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Jesus Versus Religion


Religious people get an unfairly bad rap these days, so I want to start by defending them. My purpose here is not to slam religious people, but to show that religion doesn’t adequately represent Jesus.

It was religious people who killed the ancient evil of slavery. First, the religious people of Europe, having inherited a full social system of slavery from Rome, disassembled it between about 500 and 1000 AD, precisely because their ethics were better than those of Rome.

Then, after slavery sprang back up in the New World… and once a serious number of religious Europeans got to the New World… they killed slavery again. Regardless of what we were taught in civics classes, it was religious Christians who defeated slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, not Abe Lincoln.

And even through the worst times of the European Middle Ages, most towns had kind and concerned religious people in them, people who did not abuse the parishioners, who helped the sick, interceded for the poor, and supported the weak. Yes, there were massive abuses from the top, but at the bottom there were many good and decent religious people.


With that said, I will continue to my primary point, which is this:

Religion is a very poor container for Jesus and his ideas.

To illustrate the difference between Jesus and the religion based (partly) upon him, please consider these statements:

Jesus never said anything about a virgin birth.

Jesus never said anything about original sin.

Jesus never said anything about a trinity.

If he believed in these things at all, he apparently considered them to be trivial, because we have no record of him mentioning them.

Isn’t it odd, then, that the bulk of Christianity has established itself upon these ideas?

And things get still worse for religion if we pay attention directly to Jesus and not to the people interpreting him:

  • Jesus flatly contradicted the Fourth Commandment (not working on the Sabbath), placing compassion above it. (See FMP #44 for details.)

  • Jesus taught that the barbaric passages of the Old Testament were to be ignored and that compassion and self-honesty were to be placed above them. (See FMP #89, which will be available in a few days.)

The Gulf Between Jesus and His Interpreters

This idea of paying attention to Jesus and not to the people interpreting him rests on a very strong base. It is very clear that even his closest followers didn’t understand him very well. I’ll leave off the citations (again, see FMP #44), but Jesus said a number of things like these to his closest students:

  • Do you not yet understand, neither remember?

  • How is it that you do not understand?

  • Are you also without understanding?

  • Do you not yet perceive or understand? Is your heart still hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember?

  • I have many things to say to you, but you are not able to bear them now.

Let me add one more telling fact:

The gospels mention six separate incidents when Jesus “had compassion” or was “moved with compassion,” plus two more where he wept over tragedies. Never, in the entire New Testament, do we find these things said of anyone else.

This man was very clearly not religious and was very clearly not understood by the people who interpreted him. These people may have been well-meaning, and I suspect that they were the best available, but their ideas should never be used to define Jesus’s ideas.

Let me restate that to make the point clearly:

The teachings of the apostles should not be used to explain what Jesus believed, taught, or intended.

I understand how disruptive that statement will seem to many people, but I think truth matters more than tradition.

What Religion Imposes

Whether purposely or simply by a slow adaptation to necessities, religion established a set of beliefs on top of the bare-bones teachings of Jesus. Here are three of those beliefs:

There is a great gulf between God and man, requiring special men and women to fill the gap (aka the clergy). Jesus was clearly an anti-cleric and held a high view of humanity. Nonetheless, over time, the concepts of “fallen man” and “unapproachable God” carried the day.

Structure and “rule” are necessary. Jesus directly opposed hierarchy and trashed the concept of status. But again over time, religion brought these things to the followers of Jesus and established them as fixed structures.

Doctrine is all-important. Jesus quoted the Bible infrequently, and even then mostly to contrast his teachings with it or when he was challenged. The idea that God would condemn you to eternal torture for incorrect doctrine was simply not part of his message. (He taught that we were justified or condemned by our own words.) Religions, however, compete for adherents, and as a practical matter, that requires doctrine and dogma. And many early Christian leaders (Ambrose and Chrysostom are good examples) worked hard to differentiate their religion from Judaism and to condemn Judaism.

Last Words

Religion is a poor container for Jesus’s ideas. It has twisted and obscured the message. And no one has been more damaged by this than the many millions of decent and well-meaning religious people.

This would be a good time for people to step outside of the container and to take a raw, fresh look at what Jesus taught.

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Paul Rosenberg

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