Posts Tagged 'Voice of Jesus'

Hearing the Voice of Jesus

Icon of Jesus Christ

Icon of Jesus Christ

Why is Hearing the Voice of Jesus a Problem in the First Place?

The most obvious reason we find hearing the voice of Jesus so challenging, is that in so far as we know, Jesus never wrote anything.

At the best of times, literacy rates in the ancient world were very low.  Literacy rates of peasants living in the backwoods of Galilee would have been vanishingly low.  It took a great deal of time and money to learn to read and write.  Dirt poor farmers, fishermen, and other peasants simply did not have the luxury of the time or money required to acquire this set of skills.

So speaking from a strictly historical perspective, it is very unlikely Jesus was able to read or write.  Some biblical scholars argue that Jesus was an exception to this rule, however, while one cannot categorically state Jesus was illiterate, we have no objective reason to think otherwise.

And we ought not cite the story of the woman accused of adultery as evidence to the contrary.  This story, which includes the observation that Jesus wrote something in the dirt, does not appear in any manuscripts until the late 4th century, well over 300-years after Jesus’ death.  This story now appears in the Gospel of John, chapter 8, but over the centuries is has appeared elsewhere, including in an entirely different gospel.  It is a lovely, instructive story, but it cannot be properly attributed to the historical Jesus.

In any event, no writings of Jesus survive.  So to discover the voice of Jesus we are unable to appeal to Jesus directly, as we may with Paul, for example.

20-Year Silence

If anything was written about Jesus during his lifetime, it no longer survives.  In fact, we know of no Christian writings during the 20-years following Jesus’ crucifixion.  There are indications of an oral tradition during this period, but it remained an oral tradition for two decades.

The earliest Jewish-Christian writings we have about Jesus come from the pen of Paul, who began writing in the early 50s.  And as surprising as it may seem to us today, Paul wrote very little about Jesus.  This is because Paul wrote what are called occasional letters, meaning he wrote in response to specific occasions, or problems.

Why is it Important that we Hear the Words of Jesus?

To many ears this may sound like a crazy question.  Some answer, who would *not* wish to hear the very words of God!  Others answer that the original words of Jesus are long lost to history, and can never be recovered, so only a fool would propose the question in the first place.

My answer is to be found somewhere between these stark responses.

I start with the recognition that recovering the original words of Jesus is challenging.  We certainly cannot simply read the Red Letter Edition of the Holy Bible and assume that Jesus really spoke all these words.

The evolution of the Christian New Testament ―which is an anthology of 27 books and letters, written in Greek― grew organically, over a period of decades.  These writings were then transmitted to us over the course of several centuries.  And it took nearly 300-years for these books and letters to coalesce into an agreed upon canon of scripture.

Scholarly historical and textual criticism is able to inform our understanding of this organic process.  Through this scholarship we are able to discern layers of redaction (editing) and interpretation laid over one another throughout the New Testament.  And this is equally true for the words put upon the lips of Jesus by the gospel authors.

But those who already “know” Jesus’ voice is forever lost to us, will never hear it;  just as those who already know every word attributed to Jesus “must be” authentic, will be unable to hear the other voices laid over his.  Both arguments have their strengths and weaknesses.  And one must carefully weigh their merits, one saying at a time, teasing apart the accrued layers, when present.

Yet, provided we listen carefully, I do believe we may hear the voice of Jesus through these accrued layers.  But I also acknowledge it takes most of us some time to acquire that ear.
So how might we begin to train our ear to hear Jesus’ voice?  

One approach is to contemplate the various characterizations of Jesus, as represented in the gospels.  If we read these accounts carefully, what might we discern of Jesus?  What might we discern of the author who wrote the text?  Or of the audience to whom it was directed?  What were the completing religious-political concerns of ancient Palestine?

Each of these are useful interrogations of the text.  But in this essay I wish to discuss Jesus.  Some observations about Jesus are almost obvious, while others are quite complex and variously debated even among professionals in the field of biblical and New Testament studies.  So if we become confused at times, at least we are in good company!

