Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Myth of Jesus Christ Chapter One

I have been working and reworking what I have previously written because I think I have a chance to get it published.  Anyone can feel free to offer me any corrections or suggestions.  It is one of the amazing things about the internet which should be seized upon by more authors

Chapter One

Few narratives have captivated the world like the story of Jesus Christ. The gospel is the biographical work by which all others will be compared. The original account was penned by an otherwise unknown writer named Mark in the latter half of the first century of the Common Era. It was so influential that all other evangelists developed their gospel from his original narrative. It is here for the first time that we learn about Jesus’s ministry, his trial and perhaps most significantly his crucifixion and death. Yet there are so many essential details left out of this meager account that the reader cannot help but want more.

In the gospel according to Mark there is no mention of Jesus’s birth, there is very little reflection on his teachings and no explicit reference to his resurrection. All we are left with is an empty tomb, an abundance of questions and a palpable sense of fear. Who was this Jesus Christ who could walk on water? Why was there originally no reference to Jesus’s mother? How did his body vanish from the inside of a sealed tomb?

For centuries the only explanation of these mysteries was held in the hands of the Church. If you wanted to inquire into the truth about Jesus Christ, you were expected to stand beside your fellow brethren each Sunday and repeat the following words until you forgot there was ever had a question:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen

To stand in a church and hear hundreds of like-minded confused believers stumble and mumble through this polysyllabic relic from the fourth century, serves only one purpose nowadays. It reinforces the idea that not-knowing and not-understanding is perfectly alright. Indeed standing beside so many know-nothings one gets the palpable sense that ignorance is divinely sanctioned.

The whole state of affairs seems so utterly bizarre to an outsider. One is told that ‘faith’ is a new discipline, that ‘believing’ requires an open-heart and a closed-mind. Yet how can countless billions of people venerate something they don’t understand? Why should, what is effectively, an incomprehensible narrative be considered to be deep and ‘profoundly spiritual’? Are we to be so cynical to assume that there never were solutions to the mysteries the gospel brings forward? Was Mark engaging in an elaborate ruse? Did he deliberately set up a cryptic narrative to distract eyes from its inner hollowness?

While we shouldn’t expect the pious to take up these questions, a quiet revolution has been taking shape in religious scholarship. With the proliferation of materials on the internet and other social media otherwise ignored literary evidence – effectively banished to dusty old bookshelves in academic libraries – has fueled a profound revaluation of tradition assumptions about the origins of Christianity. In ever increasing numbers the great thinkers of our age are asking fundamental questions like - did Jesus ever really exist? Should the gospel narrative be classified as fact or fiction? And perhaps most important of all – is our inherited faith in Jesus Christ a pseudo-historical tradition developed from something of a myth?

This is clearly one of the most important questions of our time. The best-selling Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill has been so bombarded with this very question that he felt compelled to defend the idea of a historical Jesus. Indeed this work is only one of many that have been written on this subject in recent years. However it would seem that most of these authors have been asking the wrong questions from the outset. The real question isn’t ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ but rather what was Mark attempting to lay down with his story about Jesus? In short - was the gospel deliberately developed as a myth?

What bearing, for instance, does the question of whether there really was a Trojan War have on the literary purpose of the Illiad? Our culture has been systematically brainwashed from all those years of chanting the Nicene Creed. We have to recognize once and for all that between us and the events of the Passion stand the gospel. It was intended that way. The gospel didn’t merely ‘record’ a phenomenon; it transformed the experience by means of the Spirit of God. One doesn’t have to believe in the principles of Christianity to accept this. This is what artists are supposed to do with their canvases.

We have perhaps been so utterly brainwashed by repeating that Nicene chant so many times that we forget how convincing art really is. Christianity conquered the ancient world because it was offering better myths than its pagan rivals. This is repeated over and over again by our earliest sources. Yet we refuse to accept that testimony because – quite frankly – we don’t want the magic to end. After finding out how an illusionist saws his assistant in half, we find ourselves no longer wanting to see the rest of the show. For the very same reason then, few people seem to want to think about ‘what Mark was thinking’ when he laid out each piece in the gospel narrative. We’d rather focus on Jesus.

