Jesus: Icon or Iconoclast

(presented at

All Souls

Unitarian Universalist Church,



22 June 1997)

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


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


A. Why Should We Discuss the Topic of Jesus and


“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.


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


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


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”


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


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


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


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


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


“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.” [“Toward a New Universalism,” Quaker Universalist Fellowship

article by Rhoda R. Gilman]

III. Methods

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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.