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'The Jesus Sayings'

Author Rex Weyler on sorting myth from history, and why we need both.

By Linda Solomon 2 May 2008 |

Linda Solomon's series "Life Without TV" about life with two boys and no TV appears occasionally on The Tyee. Solomon publishes the Vancouver Observer e-zine.

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Traditional Greek-Orthodox Byzantine icon.
  • The Jesus Sayings
  • Rex Weyler
  • House Of Anansi Press (2008)

In his knockout book The Jesus Sayings: The Quest for His Authentic Message, Vancouver author Rex Weyler deconstructs one of the most highly constructed figures in the Western world. By the end Jesus appears as a wise and humble teacher, advocating self-awareness and social compassion. He challenged the conventional thinking of his time, replacing blind ritual with informed action.

Weyler uses the earliest ancient sources and modern text scholarship to distinguish the authentic sayings of Jesus from later interpretations, innocent mistakes, and later not-so-innocent doctrine. The core, genuine message of Jesus includes pearls such as this:

  • Find the light inside, and share this light with the world
  • Give to anyone who asks; knowledge and righteousness are revealed in action
  • Beware those who claim to speak on behalf of God; first, know yourself

"This authentic message is as useful today as ever," says Weyler, whose search for a historical Jesus is supported by recently discovered texts, such as the Gospels of Thomas, Mary, Philip, the Ebionites and others -- banished and lost from human history for 1600 years. During the last century, archaeologists have retrieved these texts from their desert graves, providing what Weyler describes as "astonishing revelations" about Jesus and his followers:

We discover that the first Jesus followers weren't "Christians" at all. Like Jesus, they were peasant Jews with naturalist beliefs and pagan traditions. And we find that Jesus borrowed freely from worldly wisdom (Taoism, Buddhism, and Cynic philosophers).

Weyler opens the book with a 1652 quote from Margaret Fell, the Quaker founder: "We are all thieves; we have taken the Scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves." The book sets out to solve this fundamental problem.

"The voice of Jesus survived decades of oral transmission before written records appeared, and then centuries of revision thereafter," Weyler says. "Jesus wrote nothing and spoke in Aramaic. The gospel authors composed in Greek, and some 40 years elapsed between the execution of Jesus and the first written narrative accounts. The earliest surviving complete manuscripts of the popular gospels appear three centuries later. We might wonder then: How accurately did the message of Jesus survive decades of spoken discourse and centuries of revision?"

Weyler is not a Bible scholar by trade, but a seasoned journalist. His book Blood of the Land was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and his last book, Greenpeace: The Inside Story attracted honours as well. In the 1970s, Weyler was a co-founder of Greenpeace International.

He remembers his grandmother as his first religious hero. "She most genuinely embodied the authentic spiritual life as I understood it at age 13," he recalls. She prayed daily for others, treated everyone with respect, and gave whatever remained in her bank account at the end of every month to various Christian charities.

"As a youth," he writes, "I considered an idea that probably occurs to many young people faced with the problem of supernatural punishment and reward: Perhaps I'm better off to believe what I'm told, even if it seems improbable, since the reward of believing correctly, eternal bliss in heaven, is infinitely better than what might come of correctly not believing. Doubt poses the monumental, if unlikely, risk of perpetual torture in hell."

He later discovered that this is the famous "Pascal's Wager" posed by the 17th century French mathematician. "Even as a youth, I realized that one persistent fact defeats this gambler's logic: There are many versions of deities all over the world, so even if we imagine it safer to believe in God, which god should we believe in?"

As Weyler clashed with his catechism teachers, he discovered that pointing out religious contradictions can be incendiary. "The Toronto Star called my book 'revisionist,'" Weyler says, "as if the search for truth ended in the fourth century. A so-called 'theologian' wrote a letter to a newspaper calling my book 'blasphemy,' even before he had read it. Some theologians forget that 'ology" means to study. Apparently, to some people, even raising these issues is considered profane."

"In the West, when we discuss Vedic or African beliefs we have no problem talking about it as mythology. But when people talk about their own religions, they cling to idea that their metaphors are real."

This can be dangerous, he says, "because logic and mythology both have value. And to honour both, we need to distinguish between them. Through myth and story we examine human feelings -- love, regret, hope -- that cannot be defined by pure data. We produce novels, poetry, music and dance to examine the mysteries of life beyond logic. History, on the other hand, is important because it teaches lessons about real decisions and actions in the world.

"Organized religions often mistake their mythologies for history. Most of the time, this doesn't hurt anybody. It doesn't affect my life if my neighbor believes there is one deity or a hundred. However, it does hurt others when people presume that their mythology gives them the right to persecute others. We witness religious violence every day. We see how people use religion to justify war and inhumanity. Religious beliefs are too often used to separate people, abuse children, keep women in slavery, and promote violence from Belfast to Palestine. If we fail to distinguish mythology from history, our mythologies are destined to clash with the heartfelt mythologies of others."

In our conversation, here are some other comments Weyler had to share . . .

On what Jesus would say about religion today

"He would not recognize Christianity because he wasn't a Christian and he never claimed he was a messiah. The 'Christ' story was introduced by Paul, not by Jesus. The idea that 'faith' in a messiah could land one in heaven came from Paul and later church doctrine writers, not from Jesus. The letter-writer Paul, never knew Jesus, tells almost nothing about him, and created his own new religion. This Paulist religion was later linked to Jesus by church writers.

