the historical setting within which these words were first said, and then translated. For example, Christians believe in the virgin birth. This concept actually did not come into being for several centuries after the life of Jesus when Rome was translating the texts, again, and struggle with the word for virgin. They knew it was synonymous in the days of Jesus for the word “young girl.” Their true struggle was the concept of sex coupled with the fact that a 30 or 40 year old man named Joseph could possibly have had sex with a girl who may well have been only 12-years-old. In today’s society that is unacceptable, of course, but in the days of Jesus, it was not all that unusual and well within the Jewish tradition of arranged marriages. This is my long was of referring you back to Jesus saying “judge as you would be judged.”

It Is not the truth of historical facts that hurts a person like Jesus but rather the half-truths and out right fantasies.

Jesus took on a very traditional and very conservative religious culture by giving them a new way of looking at things. He never shied away from taking a position which ran contrary to accepted beliefs. He was in his day viewed as a radical, a revolutionary. But more importantly, he was hugely popular with the common man, and his popularity grew as his ministry continued. And yet, he never claimed to be anything other than a Jew. Even at his death, the Romans, in what was meant to be derisive, condemned him as “King of the Jews.” Jesus never portrayed himself as being such, but he absolutely was the most charismatic figure of his day.

When Jesus died and the Apostles came out of hiding, they referred to their new form of Judaism as “The Way.” They never called themselves Christians. That was an appellation which took about 100 years to evolve.

“The Way” was quickly spread throughout the Middle East, Turkey and Greece, well before it arrived in Rome. The Apostles insisted that Jews was in fact a deity. But that did not sit well with everyone in the Middle East. In the year 610 and Middle Eastern prophet named Mohammed started a religion we know today as Islam. Mohammed was well away of Jesus, his follows and predecessors. Mohammed, like many others where he lived, saw Jesus as a prophet and so when he was tasked with how to refer to Jesus, John the Baptist and earlier Jews, he referred to them as prophets.

Jesus does have a prominent position in Islam but not as a deity. They acknowledge him as an important figure within their own religion. I think it likely that the writers of Koran used some of the principles Jesus proposed within the Koran and carrying great weight. Mankind has a long history of adopting the ideas and ideals of predecessors into their own tradition for simple reason that they are good and worthy.

The two principles Jesus espoused the most were peace and love. I think we he to once again walk the surface of the Earth he would be aghast by what he would see by those professing to be “Good Christians.” I feel he would have huge problems with the amount of wealth accumulated by the Catholic Church in Rome and by other Protestant religions at their headquarters. Jesus most certainly believed in the redistribution of wealth. He once told a man to give half of everything he owned if that man had hopes to enter into heaven. I really like Jesus the historical figure over the religious Jesus so many religions have made him into. I think the two are so disparate as to defy almost all comparison.


People You Forget to Remember at Christmas

In December 1968 I was in the United States Army and stationed in Korea. I was a green 19-year-old spending his first Christmas away from home.  Korea, of course, is a Buddhist country and does not celebrate Christmas.  There are Christians there but they are such a small percentage of the population.

I the late 1960s Korea was still a war zone near the DMZ. Even though a truce had been called in 1953 the animosity between the two countries was palpable and armed conflict still erupted from time to time.  Sometimes it was in the form of infantry but mostly it was an exchange of artillery fire.  American soldiers stationed on the DMZ became caught in the crossfire and lost their lives.

That was the first of four Christmas I spent away from home while in service to our country. The next three were while I was station in Italy.  Of course Christmas there, as here, is a big event.  But still, we were away from our families at a time when family togetherness is so important.

Christmas of 2015 will once again see 100s of thousands of soldiers and sailor stationed away from their homes and loved ones. Some will be in the warring countries of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Their Christmas is particularly tough as has been true throughout our country’s history for every soldier who found himself on a battlefield at Christmastime.  For this part of my little diatribe, I ask that you take a moment to remember the men and women who have donned our countries uniforms and taken post in faraway places, away from their families.  Their gift to us is insured freedom.

