Greta Vosper is pastor of West Hill United Church in Toronto, Canada. She has just written a book titled With or Without God. The National Post featured her in this article from May, 2008 in which she expresses doubt about, if not outright rejection of, the virgin birth, the resurrection, miracles, and sacraments, and says, "The story about Jesus as the symbol of everything that Christianity is will fade away."
That is exactly the wrong way to go. Let's tell the truth instead. Fact is: When Constantine made Christianity legal, the church went from being an alternative culture to being the center of culture. We went from being somewhat anti-establishment to being the establishment itself. It took courage to be a Christian in AD 280. It took courage not to be a Christian in AD 380.
Since then, we have been subjected to heavily theologized, heavily pietized, heavily colonialized, and heavily lobotomized interpretations of scripture. Jesus was kicked upstairs, into an object to be worshipped, but not necessarily followed. Eventually, people were told, Jesus will save the righteous, and, in the meantime, serve the Emperor, join the army, and stay right with the Church. (The early Christians were likely pacifists. By AD 400, nearly every Greek soldier was a Christian.)
The 16th century brought three tumultuous events. First, the great scholar, Erasmus, pulled together a Greek New Testament. His sources weren't very good, and his product was primitive by today's standards. Nevertheless, for the first time in a thousand years, the western church had the New Testament in its original language. Second, the printing press had just been invented, which made it possible for the Bible to be available to everyone. Third, the Reformation rejected institutional propaganda, and encouraged individual study and interpretation of the Bible. Out of these influences was borne what would later become modern historical Biblical scholarship.
People started noticing some things, such as that passages in Mark sounded almost identical to passages in Matthew and Luke, that Genesis had two creation stories, that John reads different from Matthew, that there are two Noah and the Ark stories, that Abraham tried to pass his wife off as his sister twice, that Matthew's Christmas story doesn't line up with Luke's, that Jesus was crucified on a different day in John than he was in Mark, and on and on. Historical scholarship took all of this seriously.
The four gospels came to be seen not as biographies containing factual nuggets from Jesus' life, but rather as documents that promote definite theological agendas. The four gospels are what I call "theology in narrative form." None of the four gospel writers attempt to tell us the "life of Jesus" the way we normally understand such things today. They were writing theology, in quite a complicated way, and using the story form to convey it.
Let's take an example. We can never know whether or not the baby Jesus was really taken into Egypt, an episode which is mentioned only in Matthew. What we can discern, however, is that, throughout the book of Matthew, Jesus is presented as the "new Moses." The first Moses was associated with the five books of the penteteuch. Likewise, in telling of the "new Moses," the book of Matthew has five sections, one for each book of Moses.
In Matthew's Christmas story, there are five dreams, and five citations from the Hebrew scriptures, including this one from Hosea: "Out of Egypt have I called my son." As the first Moses came out of Egypt, so would Jesus. Frankly, whether or not the holy family really went to Egypt is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the apostle Matthew presents Jesus as the "new Moses"--even better, "the one like Moses who is even more than Moses."
Moreover, Herod is the "new pharoah." Jesus was taken to Egypt in the first place because Herod wanted to kill Jesus just as Pharoah had "sought to slay Moses" (Ex 2: 15). It is not likely that there was an actual historical event wherein Herod killed all the male children in the area around Jerusalem. No early source mentions it, and someone likely would have--especially Josephus, who held no truck for Herod.
However, the deeper truth that Matthew conveys is that Herod was a murderer. When Herod got his contract from the Romans to rule Judea, one of his first acts was to murder the entire Sanhedrin. When he died, he knew no one would mourn him so he ordered hundreds of people to be killed so that there would be mourners in Jerusalem upon his death. (The order was not carried out.)
Matthew's purpose is to lift up this truth about Herod, that he was a power-mad murderer, and associate him in peoples' minds with their arch-enemy, Pharoah. Matthew was telling the truth about both Jesus and Herod, even though the actual historical facts were likely different than he says.
