The blog series RJB is based on my reading of the Jefferson Bible for the 21st Century, published by Humanist Press. It is based on the cut-and-paste Bible that was put together by American founding father Thomas Jefferson, where he removed the supernatural claims and immoral bits, did away with theological references to Christ and kept the mortal Jesus, and called it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. The HP edition also contains a series of best of and worst of selections from the Hebrew Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, as well as the Buddhist and Mormon Scriptures, and an introduction that invites us to read with a critical eye, citing the example of Jefferson himself who did not agree with Jesus’ idea that if we repent, we won’t perish. “Nonsense!”, said Jefferson, who believed that proper atonement for bad deeds should be good deeds, and fixing our interpersonal relations directly.
But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of His own country was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really His from the rubbish in which he is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of His biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man; outlines which it is lamentable He did not live to fill up. Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others. – Thomas Jefferson, in his Epistle to William Short
Revisiting Jesus as a secular narrative and putting aside the religious one, opens up the possibility of compassion for the man and his vulnerabilities, and also for understanding him in his original Jewish and historical context, and as a sincerely religious man of his time with a particular psychological history. For instance, we can understand his decision to call God Abba (an intimate way of addressing one’s father) possibly in light of the absence of his real biological father, or in light of dysfunctions related to his mortal father figure. In this light, Jesus’ relationship with his God is not a source of endless theological debate and speculation (as it became in Christianity), but instead shows a mortal yearning for a father figure, and sublimating his yearning in the godhead.
Finally, the possibility that Jesus of Nazareth is an entirely mythical figure and not a historical man must be addressed. The truth is that this figure, fictional or not, has been a great influence in Western civilization, and that just as Zeus and Hera, Ares and Aphrodite, all show us how Greek culture dealt with masculinity and authority, marriage and adultery, aggression and sexuality, similarly many values that influence Westerners are interwoven with Christianity. No one in modern Greece needs to experience perturbations when speaking of Zeus or Aphrodite as influential narratives in the Greek psyche. Similarly, no one in our modern culture needs to experience similar apprehensions about Jesus, Mary and the rest of the biblical pantheon regardless of historicity.
A Fountain of Secular Memes
When read without religious belief, the Gospels are an abundant source of secular cultural memes. Jesus spoke rather strongly against the clergy and against traditional religion. For instance, Matthew 23 in its entirety is a rant against religious hypocrisy, and the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37 in the Christian Bible) also makes the point that the priest and the Levite (heir of the Levite Code) would not assist a stranger in need, but a Samaritan (read: what in today’s world would be a heretic) did assist him. This Samaritan was closer to God’s Kingdom than the religious functionaries of his day. The parable would have its intended effect today if we replaced the words priest and Levite with pastor, monk, fundamentalist, or with any other image that reminds us of someone who is ostentatious about their piety (a Muslim woman wearing a hijab?), and if we replaced the word Samaritan with gay or atheist, or any other category of persons who are recipients of religious bigotry.
In another passage (Matthew 21:31), Jesus said that whores were closer to entering the Kingdom of God than the religious people of his day. Whores!
Then there’s the passage of the rich man who says that he is not happy merely following the commandments. This is a very revealing passage: it constitutes an admission of failure by the Bible in terms of producing a fulfilling spirituality, happiness or satisfaction. But then the advise that he gets from Jesus is that he should sell everything and give it to the poor, then follow him. This is of course also not a recipe for happiness, and the man moves on disappointed. Ergo, the Bible itself admits that neither Christianity nor its precursor faith can really be practiced by common people, and produce a satisfied existence.