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The Jesus Sayings

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Because the subject is of such interest to us, we're giving this book a page of its own.

The Jesus Sayings (Scripture) by Rex Weyler, 2008

Rest assurred, this is not another search for "the historical Jesus". (Stop looking, guys; there’s nothing much to find!) Rex Weyler’s quest, instead, is to try to determine what Jesus’ message was before the accretions of myths and symbols muffled his voice.

I’ve read a number of books about the origins of Sacred Scripture. (For reviews of a couple of recent ones, see Misquoting Jesus – Dilettante’s Diary, May 23/06; and The Bible Unearthed – DD March 8/07.) For me, the question of how the Bible came to be compiled is one of the most compelling issues in western civilization. With regard to the New Testament in particular, how is it that you start with a real person who taught certain things, who had considerable influence on people in the real world and in real time, and yet you end up with this figure who supposedly performed all kinds of miracles and came back to life after death? Where did all the add-ons come from? Who’s responsible for including them in the canon?

Almost nothing interests me more than a book that promises to approach the subject in a calm, scientific, dispassionate and reputable manner. So we’re gonna spend more time and space on this book than we usually do.

We don’t, however, have the time and space to explain in detail how somebody figures out what are presumably Jesus’ authentic words. In brief, the process involves comparing the most ancient texts with each other, looking for corroborations and confirmations. It’s a very painstaking process but you eventually get some idea which passages are most likely later additions and elaborations. Mr. Weyler does a creditable job, as far as I can see, in establishing that Jesus was an itinerant Galilean preacher who proclaimed folksy, down-to-earth messages along the lines of: Do unto others...know yourself....share with others...don’t worry about your clothes or comfort.

Mr. Wyler offers some things that are new to me. He thinks Jesus’ skill at turning the tables on his opponents – "It is not the well who need a physician but the sick" – may have been influenced by exposure to the Cynic philosophers. They had a foothold in a town not far from Nazareth. While I knew that many of his other teachings reflect the themes of well known preachers of the times, such as the famous rabbi Hillel, I’d never heard it suggested that Jesus’ mustard tree, as a symbol of faith, could be seen as a parody of the mighty cedar in the Jewish scriptures. Nor had I ever heard of the shock value in comparing the kingdom of heaven to yeast in three measures of flour. Mr. Weyler says Jesus’ audience would be scandalized because they would relate this to Sarah’s using three measures of flour to bake cakes for heavenly visitors, but yeast was a symbol of corruption, to be removed from homes during Passover.

Very interesting. And yet....I have problems with this book. Perhaps they could be summed up in the observation that the book doesn’t exhibit the level of scholarly scrupulosity and intellectual rigor that would give you full confidence in the author’s findings.

In the first place, there’s no very clear, logical organization to the book. The author keeps coming back to things that you thought had been established. For instance, you get the discovery of certain ancient documents once, then again several pages later. It would be much easier to keep track of the author’s argument if he would establish a chronological order and stick to it.

And then you begin to notice statements cropping up without any apparent verification. At one point, Mr. Weyler refers to an ancient poem "Thunder: Perfect Mind", considered to have been composed in the second or third century C.E. Later, he says that this poem helps to demonstrate what certain communities of Jesus-followers believed. But he hasn’t established that the poem has any definite connection with Jesus-followers, although it does admittedly echo some ideas in Jesus’ teachings.

Another problem is that you get great whacks of interpretation with no indication of where the interpretation is coming from. The author says that the symbols connected with Asherah, a Canaanite goddess, are carried through into the stories of Mary Magdalene. Who says? Is this just the author’s opinion? If so, he should give his reasons.

One glaring generalization states that "...the Church patriarchs believed that sexuality was evil..." Granted, this is a widespread impression that one gets from popular notions about Jerome and Augustine. But I don’t think the statement can stand on its own in a serious study, not without much more support and qualification. Yes, many Church patriarchs were uncomfortable with the subject of sex, even hostile to it, and they insisted that it be confined within the bounds of sacred matrimony. But none of the acknowledged Fathers of the Church would ever, in my understanding, have taught that sex was evil per se.

Given the number of books cited, Mr. Weyler has clearly read much more about the era in question than I have. But I wish his acknowledgment of his sources were more conscientious. Strangely, the copious endnotes don’t help much. Grouped according to chapters and sub-sections of chapters, the notes are numbered but there are no corresponding numbers in the main body of the text. So it can be difficult to find exactly which passage an endnote refers to. Could the lack of corresponding numbers in the text be simply a production oversight?

