The historical figure of Jesus was not intended to be the center of worship, rather a sage pointing towards a politically utopian Kingdom of God, according to two lecturers who recently spoke at a prominent United Methodist church in Washington, D.C.
Melanie Johnson-Debaufre of United Methodist Drew University Theological School and Robert J. Miller of Juniata College appeared as part of the Jesus Seminar on the Road program. The Jesus Seminar is a once-prominent body of liberal scholars and laypersons who used to gain headlines by disputing the Gospels’ historicity. The group draws from sources outside of the Biblical canon in order to produce what they assert to be a more authentic view of Jesus than the church espouses.
The talks were part of a series on “Jesus in the First and Twenty-First Centuries” held April 4-5 given to about 60 mostly retirement-age persons seated over the image of a labyrinth at the parish hall of Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, the “national church” of United Methodism. The event was co-sponsored by St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill.
In her 2006 book “Jesus Among Her Children: Q, Eschatology, and the Construction of Christian Origins,” Johnson-Debaufre sought to understand the historical Jesus using the hypothesized early source text of Q. The Drew professor proposes alternative ways of reading Q that place the “basileia” (commonly translated as Kingdom) of God at the focus of Q’s interest rather than the identity and uniqueness of Jesus.
In arguing for an analysis of parables shorn from scripture writers’ framing, Johnson-Debaufre said it was for the purpose of “communal deliberation.”
“Invite Paul to be a conversation partner, not one who tells us what to do,” Johnson-Debaufre suggested. While the Drew Theological School professor stated that Paul did not author the Pastoral Epistles, she affirmed that he “probably” believed women should be quiet in church, or condemned same-sex intimacy.
“But just because he held those views doesn’t mean we have to,” Johnson-Debaufre asserted.
Miller was direct in his presentation, noting that participants in the Jesus Seminar are convinced that Jesus did not hold beliefs that God will intervene directly and decisively in the near future, or that Jesus himself will return in a second coming.
“Jesus’ teachings would have looked different if he lived until 60,” Miller declared, adding that “inevitable compromises” would have occurred.
“A lot of Jesus’ teaching is unrealistic because it represents a vision, not a program,” claimed Miller. The Juniata College professor went on to suggest discarding what he alleged doesn’t work from the past and carrying the rest into the future. “Religions don’t live on if they don’t stay relevant.”
The author also critiqued a series of Gospel stories, including the miraculous story of Jesus feeding the 5000 with the loaves and fish.
“This story never happened – its fiction,” Miller flatly stated, adding that it does remember something authentic about Jesus – that he advanced the importance of sharing with others. In this way, Miller sought to preserve aspects of the scriptures that he found helpful while discarding those pieces that were in conflict with his interpretation.
“I don’t believe the dead body of Jesus got up and walked out of the tomb,” Miller, a Roman Catholic, similarly declared.
Focus on Kingdom of God or Jesus?
“In the Gospel of John, Jesus is his own favorite topic of discussion,” asserted Miller. Charging that the Gospels “cannot be read as straight-up literal accounts,” Miller determined that differences between the four Gospels could not be chalked up to mere differences in the authors’ perspectives.
Instead, Miller described the Gospels as stories about Jesus in the past presented as a message to the writers’ present time. The Gospels, Miller claimed, were a “blending” of voices “adding memory.” The search for the historical Jesus, then, is to train ears to discern different voices – when Jesus himself is speaking, and when others are.
“It is not devaluing the Bible to understand human processes by which it was written,” Miller insisted. “The goal of the Jesus Seminar is to take the Bible seriously without taking in literally.”
“We don’t find evidence that his [Jesus’] body left the tomb, that Jesus considered himself messiah or that his death would be a sort of human sacrifice to atone for sin.”
Instead, Miller proposed that Jesus was to be understood as a sage.
“The life, message and teachings of the historical Jesus were not about me – about salvation,” Miller declared. “[Jesus] had almost nothing to say about personal salvation and a lot to say about taking care of other people.”
The Juniata College professor also asserted that what Jesus believed about the afterlife was largely unknown.
“We can give up worrying about it [the afterlife] and focus on the only life we know that we have,” Miller suggested, adding that the meaning of our lives is not about where we go when we die but what we leave behind. “That gets us close to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God.”
Charging that the historical Jesus “deliberately avoided making himself the center of attention,” Miller mused “what if we didn’t worry about salvation of people in other religions?” or on worshiping the divine, and instead “put energy into celebrating his presence.”
Johnson-Debaufre largely agreed with Miller on this point, declaring that Jesus would be “embarrassed” at the singing of the hymn “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” Acknowledging that the Gospel of Mark “sets it up that Jesus is the good news,” the Drew professor asserted there was a tension between a focus on Jesus and a focus on the Kingdom of God.
Miller pointed to the Q source suggesting that it offered a glimpse into the early movement surrounding Jesus before it was consciously Christian, and thus Jesus was not referred to as messiah or Christ.
“Thinking with Jesus”
Much of Johnson-Debaufre’s presentation centered on a proposal that a Gospel focus on the figure of Jesus alone “means we lose a lot.” The Gospel stories, she claimed, should be viewed as “thinking with Jesus” rather than about him.
The Drew professor suggested understanding the parables as conversation starters in which earlier elements had been forgotten, and which served as “community pedagogy.” In this understanding, Jesus points towards a Kingdom of God that is centered on “social dreaming” and ways of living, serving to make people move towards a utopia on the horizon.
Much like her assessment of Paul, Johnson-Debaufre’s approach of Matthew and Luke was to deconstruct their writing.
“After you’ve read it my way, you can go back and invite them into conversation as conversation partners rather than as the people who tell us what it means,” the Drew professor noted. Adding that Luke was written “to say you can be a Christian in the world and not be a threat to the Roman Empire,” Johnson-Debaufre criticized what she depicted as Christianity’s adoption of imperial language.
“Do we want God to be an absolute military ruler?” Johnson-Debaufre asked, questioning the idea of God as effectively an emperor figure.
Johnson-Debaufre also sought to draw upon feminist historical principles, urging seminar participants to “read against the grain” in order to reconstruct women “in a patriarchal text.”