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WAS JESUS THE WORLD'S ONLY PERFECT MAN?
Christianity has maintained from its inception that Jesus Christ was and remains the only man in history to have actually achieved moral perfection. It remains a hallmark of Christian thought and an unassailable belief even among many who do not profess Christ as their savior. But is it true? How well does Jesus lived up to his own teachings?
Only within the angry ravings of atheistic manifestos is the subject even broached, and such are seldom objective and even-handed examinations of the question. Yet such must be asked, especially by the church that has placed their faith in him as incarnate deity, despite the difficulties of doing so with anything approaching objectivity.
That Jesus was a compassionate, kind, and thoughtful person appears self evident. Though his gentleness and depth of feeling does not often translate well in the matter-of-fact writings of the gospels, enough can be seen to make a strong case that he possessed these attributes in abundance. That he could also be angry, insulting and even violent is also evident to the objective observer, though these instances are usually minimized or even ignored by most Christians. A careful reading of the scriptures, however, demonstrates Jesus to have been a man of great conviction and passion for his ideals, which resulted in a fanaticism that occasionally boiled over into actions and behaviors which could only be considered less than "Christian" to the outside observer, and made him appear, at least to some extent, inconsistent to his own teachings. This seems a harsh statement to make, but a case that can be made by simply using Jesus' own words as recorded in scripture.
In Matthew chapter five, Jesus is laying out his famous Sermon on the Mount speech outlining those godly attributes he expected his listeners to both understand and attempt to put into practice. Towards the end of his admonishments he tells his listeners: But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother 'Raca' (apparently an ancient Aramaic term of contempt) is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matt:5:22)
Clearly Jesus here is teaching that to call anyone a fool (moros in the Greek) is a serious offense subject to divine judgment. Why it was considered so is a point for debate, though likely it had to do with the contemptuous nature of calling a person, thus potentially diminishing them as a person of value. In any case, Jesus apparently considered the term a serious affront against one's neighbor and, at least in the context of this particular passage of scripture, seems to wholly repudiate it.
However, as we move further into Matthew's gospel, we come to interesting exchange between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day over the underlying premise of God's nature and how, in his opinion, they were guilty of twisting it to fit their own religious biases. During this particularly heated exchange, at one point Jesus cries out: Woe to you, blind guides! You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? (Matt:23:16-17)
Note that the word translated fool is the same word used in his earlier sermona sermon in which he clearly condemned those who used the term against his brother. Yet here we see Jesus using the term himself in a fit of anger, in apparent abeyance of the very commandment he had taught earlier on the mount.
Of course, some might answer that Jesus was justified in his anger because of the Pharisee's hypocrisy and that they deserved a good tongue lashing," but that is beside the point. The fact of the matter is that Jesus here was doing the very thing he had told his listeners they must not do 'lest they be judged. That is called hypocrisy, and it is evidence of a less than perfect moral nature. That Christians frequently overlook this point is evidence of a very selective reading of scripture, and an obvious bias that transcends the very meaning of the words written in their own supposedly inerrant Bible.
But this example is far from the only one that forces the objective observer to wonder about Jesus' moral perfection. For example, it is obvious at several points in the gospels that Jesus could also be patently unfair in his criticism as well. For instance, he repeatedly called the Pharisees hypocrites, often right to their faces, but is that a fair charge? A hypocrite is one who is inconsistent to their own teachings and is guilty of repeatedly teaching one thing while doing the exact opposite. A hypocrite would be one who condemns extramarital affairs, for instance, while maintaining the services of a mistress. More commonly, we are conscious of those who tell us not to judge others, yet seem to make condemning the actions and beliefs of others into an art form. Such men and women are, indeed, hypocrites.
That there were genuine hypocrites among the Pharisees is a given, just as their would be in any group of people who hold to strong beliefs. Yet Jesus is not accusing them of personal hypocrisy, but of collective hypocrisy; in other words, he was accusing them of being inconsistent to their own beliefs. Yet such is clearly not the case. The Pharisees were, if anything, remarkably consistent to their beliefs. They believed in judging all things, and did so continually. They believed in the scrupulous observance of the laws even to the point of excess and irrationality, and were known for their care and perseverance in obeying even the smallest and seemingly insignificant nuances of the ancient laws and traditions. To call them hypocrites, then, would not be accurate. They had other and, in some ways, far more serious faults, but hypocrisy was not one of them.
The problem was not that they were hypocrites but that they were true to a false concept of what God was all about, just as many people are today. The Pharisees believed in a God who was quick to condemn and easily angered, and demanded unquestioned obedience from his subjects. It was this perception of God that angered Jesus, for it manifested itself in a kind of heartless, fearful, and self-righteous form of legalism and religiosity that kept people from knowing God. They may have been "blind guides," another term Jesus frequently used to describe his enemies, which, while certainly closer to the truth, it is not the same thing as being a hypocrite. I'm surprised that so few people catch that point.
