Jesus of Nazareth is thought to have been born about 6 BCE and crucified by the Romans in 27 CE. Other than that, very little is known about him. We
do not know whether he spoke Aramaic or Greek. In the Near East at that time, much of the business in the cities was conducted in Greek. The Gospels
that tell of his life are written in that language, except for the Gospel of Thomas, which is in Coptic.
The earliest surviving Gospel fragments of substantial size date from about 200 CE. Scholars estimate that the earliest written gospels, including that of Thomas, were produced perhaps about 60 CE. Before this, the sayings of Jesus were transmitted orally. The gospel of Mark was probably written shortly after 70 CE and those of Matthew, Luke and John around 90 CE.
In the gospels there appear to be accounts both of a historical person who lived at a certain time and place and of a mythical figure who leaves the realms of the supernatural for a brief period on Earth. Accounts of the latter figure, known as Jesus Christ, appear to be strongly influenced by the ideas of the later disciples Paul and John. Paul did not meet the historical Jesus, and appears not to know some of his sayings, but he knew Greek mystery religions very well. John has little to say about the life of Jesus, but seems to think he lectured in the sophisticated way of John's Christian community. The Jesus who speaks in the earlier gospels sounds like a different individual.
In 1985, the Jesus Seminar, a group of religious scholars, initiated a detailed effort to determine which words from the gospels can most probably be attributed to Jesus of Nazareth alone. Over 200 scholars from religious institutions and faculties around the world have been involved in this task.
Presented here are some of the sayings that the Jesus Seminar attributes to Jesus of Nazareth.
The picture of Jesus that emerges is of a person who was at odds with the values and rituals of Judea, the region where he lived. He went against Judean custom by advocating love for one's enemies, gave a jaundiced portrayal of the local priesthood, said that people sharing his values were more dear to him than his family, and he told people to forget about the religious dietary laws and to eat whatever they were offered. He clearly believed that the way of life he advocated would comfort the poor, the starving, and the distraught. He pointed out that one should learn from both fortune and misfortune. His ideas on justice were distinctive: he judged individual acts on their own merits, favored equal rewards independent of the amount of work done, and would not punish a transgression if it produced greater harmony. He appears to have had a coherent system of thought that stood on a par with those of other great sages, quite independent of the religious embellishments added later in the gospels.
As Jesus of Nazareth grew up as a Judean, he used many of the concepts of the Hebrew religion. His idea of the Kingdom of God is quite distinctive, however, as he states that it is within us, not in some ethereal realm. This phrase from the King James version of the Christian Bible (1611) is translated by the scholars of the Jesus Seminar (1993) as "God's imperial rule," the phrase that is used in the following extracts. As such a rule is presumably universal, the concept is very similar to the Way of the Taoists or Buddhists.
God's imperial rule is not coming visibly, and people will not say, "Look! Here it is!" or "There it is!" for God's imperial rule is within you.
To what can I compare God's imperial rule? It is like yeast which a woman took and hid in a bushel of flour, till it all rose.
It is like a mustard seed that a man took and dropped in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the wild birds roosted on its branches.
Luke 13: 19
God's imperial rule is like a hoard of money, buried in a field, which a man found, and buried again. And he was overjoyed, and went and sold everything he had and bought the field.
Again, God's imperial rule is like a dealer in search of fine pearls. He found one costly pearl, and went and sold everything he had, and bought it.
So I tell you, ask, and what you ask will be given you. Search, and you will find what you search for. Knock, and the door will open to you. For it is always the one who asks who receives, and the one who searches finds, and the one who knocks to whom the door opens.
Christ Blessing the Children (1652-53)
You must always treat other people as you would like to have them treat you.
Matthew 7: 12
Love your enemies, treat well those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
If you love only those who love you, what merit is there in that? For even godless people love those who love them.
A man [probably a Judean] was on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers, and they stripped him and beat him and went off leaving him half dead. Now a priest happened to be going that way, and when he saw him, he went by on the other side of the road. And a Leavite [a Jerusalem temple official] also came to the place, and when he saw him, he went by on the other side. But a Samaritan [one of a group antagonistic to Judeans] who was traveling that way came upon him, and when he saw him he pitied him, and he went up to him and dressed his wounds with oil and wine and bound them up. And he put him on his own mule and took out a dollar and gave it to the innkeeper and said, "Take care of him, and whatever more you spend I will refund to you on my way back."
