by Ervin Taylor  |  December 3, 2017  | 

This commentary had its origin a little over five decades ago when I began teaching on a campus of a state university. My memory traces are becoming less and less clear, so I can just dimly recall the event. Without any preamble, one of my graduate students casually asked, “What’s Christianity all about?” I forget the context. Since I rarely was aware of the faith tradition of my students, or more likely, the lack thereof, it was not possible to know his denominational background, if any. The context could have been that we were working on a sample from a site in Israel. Or perhaps, the topic of the 14C dating of the Shroud of Turin had come up. I don’t recall.

derives its beliefs from the teachings of a 1st-century AD Jewish religious figure, Jesus of Nazareth. Then he asked: “What were those teachings?” I think I did my best to be objective, probably citing the ethical principles which Jesus was reported by his followers to have taught. Perhaps also something about how historic Western culture contains many Christian-derived components. However, the details of the rest of this conversation are a bit hazy. 

Introductory Apologia

     It is probably safe to suggest that literally tons of ink and paper have been spent on many versions of addressing, arguing, or discussing the topic of who Jesus was and the nature of Christianity. Go to any major college or university research library, or better still, visit a major research university with a Divinity School or School of Theology. Walk down aisle after aisle containing hundreds or even, in the most prestigious theological libraries in the United States and Europe, thousands of books, journals, and magazines devoted to various aspects of the topic in many languages.

     In some cases, these libraries may include a collection of works by individuals from the various cults, sects, “independent ministries,” new and historic divisions, subdivisions, and sub-subdivisions of the many types of groups making up contemporary Christianity. In some cases, these works will argue that their sectarian theological perspective represents the “original” or “most pure form” of Christianity.[2]

     The questions “Who was Jesus?” and “What is Christianity?” have been and can be asked in so many different contexts, and from such a wide variety of perspectives, that it’s difficult to know where to start. In part because of this, I suspect that most of us don’t start.

     Perhaps we might ask ourselves first who has appropriate standing to ask such questions. Saintly individuals? Theologians? Church historians? Professional clergy? Do us ordinary people even have the right to raise such questions? After all, is not Christianity over 2,000 years old? Surely, by this time, this topic has been thoroughly examined from many angles, and any differences about a definition would have certainly been worked out to the satisfaction of all interested parties. We shall see.[3]

     We might suspect that many adults hearing or reading these two questions might say to themselves that these kinds of inquiries should have been settled when someone was much younger. An adult who grew up within a Christian culture, and especially if one was born into a practicing Christian family of whatever type, should not need to worry about or even consider such issues.

     Others will perhaps say that for anyone already a part of a Christian tradition, it would be a waste of time to occupy oneself with such questions. We have to get on with the immediate tasks at hand in the “real” world. These kinds of questions are unnecessary since one should just accept what their family, or other people in a peer group around them, or someone in a significant relationship, believes. And that’s good enough.

     On the other side, it is suggested that if one wishes to pursue such serious and substantive questions on the topic to be considered in this series of commentaries, they can only be considered at some reasonable level of coherence if one first decides what kind of parameters one sees a need to put into place to structure what precisely is being asked. In the spirit of that assertion, this writer makes neither a claim to originality nor to having the benefit of formal theological education. The statements and suggestions offered here are a single individual’s interpretation of information coming from many types of sources, seeking to see if any combination of the information gleaned from these sources can be assembled into a set of reasonable inferences.  

Obvious Answers? Or Not?

     There might be those among us who would say that any kind of extended reflections concerning the nature of Jesus and Christianity are beside the point and obscure a simple, obvious answer. Jesus came from heaven to save humanity. He lived and died and then was resurrected and went back to heaven. What is so complicated about that? The definition of Christianity is also simple. Christianity is what Jesus of Nazareth believed and taught. We know what Jesus taught from reading the gospels and the letters of Paul. End of discussion.

     For the moment, let’s go with this definition of Christianity and what it means to be a Christian by saying it is a religious tradition based on the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. All we have to do to understand that tradition is to consider the nature of Jesus’ teachings. Thus the questions: How much do we know about Jesus? How much do we know about his teachings?

