My great books #10: The Five Gospels
Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.
It’s hard to deny that the life and words of Jesus of Nazareth deserve to be a part of any thinking person’s education, regardless of one’s religious convictions, and to the extent that many people are uncomfortable with this, it has less to do with the teachings themselves than with the interpretations and additions that have accrued around them over time. What makes this even harder is the fact that the process of revision begins in the gospels themselves, which were written long afterward to serve an early church with urgent needs of its own. Restoring the original message to the degree that we can stands is a project of tremendous importance, and The Five Gospels, published by the Jesus Seminar, is the most attractive and thought-provoking effort I’ve seen to present those core ideas in a form accessible to readers of all backgrounds. It’s a fascinating act of communal detective work, and even if the results are far from definitive, they deserve our consideration and respect. The seminar’s methods—voting by means of colored beads, with passages marked red, pink, gray, or black in order of their level of perceived authenticity—might seem odd at first, and you could make a good case that its judgments are colored by certain assumptions, such as the idea that Jesus was unlikely to have made assertions about his own nature, and that his vision was less one of apocalypse than of making the kingdom of heaven a reality in this world. Yet every act of criticism is predicated on similar preconceptions, and the Jesus Seminar comes as close as we can to highlighting material that seems to have survived intact. The rest, as they say, is left as an exercise for the reader.
The seminar starts by identifying short, memorable passages, like “Turn the other cheek,” that seem likely to have been remembered and passed down through the oral tradition, and then uses those clues as a guide for compiling a portrait that, even if incomplete, at least gives us a persuasive starting point. And its approach is best judged by its fruits. Here, for instance, are the moral statements that the seminar marked as red:
Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to the one who begs from you. Congratulations, you poor! God’s domain belongs to you. Congratulations, you hungry! You will have a feast. Congratulations, you who weep now! You will laugh. Love your enemies. Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give God what belongs to God.
This certainly feels like the heart of what remains the most challenging of all ethical paths, if we’re willing to read it as closely as it demands, and it doesn’t force us to exclude the rest—only to examine it in the light of what feels like its indispensable center. Taken simply as a work of literature in its own right, the slice of the gospels that the seminar emphasizes is enough for a lifetime’s thought and meditation, and it stands as a rebuke to all of us. And underlying it all is the seminar’s stark admonition, which we’d all be advised to heed: “Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.”