After Jesus Before Christianity

Submitted by Peter on Thu, 06/02/2022 - 07:42

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This bookstudy will begin July 10,  2022 only on Zoom.

From the creative minds of the scholarly group behind the groundbreaking Jesus Seminar comes this provocative and eye-opening look at the roots of Christianity that offers a thoughtful reconsideration of the first two centuries of the Jesus movement, transforming our understanding of the religion and its early dissemination.

Christianity has endured for more than two millennia and is practiced by billions worldwide today. Yet that longevity has created difficulties for scholars tracing the religion’s roots, distorting much of the historical investigation into the first two centuries of the Jesus movement. But what if Christianity died in the fourth or fifth centuries after it began? How would that change how historians see and understand its first two hundred years?

Considering these questions, three Bible scholars from the Westar Institute summarize the work of the Christianity Seminar and its efforts to offer a new way of thinking about Christianity and its roots. Synthesizing the institute’s most recent scholarship—bringing together the many archaeological and textual discoveries over the last twenty years—they have found:

  • There were multiple Jesus movements, not a singular one, before the fourth century
  • There was nothing called Christianity until the third century
  • There was much more flexibility and diversity within Jesus’s movement before it became centralized in Rome, not only regarding the Bible and religious doctrine, but also understandings of gender, sexuality and morality.

Exciting and revolutionary, After Jesus Before Christianity provides fresh insights into the real history behind how the Jesus movement became Christianity.

And, it's really easy to read.

Comments

1 – Do you recall when you first realized you were a heretic? Comments? 202
2 – (How) Has your participation in our book study changed the way you relate to others at church on Sunday? 205
3 – How does our current education system teach “control of the passions”? Does it do a good job now? Did it 2000 – 2500 years ago? 205
4 – What do you think about salvation as defined by self-control? 209
5 – While the story of Thecla is obviously legendary, do you think there was a real person behind the legend? 213
6 – So is there, or is there not, Gnosticism? 219
7 – What is another word that is not a “thing” but because it is a word, we use it to think with? 220
8 – How does changing the word Gnostic to something else make any difference? 225
9 – There was a great deal of power associated with producing orthodoxy, and none associated with Gnosticism. What difference does (did) this make? 225
10 – Now that our authors have demolished Gnosticism, what difference does that make to you? 230

1 – Can you recall what you first thought about Jesus renouncing his family? Are your ideas different now? 152
2 – What does “proper shame” mean on pg. 154, line 4?
3 – When we were studying Scott’s “The Real Paul” I suggested that you read Philemon. You may want to read it again after this chapter. What differences do you see now? 157
4 – Compare non father led families of this era to modern single mom households. 158
5 – How many clubs do you (or have you) belong[ed] to? What are important similarities and differences among them? 168
6 – What do you think are the most significant A) similarities and B) differences between today’s churches and the associations (of a religious nature) of Jesus’ time? 170
7 – Why do you think people of Jesus time took their meals reclining? 181
8 – Have you experienced anything like the exchange between Jesus and Salome? Comments? 182
9 – Have you participated in meals (banquets?) where those present were VERY different? 185
10 – How would you feel about the Prayer of Thanksgiving being offered before our final potluck? 187
11 – Why the decline in festive communal meals? 190
12 – When you bathe, are you conscious of washing off physical, moral, attitudinal and social “dirtiness”? Which ones? 192

Chapter 10: Experimental Families (pp. 147-162)
1. Can you recall what you first thought about Jesus renouncing his family? Are your ideas different now? (p.152)

I never have seen this as a “renouncement” of his family. If, in fact, Jesus actually said something like this (Mark 10: 29-30, et al.) – and I remain unconvinced that he ever did – I’ve always read it as a way of saying that family loyalties should be transcended by his message of the gospel (“good news”). That overcomes everything – and, by that, I don’t mean the traditional orthodox substitutionary sacrifice of his life theory that supposedly “saves” us from our sin. I think that it means living a life of lovingkindness and justice in much the same ways that he did. Period.

2. What does “proper shame” mean on pg. 154, line 4?

In the context of that culture, it means behaving in ways that promote social cohesion within the family – in this case, whatever the paterfamilias says that behavior should be.

3. When we were studying Scott’s “The Real Paul” I suggested that you read Philemon. You may want to read it again after this chapter. What differences do you see now? (p.157)

I’ve not read Scott’s book, but I have read the one titled The Authentic Letters of Paul, (written and edited by Art Dewey, Roy Hoover, Lane McGaughy and Daryl Schmidt).

I think that our authors of After Jesus Before Christianity aren’t strong enough here. The burden of Paul’s argument is that the slave, Onesimus, is no longer what he was but is somehow very “special” to Paul and so should be even more so to Philemon – to see him...

“...not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially
to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?” (v.16)

Paul also plays upon Onesimus’s probable nickname “Useless” by giving him the new nickname of “Useful” – alluding to the root meaning of Onesimus which means “useful” or “beneficial.”

We need to remember that slavery was intrinsic to the social pyramid of the ancient world. And yet what Paul believed God had done in Jesus led him to conclude that a new age had begun; a new world order was underway and that he, Paul, was an envoy of that new regime – where there is “no longer slave or freeborn.” Paul was asking Philemon to move beyond the established social assumptions of the first century and make a real step in the direction of true human freedom.

So, while Paul may have been an extraordinarily zealous Pharisaic Jew, he was able to experience a paradigm shift so profound that it literally transformed the way that he saw the world and everything in it. This is someone who glimpsed what it must mean to live beyond tribal or ethnic boundaries and imagined that those who once were considered to be outsiders could – and should – now be seen as equals. For its day and time, this point of view was absolutely extraordinary.

