“Oh”, some Christians like to say, shaking their heads sadly, “he’s forgotten the message of Christ.”
Usually this is said about some particularly harsh and unlikeable fellow believer.
This is a rather stupid thing to say.
This is the reason.
What words of Christ are these that the speaker refers to? Certainly not the miserably life-hating Puritan understand of Jesus, or the autocratic Medieval version. Something far older, then. Something original, something that Jesus himself actually said, and what he understood he was saying.
And there’s the problem. It’s known and accepted among historians, though they seldom mention this, that the sources for what Jesus said and did are quite few: the best are the partial and fiercely partisan writings of his various later followers, written decades after his death, and each representing quite differently tampered ideas and confabulations of his life and teachings.*
Still, there’s (or so I hear) a broadish agreement on what Jesus was: Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet of the end of the world, like many other Jewish prophets of his time.
He preached his love and reform because he thought time was running out: he did not look forward to any otherworldly Heaven after death, but to a God’s kingdom on Earth that would come very soon — in those parts of the Gospels that seem most likely to be Jesus’s own words, he repeatedly proclaims that his generation would not pass away before the end came; some of those present would see it come. Then those that had reformed would be rewarded; then the others would be punished. That is why his words were so shrill and extreme — give away all you have, take no heed of tomorrow, leave your family if you must, pluck out that tempting eye, and trust in God, because time is running out. All the good things he coaxed people to do were intended to be short-term fixes, ways to be on the good side of some mystical son of God when he came with the trumps and fires of judgment.
Jesus was a prophet of an imminent apocalypse, like many others of his time, like John the Baptist with whom he most likely associated when starting his preachy career: and like every single one of those prophets, he was wrong.
The world did not end; actually, it’s nearly two thousand years later now, and the world still hasn’t ended!
Now this Christ, available to us through a careful, dispassionate examination of our sources — and dispensed in a handy, Pez-sized chunks by my passionate irritation at certain unthinking assumptions of the religious — is not the Christ whose message we so often are urged to remember. Indeed, this true Jesus is a man that has been forgotten, forgotten with a good reason: the apocalyptic prophet of today is the laughingstock of tomorrow once tomorrow dawns.
So, when noble Christians tell others to remember the words of Christ, they should remember that those words originate from a failed prophet of doom, a man who did not wish to build a better society and whose radical advice was designed to last for just a few years, a few years because he thought the end of the world was close and after that all would be fine. That was his message.
In my opinion Jesus’s words, whatever of them remains in the Bible, are not particularly praiseworthy. Some of them are fine, some too extreme to be practical, some are utterly monstrous. And this is to be expected, since he did not wish to build a better society, or base his words on closely argued ideas of good societies and lasting relations. He was an unexceptional prophet of doom with only short-term goals, a man whose words began to be altered, misinterpreted and perverted for partisan ends the moment he died: eventually he became the God of a religion he would not have recognized, in a time he did not think would come.
If one absolutely needs to do a namedrop for a mention of the Golden Rule, Confucius is a much better choice.
At the very least Confucius, though his teachings no doubt have their own faults, did not preach panicky stopgap measures, but had some desire for a just and lasting society that we mortals could set up on our own.
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*, “partial and partisan” : One should read Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus for the latter and Jesus, Interrupted for the earlier marks of all kinds of religious sect- and group-divisions and arguments over teachings in the New Testament. It’s particularly chuckleworthy — well, for an atheist anyway — to see it laid out how each of the nameless Gospel-writers had his own agenda, and thus a different way of telling, distorting and making up stories of Jesus. As a result, a deft one can quote the New Testament to support any degree of callousness or love: whatever is needed at the time.
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Then again, some Christians sidestep this all by saying, in a bit more ornate a way, that it doesn’t matter what “really” happened, what matters is the Jesus they themselves see, perceive and love. Fair enough, but someone like that shouldn’t comment on anyone else “forgetting the message of Christ”!