While in Korea I was tasked with visiting an orphanage which was support by the military group I was stationed with. We were a small convoy of a couple of trucks with a jeep mounted with a 50 caliber machine gun in the front and rear of the trucks.  Each of us also were require to take our M-16 rifles along, just in case.  But besides the men who were in the trucks we also brought food and presents for the children of the orphanage.  The exact location of the orphanage was kept secret from us for reasons we were never given.  I do know that it sat right on the DMZ in northwestern South Korea.

We arrived at a single story cinder block building which housed the children and who were looked over by Catholic nuns. I do not think there were more than 25 or 30 children present but my memory them is that of expectancy, wonder, and sadness.

We were told that all the children were of one of two types: those born to prostitutes who of course could not keep them and those who were Asian-American, born of Korean mothers and American fathers. Theirs was the worst fate of all as they would never be accepted by Korean society simply because of their obvious differences.

We were all gathered into a single room where the children were introduced to us and we to them. As I looked around the room my eyes fell upon this one little girl with blond hair and blue eyes.  Her only language, of course, was Korean, and even if all the other orphans had even a slight chance in Korean society, this little girl certainly had none.  It broke my heart to see her and she haunts me to this day.  I wanted more than anything to get her back to the United States where at least she’d have something of a chance.  I actually looked into it but was inform that a married couple would have to be found and then it would be a prolonged affair to actually have her adopted.

The point is, those Korean orphans were all the result of a war. They are the casualties of war that go unreported, are pushed into the background and out of sight.  As I sit here this evening I have no doubt that similar conditions exist in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Orphans in those countries undoubted outnumber the ability of the country to care for them.  You might ask “what can we do for them?”  There actually is an answer, UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.  They have a website at and are always in need of donations.

It only seems appropriate at this time of year here in the United States where we have so much that we remember the children who have nothing.

Christmas For Christians and non-Christians Alike

What is Christmas? It is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. But how would you feel if you were born on February 15 but no one celebrated your birthday until September? Well, that is exactly what happened to Jesus. He was actually born in the spring, no one really knows the actual date but the Bible itself hints at this plus historians know that the census Joseph and Mary were participating in happened in the spring. But the early Christian church had a problem, well, actually it had a lot of problems but with regard to the birth of Jesus they would have had to place his birth around the time of Easter. And how would that work? Celebrating the birth and death of Jesus in the same month, maybe even the same week? Their resolution was to take over the old Roman holiday of Saturnalia which was on December 25. This was done to displace one of the many pagan holidays with Christian holidays.

But Christmas as a holiday was really an invention of the 17th Century Christians. But not all Christians! The Puritans of America considered the holiday as blasphemous and did not participate.   And even with those who did celebrate it, it was ill-defined. An English tradition called wassailing was imported to America. In late 18th Century Boston bands of boys would go around the city banging on doors and demanding food. Needless to say, the gentry of Boston thought Christmas just a nuisance. And even in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Scrooge was simply uttering the feelings of many Englishmen of the day, that Christmas was just an excuse for workers to get a day off. Similar sentiments were held in America.

But as the 19th Century rolled on, the first Christmas Card was invented, a minister wrote The Night Before Christmas for his children and the sentiment of good will and giving was born. The first American Christmas carol was written by Phillips Brooks of Andover Massachusetts in the 17th Century. That carol is Oh Little Town of Bethlehem. But most carols were written in the late 19th Century and 20th Century. The words of these carols usually speak of the nature of Christmas.

That said, I suggest that even though Christmas was born in the Christian tradition, it is no longer a strictly religious holiday celebrated only by Christians. Many people who do not believe in Jesus as a messiah or deity, celebrate the date none-the-less. Many in the American Jewish community will have both the menorah and Christmas tree in their homes. And if not the tree, then Christmas ornaments. It should be noted that the idea of bringing greens into the household is also an old Roman tradition that went with Saturnalia.

For those who are not Christian they can still celebrate the spirit of Christmas. The old idea and ideal of peace and good will should easily transcend all beliefs to be embraced by people of any religion or of no religion at all. The idea of selfless giving at this time of year can be practiced by anyone. It is my hope that this year when Americans consider the people of Islam they look upon them using the spirit of Christmas, good will to all. And this spirit should be extended to everyone of any belief.