Of course when we introduce aesthetics into the conversation we are forced to acknowledge that tastes vary. “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” the saying goes. And it is certainly very “Roman Catholic” to get caught up in all the grotesqueness of watching Jesus suffer. Mel Gibson made a pile of money recently demonstrating that humanity never quite loses its taste for blood. At the very same time, it has to be acknowledged that this was only one manner that the gospel was venerated in antiquity. In a rival ancient metropolis, the gospel was treated in a very different manner.

Alexandria was named for its founder, the Greek conqueror, Alexander the Great, who established the city in 331 BC. It was conceived from the very beginning to be the capital of a new empire, yet it only ultimately succeeded at being the intellectual center of the world. Alexandria was always a Greek urban center lodged in the heart of Egypt. Nevertheless that Hellenistic sensibility was ultimately overcome by a great number of homegrown superstitions, the last and greatest being Christianity itself.

St Mark is said to have come to Alexandria shortly after the Passion. Legend says that he established the new religion in the Boucolia, a suburb to the east which was the home to the city’s Jewish and Samaritan populations in the early first century. We are told that he also established a great number of monasteries in Egypt including a settlement to the south of Alexandria on the shores of Lake Mareotis. Whether or not these stories are true, they were believed by early Christians in Egypt and go back at least as far as a writer named Clement who rose to the rank of priest in the Alexandrian Church. We have very little in the way of biographical information about Clement. At least four of his works have survived down to us from the late second and early third centuries. His writings are still interesting to even non-academics because it demonstrates an intellectual soul sorely lacking in most of the early Roman writers.

Among the reasons that Clement continues to fascinate people is that he embraces mythopoesis or the act of myth-making on the part of the original evangelist. Clement openly speaks about various stories in the narrative being ‘myths’ and says moreover that without this theou pronoia or ‘divine providence’ the whole "economy of the Savior appears a myth." Indeed he commends the Greek philosopher Empedocles for defining faith in terms of myth with the following words:

"Friends, I know, then, that there is truth in the myths which I will relate. But very difficult to men, And irksome to the mind, is the attempt of faith."

Clement of course, is not putting forward that the gospel story was a hoax. In fact, what Clement consistently puts forward is that the narrative was developed as myth in order to transmit a deeper mystical truth.

In 1958, a previously unknown letter of Clement was discovered in a monastery near Jerusalem by a scholar from Columbia University. In this text, Clement makes his most explicit declaration for the mythical nature of the Jesus narrative saying that when Mark composed a reworking of his original gospel saying:

to the stories already written he added yet others and, moreover, brought in certain sayings of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue, lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven veils

When this discovery was first revealed it was generally welcomed as a major find. Nevertheless conservative forces have in recent years banded together to decry the document as a hoax invented by the professor that found the text. Indeed the monks who work in the monastery where the text was found tore the pages with the letter out of the original book, hid or lost the manuscript and tell outsiders to only read the canonical gospel of Mark.

Nevertheless the damage has been done. There is no chance that the world will ever go back to chanting mantras to understand what Mark was saying in his enigmatic writing. An increasing number of people, both amateurs and professionals alike, believe that the clues to piece together the mysteries of the gospel lie in going through what is said of and by the earliest writers of the Alexandrian Church like Clement, the tradition founded at the very beginning of Christianity by St Mark himself.

For there when history is evaluated objectively – and not by imposing one belief over the other – it is plain that at the time Clement was active there were two traditions already battling in the womb of second century Christianity. Against the fanatical literalism of the Roman Church there was the Alexandrian tradition firmly attached to the gospel’s original author which emphasized its development as myth. This Alexandrian tradition continues to this very day, preserving many strange and very interesting beliefs which we shall continue to examine throughout the course of our investigation.

Nevertheless the mythical interpretation of Mark’s gospel was ultimately compromised by relentless Imperial persecutions. When the Emperor Constantine planted his Nicene banner he effectively spiked it through the heart of the Alexandrian Church. We chant the words of his creed in order to dispel the ‘enchantment’ of Alexandrian beliefs. Clement, writing over a century before innovations of Nicaea, can now be seen as something of the last in a long line of representatives of St Mark, interpreting his gospel in the way it was originally meant to be read. Yet even in Clement’s day the dark clouds of Roman persecution were gathering in Egypt against members of the Jesus religion.