There was a crowd sitting around him when they told him, "Your mother and your brothers are outside asking for you."
He answered, "Who are my mother and brothers?" And looking around at the people sitting about him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! whoever follows God's imperial rule is my brother and sister and mother"
Mark 3: 31-35
You have heard that they were told, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I tell you not to resist injury, but if any one strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other to him too; and if anyone wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat too. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go two miles with him. If anyone begs from you, give to him, and when anyone wants to borrow from you, do not turn away.
Do not judge others, and they will not judge you. Do not condemn them, and they will not condemn you. Forgive others and they will forgive you.
Angels Rolling Away the Stone from the Sepulchre
Do not worry about life, wondering what you will have to eat or drink, or about your body, wondering what you will have to wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body than clothes?
Matthew 6: 25
Which of you with all his worry can add a single hour to his life? Why should you worry about clothing? See how the wild flowers grow. They do not toil or spin, and yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his splendor was never dressed like one of them.
Carry no purse nor wallet nor shoes, and do not stop to exchange civilities with anyone on the way. Whenever you go to stay at a house, first say, "Peace to this household!" If there is anyone there who loves peace, your blessing will rest upon him, but if there is not, it will come back to you. Stay at the same house, eating and drinking what they offer you. . .Do not change from one house to another. Whenever you come to a town and they welcome you, eat what is offered you.
Luke 10: 4-8
Listen to this and grasp it! It is not what goes into a man's mouth that pollutes him: it is what comes out of his mouth that pollutes a man.
Matthew 15: 11
Can you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes in the stomach and then is disposed of? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they pollute a man.
Here I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. So you must be wise like serpents, and guileless like doves.
There was a rich man who had a manager, and it was reported to him that this man was squandering his property. So he called him in and said to
him, "What is this that I hear about you? Draw up an accounting of your conduct of my affairs, for you cannot be manager any longer!"
Then the manager said to himself, "What am I going to do, because my master is going to take my position away from me? I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg. I know what I will do, I will make sure that when I am removed from my position people will take me into their homes." So he called in each of his master's debtors.
He said to the first one, "How much do you owe my master?"
He replied, "Eight hundred gallons of oil."
And he said to him, "Here is your agreement; sit right down and change it to four hundred!"
Then he said to another, "And how much do you owe?"
He answered, "Fifteen hundred bushels of wheat."
He said to him, "Here is your agreement; write twelve hundred."
And his master praised the dishonest manager, because he had acted shrewdly.
Christ before Pilate (1649-50)
Generosity and Injustice
For the kingdom of heaven is like an employer who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. He agreed with the laborers to
pay them a dollar a day, and sent them to his vineyard.
He went out about nine o'clock and saw others standing in the bazaar with nothing to do. And he said to them, "You go to my vineyard, too, and I will pay you what ever is right." So they went. He went out again about twelve and about three, and did the same. About five he went out and found others standing about and he said to them, "Why have you been standing about here all day doing nothing?" They said to him, "Because nobody has hired us." He said to them, "You go to my vineyard, too."
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, "Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last and ending with the first."
When those who were hired about five o'clock came they received a dollar apiece. And when those who were hired first came they expected to get more, but they too got a dollar apiece. And when they received it they grumbled at their employer, and said, "These men who were hired last worked only one hour, and you have put them on the same footing with us who have done the heavy work of the day and have stood the midday heat."
But he answered one of them, "My friend, I am doing you no injustice. Did you not agree with me on a dollar? Take what belongs to you and go. I wish to give the last man hired as much as I give you. Have I no right to do what I please with what is mine? Or do you begrudge my generosity?"
A man once planted a vineyard and fenced it in and hewed out a wine vat and built a watch tower, and he leased it to tenants and left the
neighborhood. At the proper time he sent a slave to the tenants to get from them a share of the vintage. And they took him and beat him and sent him
back empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them. And they beat him over the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another; and
him they killed; and so with many others, some they beat and some they killed.
He still had one left to send, a dearly loved son. He sent him to them last of all, thinking, "They will respect my son."
But the tenants said to one another, "This is his heir! Come on, let us kill him, and the property will belong to us!" So they took him and killed him, and threw his body outside of the vineyard.
God's imperial rule may be compared to a king, who resolved to settle accounts with the men who served him. And when he set about doing so, a
man was brought in who owed him ten million dollars. And as he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all he
had, in payment of the debt.