     At the outset, we probably need to dispense with one issue. We know that, from time to time, there have been writers of various reputations who insisted that the “Jesus of history” never existed. He was “made up” by his early followers. It seems to me that this view is confronted with a number of historical problems. As far as I am aware, on one side, the vast majority of even the most liberal, critical scholars specializing in New Testament studies and, on the other, even the most secular of historians, even those known to confess to being non-believers or agnostics, have long rejected that idea. And from the little I know about how most human societies process their religious identities, while such an idea would certainly be possible, it would be widely viewed as improbable.[4] So we will say that Christians are those who adhere to the teachings of a historical personage, a Jesus of Nazareth, who lived and died in the first half of the 1st century AD. The question is: “Can we determine exactly the nature of his teachings?”

     The remainder of this discussion will summarize the substance of a dialogue with an individual whom we will call “Our Visitor,” or OV for short. Before relating this dialogue, I will alert a reader that the writer may or may not agree with statements made by OV or what is said in response to him. Please keep that thought in the foreground as you read the following and future discussions in this series of commentaries.

Back to Basics with a Visitor from Another Star System  

     Let us begin by assuming that we must explain the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the nature of Christianity to a visitor who has just dropped into the second decade of the 21st century from a place far, far away with no knowledge of the nature of Jesus’ teachings and the degree to which his presumed teachings influenced the development of Christianity. All this individual knows is the name, Jesus, and that Jesus was born in an ancient Jewish culture but was very influential in founding a religion called Christianity. And that’s it. As noted above, we will refer to the person from far, far away, as “Our Visitor” or “OV.”

     Let’s say that Our Visitor said he comes from a planet circling one of three stars in a star system which Earth’s inhabitants call Alpha Centauri. He[5] had heard about Jesus of Nazareth a number of times while listening to Earth broadcasting channels − both radio and, more recently, television. As a consequence, OV became very curious about several comments that were made about Jesus and his teachings. The point is, with absolutely no background on which to draw to find answers to his questions, where would we begin?[6]

     As part of our conversation specifically on our topic, he indicated that he had been listening to earth radio ever since his planet first detected radio, and then later TV signals, coming from Earth. After all, it only takes a little over four earth years for radio and TV signals from earth to travel to his home planet. He told me that that is how he learned to understand, speak, and read English with great proficiency.

      For purposes of initiating a serious discussion with OV, I decided to go with a minimalist-historical or formalist approach in responding to his questions. So I began by saying that the original prime source of answers to his questions about Jesus and Christianity is contained in what are typically referred to as the books of the New Testament. I immediately regretted calling this collection the “New Testament” since OV immediately said “What’s a “Testament?” and then “Is there an Old Testament”?

      I suddenly realized that if I was not careful, my conversation with OV on this topic could rapidly go sideways, so I made some excuse that we would get back to that question later. He said “OK” but had this quizzical look on his face.

     I gave him a book which contains 27 separate works that are contained in almost all Christian texts referred to as the New Testament. I think it was the original Revised Standard English translation. He opened the book and quickly thumbed through it. The first thing he said was, “I see that all of the texts in this book are in English.”

     OV continued: “That’s interesting, Jesus spoke and wrote in English.” “No, no,” I quickly responded. “This is a translation. Jesus lived over 2,000 years ago. He did not speak or write in English or any other modern language. The English written and spoken today did not exist 2,000 years ago. On a daily basis, Jesus almost certainly spoke a dialect of a language we call Aramaic. By the way, the name we use to refer to him, Jesus, is derived from a Latin version of his Hebrew name. His Hebrew name can be transliterated into English as Joshua. It appears to have been commonly used for males in Judea during the time he lived there.”  

     I guess that OV knew what Latin was. However, he immediately asked “Hebrew? What’s that?” I quickly responded: “Sorry, I should have explained that at the beginning. You are certainly aware that Jesus was born a Jew.” He nodded, indicating “yes.” I continued, “The language spoken by the ancient Jews or Hebrews is called, accordingly, Hebrew. Hebrew was still spoken by many Jews during the lifetime of Jesus, but among ordinary Jews, it was considered a special language used only during religious services. As I said, among most Jews of the time of Jesus in Judea, the primary language used in everyday life was a dialect of Aramaic, which belongs to a group of languages which includes Hebrew. The ancient Aramaic dialects were used in trade and administration in the Near East going back to about 1000 BC.”    

