Which brings us to the question, Who was the utterer of these sayings on which so great a religion was built?
One of the most radical interpreters of the evidence, G.A. Wells of the University of London, argues that Jesus did not exist as a historical person, but was invented by a group of first-century proto-Christians who merely expanded upon certain passages in 2 Isaiah and the Wisdom of Solomon describing a supernatural entity sent by God into the world as a man. However, most scholars dispute this interpretation, concluding instead that the number and character of early references to Jesus establish his historicity beyond doubt. And most agree that the evidence portrays him as a remarkable, charismatic individual.
But to grasp, to any significant degree, how Jesus's cont-emporaries viewed him, we must first try to understand the context of the place and times in which he lived. During the first few decades of the first century, Palestine was a centre of religious and political ferment. The Hellenistic culture that had come to dominate the eastern Mediterranean region during the previous three hundred years had also profoundly affected Jewish society, and foreign myths, cults, and philosophies were current in the land. Politically, Palestine was under Roman domination, and the Jews were a repressed and exploited people whose aspirations for independence would erupt in the war of 66-73 c.e.
Anthropologists and historians agree that revelatory world-views tend predictably to spring from situations of intense social conflict and crisis. Such revelations take forms appropriate to the unique circumstances of time and place. In the case in point, according to Mack, 'One important phenomenon of the Greco-Roman age was the appearance of the religious and philosophical entrepreneur, sometimes called the divine man, sometimes the sophist or sage. The entrepreneur stepped into the void left vacant by the demise of traditional priestly functions at the ancient temple sites and addressed the confusion, concern, and curiosity of people confronted with a complex world that was felt to be at the mercy of the fates.' In addition to freelance visionaries and prophets, the eastern Mediterranean during the first century was also home to magicians, protesters, bandits, messiahs, and revolution-aries. Jesus seems to have fit well into this milieu.
As we have already noted, Morton Smith sees Jesus primarily as a magician or miracle worker. Smith cites magical texts of the period, in which not only the major elements but even many minor details in the gospel stories find parallels. For example, he sees the eucharist as 'a variant form of an attested magical rite for binding the celebrant and the recipient together in love; a number of other forms are found in magical papyri; the verbal parallels are unmistakable.'
In The Messianic Legacy, authors Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln argue that Jesus was in fact the rightful heir to the throne of David - hence his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and Pilate's insistence on having the inscription 'King of the Jews' affixed to the cross. They also emphasise Jesus's role as a political agitator: Why, after all, would Pilate have dispatched (according to the Vulgate translation) a cohort of five or six hundred soldiers to the garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus, unless he anticipated a civil disturbance? Jesus's entry into Jerusalem and driving of the moneychangers from the Temple can likewise be seen as acts of an insurrectionist.
Burton Mack, who puts more weight on Jesus's sayings and less on the details of his biographies, tends to view him as a wandering wisdom teacher in the tradition of Diogenes the Cynic. The Cynics taught the renunciation of desires and appetites imposed by civilisation, equality among people, and the virtue of a natural life free from social conventions and possessions. In modern parlance, the term cynical is fraught with negative connotations; these, however, can be traced to an unfair caricature of a school of courageous philosophers known, in Mack's words, for 'voluntary poverty, renunciation of needs, severance of family ties, fearless and carefree attitudes, and troublesome public behavior.' Cynicism, according to Crossan, 'involved practice and not just theory, life-style and not just mind-set in opposition to the cultural heart of Mediterranean civilization, a way of looking and dressing, of eating, living, and relating that announced its contempt for honor and shame, for patronage and clientage.' Jesus's sayings closely parallel Cynic teachings; and, in the Hellenistic era, the philosophy of Diogenes would likely have been well known in Galilee. But Jesus, as a Jewish peasant Cynic, seems to have added a unique and significant twist to the established tradition: unlike the urban Greek Cynics, he advocated the formation of a rural social movement.
So, whence comes the image of Jesus as the only Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity, forgiver of sins, hearer of prayers? Was this how Jesus thought of himself? Was it how his first followers viewed him? The historical and textual evidence gives us no reason for thinking that it was, and offers instead an account of how and why these ideas came into currency decades or centuries after the period in question.
But what of millions of people's dreams, visions, and NDE encounters with Jesus; what of miraculous conversions and healings, of prayers answered and lives changed? Perhaps these should be accorded precisely as much legitimacy and significance as, for example, an Australian native shaman's experience of totemic ancestral spirit-beings; an early Egyptian's experience of Osiris; or a West African peasant's experience of Legba. Which is to say: the experience is no doubt real, and in many cases the healings and miracles may also be real - all products of the human mind's extraordinary need for symbols of transcendence, and of its ability both to generate meaningful and internally consistent world views, and to alter its own perceptions and the physical body's abilities and state of health and vigour in order to fit those views.
A New Church?
At the end of the twentieth century we stand on the brink of a global civilisation whose might and sophistication would have delighted a Roman emperor to no end. The wealthiest one percent of the world's population live in unimaginable opulence while hundreds of millions exist near the point of starvation. If we are to understand the devil as being not an otherworldly malevolent being, but as the tendency toward the accumulation of political and economic power, then it appears that in our generation virtually the whole world is coming to be possessed by the devil.
In such circumstances, one cannot help but yearn for a new Christianity that would pay attention to the discoveries of the scholars and focus its interest on the lifestyle and social program that Jesus taught and exemplified, rather than the theology his later followers adopted. Such a denomination or church could serve as a foil for the fundamentalists and as a haven for critics of the power system who are increasingly vulnerable to attacks from the neo-fascist Right.
And yet, seeing how easily ideologies and organisations are subverted, perhaps a new church is precisely what we do not need. It's probably safe to say that Jesus did not wish to create a church of any kind. He seems to have envisioned instead a community of spirit. But when even well-intentioned attempts to form such a community result in the building of any sort of formal organisation, then the corrosive, hierarchical influence of civilisation seems nearly always to intrude. Moreover, a new Christian denomination could not help but focus much of its attention on the past, and on the person of Jesus. Again, this is probably not what he had in mind: it was only the later generations of his followers who insisted on uniquely divinising him. And hero worship, even given the best of heroes, tends to demean the worshipper. Jesus has not been the only individual in history to teach love, tolerance, equality, simplicity, voluntary poverty, generosity, and freedom from social conventions, and there are plenty of advocates of these ideals alive today who could benefit from our respect and support.
No, it is not a new church or denomination that we need. I suspect that one of the ideas that Jesus was seeking to convey was that true spirituality is not represented by a book or a hero or even a teaching. It may be expressed by means of a community of support, but it is not the community itself. It is a way of being. Those with some experience of that way of being may find it helpful to know that one of the most revered individuals in history taught and exemplified it. And the existence of people following that path today may somewhat vindicate that pivotal individual's actual message (rather than the theology that conceals it). But the path itself is the point.