Jesus the Jewish Mystic

Jesus was clearly a Jewish mystic.  “Mystics are people who have vivid and typically frequent experiences of God. … As a Jewish mystic, Jesus lived a life radically centered in God; that was its foundation”  (Marcus Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pgs. 89-90).

Jesus spent long hours in private prayer, which I suspect we would today understand as periods of deep contemplation and meditation.  We might even think of his 40-days in the wilderness as a kind of “vision quest.”  God was an experiential presence in Jesus’ life.  He spoke of God as his father, and even more affectionately as his Abba, which we may translate as Daddy or Poppa.

This speaks to a profound closeness Jesus felt with God.  For Jesus, God was not some distant sky god like Zeus or Jupiter, nor even a remote, abstract version of the Jewish God.  For Jesus, God was present in a deeply meaningful way;  God was experienced as present to Jesus, both in time and proximity.

Jesus the Jewish Prophet

Jesus was clearly a Jewish prophet.  Like other Jewish prophets before him, Jesus spoke of the God of Israel, the importance of centering one’s life in God, and specifically that a deep change was required of the people of Israel, because they and their nation had lost their way.

Prophets tell us we each face two paths:  we may estrange ourselves from God, and suffer as a result;  or we may return to the proper observance of what is important to God, and live with God’s blessing.

And as Marcus Borg observes, Jesus was specifically a social prophet, in the likeness of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah, and “as such he was a radical critic of the domination system of his time” (Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pg. 91).

Jesus the Teacher of Wisdom

Jesus was clearly a profound teacher.  He was a master of the aphorism (a short, memorable, insightful saying) and metaphor, often teaching in parables.  Jesus was a travelling teacher, so most likely he used his most memorable phrases and stories frequently, although finessing them to fit specific occasions, which is typical of oral traditions.

“At the heart of the alternative wisdom of Jesus was the path of death and resurrection understood as metaphor for an internal psychological-spiritual process.  It involved dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity, dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being” (Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pg. 90).

Jesus Taught “The Way”

In the book of Acts we are told the earliest name for what evolved into Christianity was simply, the Way (Acts 9:2).  And choosing to participate in the Way does seem to me an accurate characterization of many of Jesus’ sayings.

We may further observe that many of Jesus’ stories and parables fit quite well into a well-established mode of teaching, common to many world religions, frequently called “Two Way” teachings.  As Marcus Borg states in “The Lost Gospel Q” (page 18):  “There is the wise way and the foolish way, the narrow way and the broad way.  One way leads to life, the other to death.”

Jesus the Healer

Jesus was clearly a extraordinary healer and exorcist.  We know of other noted healers and exorcists in the New Testament period, but “more healing stories are told about Jesus that about any other figure in the Jewish tradition” (Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pg. 90).

Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet

I believe this is one of the hardest choices one must ultimately make about Jesus.  Was he an apocalyptic prophet or not?  It seems pretty clear that John the Baptist was, and many scholars believe Jesus must have been a follower of John.  And the canonical gospels do present Jesus as speaking with an apocalyptic voice (as does Q);  Matthew chapter 24 is a good example;  verse 34 is of particular interest to me:

>  “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”  (NRSV).

Which leads me to ask the obvious question of how long does a generation last?  2,000 years or longer?  The old work-around to this troubling question is that it is merely metaphoric language, and generation means humankind.  While I do consider the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament to be highly metaphorical ―in the richest meaning of that term― in this case I’ve never found that argument convincing.

A far better explanation to my mind, is this language is reflective of the apocalyptic voice in the 1st century, which was common roughly 100-years before and after the life of Jesus.  In the Jewish apocalyptic movement, there was widespread belief that God was going to overthrow Rome and put in its place a kingdom ruled by God, through his emissary, the Messiah (the Christ, as it comes to us from the Greek, Χριστός).

So the question we have to answer to our individual satisfaction, is to whom shall we attribute these sayings of Jesus?  Did the historical Jesus really make apocalyptic prophecy?  Or did a later author put these words upon the lips of Jesus when writing his gospel?

I will not presume to answer for you, but I will state that I do not believe one may simultaneously hold Jesus to be an apocalyptic prophet and a divine incarnation of God.  Incarnation, means in the flesh, so if one posits that Jesus became divine after his death, this dilemma may resolve itself.

