Advent, Biblical Jesus, Christmas, Gospel of John, Gospel of Luke, I and Thou, Jefferson Bible, Martin Buber, Thomas Jefferson, William Short
Are you satisfied with a purely secular approach to the Christmas season? If not, you might consider spending some time reading the New Testament gospels and reflecting on the life and teachings of Jesus that they depict.
Skeptics will resist this suggestion but could soften their stance when they learn that respected thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and Martin Buber (yes, the 20th Century Jewish philosopher!) would have nodded their assent. Both considered the gospels to be sources of immense wisdom. They had no illusion about the human authorship of the Bible; this did not prevent them from engaging it energetically and with seriousness of purpose. In so doing, they testify to its importance. Both adopted unique approaches to Scripture; their approaches offer helpful examples of how we too might to read it.
Although he didn’t consider Jesus to be divine, Thomas Jefferson was inspired by the Biblical Jesus’ message—albeit in its distinctly human dimension. New Testament verses concerning morality and sin met with Jefferson’s approval but the miracles and Jesus’ resurrection struck him as implausible. Jefferson decided to extract the passages reflecting his ideas about Jesus from the four Gospels to create a single, unified gospel. Over a period of several years, he selected passages from six different (hardcopy) Bibles, cut them out (with scissors—yup, the old, old-fashioned way), and pasted them together (with glue) to create his own, integrated gospel. His Bible selection included excerpts from the King James Bible, a Greek Bible, one in Latin, and two more in French. He entitled his cut-and-paste Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.
What follows is the narrative of Jesus’ birth from Jefferson’s Bible. Because this account only appears in the gospel of Luke, Jefferson relied on uniquely on Luke to redact his version of the nativity:
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. Lk 2:1
(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) Lk 2:2
And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. Lk 2:3
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David.) Lk 2:4
To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. Lk 2:5
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. Lk 2:6
And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them at the inn. Lk 2:7
And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, Lk 2:21
And when they had performed all things according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth. Lk 2:39
Although this passage doesn’t include the moral teachings so important to Jefferson, it does show that he had no qualms about altering sacred Scripture to make it his own–including the story of Jesus’ birth.
Given when and where he lived, it isn’t surprising that Jefferson considered Jesus, the man, a source of inspiration. However, it is surprising that Martin Buber, best known for his book of Jewish theology, I and Thou, considered Jesus his great brother. Buber found much significance in Jesus’ suffering, his self-doubt and his death. Indeed, Buber wrote:
“From my youth onwards, I have found in Jesus my great brother. That Christianity has regarded and does regard him as God and Saviour has always appeared to me a fact of the highest importance which for his sake and my own, I must endeavor to understand… my own fraternally open relationship with him has grown ever stronger and clearer… For nearly 50 years, the New Testament has been a main concern in my studies.”
In Jesus, Buber found a great son of Israel. He found the genuine Jewish principle manifest in Jesus’ teachings. He also felt a strong kinship to the Jesus depicted in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke—that is to say, a strong kinship for the plain and embodied man grappling with concrete situations.
For Buber, it was this Jesus, the one who, struggling in the depth of the actual moment, found eternity. He had the highest regard for the man who lacked certainty about his nature, who experienced shocks to this certainty, and whose last question was ‘Why’?
If Buber had less affinity for the version of Jesus depicted in the gospel of John, this was because John’s Jesus entered the spiritual realm where he was no longer open to attacks of self-questioning.
Buber ascribed enormous importance to passages like the following one from the Sermon on the Mount (in the gospel of Matthew): “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors SO THAT you may become the children of your Father in heaven.” Based on his research, Buber held that until Jesus spoke those words, nowhere else had love for others been described as the path to becoming a child of God.
In Buber’s view, Jesus’ statement rose out of Israel’s faith, it implied it, and yet at the same time, supplemented it. It opened the door to all those who really love. Buber celebrated Jesus as the religious leader who challenged human beings, for the first time in our history, to Love our enemies and pray for our persecutors so that we might become what we were meant to be, brothers and sisters to one another.
Should you, like Buber or Jefferson, decide to revisit the Bible during this season of Advent then, like them, you will want to acknowledge the ugly parts of the gospels, or of any other Biblical book for that matter, if that’s what those passages deserve. Neither Buber nor Jefferson approached Scripture with naive reverence. They relied on their analytic and critical skills to winnow “the grain from the chaff.”
Jefferson explained his approach in a letter he wrote to William Short, a Unitarian with whom he corresponded about religious matters during the years he worked to create his personal Gospel. In one of those letters, he said:
“We find in the writings of [Jesus’] biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. First, a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications. Intermixed with these, again, are sublime ideas of the Supreme Being, aphorisms, and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition and honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.”
If you (re)visit the gospels, why not start with the gospel of Luke? Not only does this gospel contain the story at the core of this season’s Christmas celebration, but it is prized for its literary elegance, its great interest in the poor, the “lost,” women, Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. Luke’s book has received much praise for what has been called his universalism based on his willingness to be inclusive of a variety of interests and audiences. Some have even speculated a woman wrote this gospel.
Who knows, after reading Luke’s account, you, like Jefferson and Buber, might discover beauty and truth in the Biblical story of Jesus. You might even, in this busy and often spirit-draining time of Advent, find a meaning in Jesus’ birth that’s all your own, enabling you to invite him to the bash you’re throwing in his name. On some level this holiday is universal–there’s something in it for everyone–Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, Christians and atheists.
So go ahead, pick up a Bible and find the gospels. Read a passage. Or two. What is there to lose–except the sinking feeling that Christmas is little more than an opportunity for gift-giving and sweets-eating?
References: Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989); Martin Buber, Two Types of Faith, trans. Norman P. Goldhawk (London: Routledge & Kegan, 1951).