Around the time Clement was writing our newly discovered letter, a movement was gaining strength in Rome to ban or punish members who engaged in such gnostic speculation as Clement. Clement himself was forced to leave Alexandria and wander the earth before settling in Jerusalem after a friend was established as bishop of the churches in the region. Clement literally had to escape from the city he loved in order to preserve the truth of the original message of the gospel writer. His writings likely only survive because he was taken in by friends in Cappadocia and then Jerusalem where his texts were included in local libraries.

Indeed the next hundred years in Egypt will prove to be the bloodiest in the history of the Church. The persecution reached a fever pitch under the reign of the Emperor Diocletian with the surviving church of Alexandria claiming that over a million lives were lost in this ancient holocaust. The modern Egyptian Church dates its calendars to this persecution calling it the ‘age of martyrs.’ Yet despite all their rhetoric that they never gave in to the Imperial pressure, it must finally be acknowledged that the Roman forces made lasting changes on Clement’s tradition. The Emperor Constantine actively transformed the composition of the church and ultimately developing the dogma of the official sanctioned body in such a way so as to subordinate the original tradition of St Mark.

It would be utterly misguided to underestimate the effect that a century of Imperial intimidation had on mythopoesis in Christianity. By the time of Constantine the Roman manner of reading the gospel became the only acceptable manner of interpreting the text. It became a 'historical fact' that Jesus was a human child of the flesh born to a virgin while still retaining his divinity. Clement, however, is quite a bit more reserved about the truth of these claims which developed in his own day.

For instance Clement at one point brings forward a passage which many in the Church believed came from the Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament – “and she brought forth, and yet brought not forth.” Clement notes that while “many even down to our own time regard Mary, on account of the birth of her child, as having been in the puerperal state, although she was not for some say that, after she brought forth, she was found, when examined, to be a virgin” he himself offers up an a mythopoetic explanation of the passage.

“To us” the community of gnostics writes Clement what is meant by these words is that “the scriptures of the Lord, which gave birth to the truth and continue virgin, in the concealment of the mysteries of the truth.” In other words, he is confirming what is said in the newly discovered letter namely that Mark took various ‘writings’ or scriptures of the Lord and developed a new account from them which formed the basis to the mysteries of the Church of Alexandria or as Clement continues "And she brought forth, and yet brought not forth," says the Scripture; as having conceived of herself, and not from conjunction. Wherefore the Scriptures have conceived to Gnostics; but the heresies, not having learned them, dismissed them as not having conceived.”

For Clement of Alexandria then St Mark was the ultimate gnostic or ‘mystagogue,’ a mystical evangelist who perfected the mysteries of Christ in a final gospel which was revealed only to the Egyptian Christian community. This text is now lost. It was probably destroyed during the religious wars of the third and fourth centuries. Nevertheless references to its narrative are likely still to be found in the existing writings of Clement.

It is foolish and utterly self-serving to use the four canonical gospels of the third century Roman tradition to decide who or what Jesus was. The Alexandrian tradition of St Mark for which Clement was a spokesman denied that Jesus’s humanity from the very beginning. According to these believers Jesus never had a birthday, was not born of a woman, began with only the ‘likeness’ of human flesh, was never baptized by John, only suffered on the cross by means of entering the body of another human being.

Yet it wasn’t just that the Alexandrian tradition disagreed in terms of the particulars in the gospel narrative. Unlike our tradition, the mystic gospel of Mark preserved by Clement’s tradition was interpreted as a myth which meant that a deeply profound mystery lurked beneath the narrative. The text wasn’t interpreted as a series of ‘facts’ about a man named Jesus or even limited to the particulars of a one-time event in history. The gospel was developed by Mark to teach a lesson to humanity of deepest profundity, hidden in codes and ciphers within the narrative, which until now has been lost on the greater portion of humanity.

The Greeks originally applied the word mythos to any kind of speech of narrative. Nevertheless it came to be associated with epic stories of gods and heroes. The very same thing is true today. A great event or individual is said to be 'mythical' for the same reason that Greeks remembered the adventures of one particular fight over a ladies hand over all others. We have always interested in the point where the fates of gods and men collide. If art makes life worth living it does so because it distracts us from the inevitability of our mortality and the inherent meaninglessness of a life without greater purpose.

