The Afghan Girl's Eyes
From my last blog, "What did Jesus Really Look Like," several people have commented stating that he couldn't have had light gray-blue eyes because he was Semitic. They would have been dark brown. Light blue, green or gray eyes, while rare, do show up on people in the Middle East, and when they do they draw you to them, just like this Afghan girl photographed by Steve McCurry in 1984. Her eyes mesmerized the world!
So too with Jesus. From my memories, Jesus could grab and hold you with his eyes like no one else could. Once you saw them, heard his voice, and you felt his pull, likely as not, you were going to become his disciple. See picture in my blog of 9/20/16.
What Did Jesus Really Look Like?
There are a thousand faces of Jesus...
Everyone has a different image of Jesus in their mind. I didn’t realize how important the image of Jesus is to people around the world until a friend asked me what I thought Jesus looked like. Based on my memory of Jesus, who appeared to me in a vision in 1984 (click here to read the story behind the vision), I sent her this picture that I had recently found that came as close as any that I had seen. The piercing blue-gray eyes are the same; they seemed to look right through to your soul, know everything about you, and still love you unconditionally. The mouth is a bit too full and the beard not full enough, I told her. However, this picture is very close to the man in my vision that appeared to me daily, and lasted for seven long months. You can read about it in my book, The Disciple.
Everyone has their own picture in their mind of what Jesus looked like. When my friend saw this picture, she was aghast, and asked me not to share it. She said that it would “frighten” people. I assume that is because this is an apparently strong, self-confident, masculine man, which is much different than the mental image most people have of a meek and humble Jesus.
Her comment was a head-scratcher for me, because Jesus was a powerful enough man to walk by the sea of Galilee, see a group of fishermen (complete strangers!) hauling in their nets, pause, speak to them, and have them drop everything to follow him. Think about that for a moment.
“Of course,” you say, “he was the Son of God. Surely they are going to follow him.” Wrong, he wasn’t the Son of God to them, he was just a stranger walking along the shore, like hundreds of others that had passed that way during the week. But when he stopped and spoke to them about his vision of God and the world that he saw and could feel within himself, they looked at one another in amazement. One-by-one, the fishermen laid down their nets, left their fishing, and walked away with him.
His strong voice and his powerfully built body (hard from lifting lumber and working with his hands all day long), his rugged good looks, and his unusual eyes attracted these rough-and-tumble men that earned their livings by throwing and hauling nets for long hours, day and night.
Let’s put this in terms that we can understand today. Picture a man walking by a construction site and stopping to talk to a group of steel workers grappling with a heavy load of rebar. They are hot, sweaty, and worn out. Would they respond to a dreamy (dare I say wimpy?) and whimsical stranger with sweetness on his face?
I doubt it. Having been an architect, on construction sites for many years of my life, I can think of a few 4-letter words that he would have elicited. Yet that soft, meek Jesus is the Jesus many of us grew up with, know, and recognize as the "real" Jesus, isn’t it?
On the other hand, perhaps the Jesus you know is the Jesus with the bleeding heart found in thousands of Catholic churches around the world? Is that what he looked like?
Everyone has their own picture in their mind when it comes to Jesus, and it is impossible to find a picture that exactly matches whatever we might think that he looked like, but the picture at the top of this post is as close as I’ve found to date for me. When he was on earth, he was a strong, warm, and loving man, appealing to both men and women.
As you read the stories in the Gospels, you will find that Jesus often had a retinue of women following him. They certainly thought that he was a powerful, charismatic, and handsome enough man to break with tradition (at their own risk), and followed him in the open from village to village. So much so, in fact, that they not only followed him, but some of them supported him financially as well. The story of the women (including Mary Magdalene) who followed him, is a subject for another post in the future.
There are other pictures (literally thousands on the internet). They range from the picture that appears on the Shroud of Turin (purportedly from the “negative” of the burial cloth supposedly used to wrap Jesus), to a computer generated picture from a forensic pathologist, and a black Jesus. They are all different and have changed dramatically throughout the millennia. Here are but a few to give you the idea.
So, what did Jesus really look like? You probably have a favorite image of him, so, here’s a request: send me a picture that best exemplifies your idea of what Jesus looked like. Attach it to your return comment on Facebook. I look forward to seeing your own personal vision of Jesus.
Or, does it really matter what he looked like?
