Surely the least reverent film depiction of the Sermon on the Mount was found in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a satirical look at events in New Testament times. The scene opens with Jesus standing on a hilltop reciting the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are the meek…blessed are the peacemakers. The camera pulls back until Jesus is hardly more than a flyspeck on the horizon, his words soon lost in the wind and in kibitzing by the surrounding throng. Brian, a reluctant messiah born three stables down from Jesus in Bethlehem, is standing at the edge of the crowd, straining to hear. “Speak up!” his mother cries in a pronounced Cockney accent. “I can’t hear a fing!” A garbled message is relayed to the back of the crowd: “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” A perplexed onlooker asks, “What’s so special about cheesemakers?” Another pipes up, “Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”
Surely no words in human history have been parsed and reparsed as many times as the ones attributed to Jesus in the four gospels of the New Testament. And these are only four of numerous gospels that circulated before the New Testament canon assumed its present form in the first few centuries of the church. Jesus himself left no written record behind. Few writings in the New Testament can be attributed unequivocally to his disciples. The epistles written by St. Paul and others interpret Jesus’ teachings but do not quote him directly. The earliest gospels appeared decades after Jesus lived and were written in a language other than the one he spoke. The three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) tell roughly the same story in the same chronological order with similar but not identical sayings attributed to Jesus. But Matthew and Luke contain additional material that scholars believe may have come from another source, a hypothetical compendium of sayings known as the “Q document” that is now lost. All of this is useful to understand when we strain to hear what was actually said by an itinerant Galilean preacher nearly 2,000 years ago.
Since the 19th century, biblical scholars have attempted to reconstruct the historical Jesus in order to determine what he actually said and did. The most ambitious such effort has been undertaken by a consortium of mostly liberal academics working under the auspices of the Jesus Seminar. This group began meeting more than two decades ago to vote on the historical validity of Jesus’ words and deeds in five gospels (including the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas), using a controversial method involving beads of various colors to signify degrees of authenticity. The Jesus Seminar concluded that Jesus probably did not say most of what is attributed to him in the gospels and did not perform such miracles as walking on water and raising Lazarus from the dead, much less rising from the dead himself. Conservative theologians, meanwhile, have challenged the voting methodology adopted by the Jesus Seminar and have rejected the criteria used for determining historical authenticity as merely reflecting the liberal assumptions of the scholars involved.
Whatever the shortcomings in its methodology or its premises, the Jesus Seminar offers some interesting perspectives on the gospels as historical artifacts; however, its conclusions may be largely beside the point. Joseph Campbell pointed out long ago that the truth of religious myths has little to do with their factual basis. For those who have ears to hear, the truth is in the hearing, whatever the source. It thunders from mountaintops and whispers in the depths of the human heart. It can weave itself into casual conversation or in a song on the radio. As the author of Proverbs puts it, “Wisdom cries aloud in the streets.”
At the conclusion of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, published in 1927, Mozart materializes in modern dress and tunes in Handel’s Concerto Grosso in F Major on a primitive radio of the day. The novel’s protagonist, Harry Haller, is outraged that the music of the immortals is so badly mutilated by this crude mechanical device. But Mozart only twits him for failing to appreciate the cosmic humor of it all. “Just listen, you poor creature,” he advises, “listen without either pathos or mockery, while far away behind the veil of this hopelessly idiotic and ridiculous apparatus the form of this divine music passes by….You hear not only a Handel who, disfigured by radio, is, all the same, in this most ghastly of disguises still divine; you hear as well and you observe, most worthy sir, a most admirable symbol of all life.