DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Historical Jesus
Christian Mission

There can be little doubt that the first Christians (many of whom thought of themselves as Jews) were missionary minded. Those based in and around Jerusalem seem to have wanted to tell their fellow Jews about Jesus the Messiah. Those who were reached by Paul were mostly non-Jews. But they too appear to have had a powerful motivation to tell others what they believed Jesus had done for them.

Paul's letters and the Acts of the Apostles relate much of the early story of Christian missionary endeavour. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, however. Christian mission, sometimes organised, sometimes more ad hoc, succeeded spectacularly. Within a relatively short time, Christians were a numerous and powerful sector of the Roman Empire. By the middle of the fourth century, Christianity had become the official Roman religion.

This strong desire to convert others to the Christian religion was certainly thought of by the early Church as supported if not commanded by Jesus as recorded in the gospels. That conviction has fueled Christian mission for millennia.

The conviction was based on a number of passages - read and understood as God's command to Christian people.. In particular, Mark 16.14-18 ( which Matthew used for his commissioning story in 28.16-20) has been quoted as the missionary's authority. A problem for this position is that a large majority of scholars conclude that these verses in Mark were added later. They are therefore not the words of Jesus but those of the early Church. (Mark's gospel ends at 16.8.)

Matthew 10.1-15 and 28.19, Mark 6.8-11, Luke 9.1-6, 10.1-12, 24.47, Acts 1.8 and Thomas 14.4 have been other passages quoted in support of the drive to convert the unbelievers of the world.

From an historical point of view, however, Matthew 10 has little in it which can be traced back to Jesus with any great degree of probability. The primary reasons for this are:

  • The author of Matthew's Gospel did not perceive the past as we do. We analyse it in terms of evidence. Some evidence may support a certain conclusion, other evidence may contradict it.

    In the end, all "history" comprises for us today an estimate of what "most probably really happened". The degree of probability may reduce or increase from time-to-time according to new evidence or new insights into the evidence. The final test of good history is an enduring consensus among those whose specialty is the study of the past.

    The upshot is that the author of this Gospel felt free to insert material because he "knew" it was true - a knowledge founded on what were for him authoritative sources like the Old Testament, and the revelation of God's will and wisdom to certain holy individuals.

    A majority of reputable scholars today acknowledge that [a] Matthew's author moved and rearranged material to suit perceptions of the meaning of Jesus to him and the Christian community of which he was part (no earlier than about the year 80); [b] he rewrote material gathered from his sources; and [c] he inserted new material formulated by him on the basis of what he considered sound authority.

  • One of the author's methods was to (as we would interpret it) invent words which he regarded as the truth and which reflected the nature and priorities of his community. There are very few sayings of Jesus which we can be sure are word-for-word what he said, if only because it's so difficult to reproduce exactly what anyone says without a tape recording. 

    Another critical reason why original words get distorted is the loss of accuracy which takes place when they are passed by word-of-mouth from person to person, as were the sayings of Jesus in the early days. 

    For these reasons, any saying which appears to reflect the concerns of the early Christians must be regarded as suspicious from an historical point of view. They may be what Jesus said. Anyone is of course free to draw their own conclusions. But I'm here concerned with "bare bones" history, those parts of the gospels which have a very high probability of being "what really happened" and in this case "what Jesus really said".

Did Jesus urge his followers to spread the "good news"?

If we rest a positive answer to that question on Mark's Gospel and its parallels, we're on weak ground. The evidence of the gospels in this matter is not strong.

However, that Jesus himself travelled around Palestine meeting people and telling them what he thought about God and God's coming kingdom is almost certain in historical terms. 

Matthew 10.5 states that Jesus sent out the "Twelve" - presumably to help him spread his message. We don't know exactly who the "Twelve" were because none of the lists tally enough to provide high historical probability. The lists of the Twelve in the gospels occur in very different contexts. So we have to assume that the "Twelve" here refers to followers of Jesus who were enlisted to help him and not to those who later became known as the Twelve Apostles.

Most of the advice and instructions Jesus is supposed to have given these first "missionaries" seem to be just the kind of thing early Christians might have been taught. 

That doesn't automatically mean that Jesus didn't say these things, but rather that we can't be historically certain he did say them because it's possible that the author reproduced authoritative guidelines which he and others believed had come from Jesus.

Why then have I retained any of these sayings which occur in the gospels?

"Don't take a bag ..."  Scholars can't be certain that these are the exact words of Jesus or that they were definitely instructions given to early missionaries. But they do match the way Jesus seems to have thought and taught about having too much concern with security and wealth (Matthew 6.25). 

They also match what he said about himself and and his attitude to possessions (Matthew 8.20). On balance this is likely to have been the kind of thing Jesus would have said to his followers.

"Be as astute as a snake ...  We know that Jesus used concrete, ordinary pictures of daily life to get his points across to listeners. This may well have been a proverb in common use in his time. It's certainly concrete. It also lacks specific application to early Christian mission endeavour (even though it might once have been interpreted in that way). 

It's reasonable, therefore, to hold that that Jesus probably used it and that it survived in much its present form to be inserted by Matthew into this context.

"Isn't it a fact that two sparrows ..."  One could hardly imagine a use of image more typical of Jesus than this. This section is close to sayings about anxiety in Matthew 6.25, Luke 12.22 and Thomas 36. We know that Jews regarded God as caring for the creatures of the earth (Psalm 8.3). 

A Rabbinic saying goes: "If a bird is not captured without the will of heaven, how much less we!" The balance of probability is high that Jesus quoted this saying from a contemporary source and less high that it was his own invention.

"The person who lives for himself ..."  This piece is particularly hard to translate so that it makes sense today. The usual version goes something like, "Whoever tries to gain his own life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake will gain it." 

I think my version renders the sense of the original Greek soundly enough. Whatever the case, the saying appears six times in the Gospels and there is no discernable reason why this should necessarily have been attached to early Christian missionary effort. On balance, it only just survives as probably reflecting original words of Jesus.

Whatever may have been the case for early Christians and for dedicated missionaries over the millennia, this gospels provide less-than-certain support for missionary endeavour as a binding and motivating Christian norm. 

There can be little doubt that Jesus himself took pains to spread his views abroad at some risk to himself. But there must remain substantial doubt that he encouraged others to spread his message on his behalf in the militant terms most missionaries today seem to adopt.

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