Pacific Rim Review of Books

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The Jesus Sayings by Rex Weyler

reviewed by Steve D. Black

The Jesus Sayings: The Quest for His Authentic Message. Rex Weyler. House of Anansi Press. 2008.

For some there is discomfort in the suggestion that the Jesus of the New Testament and Church dogma is not the same as the historical figure who walked the earth 2000 years ago. Indeed, for many, it is difficult to acknowledge the difference between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. Yet, scholars have argued for many decades that such a distinction exists. However, determining what Jesus’ message originally was is a complicated puzzle. The biblical texts were originally written many years after Jesus’ death, and all the texts we possess are copies of copies of copies. There are many differences between the various versions of Jesus’ life, as well as between the copies of those versions. Outside of the bible the references to Jesus are scant and often of dubious authenticity.

Nevertheless, there is evidence to be found within and without the New Testament that can help get us closer to the historical Jesus. Some exciting discoveries in the last hundred years can take us beyond what is found in the gospels of the New Testament. Scholars have recreated a hypothetical text used by both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke called “Q” (from the German word for “source” – quelle). Important archeological discoveries of relevant texts, including the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary, can also be utilized in this quest.

Using these resources, Rex Weyler reconstructs the core message of Jesus as being about seeking for an inner light which should be shared with the world, about abstaining from judging others, and not worrying about material needs. For the historical Jesus the “Kingdom of God,” to be found within oneself, is an important theme. The message of the historical Jesus was primarily addressed to the poor and marginalized, and often came in the form of parables. These conveyed a subversive vision of reality that “invaded […] highly structured society like a weed and provide protection for innocent creatures” (110). Weyler suggests that Jesus rarely spoke of God, and recommended his disciples “not to worry about god, but to care for their neighbors” (237). Weyler’s Jesus believes that “a just, egalitarian society, the kingdom of God could appear on earth through the ethical actions of ordinary citizens” (125). Jesus did not refer to himself as the Son of God, but rather as the “son of Man”, which Weyler suggests simply refers his humanity.

Weyler argues that Jesus rejected Jewish conventions of the time. Here, he may be guilty of falling into the common problem found in historical Jesus research of highlighting something good about Jesus at the expense of a hypocritical “Judaism”. This manner of argument is well attested in the pages of the New Testament, which was written in the context of conflict with more normative forms of Judaism. An interfaith reading must interrogate texts and interpretations that perpetuate this unwitting form of anti-Judaism, so that that we hesitate to affirm, with the gospel writers, that the Pharisees were simply hypocrites with empty understandings of their own religion. Such portrayals may be little more that rhetorical devices that are part of struggles between groups.

Weyler notes some striking parallels between Jesus’ manner of life and message with that of the Cynics, a group of philosophers that existed at the same time as Jesus. They both challenged social conventions, exposing the faulty ways of the rich and powerful. Indeed, the similarities are strong enough to prompt some to suggest that Jesus was a Cynic. For Weyler this does not, however, mean that Jesus was not unique, as Jesus’ affirmation of community contrasts significantly with the Cynic’s pursuit of a more solitary self-sufficiency. There are also, Weyler notes, arresting parallels between Jesus’ teachings with those of Taoism and Buddhism. While there could have been some direct relationship with early forms of Buddhism upon Jesus, Weyler concludes that it is just as likely that all these spiritual masters “drank from the same wells of common sense and perennial wisdom”.

Utilizing the Gospel of Mary, a text likely written in the early decades of the second century, Weyler argues that in the early Jesus movement Mary Magdalene likely had an important position of authority and influence. Indeed this reflects the important place that women had in Jesus’ movement, a position that was erased by the church as it took on institutionalized shape.

Weyler believes the simple message of Jesus was lost in favor of the message developed by the emerging church of the first four centuries. The church established for itself a centralized hierarchy in Rome, founded many crucial doctrines not taught by Jesus (the physical return of the messiah, final judgment of God, and the trinity, to name a few), and marginalized rival interpretations of Jesus’ message. The resulting religion, argues Weyler, left little room, and had little need for the message of the historical Jesus.

There is much to be gained, Weyler continues, from recovering the original voice of Jesus. This message can inspire us in the 21st Century to regain the light within, and the courage to face to injustice without. “Jesus,” he continues, “had faith in humanity, and this knowledge bolsters my faith in humanity”.

I have a few problems about details here and there, and one might wish that Weyler had adopted a slightly more sympathetic understanding of Christian mythmaking, given his general affirmation of the importance of myth. Nevertheless, this book scores high points in readability, relevance and insight. Weyler shows us that Jesus still has the power to inspire, and that it is up to us to make sure this inspiration draws out the best in humanity, and not the worst.

Steve Black is a PhD. Candidate studying the New Testament and Christian Origins at Trinity College in Toronto, He currently lives in Vancouver.