The Kingdom of God

This is a phrase we hear throughout the canonical gospels with some frequency.  Do these words reach back to Jesus?  If so, what might Jesus have meant?

To my experience, main stream Christianity predominately teaches the kingdom of God is referring to a heavenly existence to be experienced after our physical death, or a future second coming of Jesus on earth.  I however, disagree with these views.

The kingdom to which the authentic Jesus spoke, I firmly believe is to be found right here on earth, within each of us, and is found in our loving interactions with others, expressed through such actions as shoeing children, helping to feed the hungry, and providing winter clothing to homeless persons.

This is what Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg sometimes call the participatory model of Christianity.  They use this phrase to mean that the kingdom of God is only going to come about through our personal investment and actions to bring it about, directly into the communities in which we live.

I find this to be both an interesting and practical perspective which holds a lot of merit.  It may be that God could “invade” earth and establish his kingdom forcefully;  but I also think that would defeat the entire point of doing so.  What good would it be to artificially force such a kingdom upon persons who were not sufficiently evolved spiritually to sustain it?

The point is this:  our very natures are changed if we invest ourselves in the process of bringing the kingdom of God upon earth during our lifetimes.  And it is that very process of spiritual transformation that I believe may very well be the critical point.

Which is to say, it really does not do us any good to be “given” the kingdom;  we really only undergo personal, internal spiritual transformation if we mature ―evolve― to the point that we *desire* to help bring that kingdom into existence.  And I believe *that* is the point to which Jesus was trying to open our hearts.

Luke 17:20-21  Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed;  nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among-within you” (NRSV).

The Jesus Movement

Jesus was a Jew from rural Galilee.  Jesus’ followers were primarily Jews, and Jesus primarily ministered to his fellow Jews.  This is the Jewish Jesus Movement which predates Christianity.  A few years after Jesus was crucified, Paul began to teach his understanding of Jesus’ ministry to the Greeks.  Used in this way, to be a “Greek” simply means one is a gentile ― a person who is not Jewish.

Thus, we may also speak of a Greek (or Gentile) Jesus Movement.  As greater numbers of gentiles entered the Jesus Movement, it evolved from a Jewish Jesus Movement, into a predominately Gentile Jesus Movement, and later into various forms of early Christianity.

Identifying the Authentic Voice of Jesus is Far from Obvious

I hope the above discussion allows you to see we may find a number of ways of understanding and characterizing Jesus.  And we may do so while remaining rooted within the canonical texts.  This is an important point.  One may arrive at a number of ways of seeing Jesus, while supporting one’s view entirely from a biblical point of view.  One need not introduce non-canonical texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas.

Now, I happen to like the Gospel of Thomas, and take the late Prof. Ron Miller’s lead, and that of The Jesus Seminar, and suspect that perhaps a third of it may reach back to the authentic voice of Jesus.  And for this reason, I do make use of the Gospel of Thomas;  but thoughtfully, and with deliberation.  After all, if we hold the position that about 1/3 of the Gospel of Thomas may be the echo of Jesus’ voice, we are also observing some 2/3 of it fails to capture the voice of Jesus.

The Jesus Seminar

The Jesus Seminar is a fellowship of a biblical scholars who have spent decades attempting to identify the authentic voice of Jesus in the ancient texts available to us.  They do include the Gospel of Thomas as viable source material.  Their work has determined that approximately 20% of the “red letter” words of Jesus may be properly attributed to Jesus.

Q Hypothesis

Q is a hypothetical early text of the sayings of Jesus.  No surviving Q manuscript is known to exist.  This is the weakest link in the Q Hypothesis argument.  Supporters will however, point to the recent (mid-1900’s) discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, which is an authentic sayings gospel.  Where one such gospel was written, so too a second may have been written.

But what is Q?

Q is short for Quelle, from the German, meaning “source.”  It is alternately known as the Q source, the Q document, the Q Gospel, and the Q Sayings Gospel.  But most frequently it is simply called Q.  It is primarily composed of the sayings attributed to Jesus which are found in both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark.

