If Jesus Wanted a Bible, Why Didn’t He Write One?

This morning I want to focus on a theological question that does not get asked often enough. My question is this, “If Jesus wanted a Bible, why didn’t he write one?” In the South the religion of Jesus is often considered synonymous with the Bible. After all, we live in the Bible Belt. There is a lot of emphasis on biblical religion, biblical teaching, biblical values, biblical readings and biblical interpretations. However, one of the interesting things about Jesus is that he placed less emphasis on the written word when it came to his own message. Indeed, he did not write any of his teachings down. So if Jesus wanted there to be a book that contained his message in an authoritative way why didn’t he write the book? So let’s spend some time this morning reflecting on that question that too often goes unasked. 

Jesus was a teacher in the oral tradition. He was a storyteller. For the first three decades after the crucifixion his teachings were spread by the spoken word. The earliest gospel wasn’t written until at least 30 years after his death. 

Before the written word the tradition was spread by storytellers who often adapted the story for their audiences in many different parts of the area around the Mediterranean Sea. If you’ve ever wondered why there are so many differences between the gospels of Matthew, Mark. Luke and John this is the reason why. Storytellers speaking to very different audiences told the story in very different ways.

So nothing was written before 60 ACE but then many things were written including many books that did not make it into the Bible including the gospel according to Thomas and the gospel according to Mary and the gospels according to Judas, Peter, Bartholomew, Nicodemus and more. 

In each of these gospels we get a very different picture of Jesus. In the gospel according to Mark Jesus seems like a down to earth human teacher, a storyteller. The earliest version of the gospel of Mark does not even have the story of the resurrection. In the gospel according to John Jesus seems to levitate off the ground while offering long theological treatises. The gospel according to Thomas is mainly a collection of Jesus’ teachings.

Some of my favorite readings come from the gospel according to Thomas, a book that did not make it into the Bible. According to this gospel one day the disciples approached Jesus and said, “On what day will the kingdom come, this kingdom of heaven of which you speak?” and Jesus said, “It will not come while people watch for it; they will not say: Look, here it is, or: Look, there it is; but the kingdom of heaven is spread out over the earth, and people do not see it.” 

On another occasion in this non-canonical gospel Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you: See, the kingdom is in heaven, then the birds of the heaven will go before you; if they say to you: It is in the sea, then the fish will go before you. But the kingdom is within you, and it is outside of you.” 

I share these teachings mainly to illustrate that there are many interesting stories and teachings of Jesus that do not make it into the Bible. And these stories and teachings can offer us insights. For instance, if we cannot see the kingdom of heaven spread out over the earth the problem may be with our own eyes, our own attitude, our own perspective. If we cannot find it outside of ourselves then maybe we need to look within ourselves. 

As the gospel according to Thomas reads, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” In other words the answers we are looking for will not be found in books alone. The answers we are looking for are found by looking within ourselves. 

I have a Quaker friend, John Innes, who describes the Quaker approach to the Bible by saying, “We are so busy talking to the author we forget to read the book.” In other words less emphasis is placed on what we can learn from books and more attention is focused on what we can learn from experience – direct personal experience without mediator or veil. 

In the Unitarian Universalist tradition we say that one of our sources of inspiration is “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” In other words, religion is not about what we can learn from books only. Books can be important but they are not the only way to learn. There is some benefit in looking backward and reflecting on the gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John but the most important experience is the gospel of the present moment, the light that illuminated the past means very little unless it also illuminates the present. As Gustav Mahler once said, “Tradition is not about the worship of ashes. It is about the preservation of fire.” 

Have you ever noticed how a storyteller can make a story come alive? Just up the road in Jonesboro there is an International Storytelling Festival held every year. And if you’ve ever been then you know that no one ever gets up on stage and simply reads a story out of a book. That’s not good storytelling. Reading a story from a book would never do. You have to tell the story in such a way that the story comes alive. And that is how the gospel was spread for at least 30 years. The gospel was spread in a way that made it come alive. 

At first, the gospel was part of a grassroots movement spreading like wildfire, adapting and changing in different environments. However, eventually there was a top down effort to standardize the faith and make it more uniform. I sometimes call this – the corporate takeover of Christianity. 

