Jesus: Icon or Iconoclast?

All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, Shreveport, La. 

Disclaimer: Before I start, I want to make a few brief disclaimers. Our church (like other UU churches) has a tradition of a free and open pulpit. In other words, my search for truth and the words I speak today are the product of a free yet reasoned search for truth, with my conscience as a guide. Along with a free and open pulpit, our congregation is a free and open congregation: no one is required to agree with the person in the pulpit. Additionally, my words today are my own and in no way reflect the opinion of my employer, the U.S. Air Force or the United States Government. Of course, those of you who know me are probably not surprised by that!

I. Introduction

Let’s imagine what happen if we were to use some fictional technology to resurrect … not the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park … but the historical figure who provided much of the inspiration for modern Christianity? Whether he were brought back to us via DNA cloned from an ancient relic or via some fictional time travel machine, what would the sage from Galilee think about both the good and the bad accomplished in his name? The placing of his words and the words attributed to him on a pedestal? The deification that turned the flesh and blood person into a spiritual metaphor or even a God? Would he go to Disney World or would he boycott? Of course, there is no way we can answer these questions with any certainty. We don’t have time travel machines or other methods to technologically resurrect the person of Jesus yet. But we do have methods that may allow us to untangle the teachings of Jesus from the later additions of his followers and the early church authorities.

A. Why Should We Discuss the Topic of Jesus and Christianity?

“Historical Jesus” research raises some challenging questions for both Christians and non-Christians who take religious and spiritual matters seriously. How does orthodox creedal Christianity relate to the teachings of Jesus? Also, what do the more orthodox forms of Christianity say about the early followers of Jesus who didn’t place a great emphasis on a literal resurrection and the “Easter Experience” … some early writings don’t even mention the crucifixion or the resurrection (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas and the Q collection of sayings). Would Jesus or some of his first century CE followers be sufficiently “orthodox” to be a member of any of the traditional Christian churches in our community? Historical Jesus research forces us to reexamine the orthodox creedal formulas of Christianity. The traditional creedal affirmations of my childhood religion (e.g. The Apostles’ Creed) reduces the ethical teachings of Jesus to a comma between his birth and his persecution and death under Pilate … Robert Funk refers to this as “the creed with an empty center.” Other than his birth and death, this creedal Christ has shed almost every trace of being human.

Frankly, I would suggest the term “Christian” is certainly an ambiguous term for describing anyone’s spirituality or religious approach to life. Consider the following group: a UU Christian, a Quaker, a liberal Catholic, a member of a liberal denomination like the United Church of Christ, a member of a mainline Protestant denomination, a conservative Catholic like Pat Buchanan, the somewhat bigoted Jerry Falwell, and the highly bigoted Rev. Fred Phelps. All of them share the descriptive (or perhaps non-descriptive) term “Christian.” But how much do they have in common in how they treat their neighbors? Views regarding God? Welcoming of others? Emphasis on grace versus emphasis on law? Other than the “c word” and some allegiance towards the Biblical stories surrounding Jesus, there isn’t that much commonality between these different brands of Christianity.

Furthermore, You’re probably wondering why a non-Christian UU agnostic would be in this pulpit today speaking about Jesus. Some may be concerned that I won’t approach the topic with appropriate respect … others may think that our congregation mentions the “J word” and the “C word” entirely too much. In spite of these possible reservations, I still think that we can learn something in rediscovering Jesus as an iconoclastic and at times secular sage who questions the established order rather than the Christian icon that doesn’t challenge us.

B. Why I Became Interested in “Historical Jesus” Research

I started reading about the Bible and Christianity after I learned that I was moving to the “Bible Belt” back in 1995. Initially, this was out of “self-defense” … as a non-Christian agnostic, I started reading the works of the liberal Christians like Bishop John Spong (for example, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism and Resurrection: Myth or Reality?) and actually reading the Bible itself! Initially, my reasons were like those given by W.C. Fields when he was found reading the Bible on his deathbed … I was “looking for loopholes.” However, what I found fascinated me … and provided me a greater appreciation of those whose spiritual journey has found them on a path of liberal Christianity. From there I read more … the works of Karen Armstrong, Elaine Pagels, Marcus Borg, John Crossan, Robert Funk, and the Jesus Seminar’s The Five Gospels. Yes, you did hear correctly … the Jesus Seminar included The Gospel of Thomas along with the four traditional Gospels. Anyway, I found the Jesus Seminar’s translation of the Gospels refreshing in that I was seeing the religion of my childhood in a new manner. For many of us, we are deadened into unquestioning listening by the King James translation that many of us grew up with. We find ourselves like the minister on “The Simpsons” series when we read the Bible … when asked by a troubled parishioner for suggested Bible passages, this minister replied “Oh … any verse. It doesn’t matter … they’re all good.”