Nevertheless it is difficult for many to get beyond the need for the gospel to be ‘literally true’ from beginning to end. They want not only this narrative but the whole ‘Bible’ to be a series of facts. To this end, in America at least, there is an effort to have Creation literally take place over exactly six days – this even though twenty four hour periods couldn’t happen without the sun which was only created on the fourth day. While it might be fun to make light of the sincere need of some to misread the scriptures, earliest Christianity’s dependence on Judaism might actually prove decisive in establishing the originality of the mythical interpretation of the gospel.

For while it is commonplace to portray the triumph of the Judeo-Christian tradition over the ancient pagan art religion as one of ‘realism’ over ‘make believe’ the historical facts actually support the primacy of mythical interpretation of the scriptures. To be certain, Jewish exegetes consistently rejected the notion of connecting the Biblical narrative with pagan myths. Yet this is not to say that they would not acknowledge in the very same breath that many - if not most - of the narratives in Genesis was mythical. The writings of Moses – the first five books of the Bible – have always been treated as a mystical, even mythical, narrative from the very beginning.

Our oldest comprehensive interpretation of the five books of Moses has come down to us from an Alexandrian Jewish author who goes by the name Philo or ‘friend.’ It is worth noting that this Philo also just so happens to have had a towering influence over our friend Clement and the Alexandrian Christian tradition. Many later writers see this ‘friend’ as being so intimately related to the tradition of St Mark that they say that he was one of the first bishops of the community. We know very little about ‘Philo.’ He is generally supposed to have been an extraordinarily wealthy individual, with intimate knowledge of the Jewish traditions in Egypt. But beyond this there is nothing with any great certainty which can be said about the author of the multi-volume commentary on the Pentateuch which has come down to us.

Yet even without any biographical information about its author it is plain to see how this Alexandrian interpretation of Jewish myths bears striking similarities to the neo-Platonic treatment of traditional pagan literature. As the Israeli scholar Ithamar Gruenwald notes “Philo does not polemicize against myth but seeks to represent it as a story that possesses philosophical truthfulness, an approach facilitated by the allegorical interpretation of Scripture.” This isn’t to say again that Philo accepts pagan ‘fables’ as truthful. As Rudolf Steiner notes, as the Greek ‘treats the myths of paganism, Philo handles Moses' story of the creation.’ Nevertheless while the same exegetical techniques were used by pagans and Jews, it was contended that Jewish myths were superior because Moses was a wholly superior being to all other men.

Philo applies the highest praise possible for Moses. The author of the Pentateuch is alternatively described as “the greatest and most perfect of men in every respect," “the highest saint," and a man who “soared into the loftiest regions of philosophy, and the chief secrets of nature were revealed to him." Yet we should recognize the similarity of Philo’s description of Moses with Clement’s account of St Mark. Just as Clement identifies Mark to be a mystagogue whose mystical writing formed the basis to the rites of the Alexandrian Church, Philo speaks similarly of the founder of Judaism - "even if we have closed the eye of our inner being and do not care or are not able to look up, lift up your voice yourself, Moses, take command us, go on and on anointing our eyes, until you lead us, our mystagogue, to the bidden light of sacred words and show us the beauties that ate fenced off and invisible to those not initiated into these rites.”

With parallels like this, it is difficult to see why anyone should question the idea that Mark’s gospel was mythopoesis. Does the difficulty develop simply because the term ‘myth’ is intimately connected with ‘pagan fables’? Well that certainly is a difficulty. It is unlikely that any Christian from Alexandria would have admitted that Mark drew inspiration from the stories of ‘deceitful demons.’ Yet surely we can use the term ‘myth’ with a caveat. We do this all the time. No one for instance thinks that someone who declares that he ‘loves’ a certain drink at Starbucks is literally ‘in love’ with what he is consuming. In the same way ‘myth’ here doesn’t necessarily mean a ‘fictitious story’ nor a ‘narrative drawing from pagan fables’ but simply ‘a traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people, as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society.’

