The Gospel as set out by Luke, Matthew, John and Mark,
but unified into one consecutive narrative, without the miracles,
and with the god-concept minimised.
This selection from the Christian Gospels is aimed at people who do not
believe in God, but who believe that there is much of value in the Gospels.
It is a tract to agnostics and atheists, a gospel preaching a secular
Christianity, a Christianity without God. It is anti-violence, anti-consumerism, and
anti-establishment; pro-people, pro-underdog, pro-poor, pro-love, pro-forgiveness,
pro a more equal distribution of wealth; and it is a powerful and moving story to boot.
Selection and introduction by
ãCopyright 2001 Mikael Grut.
First published in 2001 by Cromwell Publishers, a Division of First Century Ltd,
London, England, under the title Gospel 2000. ISBN 1-901679-93-4.
Now out of print but electronic copy can be obtained free of charge from firstname.lastname@example.org
1.2 The setting
1.3 The roots of the Gospels
1.4 The Gospels and their authors
The Gospel (selections from Luke, Matthew, Mark and John)
John the Baptist
Jesus begins his ministry
The Sermon on the Mount
The road to Jerusalem
Information on editor (Mikael Grut)
I am grateful to Penguin UK for allowing me to use E.V. Rieu’s translation
as a basis for this work.
It has been said that the religion for the 21st century should be one without a supernatural god. Buddhism is such a religion, but Christianity speaks more directly to Westerners because it already permeates our culture, and because it was influenced in its origins by Hellenism, which was very much part of our culture. This selection from the four Christian Gospels tells their powerful and moving story without the irrelevancies of the miracles. The emphasis is on the ethical message rather than on the metaphysics.
The ethical message of Christianity does not need to be validated by miracles and sanctioned by a supernatural God. Such a God is the ‘enforcer’ of the message, not necessarily part of the message itself. We can take the message and leave out the enforcer.
Jesus said: ‘In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.’ (John 14.2). So perhaps there is also room for a Christianity shorn of the supernatural. According to Isaiah Berlin, even a deeply religious person like Tolstoy ‘preached … a simple Christian ethic divorced from any … metaphysic’ (Tolstoy and History, Phoenix Paperback, 1996).
As Bishop Richard Holloway of Edinburgh said in his introduction to The Gospel According to Luke published by Canongate Books Ltd in 1998, ‘There is a lot to be said for attaching a health warning to religion’. For millennia people have killed in its name. Christian, Jewish and Moslem fundamentalists are the scourge of our time. Removing ‘God’ will perhaps draw the fangs of dangerous religion. People are less likely to kill each other
over a code of conduct.
Although fewer and fewer people believe in God, there is no reason to reject the other two parts of the Trinity. Jesus surely did exist, a man like us, not perfect but with great religious gifts, and hugely charismatic. And the Holy Spirit can be interpreted as the religious experience, which nobody can deny, and which can be brought about by conventional religion but also by for example art, nature, love, great intellectual insights and other causes.
Even the existence of God cannot be disproved, as little as it can be proved. How can we with our puny intelligence extrapolate from our little world to all possible worlds, and say with certainly that there is no God. But to me it seems most unlikely. I am an agnostic rather than an atheist. Others hang on to the traditional belief in the God of our fathers, sometimes along the lines of the Italian saying, ‘It is not true but I believe it’.
The selection from the Gospels presented in this book has been derived in the following way:
1. The Gospel According to Luke was used as a basis, because it is generally considered to be the best written. However, the important chapter called ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ was taken from Matthew, where that subject is more fully dealt with.
2. Other material contained in the Gospels has been added.
3. Here and there the language has been simplified, because I believe that the Gospels are intrinsically beautiful and moving, and do not need to be propped up by ringing archaisms.
4. The translation by E.V. Rieu was used (The Four Gospels, A new translation from the Greek by E.V. Rieu, The Penguin Classics, 1952), except for some phrases where the wording of the New International Version of the Bible (1973) was preferred.