This blog is dedicated to the historical Jesus. I’m often asked, why the “historical Jesus” and not just, Jesus? Because I think that Jesus was far more wonderful than the Christian religion that followed after him. The further away we get from Jesus, the more humanity creeps into his teachings. After over 30 years of studying the New Testament and early Christianity, I believe that the faith that we have inherited was created by lesser souls who decided that instead of following Jesus’ words and example of living and becoming One with God (Abba as Jesus called Him), they decided that they couldn’t or wouldn’t live up to their Master, and instead they would take the easier path of declaring that all one had to do was “believe” in him and they would be saved. And, they added the natural corollary, that if you didn’t believe in Jesus, that he was the “only begotten son,” then you wouldn’t be saved. For many that meant, and means today, that if you don’t subscribe to this dictum, then you are going to hell… forever to live in torment and pain. It seems to me like this was the lazy way out of doing the hard work of living as Jesus taught, and such a poor substitute for becoming a seeker of the Divine.
I have just concluded interviewing Jeffrey Long, MD, for his new book entitled, God and the Afterlife; The Groundbreaking New Evidence for God and Near-Death Experience. This joins his first book, Evidence of the Afterlife (both of which became Best Sellers on the New York Times non-fiction book list). After interviewing over 4,000 people that either clinically died, or came near death, and came back to life with what has become to be known as a Near Death Experience (NDE), he discovered that over 80% had experienced God, or a being of love and light that they perceived as God. It didn’t matter whether or not they believed in God before the event (in fact over 1/3 of them definitely didn’t believe in God or thought that there probably was no God). After they awoke, they had been changed. They knew God existed. Remarkably, their cultural or religious beliefs didn’t seem to matter, their experiences were all very similar. God was Light, God was Oneness, God was Love.
It’s funny, this seems to have been Jesus’ experience of God as well, and that is what the core of his teaching was. It wasn’t exclusionary, it was all encompassing. God’s love was likened to the love of a mother or father for a child, and he urged those that came to hear him to love God like the child does the mother (or father). There are no restrictions on the parent’s or child’s love, there is only acceptance and delight.
AUTHORTALK® HOST and AUTHOR: RONALD WAY
BOOK: THE DISCIPLE; THE WRITING OF THE FIRST GOSPEL
Hello everyone. I want to welcome you here today to Author Talk and Crossing the Line. I’m your host Ron Way. Today I’m celebrating. It’s a special day for me because today my book, The Disciple, is going into a new printing with the publisher WIPF and Stock, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. 35 years ago there was a very, very special event. It was the 4th of July, 1981 and it knocked me off my feet and pushed me over the edge of forever, literally. My life was changed from that day forward, and like Paul before me, I would never be the same again.
I think that you’re all familiar with the story as related in the Book of Acts in the New Testament, where Saul of Tarsus (who was to become Paul), was on his way to Damascus as he was blinded by a brilliant light and came face-to-face with Jesus. Paul says, “A light from heaven brighter than the sun shone down upon me.” Jesus said, “Stand up, for I have appeared to you to appoint you as my servant and my witness. You are to tell the world about this experience and about the many other occasions when I shall appear to you.” That’s Acts 26:12-18.
This singular event was so powerful in Paul’s life he was never the same again. His life and his world—and our world—were changed forever.
Now I have a question for you. What would it be like if that happened to you? I mean laterally. If you were, oh I don’t know, on your way to work. If you were just getting up in the morning and about to get dressed and have a cup of coffee. What would happen if you were hit by a powerful light, and there in front of you stood Jesus, and he asked you to give up everything and follow him? What would you do? That’s exactly what happened to me? So, for you to have an open mind, I have to ask you what would you do?
I couldn’t do anything but follow him, because you don’t have a choice when that happens to you. I’m not talking here about a whisper in your ear in the back your mind and you think that God has just spoken to you. I mean a genuine, a genuine miraculous vision.
I ask you again, what would happen if that occurred to you? Would you tell everyone? Would you give up your job? Would you really?
Would you go home and tell your family, “Listen, I’ve just had a vision and we’re going to get rid of everything and we’re going to follow Jesus.” That’s what Jesus asked several of his followers to do, isn’t it, including the rich man. He had told him to go home and give away everything and then follow him. What would you do if it happened to you?
That’s exactly what happened to me on the 4th of July weekend 1981. Several of our friends had come down that weekend to help celebrate with us on the morning of the 4th. We started off down the beach. It was a lovely day. There were a lot of people on the beach. The noise was fun, and the air was filled with joy. The dogs were barking, and kids screaming. We walked all the way down the beach for about a mile, until we were right under the Western White House of Richard Nixon. You could see the mansion up above.
