Whenever public policy debates involve social welfare, we are invariably treated to skeptical or non-believing pundits scolding Christians for their lack of concern for Jesus’ ethics vis-à-vis the poor. Good on ‘em. Somebody needs to bring the words of the Jewish reformer to the public consciousness. If His Church won’t do it, then let the secular pundits do it.
Today’s Christian Church, in both its Catholic and evangelical varieties, is more concerned with the salvation of the believer than with the teachings of Jesus. This is the legacy of a Greek-speaking Jew, Paul of Tarsus, who came to see the life of Jesus (whom he never met) as the fulfillment of prophecy. The Church as it presently exists reflects the teaching of Paul about the resurrection of the body, the after-life, and salvation by grace. The ethics of Jesus are conspicuous by their absence from much of the teachings and liturgy of the modern Western church.
T’was not always so. The Jerusalem Church, headed by James, the brother of Jesus, was oriented toward the keeping of the Jewish Law, and a code of ethics that involved personal holiness and care for the poor. It is doubtful the book bearing the name of James in the New Testament was actually written by him, but its general tone is true to the teachings of James and the Jerusalem Church. “Faith without works is dead,” it declared.
The tension between Paul and James is glossed over in the New Testament, but they did not get along. Gaining little traction in Jewish communities, Paul took his show on the road to communities of God-fearing gentiles in the Greco-Roman world. The Jewish War of A.D. 70 destroyed James’ Jerusalem Church, but Paul’s doctrine had taken root in several cities of the Greek-speaking Roman Empire, and in an infant Latin Church in Rome itself.
After his famous “conversion” to Christianity, The Emperor Constantine got on board with the program, and at the Council of Nicaea in 325, Paul’s apotheosis of Jesus was given the weight of Roman law. Thus, in the words of James Carroll, “The triumphalism of an empowered Christianity led to a betrayal of faith that all of pagan Rome’s legions had failed to bring about.” He meant the church’s anti-Semitism.
Western (i.e., deriving from Roman Catholicism by way of Martin Luther’s Reformation) Christianity is almost exclusively interested in the “salvation” of the individual soul. (Luther is said to have characterized the Epistle of James as “an epistle of straw,” and desired to exclude it from the Canon.) Jesus’ teaching about a just society and a humanistic Jewish Law were eviscerated even as His memory and legend were placed in the empty alcove of medieval Christianity’s heart. Paul’s church of believers justified by faith in lieu of personal holiness supplanted James’ faith validated by works of holiness. Hence, today’s devout Christians can simultaneously claim the lordship (even the divinity) of Jesus, while mostly ignoring His ethics.
The irony of this is that the sayings of Jesus as recorded in various early 1st century documents used as sources by the composers of the various gospels are the most reliable evidence we have as to what Jesus said and taught. So well-known and influential were His teachings that no evangelist dared exclude them from the narratives they composed in the latter part of the century. By the time the last gospel (John) was written, Paul’s theology had won. Henceforth, the Jewish radical who wanted to expel Rome and reform Jewish society, whose claim to be the Messiah (king) got Him executed by the Romans for sedition, morphed into a non-political, mystical God-Man, as envisioned by Paul. Adding insult to injury, the blame for His death was shifted to the Jews (due in large part to the unknown author of the Gospel of John), thus bringing shameful hatred of the Jews into the church named for a devout Jew zealous for His faith and nation.
Small wonder our secular friends are puzzled. Maybe if we call our American Protestant churches “Pauline” instead of “Christian” it will dispel their confusion. In the church wherein I first “became a Christian,” the words of Paul were probably cited at least six times more frequently than the words of Jesus. The contempt of shade-tree theologians when they scoff at our “fire insurance faith” is well-earned.
Sonny Scott, a community columnist, resides in Chickasaw County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.