4. Compare non father-led families of this era to modern single-mom households. (p.158)

I really don’t see a comparison. Women like Chloe and Thecla led families because they rejected the paterfamilias model that denigrated women and denied them positions of equality next to the men of that era. They chose to strike out on their own. The single-mom households of today had no choice. They were abandoned – largely as the result of “dead-beat dads” who refused to share the role of parenting their own children and either just walked out or were forcibly incarcerated for breaking the law and then never came back.

Chapter 11: Join the Club (pp. 163-178)
5. How many clubs do you (or have you) belong[ed] to? What are important similarities and differences among them? (p.168)

I’ve chosen to accept the wide-ranging definition of a “club” which – according to my dictionary – is this: “a group of persons organized for a social, literary, athletic, political, or other purpose.” Given that broad understanding, I’ve been a member of a number of them:

• Church – first the UCC and now the UMC (a lifetime of active membership which began in Sunday School and youth fellowship, then continued on into my entering the ordained ministry)
• Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts & Sea Scouts (from childhood to my teenage years)
• numerous athletic leagues and teams (from track, tennis, soccer, softball, baseball, basketball & football during my youth and young adulthood, to table tennis, cycling, golf & bocce ball here in retirement)
• Theta Chi fraternity (as a university undergraduate)
• American Counseling Association (as a post-graduate)
• Secondary School teaching, coaching & counseling positions
• American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
• Swim & Racquet Club
• Divinity School (post-graduate degree in theology)
• Lions & Rotary Clubs
• Bridge Club
• Green Circle Program (e.g. https://greencircle604767361.wordpress.com/green-circle-outline/)
• B.A.S.K. – the Bay Area Sea Kayakers (fun + environmental activism)
• Spiritual Directors International
• Book Clubs (on theology, but also groups centered on social justice and anti-racism)
• Writers Group (sharing our creative side through our own poetry and prose)

While the central thread through them all might be socializing with like-minded friends, many of these “clubs” also involved activities that helped build a better community (i.e., made for a more kind, compassionate, egalitarian, just and – in the case of B.A.S.K. – even a cleaner one!)

6. What do you think are the most significant A) similarities and B) differences between today’s churches and the associations (of a religious nature) of Jesus’ time? (p.170)

I think that the “sense of belonging” (pp. 166 ff.) that both provide may be the most significant similarity. Secondarily, however, both also creatively provided a way to “get together.” As our authors point out, the Hebrew word בֵּית כְּנֶסֶת – or synagogue – literally first meant “a bringing together” (p.168). Only later did it actually become “a place of gathering” and so became associated with a building – in that sense, a modern-day church has a lot in common with today’s synagogue. Whenever we do just that – get together – we have a lot in common with those first communal associations which were the disciples and earliest followers of Jesus.

Other than the fact that there were no buildings set aside as gathering places because they met in people’s homes, I’d say that the most significant difference between then and now is the elaborate and strict hierarchy exemplified within today’s institutional Church. It didn’t exist in those 1st century gatherings. Establishing community seemed to be more important than any single individual (i.e., no clergy, so no bishops, cardinals or popes.).

Chapter 12: Feasting and Bathing (pp. 179-196)
7. Why do you think people of Jesus’s time took their meals reclining? (p.181)

I think, initially, it was just a sign of power and luxury enjoyed by the elite, but then was carried over into those further on down the social ladder. Anyone who could afford it, just copied this laid-back dining style.

Personally, I don’t think that it would help my digestion – at all.

8. Have you experienced anything like the exchange between Jesus and Salome? Comments? (p.182)

Yes, I have. It seems to me that at its heart, that interaction in Thomas 61 is about when a man and a woman both are enlightened about the presence and reality of God so become “filled with light.” In the unity of that moment, they “become one.” I have experienced sharing those kinds of moments in many small groups – even here in the Lutz book group. For me those moments are filled with deep emotion and a sense of blessedness. Ultimately, however, it transcends any sense of gender. We’ve both been caught up in a feeling of wonder, so rare, that we share in a kind of spiritual union. It has nothing at all to do, however, with whether one of us is male and the other female.

Separated from any such shared experience, all we might feel would be emptiness – “darkness.” And I’ve been there as well. But, again, this has nothing at all to do with one’s gender. It doesn’t matter whose son or daughter you are in this world; in the end, all that matters is that you experience yourself as a child of God.

As the scholars of the Westar Jesus Seminar pointed out, this theme of “light” runs all throughout the Gospel of Thomas (e.g. Thomas 11: 3, 24: 3, 50: 1, 83: 1-2) as well as this concept of unity as opposed to division (e.g. Thomas 11: 4, 22: 4, 106: 1). The exchange between Jesus and Salome here is reminiscent of the claim in Thomas 24: 3 that “there is light within a person of light” – i.e., that there’s something of God revealed in and through that person. Thomas talks a lot about that kind of “coming together” (see The Five Gospels, p. 507). The point is, either you are “filled with light” or you’re “separated from God” and, so, “filled with darkness.”

9. Have you participated in meals (banquets?) where those present were VERY different? (p.185)

Yes, I have. Oddly enough, they’ve often come at wedding celebrations where it’s become very clear to me that “these are not my kind of people.”

10. How would you feel about the Prayer of Thanksgiving being offered before our final potluck? (p.187)

While that prayer might have some redeeming features, I feel like it’s too anachronistic and paternalistic in its imagery for God. The only lines that I do find meaningful, though, are these:

“...if there is [any] sweet and simple teaching, it gives us mind, word,
and knowledge; mind that we may understand [God]; word that we
may interpret [God]; knowledge that we may know [God]” (p.186).

So, I expect that I’d “tune out” if this prayer were presented to our group as printed. My mind and heart would wander somewhere else – which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing; I find myself doing it during many services of worship these days.

Besides, Evelyn absolutely can come up with a better one!

11. Why the decline in festive communal meals? (p.190)

People just don’t want to have to cook for pot-lucks that often. At most, they are happy to share cookies and a drink after worship services and chat with friends for a while – but they’re probably not talking about theology or the worship that they just experienced.