Once there, we turned around and headed back toward camp. On the way back, as we were walking along the beach, all of a sudden I happened to see a small, exceedingly bright light. It was way down the beach.
Have you ever been blinded by the sun off the windshield of a car that’s coming at you? It blinds you for a second. That’s exactly what happened to me. Way down the beach I saw this glint, this very, very bright flash, and it was coming straight at us. As I was watching, my brain tried to absorb what was happening, for it was coming very, very fast and I was terrified. I thought, “Is that an airplane? Is it about to crash? It is involuntary, our mind tries to make sense out of this kind of thing.
All of a sudden it was coming too fast, so fast that I couldn’t move. I froze it in terror. I knew that it was going to hit us. Then hit me it did, and it knocked me off my feet! I fell to my knees.
Instead of the sound that I had been hearing, the sound of the waves crashing against the shore, the sound of the children and dogs playing, everything became silent. It was absolute silence. In that silence there was a white mist. In the white mist, slowly I could see figure forming. There in front of me stood a man, and I recognized him as Yeshua ben Yosef, Jesus of Galilee. I can’t tell you how I knew; I just knew it was him. I recognized him. There in this special place of absolute silence he said not a word. He just looked down and he waved his hand and invited me to sit at this low wooden table. He sat cross-legged on one side of the table and I kneeled on the other. I could see the only thing on the table was a cup, and in the cup it appeared that there was red wine.
Then the table caught my eye. As an architect it’s funny the things that you notice when you’re going through an experience like this. I mean, why would I notice the table was roughhewn, hand cut and pegged together? That is the reality of it all. That’s what I remembered.
Jesus began to speak to me. What I remember now, 34 years later, is this; he asked me if I would be willing to give up everything and follow him. Give up everything? In my mind do you know what I thought? This is the truth, “Not my new Porsche, Jesus. Not my new Porsche!” I just picked it up. Jesus responded, “ , and if you do I will awaken a memory long buried within you.” As I said before, if this really is happening to you, what are you going to say? Of course, it’s real. You’re going to say yes, and I did say yes.
The next thing I remember was being bodily tossed around, and pain in my nose, burning in my nose because what happened during this time, which lasted about 15 minutes according to our friends, was that the tide had come in. A wave hit me, knocked me head over heels, and I was tumbling in the surf. I was choking and coughing. The saltwater was forced up my nose, and that’s what yanked me from the vision I was having.
I staggered to my knees and tried to get up. My friends, who had just been sitting there, because they knew that something was going happening to me, something very special, ran forward and helped me to my feet as I staggered out of the surf.
We walked back to the beach where our towels were spread on the sand, and we all laid down. I laid face down and I just started to silently cry. I couldn’t take it anymore. That silence was gone. Now it was cacophony of sounds. It was all so loud. Finally, I got up and started walking back up the dirt path, up the cliff to our house trailer. Once I got in the trailer I couldn’t stop sobbing. I just sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed for hours. I couldn’t control myself. The experience was so great, so powerful, it just overwhelmed my senses.
The following Monday I went back to work and my architectural practice. I was so excited. I had had a vision and I wanted to tell everyone. I told first Tom, my partner, who thought I was crazy. He was a good Catholic. He thought I was absolutely insane, but I was so imbued with the spirit and the experience, that didn’t bother me. I told my friends. I told the members of Rotary. I was president of the Rotary club at that time. I told everyone. I was so overjoyed with the experience. The only problem was, no one believed me. That doesn’t surprise you does it? You probably are saying the same thing as you’re listening to me.
In the vision I’d been given a year, given a year to give everything up. Being the logical business person I am I commenced a business plan to do exactly that, to liquidate it or sell all my assets. I arranged for the sale of my share of the businesses to another architect. That meant my architectural firm, our real estate development firm, and our construction firm. I thought everything was moving smoothly along God’s path, but what I had forgotten was that Jesus had asked me if I would, “give up everything.” He didn’t ask me if I could sell everything.
On Christmas Eve of that year, I met with my partners. We met every year on Christmas Eve to exchange gifts, have lunch together, and then we took off for the rest of the day; and we didn’t come back to work until January (on the 4th of January in 1982). That’s exactly what happened this year, except my partners had a different plan for me. They had a special gift for me. I’d given them plenty of time to make arrangements to eliminate me in the business. By me giving them six months advance notice that I was going to sell my share of the business, it allowed them to go behind my back and sell the business to my prospective buyer for half of what I was selling it to him for, and I was no longer needed. They told me I didn’t need to come back on January 4th because I was out of a job and out of the partnership. They had voted to dissolve the company and reform it after the first of the year. I got my share of petty cash in the company at the time and accounts receivable owed the business at the end of the year, and I was gone. It was amazing.
