Misquoting Jesus: A Blessing in Disguise?

Robert Wright is a journalist, scholar, and author of several best-selling books about science, evolutionary psychology, history, religion, and game theory, including "The Evolution of God," "Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny," "The Moral Animal," and "Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information." He is a visiting scholar at The University of Pennsylvania and Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. He is also the co-founder and Editor in Chief of Bloggingheads.tv, a current events "diavlog" featured in The New York Times and elsewhere.

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Question: Which were the most surprising historical truths you uncovered about various religious figures and stories?

Robert Wright: Let’s see. I guess, I had never really taken a look at the question of what the historical Jesus may have been like. And there’s a tendency to think – I mean, people who are trying to – believers who are trying to reconcile their belief with growing reason to doubt that the gospels are all that reliable. The attempt to make a reconciliation has tended to move us in the direction that Jesus kind of said all the good stuff that’s attributed to him and there’s a tendency not to emphasize some of the bad stuff. Like, for example, when he seems to refer to a woman as a dog because she’s not Jewish. My conclusion, and I didn’t go into this having a bias, my conclusion was that actually it’s probably being closer to the reverse. That the emphasis on a love that crosses ethnic bounds, which you do see start showing up in the gospels, probably didn’t come from Jesus, but was more a product of the way early Christianity evolved in the Roman Empire.

To me this is actually kind of heartening. I mean, I guess if I were a believing Christian, which I have not been since childhood, I might have another view of this. I might be kind of dispiriting to think that Jesus didn’t say all this stuff. But the reason I find it kind of good news is what I see happening in the Roman Empire is that just natural forces that emanate from the expansion of social organization, which social organization tends to do naturally. These forces nourished a doctrine of brotherly love that crosses ethnic and national bounds. In other words, I think this is a likely product of the natural direction of history that people would reach this conclusion. And for me, that’s heartening in itself. In a way, more heartening than the idea that, had it not been for this one man from Galilee, we would have never figured this out. I’d rather think that human history naturally gives rise to this sort of enlightenment.