C. Ancient and Modern Versions of Jesus as a Symbol or Icon

Some of the uses of Jesus as a metaphor or symbol can be useful … as long as we realize that we’re talking metaphor or poetry. Paul’s writings are show us the use of the Christ metaphor as an imperfect glimpse of the interconnected web of existence and the fundamental equality of all:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 RSV)

Of course, we need people like Matthew Fox to show us how the expand the limited use of the Christ metaphor beyond the few categories that Paul used … otherwise, some will think that Paul’s list is an exhaustive list of our interconnectedness and equality:

The Cosmic Christ can be both female and male, heterosexual and homosexual. (Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ)

Rosemary Ruether further expands this interconnectedness into the ability to minister to each other’s needs and hurts:

Christ is not necessarily male, nor is the redeemed community only women, but a new humanity, female and male. We need to think in terms of a dynamic, rather than a static, relationship between the redeemer and the redeemed … In the language of early Christian prophetism, we can encounter Christ in the form of our sister. Christ, the liberated humanity, is not confined to a static perfection of one person two thousand years ago. Rather, redemptive humanity goes ahead of us, calling us to yet incompleted dimensions of human liberation. (Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk)

However, we need to remember that metaphors such as these cut both ways … they can both help and hurt us in expressing our spiritual thoughts. One may end up straight-jacketing a universal ideal in Christian terms. We must realize that our finite myths and metaphors can carry unwanted cultural baggage when it comes to expressing spiritual insights, as the example from the Quaker Rhoda Gilman shows us:

Whether George Fox referred to the Living Christ, the Inner Light, or the Buddha Nature within all humans is irrelevant … As Kingdon Swayne observes, had Fox lived among Buddhists, he might have spoken of “maya” rather than “notions,” or “the Dharma” rather than “the Lord God,” and he might indeed have been able to express more freely the nature of his insights. But Fox spoke to his own world. Today we must speak to ours. (“Towards a New Universalism,” Quaker Universalist Fellowship article by Rhoda R. Gilman

III. Methods

A. Finding a Face in the Galilean Crowd — Is It Possible?

The modern scholars who study the “Historical Jesus” problem do make the assumption that the historical person can be distinguished from the gospel portraits of him. What guidelines did the Jesus Seminar use in examining the words attributed to Jesus?

B. Guidelines used by Jesus Seminar

Oral Tradition

Jesus taught others orally and wrote nothing for posterity. His teachings were taught as a word of mouth tradition for many years after his death. We need to remember what anthropologists know from studying cultures with oral traditions. Oral tradition is very fluid and not a precise memory (the gist of what is said instead of a literal recording). Also, oral transmission of teachings initially show very little interest in biographical details (e.g. Gospel of Thomas and Q).


At least two decades elapsed between Jesus’ death and the first written records of his teachings. The first written records are in Greek. With first century Palestine being a multi-cultural stew, we don’t know if Jesus taught exclusively in Aramaic or if he also taught in Greek … if he only taught in Aramaic, then his original words are lost to us. Mark, the first canonical gospel, was written forty years after Jesus’ death. Mark is not an eyewitness record of the events it records. Mark arbitrarily arranged the order of events in his travel narrative framework for Jesus’ teachings. Matthew and Luke use nearly all of Mark between them (Matthew copies nearly 90% of Mark word for word, Luke about 50%). In addition to the use of Mark as a source for their gospels, Matthew and Luke share a common collection of sayings almost word for word (Q collection of sayings). Matthew and Luke also have source material unknown to Mark, Q, and each other. Matthew and Luke also have no knowledge of the order of events, and both end up using Mark’s narrative framework for their gospels. What follows is a brief chronology:

  • Jesus’ life — born 7 – 4 BCE, died ca. 30 CE (The millennium has already come and gone… and we didn’t even notice.)
  • Q and Thomas written — 50 to 60 CE
  • Mark written — ca. 70 CE
  • Jerusalem Temple destroyed — ca. 70 CE
  • Matthew written — ca. 85 CE
  • Luke and Acts written — 90 CE
  • John written — 80 to 100 CE (“Signs” gospel embedded in John written ca. 60-80 CE)

“Sayings” Gospels

“Sayings gospels” are collections of sayings, aphorisms, and parables without narrative framework. The Q collection is one suggested hypothesis to explain the common sayings found in both Matthew and Luke. Admittedly, some conservative theologians find the Q hypothesis an artificial creation of modern scholars. They view the parallels between Matthew and Luke to be evidence that God inspired Matthew and Luke to record the words of Jesus without error. Some liberal theologians think that Q is a “sayings gospel” written ca. 50 CE and was used extensively as a source document for Matthew and Luke. Prior to the 1940s, scholars debated whether a “sayings gospel” would be a “real gospel.” After the Nag Hammadi archeology find in Egypt, we discovered a real example of a sayings gospel, the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings without a narrative framework. Both Q and Thomas represents earlier stage of Jesus’ teachings before the canonical Gospels. Thomas also provides an independent verification for many sayings attributed to Jesus in the traditional Gospels.