One year to the day after the vision, we were heading to Michigan where we rented a cabin and we stayed there for a year. During that year, every day, I expected that Jesus would come to me again. He will tell me about this “memory long buried within me.” There’s got to be a reason for this, for this vision. I kept waiting for it. In fact, I can remember autumn was upon us; autumn in Michigan was different than I had experienced in my life in Southern California. It was getting cold. During that period, I was cutting 22 cords of wood that I had to saw from logs (yes, tree logs!), split and prepare for the winter.
I can remember walking around downtown in the little village called, Gaylord, Michigan. I was looking in the store windows and I was wondering, “I wonder if they’ve got a coat with long white sleeves, made out of white canvas with leather straps on the end that wraparound behind you.” I thought I was insane.
I came home and told my wife, Trudy, that I was crazy. I must not have had a vision, because there’s no memory. “We’re running through all of our life savings living back here in Michigan, waiting for something that isn’t going to happen.”
Fortunately for me, Trudy says, “You have not fulfilled one other part of the vision that you promised, and that was to go to the Holy Lands.” We hadn’t because the trip for two of us to go back there and to Egypt at that time, was going to cost about $6,000. That was a lot of money in 1982! She continued, “We have come this far, we put our faith in your vision, let’s finish it. Let’s do what he asked,” and that’s exactly what we did.
Later that fall, in October, we were on a plane to Israel. We landed in Tel Aviv. Late that afternoon as we landed, it was stormy. I can remember the passengers were filing out of the airplane (a big 747), going out through the left-hand door, down the stairs to the tarmac, when the pilot pulled Trudy and I aside. He pointed to the door on the opposite side of the airplane which was wide open where they delivered the food and they resupplied the airplane. He walked us over the few steps to the open door and he said, “Look.” We looked up and out of the opening, and there in the late afternoon the rain clouds parted and there was a shaft of light on the beautiful white city up on the hill. He said, “Look, isn’t it beautiful. There is Jerusalem.” I knew that I come home. At that time, I didn’t know why I felt that way, but I did.
Over the next week we hired a guide and we traveled from the north to the south of Israel. We saw Jerusalem. We saw Galilee. We saw Nazareth. We saw all the sites that we should see. Then we traveled south of Jerusalem all the way down to the Dead Sea and Masada. Masada is the fortress that was the last stronghold of the Jews when the Romans conquered Israel in 70 A.D.
Little did I know things were about to change, and change dramatically.
We left Israel and traveled to Egypt. Once in Egypt we spent a couple of days in Cairo. It is a fascinating city, fascinating, but that wasn’t why we had come.
From Cairo we boarded a plane and headed south to Luxor, or the ancient city of Thebes. There we boarded a cruise ship and spent the next week floating down the Nile, ending up back in Cairo. While we were in Cairo, and later heading south, I was so upset. I could remember thinking, “Why God, why?” In fact, the first dawn that we were on the ship I remember going up to the top deck and sitting in meditation and prayer and saying, “God, why? Why did you send me halfway around the world, telling me that I would have a memory, that I had forgotten and it would be revealed to me and nothing has been revealed. We’ve traveled from the north to the south of Israel and Egypt. There are no memories!”
In that moment, something changed. Without me knowing it all of a sudden it felt like I was falling. It was just incredible. It was like an elevator just breaking loose and in free-fall. All of a sudden, BAM! I landed. I thought we had run aground. I popped my eyes opened, because I thought we had hit a rock, or shoals, and the ship was about to sink. Instead of being on the Nile, however, I was looking out of the eyes of an old man. The old man was short. He had a long beard that I could feel when I wagged my head left and right. I knew who he was. It was me, and my name was Asher, Asher ben Ami. I was maybe 60, 62 years old. I lived in Jerusalem and it was there that I met the master, Yeshua ben Yosef, Jesus.
I don’t know how long that first vision lasted, but I do know that when I woke up I was so exhausted. I wrote down what I saw, what I felt, what I touched, what I smelled because I could. I could smell the incense from the temple. I could smell the wood smoke and the dung. I could smell it all. I could hear the sounds of the donkeys braying, the camels, and the cacophony of voices from around the world. I could hear and see it all. I lived in Jerusalem in a very wealthy part of town. I was a trader and I’d bought my way into a position of power in the Sanhedrin. I felt it was me. I knew it was me—and then it ended—and I was back on the ship.