12. When you bathe, are you conscious of washing off physical, moral, attitudinal and social “dirtiness”? Which ones? (p.192)

When I bathe (and it’s usually by taking a shower), I’m just cleaning my body. That other step requires a different kind of “washing.” In my case, that only happens during times of deep reflection or meditation. If I do sense any kind of “dirtiness” at times like that, it probably would be dealing with any feelings of anger or resentment that I might be carrying.

1 – It appears that Westar makes no distinction between canonical and non-canonical literature. What do you think about this? 104
2 – Today women get into leadership roles by copying men. Hod do you think our culture would differ if it were run by women, as women, and not as copies of men? 108
3 – Do you think there is any significance to the use of “sexual status or sexuality” rather than gender on page 112?
4 – Compare the handling of 1 Corinthians in as many sources where you have an interest. 114
5 – Did any of you have gender issues (that you want to share) in your life? I suppose these would occur in adolescence. 115
6 – How important is your gender in the definition of your identity? 120
7 – “resist, to keep living in a world of crushing opposition.” But no one except Antiochus lives. I don’t understand. Comments? 125
8 – If the question of whether the early movements of the Way were positive or negative toward women is the wrong question, what would you ask instead? 128
9 – If you were to make and identity statement as Paul did on pg. 135, what would you include?
10 - What do you think is the difference between belonging to the God of Israel and belonging to the Methodist (or Presbyterian) church? 139
11 – Can you give a better one sentence or phrase description of this chapter than their final “A Messy Blend”? 145

PART II – BELONGING AND COMMUNITY

Chapter 7: Testing Gender, Testing Boundaries (pp. 99-114)
1. It appears that Westar makes no distinction between canonical and non-canonical literature. What do you think about this? (p. 104)

I don’t see where that is so. Westar has distinguished between the two or they wouldn’t have given the non-canonical texts so much attention. They have a place. They have a voice worth hearing – even if those who closed the Bible to them did not think so. The result is a whole new orientation with respect to the texts and the issue of just what constituted monotheism in Israel at the time of Jesus.

To clarify the terms: “canonical” refers to something that follows the law stated by the canon – i.e., the sixty-six books of the Bible as they’ve been published for millennia, first by Judaism and then by Christianity. A “non-canonical” translation means that it deviates from those general known rules of translation. So, the work of the Westar Institute and its scholars has suggested a number of new perspectives on certain issues (for example, the place and role of women within those earliest followers of Jesus). Westar has proposed an alternative paradigm for understanding what pre-Christian communities looked like and the diversity of beliefs that they held.

A significant conclusion in this chapter is stated on the next page:

“Women and men have equal rights to teach and to lead. This equal
right derives from a shared focus beyond gender: a focus on the
attainment of true, perfect human status” (p.105).

In the canonical book of 1 Timothy, on the other hand, no such egalitarian status exists; in fact, it’s just the reverse:

“Women in 1 Timothy are not authorized for anything except childbirth.
Women are to be invisible in public and in the activities of the community.
They are commanded to be silent” (p.107).

2. Today women get into leadership roles by copying men. How do you think our culture would differ if it were run by women, as women, and not as copies of men? (p.108)

I think that it’s an overgeneralization to conclude that women “get into” such roles simply by “copying men.” It may be true that women, at least initially, have stepped into well-established roles that have long been defined by men as they follow behind them. But, significantly, many women have been quick to present particularly feminine ways of redefining those roles that have been, for far too long, defined only by males. Does it mean that they’d do a better job? Not necessarily; they’d just approach it differently – and, yes, might even do it better. But they need a chance to do it.

Our culture could benefit from both women and men learning to adopt the historically positive attributes of another gender while, at the same time, refraining from the negative attributes that each has as well. Curiously enough, we’ve yet to determine the benefits and drawbacks of nonbinary ways of being – those remain vastly underrepresented in politics, business and the media.

3. Do you think there is any significance to the use of “sexual status or sexuality” rather than gender on page p.112?

If there is any significance, it’s used to point out the ways in which the culture of that era further denigrated women. As our authors point out there, “‘Woman’ was a status a person became.” Along with defining sexual “deviance,” as well as exactly how and when a girl became a woman, that male-dominated society even went so far as to determine what was to be the acceptable expression of a woman’s sexuality.

As far as “implications of transgressive sexuality” were concerned, apparently that culture (as with some cultures still today) regarded sex as dangerous territory that must be rigorously controlled, regulated, and subjected to strict rules. It led to the conclusion that any sexual acts that defied acceptable practices would be seen, in various ways, as defiling, immoral, even unnatural.

4. Compare the handling of 1 Corinthians in as many sources where you have an interest. (p.114)

Regrettably, I couldn’t access those papers that are listed there at the end as relevant to this chapter, but I would be interested in reading Joanna Dewey’s on how women of that era lost their “agency” and even their visibility.

I do agree with our authors’ conclusion:

“First Corinthians is just one example of contradictions at most,
ambiguity at best, within a single writing. Such ambiguity is often
found in studying and interpreting ancient writings, which have an
internal history and social situation that are not always apparent to
later readers.”

Such ambiguity and uncertainty, unfortunately, has led to some really bizarre doctrinal conclusions by the institutional Church.

Chapter 8: Forming New Identities Through Gender (pp. 115-129)
5. Did any of you have gender issues (that you want to share) in your life? I suppose these would occur in adolescence. (p.115)

The only “gender issue” that I confronted as a teenager had to do with the acts of violence perpetrated by male bullies – and my having to make “fight or flight” decisions when confronting them. I finally did come to the conclusion that doing one or the other did not define what “being a man” meant for me. In so many ways, confronting bullies of every sort actually came to be an integral part of my lifetime vocation – first, as an officer in the Marine Corps, then a teacher, coach, counseling psychologist, and finally a pastor.