5. I have as far as possible tried to select passages without references to the supernatural, e.g. to miracles, the virgin birth, angels, heaven, hell, the devil, and the resurrection. Some of these things occur episodically in the Gospels and can therefore be relatively easily deselected. ‘God’, however, runs like a red thread through the whole weave of them, like one of those characters in a play by Beckett or Kafka who are mentioned all the time but who never appear. Old Testament books like Esther and Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) make no mention at all of God, but the Gospels certainly do. If one were to select only passages without any reference to God, there would not be much left, and many beautiful passages would be left out. To deselect God entirely from the Gospels would require more than surgery — it would require butchery. How, for example, could you remove God from the Lord's Prayer, or from that desperate cry of Jesus on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ (Matthew 27.46). That would be sacrilegious. I would have liked to do it, but couldn’t.
In such instances I would ask non-believers to interpret ‘God’ symbolically in whatever way they wish: as synonymous with ‘good’, e.g. with love, truth, justice, compassion and whatever other values are prized in our culture; after all, the words for ‘god’ and ‘good’ are similar in the Germanic languages, from which the English word ‘god’ is derived. Such an interpretation would be in keeping with Jesus’s words ‘The kingdom of God is within you’ (Luke 17.21). Alternatively, perhaps the all-permeating God of pantheism is more acceptable to modern readers than the personal God of traditional Christianity. ‘God’ is a wonderful code-word which readers can fill with the meaning which they consider appropriate; it is to religion what ‘X’ is to algebra, what a ‘wild letter’ is in computer jargon, and what the concept of ‘that which cannot be named’ is in some faiths. As such, it provides the mystical dimension. Or, finally, it can be taken as just a figure of speech — one which can be rather beautiful.
Similarly, for ‘angel’ read ‘vision’ or ‘dream’, and for ‘devil’ read ‘evil’ or ‘representation of evil’. The words ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ can be interpreted in the sense of ‘(reward for) good’ and ‘(reward for) evil’. ‘Holy Spirit’ does not necessarily have to be interpreted transcendentally; instead it can be interpreted as a ‘state of grace’. I would certainly have preferred to leave out for example the devil altogether, but without him it would have been difficult to include Jesus’s famous saying ‘Man lives not by bread alone’ (Luke 4.4). And so it was that I could not be as radical and purist as I would have like to be, and for that I ask the indulgence of the reader.
I have not here been motivated by disrespect for the Gospels, but on the contrary by a conviction that they have much to offer not only to those who believe in a traditional God but also to those who don't. Playing down the importance of the supernatural in the Gospels may give them a new lease of life. Perhaps in a hundred years' time the most prevalent form of Christianity, even among clergymen, will be one without the supernatural god. Of course it is presumptuous and arrogant of me to want to adapt the Gospels to the modern world, but it needs to be done, and if this selection breaks the taboo, then other persons will probably come forward and do it better.
Jesus was a radical, and it is not always possible to live according to his creed. To ‘turn the other cheek’, for example, would encourage the evil-doers; to give whenever you are asked would encourage begging; and to be as dismissive as he was about work and thrift, would lead to much poverty and suffering. In fact he sometimes even seems to praise poverty, and that too is difficult for us to accept, because we know how poverty can lead to ignorance, sickness and misery. But on the other hand our culture, now as then, tends more towards revenge and greed than in the opposite directions, and his teaching tries to reduce the excesses of which we are guilty in that respect. It is ironic that today Christmas, the holiday that celebrates Jesus’s birth, has become an orgy of consumerism. Consumerism is the modern religion, and the Gospel is its corrective. The fact that Jesus himself did not always practise what he preached — e.g. with regard to humility — does not invalidate his teaching. It is normal to advocate the virtues which one does not have, but wishes that one had, rather than the virtues which one does have.
Parts of the Gospel are disturbing, for example the passage in which Jesus says ‘Do you think that I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, no — strife’ (in the chapter ‘The Road to Jerusalem’ below, or in Luke 12.51). I would have liked to leave out such passages, but that would have been arrogant. They seem so important. Perhaps he was just stating a fact, not signifying intent. After all, he did also say in the Sermon on the Mount that ‘Blessed are the gentle, for they will inherit the earth’ and ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God’.
Another passage which is disturbing and difficult to understand, or at least to accept, is when he says that ‘To those who have, will be given; but from those who have not, even that little which they have will be taken away.’ He does not merely seem to be stating a fact, but he seems to approve of it, and yet he exhorts his followers time and again to give to the poor. I have included such puzzling and seemingly contradictory passages, for the reader to interpret.