Between Jesus and Paul

Blog371a

When I joined the group – which I’m not going to call a cult; other people call it a cult, but it’s not. There’s nothing cultish about it – when I joined the group, the leaders told me I had to ignore whatever my family said about it. They instructed us all that the best way to really commit ourselves was to turn our backs on our families. Of course they were right – hadn’t the Teacher himself said so? – families belonged to our old lives. They didn’t understand the Teacher’s message or how important his mission was and how much he loved us. So I turned my back on mine. They weren’t worth a thing next to Him.

Then they said I should give everything away. Sell it all and hand it over to the poorest in the group because possessions only hold us back. Get rid of them, they told us the Teacher had said, and don’t even hang onto the money you got for your stuff. Give that away too. Because, you see, nothing material matters. We’re in the last days. God is going to use the Teacher to do amazing things, to change the world so that those of us at the bottom of the pile rise up to the top, and those on top now – the rich, the powerful and the cruel – well, they’re going to get their comeuppance. Nothing else matters. How could it, really? God’s New Kingdom is going to arrive any day now.

So I spend all my time going out into the streets, proclaiming this great news to the lost. Most of them don’t want to know, of course. They say there have been a thousand would-be messiahs who’ve declared that the world is about to end soon and it never does, and things go on just the same.

This time, though, it’s different. The Teacher is different. He said, the leaders who knew him say, that we should act as if the Kingdom has already arrived. So we try not to judge the foolish ignoramuses who ignore his words of warning, and we make ourselves servants, always doing more than people demand of us, turning away meekly when they spit at us or strike us in the face. We give to anyone who asks – not that I have much to give these days (only what the group graciously provides for me) – and we visit the sick and those in prison. We feed the hungry and give our clothes to the poor, specially our impoverished brothers and sisters in the Lord. Truth to tell, I’m one of those myself now – one of the poor – but I have untold riches stored up in Heaven.

So I have no regrets. I’m doing what the Teacher commanded. I follow his blessed instructions, which his followers passed on to our revered leaders. And it won’t be forever, will it. Just a short while now and we will have our reward. The Teacher will return and he will usher in God’s magnificent Kingdom on Earth and there’ll be no more crying and no more serving; the Lord will lift us up to great heights and we will inherit the Earth.

Didn’t the Teacher say so?

Wouldn’t this be what it was like for some of those early followers of Yeshua Bar Yosef? Those who came immediately after the disciples, but who heard ‘the good news’ only second or third hand? Followers of the Way, known in some circles as ‘The Poor’, whom Paul persecuted? Believers who were around in those few years prior to Paul getting his hands (and unhinged mind) on the message and altering it beyond all recognition? Those ‘Christians’ (the name wouldn’t have existed back then) must’ve believed something and it couldn’t have been Paul’s mystical salvation plan, which didn’t yet exist. From the evidence that survives in the synoptic gospels and from Paul’s disputes with the disciples, I surmise that, for someone who took Jesus’ message seriously in those very early days, it must have been something like the experiences of the hypothetical follower above. As misguided and futile as all of this was, it is, nevertheless, a far cry from the bloated, self-serving travesty that is Christianity today.

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The Sect Hiding in Plain Sight

Condemning-Pharisees

With thanks to David Eves.

Back at the start of Christianity, the cult was divided into numerous factions; not unlike its modern counterpart. Acts’ claim that all the new converts – the church – got on famously, sharing all they had and generally taking part in one big love-in is spin, a lie concocted by its author, ‘Luke’. Its not the only lie he invents; later in Acts he tries to present the new faith’s ambassadors, Paul and the original apostles, as being largely in agreement about what the Christian message was about. We know from Paul’s own writing that this wasn’t so.

Likewise the united church. We know that there was part of the cult that had a very different theology and soteriology (doctrine of salvation) from Paul. They didn’t subscribe to his incantational magic about a dying god-man who would save them if they claimed his death for themselves. Instead, this group believed that the way to find favour with God was to be ‘righteous’, by doing good works and generally expending oneself on others. Its members promoted, and probably practised, a yin and yang measure-for-measure philosophy: God would show forgiveness, mercy and compassion, they said, only to the same extent that a believer demonstrated them him or herself. Because they believed Jesus had commanded it and God favoured it, they denounced wealth and advocated a self-deprecating way of life. They were predominantly Jewish. They believed Jewish Law was still valid and should still be followed by cult members. They were, however, hostile towards those who, unable to see any value in the new cult, remained within Judaism. The sect invented anachronistic stories about Jesus sparring with the Jewish leaders of their time, half a century or more after Jesus died.

Though it is unlikely any of members of this sect had ever encountered Jesus in person, they believed he was going to return to the Earth while they were still alive in order to judge humankind. Naturally he would vindicate them while condemning all others, particularly the rich and powerful. He would do this because they were the ones who were doing as he commanded – helping the sick, the hungry and the homeless – which would ensure the returning Lord would look on them favourably. None of them had seen the resurrected Jesus but nevertheless they valued the stories they heard about those who supposedly had, and they promoted these stories themselves.

How do we know this? Because this particular sect left behind a record of their beliefs. They imbued them with authority by putting them into the mouth of a preacher who had lived more than fifty years earlier. Who knows, maybe he did say such things. The sect either believed that Jesus had actually contradicted Paul’s notion that the Jewish Law was no longer valid or they felt it necessary to to make Jesus say so themselves. Likewise, they rejected the magical mysticism preached by Paul that was beginning to take hold in those early days. The group’s beliefs were radically different and their writing specifically designed to counteract ideas they opposed with a passion.

Where will you find this group’s writings? In the bible, at the very start of the New Testament in the book called ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’; this book is their writing, give or take the odd bit of tampering from later on. Matthew’s gospel details the sect’s beliefs about Jesus, their measure-for-measure morality, their recipe for righteousness and their beliefs about salvation and the coming judgement.* So different are these from Paul’s ideas that the gospel can only have been created to counteract his doctrines. The community that produced Matthew had no truck either with Paul’s theology or his soteriology.

Read Matthew for yourself and see how much it is at odds with Paul. The discrepancy is there for all to see, yet Christians have always convinced themselves, if they’ve thought about it at all, that not only is Matthew’s gospel compatible with the mumbo-jumbo that follows it, but that its ‘good news’ and Paul’s are identical. Nothing could be further from the truth.

 

* I’m happy to provide chapter and verse from Matthew’s gospel to support all I say about it.