"The Messiah, or 'anointed one,' in Judaism was a title given to Jewish kings such as David, who might end the oppression of foreign kings and establish a kingdom for 'God's people.' The Persians believed in a similar idea. Jesus does not claim to be such a person, and he encourages his listeners to seek spiritual resources within themselves, not to wait around for a deity to solve their problems."

On stalking the historical Jesus

"I was genuinely curious about whether or not Jesus actually existed as a historical person, and if so, what he really said. About five years ago, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I began looking into these questions. I reviewed the archaeology, began reading the earliest known texts that attested to Jesus, and studied the modern scholarship that has helped distinguish his actual words from the doctrine of later writers.

"Throughout history, even today, people have reinterpreted Jesus for political purposes, using Jesus as an excuse to go to war or oppress other people. I knew there existed a huge gap between the authentic message of Jesus and the misuses of his name to justify violence and hatred. For many years, I have been disturbed by the abuse of children in the churches and residential schools. How did the message of Jesus go so wrong?"

On sparring with the nuns

"At the age of 13, I began asking questions in catechism class. Take Hell, for example. I didn't believe that a God who could create the whole universe would set up an eternal torture chamber for people who had never been taught the presumably correct doctrines. The nuns told me 'We can't understand God's purpose,' a very unsatisfying answer. We possess common sense and reason. We don't have to believe preposterous things that people invented centuries ago and attached to the name of the peasant Jewish sage Jesus."

On who really ordered Jesus's execution

"Paul blames 'the Jews.' The New Testament gospels adopted this explanation, which has served as Christian doctrine ever since. However, the only parties in the first century with authority to execute anyone in Palestine were the Romans. The crucifixion of Jesus was a Roman job. They crucified troublemakers, sometimes by the hundreds, to intimidate the general population.

"There are stories of peasants following a messiah into the desert, only to be rounded up and slaughtered by the Romans, who didn't like the riff-raff assembling and posing a political threat. Anyone such as Jesus or John the Baptist who attracted crowds would be considered a political threat."

On whether we really need to know more about JC

"Jesus is one of the most researched topics on the planet. Nevertheless, we need to take a fresh look at what Jesus actually said, because his message has been buried under centuries of doctrine and his name has been used to acquire power and money.

"Since the late 19th century, new manuscripts have been discovered and translated, including the gospels of Thomas, Mary, Philip and others. To understand what Jesus really said, we need to carefully read these documents, compare them with each other, and separate his most likely words from the messiah religion of Paul and the machinations of fourth century Roman sycophants."

On the mysterious woman, Mary Magdalene

"The gospels of Thomas and Mary are particularly important and revealing. Mary Magdalene was slandered by the churches, called a prostitute, but she was an honoured disciple, who had a special relationship with Jesus. The Magdalene has been trivialized again in modern portrayals as Jesus' wife or girlfriend, but she appears in the historical record as a strong woman leader in her own right, a woman of great courage and wisdom.

"I was not interested in doing a pop treatment of Jesus and Mary, with all the royal bloodline hoopla. I wanted to know the real history, purged of ancient prejudice and modern fiction."

On the bloody effort to make a Christian monolith

"The depressing discovery for me is the tragedy of the manipulation and misinformation, innocent seekers abused, libraries burned, manuscripts destroyed, and the full horror of what the grasping for power did to the truth.

"By the fourth century, Constantine adopted the messiah religion of Paul, merged it with a Romanized Mithraism borrowed from Persia, and created his state religion which we now call Christianity. Very little of this echoes the voice of the modest Jewish, Israelite peasant Jesus.

"We have allowed absolute propaganda to stand as history. Constantine often gets credited by historians with ending persecution against Christians, but this is simply not true. He only ended persecution against his Christians. He persecuted and executed all the Jesus followers who did not adopt his version of Christianity. His armies eradicated the authentic Jesus followers and executed innocent ascetics. They burned the libraries of Europe and Alexandria in an attempt to purge all competing ideas.

"Constantine and his favored Bishops drafted their religion at the Council of Nicea in 325, and their doctrines had almost nothing to do with Jesus or his authentic message. They outlawed the 80 competing factions of Jesus followers and hundreds of texts.

"We now know what some of these texts said because some brave monks in Egypt buried them. Archaeologists have discovered them over the last century, and now we have a better understanding of what Jesus really said, as opposed to what Constantine said.

"The war against knowledge lasted for another 1000 years, through the horror of the Inquisition and then the purges and persecutions of the so-called reformed churches. It is time now that we learn about the authentic message of Jesus just as we might learn about the authentic ideas of Buddha or Aristotle. The Jesus Sayings is my effort to find this real message.

On what Jesus was about

"Jesus starts with knowing yourself, finding the light inside, and then sharing that light with the world. For Jesus 'knowing yourself' is not a private affair, but the beginning of a public affair. For Jesus, knowing one's self, is the first step to offering comfort and compassion to the world."

Rex Weyler speaks on "Jesus, the Magdalene, justice, ecology, and action," Saturday, May 10, 7:30 p.m., Canadian Memorial United Church, 1806 W. 15th Ave.. Presented by Banyen Books.