Scholars who find this hypothesis of value believe that the authors of Matthew and Luke wrote without knowledge of one another, so there must have been a source for the sayings which they share, which are not taken from Mark.  Since both are known to have drawn extensively from the earliest gospel, Mark, it is a natural deduction they may have similarly drawn from another, as yet undiscovered, source document (Q).

Incidentally, the Gospel of John does not enter into such debates because it is clearly, dramatically different than the other canonical gospels.  John was written in the 90’s, after the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and is often referred to as the Fourth Gospel.  (And the Gospel of Thomas is sometimes referred to as the Fifth Gospel, even though it is non-canonical.)

Detractors of the Q Hypothesis often have great difficulty with the invention of an undiscovered document.  Supporters of Q point out there may have already been such discoveries, but we cannot identify them.  Does this sound like a strange claim?  Their point is that if we discover a small scrap of ancient manuscript that only contains a portion of a saying which is shared between Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark (a partial definition of a Q-saying) we cannot determine whether that scrap originated from Matthew, Luke, or the proposed Q.

Thus, the only way to provide evidence of Q is to find a much larger, much more rare, document fragment which contains at least large portions of two proposed Q-sayings.  Anything less, and detractors simply assume the small fragment originates in either Matthew or Luke.  This logic cannot prove Q ever existed, but it does demonstrate that proving Q will be very difficult.

How Might One Begin to Hear the Voice of Jesus?  

First and foremost, recognize that it is up to each of us to discern our own interpretation.  We may avail ourselves of a great deal of critical scholarship over the last 150-years which may greatly inform our investigation, but ultimately, we each have to come to terms with difficult and sometimes contradictory information.

>  Was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet?

>  Was the historical Jesus divine?  If so, when, and to what extent?

It is up to *us* to answers these and other difficult questions to our own satisfaction.  Through the process of resolving such questions, our apprehension of Jesus, and his role as the Christ, will progressively be revealed to us.

With the goal of informing our search for the voice of Jesus, I highly recommend studying each of the following books, which discuss Q, Jesus, and the Gospel of Thomas.  “The Lost Gospel Q” and “The Gospel of Jesus” may be read quite quickly ―over the course of a quiet afternoon or evening― because the actual text of the ancient documents in each case is quite short;  but do spend time reading their introductions and appendixes.  Ron Miller’s book on the Gospel of Thomas is somewhat longer, but I find it to be superlative (as are all his books and lectures).

>  “The Lost Gospel Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus” (Marcus Borg)

>  “The Gospel of Jesus: According to the Jesus Seminar” (Robert Funk & The Jesus Seminar)

>  “The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice” (Ron Miller)

I always welcome opportunities to mention the talks the late Ron Miller gave to the Theosophical Society.  And since I suspect many readers will not have these three books immediately at hand, I would like to recommend Ron Miller’s talks, which you may immediately access on-line:

http://www.ronmillersworld.org/updates/eight-talks-from-the-theosophical-society/

In reference to this essay, I would begin with his discussion of the Gospel of Thomas:

http://www.ronmillersworld.org/watch/the-gospel-of-thomas/

For those who enjoy trying to discern the voice of Jesus, I would recommend another book published by The Jesus Seminar:

>  “The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus”

Guided by these books, authors such as bishop Spong and Marcus Borg, Ron Miller’s wise counsel, and time spent in quiet contemplation, I believe I have heard an echo of Jesus’ voice, reaching to me across 2,000 years.  My hope is that you too encounter the voice of Jesus.  And that through hearing, you are able to discern a variety of layers which have accrued upon Jesus’ words, as they have come to us in the Christian New Testament.

Upon attuning your hearing to Jesus’ voice, I suspect you may very well apprehend the Way of which Jesus spoke.  Once you do, you cannot help but to begin reading the New Testament with a heart born from above.

Erik+

Resources:

Marcus Borg

Book: “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith”

Book: “The Lost Gospel Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus”

The Jesus Seminar

Book: “The Gospel of Jesus: According to the Jesus Seminar”

Book: “The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus”

Ron Miller

Book: “The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice”

Video: http://www.ronmillersworld.org/updates/eight-talks-from-the-theosophical-society/

Video: http://www.ronmillersworld.org/watch/the-gospel-of-thomas/

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