I told my wife what had happened, but I was incredibly exhausted. I just tried to write it down the best I could before it slipped away.
The next morning I got up and I went back up on the top deck to try to make it happen again, and all of a sudden it did. Every morning thereafter, for the next seven months, coming back to the United States to the north of Michigan, I would get up early before dawn, I would light a big fire in the fireplace, I would sit down, I would meditate and instantly I was falling deeply within, and down this tunnel if you will, or the elevator. When I open my eyes I was Asher again.
The book that I wrote, The Disciple, tells his story. I wrote what I saw, what I felt, what I touched, what I knew, and that’s the story of Asher, Asher ben Ami. Asher met Jesus because of his son John. John became fascinated with this preacher from the north, this itinerant preacher from the north, from Galilee. Everyone in Jerusalem knew that nothing good came from Galilee. Yet, Asher’s son was fascinated by this man, and spoke incessantly at the dinner table about him.
One afternoon Asher decided he would follow his son. It was close to twilight. He pulled a robe on, and he pulled the hood over his head because he didn’t want to be seen or recognized going to a party where this itinerant Jesus would be talking.
He followed his son until he walked into a closed patio. Asher waited a few moments to let things settle down and then he walked in too; slowly, unobtrusively. He tried to hide among the other people. There were perhaps a dozen or two people there. They were all gathered around this preacher who was talking quietly to them with his back to Asher. Asher couldn’t hear him so he crept closer. Then all of a sudden, when he was about 10 feet away, Jesus stopped talking. Slowly, he turned around and looked directly at Asher, and their eyes met. In that moment Asher knew that he was in the presence of someone far greater than himself. Then and there he became a follower of Yeshua ben Yosef.
The story that I have told in The Disciple, The Writing of the First Gospel, is the story of about a two-year span of time when Asher knew this incredible man. It ended when Jesus died. He watched from the rooftop as Jesus was crucified. He only lasted maybe a few weeks after that, then Asher himself died. He died of a heart attack. In that moment that he passed over, in one last memory that I have, he saw the Messiah. It was Yeshua, and he was waiting for him.
"Jesus Before the Gospels"
RON’S REVIEW OF NEW BART EHRMAN BOOK ENTITLED,
Jesus Before the Gospels; How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented their Stories of the Savior
Have you ever wondered if all the Gospel stories about Jesus were true? We all know that they were oral stories passed on over the years and decades after Jesus died. Could there have been any changes or exaggerations in his life, his parables, or his miracles as the stories about him were passed from one person to another over dinner or in the marketplace before any written accounts were written down—decades later?
If we think about it, the real answer is, of course. Think about how stories grow today from person to person to person. It is a natural state of affairs, and it was no different two thousand years ago.
I know that some of you reading this will flinch when I tell you that I’m reviewing a book called, Jesus Before the Gospels; How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented their Stories of the Savior, by Bart Ehrman, and some of you will put up your walls.
Your mind is saying, “I’m not listening to this nonsense. I believe every work in the Gospels and I won’t hear of anything that tries to dissuade me from that belief.” After all, a true Christian doesn’t question the bedrock of our faith as recorded in the New Testament, especially the Gospels which were eye whiteness accounts of those that followed and recorded the sayings and deeds of the Messiah.” Right?
No, that’s not right!
Hang in there. A simple review of the Gospels tells us that there were different memories of the same stories recorded in different Gospels, so one, or several, of them have to be incorrect. Right? That’s just common sense. When two gospels tell the same story, but they are different in their meaning and message, then something is wrong.
Memories are a funny thing, and modern research into how we remember events in our life is fascinating. This book takes us on a journey through how this works with the life and teachings of Jesus.
Because I don’t have the author here with me today, I’m going to use many of his words to walk you through parts of this extraordinary book. But, trust me, I’ll be leaving out much of what you need to explore for yourself.
Ehrman surveys the ways that Jesus was remembered by Christians after he had died. He says, “We need always to remember that memories do not need to be historically accurate to be vivid and meaningful. The distorted memories of Jesus—by which I mean memories that are not accurate in the strictly historical sense—are just as real to those who hold and share them as true memories,” And I might add, that this was true then for the early followers, as well as now, two thousand years later.
When I say the word Gospels, we immediately think of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but there were many Gospels circulating in the early decades of Christianity. Some of these Gospels might have been composed as early as the canonical Gospels themselves, and if true, one or more of these remembrances were composed closer in time to Jesus than Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.
