After using a series of metaphors to describe himself as “the bread of life,” a “door” or a “gate,” and “the Good Shepherd,” Jesus, a devout Jew, said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”
“Is Jesus the only way?” That’s this month’s question in a series of columns Rev. Bob Norris and I are offering to explain differences between liberal and conservative Christians.
A foundational difference between most conservatives and most liberals is the role of Biblical scholarship. Liberals value research that begins with the text and looks beyond it into the history, linguistics, and culture of the people who wrote the Bible and the language in which it was written.
Conservatives often reject Biblical scholarship because it frequently challenges a strict interpretation of scripture, the anchor of their beliefs. Liberals rejoice in Biblical scholarship believing it’s the key to unlocking the meaning.
Trying to understand scripture without looking beyond it is like trying to see a scenic meadow through a wall instead of a window. Looking through that window has not always been welcomed. Scholarship didn’t become a part of Bible studies until the mid 19th century. Before then archeology was designed only to back strict interpretation of the Bible. After Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species,” Biblical scholars were persecuted. Some lost their preaching or teaching jobs. Others suffered church trials.
After World War II Biblical scholarship was resuscitated. Seminaries chose sides. Some retained fundamentalist teachings. Others were open to where science, anthropology, archeology, linguistics, and other disciplines led.
The most influential development was the Jesus Seminar, a group of 150 esteemed scholars and laypersons. Having arrived at this work with years of study, the Jesus Seminar spent additional years looking at the Gospels. They aimed to discern when and where each was written, by whom and to what purpose, studying the influences at work and the messages each word intended to convey.
A profound part of this endeavor led scholars to distinguish “Jesus” from “Christ.” There’s a discernible difference between what Jesus said before the crucifixion and the words attributed to him afterward when he became “the Christ.”
The Jesus Seminar produced what is called the Scholars’ Version of the Gospels. They color-coded the words of Jesus. Words in red indicate that, in the opinion of the scholars, these words are unequivocally the words of Jesus.
Words believed, “with some reservation,” to be those of Jesus are printed in pink. Gray signifies words that probably weren’t spoken by Jesus but are useful in determining who Jesus was.
Black lettering means the scholars concluded “Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition.”
The Jesus Seminar published "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” in black letters. Most scholars believe these words reflect “early Christian circles.” During the early days of the church, Jesus followers were separating theologically from the Jewish community of which many were a part. The “I am” sayings are employed to explain why they chose to follow Jesus.
Though the words are attributed to the Jewish rabbi, conservative Christians argue, “I am the way,” means Christianity is the gatekeeper to God. Liberal Christians reject this exclusionary view. There is one God but there are many paths leading to that God. Christianity is not the only way. Jesus’ way, however, is, though it’s a way expressed as much in the Hebrew Bible, the Quran, Upanishads, or Bhagavad Gita as in the Gospels.
For example, Matthew’s Jesus speaks. “Do unto others what you want them to do to you.” The way of Jesus is expressed similarly in Islam where Muhammad taught, “That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind,” and among Hindus, “One should never do to another which one regards as injurious to one’s self.”
In other words, you can follow the way of Jesus without being a Christian.