Thursday, October 21, 2004

Why Didn't Jesus Write it Down, Revisited

Like many progressive Christians, I am fond of asking the religious right (who insist on a text-centered Christianity) why Jesus never wrote anything down. How helpful would it be to have for Jesus what we have for Paul: his thoughts precisely preserved, first-hand in text rather than preserved second or third-hand? Why didn't Jesus do this?

Secularists, of course, will say that Jesus never wrote anything down because he was an illiterate carpenter. But, for the faithful, this logic is circular. That is, even if Jesus were an illiterate carpenter, we are still left with the equally perplexing (and functionally identical) question of why Jesus was an illiterate carpenter. If God had wanted Jesus to be well-read and educated, certainly he would have been.

Progressive Christians have explained that Jesus never wrote anything down because God never intended a text-based Christianity. Indeed, we have long pointed to this as a reason that Christians should look at how Jesus lived his life rather than to Paul's letters or to ancient Jewish texts in their search for Christian truth.

But I think that there's more to it than this.

How much time do Christians spend reading and rereading and rereading the Bible? How much time do Christians spend debating the import of obscure passages in the Old Testament? How much time do Christians spend trying to reconcile petty details in the Bible?

Can we justify such abstract intellectualism in the face of a world that is obviously very far from the Kingdom of God? If you have a few spare hours a week, wouldn't it be better to volunteer at a soup kitchen than to commit yourself to a "read-the-Bible-in-a-year" plan or a Bible study group? (What would Jesus do?)

I think that Jesus not writing anything down suggests that we should be acting more and reading and speculating less. I have long believed that Jesus' message was much simpler than the Church has made it out to be. Exceedingly easy to understand, exceedingly difficult to follow:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Help the poor. Heal the sick.

The message, spoken and lived, was simple. Clear. There was no need to write it down. You don't need to read thousands of pages; you don't need a degree in theology to understand Jesus' message.

Of course, all of this proves too much. I read the Bible for insight on Jesus' life. I read theology. I spend several hours a week on this blog. I implicitly ask you to spend a few minutes a week reading it. But I'm not here to be perfect. Or even consistent. I'm here to raise questions.


At 8:24 PM, Blogger david said...

If you have a few spare hours a week, wouldn't it be better to volunteer at a soup kitchen than to commit yourself to a "read-the-Bible-in-a-year" plan or a Bible study group? (What would Jesus do?)Not necessarily. Liberation theology makes bible study a central part of its discipline (at least the Latin American variety does). Mind you -- the agneda there is unpacking how misrepresentations of the gospel have contributed to the oppression the participants experience.

And soup kitchens are necessary because there isn't the political will to take the gospel seriously. That is the gospel that takes the preferential option for the poor seriously. The gospel that truly is good news.

At 11:40 AM, Blogger jj said...

I appreciate that perspective. Maybe my statement is more normative than descriptive. It SHOULDN'T be hard to understand Jesus' message. But, given all the distortion, it actually is difficult to cut through the morass and get back to basics.

At 12:04 AM, Blogger crystal said...

I agree that actions speak loder than (reading) words :-) but if we hadn't read the words of the writers of the gospels, we'd have no idea what Jesus' actions had been ... how to follow Jesus in his mission without having read of it in the first place?

At 10:37 AM, Blogger Kashif said...

Very interesting discussion. I think if Jesus never wrote anything down ... it was meant to be ... it must have been for a purpose.

For a friendly, open and constructive discussion .. I invite you all to visit my blog @


At 9:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

not being a devout christian, in the bible bashing sense, i do think his doctrine is simple and correct, however why he never put pen to paper puzzles me,after all if god his father is so all knowing he would have known the word coming directly from him would have carried more weight, and he must have been literate or he would have been able to read in the temple, strange.

At 9:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

he message of jesus is simple, but religeous leaders prefer to preach the word and not live it, how many would live in poverty or sell their car or possesions to help the poor or give up their pension schemes from the churches and give them to the poor...not many i think...still they may have to answer in the end to the christ they say they believe in...christ wants you to live the message he gave not be a paid employee of the company.

At 7:17 PM, Blogger Soichi said...

I was looking for what people thinks about the question of "Why Jesus didn't write anything". I share very similar idea as yours.