It begins to look as though this book didn’t have the careful editing that such a book needs to make it fully trustworthy. Take the statement: "The very act of writing changed human storytelling and memory between 500 B.C.E. and 500 C.E., a pivotal transition for humanity." Is the author suggesting that writing was invented in this period? My understanding is that writing came into being much earlier. If, however, Mr. Weyler is referring to the development of a certain genre of writing, he should be more specific.

In reference to the incident in John's gospel about the Magdalene’s weeping at Jesus’ tomb, Mr. Weyler says this passage would have had mythical overtones for first century peasants. If Mr. Weyler means that the story would have had those overtones for certain listeners in the first century, all well and good. But his reference to the "passage" implies that he’s talking about the written gospel. Since most biblical scholars believe that John’s gospel wasn’t written until the very end of the first century, it seems strange to refer to an effect that writing would have had on first century people.

There are also apparent inconsistencies. Statements on the subject of demons or devils leave me bewildered. On page 198, we get the comment that Jesus did not necessarily believe that demons caused illness. Page 202 states that he probably did believe that certain diseases were caused by demonic possession. Then page 271 says that he did not equate evil with a devil. Maybe there’s some way of resolving the confusion but Mr. Weyler doesn’t do it for us.

One place where, it seems to me, Mr. Weyler’s intellectual grip slackens is in a discussion of oral history. To show how the process screens out bogus stories and preserves authentic ones, Mr. Weyler cites the "telephone game": something is whispered from one person to another around the circle, with the result usually that the final version of the statement is quite different from the original one. But doesn’t this demonstrate the opposite of what Mr. Weyler is trying to say about oral history? He wants us to understand that oral history refines a story, weeding out the implausibilities, and delivering a more reliable truth. The purpose of the telephone game, as I always understood it, is to show how truth gets distorted in the telling.

Admittedly, in most of these cases, Mr. Weyler’s meaning isn’t very elusive; what he intends to say (I think) isn’t far from what the words actually say. Am I nit-picking, then? Possibly – except that the publisher’s cover blurb describes the book as a "revelatory work of popular history and modern scholarship". Much is made of the fact that Mr. Weyler is a Pulitzer Prize nominee. If such prestige is being claimed for a book and its writer, I’d like the book to be more careful in its statements.

Eventually, however, it becomes clear that this isn’t just a book of scholarship or history. It's also a plea for the kind of Christianity Mr. Weyler wants. In other words, the work is as much an exhortation as a scientific inquiry. I’m fine with either kind of book. In this combination of the two, however, the exhortation tends to undermine the scholarship. The incongruity shows up most strikingly when Mr. Weyler says (p 322) that we don’t dishonour Jesus by asking if he really existed: "On the contrary, such questions are precisely what Jesus would expect." Maybe this isn’t strictly a classic case of begging the question (assuming the answer in the question) but it makes me smile. The faith-filled attitude may be admirable but it’s not what you expect in a scholarly study.

Mr. Weyler’s personal agenda comes through when he frequently says that the true spirit of Christianity is found in people like his kind and loving grandmother, and kindred spirits like St. Francis of Assisi. At one point, Mr. Weyler devotes a paean of praise to his young son’s generosity, as an example of true Christianity. Names like Mother Theresa’s, Dorothy Day’s and Martin Luther King’s keep cropping up in similar contexts. Granted, such people can give us insights into what the best approaches to life might be. But canonizing them strikes a somewhat simplistic note in a book that purports to be a serious, scholarly study.

Another favourite cause of Mr. Weyler’s is feminism. I’m not saying that the early Church fathers didn’t suppress Jesus’ teaching on the equal importance of women; they probably did. But Mr. Weyler jumps on the feminist bandwagon so often that you get the feeling that he’s trying to provide what he thinks his readers want to hear.

Also in terms of current trends, I can’t help feeling a little suspicious about the New-Age-ish sound of some documents that Mr. Weyler quotes from the first few centuries C.E. Not that I have any problem with his citing documents excluded from the canonical gospels. After all, who’s to say whether the ones with official status deserve it any more than others? But I have a bit of difficulty hearing ancient voices in this kind of language: "...he has joined us together and made us true human beings". Or: "Build up good in your own heart, through every action, every day, every moment." I’m not accusing Mr. Weyler of making up these passages but I wonder if he has chosen translations that strike a particularly contemporary note, a note which may, perhaps, not be quite in the spirit of the originals.

