I am astonished to find that you are … following a different gospel. Not that there is in fact another gospel; only there are persons who unsettle your minds by trying to distort the gospel of Christ. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, ch1 vv6,7
The lives of Jesus of Nazareth and Socrates have often been compared. Both stood in and carried forward a long tradition of thinking about life within their own culture. Both gathered followers who were keen to hear what they had to say. Their teaching methods, if not absolute innovations, were refreshingly stimulating. Both accepted execution by the authorities of their city as the consistent with their teaching. But not the least suggestive similarity is that neither of them seems to have written down his teaching; both were content to leave whether or not they would be known beyond their own here-and-now to chance and other people. And inevitably in writing down their heroes’ ideas and teaching, their followers refracted them through their own preoccupations and even their own agendas. Paul of Tarsus, who was principally responsible for causing Jesus to be known to history, naturally founded a religion because he came from a devoutly religious background; by contrast Socrates’ publicist, Plato, was from the academy not the temple and equally naturally founded a school of thought.
After so many centuries during which Jesus has been the central figure in a major religion and whose sayings have consequently been interpreted in an essentially religious fashion, it’s hard to uncouple him and his teaching from what we understand as conventional religion. But suppose for a moment that the person who had brought Jesus to our notice had, like Plato but unlike Paul, actually not only heard his hero teaching but had also not been any more than conventionally devout. There might be a bit of a paradox here: if Jesus’s teaching was all that interesting to non-religious listeners, why didn’t one of them write it down? It’s possible that some of Jesus’s sayings were indeed collected by people uninfluenced by Paul’s religious view of Jesus and that bits of those collections found their way into the synoptic gospels, but it’s certainly true that the records we have of his life and teaching were written in a church created by Paul and permeated by Pauline thought. But then, there have surely been great and original teachers of whom we know nothing because no-one wrote up their teaching. Of course in both cases we have to try to make allowances for the preoccupations and agendas of those who wrote up the teacher’s ideas, Plato on the one hand and Paul’s Christian followers on the other. This is hazardous and to some extent speculative. As it’s Jesus I’m principally interested in, let me outline the main assumptions that guide me in doing this for his teaching. Paul knew nothing of Jesus’s teaching, so when they agree on something surprising that wasn’t part of common culture, it’s pretty certain that Jesus is being made to say something that originated in Paul’s thinking and beliefs. When Jesus is quoted as saying something that was distinctively religious that contrasts with something innovative that he says elsewhere, I prefer the innovative saying to the religious one. When explanations for Jesus’s parables are offered, I reject them on the grounds that the point of telling parables was to encourage people to develop their understanding – and surely not to bamboozle them, as some gospel accounts suggest.
And when all these allowances have been made, what does the Jesus teaching look like as it might have been passed on to us by a Plato rather than by Pauline Christians? Religious certainly, to the extent that a concept of divinity is integral to it; but the way that divinity is re-pictured as father is full of important implications, including that misfortune is not a divine punishment. Jesus clearly had some serious reservations about religion and its effect on religiously observant people, which is one reason he addresses his fellow Jews rather than humanity generally. You certainly wouldn’t call him conventionally pious. He was well aware of the richness and value of many ordinary, not-particularly-religious lives. He thought that people should aim to become makarios, happy, and that the means of achieving this is not to follow rules or to be hell-bent on getting rich, but to shape our dispositions so that we could live imaginatively and creatively in our relationships with other people. Care and commitment trump shared religion and tribal identity as the basis for relationships. We would be foolish to allow these relationships to break down over injuries and slights, if that is at all avoidable. We should not be censorious about other people’s lives because that poisons relationships. For the good of society, we should respond to good turns done to us by doing good turns to others, and not just those to whom we are indebted. The natural and social world around us is worth observing for the suggestive, practical insights it offers into how life works. There is no need to give up on our lives, however pear-shaped they may have gone; it’s always possible to turn your life around by developing dispositions that support positive living. The worst thing anyone can do is to set children off on a path that will limit their flourishing.
There’s more of course but that’s a fair summary of the thrust of Jesus’s teaching, and it all seems very commonplace, you might think. You’d be right. But it’s worth thinking about why it’s all very commonplace, because it didn’t have to be; societies as well as individuals have existed and do exist that question at least some of these principles. These principles are commonplace because they have been preached and been found to work in the sense of shaping a society that humans generally find it desirable to live in. That preaching has been spearheaded by the church, despite its many faults and its overlay of Pauline theology. But what really matters is not who keeps insisting on the Jesus principles: it is rather that they continue to be promulgated as a firm basis for flourishing human life. On the evidence of his life, I doubt if Jesus would care whether or not you attributed them to him.