If the irresistible temptation to fashion Jesus in one's own image persists today, nearly 2,000 years after the crucifixion, it must have been even more tempting for the gospel writers, translators, and scribes who reproduced "the words of God" to do the same.
The gospel according to Bill O'Reilly gives us the tea party Jesus, an insurrectionist obsessed with government and taxation. As Selina O'Grady wrote in her caustic Guardian review:
[Bill O'Reilly] created a Tea Party son of God. Jesus, the little guy, is an enemy of the big corrupt tax-oppressing Roman empire, which is itself just a version of Washington, only even more venal and sexually depraved. This Jesus is a tax-liberating rebel who incurs the wrath of the Jewish and Roman powers by threatening their joint fleecing of the people. As a member of the populist right, he is not, of course, in favour of redistribution: Bill O'Reilly's Jesus does not tell the rich to give away their money to the poor.
The four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were written 30 to 70 or more years after the crucifixion -- and, according to biblical scholars, most likely authored by converts who did not witness the events they retold based on oral transmission. Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman reminds us that no one has ever seen an original copy of the Christian Bible, or a first copy of the original. Early copies were created one at a time by scribes, who may have heard different versions of the stories or even just bits and pieces. These editions were then copied by other scribes or translated from Aramaic and Hebrew into Coptic and Greek and then into Latin. The loose process of reproduction opened an immense opportunity for differing interpretations of words and phrases, outright errors (not all scribes were scholars, and some may have been scoundrels), and the infusion of personal perspectives and ideologies.
Imagine if Bill O'Reilly were the first scribe to translate the gospels. His ideology surely would have compromised or edited the "words of God," giving today's right-wing conservatives even greater license for their orgy of wealth and war on the poor. Expand that scenario to an army of Bill O'Reilly scribes down through the ages, with different languages, ideologies and prejudices, and we can begin to appreciate the hazards of thinking of the gospels as history remembered rather than history storied.
The four canonical gospels themselves raise a red flag, since they offer many different versions of the "words of God." For example, did Mary, Joseph, and Jesus flee to Egypt after Jesus' birth, as told in the gospel of Mathew, or did Mary go to the temple in Jerusalem for the Jewish purification ritual 30 days after giving birth, as prescribed in the Torah and reported in Luke's gospel? In this version the family returned to Nazareth without a side trip to Egypt. The gospel of John says the Last Supper was two days before Passover, but the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) place it on the traditional eve of Passover. During the arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane Garden, did Judas identify Jesus with a kiss, as described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, or did Jesus identify himself (twice, with no kiss), in accordance with the gospel of John? And as Bart Ehrman notes:
In Matthew, Jesus comes into being when he is conceived, or born, of a virgin; in John, Jesus is the incarnate Word of God who was with God in the beginning and through whom the universe was made. In Matthew, there is not a word about Jesus being God; in John, that's precisely who he is. In Matthew, Jesus teaches about the coming kingdom of God and almost never about himself (and never that he is divine); in John, Jesus teaches almost exclusively about himself, especially his divinity. In Matthew, Jesus refuses to perform miracles in order to prove his identity; in John, that is practically the only reason he does miracles.
What about other gospels? By the end of the first century, there were scores of Christian sects. In second-century Rome four major splinter groups, with vastly different theologies and views on Jesus, were fiercely competing for dominance. Each group had its own leaders, texts, and gospels. In early Christianity more than 50 other gospels existed, with many different accounts of Jesus and his teachings. In the fourth century, after the Council of Nicaea established a unified Catholic Church, the four canonical gospels were sanctioned for the New Testament. Since it's well known that history is written by the winners, the 27 books of the New Testament became the official "words of God." Other gospels were banned or burned or just faded into oblivion, since copying them was forbidden. But then serendipitously in modern times, a trove of the early alternative gospels were recovered from Middle East caves and the Egyptian desert; they challenge the accuracy of the church-sanctioned gospels.
Despite the contradictions and skepticism about the historicity of the New Testament, in one sense it contains the "facts" -- that is, the "functional facts," the scriptures that have framed the way Christians have thought about Jesus, Christianity, and Jews since the fourth century. Stop Christians on the street and ask them about the alternative gospels -- the gospels of Philip, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and others -- and watch the puzzled looks. The populace only know the four canonical gospels -- and for many, only superficially, if at all, considering the "scandalous" rate of biblical illiteracy that has been reported.
