I have been studying Christianity for many years, from monasticism to mysticism to the various orthodoxies and heresies, and wanted to present here my best interpretation for the person of Jesus and the early faith. This is an alternative view, but I think it is a better vision for someone who wants to understand Jesus from the modern perspective.
1. It is clear that Jesus – who we might refer to by his historical name, Joshua ben Joseph – was a true spiritual teacher.
2. Jesus seems to have been familiar with esotericism and mysticism (these are my terms not his), strands of which have existed in Judaism throughout its history.
3. Jesus spent many years in contemplation and withdrawal; we see this alluded to briefly in the Gospels, when Jesus was in the “wilderness” and when he was a follower of John the Baptist.
4. Jesus and John the Baptist were likely connected to a group in ancient Judea called the Essenes. We would associate the Essenes with asceticism, the contemplative life, and the mystery religions today. The Essenes believed in a life of retreating into the wilderness and practicing the inner life.
5. When he began his ministry, Jesus’ teaching was fundamentally given “underground.” He preferred to directly teach a limited number of disciples (who in history we call the “twelve apostles”). Beyond this, we don’t know his precise teaching or much about these disciples.
6. When Jesus does have contact with the public, he preferred to teach in parables, or symbolic stories. The listener must unpack the inner (esoteric) meaning of these tales. They include famous stories like the parable of the mustard seed.
There are many examples of Christ’s esotericism in the Gospels, but let’s look at one occasion when he refers to it explicitly: “To you [my direct students, the apostles] it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them [the public] it has not been granted.”
7. There is a great deal of mythologization about Jesus; some of this is based on symbols communicating important truths, while some is fiction.
8. It is very difficult to know exactly what Jesus said or taught and we must make our best guesses at it. There was likely a list of aphorisms (sayings) of Jesus compiled early on that was the most authentic source of his teaching; this work was very likely used as a source for the Gospel writers.
9. The Christian Gospels are clearly revealed texts, written under religious inspiration. They are dense, rich texts which communicate important truths about spirituality and human nature.
10. At the same time, the Gospels have many eccentricities, and are imperfect texts, as all revealed texts are. We may distill the essential element out of them and appreciate them, but should also subject them to criticism.
11. The Gospels were written a minimum of 50 years after the death of Jesus, and it is probable none of the authors had direct contact with Christ himself.
12. Here are a few areas which I have been suspicious of over the years.
In the period of the Roman Empire during which the Gospels were written, a trope existed in which the ability of spiritual teachers was proved by their demonstration of powers. In the East, a “siddhi” is the term for a spiritual power a holy person or saint might manifest. There was clearly a concept of this accepted in the Roman Empire of Christ’s time. In the Gospels, there is the interesting term “dynamikos” (power) which it is said Christ draws from when he performs his miracles.
There are other writings from around this same era of magicians and thaumaturgists (miracle-workers) who work similar wonders as Jesus. Most of these figures have been forgotten to time. It is interesting that the true teacher Jesus was the one whose account remained, and became a prevailing force.
I think these miracles are partly based on authentic manifestations that sometimes happen to spiritual seekers (the charisms), and are partly exaggerations, mythologizations, and fictions used to “prove” the attainment of Christ.
The Son of God
This is one I am very confident of. When participating in a modern Christian mass, Jesus is referred to as the (singular) “Son of God.” There is a whole teaching in Christian dogma about this, linking Jesus as “the” Son to a “God the Father” and a “Holy Ghost.”
This seems to be a misunderstanding of the Essene teaching of the “ben Elohim” (sons of God). Jesus seems to have referred to himself as one of the sons of God (plural), with the idea being that anyone could become a son of God if they followed his teaching. This line of reasoning also elucidates the teaching of the early church fathers, the idea that “God became man that man might become god.” This teaching is sometimes called the idea of deification or divinization (theosis).
Christian teaching often posits that Christ had two natures, divine and human. Based on the above, it follows that all men can realize this possibility, and become fully divine and fully human like Christ. This achievement is not limited to only Christ himself.
Jesus of Nazareth
This is one I am not as certain of, but have been suspicious of over the years. The idea Jesus originates in the town of Nazareth has been questioned by scholars. So, one alternative is “the Nazorean” or “of Nazareth” is a mistranslation of the term “Nazirite.” The Nazirites were an ascetic sect of the Essenes, which would clarify more of Jesus’ origins.
The Virgin Mary
Here I must admit I have never been a fan of the cult of Mary, though over the years I have in some ways been altering my perspective. Christian teaching says that Jesus’ mother “was born without original sin” and that she conceived Jesus without having had sexual relations: that Christ’s birth was of a virgin.
I feel that this is very clear mythologization, and we can find analogues of virgin birth in the religions and mythologies that were contemporary to the Gospels.
One problem with Mary is beyond her motherhood and holiness, we don’t know much about her. This has been an obstacle of mine in appreciating her as a spiritual figure. Perhaps it is true that Mary was a holy woman, who also gave birth to a son who went on to become a holy man. Yet there is also evidence against this in the Gospels; for instance, the scene when Christ is teaching in the synagogue and Mary calls out, “He is out of his mind!” This brief scene in the past suggested to me that his mother was a worldly woman, unaware of the true nature of her son.
13. Orthodox Errors
While these would be very “bold” pronouncements to make in a conventional theological context, these are my main issues with Christian dogma.
The Resurrection of Christ is one of the most important parts of the Christian Gospels. The earliest Gospel (Mark) has an ending in which the disciples go to the tomb and find it empty; then the Gospel ends ambiguously. The next two Gospels portray Jesus’ appearances to the disciples (which might be construed as intuitions or spiritual communications). However, by the time of the last Gospel (John), this return is now a full bodily resurrection, with Thomas famously touching Christ’s wounds.
While artistically I value the increasing potency of the resurrection story with each Gospel, this narrative has led to the modern teaching that Christ’s promise is of physical resurrection as opposed to spiritual resurrection. I find this view flawed, and do not see any reason for a return to the physical body.
This doctrine has become a major pillar of all branches of Western Christianity, and it is one I have a problem with. While this dogma does reconcile Christ’s martyrdom, suffering, and death with the larger narrative of the Bible, I do not feel it is an appropriate interpretation.
This teaching usually goes something along the lines of this. “Man has original sin due to Adam; so, God sends Christ to suffer and die, and by doing so he ‘redeems’ the sin of mankind.”
I find this a very simpleminded understanding of Christ’s death, and an unnecessary one. Here I do feel the Eastern churches have been better at maintaining their integrity, as they have left many of these events open for the individual to comprehend as “mysteries,” as opposed to doling out easy, canned narratives to preach to the public from the pulpit.
14. Teachings of Christ
Finally, here are the four major tenets I get from careful study of the Gospels.
The call for the complete transformation or "conversion" of man to a life of conformity with truth, reality, or God.
II. The Beatitudes
The teaching of the themes of universal love and acceptance.
III. The redemptive power of suffering
The teaching that suffering ennobles or elevates man.
IV. Christ’s conquest of death
The meaning of the Resurrection: that eternal life is possible for man.