Monday, January 1, 2024

A Red Letter Resolution

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions. After seventy three years of failing to keep these promises to myself, I don’t trust myself any longer. I have come to realize that I have no real control over whether the resolutions will continue beyond the early weeks of the year. The ego makes the resolution, but it has no power to fulfill the resolution. Jesus put it this way: “The spirit is willing but the flesh is week.”  

But this year I am making a New Year resolution that I am pretty certain I can keep (I think). I have decided to make a change to my daily devotions. I am going to go through the New Testament reading only the words of Jesus. My preferred leather-bound copy of the Bible happens to be a “red letter” edition, which has the words of Jesus printed in red, so that makes it easy.  

Let me explain my reasoning for this pledge. As time goes on I have come to realize just how far the Christian church has strayed from the teachings of Christ. Back when I was an evangelical I used to think this was the fault of church tradition, which caused churches to stray from the teaching of scripture. Now I see that scripture IS tradition. Who wrote the New Testament, edited it, chose which books would go into it, and canonized it? The Church! The problem is still church tradition, and scripture is church tradition.  

The more I study the Bible the more I see how different the teachings of Jesus are from the rest of the New Testament. That which Paul, James, Peter and the rest of the apostolic gang taught is very different from what Jesus taught.  

More books of the New Testament were written by the apostle Paul than anyone else. He had an over-sized influence on the early Church. Consequently most of Christian theology is based on the writings of Paul filtered through Church councils and creeds. Paul was an important thinker in early Christianity, but he was no Jesus.  

In fact Paul seems to know little about Jesus. He never personally met Jesus or heard him teach. Paul admits that he never even heard the teachings of Jesus from any of the original apostles. He boasts that he received his gospel directly from God and not through the apostles. His writings confirm it. Paul never quotes Jesus in his epistles except for his words at the Last Supper.

Paul is completely unfamiliar with the teachings of Jesus. Yet the Church has made Paul’s interpretation of Christ authoritative. Christianity proclaims the gospel of Paul rather than the gospel of Jesus. I prefer Jesus. I am a follower of Jesus, not Paul. I choose Jesus’ words over this self-appointed apostle. That is why in the coming year I am going to read the words of Jesus without interpreting them through the thinking of Paul or the tradition of the Church.  

Now I just have to find the words of Jesus! The place to start is the canonical gospels. Although there are many words attributed to Jesus in the gospels, biblical scholars are not sure which ones were actually spoken by Jesus and which were inserted into his mouth by the church. To discern the difference is as much an art as it is a science. Because Biblical scholars do not agree which sayings are authentic, I will assume that nearly all of the words attributed to Jesus were spoken by him.  

Also we cannot be sure of the context in which Jesus’ words were originally spoken. Most scholars believe that the gospel writers used (now lost) written and oral sources for Jesus’ teaching. These contained only the sayings of Jesus.  Decades after Jesus’ lifetime these sayings were put into a narrative framework by the gospel writers. As I meditate upon the red letters spoken by Jesus in 2024, I will not assume I know where and when these words were originally spoken. I will let Jesus’ words speak for themselves. 

I will not assume I already know what they mean. I will not assume that Christians know what they mean. I will read them (as much as possible) without the filter of later Church tradition or Christian theology. I will take the words of Jesus at face value, listening to Christ and Christ alone and see where he takes me. I suspect this approach will open new possibilities for understanding the heart and mind of Jesus. In any case it will make for an interesting scripture study in 2024.  


elfman5150 said...

Over the past few years I have felt a strong urge to do this as well. I was raised Catholic, although my family was more or less one of those families that would "go through the motions," so to speak, and there wasn't much substance to our faith. On top of that, I was a rather rebellious kid, always questioning those who held a place of power and authority, because I didn't want to blindly accept what I was told. I needed experiential proof because I truly wanted to understand the workings of the world and to experience God directly (as much as possible, that is). I thought it was quite odd that during church services we didn't focus on the words of Jesus, but spent the majority of the time going through books, letters, etc., not written by Jesus. Intuitively I knew that through the words of Jesus alone Truth would shine forth, but never actually made the decision to go through the New Testament with a strict emphasis on what Jesus said directly. So many of the disagreements among different denominations (and between religions, for that matter) could be resolved by focusing on Jesus' words, which are the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It's about time we take that to heart.

I also want to thank you for all that you have done in bringing a non-dual perspective to the Christian faith. For the past year or so I have been extensively studying Advaita Vedanta and because of your work I find it incredibly seamless to harmonize the two, which I honestly believe Jesus would wholeheartedly support. After all, the ultimate Truth cannot be expressed in language, but the great prophets can point us toward that Truth which is eternally present as our very being.

Jennifer Samuel said...

You hit a train of thought I have had for a long time, but just had not dwelled on it or put it into words much. Thank you Marshall.
Jennifer Samuel Shakir

Robin Oickle said...

Oh, thank you!! I repeat…..thank you!
I have listened to your podcasts and have learned so much, but you have hit the nail on the head with this email. I SO agree with you. I have felt this way about Paul and Jesus for a long time but have been censored in my speech. I have kept these thoughts hidden in my heart,knowing that they are true. You have so eloquently and humbly exposed these thoughts……these ides….these truths. I look forward to your next year of teaching. You have truly blessed me and I pray that you will be blessed as well, as you continue to teach truth.
This is Robin from Canada.

Rene Thomas said...

Hi Marshall.
I have long suspected that the letters of Paul have added to Jesus' teachings a bunch of instructions which Jesus himself might not have endorsed, especially when applied to all churches down the ages since as well as the particular churches to whom the letters were originally addressed.
As for the Gospels, I am aware that the unavoidable distortions caused by translating them have made theit meaning difficult to be certain about, which is further complicated by our varying degrees of unfamiliarity with the historical period and society that they belong to.
I have myself pondered whether their content is basically accurate or whether the events and dialogue have been embellished, tampered with or even sabotaged and subverted.
Having suspected this myself, I can't fault your bold endeavour to try and peel away any alterations from Jesus' message and his life story.
However, anyone else considering embarking on such an investigation needs to be prepared to not only to dive into a rabbit-hole, but possibly to plunge into an abyss, in terms of leaving behind any confidence in the deepest and perhaps most dearly held beliefs.
If you start to question whether Jesus said what he said and did what he did, there might be no way of putting the lid back on the can of worms, if you'll excuse the mix of metaphors.
Anyone reading this blog is unlikely to be unwilling to explore their attitudes to religion and faith, but dissecting the Gospels can easily lead to such potential results as abandoning the belief that Jesus existed at all, or arriving at the conclusion as that he was in opposition to the God of the Hebrew scriptures.
I look forward to hearing updates on how this quest affects your reading of the scriptures and your views on (or even belief in) Jesus himself.
Rene Thomas

Rob said...

So will you stray beyond the Canonical Gospels to the Gospel of Thomas etc.?