The Real Deal
by Wendell Krossa
This piece just below summarizes the search for HJ and the striking contradiction between his non-retaliation and Christian retaliation theology. An Appendix summarises the actual teaching as per Matt.5 and Luke 6, taken from Mack, Funk, and other sources.
Search for the Real Deal on Non-retaliation/Unconditional
It has long been recognized that there is an historical Jesus whose authentic message can be found among the contradictory and distorting accounts contained in the New Testament gospels. Many have recognized that not all that is contained in the gospels is authentic to the historical person and in fact much contradicts profoundly the core message of the man.
This recognition has been expressed in a centuries-long search for the authentic sayings of Jesus, for the authentic gospel. This search begins with people like H. S. Reimarus in the 1700s (he starts the modern critical study of Jesus that challenges the long-held Christian teaching on Jesus), and moves to David Strauss in the 1800s (he recognized that the historical Jesus was buried underneath layers of Christian myth), and on to Albert Schweitzer’s apocalyptic Jesus of the early 1900s, and then into the later 20th Century “New Quest” for the Historical Jesus. The Jesus Seminar is one part of this new quest and recognizes that there are notable “dissimilarities” (differences) between the historical person and the gospel accounts. The Seminar researchers note, for instance, the difference between the injunction of Jesus to love enemies in Matt.5 and the later condemnation of towns (Matt.11) that rejected his followers. They conclude, “He would not have told Capernaum to go to hell after instructing his disciples to love their enemies” (The Five Gospels, Funk and Hoover).
Researchers like Stephen Mitchell argue that the historical Jesus was wise and forgiving in contrast to the punitive and self-centered Christian Jesus (i.e. John’s gospel). Mitchell then tries to “extricate the authentic sayings of Jesus from the morass of false, imputed statements found in the gospels”. People like Mitchell state that Christianity has created a New Testament that almost buries the authentic teaching of Jesus. Thomas Jefferson referred to this larger NT context as a situation where Jesus’ authentic words were like “diamonds in a dunghill”. This expresses well the point of stark difference between the message of the authentic person and the later contradictory additions to his teaching.
Another aspect of the quest for the historical Jesus was the recognition that the gospel writers (i.e. Matthew and Luke) used another source called Q Sayings Gospel when they wrote their gospels. Q research- or Quelle, the German word for “source”- recognizes that there was a stunning shift from the earliest version of this Sayings gospel that was non-apocalyptic (sapiential or wisdom sayings) to later versions that were strongly apocalyptic. And we are grateful for Q researchers like James Robinson that have noted this difference between an original Jesus gospel and the later Christian gospel. But you do not need Q research to see the striking difference between the authentic message of the historical Jesus and the Christian message about him, the Christ myth.
To appreciate the profound nature of this difference it is useful to get a grip on his core teaching. This will help to evaluate what is authentic among the rest of the material that has been attributed to him. We can engage here what some have referred to as “thematic coherence”, that there is often an organizing theme that consistently shapes the thinking, teaching, and acting of a person.
A summary of the core teaching of Jesus is found in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapters 5-7. A similar assembling of his core teaching is found in Luke 6. Within this larger body of core teaching there is a brief statement of his central theme (the core of the core). This is set forth in Matt.5:38-48. It is a clear and profound statement of non-retaliation as related to both ethics and theology. In fact, the ethical ideal is based on the theological truth.
Jesus’ statement on non-retaliation is arguably the clearest and most potent such statement in all history. Others had argued long before him for the principle of non-retaliation in human relating (e.g. the Akkadian Father’s advice to his son, Wikipedia). But Jesus took things to new heights of clarification by opening his statement on non-retaliation with a clear rejection of traditional retaliatory justice (eye for eye) as an ethical standard. And then he offered a new theological element in his statement, something that no one else in antiquity had ever done. He broke with all past perception of gods as retaliatory, judgmental, and punitive for a new theology of God as non-retaliating.