This early Gospels reflected the “memories” of Jesus, and some were supposedly written by the Apostles or the followers of the first Apostles themselves. They were accepted as holy Gospels by tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people in the early decades and centuries of the faith. The Proto-Gospel of James as an example (“proto” meaning the events that took place before Jesus’s birth). It shaped the way Christians remembered Jesus and his parents for hundreds of years. These stories (although not in any of the four Canonical gospels) are part of written history. They were excised over time and considered anathema as early church leaders decided what should or should not be read within the ever more powerful church. But none of those decision makers every came within a hundred years of any person that lived when Jesus was alive.
As an example, in this Proto-Gospel of James that I mentioned, the birth of Jesus is recounted. It states that the earth stood still at the moment of Jesus’s birth. Let me quote from the author, “In some ways, for centuries this book affected how Christians remembered the events surrounding Jesus’s birth more than the books of the New Testament.
“As interesting as all its stories are—and most of them are highly interesting indeed—none is more intriguing to modern readers than the story of Jesus’s birth itself. In this account, as Joseph and Mary are nearing Bethlehem, she goes into labor. Joseph hurriedly finds a private place for her to give birth, in a cave. He leaves her there to go off to find a midwife. And then a miracle happens. As he is walking, Joseph suddenly sees time stand still. The birds in the air have stopped moving in midflight; in the field before him workers taking their lunch break have frozen in place, with their hands in a bowl or part-way up to their mouths; a shepherd is stopped immobile while reaching out his rod to strike the sheep. But ‘then suddenly everything returned to its normal course.’ The world had ground to a halt in honor of the Son of God, who has now become human.”
In addition to people wanting to know what Jesus was like before he was born, they also wanted to know what he was like as a child… and so the void was filed by creative writers who wrote in the name of well-known Apostles (such as James, the brother of Jesus, as well as the Apostles Thomas and Peter… and more that we don’t have time to list).
One of the very popular stories comes from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It purports to relate events from the life of Jesus from the age of about 5 to 12.
Quoting from Ehrman’s book:
“It begins with Jesus as a five-year old, playing by a stream. He decides to gather some of the muddy water together into a pool; he then orders it to become pure—and it happens instantaneously at his word. He then shapes twelve sparrows out of the mud. A Jewish man walking by, however, sees what he has done and becomes incensed: it is the Sabbath, and Jesus has violated the Law of Moses that forbids work on that day. The man hurries off to tell Jesus’s father, Joseph, who comes to the stream and sees Jesus with the mud sparrows. He too is angry and asks Jesus why he has done such a thing. Jesus looks at his father, looks at the sparrows, and then claps his hands and says ‘Begone!’ The sparrows come to life and fly off chirping.
This is a great story. Not only has Jesus shown that he is both the Lord of the Sabbath and the Lord of life, he has also destroyed all evidence of malfeasance. Sparrows? What sparrows?
In the next story we see why some readers detect a mean streak in the boy Jesus. Another child, the son of a Jewish scribe, is playing with him at the stream, and he decides to take a willow branch and scatter the water that Jesus has gathered together and purified. Jesus gets angry. He turns to the boy and tells him that he too will wither like a tree with no water and will never grow root or bear fruit. The child is withered on the spot. His parents come and carry him away bemoaning his lost youth.
Jesus’s reputation with his townsfolk does not improve from one story to the next. In the following account he is walking through his village and another boy who is running past accidentally bumps into his shoulder. Jesus is aggravated and announces, ‘You will go no further on your way.’ The boy falls down, dead.”
Most of us would say that these stories are absolute fantasy, but no so with many early Christians. They rang as true, and seemed as possible to them as Jesus walking on water, curing a man that was blind, causing evil spirits to invade a herd of pigs and causing them to all commit suicide by jumping over a cliff. A miracle is a miracle, is a miracle after-all.
Is one memory of a miracle more trustworthy than another? Or, are we just used to the miracles listed in our four canonical Gospels?
Many of you have recently heard about the Gospel of Thomas in the news. It is a very early Gospel that was discovered in the deserts of Egypt, where the dry sands have preserved these delicate and rare finds. The earliest versions of this Gospel could be as old, or older, than the 4 canonical gospels themselves.
The Gospel of Thomas is what is called a “Sayings Gospel,” meaning that there is no storyline, just remembered sayings by Jesus. We think that the earliest written records of Jesus’s teachings were probably like James, collections of sayings of Jesus. These were the pithy memorable words, parables and aphorisms that were easy to remember as they were passed along from mouth to ear over and over again before someone of learning (not from Palestine, and certainly not an Apostle because they were all illiterate) wrote them down in Greek. Later, with people wanting to know more about the life of Jesus, the infill was added to give them meaning. In addition to Thomas, many of these sayings were also included in the missing Gospel called “Q” from which Matthew and Luke drew upon to compose their Gospels.
