For many Christians, the life of Jesus signifies the birth of a new kind of God, a God of universal love. The Hebrew Bible—the “Old Testament”—chronicled a God who was sometimes belligerent (espousing the slaughter of infidels), unabashedly nationalist (pro-Israel, you might say), and often harsh toward even his most favored nation. Then Jesus came along and set a different tone. As depicted in the Gospels, Jesus exhorted followers to extend charity across ethnic bounds, as in the parable of the good Samaritan, and even to love their enemies. He told them to turn the other cheek, said the meek would inherit the Earth, and warned against self-righteousness (“let he who is without sin cast the first stone”). Even while on the cross, he found compassion for his persecutors: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
But there’s a funny thing about these admirable utterances: none of them appears in the book of Mark, which was written before the other Gospels and which most New Testament scholars now consider the most reliable (or, as some would put it, the least unreliable) Gospel guide to Jesus’ life. The Jesus in Mark, far from calmly forgiving his killers, seems surprised by the Crucifixion and hardly sanguine about it (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). In Mark, there is no Sermon on the Mount, and so no Beatitudes, and there is no good Samaritan; Jesus’ most salient comment on ethnic relations is to compare a woman to a dog because she isn’t from Israel.
The more familiar Jesus, the one who stresses tolerance and interethnic charity, shows up in the books of Matthew and Luke, which seem to have been written a decade or two after Mark—about half a century after the Crucifixion. This late arrival of the “good” Jesus is enough to make you wonder whether the real Jesus, the “historical Jesus,” was really so good. And in fact some scholars have wondered that. But they’ve been overshadowed by scholars who bring a message less threatening to modern Christians—that the historical Jesus indeed preached boundless love and that, if anything, it is the less liberal teachings that were put into his mouth post-mortem. This is the drift of the much-publicized Jesus Seminar, through which scores of scholars have voted on the various sayings of Jesus to yield a collective estimation of their authenticity.
Why would some scholars downplay the earliest description of Jesus in favor of accounts compiled after there had been more time for myth to accumulate? In part, maybe, because some of them are Christians, or at least lapsed Christians who still resonate to their native faith. But in part, also, because it’s not obvious why a whole mythology about a “good” Jesus would have taken shape decades after the Crucifixion. What, after all, would have inspired early followers of Jesus to invent the idea of a brotherhood that knows no ethnic or national bounds?
Clues have been emerging in recent years, but not clues of the usual kind—not long-lost scrolls or other ancient artifacts. The clues come from the modern world, and they’re all around us. It’s increasingly apparent how analogous a globalizing world is to the environment in which Christianity took shape after Jesus’ death. And in this light, it makes sense that early devotees of the crucified Jesus would develop the now-familiar Christian message, which could later be attributed to Jesus himself.
The chief author of this message seems to have been Paul, whose epistles—letters to congregations of Jesus followers—are the oldest writings in the New Testament. If you view Paul not just as a preacher but as an entrepreneur, as someone who is trying to build a religious organization that spans the Roman Empire, then his writings assume a new cast. For Paul, the doctrines that now form the most-inspiring parts of the Christian message are, in a sense, business tools. They are tools that let him use the information technology of his day, the epistle, to extend his brand, the Jesus brand, across the vast, open, multinational platform offered by the Roman Empire.
To conventional Christians, this may sound doubly dispiriting. First, Jesus wasn’t really Jesus; he didn’t really preach the deep moral truths that have given weight to the claim that he was the son of an infinitely good God. And, as if to rub salt in the wound: those truths, when they finally did enter the Christian tradition, emerged not so much from philosophical reflection as from pragmatic calculation and other disappointingly mundane forces.
There’s no denying that this view threatens the claim that Christians, in worshipping Jesus, recognize God’s one physical appearance on Earth and thus have special insight into divine purpose. Still, as debunkings of scripture go, this one is fairly congenial to religious belief, for it does leave open the prospect of divine purpose generically. In fact, it underscores that prospect. The story of early Christianity highlights a kind of moral direction in human history, a current that, however fitfully, has repeatedly expanded the circle of tolerance, even amity. And if history naturally produces moral insight—however mundane the machinery that mediates its articulation—then maybe some overarching purpose is built into the human endeavor after all.
In any event, whether or not history has a purpose, its moral direction is hard to deny. Since the Stone Age, the scope of social organization has expanded, from hunter-gatherer society through city-state through empire and beyond. And often this expansion has entailed the extension of mutual understanding across bounds of ethnicity, religion, or nationality. Indeed, it turns out that formative periods in both Islam and Judaism evince the same dynamic as early Christianity: an imperial, multiethnic milieu winds up fostering a tolerance of other ethnicities and faiths.
Now, as we approach the global level of social organization—and see the social order threatened by strife among these Abrahamic religions—another burst of moral progress is needed. Success is hardly guaranteed, but at least the early history of Christianity and indeed of all Abrahamic faiths gives cause for hope. However bleak a globalizing world may look at times, the story could still have a happy ending, an ending that brings out the best in religion as religion brings out the best in people.