So the man threw himself down before him and implored him, "Give me time, and I will pay you all of it." And his master's heart was touched, and he let the man go and cancelled the debt.
But when the man went out he met a fellow servant who owed him twenty dollars, and he caught him by the throat and began to choke him, saying, "Pay me what you owe!" So his fellow-servant threw himself down before him, and begged him, "Give me time, and I will pay you." But he refused and went and had him put in prison until he should pay the debt.
When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went to their master and reported the whole matter to him. Then his master called him in and said to him, "You wicked man! I cancelled all that debt of yours when you entreated me. Ought you not to have taken pity on your fellow-servant, as I did on you?"
So his master in his anger handed him over as to the jailers, until he should pay all he owed him.
Christ Carrying the Cross (1737-38)
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
The Prodigal Son
A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, "Father, give me my share of the property." So he divided his property between
them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered up all he had, and went away to a distant country, and there he squandered his property by fast
living. After he had spent it all, a severe famine arose in that country, and he became homeless and starving. So he went and hired himself out to a
resident of the country, who sent him into his fields to tend pigs. And he was happy to fill himself with the pods the pigs were eating, as no one
would give him anything.
When he came to himself he said, "How many hired men my father has, who have more than enough to eat, and here I am, dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and tell him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your eyes; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired men!"
So he left to go to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and pitied him, and ran and fell on his neck, and kissed him. Nevertheless, his son still said, "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your eyes; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired men!"
But his father said to his slaves, "Make haste and get out the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and get the calf we are fattening, and kill it, and let us feast and celebrate, for my son here was dead, and he has come to life; he was lost, and he is found !" So they began to celebrate.
His elder son was in the field. When he came in and approached the house, he heard music and dancing, and he called one of the servants to him and asked what it meant.
He replied, "Your brother has come back, and your father has killed the calf he has been fattening, because he has gotten him back alive and well." The elder son became angry, and would not go into the house. And his father came out to urge him in.
Then he said to his father, "Here I have served you all these years, and have never disobeyed an order of yours, and you have never given me a tender young goat, so that I could entertain my friends. But when your son here came, who has eaten up your property with women of the street, for him you killed the calf you have been fattening."
The father replied, "My child, you have been with me all the time, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because your brother was dead and has come to life, he was lost and is found!"
What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep, and loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go in search of the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he finds it, he puts in on his shoulders with joy, and when he reaches home, he calls in his friends and neighbors, and says to them, "Congratulate me, for I have found my lost sheep!"
Or what woman who has ten silver coins and loses one, does not light the lamp and sweep the house and look carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls in her friends and neighbors, and says to them, "Congratulate me, for I have found the coin that I lost!"
Albion Worshipping Christ (Jerusalem Plate 76)
Listen: A sower went out to sow, and as he was sowing, some seed chanced to fall by the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some of it fell on rocky ground, where there was not much soil, and it sprang up at once because the soil was thin. But when the sun came up it was scorched and withered up, because it had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And some fell on good soil, and came up and grew and yielded thirty, sixty, even a hundredfold.
A man had a fig tree growing in his garden, he went to look for fruit on it, and could not find any.
And he said to the gardener, "Here, I have come for three years to look for fruit on this fig tree, without finding any. Cut it down. Why should it waste
He answered, "Let it stand this one year more, sir, till I dig around it and manure it; perhaps it will bear fruit next year. But if it does not, you can have it cut down."
Nobody puts new wine into old wineskins, or if he does, the new wine will burst the skins and run out, and the skins will be spoiled. New wine must be put into fresh skins. No one after drinking old wine wants new, for he will say, "The old wine is better."
A man once gave a great dinner, and invited a large number to it, and when the dinner hour came, he sent around his slave, to say to those who were
invited, "Come! for it is now ready!" And they all immediately began to excuse themselves.
The first one said to him, "I have bought a piece of land, and I must go and look at it. Please have me excused."
Another said, "I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to examine them. Please have me excused."
Another said, "I have married, and so I cannot come."
So the slave went back, and reported this to his master.
Then the master of the house was angry and said to his slave, "Hurry out into the streets and squares of the city, and bring the poor, the maimed, the blind, and the lame in here."
The slave came back and said, "What you ordered, sir, has been done, and there is still room."
And the master said to the slave, "Go out on the roads, and among the hedges, and make them come in as well, so that my house may be full."
Blessed are you who are poor, for God's imperial rule is yours! Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied! Blessed are you who weep now, for you will Laugh!