     “Interesting,” OV said. He did not ask what “BC” stood for. I later found out that he had been particularly interested in learning about the calendars used on earth by various groups and had listened carefully to any earth broadcast that said anything about calendars.         

     “OK,” he said slowly, “I get it. These 27 books have been translated from Aramaic into English.” “No,” I said, “these books were originally written in a form or dialect of a language called Greek. At this time, this dialect, koine or common Greek, was something of a lingua franca in the central and eastern parts of the Roman world. I assume you know that Latin was the language of Roman administration and was used more commonly in the western regions of the Roman Empire ” OV had also been interested in history and he said he knew about the Roman Empire from listening to earth radio, mainly NPR stations.

     “What’s lingua franca mean?” OV asked? “Oh, sorry,” I responded. “That means that this form of Greek was used during this period in ordinary business or commercial dealings or common social interactions.

     “But,” he said,” I thought you just said that Jesus spoke and wrote in Aramaic, right?” “That’s right,” I said, “He spoke Aramaic, but I didn’t say he wrote in Aramaic. As far as we know, Jesus himself didn’t write any document in any language.”

     “Oh,” he said. I added, “There are some scholars who argue that Jesus could also communicate in the type of koine Greek that was spoken in a region of ancient Judea called Galilee where the town where he was born, Nazareth, was located.[7] This has been suggested because there were at this time a number of towns with large non-Jewish populations speaking both Greek and Aramaic located in that region. The Greek word used in the New Testament to describe what Jesus did for a living was tekton, which has been traditionally translated into English as carpenter or craftsmen, but it also could mean “builder,” suggesting that Jesus was perhaps involved in construction in these towns. But, again, as far as we know, Jesus wrote nothing, or at least nothing that has survived.”

     A puzzled look came over OV’s face. “Really?” he said, “but if Jesus didn’t write anything himself, how do we know anything about his teachings?”

     “His followers,” I quickly responded. “As best as scholars today can figure out, beginning about 20 years after Jesus died, one of his followers began to write letters to various groups of Jesus believers in various cities of the central parts of the Roman Empire that, in some cases, he had previously visited. Among other things, these letters contained statements about the importance of Jesus in their religious lives.”[8] (Actually, the first Christian writer did not generally use the term Jesus, but mostly referred to “Christ” (Christos), but I didn’t want to confuse things too soon.)

     “Perhaps 10 to 15 years after that,” I continued, “other followers wrote about various things that had been remembered about Jesus during his lifetime and quoted many of his statements that had previously been communicated orally.[9] “Before there were any of these documents, there also might have been a number of stories that people told other people about Jesus, and things that someone remembered that he said. One or more individuals may have written down some of these stories and remembered statements. If some of this material was actually committed to writing, we don’t have that document. Modern scholars call this conjectural listing of Jesus stories and sayings ‘Q.'” (He didn’t ask and I didn’t volunteer why they call it “Q.” Q is the first letter of the German word for “source.”)

     He brightened up a little and said “But the first one to write about him must have actually known him while he was alive and could quote firsthand his teachings? I slowly said, “No . . . (long pause) . . . the first one to write about him never knew him while he was alive.”

     Long pause. “Oh,” he said, “That’s interesting. Who was that?” I said, “His Jewish name was Saul. He was born in a major trading and administrative center called Tarsus on the south central coast of Asia Minor. Today, we call that area Turkey. At the time Saul lived there, the Romans called this town Juliopolis, named for a famous Roman general and major political figure, Julius Caesar. It is recorded later that Saul actually had grown up in Jerusalem and had been educated there. He apparently had a very good education that included the Greek and Roman classics. That strongly suggests that he understood and could write in Greek and perhaps a little Latin. While Saul certainly came from a Jewish background, in his letters, he, or someone taking dictation for him, could write in the common koine form of Greek. He is thus better known by his Greek name, Paul. He is thus referred to as Paul of Tarsus.”[10]

     OV immediately responded: “If he didn’t know Jesus personally, how did he know what his teachings were?” “Well,” I said, “it started when Paul said he had a vision in which Jesus appeared to him.” OV responded immediately, “What’s a ‘vision'”?