The Jewish people have always understood the Pentateuch to be the defining myth of their culture. It would only be natural to assume that Mark and his gospel would have a similar function in the early Church. Why then is it so controversial to connect the dots in this manner? The simple answer is that the Roman tradition developed a ‘counter-myth’ to Mark’s original mythopoesis. Indeed the Nicene Creed represents the beginning rather than the efforts against Alexandrianism. By the beginning of the third century, it became an established ‘fact’ that the gospel had no human author. The reason many of the gospel passages have such a striking resemblance – often down to the exact same words in sentences – is because God was sending the information ‘through the spirit’ to four different human beings living in four different parts of the world.

Indeed according to the Roman tradition and despite all the evidence that has come to convince modern scholarship to the contrary, Mark was a subordinate figure in the development of the gospel. We shouldn’t even think of the ‘Gospel According to St. Mark’ as even Mark’s gospel. Not only did it come through a revelation through the Holy Spirit, it came as a revelation to someone else – Peter. Mark, according to the Roman tradition was just playing the part of secretary for the head of the Church at Rome. From the Alexandrian perspective our inherited assumptions about Mark – that he was in essence an inferior and even inconsequential figure in the history of the Church – is part of a conspiracy against the patron saint of the Alexandria. To this very day, the Egyptian Church puts out many books and webpages on this very subject which have chapter headers which read ‘how much injustice did St. Mark receive from the followers of St. Peter.’

It is utterly striking to consider how plausible the foundations of the early mythopoetic tradition of Alexandria are. Mark was acting like Moses when developing the gospel narrative. Even though the notion that Jesus wasn’t human might strike us as bizarre there are no Christians in the world today who deny that he was God. Indeed given that Clement routinely spots Jesus in the original Mosaic narrative interacting with Abraham, conversing with Moses, it would be very difficult for him to believe anything else. It is the Roman tradition with its addiction to gore and suffering which emphasized a far less plausible understanding – a god of flesh and blood.

Seen from the perspective of Alexandrianism everything about the Roman tradition seems reactionary. It is an argument developed from systematic forgery of original textual material. So desperate were these enemies of mythopoesis that they embraced or promoted counterfeit letters in the name of the apostle Paul in order to advance their claims. The canonical gospels so closely resemble Mark they could only be deemed forgeries. Nevertheless the Roman Church firmly held up the claim of ‘authorship through the Holy Spirit.’ Yet the manner in which the Roman Church effectively outlawed the Alexandrian original interpretation of the gospel was through the attacks of the so-called Pastoral Letters of St Paul – texts which are now nearly universally acknowledged to have been ancient forgeries again.

The opening words of the first letter – an exchange between Paul and a supposed disciple named 'Timothy' – bears the collection as a whole. It was attempting to misrepresent the views of the apostle, to make it seem that he sanctioned what would become the Roman attack the established interest in Mark mythopoetic gospel. It is her that Paul is made to declare loud and clear to his disciples “not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies.” Moreover, it is by the forger’s hand we hear that the apostle declare plainly that such things should be avoided because they “promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith.”

It is used to be believed by everyone but the ‘heretics’ that Paul actually wrote these letters. It was because Paul was believed to have declared that we should condemn anyone who treats the gospel as myth that people who promoted it as a mythopoetic narrative were systematic branded as heretics. One would think that since scholarship has established these texts – the very foundation of ‘literalism’ to be forgeries – the claims that the gospel was developed as a myth would be redeemed and an apology letter would be written to those adversely affected. Yet we live in an age where the exact opposite has happened.

This one discovery of an otherwise unknown letter to Clement has come to epitomize the very ‘danger’ that modern scholarship represents for traditional religion. A reactionary ‘conservative position’ has developed in many backwards religious cultures – including that of the United States – that claims that the letter was the only real forgery. These people are so desperate to maintain their parents faith that they accuse the man who discovered the text in a Palestinian monastery of perpetrating a plot against Christianity, of having an secret agenda to promote sinful behavior in the churches, and that he harbored a grudge against organized religion owing to his inability to control his own homosexuality.

As fascinating as it might be to see what secret knowledge about Jesus can be revealed from Clement’s writings, we really must take a second look at the circumstances which led to the discovery of his controversial letter. As I was recently told by one of the monks who last saw the manuscript – ‘it all comes down to choosing the true gospel of Mark as given to us in our New Testament and the other books sanctioned by the Church.’ Of course the world was on the verge of another possibility a generation ago before the monks deliberately ‘lost’ the manuscript. In many ways, one could argue that history is only repeating itself.

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