“No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” - Matthew 6:24
“Then [Jesus] said to them, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’” – Luke 12:15
According to AFA’s Director of Issues Analysis, Bryan Fischer, Jesus was a capitalist; it “ran in his DNA.”
Leaving aside the question of whether or not a tripartite, wholly divine, wholly human being has DNA in the first place (time to call a Church Council!), I have to point out that this isn’t something you’re going to find in the Gospels. Really, you’re not. This is something you’re only going to find in the heads of people like Bryan Fischer.
Now it has to be admitted here that all through history people have been trying to bend Jesus into one thing or another. I’ve written about it here before and I’ll lay a few examples on you again here just to get the ball rolling, just from this century alone:
- As a Galilean holy man (hasid): Geza Vermes Jesus the Jew (1973), A.N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life (1993). A.N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life (1992).
- As an eschatological prophet: Michael Grant, Jesus (1977), E.P. Sanders Jesus and Judaism (1985), J.P. Meier, A Marginal Jew (1991), Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999), Gary Wills, What Jesus Meant (2006). Note: Gary Wills believes that to tame the gospels in order to put them to humanitarian uses goes against Jesus’ teachings.
- As a Magician: Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (1978). Note: Celsus, author of the True Doctrine, agrees: “It was by magic that he was able to do the miracles” (Contra Celsum 1.6).
- As an innovative Rabbi: Bruce Chilton, A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible (1984).
- As a trance-inducing psychotherapist: S. Davies, On the Inductive Discourse of Jesus: The Psychotherapeutic Foundation of Christianity. Jesus Seminar (1992).
- As a political revolutionary: S.G.F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots (1967), G.W. Buchanon, Jesus: The King and his Kingdom (1984). Note: This is how the Romans saw him, as evidenced by his crucifixion.
- As an Essene Teacher: J. Allegro, Jesus and Qumran: The Dead Sea Scrolls (1986)
- As a Proto-Liberal Theologian: J.M. Robinson, The Jesus of Q as Liberation Theologian, Jesus Seminar (1991)
- As a Cynic Sage: J.D. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991), F.G. Downing, Cynics and Christian Origins (1992), Burton L. Mack, A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins (1988), idem, The Last Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (1993), Note: Burton Mack denies to Jesus any association with Judaism and its apocalyptic mythology. His Jesus comes from a completely HellenizedGalilee.
- As a Charismatic Prophet: Marcus J. Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings off Jesus (1984), idem, Jesus: A New Vision (1987). Note: Borg denies the significance of eschatology in Jesus’ message. In his own words, Jesus “was a charistmatic heatler or ‘holy person,’ a subversive sage who undermined conventional wisdom and taught an alternative wisdom, a social propet, and an initiator of a movement the purpose of which was the revitalization of Israel.”
- As a Prophet and Messenger of Sophia (Wisdom Prophet): Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (1983). Note: For Fiorenza, Jesus and his movement challenged patriarchy and were sociopolitical in orientation rather than eschatological.
- As a Radical Prophet: Richard Horsley, Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus (1985), idem, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence (1987), idem, Sociology and the Jesus Movement (1989). Note: Horsley places Jesus in the eschatological traditions ofIsrael but Jesus is a social revolutionary who took the side of the poor against the ruling elite.
- As Rightful King of Israel and Messiah: James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty (2006). Tabor’s Jesus “was a political revolutionary who expected nothing less than the violent overthrow of the kingdom of the world.”
You can of course add capitalist and socialist to that list.
Others deny his existence altogether and see the Gospels as nothing but myth. But I will accept Jesus as having a historical (if debatable) pedigree. As should be clear by now, Christopher Bryan’s statement that “the historical Jesus” is “an expression that is hardly without problems of its own” is an understatement. And the list above does not even cover, for the most part, the various views held by the various Christianities of antiquity.
All the authors above make arguments in favor of their thesis and Bryan Fischer attempts to do the same but he runs into trouble at the outset when he puts his thesis in the following terms: “The stories that Jesus told could have only come from a capitalist’s capitalist.”
Right: from a guy – Jesus – who had nothing whatsoever good to say about rich people and their slim to none chances of entering the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:23-24, Mark 10:24-25, and Luke 18:24-25; Luke 12:15; Matthew 6:24). Look especially to Luke, where you find a blessing for the poor: ”Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20-22) and an accompanying curse on the rich: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24).
Jesus the capitalist? Hardly. Poverty is a virtue in the Gospels and Jesus is even preaching to the poor, not to those who “control the means of production” (Matt. 11:5; Luke 7:22). But if you’re eager to hear how that works, exactly, wait no longer; Fischer can’t wait to tell you:
“In one of his most famous parables,” Fischer explains, “the parable of the talents…Jesus refers to a man who called his servants together and ‘entrusted to them his property.”
For those interested, this parable can be found in two places in the New Testament: Matthew 25:14-30 and the Luke 19:12-27.
For further reference, the two versions are dissimilar. According to Geza Vermes, Matthew’s version is “the more straightforward” while Luke’s version “seems to be a shambles.”