We don't need to be spending time reading Bible all our free time, and participating worship services every weekends. We need to be doing what Jesus said to do "Treat the lowest as if it was Me."

At 1:25 PM, Blogger Evil said...

Great article. I've often wondered about this myself but I came up with a different reason why there are no writings from Jesus. The Church destroyed them.

How's that for a conspiracy theory?

At 4:38 PM, Blogger The Albigensi said...

Perhaps you are right, Evil! One of the main ocupations of the Church has been to combat and destroy heresies. Jesus's teachings would have never submitted to the church's horthodoxy. The Cathars, for example, were burned alive at the stake for not submitting to the pope's orthodoxy. Let's keep in mind, that Jesus's purpose was not to destroy the religions of his time, neither to create a new one, e.g. catholic. Who knows, maybe someday Jesus's writings would be found in some desert caves somewhere, or perhaps at the Vatican's archives.

At 2:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure that we have to do an either/or situation here (working at a soup kitchen vs. reading the bible). Why not both? And I also feel that the fact that those who were closest to Jesus (like the Apostle John himself) felt the need to write an account of Jesus for future generations speaks volumes. Could it be that perhaps God's sovereign plan involved the writing of scriptures? As John 20:31 states, "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."

At 10:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was postulated that Jesus spent time with the Essenes the authors of the Dead sea scrolls, who were a Jewish community of scholars and scribes dedicated to scripture. It seems very odd that a learned jewish man who spent time with the most astute of the Jewish community of his time would not commit his eloquent thoughts to paper much less let time ravage and twist his words. Even Moses came down from the mountain with the 10 commandments written, at least that's how the bible would have you believe. The notion that the son of God would not be able to write in his own words behoves
all rationality. I guess that is why they ask so much faith of one to be a believer.

At 2:45 PM, Blogger Pickle Pumper said...

Saying, "Jesus didn't write anything down because he was an illiterate carpenter." Is not circular logic. There is no loop back. It's a plausible explanation for the lack of documentation.

It like saying, "It's dark because the lights are off." Is circular reasoning.

I'm not making an ad hominem when I say you need to understand the terms you are using before you use them in an argument... 'cause you do.

At 2:19 AM, Anonymous Eddie said...

I am in a philosophy class..I haven't slept well for do Christians or simple theists reconcile their beliefs in the Bible with the Epic of Gilgamish, (which has at least 5 specific common elements), though Gilgamish pre-dates the bible considerably.

At 2:41 AM, Anonymous henry said...

In the Torah it is a Commandment that a Man's son be taught to read the scriptures and taught a trade, as Jesus was a Jew he absolutely would have been literate. There are many, many references of Jesus going to the temples. Also, in a synagogue the most important thing there is the scriptures, front and center, my question is... How could there not be documents from Jesus directly?

At 8:04 AM, Anonymous Ken Guddy said...

Your right writing is a waste of time. Im wasting time reading your article and writing this comment. It proves that we are human and that Jesus was more than just human. Even without Jesus writing down His own experiances. We still know more about Him than we do about the most prolific writers of today. His purpose was to know us. Not for us to know Him.

At 3:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jesus didn't seem to be very busy, sure he fed and healed a few people, and spent the most of his time preaching, but how could the Son of God not find time to write the words of God? Further, what did he do with the majority of his life? There seems to be huge gaps in the life of Jesus. He was born, years later goes to temple, years later turns water to wine, years later goes to the desert and fasts for 40 days, and many years later starts to heal, raise the dead, preach, and gain followers. What did he do with his life from his teen years to his late 20's?

At 3:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jesus should have wrote exactly what God wants from us, how to live our lives, the meaning of life, details of God and heaven and hell, the creation of the universe and life, and prophecies to give authentication . And these should have been written after his death and Resurrection, in front of crowds.
I'll just live my life as an agnostic, and if the time comes, I'll say these same things to God or Jesus if asked why I didn't devote my life to what the stories of the Bible say.

At 3:53 AM, Anonymous QH/. said...

Surely the whole point is that Jesus DID write things down. Not on the road I grant you - hardly an easy thing to do for an itinerant preacher - but through the medium of his apostles and others.