6. How important is your gender in the definition of your identity? (p.120)

It’s very important to me, because I’ve redefined what I’ve felt “being a man” should mean in this day and age. For me, it begins with treating everyone with respect. Nobody should act in malicious ways toward others – for any reason. Being a “real man” should also mean knowing what to do if you are bullied, as well as standing up for others who’ve been bullied.

While women can be bullies, too, the vast majority of bullies are men. So, as a man, myself, I’ve felt the need to get involved to stop this kind of behavior – whether the bullying is physical, psychological or spiritual. I need to be there to stop it to be a “real man.” [Note: I wish that I knew a way to be more involved with our grandchildren so that they know how to protect themselves from cyberbullying – something my generation never had to face.]

Whenever any of us experiences or sees bullying happening, we all should know that there are safe things we can do to make it stop. Tragically, however, that’s not yet been possible for the Ukrainians who’ve been forced to face the biggest bully in today’s world: Vladimir Putin (who, I think, actually suffers from the insecurities of being a man of small stature). Not doing or saying anything in the face of any bully like that, though, will only make it worse for everyone – even the bully, himself, who will then think that it’s okay to keep treating other people that way.

So, we should all get more involved to make the cycles of bullying stop. Start at home within your own family, then move out to your community, your place of work, even within your own Church (capable of a kind of bullying of a different sort) – and don’t stop if your only influence left is the power of your vote to keep someone like Donald J. Trump out of office, finally rendered powerless, and turned back into the shadows from where he came.

7. ...“resist, to keep living in a world of crushing opposition.” But no one except Antiochus lives. I don’t understand. Comments? (p.125)

Our authors rightly point out that “No one should be a man if the ideal man is a vicious tyrant like Antiochus” – which simply means don’t be someone like him. What’s more, the reimagination of gender could actually become a way to “resist” even while “living in a world of crushing oppression.” In other words, it could make those who continue to misuse their power in abusive ways to finally lose that power over others. Then no one – regardless of gender or station in life – will ever again remain powerless.

8. If the question of whether the early movements of the Way were positive or negative toward women is the wrong question, what would you ask instead? (p.128)

How about this: “In what ways did the misuse of power by the early ‘church fathers’ affect the communal movement that became Christianity?”

Chapter 9: Belonging to Israel (pp. 130-146)
9. If you were to make an identity statement as Paul did on pg.135, what would you include?

That is a very tall order; but “off the top of my head “ my list would include:
• Cherish the life you’ve been given. With me, it’s all that it’s meant, first, to be a spirit-filled child, then a son, a brother, a friend and spiritual companion, a husband, a father, a teacher, a counselor, a pastor, and finally a grandfather.
• Nurture, in yourself as well as in others, ways to be a humane human being. Don’t be a bully.
• Find your own way to live out the truth of Micah 6: 8 – Do justice. Act with lovingkindness. And (with all sincere humility) share your own understanding of the God you know and love while inviting others to do the same.
• Accept diversity and find as many ways as you can to continue to be in an ongoing dialogue with it – because diversity is the nature of reality itself.
• Be the kind of person who will be remembered with fondness – if not love – when your gone.

10. What do you think is the difference between belonging to the God of Israel and belonging to the Methodist (or Presbyterian) church? (p.139)

The “God of Israel” is a bit more universally tyrannical than the Church has become – but both are in need of a radical top-to-bottom reformation. It’s the only way that I still continue to call myself a Christian (NOTE: my answer to Brian McLaren’s new book "Do I Stay Christian?").

11. Can you give a better one sentence or phrase description of this chapter than their final “A Messy Blend”? (p.145)

I don’t know about “better,” but how about this: “Following Jesus also meant identifying with Israel and Judaism.” ... or one of these phrases: “Jesus the Jew” or “Jesus, Israel and Judaism”

1 – What are your thoughts on so many of the Roman emperor’s families killing each other? 67
2 – Imagine being a Roman soldier whose job it is to crucify Judeans. What does this feel like to you? 71
3 – Can you think of a modern analogy to “My God defeated your God, so we are better….”? 76
4 – Why do you think Roman policy of war against a people (but not their God[s]) changed to war against both people and their God[s]? 78
5 – What would you die for? What would you have died for in the past but no longer OR (the reverse), what would die for now but not earlier? Comments? 84
6 – How do the noble death stories in Maccabees relate to you? 87
7 – What has happened to the noble death tradition today? I don’t hear about it. 90
8 – What kind of connection (if any?) do you see between Jesus’ last supper and our book study final potluck? 92
9 – How do you feel about replacing the ! With a ? in Mark 15:39? 95
10 – Is there a better alternative to dying for truth? 96

Chapter 5: Violence in Stone (pp. 66-80)
1. What are your thoughts on so many of the Roman emperor’s families killing each other? (p. 67)

I’m reminded of that two-pronged quote that goes something like this: “Power corrupts; but absolute power corrupts absolutely.” At the center of that dynamic are those who seek to either take away the power they see others have and they want – or the reverse – those who seek to hold onto the power they have by eliminating others who might want to take it away from them. It happens in all kinds of relationships. It just doesn’t always lead to homicide.

But look at all of the totalitarian governments across our world today that continue to function much this same way – from Vladimir Putin’s Russia to Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s Syria. The families they decimate are their own people.

2. Imagine being a Roman soldier whose job it is to crucify Judeans. What does this feel like to you? (p. 71)

Wherever capital punishment has existed, there have been executioners. While the means of execution has changed over the centuries (some, paradoxically enough, attempting to make it more “humane”), it is still maintained and controlled by the governments of those countries in which it exists – and, tragically, we’re one of them. If the executioner has convinced himself that the punishment is justified, it may just seem like another day at work.

To me it just seems like vengeance. Such executions make me feel sick. But then so does the way that the execution of Jesus has been taught by the institutional Church: as a celebration that it came to call the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Both are an abomination – and the latter makes a horror out of God.

