Overhearing a conversation about the personality of Jesus made me want to offer some misleading statements of my own…
Anything that we say about the identity or beliefs of Jesus will depend upon which author’s Jesus we are talking about; and whatever we assert will be either a fresh invention of our own or a personal interpretation of a literary character (for Jesus is a literary character). Each opinion about Jesus tends to reveal more about the individual who is asserting it than it reveals about the so-called historical Jesus.
A fun fact to remember is that Jesus wrote nothing at all. There is a Gospel According to Mark, a Gospel According to Matthew, a Gospel According to Luke, a Gospel According to John, and many other gospels that were never canonized by churchmen. But there is no Gospel According to Jesus Christ (except the one written by José Saramago, which I highly recommend).
It’s amusing to say that Jesus was an adherent of this or that religion, or that he followed this or that philosophy. But if we must speak the boring truth, all we can say is that Jesus was Jesus; just as Mark was Mark, and Saul was Paul.
Since Jesus wrote nothing, if we make surmises about his beliefs, we are offering a literary interpretation of a character created by an author who was not Jesus.
Plato attributed certain speeches to Socrates. Did Socrates actually speak them? Nobody knows. Aristophanes also attributed speeches to Socrates. Did Socrates actually speak them? Nobody knows.
Saint Mark attributed certain speeches to Jesus. Did Jesus actually speak them? Nobody knows. If we repeat this question for all of the gospel writers, it can be answered the same way.
Nobody knows how much of Jesus is actually John (for instance) in The Gospel According to John.
A man from Tarsus named Saul, who called himself Paul, dictated letters to certain groups of people. In Paul’s letters—at least one of which was actually written by Tertius (see Romans 16:22)—he gives his own interpretation of Jesus. Many of the ideas that churchgoers attribute to Jesus are actually Paul’s—this is a point that I never tire of repeating: Paul asserted ideas about Jesus that are not corroborated by the various gospels’ Jesuses.
Paul’s emphases differ from those of the gospel writers. Likewise, each gospel writer’s emphases differ from the next gospel writer’s. Whether or not this fact indicates any contradiction between these texts, it is significant: for a book that largely presents a teacher’s teachings will affect a readership very differently from a book that simply interprets a teacher’s death.
The gospel writers tend to focus on the words and actions of each of their Jesuses; whereas Paul cares most for the fact that Jesus died. Paul almost never mentions the teachings of his Jesus; instead, he spins a cocoon of theories around Jesus’s corpse, in hopes of persuading us that Jesus came back to life. (For, if a man survived death, then it follows that he also flew like a crow into Heaven; and therefore Paul’s message is the one that we should trust.)
Nobody knows how much the ideas of all the assorted scribes of the biblical texts conflict with the thoughts of that man who once lived in Jerusalem; because, I repeat: the man Jesus wrote nothing.
It could be that Jesus abstained from writing down his thoughts and chose to teach only orally precisely to avoid this bedlam that is our topic. (I love this bedlam, by the way.) At the end of the day, perhaps it is important to remember that more than one gospel writer has allowed his Jesus to say: “Beware of scribes…”