Gospel of John

The fourth gospel is markedly different from Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Thomas. In this narrative, Jesus speaks in long monologues with only an occasional aphorism and no parables. Instead of speaking about the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized; the Jesus in John reflects extensively on his mission on earth. The general consensus is that John is a less reliable historical source when compared to Mark, Matthew, Luke, or Thomas.


The surviving gospels show layers of stratification or development over time. The presence of layers can also indicate that multiple sources were used in the development of certain gospels (e.g. Matthew is basically Mark plus Q). The verbal and structural parallels between the gospels are one indicator of this stratification.

Written Sources

By the time the oral tradition is written down, one discovers that the parables are in general more authentic (Jesus’ distinctive style is harder to imitate in these longer forms). Short sayings and aphorisms are in general less authentic … one ends up with a co-mingling of Jesus’ sayings and common sayings from the surrounding culture. The “Golden Rule” is one example of common wisdom being attributed to Jesus … as we see from the following examples:

Non-distinctiveness of the “Golden Rule”

9 CE: Hillel, b. 30 BCE, 1st Century CE rabbi at the request of a student to teach the entire Torah “while standing on one foot” he replied: “What you hate, don’t do to another. That’s the law in a nutshell; everything else is commentary.” (Encyclopedia Judaica)

Consider this: Treat people in ways you want them to treat you. This sums up the whole of the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12 Scholars Version, using Jesus Seminar color coding)

What you hate, don’t do to someone else. (Tobit 4:15)

Surviving Copies of the Gospels

There are no surviving original gospels. The earliest surviving fragments date from 125 CE. The earliest major fragments date from 200 CE. The earliest complete copies of the Gospels date from 300 CE. Prior to 1454 CE, no two surviving copies of the gospels are identical. With the hand-copying of the Gospels prior to the invention of the printing press, the scribes both “improved” and “corrupted” the Gospels through their copying. Modern translators (from the King James Version to today’s translations) are a committee’s best estimate of what the original Greek Gospels said. This means that every modern translation is based on the best judgment of groups of translators in deciding what fragments and manuscripts are most correct. Even the Bible of the fundamentalist is an imperfect reconstruction of a committee. One cannot assume that modern scholars have the same Greek text in front of them that the Gospel authors had originally wrote.

A Familiar Example from The Five Gospels

Here’s the unofficial but helpful interpretation of the color coding of the traditional “red letter” sayings in the Jesus Seminar translation:

Red: That’s Jesus!!
Pink: Sure sounds like Jesus
Gray: Well, maybe
Black: There must have been some mistake

What follows is a very familiar example from Matthew (Matthew 6:9-13):

Our Father in the heavens, your name be revered. Impose your imperial rule, enact your will on earth as you have in heaven. Provide us with the bread we need for the day. Forgive our debts to the extent that we have forgiven those in debt to us. And please don’t subject us to test after test, but rescue us from the evil one.

Jesus probably used the Aramaic “Abba” (Father, Papa, or Daddy) to address God (a familiar form of address in contrast to the tradition that God’s name was sacred). Jesus probably prayed at least four of the individual petitions along with the initial address to God. A disciple learned the petitions from Jesus and someone else wrote them down in the form we now have in Matthew and Luke.

C. Parables and Aphorism, Reversal of “Conventional Wisdom”

Mustard Seed (Thomas 20:1-4):

The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us what Heaven’s imperial rule is like.” He said to them,

It’s like a mustard seed. It’s the smallest of all seeds, but when it falls on prepared soil, it produces a large plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky.

The mustard seed is tiny. Mustard plants are annual shrubs or weeds and are not very impressive in stature. So what is Jesus trying to say with this metaphor? In earlier scriptures (Ezekiel 17:22-23 and Daniel 4:12, 20-22), imagery of trees is used to represent God’s domain as a towering domain. Here, the tree imagery is parodied and God’s domain is portrayed as something unrecognized, pervasive like a weed, and a much more modest affair than a new world empire. God may be present right here unrecognized in each of us today … we just don’t realize it.