3. Can you think of a modern analogy to “My God defeated your God, so we are better….”? (p. 76)

I’ve an idea that members of the Taliban’s Islamic hierarchy now ruling Afghanistan feel that their recent defeat and expulsion of the armed forces of the West (U.S.A., U.K. et al.) is proof of just such a theological position.

4. Why do you think Roman policy of war against a people (but not their God[s]) changed to war against both people and their God[s]? (p. 78)

When those defeated by Rome refused to pay homage to the holy Roman empire and accept its claim of divinity for their emperors, Rome set about trying to prove to them that they were wrong.

Chapter 6: The Death of Heroes (pp. 81-96)
5. What would you die for? What would you have died for in the past but no longer OR (the reverse), what would die for now but not earlier? Comments? (p. 84)

If my death would, in any way, save innocent lives or the lives of those I love, I would accept it.

When I first became an officer in the United States Marine Corps, I thought that I might have been willing to die to protect freedom and democracy. But our war against the Vietnamese came to convince me that it had been an unjust war from the very beginning and not worth anyone’s death. Since then, I’ve felt much the same way about every war we’ve gotten ourselves into.

6. How do the noble death stories in Maccabees relate to you? (p. 87)

The only “relationship” I can see for myself is a very thin one: I might choose medically assisted euthanasia (i.e., not suicide – euthanasia, after all, literally means “a good death”) if my health and well-being had diminished to the point where I felt life was no longer worth living. By virtue of such a “voluntary” death, could it ever then be considered “noble?” I don’t think so. It would be expeditious, at best, but not in any way that I understand nobility – i.e., that it is admirable or exemplifies some form of exalted moral character.

If, by my dying, I saved the life of another person, it might be considered noble – but not if it were just simply my own death. In the final analysis, for any death to be considered a “noble” one, I think that there at least would have to be a very clear and sufficient justification for it.

7. What has happened to the noble death tradition today? I don’t hear about it. (p. 90)

As our authors point out, here, it has to be “heroic” in some way: “The hero’s noble death of resistance to the tyrant must be remembered to have its effect.” In our tradition today, I’d say that the only death that comes close to being considered “noble” in that way are those who died in defense of their comrades during a time of war and were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor – even if resistance to some kind of “tyrant” isn’t as obvious as it once seemed to be.

As a website [ https://valor.defense.gov/description-of-awards/ ] explains, the Medal of Honor is conferred upon members of the Armed Forces of the United States – but to only those who...

“...distinguish themselves through conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity
at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty:

• While engaged in action against an enemy of the United States;
• While engaged in military operations involving conflict with an
opposing foreign force; or
• While serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed
conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United
States is not a belligerent party.”

If there is a “noble death tradition today” – at least in our militaristic culture – this might be it.

8. What kind of connection (if any?) do you see between Jesus’ last supper and our book study final potluck? (p. 92)

Both are gatherings in which we have come to share our love for each other in a communal meal – with the life and teachings of Jesus at the heart of our conversation. In that, we are his disciples, then, every bit as much as were those first ones (And I suspect that not only were there more than just 12, many of them were women.). So, we’re part of an ancient tradition that existed before there was ever anything called Christianity.

We are twice blessed.

9. How do you feel about replacing the ! With a ? in Mark 15:39? (p. 95)

Ambivalent. Our authors seem to think so at this point: “It could just as easily be read as sarcasm, which would be the more likely interpretation.” In the final analysis, we have no way of really knowing – and saying that we do is sheer speculation.

I like to think that Jesus died a “good” death, though – if not a noble one. That might have given rise to feelings of awe within those most intimate witnesses of his dying – whether Jesus actually said anything at all or not during those last few hours of his life.

10. Is there a better alternative to dying for truth? (p. 96)

Yes: being a witness of its value by simply, but fully, living it.

1 – What do you think Mark 8:34 means in today’s English? Is it significant that the original Jesus Seminar voted this black? 33
2 – Do you find “Romans crucified hundreds of thousands” consistent with a single iron nail embedded in a heel? Comments? 35
3 – Find out the ratio of non-slaves (free) to enslaved people in the Roman Empire over time. 38
4 – How would “the lure of work in different parts…” be any different 2000 years ago than it is now? How many of us expected to work in our home town? 40
5 – Perhaps the original resurrection claim for Jesus was ONLY a claim of victory over Roman violence. Comments? 43
6 – Why do you think Mark has no resurrection story while that is the major theme in the rest of the gospels? 49
7 – What do you see as the biggest difference between the Roman Empire and our current first world empire? 54
8 – What do you think an engraved art piece representing the Empire of God would look like? Draw an example. 59
9 – How much do you think the idea of equality entered into early diverse Jesus groups? 62
10 – Do you think modern fundamentalism would be different if pistis had originally been translated as trust or confidence rather than belief? 64
11 – The “church” of the first 200 years grew and succeeded, partly as a reaction against the Roman Empire. How can that success be recreated now? 65

PART I – LIVING WITH THE EMPIRE

Chapter 3: Engine of Empire: Violence (pp. 33-51)
1. What do you think Mark 8:34 means in today’s English? Is it significant that the original Jesus Seminar voted this black? (p.33)

How about this:

“Jesus called the crowd together, along with his disciples, and said to
them all, if any of you want to follow me, you’ve got to set aside selfish
interests, endure whatever may come, and live as I have chosen to live.”

However, I would say, yes, it is significant that the Jesus Seminar voted this black (i.e., that Jesus probably didn’t say it – or that it came from a different tradition). To begin with, I think they concluded that Jesus wasn’t about creating such a following as much as he was trying to reform Judaism and the society of which he was a part. At most, he’d be calling people (in the image of Micah 6: 8) to do justice and act with kindness. What’s more, there was no shadow of a crucifixion at this point in his life, so the symbol of “taking up a cross” is completely out of context so, most likely, an insertion from a later era – probably sometime in the 2nd century CE.

