I have been saying this for years. I’m not sure when it began, but I think it was one day, when I was giving my homily — I never said that I was “preaching” a “sermon” — one Sunday morning, sometime in the early to mid 90s, and I caught myself saying the standard Christian thing about the Pharisees, and how they were just — and this is how Christians have been taught to think about them – going through the motions of faith, as it were, in a rule-governed, implacable way, and I thought: “No, this is simply not true. Jesus is more like a Pharisee than he is like, say, a prophet like Isaiah or Amos.” Jesus was, quite simply a man, and, in some ways, not a particularly admirable man either. And you know, once you’ve said that, there’s no going back to the gentle Jesus, meek and mild.
Keith Ward, in his book, Ethics and Christianity, in the first chapter, entitled, tellingly, “The Case Against Theistic Morality,” has this to say about Jesus:
If one grants the existence of God and the unique status of Jesus in relation to him, these characteristics of his reported life [e.g., arrogance and intolerance] become quite natural and appropriate; but to those who reject such suppositions and seek only an example of a perfectly moral but completely ordinary human being, Jesus would seem to be one of the last men on earth to qualify as an ideal. 
In fact, I read those words shortly after being brought up short in the middle of my homily, and from then on it became more and more difficult to square the ”facts” about Jesus — if anything recorded about him can be taken as reliable historical fact — with the Christian claim that Jesus was, somehow, an exemplary human being. David Jenkins, onetime Bishop of Durham, spoke of Jesus in the title of one of his books as The Glory of Man, but once you’ve accepted that Jesus was, after all is said and done, just a man, this is not only hyperbole, it is unacceptable and invidious.
Now, you might say that this should have been obvious to me long before that, and I suppose it was, but it was always possible, before that moment, to think vaguely in the way proposed by Keith Ward. I could take Jesus’ difficult character as the inevitable result of his representing — in some ill-defined sense of ‘representing’ — God, and being, in some sense (yes, all these qualifications are necessary), the direct revelation, in a human being, of God’s consummate word to us.
And notice, if you can’t say this, then Christianity totters and tumbles, and for the last years that I spent in parish ministry, Christianity was tottering and tumbling. But it’s always possible to add riders to everything you say, to qualify it to such an extent that the problems no longer seem so formidable, so that you can go on living as though the house you had been living in is not composed more of patches and hasty repairs — kept together by theological bailer twine and chewing gum – than it is of the original fabric, of foundation, walls and roof. I could see the stars, only just, from where I was sitting in my study trying desperately to keep the structure standing.
And now someone has said it all out loud. I had been saying it in different ways, all along, during those years when I kept patching up the old place. But Nick Jowett has now said it for all the world to hear. By his picture he is clearly a Christian clergyman, but Nick Jowett (recalling the great Anglican divine of the 19th century, Benjamin Jowett, who aroused, in his time, because of his close biblical scholarship and the adoption of German speculative theology, much opposition within the church) has raised a vital question: “Was Jesus Judgemental?” So, let’s give the next words to Nick Jowett himself:
But should not these and other judgmental statements attributed to Jesus worry Christians more than they seem to? Bible commentators and preachers have used various strategies for softening these texts, which so painfully contradict the accepted image of a kind, gentle, forgiving Jesus. I’ve used most of them myself.
For example, you can interpret the text, so that when Jesus tells people they should “hate” their own family members, that’s just a strong Semitic way of saying they must love them less than following in the way of Jesus. Or when Jesus effectively calls a gentile woman a dog, we can try to imagine that he was smiling ironically, mocking the Jewish xenophobia of his day. Another line of defence is to say that the strong language was just part of the rough-and-tumble of religious controversy in first-century culture. The use of threat and promise, heaven and hell, in relation to God’s final judgment, was standard prophetic talk, and Jesus was a man of his time.
