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Identifying Jesus' Real Words and Deeds, With a New Age Touch

JESUS: WHAT HE REALLY SAID AND DID By Stephen Mitchell; HarperCollins: $15.95, 146 pps.

June 01, 2002|JONATHAN KIRSCH | Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to the Book Review, is the author of, most recently, "The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People."

Thomas Jefferson once sat down with a pair of scissors, a pot of glue and a copy of the King James version of the Bible and produced what has come to be called "the Jefferson Bible," a cut-and-paste version of the New Testament that includes only those passages that struck Jefferson as authentic.

"There is internal evidence that parts [of the Gospels] have proceeded from an extraordinary man, and that other parts come from very inferior minds," wrote Jefferson. "It is as easy to separate those parts as to pick out diamonds from dunghills."

Now Stephen Mitchell, a teacher of spiritual traditions from both East and West, has undertaken the same audacious task in "Jesus: What He Really Said and Did," a book written primarily for a teenage audience. He reports that, unlike Jefferson, he resorted to "the precision tools of modern scholarship" to distinguish the words and exploits of the "real" Jesus from those that were added later--but he also concedes that he relied on his own "spiritual intuition" to separate the diamonds from the dung.

Of course, even the makers and users of what Mitchell calls the "precision tools" of modern Bible scholarship are sometimes willing to admit that the question of "what Jesus really said and did" is ultimately unanswerable. Ranging from Albert Schweitzer's "The Quest of the Historical Jesus" to Jack Miles' newly published "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God," the search for the "real" Jesus has produced not a single clear answer but a chorus of contending voices.

Mitchell, however, is plainly a conflict avoider, and he is seeking to open rather than change the minds of his readers. "If beliefs about Jesus can help make people kinder human beings, I am in favor of them," he writes at the outset. "My advice to people who think they may be offended by this book is to close it immediately, or better yet, don't open it in the first place."

Mitchell was raised in the Reform movement of Judaism, but he is an equal-opportunity spiritual seeker. "I love Jesus," he affirms, "but I love the Buddha just as much, and Lao-tzu, and the wisest men and women from all the great spiritual traditions." Still, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah for a Jewish writer, no matter how deferential, to purge the New Testament of all of its Christian theology.

Though Mitchell is certainly not the first to do so, he gives us a Jesus who "didn't intend to begin a new religion," who "never thought of himself as the Messiah or the son of God" and whose death is explained as a matter of local politics rather than divine will. Jesus was surely "one of the greatest spiritual teachers who ever lived," according to Mitchell, but he was just as surely not the son of God.

Thus, for example, Mitchell is willing to believe that the historical Jesus was capable of healing the sick, but he denies that the cures were miraculous.

Rather, he insists that the power to heal came from the minds and bodies of those who were healed. "Jesus himself said that he wasn't the one who was healing people," he writes. "[It] was their own trust--in God and in themselves--that healed them."

The "heart of Jesus' teaching," according to Mitchell, can be found in the parable of the prodigal son. When the errant son returns to his grief-stricken father, and the father says, "This son of mine was dead, and he has come back to life," argues Mitchell, he was speaking only about the here and now--and so was Jesus when he told the tale. A reunion of the father and son, insists Mitchell, "describes the only kind of resurrection that Jesus ever spoke about."

"The legend of the resurrection would have surprised Jesus," insists Mitchell. "He himself never taught about a resurrection from the dead, because he wasn't afraid of death.... He trusted God with all his heart, and he knew that whatever happened had to be good, because it happened according to the will of a supremely intelligent and loving presence."

"Jesus" is a reader-friendly volume, short, simple and, at times, simplistic. Mitchell gives us a child-safe Christ, a Jesus who has been extracted from the ancient texts in which his words and deeds have been preserved, however imperfectly, and made over for the New Age.

There's an irony at work here. Much blood has been spilled over the centuries by those who claim to know, as Mitchell puts it, what Jesus really said and did.

The use and abuse of his teachings by true believers of various persuasions is a subject that ought not to be overlooked if we are seeking to understand what Jesus has really meant in the lives of countless millions of men, women and children over the last 2,000 years. A child of 12 need not be troubled with these problems, but the rest of us surely should be.

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