Leaven (Matthew 13:33):

He told them another parable: Heaven’s imperial rule is like leaven which a woman took and concealed in fifty pounds of flour until it was all leavened.

In this one line parable, Jesus uses three images that are both striking and counter-intuitive. “Hiding” leaven in flour is really another way of “mixing” flour and yeast together. The imagery of a woman taking a large quantity of flour is a subtle reference to Genesis 18:6 where Sarah makes bread for the heavenly visitors who predict that she will have a child. The commonly accepted view in Jesus’ culture was that leaven was a symbol of earthly corruption; Jesus turns the “conventional wisdom” on its head and makes what the conventional wisdom viewed as unholy or unclean as being God’s Imperial Rule. This is short, no superfluous words, and tightly constructed … all marks of oral transmission.

Here’s one final saying from Thomas 113:1-4 that shows the non-apocalyptic nature of Jesus:

His disciples said to him, “When will the <Father’s> imperial rule come?”

“It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s imperial rule is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.”

Parable of the Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35):

There was a man going from Jerusalem down to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped, beat him, and went off, leaving him half dead. Now by coincidence a priest was going down that road; when he caught sight of him, he went out of his way to avoid him. In the same way, when a Levite came to the place, he took one look at him and crossed the road to avoid him. But this Samaritan who was traveling that way came to where he was and was moved to pity at the sight of him. He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring olive oil and wine on them. He hoisted him onto his own animal, brought him to an inn, and looked after him. The next day he took out two silver coins, which he gave to the innkeeper and said, “Look after him, and on my way back I’ll reimburse you for any extra expense you have had.”

This parable speaks on both secular and religious grounds. However, we’ve lost most of the cultural references and many of us have “Christianized” this parable. Jesus uses a stereotype of affluent clergy being unconcerned about the victim in this story … the peasant audience would identify with the victim and would accept the clergy stereotype, much as we would accept similar stereotypes regarding TV evangelists today. The crowd would accept this story until the Samaritan comes riding in. The listener … identifying with the victim lying in a ditch … suddenly is rescued by someone that the conventional wisdom views as disreputable, unclean, and generally unworthy of being the hero of the story. If you found yourself identifying with the Samaritan when hearing this story as a child, then you were probably hearing this story outside its original context and in a “Christianized” one instead. Jesus had privileged those who were marginalized in his society … the diseased, the infirm, women, children, agents of the Romans such as tax collectors, Gentiles, and perhaps even Samaritans. The implausibility of an actual first century Samaritan being a “good Samaritan” for a Judean victim and a Judean victim being a willing recipient of Samaritan hospitality points to this being a plausibly authentic parable of Jesus. Religious insiders are not wounded and do not need help; so they don’t stop. Religious outcasts … being wounded themselves … can better identify with the victim in the ditch. The outcasts stop because they have nothing to lose … they are already excommunicated from polite society. Robert Funk boils this parable down to a two line summary:

1. In God’s domain help comes only to those who have no right to expect it and who cannot resist it when it is offered.

2. Help always comes from the quarter from which one does not and cannot expect it. Or … reduced to one statement … “In God’s domain help is perpetually a surprise.”

IV. What Does All Mean to Us as Unitarian Universalists

How do we as Unitarian Universalists acknowledge the “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as ourselves” … these words taken from our denomination’s statement of principles and purposes. Finding such a diverse mix in our congregations (Humanist, Agnostic, Jewish, Buddhist, Liberal Christian, Wiccan, Recovering Fundamentalist, Recovering Catholic, etc.), how do we balance between the differing needs and hurts of these individuals? The Liberal Christian may be very comfortable with Jesus and God talk, but the Recovering Fundamentalist may view this as a painful reminder of prior traumatic experiences. The person from a non-Christian background may view Jesus and God talk as a painful reminder of intolerant elements that are found in Christianity. However, I would suggest that a role for Jesus and his teachings in Unitarian Universalism isn’t a Christian one. His teachings suggest that God doesn’t respect human-created categories that we like to segregate ourselves into (saved/damned, clean/unclean, Christian/non-Christian, Liberal/Conservative, etc.). There really isn’t any reason to consider one individual or group as uniquely favored in the eyes of God. And the Jesus that we catch glimpses of in the Gospels can teach us something about life and God that has nothing to do with Christianity or organized religion whatsoever.


Whether we talk about God, Higher Power, Ultimate Reality, Buddha Nature, Jesus, the Inner Light, or the humanistic spark that animates us all, let’s remember that our church is a spiritual shared supper where we all can share our unique gifts. We learn, grow, and are spiritually nourished by what we share with others and what others share with us. Have a great week and always look on the bright side of life.