     I suddenly realized that I should have referred to this event using a different term. But I couldn’t stop now − so I did my best. “A ‘vision,'” I said, “is where one person sees and or hears something that no one around him sees or hears, and —” My visitor interrupted by saying something to the effect that, “Where I come from, those kinds of people need professional help.”

     “No, no,” I said, “these people are not necessarily mentally ill. We sometimes say that these individuals are experiencing “out-of-body” episodes. While they are in that state, some of these individuals say they hear the voice of one or more supernatural beings who tell them special things they would not know otherwise.”

     “Hmm,” OV said. I continued, “On Earth, there have been a number of individuals who have reported having “visions” and hearing things from various types of supernatural beings. Some of these people have founded, or helped found, new religious movements.”

     “Hmm,” he again responded. He had started to say “Hmm” a lot. Later, he told that when he heard something that he thought was, to use his term, “weird,” he would say “Hmm.”

Supernatural Beings? What’re They?

     “Supernatural beings”? OV said, squinting his eyes. “What or who are they?” Now I’ve done it, I said to myself. This conversation could rapidly go down a rabbit hole. Perhaps a strong counterstatement would be in order.

     So I asked, “Don’t people on your planet believe in supernatural beings?”

     “All we have is ‘natural beings,'” he said, “but no ‘supernatural’ ones. What on earth are they?” (I wasn’t sure if he was trying to inject some humor into the conversation, but I thought it better to ignore the comment.)

     I tried again, “Don’t you have a Supreme Being of some type?”

     “Supreme Being? . . . Oh,” he said, “yes, of course. We use a phrase, that as best I can translate into your language, would be something like “The Self-Existent One” or just “The One.” A few refer to him as the “Mysterious One.” However, that being exists in the only world that exists for us − you call it, I think, “Reality.” We believe that The One certainly exists, but we know little about . . .,” he hesitated, “I was about to say, we don’t know very much about ‘him,’ but I just realized that the ‘him’ part would not be correct. English is such a strange language.”

     To continue the conversation, I thought it might be possible to move beyond the “problem” of communications from “supernatural beings,” but suddenly things went south again.

     I said, “OK, let’s say that Jesus appeared to Paul during an out-of-body experience and convinced Paul to become an follower.”

     Our visitor responded first with a “Hmm” and then “O.K . . . .” and then he stopped . . . and slowly said “Hold . . . the . . . phone.” (I don’t know where he picked up all of his English colloquialisms.) “I thought you said that Jesus had died several decades prior to the time that Paul began to write about him.” “Yes,” I said. “That is correct.”

     “So,” said Our Visitor, “if Jesus was already deceased, how could he communicate with Paul?” I said, “After Jesus died, he was resurrected and then went up to where the Christian equivalent of your One or Mysterious One exists, and became a being like your One. He then could communicate with Paul by a vision.”

     First, OV said “Hmm” and then went silent for what seemed like several minutes. Then slowly he began to smile. “I get it,” he said. “You’re pulling my leg. (Again, I don’t know where he learned these expressions.) Is this what you earthlings call a joke? You can’t be serious!”

     “I am totally serious,” I said, “This is what Paul and some other followers of Jesus at the time said happened and it is certainly how Paul interpreted it.”

      The response of Our Visitor was, “Well, your Paul must have had a great imagination, or a lot of . . . ‘issues,’ as you English talkers say.”

Episode 2 will continue the conversation with OV from far, far, away and see if we can convince him that, even if Paul had “issues,” this should not distract us from seriously considering his statements about Jesus and his teachings. We will then return to explaining to OV what we know about the teachings of Jesus from early sources, including the New Testament books.

[1] This commentary will provide a prologue to a future discussion of: “What is Seventh-day Adventist Christianity?” and What is an Adventist Christian?”  

[2] As an example of the mentality reflected in such books and magazines, there is a billboard in, of all places, southern California which proclaims that, at their evangelical church, there is “No bull, just the Truth.” There is also a Protestant church which used to call the literature they produced “Truth-Filled Literature.”