Here are a couple of examples that come from the Gospel According to Thomas (remember this is not to be confused with the Infancy Gospel of Thomas). I’m quoting here from Ehrman’s book.
“The Gospel of Thomas consists entirely of sayings of Jesus, 114 of them altogether. Among these sayings there are certainly some—a lot, in fact—that will sound familiar to anyone conversant with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In a way quite similar to these other Gospels, Jesus delivers the following teachings:
But he is also remembered saying things that strike most readers as highly puzzling, to say the least. The following examples can illustrate the point:
Or there is the saying that is probably the most perplexing, famous, and possibly offensive to modern sensibilities of them all, the one that ends the collection:
Did Jesus really kill his playmates when they got on his nerves? Did he really tame a group of dragons, or bless the lions who ate humans so as to become human? Did he really say, ‘females are not worthy of the life’?
Were some of these stories just made up out of whole cloth or, are some of these stories just a product of stories being told, stories growing over time; are they faulty, exaggerated, or even false memories? Remember, about half of these sayings from the Gospel of Thomas are also in the Gospels that we know as “inerrant and revealed.”
Of course we can dismiss any and all stories that aren’t included in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but what about the canonical Gospels, could they have elements of faulty memories too? It’s something to think about.
The author says, “It is interesting that so many people can instantly recognize distorted memories about Jesus from outside the New Testament, but cannot see them inside of it. I suppose it is for the same reason that readers of the Bible typically do not see discrepancies in the New Testament Gospels themselves until someone points them out to them.”
Any time you have two or more irreconcilable accounts, they cannot all be historically accurate. Someone, then, is changing or inventing the stories. It isn’t that this necessarily means that the Gospel writers themselves were doing it, they were, for the most part, imparting the traditions that came down to them; and it’s important to remember, that none of them were written by eye witnesses, not even by people that knew the eye witnesses themselves, but by people who knew people, who knew people, that knew eye witnesses.
The authors of the Gospels—all of them—wrote down stories that had been passed along by word of mouth for years and decades before they were encapsulated within their own accounts. For that reason, when the Gospel writers produced their accounts, they were not simply inventing the stories themselves; but they were also not recording what actually happened based on direct testimony. They were stringing together stories that had long been circulating among the Christian communities.
I cite the opening from the Gospel of Luke as an example of what I’m saying:
“Dear Friend who loves God.
Several biographies of Christ have already been written using as their source material the reports circulating among us from the early disciples and other eyewitnesses.
However, it occurred to me that it would be well to recheck all these accounts from first to last and after thorough investigation to pass this summary on to you…”
Ultimately most of the stories they retold must have come from oral traditions, as followers of Jesus told and retold stories about him, starting while he was alive and then even more after he died. These oral traditions were in circulation year after year, and decade after decade, before they were inherited by the authors of our Gospels and finally written down. In Luke’s case, his Gospel was probably written near the end of the first century, in the Greek language, and in a Greek city that was a long way away from Jesus’s homeland and decades after those people that knew him personally had died.
We think that less than 5% of the population at that time could read or write, so we know that any stories that we now have as to what Jesus said and did were passed down for decades orally; and when that happens, stories change and grow.
For even if someone in a village hears a few stories about Jesus from an eye witness, he or she then passes the story along to family or friends, who then in turn go home at night and tell the stories to their families at dinner or friends in the marketplace the next day, who tell their friends, and on it goes, with the stories gaining amplitude as they move through time. Like the disciples, the persons that passed the stories on were probably lower-class Aramaic-speaking Jews in rural Palestine. That is where Jesus taught. They were not literate. They were not educated. They were poor. They didn’t have the time, money, inclination, or wherewithal to travel around the world—and except for Peter, to a limited extent, neither did the disciples themselves.
Finally, someone, who lived somewhere in the Greco-Roman world, other than in Palestine, decided (like Luke tells us) to gather the stories that were circulating at that time in his part of the world and write them down. And, we can tell from their writing, none of the writers of the Gospels read or wrote or spoke Aramaic, their language was Greek, and their lands were other than Palestine.
As another example, the Gospel of John was traditionally written by the Apostle John, the son of Zebedee. Are we really supposed to believe that John, a peasant fisherman from rural Galilee, who was known to be illiterate, could have produced a written report about Jesus’s life? The book of Acts (4:13) tells us that John was literally “unlettered” (in Greek, agrammatos), meaning that he didn’t even know the alphabet!