The moral of the story, he explains, “is that in the context of the expectation of the Kingdom those who work for it must not fear taking risks to achieve success.” That’s religion; not economics, which is what you’d expect from Jesus since he was a religious figure, not an economist.
Vermes goes on to say that “Understood in this sense, the parable would not be alien to the outlook of Jesus,” but “the two objections against attributing it to him arise from the urban, as against the usual rural topic” and mention of the Parousia (Jesus’ return) “after a long time” (Jesus made it clear the coming of the Kingdom was at hand, as did Paul, and the idea that it would come only after a long time originates from the period when, after a long time, it had not yet come).
It all seems pretty straightforward in an eschatological context. Right?
“Hold it right there!” Fischer exclaims. “It was his own property! He owned the means of production – it did not belong to the community at large! The capital used in economic exchange was in private hands! And what he does with his wealth is clearly nobody’s business but his own.”
Clearly, Jesus acknowledging that people in first century Judaea, as elsewhere in the ancient world, owned property does not in fact make him a capitalist or anything else, other than observant to an at least average degree. You’d expect that, at least, out of a God-figure, tripartite or otherwise.
But Fischer is sure he’s on to something here in the same way that putting “Year of the Lord” in a founding document makes that document somehow Christian. Entirely missed by Fischer is the point Jesus is making about the coming of the Kingdom of God. Instead, Jesus seems to be teaching about the wonders of capitalism?
Leave it to a fundamentalist Christian to entirely miss the point his supposed Lord and Savior is trying to make. Rather than focusing on the Kingdom of God (as was Jesus) Fischer is claiming that “Accountability in this story does not rest with some government agency. Rather it remains in private hands, with the entrepreneur who called his servants together upon his return and ‘settled accounts.'”
But Jesus isn’t talking about capitalism or private enterprise or private or public hands. He is talking about the Kingdom of God.
Fischer takes the parable too literally when he says “Jesus’ businessman had no intention of rewarding or subsidizing irresponsibility. The lazy servant had no right to anything he wasn’t willing to work for.”
Actually Bryan, people have no right to the Kingdom of God if they’re not willing to work for it. It’s somehow difficult to imagine Jesus congratulating Disciple Bryan on his deductive powers.
In fact, rather than preaching his apocalyptic message, that people should get right with God before he inaugurates his Kingdom on earth, Disciple Bryan teaches that Jesus was preaching an early version of the inalienable rights of the “pursuit of happiness” and preaching the evils of government interference.
No, what Jesus was preaching is that the Kingdom of God wasn’t free. He wasn’t talking about welfare or leftist social engineering. He wasn’t pre-empting Marx eighteen centuries before Marx was born.
Clearly Jesus did not approve of any earthly government since in the view of Jewish apocalypticism earthly governments were corrupt. Besides his own government being pro-Roman, he believed like other apocalyptic prophets, that the rich and powerful were in the thrall of Satan and his aid was the only way such people gained their power and wealth.
You have to admit that isn’t a capitalist-friendly outlook.
And it’s a bit of a stretch to turn him into an opponent of a government of the people, by the people, for the people; a government that actually tries to help, rather than rape, its people.
This is the conclusion Disciple Bryan draws instead:
So let’s sum up. In this story, capital is in private hands. The owner of the capital is free to invest it as he chooses, and to entrust his private resources to anyone he chooses. Economic gain comes through investment, risk-taking and smart choices. The enterprise is based on ability and there is no quota system of any kind in place. Achievement rather than mere effort is rewarded. Accountability rests in the hands of private enterprise rather than in the hands of government. Laziness is punished rather than rewarded, and resources are not involuntarily transferred from the producers to the non-producers but the other way round.
All this means, concludes Disciple Bryan, that Jesus…had capitalism in his DNA.” And that Bryan Fischer needs to go back to Sunday school, cause he’s one aberrochristian who done missed the boat.
 This list is based on categories suggested by Paul Rhodes Eddy, “Jesus as Diogenes? Reflections on the Cynic Jesus Thesis” JBL 115 (1996), 449-469.
 For Anglican scholar N.T. Wright’s highly critical review of Wilson’s book see N.T. Wright, Who was Jesus? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 37-64.
 In “Portraits of Jesus in Contemporary North American Scholarship,” HTR 84 (1991), 1-22 Borg examines not only his own views of Jesus but several of those others mentioned here, including Sanders, Fiorenza, Horsley, and Mack.
 See also Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation,” HTR 90 (1997), 343-358, where she argues “that historical Jesus research is a critical practice and process that must continually attempt to re-envision on historical-critical grounds our knowledge about Jesus and the discipleship community that carries his name.” Gerd Ludemann’s evaluation (Primitive Christianity, 88) is that “The theological zeal behind this book is at least as absolutist as the patriarchalist exegesis of primitive Christianity and modernity which Schüssler Fiorenza attacks.”
 James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 161-162.
 See, for example, George A. Wells, Who was Jesus?: A Critique of the New Testament Record (Open Court, 1989).
 Christopher Bryan, Render to Caesar (NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 7.
 For these various views, see Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (NY: Oxford University Press, 2003)
 Geza Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus (Penguin Books, 2004), 136-139.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.