2. Do you find “Romans crucified hundreds of thousands” consistent with a single iron nail embedded in a heel? Comments? (p. 35)

Yes, because most crucifixions of that era (and reputable historical accounts confirm at least that amount) didn’t bother with nails; they simply tied the people to their crosses. In that way, it took them even longer to die – and that was the whole point – a way that Rome further intimidated its opponents.

3. Find out the ratio of non-slaves (free) to enslaved people in the Roman Empire over time. (p.38)

Well, there’s this from the Wikipedia website*:

“Estimates for the prevalence of slavery in the Roman Empire vary.
Estimates of the percentage of the population of Italy who were slaves
range upwards of two to three million slaves in Italy by the end of the
1st century BC, about 35% to 40% of Italy's population. For the empire
as a whole during the period 260–425 AD, according to a study by
Kyle Harper, the slave population has been estimated at just under
five million, representing 10–15% of the total population of 50–60
million inhabitants. An estimated 49% of all slaves were owned by
the elite, who made up less than 1.5% of the empire's population.
About half of all slaves worked in the countryside where they were
a small percentage of the population except on some large agricultural,
especially imperial, estates; the remainder of the other half were a
significant percentage – 25% or more – in towns and cities as
domestics and workers in commercial enterprises and manufacturers.”

[*See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_ancient_Rome]

4. How would “the lure of work in different parts…” be any different 2000 years ago than it is now? How many of us expected to work in our home town? (p. 40)

The one obvious difference would be the fact that the availability of transportation between countries two millennia ago would’ve exponentially curtailed much of such movement. Working closer to one’s point of origin would’ve been much more normative, then, than it is today.

As far as that second question is concerned, oddly enough, I don’t consider anywhere to be my “home town.” I grew up in a “company town” on the island of Aruba for the first eighteen years of my life, and then have moved from the west coast to the east coast of these United States and back again. Initially, as a secondary school teacher and counselor, I simply expected to work wherever that line of work would take me. After entering the itinerant ministry, of course, this became even more my reality.

It also became quite clear to me that – given my liberal to progressive tendencies – I would not be as happy remaining anywhere in North Carolina as I would returning to the state of my undergraduate and then post-graduate studies: California. Since then, we’ve literally lived “all over the map” of northern California. While the Caribbean island of Aruba was the place of my “home town” for the first quarter of my life, my sense of home, ever since then, has been more regional than urban or suburban. For most of my life “home” has been simply wherever I lived.

5. Perhaps the original resurrection claim for Jesus was ONLY a claim of victory over Roman violence. Comments? (p. 43)

As our authors point out here, “Most of the stories of Jesus’s crucifixion also proclaimed that Jesus was vindicated and raised up by God.” It soon became more than that, though, as that story began to take on a life of its own. Fiction became fantasy. But when the early “Church fathers” began to claim that incredibly fantastic story as fact, it became firmly entrenched as doctrinal truth.

6. Why do you think Mark has no resurrection story while that is the major theme in the rest of the gospels? (p. 49)

There’s no resurrection story in Mark because it never happened. But because the authors of those later gospels simply did not want the story to end there, they came up with a spectacular – and supernatural – next chapter for this extraordinary man, Jesus. Against Rome's claim of divinity for their emperors, they too made him a god.

Chapter 4: Gospel of Empire, Gospel of Jesus (pp. 52-65)
7. What do you see as the biggest difference between the Roman Empire and our current first world empire? (p. 54)

Our 1st World Empire has simply redefined the nature of slavery while hoodwinking the majority of people into believing that they weren’t in bondage when they – we – really are.

8. What do you think an engraved art piece representing the Empire of God would look like? Draw an example. (p. 59)

I don’t need to reimagine it. It’s already been done for me by my ancestors. It’s called the Celtic Tree of Life. My attempts to transfer a detailed picture of it from my photo library to here on the website, however, has resulted only in this:

/Users/dougmonroe/Pictures/Photos Library.photoslibrary/resources/derivatives/0/071AD0D2-6B8B-4055-A960-752C886CB3A4_1_105_c.jpeg

Some more simplistic versions can be found here: https://www.google.com/search?q=the+Celtic+Tree+of+Life&tbm=isch&ved=2a…

9. How much do you think the idea of equality entered into early diverse Jesus groups? (p. 62)

If the evidence of “Chloe’s people,” of those who followed Thecla, as well as that gathering of “the faithful brothers” is correct, then equality in the midst of diversity was very much a part of these early Jesus groups. What’s more, it may have existed longer than many traditional biblical scholars have imagined. It’s certainly evident in Paul’s statement “that people were no longer Judean or Greek, enslaved or free, woman or man, but they were all one in Jesus...(Gal. 3: 28).”

10. Do you think modern fundamentalism would be different if pistis had originally been translated as trust or confidence rather than belief? (p. 64)

Well, pistis (πίστις in Greek) should be translated as “faith” – and in some cases, actually, as “faithfulness” (e.g. that we are to have the faithfulness of Jesus, not necessarily simply faith in him) – so pistis is not, simply, “belief.” It would be pistikos (πιστικός) that’s defined as “trustworthy” and pisteuó (πιστεύω) is the verb “to believe” or “entrust.” Yes, they’re all closely related, but as Dr. Mickey Efird, my professor of Koiné Greek always said, “Every translation is an interpretation.”

So, yes, orthodoxy (never mind “modern fundamentalism) would have been very different if scripture made it clear that we’re not to simply believe or have faith in Jesus, but to model our own lives showing the same kind of faithfulness as he did. Jason BeDuhn, one of the contributors to this book (see p. XXI), addressed this issue during an interview saying, “The early Jesus communities were not so much about one’s belief, but about what you do – how you live your life.” [Note: Professor BeDuhn is also a Westar Institute Fellow, an historian of religion and culture, and author of Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament.]