[3]  From the outset, this writer realizes that a reasonable individual should be greatly intimidated by being confronted with the reality that some of the most distinguished, brilliant and highly esteemed scholars in the history of Western thought have addressed this topic. It thus should perhaps be considered the height of intellectual arrogance  − or worse − to even contemplate putting pen to paper − or the 21st-century equivalent, by pushing buttons on a computer keyboard, to address this topic. A logical course of action might have been to undergo first a lengthy period of psychiatric analysis and in-depth counseling in a search to determine what kind of intellectual delusions of grandeur might be responsible for an interest in undertaking such a discussion. Also, there might have been a new type of medication that might help. But since the present writer can’t afford an extended period of analysis or this new medication, he will just plow ahead cognizant of the mental health issues that might be revealed as he puts fingers to a keyboard.   

[4]  However, there are certainly entirely reasonable grounds to contest this view by pointing to a number of examples, both historically and in relatively recent times, of totally invented personages being considered to be divine and influencing, in significant ways, large segments of a population. One relatively recent example was the John Frum (or sometimes John From) movement. He was a completely fictitious figure associated with the cargo cults of the island of Tanna in the New Hebrides, now the independent nation of Vanatu. There are several accounts of the origins of the John Frum movement. However, it gained the attention of anthropologists and others during and following World War II. During World War II, large amounts of equipment and supplies arrived by ship and air on this island to support the war effort. Immediately following the end of the war, U.S. forces left the island and the arrival of what the islanders called “cargo” stopped. The reaction of the Tanna people was to develop elaborate rituals which sought to attract cargo back to the island. The individual who would cause this to happen was John Frum. He was described as having a white face and being a tall man. One of the leaders of the John Frum movement described him as “our God, our Jesus.” Many of his followers today, several generations later, continue to await the day that John Frum will return with great amounts of the promised cargo.

[5]  Our Visitor indicated that his biological classification on this planet would be closest to what we call “male.”  However, he also said that on his planet there were two types of “male,  five types of “female,” and four types of an “intermediate” sexual category.    

[6]  By the way, I’m calling him “Our Visitor” because after he told me his name on his home planet, I decided that I would not even try to pronounce it. To me, it sounded like a combination of bird songs and the calls of reindeer in heat.

[7] The narrative stating that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a town located a little south of Jerusalem, is widely regarded as a later attempt to link Jesus with David. The “flight to Egypt” statement is also regarded as another later addition which would link Jesus with Moses, using a statement in Hosea 11:1 that “Out of Egypt I called my son.” The statement in Hosea originally referred to Israel and the Exodus event, having nothing to do with the Messiah tradition. Matthew, being primarily written to a Jewish audience, is the only New Testament source that quotes that passage as referring to Jesus.      

[8] I’ve been informed that the majority of scholars support the view that the earliest New Testament document was a letter of Paul of Tarsus written to members of an early Christian community meeting in the Asia Minor town of Thessalonica (ancient Thessaloniki). That letter has been dated as having been written by Paul about AD 50. Most scholars suggest that Jesus died in AD 30 or 33. Therefore, about 20 years elapsed between the death of Jesus and the first written document that refers to his career and the implications of his teachings, at least for Paul of Tarsus.

[9] The majority of scholars assume that Mark was the first gospel composed. The earliest date assigned to the writing of Mark by mainline New Testament specialists is about AD 65.

[10] It appears that as far as the majority of New Testament scholars are able to determine, Paul of Tarsus was born sometime between 5 BC and AD 5. Jesus was born sometime between 5 and 3 BC. Thus Paul would have been alive during the time that Jesus would have been actively preaching in Galilee and around Jerusalem. However, Paul actively opposed the early Jesus movement until his reported vision of Jesus. His vision is dated somewhere around AD 34-36. Jesus was executed sometime around AD 30-33. Thus, between Jesus’ death and Paul’s vision, at most, three to four years would have elapsed. 

Ervin Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Past Director of the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside. He is also currently a Visiting Professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and Visiting Scientist at the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine. He has served as the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

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