A good friend suggested that I owe an explanation to people of progressive religious faith as to why I still concern myself with the Jesus traditions in light of my published views that the Jesus tradition is historically unreliable, and traditional Christianity is based on mythology. He was thinking like a progressive pastor, preacher, and prophet of social justice; I, on the other hand, am a retired academic and a historian of Christian origins. Our perspectives are quite different. Critiquing the Jesus tradition is something I do professionally, and my friend is a practitioner of a new form of traditional faith based on social justice.
The explanation he asked of me is nothing less than describing what the Jesus tradition contributes to contemporary human life; that is, what in the Jesus traditions might be embraced by people of progressive religious faith and what should be consigned to the bulging trash bins of dead religions. Fortunately he asked me to address the entire spectrum of the Jesus traditions; that is, to address not only what originated with the historical Jesus, but also what others have found of value in the Jesus traditions. In his challenge all of the Jesus tradition is given an equal weight.
Here are two reasons for my continuing interest in the Jesus tradition, and why I think it will continue to remain relevant. These two reasons only scratch the surface. Judging from the pervasive influence of Christianity and the iconic status of the Bible in contemporary American culture, it is obvious that the Jesus traditions remain relevant in 21st century America. Hence, the critical study of the Jesus tradition (what I do) will remain a legitimate public service until it happens that traditional Christianity and the Bible lose their influence in modern society. For the foreseeable future, however, there remains a need for critics of the Jesus tradition to separate beliefs about Jesus from the probable views of Jesus in order to call into question illegitimate uses of the Jesus tradition.
A second reason relates to early Christian ethical values. Early Christian writers have preserved certain ethical concepts, which have inspired much that is beneficial in Western civilization. One such concept is a liberal humanitarianism grounded in the concept of altruistic and unconditional love, which has embedded itself in Western culture. Altruistic love is an unselfish concern for and devotion to the welfare of others, without regard either for personal benefit or personal cost.
The Jesus traditions have brought over from the ancient Israelite tradition the idea of loving one's neighbor (Lev 19:18; Mark 12:31). In the Israelite tradition the neighbor was not one's fellow human being of whatever ethnic background, but rather one's fellow Israelite (Deut 15:1-3); that is to say, their neighbors were of their own tribe. Love was also extended to those sojourning among the Israelites; that is to say, to the stranger in their midst (Lev 19:33-34). In the Hebrew Bible love for neighbor appears in Torah as a commandment of God—hence it is a religious ethic of the Israelite community, which through Jesus passed into early Christian communities. Paul, for example, writes:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. All the commandments are summed up in this sentence: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom 13:8-10)
In this statement "neighbor" is not a fellow human being of whatever ethnic background, but rather a religious community ethic—love for your fellow Christian (as in Romans 15:1-2; Gal 5:13-15). Nevertheless, James 2:1-13 does seem to shade over into a universal humanitarian code of care and concern for fellow human beings.
One of the clearest expressions of a kind of secular altruistic love is found 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. Love in this passage does not appear to be a Christian attribute, which is motivated by religious belief and empowered by divine sanction; rather it is a nakedly human quality. There is no mention in this chapter of theology or Christology; neither God nor Christ is mentioned as motivating or enabling the act of loving.
One hard saying unique to Jesus in antiquity unquestionably illustrates an altruistic unconditional love; Jesus said "Love your enemies" (Luke 6:27b; Matt 5:44b). The literary context in which this saying is found struggles against the concept of "loving enemies" by offering lesser actions that involve minimum risk, which can be done without actually expressing concrete love for the enemy. In my view the world would be more impoverished without the concept of unconditional love, and it is precisely the Jesus tradition that has imported this concept into Western culture.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University