Now you will no doubt be prepared to pick at the exact identity of who wrote the gospels, which is a matter of interesting theological debate worthy of a PhD thesis in its own right, but the fact remainns that the gospels (and not just the normal 4) and all the epistles WERE written, and we have accepted them into the Bible as the inspired word of God.

The idea that Jesus didn't write things down presumes Jesus died and was gone. But this is not the Lord we worship. He is a risen and ascended Lord, who predates creation and will post date the apocalypse. That Jesus certainly did, and probably still does, write things down through the medium of his servants living on earth.


At 12:48 AM, Blogger Justin Crowder said...

Doesnt make sense. U cant logically use scripture to argue that we should be acting more, while reading and speculating less; especially when u say u read the bible and 'theology' on a regular basis. I mean, how can u give advice on something that u admittedly dont practice urself?

Who knows why Jesus never wrote anything down? Who knows if he even existed? There is no historical proof that he actually existed. The closest thing to actual proof of his existence is the writing of people that never actually met Jesus but were moved by his story and his message.

Stories and messages are passed down in different ways. But the stories and messages of the old testement were a compilation of written books. According to the bible Jesus was not trying to start his own religion. He was the son of the same God that wrote the old testament. The same god that wrote the 10 commandments. If Jesus existed and was truly the son of god, he would have definitely known and read the Old Testament regularly. And, therefor, would have completely understood the power of the written word, how his father had used it for thousands of years, and how it would be necessary to preserve his message.

If the Bible's to be taken as the word of God, he chose the written word as his only means of communicating with humans. He chose writing as the method by which we were to understand him (God), the world, and the laws and rules that we're supposed to follow. The Bible, God, and any possible message that Jesus would have wanted us to know are ONLY relevent because of what was eventually written down.

I wish I knew if Jesus really existed, and if so why he never wrote anything down. But I know that it in no way suggests that we should be 'acting more and reading and speculating less. Ur mind was made to speculate. Who or whatever made us wouldnt have given us such a critical mind if they didnt want us to use it.

At 8:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe there are a number of reasons why Jesus chose not to write- (1) Just look at all the confusion, debates, interpretations, adaptations, revisions, and even acts of war which are the result of "religious" texts. Jesus was a simple man who simply proclaimed and proved that he was a child of God and that we were all children of God.
(2) IMHO, Jesus wanted nothing to do with money. He saw how hypocrites could use a book to make millions of dollars and use that money for their own gain.

At 10:53 AM, Anonymous Lon MIles said...

Words are simples of thoughts and only have the meanings that the speaker and the hearing can discern. An example would be the communication between a parent and a child. Surely if words are the prerequisite of the exchange of love between a parent and a child, little love would be communicated. Even a loving glance has morning meaning and clarity than the word that supplements the gesture. There would be no nee for the holy ghost to communicate to us directly if the written word is the best way to communicate. In fact it is clear to me that any communication touched by the human heart and intellect (which is in itself corrupt if we are all born in sin)than a written word must contain that imperfection. Is there a perfect word or idiom. All have been created by the scientific mind which is in its own definition "truth through trial and error" This is to take nothing of the educated Christian who is basically a sheep and conformist by nature. Trust that God must forgive the ignorant, mislead, arrogant, type a personalities, holier then though, popes, priests, teachers and just know it all's who have such ridiculous reasoning as to why Jesus did not use the written word, radio, tv, esp, faxes, email, drawings on cave walls, cartoons or any other seeming abstract, but flawed communication device to example is love and commandments. He simply communicated by example and in is pure voice. I submit that if you never learned to speak, read, hear or feel, God though Jesus could show you the Fatherly/Motherly and sigbling love that all creatures that breath are entitled to as being born the first time. Just the lick of a mother on the face of an infant is a pure as love gets. Lick somebody today or just give the thirsty a drink, a donut tot he hungry, share your coast with he cold, give you seat on a bus to an elderly person, express your love with a smile, etc., etc., etc.

At 10:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jesus didn't write anything because Jesus is just a symbol. HIs story in the New Testament is a parable to guide you in your personal morality and decision making. Let his example inform your personal morality and decision making and stop worrying about whether it was true. If you are Christian, it is probably true enough for you.


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