Mr. Weyler further tips his hand with the use of emotionally laden phrasing, as in sentences where he rejects the thinking of "Roman sycophants" and the "clever rationalizations of Augustine". Church patriarchs are referred to as "malicious". Mr. Weyler's Christian models are contrasted with "Pedophiles in the Vatican and warmongering radio evangelists". I’m no fan of either of those two groups but what place do such excoriations have in a scholarly work?

As if to impress upon us his scholarly purpose, however, Mr. Weyler reminds us that we "must be prepared to dig, compare texts, verify witnesses, and discriminate honest accounting from innocent mistakes, predisposed mythmaking, and prejudicial manipulation." He quotes Bertrand Russell’s statement that "fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts." And yet, hasn’t Mr. Weyler been exhibiting prejudice in his emotionally-laden statements?

Speaking of prejudices, Mr. Weyler offends one of my own. For Mr. Weyler, Paul, the author of the famous epistles, is one of the villains of the piece. It’s with Paul that all the mythologizing and theologizing began, as Mr. Weyler sees it. You get the impression that he feels that, if it weren’t for Paul, we might still have a Jesus who was a good, honest prophet and a kind man – rather than the exalted personage who has come to obscure our view of the real person.

Some of Mr. Weyler’s points about Paul are enlightening. He refers to the beliefs of several scholars that Paul’s reference to the bread and wine at the last supper – the basis for the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist – is borrowed from Mithraic lore. Mithraism thrived in Paul’s hometown of Tarsus and many of its beliefs have an uncanny resemblance to Christian doctrine. Fair enough. And I readily accept Mr. Weyler’s point that Paul’s teachings make almost no reference – apart from that last supper incident – to the biography of Jesus. It’s almost as if Paul didn’t give a damn about the historical person. What turned Paul on was the theology.

But what theology! The more I look at those epistles, the more I am astounded by the originality, the depth, the height and the breadth of the man’s thinking. Yes, I know, he appears to have had a somewhat deprecating view of women, and this had very bad effects on the future of Christianity, but it’s a minuscule part of his overall teaching. Many of his grander concepts are virtually unprecedented, as far as I know. To take just one: the Mystical Body, wherein it is seen that every member of the Church comprises part of what is understood as the body of Christ. Where did such an idea come from? It’s the same with line after line of Paul’s letters: gob-smacking ideas stop you short and leave you with your mouth hanging open – provided you try to shake off your familiarity with them so that you can imagine hearing them for the first time.

Granted, none of that matters to Mr. Weyler. He wants to return us to the original teachings of Jesus, never mind all this pie-in-the-sky theologizing. Fine. But I think this historical fact needs thinking on: the letters of Paul pre-date the gospels by at least a generation. Paul’s letters are the first Christian writings of any kind that we have. That means that his teachings were in the air, they were well known, long before anybody thought to sit down and write the stories of Jesus’ life. I’m not claiming that Paul’s letters are more trustworthy than the gospels. It’s possible that the gospels were written in reaction against Paul’s idea-spinning. On the other hand, maybe the gospels were written in order to support Paul’s theology with some biography. In any case, I would think that the historical precedence of Paul’s letters would entitle them to some authority when it comes to discerning the early Christian ethos.

Mr. Weyler’s feelings, as opposed to scholarly objectivity, overflow when he comes to the portrait of Jesus that crowns this book. We get a "discrete personality radiating an exceptionally luminous humility and intelligence." He was a "brilliant and compassionate observer of humanity." We are invited to picture his eyes shining with "uncommon brilliance" and to hear his voice reverberating with "earth-shaking courage and charisma." All this from a few fragments that constitute Jesus’ authentic words? Well, I’m willing to go along with the imaginative flow up to a point but I have trouble with the statement that Jesus’ spiritual epiphany revealed to him "...the magic, more-than-human realm in which the unexpected happens..." In a book about debunking myths and symbols, about returning to hard, verifiable facts, invoking magic seems inappropriate, to say the least.

None of this is to say that I disagree with or dislike the overall theme of Mr. Weyler’s work. Near the end of the book, he offers his own version of what he thinks a sermon by Jesus might have sounded like. As a piece of creative writing, the passage is beautiful and inspiring. The expression of simple goodness and human decency, the emphasis on generosity and sharing, on honesty and self knowledge – it all makes you want to cut through the crap at long last and start being a better person.

If Mr. Weyler’s book is to be heard as a sermon, then, I’d love to jump out of my pew and come to the front of the assembly and shout "Hallelujah!" If only I could be confident that the preacher’s claims were based more on fact than on enthusiasm.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com