Jesus could also be violent, as evidenced by his efforts at clearing the Temple courts of the moneychangers and vendors. While he is generally applauded for this display of righteous anger, however, can anyone imagine Buddha, Confucius, or even Gandhi performing such an act? Even if he was justified in doing so (and such justification can be exercised only within the world of subjective opinion), it is still evidence of a volatile and even explosive personality, a characteristic which would seem to be inconsistent for a supposedly "perfect" moral example. As such, his frequent hostility towards the Pharisees, his violent clearing of the Temple courts of the moneychangers, his frequent ambivalence towards his own family, the apparent disdain with which he occasionally treated Gentiles and even his impatience with his own disciple's slowness to understand suggests Jesus was far from a morally perfect being. The evidence that even Jesus couldn't live up to his own moral edicts is overwhelming and conclusive, and should give every thoughtful Christian pause before deeming Jesus the only "perfect" man that ever lived.
Beliefs about His Own Perfection
Where the church got the idea that Jesus was morally perfect is uncertain, but it certainly didn't originate with Jesus. In an astonishing statement recorded in the Gospel of Luke, he even denied being "good" at all (Luke 18:19), claiming only that God is good. Was Jesus telling something here about himself the church has consistently chosen to overlook? Was he, perhaps, suggesting that he himself understood his own flaws and imperfections, and was far from being the "only perfect man who ever lived" of Christian mythology? This is not an easy possibility to consider, but it must be confronted if we are to "know" the man in any real sense.
So what does it mean if Jesus wasn't perfect? Far from diminishing him in my eyes, instead it not only makes him spectacularly, wonderfully human, but a man capable of being honest with himself. Just as a teetotaler has nothing to say to a desperate alcoholic, so too a perfect Jesus would have nothing to say to sinful humanity, for he could never identify with its moral imperfections. Just as the musician who realizes his playing is only mediocre is the only one capable of acquiring the insight necessary to improve, it is only in recognizing ones own shortcomings that spiritual healing is possible.
However, a bigger issue presents itself in this case: if Jesus was less than perfect, does this not effectively gut the idea of him serving as the perfect sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity?
Such an idea would effectively destroy Christianity as it is taught today, forcing the church to either rethink Jesus completely or close up shop and go home. It is no wonder, then, that the subject of Jesus' moral inconsistencies rarely comes up; it is a Pandora's box from which nothing good could possibly emerge. Further, if Jesus was capable of falling short of his own moral teachings from time to time, as is suggested by scripture, wouldn't that suggest he might also be capable of being wrong about things?
This is an important question, for it pierces the very heart of Christian dogma, which insists that as God, Jesus was not even capable of error in matters of spiritual and moral importance (some go further still and insist he was entirely incapable of error of any kind on any subject, as is befitting God.) Therefore, if Jesus talks about hell, there must be such a place; if he casts out demons, there must be such a things as demons; if he talks about Jonah surviving three days in the belly of a whale, it must have really happened as a matter of historical fact. Yet if Jesus was capable of moral lapses, could he not also have been capable of lapses of knowledge as well?
This would seem to be impossible, but one must take into account that Jesus was a product of the first century. He lived in a world of magic and superstition in which most people believed that the supernatural ruled the physical world and evil spirits were responsible for all kinds of misfortune and sickness. Are we to imagine none of this had any effect on Jesus?
Even were he more clever than most, is that any guarantee he was impervious to believing that which wasn't necessarily so? Even if we insist on his divine nature, he was still born into a physical realm marred by its own limitations and restrictions, with a brain of limited capacity and reasoning power. Therefore, when Jesus talked about hell and demons and the such, was he telling us things about the universe around us or merely reflecting the cultural beliefs of his age? Did he, for instance, understand atomic energy or quantum physics? Was he capable of constructing a combustion engine or building an airplane? How much did he really understand about the world around him? Did he, for instance, truly understand that it was actually composed of atoms and molecules of matter too tiny to be seen?
Yet if we accept the traditional idea that Jesus was the physical manifestation of God himself, such a possibility seem preposterous. Yet is it any less preposterous to imagine that incarnate God would have moral imperfections, as the gospel accounts seem to suggest? Whether Jesus taught and believed things that may not have been literally true but were merely a reflection of his own limitations and those of the culture in which he lived is a debate that likely will never be decided, but it does present us with some intriguing possibilities to consider, and should give many fundamentalist Christians a few sleepless nights.
And perhaps that was the whole point. Perhaps these imperfections on Jesus' part was a necessary element of understanding the man. Maybe Jesus never intended for us to build a cult around himself and his teachings, for in doing so we rapidly loose the capacity to judge for ourselves the validity of his words. Perhaps he never intended for us to accept them on faith and believe them unconditionally, whether we understand them or not, for such is not the essence of belief, but the abrogation of true belief. Is that the point Jesus was hinting at all along-a point we have been unwilling to consider for almost two thousand years?
I leave it for the reader to decide that for themselves.
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