That may explain why so many miss the thoroughly Jewish Jesus of the canonical gospels. Jesus' dedication to Judaism could not be denied or erased from the gospels without undermining Christianity, which based its authenticity on Jewish ancestry and Jewish prophesy.
On one count, Bill O'Reilly gets a high grade. His Jesus is thoroughly Jewish. Unlike the curves injected into the canonical gospels, Bill's Jesus remains Rabbi Jesus, revered to the end by his exclusively Jewish followers. Jesus' conflict is clearly with the Jewish leadership, not with his fellow Jews or spiritual Jewish theology. Even as Jesus is condemned to death, O'Reilly comments, "It is not the Jewish Pilgrims who want Jesus dead nor most of the residents of Jerusalem [Jews]. No, it is a small handful of men who enrich themselves through the Temple."
In contrast, the gospel writers, in their effort to establish the new religion of Christianity, inserted contradictory tidbits of anti-Semitism, suggesting Jesus had broken with Judaism. Not surprisingly, the gospel of John, the last of the canonical gospel to be penned, is the most anti-Semitic. It was written after the brutal Roman war with Jews that led to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. Converts to Christianity were then primarily Roman pagans. There was no currency in connecting Jesus to Judaism, but great value in casting him falsely in opposition to Judaism -- and making the Romans the good guys.
Those who continue to believe that Jesus was anything but a dedicated Jew or insist that he launched the new religion of Christianity must explain why he didn't play the Christian card when he was facing death for blasphemy against Judaism.
The Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Judaism that condemned Jesus, only had authority over Jewish affairs. If Jesus had defected from Judaism and believed he was launching a new religion, why didn't he say that in his defense to escape the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin? If he had taken that route and the Romans still wanted him out of the way (as believed by Bill O'Reilly, Reza Aslan and others), we wouldn't have been saddled with the debate about who killed Jesus, a debate that spans centuries and continues today. It would have been clear that the Romans did it. And hundreds of thousands of Jews who were slaughtered as "Christ killers" would have been spared. Of course, Jesus couldn't play the Christian card because there was no Christianity at the time, and Jesus had no intention of starting a new religion. In his mind and the minds of his followers, as noted in Killing Jesus, he was Rabbi Jesus till the end.
Just as an added note, the same argument pertains to Paul, who is almost universally credited with establishing the separate religion of Christianity. Yet he too was charged with blasphemy against Judaism by the Sanhedrin and faced death. If Paul, in his mind, had started a new religion and had rejected Judaism, why didn't he play the Christian card? Paul had an even more persuasive argument than Jesus:
Sanhedrin: I worship Jesus Christ whom you reject. I'm no longer a Jew, I'm a Christian. You have no authority over me as the leader of a religion other than Judaism. Governor Felix (the Roman prefect): I'm a Roman Citizen -- born a Roman citizen -- and I proclaim I'm a Christian not a Jew. If the Sanhedrin could indict non Jews for blasphemy they would indict you and all Romans. Would you tolerate that? You must release me according Roman law.
Would Felix have any option other than releasing Paul, especially since the Romans had no argument with him (Acts 28:16-18)? Yet Paul allows the charge of blasphemy of a Jew against Judaism to stand -- without challenging it. In doing so he squanders five years at the height of his ministry (it's now almost 30 years after the crucifixion) with arrest, imprisonment, transport to Rome for his trial, and several years of house arrest in Rome before he is executed -- as a Jew. Why?
One obvious explanation stands out. In Paul's mind his brand of Jewish Christianity was the new Judaism open to everyone. But after his passing, that vision was lost. The converted Roman pagans picked up the Christian baton. This group, having no ties to Judaism, sought increasingly to distance Christianity from Judaism; thus the separate religion was firmly launched.
Unfortunately, the gospels and later parts of the New Testament do not take up or even mention why neither Jesus nor Paul played the Christian card. I wish Bill O'Reilly had. It's a serious issue that can't be casually dismissed!
Bernard Starr is a psychologist, journalist, and college professor. He is the author of Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew and the organizer of the art exhibit "Putting Judaism Back in the Picture: Toward Healing the Christian Jewish Divide."