To summarize this core theme of Jesus as stated in Matt.5- first, he straightforwardly rejects eye for eye justice or ethics (payback, retaliation, vengeance, punishment) in favor of non-retaliation. This is a clear rejection of tit for tat response or relating. A rejection of “getting even”. While non-retaliation is the negative aspect (the passive aspect), today we state this type of response or relating positively in the term unconditional love, or unconditional treatment of all people.
After stating that we should not retaliate, Jesus then moved on to emphasize this positive element of unlimited goodness and generosity toward others. This is a call to unconditional forgiveness, unconditional inclusion of all, and the expression of unconditional generosity toward all. And the emphasis is on unconditional or unlimited. Absolutely no conditions before loving all. None.
To illustrate further, Jesus repeatedly argues that we should not retaliate against those who offend or harm us in varied ways. Instead, we should forgive and respond with unlimited generosity. We are to positively love our enemies. In stating this he lifted love out of the constricted realm of tribal or group thinking. Thugs and primitives restrict their love just to those who love them, to family and friends. You, Jesus urges, can do much better and love universally, including everyone, even enemies. He was eliminating all the divisive and discriminating categories of friend/enemy, insider/outsider, or good/bad people. There should be no limiting discrimination with authentic love.
And he added that people should not let their unconditional treatment of others depend on a similar response from others (Luke 6). Do not let your good treatment of others depend on how they respond to you or treat you. Do not expect others to respond in kind with similar goodness. Just love them anyway. He called for a full liberation from all tit for tat expectation and relating. These were uniquely new insights into unconditional treatment of others. His insights took human perception of love to a new height of humane response and relating.
And then he states the reason why we are to do so. We are to love enemies unconditionally because God does. We are to forgive all unconditionally, include all unconditionally, and express unlimited generosity toward all unconditionally. Because this is what God does. God forgives all, and includes all. God does not discriminate between good and bad but is generous toward all alike. He sends rain and sun on all without discrimination. God loves universally, including the bad or enemies. So be compassionate in the same manner that God is compassionate. Be merciful just as your father is merciful. It is a tight pair-bonding of ethics with theological ideal.
We find this core theme of unconditional treatment of all people throughout the teaching of Jesus, whether in parables or sayings or other statements. There is thematic coherence in his teaching. We see it in the parable of the vineyard workers (unconditional generosity), the prodigal son (no payback conditions), in his statements on unlimited forgiveness, and in his meal-time practice of embracing “sinners” without conditions or exclusion. For more detail, see the added summary posted below, “Unconditional In The Jesus Tradition”.
And this central theme of non-retaliation is critical to resolving the debate over whether he was an apocalyptic prophet/messiah (like his mentor John), or not.
The point is straightforward- if Jesus’ core theme was non-retaliation then he could not have been an apocalyptic messenger. And this gets us to the greatest of all contradictions between the historical Jesus and Christianity (the Christian or Pauline gospel).
Apocalyptic is most essentially a statement of retaliation. It is a grand divine retaliation against sinful humanity. It is a grand punishment, an act of divine vengeance, an exacting of revenge for sin. Paul is clear on this- note his comments, for example, in Thessalonians on God finally acting to repay (see also Romans and Hebrews for similar statements of divine retaliation). Apocalyptic is God intervening to retaliate in a grand final act of punishment of sin.
But Jesus, in his statement of his core theme, had clearly said that God does not retaliate. That core theme of his teaching then contradicts the entire structure of Christian belief or theology. Paul’s Christian system is built on the foundation of divine apocalyptic retaliation (Tabor- Apocalyptic influenced all Paul said and did, and Christianity is Paul’s religion). Paul’s Christian atonement theology is a subset of the larger apocalyptic framework (payment, punishment of sin in Christ’s death, salvation, final retribution against all sin, consummation, transformation). His Christ myth is all about retaliatory apocalyptic through and through. And his retaliating God emphasizes the profound contradiction between Jesus and Christianity.
So the core issue in the difference between Jesus and Christianity is that of retaliation versus non-retaliation, and not just apocalyptic versus non-apocalyptic. Once again, apocalyptic is most essentially retaliation, divine retaliation. This is the key point. And this is the most significant contradiction of all between the historical Jesus and the Christian myth of Christ. One is about non-retaliation and the other is about a supreme and final retaliation.
This difference can also be emphasized in a variety of ways- as that between authentic unconditional love and conditional atonement. Or between authentic forgiveness and the demand for atonement or payment. Or, as I have argued above, the difference between non-retaliation and vengeance or payback retaliation.
You simply cannot mix and merge these opposites, as Paul/Christianity has done, or you eviscerate the true meaning of the unconditional element in the process. With the conditional atonement of Christianity you distort and bury the unconditional insight of Jesus.
Conclusion: To summarize again this issue of thematic coherence- the historical Jesus consistently and coherently taught a message of non-retaliation or unconditional treatment of all. This unconditional treatment of others is a baseline from which to evaluate all of the other teaching attributed to Jesus. Much of that teaching in the gospels contradicts the tenor of this unconditional theme and therefore should be challenged as not authentic or consistent with his core theme.
And as Jesus’ core teaching is coherently and consistently non-retaliatory, we can then conclude that he was unquestionably non-apocalyptic. Apocalypse is a grand divine punishment, a divine retaliation against sinful humanity. As Jesus was consistently non-retaliatory in his core message, then he could not have advocated for divine apocalyptic retaliation, or apocalyptic in any form. This is especially clear in his Matt. 5:38-48 statements, where he says that God does not retaliate. God is therefore not behind apocalyptic in any way, shape or form.
Note: Once again, we do not need Jesus as some special authority to validate the ideal of unconditional treatment of others. Our own sense of the authentically humane tells us today what it means to be truly human. But we do benefit from the varied breakthrough insights of past historical figures.
Appendix: Core Teaching- Matt.5:38-48 and Luke 6:27-36
The summary of Jesus’ core teaching below combines the features of both the Matt.5 and Luke 6 summaries.
“You have heard that it was said, an eye for eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, Don’t resist or retaliate against an evil person.
“If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer your other cheek as well. If anyone grabs your coat, let him have your shirt as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
“Give to everyone who asks you, and if someone takes away your belongings, do not demand to have them back. Do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good; he sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
“If you love those who love you, that credit is that to you? Even tax collectors love those who love them, do they not? And if you embrace only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Doesn’t everybody do that? And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even wrongdoers lend to their kind because they expect to be repaid in full.
“Instead, love your enemies, do good to them, and lend without expecting to get anything back. Do to others what you would have them do to you.
“Then your reward will be great, and you will be the children of God (or better, you will be like God) because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful even as your Father is merciful. Be compassionate in the same manner that God is compassionate.”
Note in the above summary of Jesus’ core message these key points: He starts with a clear rejection of retaliation (tit for tat relating) for non-retaliation. And then he moves on from this negative aspect to a full positive statement of universal and unlimited love toward all people, good and bad. It is not just: Do not retaliate against your enemies, but even more, love your enemies with unlimited forgiveness, inclusion, and generosity. He does not leave his new ethic at passive non-retaliation. He explodes it toward unconditional goodness toward all people.
And he takes pains to express the scope of authentic love, that this love must be universal, including all, even the worst of people, one’s offending enemies. Love must not be limited in any way by insider favoritism, or family and group loyalties. It must be universal, and not tribal or insider love. There must be no more discriminating categories of friend/enemy, insider/outsider, or good/bad people.
And he takes further pains to explain the spirit of authentic love. It too must be unlimited, not stingy or restricted in any manner. Love must not be dependent on like response from others (tit for tat expectation). Only shown to those willing to return the same love. No, everyone does that. That is base and primitive tit for tat relating that most people have engaged throughout history. We can do better.
So he takes the human understanding of love to new heights. He urges us to be just like God, to do what God does. To be god-like or supremely humane.
And just in case there might be those who will view this unconditional ideal as some sort of new law or burdensome requirement to be fulfilled, let me remind them that the God who inspires this ideal is infinite Unconditional Love. There is no threat of judgment, retaliation, or punishment from that Love. Only unconditional forgiveness, acceptance and inclusion, and generosity. So relax while enjoying the human endeavor to be more humane. The very nature of the ideal- unconditional- ensures safety and security for all, no matter how imperfectly we play at exhibiting it.
Below is a summary of Unconditional in the Jesus Tradition, taken from the site www.wendellkrossa.com . This summary includes passages that are claimed to be later additions by the gospel authors, and are therefore likely not authentic to the historical Jesus (e.g. the John 9 statement on the blind man, or the woman taken in adultery). I have included them anyway from the larger New Testament Jesus tradition as they exhibit the same spirit as his core theme.
(Note: This referral to Jesus is not about seeking validation from some religious authority. I view the historical Jesus as a non-religious person, a “secular sage” according to one of the Jesus Seminar scholars. He was also a very human person, ordinarily so. What is useful to note in his teaching is his consistent focus on the theme of unconditional treatment of all people. That was a great advance for human consciousness. It provided something for us to build on and take further)
This site refers repeatedly to the historical Jesus tradition and his core theme of unconditional treatment of all people. Further below are some passages from the New Testament gospels that highlight this unconditional theme in sayings, parables, and encounters with people.
Just to clarify, my understanding of the historical Jesus is that of a person that is quite entirely opposite to the Christian Jesus. I conclude this from such things as the research on “dissimilarities” noted by the Jesus Seminar (differences between the historical person and the Christian version). I would argue, however, that the Seminar does not clearly and thoroughly set forth the centrality of this key issue of non-retaliation or unconditional love. It is the defining core of Jesus’ message and the main dissimilarity between the historical Jesus and the Christian Jesus.
But before going to those passages in Jesus’ teaching, note that he was not the first to understand that retaliation/punishment was inhumane and that unconditional treatment of all people was the foundational feature of authentic humanity. Others long before him had also begun to see that unconditional response illuminated the meaning of love like nothing before in history.
One of the first expressions of non-retaliation or unconditional response is found in what is called the “Akkadian father’s advice to his son” (circa 2200 BCE). It states, “Do not return evil to your adversary, requite with kindness the one who does evil to you”. A similar call for non-retaliation comes from Egyptian literature circa 1500-1300 BCE.
The Hebrew prophets (800-600 BCE) then added their own insights on non-retaliation. They stated in various places that God did not want sacrifice (payment, penalty, retaliation, atonement) but rather mercy. See, for example, Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:7-8, and Amos 5:21-24. Jeremiah 7:21-22 also says, “When I brought your forefathers out of Egypt I did not give commands about offerings and sacrifices”. Isaiah says, “I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats”. In all these utterances of the prophets there is no demand for payment for sin, no call for atonement, and no threat of retaliation or punishment. The prophets introduced a radical new understanding of God’s justice as forgiveness, mercy, and liberation, not punishment. They were advocating views that were radically opposed to the primitive atonement theology of the Jewish priesthood.
Buddhist literature also urged non-retaliation and overcoming evil with goodness. Confucius told his followers, “Do not engage revenge or anger”. The Hindus urged people to not render evil for evil. Socrates said, “We ought not to retaliate or render evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him”. And so on. Even Paul stated that retaliation or payback was evil (Romans 12).
But in the Christian tradition it has been hard for people to see the wonder of unconditional treatment of others as it was presented by the Historical Jesus. His teaching on unconditional love has been buried for two millennia in the larger retaliation/punishment context of Christian theology, a context that has distorted entirely the meaning of unconditional. Christianity, even today, continues to validate a view of justice as payback punishment (note that while Paul admitted that retaliation was evil for people to engage, he claimed that God would eventually retaliate- again, Romans 12).
Here are Jesus’ main statements and examples of unconditional response. These represent what is known as “thematic coherence”:
Matt.5:38-48, Luke 6: These two passages offer key summaries that set forth the core theme of Jesus’ teaching. They emphasize a clear rejection of eye for eye or payback justice in favor of non-retaliation. They also present a firm rejection of limited tribal love (love neighbors/family, but hate enemies) for a new inclusive/universalistic ethic of “love your enemies”. Treat everyone, including enemies, as intimate family. This takes the meaning of love to an entirely new height of humaneness.
This new inclusive and unconditional ethic is tightly pair-bonded to a striking new view of God as non-retaliating, and universalistic (God includes all equally whether good or bad, God showers all with the same generosity and love). To use a summary term- God expresses unconditional love toward all. Emphasizing this ethical/theological relationship, Jesus said, “Be merciful as your Father is merciful”. Be just like God- do not retaliate because God does not retaliate. Love your enemies because God loves all enemies.
In this teaching unconditional is not appealed to as some flighty, pacifist ideal plucked out of a new age dream. It is appealed to as the very essential nature of ultimate reality, the fundamental nature of that which is the very core of all reality and life. You cannot get more central to the very meaning and purpose of all things. Unconditional love as the defining core of reality becomes the basis of a new human ethic of unconditional treatment of all people.
Note also, this new theological insight in Matt. 5 contrasts entirely with all previous historical understanding of deity as retaliatory and punitive. It is a unique historical breakthrough.
Luke 6 approaches unconditional with some additional clarification about not just loving those who love you but going further to also love those who do not return the love. Here Jesus urges people to give generously and to not expect anything in return. Don’t expect repayment. Don’t let your unconditional treatment of others be short-circuited by their refusal to respond in kind. Love unconditionally anyway, no matter what the response of others might be. He was advocating the ending of all tit for tat thinking or conditional treatment of others.
John 8: the woman caught in adultery, according to Jewish law/scripture she should be condemned and stoned to death. But Jesus refuses to judge, condemn, or punish her. He rejects conventional payback justice responses and urges unconditional forgiveness.
Matt.20: the vineyard workers were royally upset with the generosity of the owner who treats all the workers with the same generosity. Some had worked harder and longer and felt that it was only fair that they received more while the latecomers received less. They held a strict payback or eye for eye mindset (reward good according to conventional fairness conditions, and punish bad according to similar conventional conditions). And note that the full-day guys received the exact amount that they had agreed to work for. But they were upset that the owner also gave the same amount to the latecomers. They could not comprehend the scandalous generosity of the owner toward all, a generosity that comes from an unconditional mindset.
(Note: this is not advocating for running a business or the general economy according to this ideal. It is simply showing the freedom of people to be generous as they choose with their own goods. It is not an argument for some sort of coercive redistributionist policy.)
Luke 15: the story of the prodigal again includes characters that react with upset at the generosity of some people toward the unworthy or undeserving, toward the bad or evil. The generous father is not interested in judgment, condemnation, or punishment. He is not interested in fair treatment according to conventional standards of reward and punishment. He wants to express generosity and a spirit of celebration, toward even the worst of people, no matter what they have done. Hence his unconditional inclusion and generosity, without any demand for some required payment or payback before forgiving and including (i.e. meeting prerequisite conditions). The father is not interested at all in demanding that conventional payback conditions be met first. And he says that he is willing to extend this generosity to both the good son and the bad son, to the careful and thrifty older son as well as to the careless waster son. There is no discrimination between good and bad in his generous response. He would treat all the very same- with unconditional love.
The older brother, like many good, moral and religious people, just does not get the merciful and generous spirit of his father. He cannot comprehend the unconditional spirit that forgives evil without demanding some payback condition be met first, the generous spirit that does not demand punishment for wrong done. Is this offensive to our sense of justice as fairness and rightness? Of course it is. But this scandalous unconditional treatment of all is getting us to what God is actually like.
Luke 11– Here Jesus states that just as we fallible and imperfect people know how to do good and give good gifts, how much more the perfectly good God will give good gifts. God is infinitely more loving and humane than we are, infinitely more than the best of people (Schillibeekx- God is much more human, more humane than any human being, again, infinitely so). We fallible humans know that non-retaliation is a more humane response, the way to peace, cooperation, and humane existence. How much more then does God know and act accordingly.
This is an especially difficult aspect of unconditional love for many good, moral people to accept. Their orientation to eye for eye justice leads them to hope that God will ultimately and finally exact justice for the many situations where “proper” payback justice was not exacted here in this world. But this is a profound misunderstanding of the unconditional goodness that is at the core of all reality. Ultimate unconditional love means that the very opposite of our hope for payback justice will be true. God is ultimate unconditional love, and infinitely more merciful and generous than we can even imagine. God is unconditional goodness to infinite and scandalous degree, infinitely more than the most scandalous generosity that we exhibit here (e.g. the vineyard owner, the father of the prodigal, or someone like Nelson Mandela). So Jesus’ argument is this: if you imperfect people know how to give good gifts, then how much more will the perfect and good father give good gifts. How much more loving, humane, merciful, and generous is God. Therefore, a proper grasp of deity as ultimate humaneness cannot expect some final and ultimate payback or punishment (final justice). It cannot hope for retaliation from a God that is unconditional love to infinite degree.
We cannot reserve any hope that some element of residual retaliation is lodged somewhere in some ultimate reality (i.e. God) for future fulfillment. Non-retaliation or unconditional love in God eliminates any such payback hope entirely.
John 9: Jesus denies the ancient and long-held belief that the gods punished people’s sin with disease, deformity, or disaster. All sickness and calamity in primitive time, and often still today, was viewed as punishment from the retaliating gods. As a Japanese woman said after the tsunami a few years back, “Are we being punished for enjoying life too much?”
Matthew 18:21-22: When asked how many times we should forgive an offender, Jesus replies, “Seventy-seven times”. Which is to say, unlimited. Unconditionally.
Luke 10: the Samaritan exhibits no tribal exclusion or favoritism, based on tribal or insider loyalties. He is open, inclusive, generous, and caring toward even traditional enemies.
Luke 7: Jesus accepts anointing by a “sinful” woman without judgment, condemnation, demand for exclusion, or punishment. He refused to express conditional treatment of people according to conventional views of right or wrong, bad or good, insider or outsider.
Luke 19: Jesus is non-judgmental and welcoming (inclusive universalism) toward another “sinner”, Zacchaeus. Again, no conditions are demanded before acceptance and inclusion.
We also find the unconditional treatment of all people expressed in Jesus’ habit of eating regularly with the most despised and excluded people of his time- the tax collectors, prostitutes, and other “sinners” or lawbreakers. He gave intense practical expression to his belief that all should be included equally without condition of any kind. It was an expression of generosity to all alike without discrimination between good or bad.
A critical element to the expression of unconditional love is the embracing of the absolute freedom of others, the freedom to express themselves as uniquely different and original. Authentic love will not try to control or manipulate others, with guilt or any form of coercion. It will embrace the uniqueness of the other, the freedom to be different, even if annoyingly so.
Whether we believe that Jesus was as consistent as we would like to conclude from the above passages, it does not ultimately matter. We understand unconditional reality much better today, and we ought to know by now that it is authentically humane response.
Qualifier- this consideration of the historical Jesus is not about appeal to authority but about illustration. Jesus is not authoritative on the ideal of unconditional, but illustrative. We possess our own authority- our personal human consciousness- regarding what is authentically human or humane. And that gets us to what an authentically humane God is about.