Platinum members on the blog (Check it out! Register | The Bart Ehrman Blog ) are allowed to submit guest posts to other Platinum members, and among those submitted we (they) vote on which ones to include on the whole blog. Here is an extremely interesting and challenging one posted by Platinum member Doug Wadeson. Read it and see!
Doug will be happy to reply to comments.
Jesus is generally thought of as a great moral teacher, but I have heard that questioned on occasion. For example, Jesus said, “Do not show opposition against an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other toward him also” (Matthew 5:39). Really?! Does Jesus want us to be target practice for bullies? Won’t that just enable and embolden them? And on a societal scale, if America is attacked are we not supposed to defend ourselves? Otherwise evil will win. A real sore point for some people is that Jesus never condemned slavery, which was a common institution in his day (e.g., Matthew 10:24, 24:46, etc.). Apologists sometimes rationalize this by explaining that slavery was not that bad in the Roman empire; it was more like indentured servitude. Yet a truly wise seer would have anticipated the horrors of slavery in centuries to come and spoken out against it, instead of allowing his own words to be used in defense of slavery. Right? And a real sticking point here in affluent America is that Jesus said “none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” (Luke 14:33). Now what sense does that make?! Won’t that just make all disciples poor and in need? How then are they supposed to help others?
The British author D. H. Lawrence’s final book was about the Book of Revelation and he makes an interesting contention. In Revelation the Christian martyrs are calling for God’s vengeance on their enemies (Revelation 6:10), which seems contrary to the teaching of Jesus to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (I don’t think he meant pray for their punishment!) (Matthew 5:44). Why this change in tone from the time of Jesus to the late 1st Century? Lawrence contended that it was a result of the Christians’ frustration with the impractical teachings of Jesus. The saints had faithfully gone the route of non-violence, passivity and asceticism, and all it got them was hardship, persecution and death. Lawrence thought the problem was that Jesus’ teachings might work on an individual level, but not on a societal level. The Christian society built on the teachings of Jesus simply did not work. No wonder the saints were so disheartened and even vengeful.
I would like to suggest that Jesus’ teachings are in fact good and useful, but you have to consider three things: 1) the context of Jesus’ teachings, 2) his teaching style, and 3) you have to look below the surface to the core.
Jesus tells us the context of his teaching right from the outset of his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel [good news]” (Mark 1:15). Jesus, following the lead of John the Baptizer, preached that the end of the age was at hand and the kingdom of God was imminent. The focus of his teaching therefore was to prepare people for the kingdom of God, not to overthrow or reform the Roman empire or human society in general. In the kingdom of God all will be set right. True justice will reign. The wealthy and powerful will no longer prey on the poor and the weak. The mighty will be brought down and the meek raised up. Hunger, sickness, poverty – even death will be done away with. That is why one could accept a slap in the face, or if forced to carry a load one mile, carry it two. These are temporary injustices, but those who live for God’s kingdom will soon experience an eternal righteous existence. Slavery is a non-issue because it will not exist in God’s kingdom. Possessions do not matter because in God’s kingdom He will provide all you need. And the end of the age is coming soon – in your lifetime! (e.g., Mark 13:30, 14:62) There is no long-term society or distant future to worry about!
The problem, of course, is that the end did not come. Jesus and his generation passed. The next generation passed. Still no kingdom of God. Devout Christians who seriously implemented Jesus’ teachings in their lives were suffering. You see a suggestion of this in 2 Peter 3:4 as some complained, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.” The martyrs in Revelation cry out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” The problem was not the scope of Jesus’ teachings, individual vs. societal, as Lawrence thought, but rather the temporal aspect: they work when the kingdom of God is at hand, but break down when applied over the long term.
Jesus’ teaching style needs to be considered, particularly the use of hyperbole. Hyperbole is an intentional exaggeration for emphasis and effect. A good example of this in Jesus’ teaching is found in Mark 10:25: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The image of pushing a camel through the eye of a needle is so extreme as to be comical but it makes the point: it is very hard, virtually impossible. When speaking of adultery he says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you…” (Matthew 5:29). It is not that Jesus wants you to go around with one eye (you can be blind and still lust, of course!), but he is again using an extreme illustration to drive home his point of how serious this is. When Jesus teaches that you cannot be his disciple unless you give up all you own possessions, perhaps it is another use of hyperbole, the point being to not allow your possessions to possess you, but instead be generous and eager to share.
This leads to the third point: look deeper to the underlying meaning. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) Jesus goes through a number of Mosaic laws and teaches his followers to go deeper. Refraining from murder is not enough; the real goal is to not hate. Avoiding the act of adultery is not enough; seek not to lust. Don’t swear an oath; just be true to your word. I think it is reasonable to view Jesus’ more extreme teachings in the same way. There may be those who can live without any possessions, but for most of us simply being less materialistic and more generous would be a major accomplishment and would help our society. Turn the other cheek? Think how much better relationships could be if we responded to some insult with thought and consideration rather than mindlessly retaliating. Even on a national level, must every incident be met with escalation in kind? “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44). We may always need police and the military to maintain order, but how much better might the world be if we could move beyond hatred of enemies to actually care about them as fellow humans in a world we share together?
If you take Jesus’ teachings at face value and mindlessly try to implement them I do not doubt that you may find yourself frustrated and disheartened (and poor and beat up!). Life is too complex to break it down into simple laws for living. But for those who take the time to read, think, discuss and even argue, I think Jesus’ teachings have much merit. And even if we find a teaching of Jesus that is hard to swallow I suspect the process of reasoning through it will still have a positive impact on our understanding of how best to live, as individuals and as a society.
 “Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation” was first published posthumously in 1931.
 Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire was very sporadic, but did occur such as under Nero, and then during Domitian’s reign (89-96), which may have been the persecution alluded to in Revelation.
 I had a Lebanese friend tell me that “camel” is a corruption of the Aramaic word for “rope.” Trying to thread a rope through the eye of a needle instead of a thread makes more sense than pushing a camel through, but is still impossible.