There’s a saying about jazz attributed to Fats Waller that goes, “If you don’t know what it is, don’t mess with it.” That’s a marvelous all-purpose expression that can be used for an enormous array of things, including matters of faith. An adjunct professor at the Newhouse School of Public Communications of Syracuse University by the name of Douglas Brode demonstrates the truth of this saying perfectly.

He vents his spleen at Texas Gov. Rick Perry in a column in the Kansas City Star that claims Perry, an evangelical Christian, misreads the Bible, and particularly the New Testament. Specifically, Brode writes:

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has, early in his candidacy, outrun all other contenders for the Republican nomination when it comes to drawing Christianity into the mix. “Many,” Perry claimed in 2008, “want to recognize Jesus as a good teacher, but nothing more. But why call him ‘good’ if he has lied about his claims of deity?”

The “many” Perry specifically referred to are secular humanists, a group Christian conservatives openly despise. Most likely Perry did not consciously intend to spit figuratively in the collective face of Jews – including conservative Jewish people whom other Republicans, notably U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, with her ardent support of Israel, hope to win over.

If Brode knew anything about his subject, he would recognize in his quote from Perry a classic trope from C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. It is not, of course, meant to “spit figuratively in the collective face of Jews,” but rather is a way of logically posing one of the central truths of the Christian faith in the face of unbelief, namely the divinity of Christ, who was not simply a good teacher (as, for instance, Thomas Jefferson claimed), but rather God incarnate. But not content to show off his ignorance of Christian apologetics, Brode blunders into biblical interpretation:

The greater problem here is that Perry doesn’t know didley-squat about the Bible. His argument is based on a common misconception that Jesus claimed to be “The Messiah.” Current biblical modernizations (rewrites in colloquial English) aside, in its original form that simply isn’t the case in any of the four canonical gospels that constitute the New Testament.

As end-game neared, Jesus was forced to stand before Pilate, who asked: “Are you the son of God?”

“I am the son of man,” Jesus responded, tantamount to denying divinity.

Clearly, Jesus did perceive himself as “a messiah.” The Bible tells us that, 31 years earlier, a messiah had been born in Bethlehem. The idea, which as a Jew Jesus embraced, held that a hero would emerge during times of strife.

Umm, no. That’s a good guess, but thanks for playing. It was actually the high priest who said to Jesus, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” To which Jesus actually responded, “You have said so.” It is true that Jesus primarily used the title “Son of Man” for Himself, but at no point in the Gospels does He ever deny the truth of others’ ascription of the title “Son of God” to Him (for instance, in Matthew 16:16, where Peter calls Him “the Son of the living God,” or in John 11:27, when Mary of Bethany refers to Him as “the Christ, the Son of God”) He also willingly receives the worship of His followers, whom He would have rebuked for idolatry if He had not been God in the flesh. But as the misquotation above indicates, we’re not exactly dealing with a biblical scholar here.

The idea of the Messiah – as in the one and only – was invented not by Christ (Jesus never brought the issue up) but by several key followers. This likely occurred during the Passover celebration that witnessed an abrupt end of Jesus’ ministry. The fanning of an extreme new ideology by true believers would explain the turning against Jesus by many Hebrews who had recently welcomed him to Jerusalem.

That could also be explained–as countless New Testament scholars through the centuries have done–by noting that the crowd was operating with an idea of messiah that was primarily political and nationalistic, whereas the messiahship of Jesus had to do with His mission of reconciling the world to God through His sacrificial death and resurrection. That mission was hardly made up by His followers, unless one wants to contend that the Gospels were simply made up out of whole cloth.

Some Hebrews did accept that notion. They would be among the first Christians. Other Hebrews did not. They constituted the continuing Jewish people.

Luke, apparently a Greco-Roman physician, seems to have concentrated on the ever-more ambitious concept of The Mission: presenting Jesus to the larger, greater world as an Apollo-like sun-surrounded Son of God, with the Hebrews’ Yahweh now, and for the first time, modeled on aged Zeus with his high forehead, stern countenance, and mane of wild white hair. Luke’s “fellow worker,” Paul (previously Saul of Tarsus), both a Hebrew and a Roman citizen, following his own conversion embarked on a mission (perhaps accompanied by Luke) to present Jesus as the Messiah to gentiles in Greece and Asia Minor.

We’re hitting all the village atheist points against Christian faith here, aren’t we? The comparison of Christian claims regarding Jesus with Greek mythology was popular in the 19th century, but that was more about a desire to tear down Christianity than any serious attempt at comparative religion. Needless to say, Brode’s comparison of the way Jesus is proclaimed by His disciples and Zeus is simply nonsense. Oh, and one could also ask what possible meaning the notion of “messiah” would have had to Gentiles, or why they would have cared, if messiahship was about nothing more than being one “hero” among many.

As for its relevance today, any understanding of the true genius of Jesus reveals it to have favored the opposite of that alliance between religion and politics that Perry and like-minded Christian conservatives endorse. In fact, Jesus invented the then-radical concept of separating church and state.

Many citizens of occupied Israel, Zealots, wanted to fight to the death in hopes of driving out the Romans. Jesus preached the reverse. Unlike previous conquerors, the Romans granted Jews freedom of religion, insisting only on payment of taxes. Despite the irony of Jesus being tried for treason, he preached acceptance of Roman domination: “Render unto Caesar that which art Caesar’s” (financial obligations) “and unto Yahweh that which art Yahweh’s” (spiritual devotion).

Lots of people are guilty of seeing their own pet ideological concerns in Jesus. I’ve done it, many conservative Christians have done it, secularists have done it. Here Brode does it. Jesus no more “invented” the concept of church-state separation in His “render to Caesar” statement than He invented romance novels when He cried at the death of Lazarus. “Render to Caesar” was a response to Jewish leadership seeking to entrap Him into either advocating treason against Rome or dismaying those who saw Him as a potential leader in opposition to Roman occupation. It was His way of indicating that God’s people have at least two authorities to whom they were called to answer, and that they should give political leadership its due while remembering that their primary allegiance is to God.

If Perry has read the Bible, it’s in some contemporary form that mangles this ideology. Some such versions have Yahweh whisper to Jesus that “You are my son.” In the original Aramaic, the words God intoned were “You are my chosen servant.” That same phrase God earlier spoke to Abram/Abraham, Moses, and David.

Given that the New Testament was not written in Aramaic, and that the only record we have of what God said to Jesus is in the Greek documents that record Him saying, “You are my beloved son” (Mark 1:11), it is more than a little presumptuous for Brode to declare that he knows what God really said to Jesus. I also find it amusing that he says, “if Perry has read the Bible,” when it’s clearly Brode who hasn’t got a clue what the New Testament (as opposed to the “contemporary Aramaic,” of which there is a record only in Brode’s head) actually says.

In answer, then, to Perry: Jesus didn’t lie in his claims of deity because Jesus never made any such claims. They were proffered by others about Jesus. Perhaps someone who posits himself as the Heaven-sent candidate ought to, before proceeding further, learn a helluva lot more about the Bible, and what Jesus actually said.

So, to sum up: a college professor who in his biography bills himself as “a screenwriter, playwright, novelist, film historian, and multi-award winning journalist” accuses an evangelical Christian of stating a Christian belief that has been adhered to by Christians for two millenia based on a quote from a Christian author that he shows no sign of recognizing, and then goes on to accuse said Christian of incorrectly understanding the Scriptures of his own faith based on said college professor’s own mangled, thoroughly uninformed misreading of those Scriptures, which he manages to misquote in the process–all to make a political point.