The historical person Jesus lived in a specific context. He lived as a Jew in the context of the Greco-Roman conquest of Israel. Then, as now, Israel was a very contentious and difficult place. The pharisee party vied for influence within Judaism. The powerful, wealthy, and corrupt Sadducees ran the Temple. The essenes were so fed up with the Temple that they gave up hope for the renewal of Judaism through the established channels and went off to live by themselves. Various groups of resisters--zealots, sicarii, "knife men"--afflicted Romans and their wealthy supporters in Jerusalem. If and when they were caught, the Romans crucified them. There were times when the roads were lined with crosses.
Poverty afflicted the masses. Perhaps 5% of the population was wealthy--and they were very wealthy indeed. Another 5%--tax collectors and retainers of the wealthy--lived well. Another 70% lived in varying degrees of poverty. The lowest strata, the bottom 10-15%, were criminals and brigands, many of whom lived off the countryside.
Taxes were exceptionally high. It is estimated that perhaps as much as half of a person's income was given over to taxes of one kind or another. If you owned a plot of land and couldn't pay your taxes, your land might be confiscated. (It's not for nothing that Jesus talks about being "hauled before magistrates.") As more and more land was confiscated, the peoples' descent into poverty intensified. They were in dire straits.
It is into this situation that Jesus attacks the corruption of the Temple in Jerusalem. "They devour widows' houses," he said, and indeed they did. When the husband died, officials from the Temple would "help" the widow administer the estate, making sure to carve out a heavy slice for the Temple. Jesus was scathing in his denunciation of the wealthy who liked to prance around in fine clothes and make a spectacle of themselves (Mark 12). He denounced the outwardly pious who liked to pray in public so they can be seen acting religious (Matthew 6). He threw out the moneychangers from the Temple because the moneychangers were agents of wealthy powerbrokers, operating by franchise from the Temple, who changed money at exhorbitant rates.
Jesus was not a purely spiritual leader who went around trying to get people to convert to something called "protestant theology." He was a social and spiritual leader of the oppressed and poverty-stricken masses. Great crowds flocked to him, and he was opposed by powerful forces. Unless we can see Jesus in this context, we are quite likely to miss his message.
When we see him within this context, however, we see a spiritual leader who advocated for gender equality. Note, for example, that women are always portrayed positively in the four gospels, and that Jesus had women followers (Luke 8: 3). (The one exception is Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas. Her name indicates that she was known only as an appendage of her husband, which is not consistent with Jesus' view of the status of women.)
Jesus also advocated and practiced open table hospitality, which, in the world of that time, was a revolutionary act. There were quite rigid rules about what you could eat and who you could eat with. Jesus brazenly flouted these rules, time after time. He shared table with outcasts and sinners, and even tax collectors, who were collaborators with Rome. Note--again--that the down-and-out are always portrayed positively in the four gospels.
Jesus also advocated and practiced non-heirarchical living. Look around, he said, and see that the powerful like to run things. "Their great ones are tyrants over them," he said, "It shall not be so among you (Matthew 20: 25)." The truly great are those who give up status and serve. The kingdom of heaven is not a top-down enterprise, but one in which all people are afforded worth and dignity and all are equal before God (Matthew 20).
Some progressives want to move away from Jesus. This would be a mistake. Oh sure, you can throw out a lot of "churchified dogma," and you can certainly throw out--and should throw out--the various false Jesuses promoted by some. (One of the first to go should be the "mini-me" Jesus "who lives in my heart" and pats me on the head and tells me how swell I am. Ick.)
But we must keep the Jesus of the gospels, the "savior of the world," who contended against the corruption of the religious and social elite, and promoted healthy and compassionate living in the "beloved community" of humankind. "The story about Jesus as the symbol of everything that Christianity is" should not fade away. In fact, just the opposite. We ought to try it.