Let’s switch gears here a little. Let’s talk about Paul. It has always been fascinating to me that Paul, who produced our first written record of Jesus, never met Jesus himself. He is the closest writer we have to Jesus’s death; who intimately knew his land, his religion, and his Jewish roots. Remember, however, he starts writing some twenty years after Jesus died, and he tells us personally that he only met two of Jesus’s original disciples (Peter and James) before becoming an Apostle himself. And (except for two saying that Jesus supposedly spoke at the last supper; his admonition against divorce; and a reference to the fact that people should pay their preachers), in all of his writing, he never repeats any Gospel stories. That is incredible to me.
Quoting Ehrman again, “…one of the most striking features of Paul’s surviving letters is just how little he actually tells us about Jesus’s life prior to his death. There are thirteen letters in the New Testament that claim to be written by Paul. Scholars are widely convinced that seven of them, at least, actually go back to Paul… suppose you were to mine these letters—take all thirteen of them—for the information they provide about the things Jesus said, did, and experienced between the time he was born and the time he died. How many stories of Jesus would you discover? …
“That’s pretty much all that Paul tells us. And he is the one author who has any known connection with an eyewitness… But think of all the things that Paul doesn’t mention: that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, to a virgin; that he was baptized by John the Baptist; that he was tempted in the wilderness; that he preached about the coming kingdom of God; that he told parables; that he cast out demons; that he did any miracles of any kind; that he delivered any other teachings of any kind; that he had controversies with other Jewish teachers; that he was transfigured; that he traveled to Jerusalem in the last week of his life; that he made the triumphal entry; that he cleansed the Temple; that he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane; that… well, it’s obviously a very long a significant list. To make a complete list, all you would have to do is cite virtually any story in the Gospels, and it would be something Paul doesn’t tell us.
“It is a very interesting question to ask just why Paul does not give us more information about Jesus. Is it because he did not think Jesus’s earthly life was important? How could it not be important? Is it because he thought his readers already knew all that information? If so, why doesn’t he remind them of it, just as he regularly reminds them of all sorts of other things he taught them when he was among them? Is it because he simply had no occasion to mention the events of Jesus’s life? Paul certainly seems to have occasions—plenty of them—as he talks in his letters about issues that were directly germane to things Jesus said and did (when he talks about miracles that he himself performed; when he tells people to pay their taxes; when he delivers his own ethical teachings; or when he indicates that Jesus had to die and be raised). So why doesn’t he appeal to Jesus’s own authority for such things? Is it because he actually doesn’t know much more about Jesus’s life than what he tells us? How could he not know much more? These are genuine questions that, at the end of the day, are not very easy to resolve.”
Thus, because the Apostle Paul doesn’t help us out, we have to wait for four decades after Jesus died before in the account of Mark we get the first stories about the life of the man Christians worship as the Son of God.
I completely agree with the author that perhaps the most important lesson we draw from this book is not the historical “truth” of what may or may not have occurred. You may also think that after listening to me, that if it can’t be proved historically, or if there are conflicting accounts for much that is in the various Gospels, that in the end, that is what is important.
You may think that I am one that believes that if it isn’t historically true, that we should throw the whole Christian faith in the trash heap; throwing the baby away with the bath water so to speak, but I do not. Like Bart Ehrman says more eloquently than I could…
“Does it matter if Jesus considered himself to be God on earth? As a historian, it matters to me a great deal. But if he did not—and I think that he did not—the fact that he was remembered that way by later followers is terrifically important. Without that memory of Jesus, the faith founded on him would never have taken off, the Roman Empire would not have abandoned paganism, and the history of our world would have transpired in ways that are unimaginably different. History was changed, not because of brute facts, but because of memory.”
Do I personally, Ron, believe every word (or to use the author’s words, “every memory”) that is recorded in the Gospels? No, but do I personally believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the answer (for me) is yes.
I hope that you can sense that I think that this is a book that you should read and keep in your library. The name of the book again is, Jesus Before the Gospels; How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented their Stories of the Savior, by Bart Ehrman.
From the picture of my own personal copy of the book below—with dozens of bookmarks—I think that you can tell that I think that this is a special work about the life of Jesus. Click on the picture of the book to order on Amazon.
Architect, software CEO, 30-year student of the historical Jesus and early Christianity. Show host of AuthorTalk, interviewing religious and spiritual authors.
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