The Roman Emperor Constantine is part of this corporate takeover when he makes Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, this grassroots, nonviolent, communal faith becomes the official religion of a top down, militaristic empire. He begins the process of making creeds (The Nicene and the Apostles Creed etc.) that are meant to decide who’s in and who’s out. Another part of the corporate takeover was the creation of a Bible that excluded many of the gospels that were in circulation at the time. 

The motivation for corporate takeovers is the same everywhere. If you go to McDonald’s you don’t expect to order pizza. Or if you go to Pizza Hut you don’t expect to order burgers. A corporation offers standardized uniform products so that if you walk into a store you know exactly what to expect and exactly what will be available. The corporate takeover of Christianity was an effort to present a picture of Jesus that would be recognizable no matter which church you walked into. Needless to say, not every version of Jesus made the cut. Certain books were kept out of the Bible and certain early Christian communities were ejected from the church along with their books. Even so, the standardization of Jesus was not completely successful. There are very different pictures of Jesus within the official canon BUT it did limit which perspectives could or could not be included in the Bible. 

The Reverend John Buehrens, a former minister of this church has written a book called, Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers and Religious Liberals where he argues that “The Bible is a human book about the divine, not a divine book about humanity.” There are biblical scholars who try to present the Bible as one book that tells one story that has one meaning for all people. A more historically accurate thing to say is this, the Bible is an entire library of books, telling many different stories with many different meanings for a wide variety of people. 

If we include both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures there are 66 books in the Bible and Jesus did not write a single one. So how do we sort through all the different meanings and messages that we find in these many different books both canonical and noncanonical? Well the answer to that question is suggested in the text that the Reverend William Ellery Channing chose for his sermon entitled Unitarian Christianity given in 1819, a sermon instrumental in launching the Unitarian Church in America. The text he chose came from the book of Thessalonians that reads, “Do not treat the prophecies with contempt but test them all and hold fast to the good.” 

In other words we are active agents in seeking meaning and guidance from whatever book we may be reading and we are empowered to test everything and hold on to everything that is good. The words of antiquity do not always make sense in the present moment. Some seem hopelessly mired in the cultures, attitudes and customs of the past. Others seem positively offensive especially those that seem to offer divine sanction to genocide, ethnic cleansing, mysogeny, homophobia and child abuse. 

However, the words of Channing, and the text in Thessalonians, could be succinctly stated in the more contemporary proverb, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” 

 The Quakers say, “The scriptures are a testimony to the fountain; they are not the fountain itself.” So test everything to make sure the water is pure and safe to drink. Test everything to be sure that it is living water, lifegiving water. 

The Bible can be a particularly difficult document to read for women or members of the LGBTQIA  community or any group of people whose stories are not included in the canon.. For this reason the renegade Unitarian philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson urged his listeners to, “Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that have been to you like a blast of triumph out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul” and we might add Fannie Lou Hammer and Ella Baker and Emma Gonzales and Bayard Rustin and Audre Lord and Marsha P Johnson and Gandhi and the Dalai Lama and more

I once saw a cartoon where someone was reading the Bible with a magic marker in their hand when a friend asked, “Are you underlining all the passages that you find most meaningful?” And the other person responded, “No, I am marking out the passages I disagree with.” I know many people listening to me today do the same thing. However, here is a piece of advice from my New Testament professor, Richard Gardiner,who used to say to me, “Chris, it is appropriate to question the scriptures but you must also let the scriptures question you.” 

Because sometimes the scriptures advise us to be more loving than we want to be, more forgiving than we want to be, less egocentric than we want to be, more passionate for social justice than we want to be and so we can benefit from letting the scriptures question us. And there are certain themes that stand out in that vast library of books called the Bible, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Judge not lest ye be judged. Welcome the stranger for by so doing you may be entertaining angels unawares. Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly. Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” 

Jesus did not write the Bible but he pointed us inward toward that law that has been placed into our minds and written into our hearts. 30 years after his ministry others sat down to write down his words to the best of their ability and those words have been passed down from generation to generation. However the mission of our congregation is not to worship the ashes. The mission of our congregation is to preserve the fire, to fan into flames the gifts that are within you and within all people so that the light that illuminates everyone who comes into the world may shine more brightly. Our duty is not to the ashes but to the fire.

(The Reverend Chris Buice gave this sermon on Sunday, September 26, 2021 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)