The Gospel According to Jesus

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Like television commentators who explain presidential speeches seconds after they occur, early evangelists and later elders interpreted and embellished events, as if people couldn’t comprehend the simple truth. Stephen Mitchell gives readers more credit. He clearly believes that people can make sense of Jesus’ true words without filtering by experts or institutions established in His name.

The book’s subtitle is its most accurate description. This isn’t the Word of God; it’s a collection of words from an inspired person who saw a new way—living with love and forgiveness. More, the twenty-six pages of “Essential Gospel” material exclude the self-serving and contradictory twists and “tricks” added decades, even centuries, after the fact, when books of the Bible were composed, deleted, or changed to support a church agenda rather than a marvelous vision. “Is it not time,” Mitchell quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, “to present this matter of Christianity exactly as it is, to take away all false reverence for Jesus, and not mistake the stream for the source?” Skeptical nonbelievers (“unbelievers,” as Mitchell writes) will value this sensitive, sober treatment of an influential, frequently obscured, historical figure. Devout believers will cherish Jesus’ teachings. Lessons not only survive; their essence is enhanced: Love is crucial; forgiveness is possible; don’t judge but have mercy.

Indeed, Mitchell’s book offers a reverent reassurance, once conflicts and contradictions in the “standard” Bible are removed, and what Mitchell terms the “authentic” Jesus restored. A perceptive meditation on Jesus introduces “only those passages that seem to me authentic accounts and sayings of Jesus” from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and only slightly from John. The short-and-powerful Essential Gospel is followed by an illuminating commentary divided into topics; a delightful appendix presents philosophical analyses by the likes of Jefferson, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Shaw.

The book could have been improved by a brief section on the context of the biblical writings—details on the original Greek version penned decades after the crucifixion, subsequent editing by church and governmental leaders, and the rejection of noncanonical texts such as the Gospel of Thomas. Nevertheless, Mitchell’s translation and commentary make Jesus’ vision accessible.