Christianity 201

March 2, 2023

Is Jesus a Product of Organized Religion?

Thinking Through The Question with Mark’s Gospel

by Clarke Dixon

Today’s scriptures are all linked outside the main article.

Reading through Mark’s account of Jesus there were two key responses to Jesus:

  • Just who is this Jesus? A response of amazement.
  • Just who does this Jesus think he is? A response of disbelief.

Which one of these represents best the response to Jesus today? Given the passage of time there is a new response to Jesus:

  • Just how do Christians expect us to take Jesus seriously when he is a product of organized religion, indeed one we don’t really care for?

Given the bias against organized religion today, it would be interesting if Canadians could read the account of Jesus written by Mark and think of it not as being part of the Christian Bible, a product of Christianity, but as a historical document, something written at a particular time and place in history. Now, why was it written?

Did Mark and the other Gospel writers write what they did in an attempt to start a new religion? Or was Mark simply capturing what he had learned from Peter and others about their experience of Jesus? Why did Mark write what he did, and why was there a community of people willing to live and die for what was captured in writing by Mark about this Jesus? Why were people rethinking everything?

Mark gives us some clues, so let’s dig into a section of Mark paying attention to what he really wants us to know about the identity of Jesus:

  • In Mark 4:35-41 we read about Jesus calming the storm. Just who is this guy, that the winds and the sea obey him? “The Messiah” does not come immediately to mind as the answer to anyone, nor would it.
  • In Mark 5:1-20 we read about Jesus healing a man possessed by many demons. No one was able to chain this man down. Jesus did something better, he set him free. On people’s minds would have been “who is this that spirits obey him”? We can note that in verse 19 and 20 “go and tell your family what the Lord has done for you” becomes “he went and told everyone what Jesus did for him.” There is a hint there about what Mark, at least, is thinking about the identity of Jesus.
  • In Mark 5:21-43 we read about Jesus raising a girl from the dead. Just who is this, that can raise the dead? Again, “the Messiah” would not come to mind.
  • In Mark 6:14-29 we read about the death of John the Baptist beginning with a discussion of who Jesus might be. We can note that “the Messiah” does not make the list. Also not making the list was “Jesus is God incarnate” or “Jesus is the Word made flesh and dwelling among us.” No one was expecting that to happen. Indeed the idea was ludicrous.
  • In Mark 6:30-44 we read about Jesus feeding thousands from very little. Who can do that? Mark gives a hint with the sheep without a shepherd reference plus the fact that Jesus made them lie down in green pastures, reminiscent of Psalm 23 which refers to God.
  • In Mark 6:45-52 we read about Jesus walking on water. Who can do that?
  • In Mark 6:53-56 we read about people being healed simply by touching the clothes of Jesus. Just who is this?
  • In Mark 7:19 Mark throws in a comment that Jesus had declared all foods clean. With long established religious rules about clean and unclean foods, set, according to the Book of Leviticus by God, who can do that?
  • In Mark 7:31-37 we read about the healing of a deaf man including a bit of a summary; “he does all things well.”

Just who is this Jesus? Jesus was a person in history because of whom people had to rethink everything. Mark records for us the reason why Peter, James, and so many others, went way beyond thinking “this Jesus might be the Messiah,” to “this is God with us – and this is good news.”

Because of their experience of Jesus, people, regular people, normal people, were willing to rethink everything they thought they knew about God, about God’s people, and about themselves. The people who were invested in organized religion had trouble rethinking. They, the scribes, Pharisees, and other religious leaders, were thrown off by Jesus not meeting their expectations of a holy man, a man from God. This can’t be the Messiah for he is not doing what we expect the Messiah to do according to our religion, and besides, he does not seem to be very religious.

What do people think about the identity of Jesus today?

People are quick to give opinions about Christianity, sometimes based on what is seen on TV or in politics, but sometimes based on the experience of hypocrisy. “You talk a lot about love, but…” Opinions about Christianity often determine people’s opinions about Jesus.

What if people could start from a blank slate? Where did the belief that Jesus is actually God come from? From Mark we learn that this belief came not from the organized religion types, but from the experience real people had of Jesus. The religious types had no interest in starting a new religion, they were all about protecting the one they had, while the non-religious types, like Peter and the disciples, had no interest in starting a religion because, well they were not that into religion. Christianity did not create Jesus, it sprang up because of the experience of Jesus.

The people who were there, like Peter, the disciples, and so many others, were sharing their experience of Jesus before Mark, and others, wrote it down for future reference. They were willing to rethink everything, and to live and die for what they came to believe about Jesus. We have Mark and the other Gospel accounts, not because organized religion types made Jesus up, but because normal people experienced Jesus. We still do.

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