This is my submission to The Inquirer, published fortnightly:
Unitarians are under a constant demand to revise and recreate their religion, presumably around something that will overlap with the worship content. I do it, and Tony McNeile does it. However, I'm going to suggest why Tony McNeile is travelling up a blind alley when to comes to creating a Jesus the revolutionary of a God of love for all (Inquirer, 29 March).
Was Jesus a revolutionary or rather unoriginal, unoriginal regarding the many supernatural end-time preachers of what we might call the inter-testaments period? Diarmaid MacCulloch (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diarmaid_MacCulloch) will tell us we don't know why this messianic figure succeeded after his death beyond the other itinerants. Paul obviously made a cultural leap but there were also Jews spreading a primitive post-Easter faith. The people who spread the faith were not the poor but capable folk moving up and down the trade routes for whom Christianity was a badge of faithfulness and reliability (whatever the State's attitude to the religion).
People who try to get back to a primitive, pre-Easter, historical Jesus rarely manage it successfully. The Jesus Seminar folk arguably lose Jesus's urgency. We are stuck with the access and barrier of the Greek culture New Testament of early Christianity. If the texts were directly reliable, they would be primary documents of the early Churches (not Jesus) and they are not even that.
I'll now contradict this warning by trying to reconstruct a primitive Jesus to argue why Tony McNeile cannot have his construction except as a fiction. This extends to negating the whole 'religion of Jesus' claim of historic Unitarianism over a 'religion about Jesus' in orthodoxy.
Jesus did not preach to everyone but just to Jews. When he encounters Gentiles he has difficulty and has to learn to include them. He is not criticising the Jewish faith but is attempting to fulfil it. Paul says the Law was to hold in sin, and the messianic is the alternative, but Jesus sees the messianic as fulfilling the Law. The arguments were with and not against rabbis as to the meaning of the Law in the fullest sense, including matters to do with work and say marriage and divorce.
He was a second temple Jew and he would have attended the animal sacrifices. There is no reason to think otherwise. Jesus would have no idea that the second temple would be destroyed by the Romans (God selectively destroying to remake is different!). His view of health is all that linked to demons: in his reverse ethics he was critical of those who assumed the better off, longer living and wealthier must have had fewer demons. The unreconstructed rich were very likely to find themselves barred to the Kingdom. He was no party Jew, having come from the messianic leadership of John the Baptist, so he could mix with rabbis and zealots, but he was messianic.
To be messianic means he must gather disciples and move rapidly to Jerusalem (surely not the dozy three years hinted at in John's Gospel), and prompt God into sending down the transformed messianic figure of total change (possibly but not necessarily himself) to remove the Romans, gather the missing tribes and institute a new reality of the Kingdom of God on earth that he felt was pregnant - the heavens (literally) above breaking into the space of earth.
He didn't welcome all who knocked at the door. He said to fellow Jews sin no more and be ready. He healed to clear out demons ahead of entry into the Kingdom. This was a principle rule: there were rules. Jews were chosen and as such had responsibility. Gentile gods and false beliefs would be swept away (but he may well have taken some Buddhist views coming down the trade routes into his compassionate Judaism, just as Zoroastrianism was used in understanding resurrection and the end time).
The stance is not universal love but fellowship, fellowship around rituals and particularly eating and drinking: the small and big picnics of healing and preaching, gathering and preparing. Is this 'relationships'? I think his focus was the angelic potential of people once transformed into the Kingdom. It's entirely unrealistic (just as the ethical and constructed sermons on the plain and mount are impossibly idealistic).
How on earth do we moderns even understand the mentality of a man who believes that he and his disciples are the gatherers of the missing tribes within a coming transformation?
The whole business of how he got arrested - did he use the Hebrew Bible prediction and plan with Judas? - to bring about God's activity through his messianic service (or alternatively is Judas an invention) raises all sorts of questions about Jesus's strategy, ethics and ego. The history of this is impossible to untangle, and it has been said that just about everything in the progress of the passion story doesn't add up as credible. One likelihood is he and his gathering of supporters were a minor nuisance to the nervous authorities on the edge of empire, with a habit of killing off yet more trouble makers and making an example to the population using the supply of messianic leaders.
A possibility is definitely not that Jesus rejected sacrifice and atonement that the religion later took up, but rather that he modelled his prompting of God to act based on the suffering servant of the Hebrew model - serving others at considerable self-pain even to an extent and expectation of death (and possibly of restoration from death by God) in order to demonstrate the time for the messiah is now. He is saying to God as a servant-leader: "Do it."
Tony McNeile wonders how the disciples would have worshipped when Jesus was dead and gone. A suggestion is around the meal, with a place left for Elijah and/ or left for Jesus to return. Once Jesus is dead he can only be the messiah or nothing; it is now him to be transformed. Modern scholarship (as with Larry Hurtado - http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/) suggests that Jesus's titles escalated rapidly in that even Jews were straining their faith giving binitarian status to Jesus. The old view of doctrinal development is far too slow in terms of years and decades. The messiah was being worshipped very soon making this Judaism change. Paul picked this up, and, translating his own messianic rabbinical outlook to Greek culture, made a salvation faith of expectation through his never-met God's sole agent of change. Paul is far more the universalist and equalitarian than Jesus was (excluding pastoral epistles and the writing in the name of Paul). Remember that Paul will have been in Jerusalem when Jesus was killed and it never dawned on him to pay any attention: he only did so when some Jews were acting in synagogues as if a messiah was about to return.
We cannot strip away the supernatural Jesus to produce some sort of liberal humanistic leftover individual. Such is as "about Jesus" as any faith in the Trinity. Jesus's ethics stripped away are subject to ethical debate. Compare Jesus and the far more relevant Gandhi, for example, whose ethics were tested in the politics of empire unlike Jesus's (and Gandhi was killed by one of his own). Jesus does not head an ethical league table: we do not have the historical information about him or others known or unknown to make such a claim.
What then of being a Christian? Being a Christian means - I would suggest - belief in the resurrection and Pentecost and identifying with the continuation of the early Christian community as it developed its beliefs (Jewish - but lost; Gnostic, but suppressed and returns; Eastern and monastic, but died out; and Pauline Western, that developed with Rome breaking from the Orthodox and the Protestants from Rome). It begins with a roll-call of leaders and a 'congregation' (the 500, or the 120) claiming to have been met by Jesus after his death as first of the resurrection to thus derive their authority and setting, but that after the Ascension (a Christian innovation) no one else could claim to meet Jesus in the same way. But Pentecost begins the Church. To be a Christian is not to follow some primitive unreachable Jewish Jesus, but to believe in the Church that carries forward the authority of the economic Trinity - the Father, the Salvation figure of Jesus Christ and the one sent to guide after him (that was also before/ during him).
We could only know a Jewish Jesus by sending back in time a social anthropologist, who would have to learn Greek and Aramaic in situ, and follow the builder as he turned from Sephorris (the Roman city never mentioned in the Gospels) to become a charismatic healer and preacher believing some incredible things on his way to Jerusalem. The anthropologist would have to try and inhabit the mentality of a lost time and culture, and all he or she could do is come back and write a long essay for we Westerners - and we still couldn't absorb Jesus's worldview.
So, I'm suggesting, with much frustration, that there is and never was a Unitarian 'religion of Jesus' but only yet another 'religion about Jesus' and that Tony McNeile's project is a non-starter in terms of historical content. As for joining this with some form of Paganism, well one may as well join it with astrology! Perhaps that is being done as well! The result is never satisfactory.