Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The History of Revelation and the Gospel

At the very beginning of almost all monotheistic religions there is wonderful, awe inspiring moment when the Almighty God dispenses a holy book to a devoted servant. In the Iranian religion a thirty year old Zoroaster begins receiving visions from various divine beings. At the end of ten years the interviews and communings are complete. He is vested with the supreme knowledge of heaven eventually written down and codified in the Avesta, the true creed of Zoroastrianism before being tempted by forces of the 'devil' - Anra Mainyu. Unfortunately almost al knowledge of this original text has been lost owing to its deliberate destruction by Alexandrian the Great during the conquest of Persia.

The Israelite tradition regarding the revelation of the 'holy book' to mankind is much clearer. The Torah or Law that was given to Moses on Mount Sinai is strongly rooted in a supernatural origin. It is absolutely divine coming forth from the very essence of God. It was detached from the fire of deity, while the tablets on which it was written laid hidden in the midst of the same divine fire. We are told in tradition that "they shone like gleaming lightning" or that "they were inscribed with a finger of devouring fire." The words are a fragment of the hidden world, increasing wisdom for all generations. Indeed it is a said with respect to the Torah that it "is a spark from God's vesture" which "came out of the fire" while the tablets "were sundered from the divine essence."

It should be noted that these tablets are clearly distinguished as not being from the eternal substance of the divinity for " they contain the will of God which he decreed in those Six Days." That is, they were separated from the divine glory in the creative week, and remained hidden in the divine fire until the day of revelation.

The reception of the Qu'ran by Muhammed more resembles the experience of Zoroaster. The revelations, on which the Quran is based, came to him over a long time period, and the formation of the actual text took even longer. Muhammed receives the first revelation while on a retreat to Hira (a cave near Mecca), when he was forty years old. While in the cave, we are told that Muhammad felt a presence and then saw an angel in the form of a man, who told him to 'Read!' or 'Recite!' (iqra'). When Muhammad replied that he was not a reciter or he could not recite the angel held him so tightly he thought he was dying. Muhammed writes that after the angel released him he declared the words:

Read in the name of your Lord who created; He created man from a clot. Read! Your Lord is the most noble, He who taught by the pen. He taught man what he did not know

These words now form the first five verses of chapter 96 of the Qur'an. The revelations Muhammad began to receive continued over the next 22 years until his death.

It is amazing to compare these descriptions of the revelation of a divine revelation of a holy text to mankind through a chosen vessel to what is preserved in Christianity - given that in reality there is no official account of how the gospel came to humanity. To be sure, later Church writers hint at the idea that God decreed that there were supposed to be four gospel, the name of the four gospel writers and a general sense of what order those texts were written but there is no real connection with any divine revelation. We don't even know who or what Matthew is. Mark is obscurely identified as Peter's secretary. Luke might have been a doctor. We know John did not die a martyr. But beyond this, there is little substance to any of these stories.

Yet what's so strange about this explanation is that it goes against what one would expect from an enthusiastic religion like early Christianity. The texts aren't guided by visions or apparitions but resemble the secular narratives. Jesus is above all else a man who may be divine, who may be capable miracles but ultimately resembles a reliable and believable historical character. While this may not seem unusual to modern readers, it should be noted that it is completely out of character not with the entire genre of 'heavenly revelations' given to holy men which we have just noted, but even contemporary Christianity.

The Marcionite sect for instance is usually thought to be either as old or older than the Catholic tradition and here we find a completely typical revelation experience. The apostle of this tradition went up to the third heaven and had an encounter with the highest god which led to his production of 'the gospel.' Owing to the overwhelming intensity of this revelation the gospel is declared to be unlike any other literary composition:

O wonderful wonder, delight, power and astonishment that we cannot speak about it, think about it, or compare it with anything.

It is difficult to discount the authenticity of the Marcionite understanding of how the gospel was created not only because it is so similar to all the other revelations that came before and after it. The simple fact that the Catholic tradition seems so unlike everything else makes it seem secondary, manipulated and derived from something earlier.

Indeed the real question that is difficult to escape wondering about is why the divine man Jesus didn't give humanity the gospel directly like Moses? In the case of the Marcionite the explanation is obvious. God (= Jesus) gives the new law through a chosen human intermediary - in this case the apostle of the Marcionite tradition. Yet the justification for not having Jesus - the most reliable, divine figure in the Christian tradition - as the custodian of the gospel is utterly baffling. Why would it make more sense to have more people write ever more conflicting accounts of one missionary journey? Why not just have Jesus leave us his words directly?

The standard religious position inevitably falls back on the 'mysteriousness of God's will' but there is even a difficulty here too because of the example of Moses who, presumably, was also commissioned by the same God. Why would God go about things the logical way the first time around and then when attempting to establish 'the more perfect Torah' do these idiotic manner? The answer is clearly that the Marcionites preserved something closer to the original truth of Christianity.

All of which makes the story of Mark's gospel writing effort in the Letter to Theodore so interesting. For the narrative there appears as something of a compromise between the Marcionite and Catholic positions.

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