The first question about Jesus is this: Did such a person actually exist? Was there a flesh and blood human being who really did and said all, or many, or even some, of the things the character called Jesus in the New Testament is supposed to have said or done? The evidence for Jesus’ actual existence outside Christian writings is scanty to put it mildly. There is a famous passage in the writings of Flavius Josephus that would clinch the case for Jesus’ actual existence if only it were not so obviously a later Christian interpolation.
If Josephus, who wrote in great detail about the very times in which Jesus of Nazareth was supposed to have lived, leaves Jesus entirely out of his history, that strongly suggests that either Jesus of Nazareth was a very minor figure or that he did not exist at all. Josephus’ account of the era is very comprehensive and includes many minor figures, some of whom are even named Jesus (i.e. Joshua). If the interpolated passage were authentic, the case for those who believe Jesus actually existed would be very much strengthened. But is obviously a fake not the authentic words of Josephus. Some pious Christian of a later era obviously stuck it in to “correct” Josephus and to bring his writings “up to date.” One need not be an expert in ancient languages to recognize that the style of the interpolated passage is clearly out of step with the rest of the book.
Suppose Jesus never existed. Suppose the whole Jesus story is a myth cooked up by some skillful and imaginative writers of the First Century. Suppose he didn’t actually preach the Sermon on the Mount, or cast out any demons, or die on the cross. Suppose it’s all meant to be symbolic or figuratively true in some mystical way. Some have argued that the story of Jesus the Messiah is the ancient Egyptian Osiris legend transmuted into a Jewish context. Or perhaps it’s based on the Greek Orpheus legend. Does any of this really matter? Obviously, it matters a great deal to the millions of literal-minded Christians who believe that Jesus really was born in a barn in Bethlehem and died nailed to a cross in Jerusalem about 33 years later and said and did some improbable things in between.
So as not to get forever bogged down on the question of Jesus’ actual existence, let’s temporarily suspend our critical faculties and pretend for the time being that the Christian Literalists are right: That a real man of flesh and blood named Joshua, from the village of Nazareth, a contemporary of Augustus and Tiberius Caesar, walked the earth and said and did all the things the New Testament says he said and did. Let’s look at the message instead of the man to see what it has to say to us in the 21st Century.
Let’s begin by considering those ancient issues that matter to us today on which Jesus was completely silent. (We will skip over issues like cloning that did not exist back then.) Jesus never said a word about abortion or infanticide. He never said a word about capital punishment. He never said a word about slavery. He never said a word about homosexuality. He never said a word about eating or not eating the flesh of animals. He never said a word about racism. He never said a word about gender equality.
On some of these subjects Jesus’ reported actions point strongly in one direction or another. The famous story of the Good Samaritan leaves no doubt that ethnic (and, by extension, racial) differences were unimportant to Jesus and that he would almost surely come down on the side of the those today who believe in ethnic and racial equality. On gender issues Jesus is fuzzy. He seems to have accepted without question the patriarchal structure of the Judaism of his times. He criticized the Jewish Establishment for many things, but the total exclusion of women from positions of power, and the unfair treatment of them, are never mentioned or even hinted at. Clearly, Jesus was not a feminist before his time. Would he be a feminist today? This is sheer speculation. Pope John Paul II argued that Jesus could have had female apostles but chose not to appoint any. The Roman Church sees this as a sufficient basis for keeping its priesthood all male today. (Catholic feminists have replied, with considerable sarcasm, that all the apostles were Jewish too—does this mean Catholic priests must all be Jews?)
But there are several social questions on which Jesus spoke without ambiguity. He was totally against divorce for any and all reasons except one—unchastity. He thought people should pay their taxes even if these taxes were collected by, and used to support an occupying imperial power (the Romans). He always opposed hypocrisy in all its many forms, never missing a chance to rail against “the Scribes and the Pharisees” for their many hypocrisies. He especially hated public prayer and ostentatious displays of religiosity. (See Matthew Chapter 6, verse 6.) He exhorted his followers to go into their closets, close the door and pray alone. Those who pray in public “have their reward.” And those who put pious bumper stickers on their cars or carry “JOHN 3:16” signs to football games have theirs too.
Jesus also believed in an ethical system based on rewards and punishments extending into the life beyond the grave for all eternity. (Here we assume that his many references to the “Kingdom of Heaven” apply to the afterlife, not to some heavenly kingdom that will come into existence here on earth.)
Then there are several topics on which Jesus said nothing but where his actions spoke clearly. He drank wine. He attended a wedding. He cast out demons. He threw money changers out of the Temple. (Even though the service they provided was necessary.)
From this we can conclude the following: he wasn’t totally opposed to the consumption of alcohol; he wasn’t opposed to the institution of marriage; (What he may have thought about same sex marriage we do not know.) He must have believed demons caused illness, otherwise “casting them out” makes no sense. He didn’t like money changing (commerce) even in the Temple’s outer courtyards. Furthermore, he always spoke contemptuously of money and materialism as corrupting influences antithetical to religion.
Wealth and materialism were among Jesus’ main concerns. The mere possession of riches were an enormous obstacle on the road to salvation. “A rich man has as much chance of entering the Kingdom of Heaven as a rope has of going through the eye of a needle.” He told a rich young man who wished to follow him to first give away all of his wealth. Over and over Jesus spoke compassionately about the plight of the poor. Later even some Marxists claimed Jesus as one of their own.
Then there are some issues on which Jesus seems to be on both sides. For example, he deviated from some traditional Jewish practices concerning the Sabbath but he faithfully observed many others. He never renounced Judaism. He spoke reverently of the Temple in Jerusalem but also spoke of its coming destruction. (Something that happened a few years later in AD 70.)
So when we ask ourselves the question What would Jesus do? often there is no answer. Would he be a pacifist? Would he have served in World War II? What about Vietnam? Would he join a labor union? Would he invest in companies that operate sweat shops in poor countries? Would he be a vegetarian? What about a Green? Would he hunt animals with a gun? Would he like big time college football? Would he own a television?