It’s one thing to say what Christianity is not, but quite another to say just what it is. It is easy enough to rail against its use as a political tool to support an agenda of control, but how was it a radical religion of liberation?
This is a good topic for the season, as the Western world contemplates the real meaning of Christmas. That story alone is an interesting one because it is nearly the only information known about the man named Jesus before he was thirty years old. It’s also dubious at best, but let’s leave that aside. Let’s even leave aside what Jesus himself actually preached. What did he do for thirty years? Where did he learn and meditate and eventually produce the faith that now dominates the world?
It’s a fascinating story with no clear conclusion. But we have some clues which point to a very different view of what Christianity is than what is common understood in the Western world.
It’s worth starting with the historical proof that Jesus himself actually existed. He is clearly referenced in writings which have survived to this day within 25 years of his life. He was accepted as an historical figure by many Roman historians, starting with Josephus, within a century of his life. For a person with no official title or role in government, this is quite remarkable in the day. Historians generally accept that Jesus, as a person, was real.
He was from Nazareth, near the Sea of Galilee. It was a town heavily built-up by the Romans after the conquest of Palestine for a good reason. Its placement near fresh water made it something of a gateway to the desert beyond which formed a barrier between Rome and the Parthian Empire of Persia.
This made Nazareth the connection between the Greco-Roman world and the East, a connection which would later be known as the Silk Road.
There is little doubt that travelers from the East would have been common in this part of Palestine, as it was the most prominent connection between two worlds. Parthian Persia itself was essentially Greek, a remnant of the Empire of Alexander, so relations would be generally good with a common language and currency.
Into this world came Jesus. What little we know about his early life comes in a single verse in the Bible, a tiny anecdote about a precocious young boy:
Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.
Luke 2:41-46 (NIV)
This is all we have about the personality of this young man, but it says a lot. Picture such a kid where two worlds meet, asking questions and speaking to adults as equals. Who might he have run into? What did he learn? What did he contemplate on his own?
This is where we can only speculate, but I have my own way of looking at it. Years of study of Jesus has led me to break his teachings into two nearly equal parts. Some of it is clearly Intra-Jewish, based on the faith of his world, and some of it is Extra-Jewish, of some other origin. The Jewish part is easy to explain, but the rest is not – unless broken down further into pieces which show that it may indeed have come from an influence far to the east.
For example, we have in Jesus an interest in telling short stories, or parables, along with quick morals which stand on their own as aphorisms. Much of this is very much like the teachings of Confucius, better known as Kong Fūzi (孔夫子). Confucius lived about 500 years before Jesus, and his teachings were revered throughout China. The concept of “religion” is different in China, as it accepts many revered texts from different sources as truth and good practice. One particularly popular Confucian admonition his collected works, The Annalects, came through almost completely intact, delivered in the Sermon on the Mount and universally known as “The Golden Rule”:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Matthew 7:12 (NIV)
While the Confucian tradition is strong, especially with such a specific reference, the influence of Daoism (aka Taoism) is even stronger. This philosophy was something like the official state religion of the Han Dynasty which ruled China at the time. As something of a reaction to more rigid Confucianism, Daoism is not interested in rules and morality. It teaches that there is something even bigger which it calls “The Way” (Dao, or 道). Essentially, you will know goodness when you see it. The details of laws and practices are far less important than being at one with The Way.
Jesus’ teachings as something of an early preacher of Reform Judaism is almost entirely based on a similar philosophy in response to rigid Jewish Law. Indeed, he refers to himself and his teachings repeatedly as “The Way”
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
John 14:6 (NIV)
But the strongest connection with the East comes in the clear relationship to Buddhism. The concept of “Heaven”, alien to Judaism, appears to align well with Buddhist teachings on enlightenment and their own view of an ultimate afterlife. The connection is so strong that for many years scholars have contemplated that before he was thirty Jesus traveled to India to study with Buddhist monks, something which is described in detail in this excellent documentary from the BBC:
Personally, I don’t think that is necessary. For one, Buddhism traveled well so its students didn’t necessarily have to. In addition, the mixing of Confucian and Daoist traditions which are prevalent in the Extra-Jewish parts of Jesus’ teachings align better with what he might have learned from a more ordinary Chinese person. It’s easy to imagine the same precocious child who spent days with the Rabbis sitting down with Chinese, Indian, Persian, and other merchants who came through Nazareth and absorbing all he could.
The personal connection is possible, but unproven. The philosophical and religious connections are unmistakable, however. There is little doubt that the teachings of Jesus had a strong influence from a mixture of common teachings from further East.
This places early Christianity, directly from the mouth of the teacher, in an interesting place. In a time when half of the world lived in either Han China or Rome, and probably three quarters or more was influenced by either one. A unique intersection formed. Philosophies, moralities, and other teachings flowed back and forth.
The world came together in one unified way as it has not since.
What makes Christianity so compelling as a religion? At its heart are basic truths and morals which have proven universal. They are the result of a meeting between all the people of the world in a people’s religion, apart from the powers which used religion to control their people. Yes, as it evolved through the Greek and Roman worlds into medieval Europe even this religion of liberation was distorted into a tool for control and sadly often remains in that form far too often today.
But it wasn’t always that way. What Jesus taught was a faith of liberation.
His teachings caught on in part because they were a folk religion based on knowing goodness when you see it and following “The Way” more than law. The ultimate reward for goodness is clear and comes to bring peace when life becomes nasty.
Did they come from the one true God? They certainly came through a multicultural bridge between people which brought many different traditions of Israel, India, China, Persia, Greece, and Rome together in one place. Perhaps all the people of all the world together, at their best, is as good of a definition of “God” as we will ever see on this earth.