It’s a sign of the worldview of educated Westerners that even those curious about the spiritual life usually value the expertise of scholars and secular commentators – some of them overt atheists – over the authority of sacred texts and religious practitioners. This also applies to Rex Weyler, the author and social activist who helped found Greenpeace. In The Jesus Sayings, Weyler’s book-length treatise on the authentic teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, he relies almost exclusively on the research of such Biblical scholars as Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong, and Robert Funk.
By “authentic,” Weyler means only those sayings and biographical incidents that can be traced back to the handful of surviving first- and second-century manuscripts relating to Jesus’ life. Since so little was written about Jesus during his life, and because his oral teachings were likely not written down until decades after his death, Weyler is forced to untangle his version of the authentic Jesus from various and often contradictory gospels. Most scholars agree that none of these gospels were likely written during Jesus’ life and are probably the work of later followers of Jesus working from earlier manuscripts.
Given the contradictory nature of these gospels (even those collected in the New Testament) and the volatile period following Jesus’ death, a period that saw the destruction of Jerusalem and the
persecution of early Christian sects throughout the Roman Empire, anyone trying to reconstruct an “authentic” Jesus would have to tread lightly, acknowledging that, in the end, any portrait must rely heavily on speculation and imagination.
It becomes clear early on that Weyler has little intention of being cautious – he knows who the real Jesus is, and he spends nearly 400 pages telling the reader about him.
Who is Weyler’s Jesus? Certainly not the Jesus of Church doctrine and tradition, the Son of God who performed miracles and gave his life as a penance for the sins of humanity. Jesus, according to Weyler, was merely “a poor Galilean, who inspired devotion and left behind a treasure of sayings.” This “vulnerable human Jesus” with “culture-crashing courage” and a “counter-culture sense of humour” snubbed his nose at the Roman and Judean authorities, devoted his time to helping the poor, and made a single unique contribution to humanity: turning “spiritual philosophy into spiritual action.”
This is a tremendous leap to make based on even the earliest surviving manuscripts, a leap Weyler can pull off only by creating a self-fulfilling standard of authenticity in which any biographical incidents or sayings that do not “echo [Jesus’] provocative style and bolster his message of humility” are ascribed to later authors. In Weyler’s account, those authors, especially St. Paul (who is depicted here as a power-consolidating patriarch straight out of a Margaret Atwood novel), imposed their own hierarchical vision upon Jesus’ simple message of social reform, in the process creating the Church-sanctioned version of Jesus who is worshipped by hundreds of millions of Christians today.
Weyler bolsters his argument for a non-divine, social activist Jesus by liberally quoting from the ancient gospels that have been discovered in Israel over the last century (collectively known as the Dead Sea scrolls), especially the gospels of Thomas, Philip, and Mary. Weyler’s use of quotations from these texts is highly selective, and he ignores those manuscripts in the scrolls that portray Jesus as a purely divine being. Many of these so-called Gnostic texts were rejected by the early Roman Church because of their essentially anti-human bias, but Weyler seems more concerned with turning the Church’s founding fathers into quasi-fascists than objectively examining the full context of these theological schisms.
There’s nothing new in these arguments, and Weyler finds few new ways of making them. The book might have worked if he had shared his personal and intellectual journey to his radical interpretation of Jesus’ teachings instead of twisting the tentative conclusions of Bible scholars to fit his needs. And for all of Weyler’s anti-authoritarian bias, his tone throughout is that of the patient but didactic schoolteacher, initiating new points in his argument with the phrase “as we have seen” instead of “as I have deduced.”
There is no doubt that the Roman Church and its offshoots have distorted Jesus’ teachings and committed terrible crimes in his name. Unfortunately, The Jesus Sayings illustrates an irony so often lost on iconoclasts like Weyler: that in singlemindedly railing against prevailing orthodoxies, they create stifling new orthodoxies of their own.