11. The “church” of the first 200 years grew and succeeded, partly as a reaction against the Roman Empire. How can that success be recreated now? (p. 65)

It can only be created by leaving traditional Christianity behind us, finally, and nurturing the seeds of this new reformation that is now happening all around us – especially as it’s confronting the power and doctrinal intransigence of the institutional Church.

1 – What have you discovered that was NOT what you were supposed to discover? XIII
2 – You might say that our book study group is like a “Jesus Group.” What one thing do you A) particularly like about our group, and B) what would you really like to change? XIV
3 – What difference, if any, does the non-existance of Christianity at 211CE make to you and your church / religious life? 4
4 – Which of the six main discoveries do you find most interesting? Why? 9
5 – Where, in the New Testament, is the ceremony of anointing Jesus as the King of Israel? 15
6 – How does belonging to the party of the Anointed vs being a Christian sound to you? 18
7 – What could we belong to today that would be a criminal offense? Compare that with “Christianity” back then. 19
8 – Compare “christianos” to Nazi or White Christian Supremacist. How do these comparisons feel? 24
9 – Remember that Bart Ehrman, in “Lost Christianities” used the term Proto-Christian. In astrophysics, the term proto-star is common, used before a star ignites. Comment on the ignition of Christianity. 25
X – Remember how Marcus Borg used Jesus and Christ. 27
Y – Risen is used once on pg. 28. Comments?
10 – How important is your name? Consider a title vs a name. 30

Foreword (pp. XI-XV)
1. What have you discovered that was NOT what you were supposed to discover? (p. XIII)

In keeping with this book’s theme, it was my “discovery” that Jesus was not God “in the flesh” – i.e., the 2nd person of the Trinity. He was just a man – even if an extraordinarily memorable one. This was a “discovery,” or conviction, that I’d made long before I entered seminary and became an ordained clergy person – that further spiritual journey of my lifetime just confirmed the earlier conviction. Regrettably, it has also got me named as a heretic by members of the institutional Church.

But, again, I claim the original meaning of that word “heresy” – hairesis (αἵρεσις) in Greek – which just meant that you held to a particular set of philosophical opinions: i.e., you made a choice. It was the “Church fathers” who would not stand for such choices and so declared them to be “wrong beliefs” – anathema. It meant that a person making such a choice, should be cursed and consigned to damnation. That has been the Church that we’ve been told to either accept its doctrine or from which we would be expelled: excommunicated.

I am still here.

2. You might say that our book study group is like a “Jesus Group.” What one thing do you A) particularly like about our group, and B) what would you really like to change? (p. XIV)

Yes, we are a Jesus Group!

I particularly love the fact that we can share absolutely anything that is on our minds or in our hearts within this group and not be condemned or otherwise ostracized for it – questioned, maybe, but never corrected as if we were “wrong-headed” and must accept someone else’s viewpoint. In that, I agree with Sue Monk Kidd’s statement here: “It’s questions that will save us.” When she says, just later on:

“...contemporary Christianity is at a turning point and a new Christian
paradigm is struggling to be born. The reimagined history set forth
here opens new possibilities. It makes room for spiritual flexibility ....
When you humble yourself to all that you don’t know...you open
yourself to what’s possible” (pp. XIV-XV).

...she’s talking about what I consider most valuable about our own “Jesus Group!”

If the next question also refers only to our group (and not to, say, the institutional Church!), I would really like to return to meeting face-to-face (in-person) and not only over Zoom – if our hosts would agree to it. I know that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic and need to be careful, but I do miss the added intimacy of our give-and-take that always happens when we gather at your place, Evelyn & Peter. I would still welcome those who either felt like they had to wear a surgical mask to attend or would wish to only be present via Zoom – or who have moved to Texas! (Such a bifurcated group does work; I’m part of one that meets monthly in Reno, but I can only be present with them via Zoom – and don’t get their cookies!).

Chapter 1: The Experiment (pp. 1-10)
3. What difference, if any, does the non-existence of Christianity at 211 CE make to you and your church / religious life? (p. 4)

It just reconfirms for me how much of Christianity was “invented” by those “Church Fathers” during and after the reign of Emperor Constantine and how much of Jesus, the man, was lost or reinterpreted – even misrepresented – by the institutional Church. It’s led me to largely question, reject, and so leave behind what most of the Church still considers orthodox theology and, therefore, only its doctrinal “truth.”

So, it’s well worth our pondering the proposal our authors have presented in this book:

“The proposal, to put it simply, was to study what came after
Jesus. ...that the missing two hundred years between Jesus and
Christianity...were not full of implicit Christianness.... That period
had lots of new – not Christian – innovative peoples, groups,
and movements inspired by Jesus but going in many different
directions” (pp. XVII-XVIII).

Sadly, my rejection of orthodox Christian doctrine has also made it uncomfortable for me to fully enter into most portions of the worship services within my own denomination – from the structure of the liturgy, its prayers, hymnody, and even many of the sermons delivered from the pulpit by colleagues of mine. My thoughts and heart are often in opposition to such a liturgy, so I constantly find myself having to try to reinterpret what I’m hearing and seeing so that it still might enliven my spirit and understanding of God in some way – or, at least, bring me comfort. Oddly enough, what I experience of the worship in many Unitarian Universalist churches is more fulfilling to me, now, than what I have experienced in most United Methodist gatherings.

4. Which of the six main discoveries do you find most interesting? Why? (pp. 6-9)

I find that last one (“They Had Persisting Oral Traditions”) to be most interesting. An earlier statement by our authors makes this quite clear:

“A significant portion of the early, varied Jesus movements did not
complete their journeys or continue their unfinished processes.
Many of their stories have not yet been told” (p. 5).

So, to realize that, in fact, “There was nothing like the New Testament in the first two centuries...” (p. 8), meant that the followers of Jesus were engaged in a rich milieu of responses to the life and teachings of this extraordinary human being, Jesus of Nazareth. We should know as much about them as we have claimed to “know” about the creation of Scripture – which orthodoxy liturgy continues to claim is “The Word of God...for the People of God.”

