Opinion Columns & Blogs

Will the real Jesus please stand up?

Anyone who reads the Bible knows that the Jesus portrayed by Matthew looks nothing like the Jesus painted by John. They’re as different as Robin Hood and Achilles: two completely different men. Matthew gives us the Jewish Robin Hood, born in poverty and guided by God to help the poor and needy. John paints an Achilles, a god who existed before time, created the world “in the beginning,” and is one with his Father, Yahweh.

Why the stark contrast? Well, these two accounts were written from two different Jesus-traditions at two different times in history for two different groups of people who believed two different theories about Jesus.

Matthew, the most Jewish of our gospels, wrote for a group of Jesus-Jews in Palestine who were trying to survive after the horrible Roman wars in the year 70. Jesus died in the year 30, so very few of these people — probably including Matthew —had known him. But they still attended their synagogues every Sabbath and listened to the rabbi read the Torah and the prophets and then put a Jewish spin on the many remembered and redacted stories about Jesus.

Matthew believed Jesus was the promised Messiah and he wanted his people to believe it. This was the only way they were going to survive as Jews in this growing anti-Semitic culture. Jesus had to be a true descendant of Abraham, the fulfillment of the prophesies, and a new Moses.

Matthew starts with a genealogy to show that Jesus descended from Abraham in 42 generations. We have no idea when Abraham lived and neither did Matthew, but he garnered 42 names and called it the “historical record” of Jesus Christ. Was it? Not in our sense of historical.

Then comes the birth of Jesus. Matthew lists four prophesies from Isaiah, Micah, Hosea and Jeremiah — only one of which applied at that time to some future messianic leader — and Matthew proclaims that Jesus fulfilled them all. Did he? Not in our sense of fulfillment.

Finally, the new Moses: Matthew says that Herod killed all the male babies in Bethlehem just like the Pharaoh killed all the Hebrew baby boys when Moses was born. Then he has Jesus going up the mountain to deliver the “new law”: The Beatitudes, just like Moses did with the 10 commandments. Is this historical? I don’t think so.

All of this simply shows how Jesus came “not to destroy the law and the prophets” (he remains a Jew just like Moses), “but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). Matthew is not writing history; he’s writing faith.

Now how about the Jesus painted by John?

John’s gospel is clearly written at a time when Christianity is breaking away from Matthew’s Judaism, around the year 110. John’s gospel is for Gentiles — Greeks and Romans who feel Jews are beneath them. The climax comes in chapter 8 when Jesus is portrayed as denouncing “the Jews” as the offspring of Satan ( John 8:38 and 11:53) and “the Jews” are depicted as wanting to kill Jesus. We would never find this kind of language in Matthew’s gospel.

In Matthew, Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God, but in John — it’s all about his divine role. Jesus echoes his father’s own statement of identity, i.e., “I am who I am,” with seven “I am” declarations of his own. John also makes Jesus the “Logos” (Word), and states that in the beginning, Jesus (the Word) was God. Again, the Matthean Jews believed he was the son of God, but only Yahweh could be God.

In Matthew, as we have seen, Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem to fulfill the prophesy, but this has no importance for John. Where he was born is irrelevant; he is from beyond this world. He is an anti-Jewish god. How do we sync these two gospels together? It’s obvious to me that Matthew’s Jews would be utterly disgusted with John’s portrayal; this is not the Jesus they worshipped.

I see no reason to try to pretend that these two gospels are somehow the same historical account of the same Jewish peasant who grew up in Galilee. They contradict each other. To me, it is clear evidence of the gradual mythological growth and change in the Jesus story that began in the year 30. and continued on for 2,000 years and really hasn’t stopped changing today.

Now that’s what I would call somewhat “miraculous.”

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants.