What Was He Like?

What kind of person was Mohammed? Was Confucius a rigid individual or a fun loving person? Was Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) an introvert or an extrovert? What was Jesus’ outlook on life?

The founders of the great religious/spiritual traditions are honored, revered, and held in a sacred place by their followers. But they were real people with personalities, idiosyncrasies, likes and dislikes. When you think about the real life people who espoused the great spiritual and ethical teachings which became the religious traditions honored around the world, have you ever considered what they were like in real life? If you have, is your image of them a reflection of the way you want them to be? Or are you able to be open to the possibility that they may have been people you probably wouldn’t have befriended?

Over the past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend lectures given by eminent Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman. Ehrman is a New York Times bestselling author and has appeared on a number of popular television and radio programs like The Colbert Report and Freshair. In one of his lectures, Ehrman described Jesus, the person living in first century Judea during the Roman occupation.

Jesus was from a small country town, Nazareth, which didn’t have basic amenities like a market or school. As a carpenter, he was a common laborer. While he’s often pictured making fine furniture, he probably specialized in making yokes of oxen for the subsistence farmers in the region. As a laborer, he and his family didn’t have a surname. He was just Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth. His was a common name, like Bob or Tom.

Like more than 95% of Jews in his era, Jesus probably didn’t know how to read or write. What he knew, he learned from the oral tradition of the Jewish people. Since he and his family were poor, he wouldn’t have traveled much beyond his home town while growing up. By our standards, he had a very hard life.

Jesus would have shared the common views and attitudes of first century Jews. The Jewish people were weary from poverty and political domination by outside forces. Since they had no army or means to undertake a revolution, many Jews, including Jesus, shared an apocalyptic view: the world as it was known was going to end sometime soon. In its place, God would establish a realm on earth which would be the opposite of the way things were: the rich would be poor; those with power would have none; the hungry would eat well; the oppressed would be free and happy.

Ehrman describes Jesus as a first century Jewish apocalyptic. Ehrman suggests that the message of Jesus is best understood from the perspective of a having a new kingdom of God established on earth within the life-time of his hearers.

The world we know today is very different from that of Jesus. It’s also very different from the world of Mohammed, Siddhartha Gautama, and Confucius. The differences are significant. Based on our knowledge of the world, in many ways the world views of these member were simply wrong. Yet, their followers all believe that their messages contain truth.

As I continue to reflect on the lectures I heard this past weekend, I want to pose some questions: What difference does it make to know that some of the opinions or beliefs of great religious teachers were wrong? What is the merit in living by moral and ethical codes from millennia ago developed in cultures so radically different from our own? How is it that we value the message but remain so different from the messengers?

© 2010, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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