Chapter 2: If Not Christian, What? (pp. 11-30)
5. Where, in the New Testament, is the ceremony of anointing Jesus as the King of Israel? (p. 15)

There is no such ceremony recorded – anywhere.

You might make a case for the way Jesus’s so-called “triumphal entry into Jerusalem” is reported (Mark 11: 1-11, Matthew 21: 1-11, Luke 19: 28-44, and John 12: 12-19). At most, the loud hosannas at this event (celebrated on Palm Sunday) were to claim that Jesus is blessed as “the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” but some see in him the coming kingdom of their ancestor David (oddly enough, only Mark’s version connects him in that way).

Some would claim Jesus’s flippant response to Pilate’s question at his trial, “Are you the king of the Jews?” to which Jesus responds, “So, you say” is some kind of recognition of such an “anointing” having once taken place (this dialogue reported in Mark 15: 2, Matthew 27: 11, Luke 23: 3 and expanded by John 18: 34).

On the other hand, Luke’s storied comment in Acts 10: 38 might seem like more of a candidate for this claim of “anointing Jesus as the King of Israel:”

“...how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and
with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who
were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”

As we know, that Hebrew word for “messiah” (משיח, transferred into the Greek word χριστὸς – “christos” or christ) literally means “anointed one.” But in Judaism it always meant the expected king of the Davidic line who would finally deliver Israel from foreign bondage and restore the glories of its past. It's worth noting, here, that the Hebrew Scriptures never speaks of an eschatological messiah – as the New Testament does about Jesus. The “messianic” passages of the Hebrew Scriptures are always in expectation of a future golden age which would be under the rule of that ideal king: “the Lord’s anointed.” That such a ruler has never come for the Jews, remains to be Judaism’s most painful and ongoing conundrum.

6. How does belonging to the party of the Anointed vs. being a Christian sound to you? (p. 18)

I question this historic messianic title, either way. What’s more, I don’t think it sounds like anything that Jesus, himself, would’ve embraced. As a Jew, he would’ve clearly known what that title meant in Judaism; but he, himself, never claimed that that was who he was.

I would be more comfortable simply being referred to as one of those who is trying to follow the life and teachings of Jesus. So, while “Jesus People” seems to have been one choice, I like “Disciples of Jesus” much better because to be a disciple means more than simply being a follower. Given our 21st century context, it should mean trying to live with as much compassion and conviction – and in much the same ways – as Jesus did.

7. What could we belong to today that would be a criminal offense? Compare that with “Christianity” back then. (p. 19)

Ironically ( even tragically) enough, given the Supreme Court’s recent decision overturning Roe v. Wade, supporting any Pro-Choice abortion-rights organization may now be claimed to be “a criminal offense” – beginning with Planned Parenthood on down to membership in or support of our own United Methodist Women!

Of course, there’s really no comparison between now-and-then, because no one is literally being crucified today for being pro-choice as those who claimed to be Christians were “back then.” Is the mindset of those wielding the power much the same, however? Is the pain and heartache of a woman forced to undergo an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy akin to being crucified by the same kind of state-sponsored terrorism? You tell me.

8. Compare “christianos” to Nazi or White Christian Supremacist. How do these comparisons feel? (p. 24)

There is no comparison. They are in stark contrast with each other. And the “trouble” that those so-called “christianos” caused are in clear opposition to domineering groups such as Nazis or White Supremacists – who mistakenly believe themselves to be Christian.

9. Remember that Bart Ehrman, in “Lost Christianities,” used the term Proto-Christian. In astrophysics, the term proto-star is common, used before a star ignites. Comment on the ignition of Christianity. (p. 25)
X – Remember how Marcus Borg used Jesus and Christ. (p.27)
Y – Risen is used once on pg. 28. Comments?

Certainly, before anything like Christianity “ignited,” Jesus was just a man from Nazareth. That he came to be recognized as an extraordinary and charismatic man, has led us to where we are now – orthodox Christianity proclaiming him to actually be “the Christ” of the collective longing of ancient Judaism. The theologian, Marcus Borg, noted that the two were not the same man. I think he’s right. In many ways, we’ve lost Jesus and replaced him with an icon.

As far as the ten different names that the Seminar has come up with for those early followers of Jesus (pp. 28-29), “Risen” wouldn’t be one of them because the legend of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead hadn’t yet taken hold within any of these disparate groups during those first two centuries after his death. As our authors point out, though, “there must have been at least several hundred different names for Jesus peoples during the first two hundred years of the Common Era” (pp. 29-30). So, how should we now respond to that fact?

I think we need to ponder, very carefully, just what it really means, now, for us to use the name “Christian.” Was Jesus a man uniquely “anointed” by God? Was he meant to supersede Judaism’s understanding of their Messiah? Is it legitimate to call Jesus the founder of a new religion – or was he simply trying to reform his own? I would respond affirmatively to only the final phrase of that last question.

So, if we’re no longer to be known as Christians, who are we? I still like “Disciples of Jesus” as I said in my response to question #6, above.

10. How important is your name? Consider a title vs a name. (p. 30)

My name has come to be very important to me. I’ve always been spiritually connected with my Celtic roots. I am a member of the Scottish Clan Munro (and have long proclaimed it with a tattoo on my right arm).

But, I’ve also embraced the linguistic meaning of my first name: Douglas. It’s derived from combining the Gallic elements of "dubh," which means “dark” and "glas," which means “stream” (or "river"). Our clan actually traces its roots to the highlands of Northern Ireland. We are the descendants of a mountain family that lived above the River Roe in County Derry before emigrating to the highlands of Scotland in the early 11th century. What’s more, there is much that most do not see beyond my public persona – something that has always flowed deep within my spirit and fully animates who I really am. In many ways, then, I truly am a “dark river” – water’s child.