This is, whether it sounds it or not, a powerful indictment; for if we surrender the props of mindless adulation and reflex circumlocution we have, in fact, emptied Jesus of the significance that he has for Christians. Keith Ward’s attempt to escape the consequences, by arguing that if Jesus was God we can explain the seeming arrogance and intolerance of Jesus as just what we should expect, simply won’t do. These kinds of arrogance and intolerance, to whomever they belong, are not admirable, and reduce Jesus, not only to the status of an ordinary man, but to the status of a man whose attitudes and motives are deeply suspect.
Let me hasten to add at once that this goes for any other “holy” person. Mohammed was, by any standard, a selfish and vindictive man, lecherous, bloodthirsty and cruel. To excuse his violence is to excuse, at the same time, the violence of so many of his followers today, like the persons who planned and undertook the bombing of the UN building in Nigeria. Everyone hastened to point out that the murderous rampage of Anders Behring Breivik in Norway was not, as so many had reflexively thought, the act of a Muslim, but few pointed out, in their rush to excuse Islam, that the majority of such violence in the world today is perpetrated by Muslims. Mohammed is their role model, in the same way that Christians take Jesus as theirs, and with as terrible a result. For centuries, taking Jesus as the exemplar of what constitutes Christian action, Christians turned Jews into faithless, cunning and diabolical enemies of God, who failed and continued to fail to recognise their own redeemer, sent by God to bring to them at last the vision of the messianic kingdom of peace and glory described by Isaiah (or at least one of them — Isaiahs, that is), so that, in the Christian myth, Jews became, one and all, like the despised Pharisees of the gospels. (And don’t tell me that in one place Jesus praises the Pharisees. The evidence is very strongly in the other direction, and this is the emphasis that created the diabolical Jew of Christian imagination. Just remember what the English word ‘pharisaical’ means.)
What is the solution to this problem for Christians? Well, Nick Jowett proposes a way:
There is one solution to the problem of Jesus’ unacceptable sayings, which Christians have found almost impossible to use because of the cognitive dissonance it creates for them. It is to say, quite clearly, “Even if Jesus said them, they are unacceptable. They simply don’t fit with the image of God’s kingdom of love, mercy and forgiveness which is actually at the centre of his preaching and ministry. They are an embarrassment in our Bible, and we are no longer going to tie ourselves in semantic knots to finesse them away.”
That might be a healthier response to other difficult texts in the Bible. And perhaps Jesus was more of a normal human being than Christians have been able to bring themselves to believe.
That would be a healthier response all round, but is it likely to be done? No. Why not? Because Jesus is the Son of God. Exactly the same goes for the horrible moral example set by Mohammed for his followers. He was the Prophet, the last word. And for either Christians or Mulsims to give up those claims is to give up their religion. In the Christian hierarchy of holy people, Jesus stands at the top of the pyramid; he is the keystone in the arch, as the letter to Peter says (2.7 — which says, confusingly, the “head of the corner”), reflecting Psalm 18. Jesus himself refers to it, in Matthew (22. 42) and Luke (20. 17), which shared a source (called Q in the scholarly literature, from the German word Quelle, source or spring), but the focus on the builders who rejected the stone is emphasised in Peter, an emphasis which carries with it the anti-Jewish poison which was to lead to so much Christian intolerance and wickedness over the following centuries, and came to its climax in the Nazi Holocaust, but has still yet entirely to spend its force.
The problem is the problem with all scripture, human writings which are supposed to bear the imprint of the divine. Until we can rid ourselves of this incubus, we are bound to repeat and then repeat again the horrors of the religious centuries. This doesn’t mean that getting rid of the idea of scripture will rid the human world of violence. Of course not. John Lennon’s dream of “above us only sky” is a dream, and anyone who forgets this is bound to have nightmares. But it is a source of so much of humanity’s inhumanity that it is time to set aside the myth that we can have access to the words of a god. The idea that there is a god is fraught with such great question in itself as to leave any supposed communication from a purported god completely and inherently — not only suspect, but — incredible. I wonder if Nick Jowett realises that he has just set off a bomb in the sanctuary?