Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Myth of Jesus Christ Part 1

Do we still believe in myths?  Of course we do.  Not only would life without art be a mistake, a narrative strictly adhering to the facts would be dreadfully boring.  In the widest sense of the word it is the self-importance of the mythical worldview which sustains each of us through tough times.  Myths are the folly which not only sustains us but keeps us wanting more.  This truth has been grasped by more than one advertising executive.  Myths are what bind individuals to larger collective associations.  If many individuals recognize that they share the same experiences they might be more prone to identify with one another.  This is as true in the trenches of military battles as it is during the course of a major sporting event.  We can only be an unconscious spectator once.  At the very moment that actual experience transfers to memory it becomes distorted.  The art of the storyteller is to establish myth in place of reality.

The Greek word mythos literally meant any kind of speech of narrative yet 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.

When the sublime art religion of our pagan ancestors was replaced by the somber rituals of a desert people redeemed from captivity in Egypt, it is often presented as the twilight of mythopoesis.  Yet if the truth be told, it is almost impossible to distinguish the stories of the Jewish Patriarchs from the heroic legends of Greece or the seven day creation narrative in Genesis from parallel pagan creation cycles.  The view from antiquity was that the Old Testament was either the best or worst example of myth-making, depending on your point of view.

Indeed among the Hebrews who hold fast to Moses' narrative, it is very difficult to find those who take his words as literal truth.  For Jews and Samaritans alike the Pentateuch is their story.  Israel isn't a concept merely preserved in the pages of the Bible, it is 'proved' by its descendants 'doing' the words of the Law and the prophets.  This is the only truth of the holy scriptures.  There are very few Hebrews who believe the early was literally created in seven days, and even less who believe that their nation was literally saved by God parting the sea.  The myths of the past were used to direct believers to understand the present and be comforted in the face of an uncertain future.

The current obsession among evangelical Christian believers to take every utterance in these narratives as literal facts is totally out of step, not only with the ancient Semitic milieu but even the earliest Christian communities, especially in the Egyptian city of Alexandria.  These writers, theologians and philosophers always felt very comfortable defining the holiness of the Bible in terms of myth or mysticism.  Yet the modern  Christian sensibility has developed in a completely different direction, especially when it comes to the story of its savior, Jesus Christ.

It has always been deemed to be 'heretical' to approach the holy gospel as a mythical narrative especially among the first exponents of 'orthodoxy.'  Indeed it was so important to this Roman faith to establish the literal truth of the gospel that letters were forged in the name of the apostle Paul condemning the mythical interpretation of the narrative.  The opening words of an exchange between Paul and a disciple named 'Timothy' bear witness to the effort to curb the original Alexandrian exegetical practice:

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith.
Of course almost no one today believes that Paul ever wrote such things.  Yet the testimonials provide us with an important testimonial that the gospels were approached as myths before the counter-effort of the orthodox to resist the practice.

Indeed Clement, one of the last of the original Alexandrian teachers, continues to speak of the Christian faith in terms of mythopoesis as late as the end of the second century.  What separates Christian myth-making from its pagan counterparts Clement argued is that Christian myths partake in divine providence (theou pronoia).  Clement says that without this theou pronoia the whole "economy of the Savior appears a myth."   Clement is certainly not saying that the Christian religion is not developed from myth.  He is merely saying that what separates the gospel from let's say the story of the dismembering of Dionysus is that the Christian myth was developed as part of a plan of salvation by the god which controls the fate of all things.

This kind of logic always appears in the writings of the Church Fathers.  After an acknowledgement that Christian practices resemble - at least superficially - counterparts in the pagan world, the ecclesiastical writer emphasizes that what distinguishes the two is only Christianity partakes of divinity.  The pagan practices are often likened to counterfeit copies established by demons.  Many of us might laugh off the argument as entirely self-serving.  Yet the important thing here is to see that Clement does acknowledge the mythical basis to the gospel.  Indeed in a later part of the same book Clement declares to his reader that he "cannot forbear praising the Greek philosopher Empedocles too much when he celebrates faith 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."

So it is that we see two children active in the womb of second century Christianity.  There is the Alexandrian tradition which embraced the myth-making in the gospel narrative and another - associated with Rome - which condemned it.  One would think that given Clement's early dating and his influence that we should have many other Church Fathers in later periods emphasizing and accepting mythopoesis in the story of Jesus Christ.  Yet the reality is that Clement is something of the last in a long line.  Around the same time as Clement was writing 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 ultimately became a footnote in history until the discovery of a manuscript in a monastery near Jerusalem in 1958.  He is mentioned a few times in the definitive fourth century tome of Ecclesiastical History written by Eusebius, an influential Christian who sat in the court of the Emperor Constantine.  Yet Clement's escape from Alexandria becomes an important testimony to the disappearance of the early Alexandrian mythical exegesis of the gospel.  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.

While these claims are certainly exaggerated we should not underestimate the effect that a century of Imperial intimidation had on the acceptance of 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 was a 'historical fact' now that Jesus was a human child of the flesh born to a virgin while still retaining his divinity.  It should have been readily apparent to scholars that two separate traditions were fused into one creed, yet scholars have had the sensitivity to details here as the faithful who mumble the very same words of the Nicene faith every week at church in a mental fog.

The scholarly study of early Christianity has virtually ignored the more original understanding of Jesus as a God rather than a man.  At least part of this intellectual laziness is assisted by the fact that most of the documents and traditions associated with this alternative tradition was destroyed by members of the ascendant Church, a faith which actively promoted his humanity alongside his divinity.  Nevertheless enough information can be pieced together from the writings of Clement and other Church Fathers who condemned mythopoesis in the gospel and its exegesis that we can begin to make out what they believed.

The starting point to this revaluation of centuries of lopsided historical research by otherwise intelligent and informed scholars is to stop assuming that the gospel is the story of a man named Jesus.  Many if not most in academia now acknowledge that one particular tradition identified by the Church Fathers as 'those of Marcion' or 'the Marcionites' had the earliest canon of Christian writings.  This tradition did not believe that Jesus was a human being.  As such their gospel, like our canonical gospel of Mark, did not contain a birth narrative of any kind.  Their gospel did not support the idea that Jesus suffered on the cross or that he 'died' in any sense of the word.

One would think that the very fact that the earliest interpretations of the gospel started with the assumption that a god rather than a man as its main character would encourage scholars to re-examine the condemnation of mythopoesis in those forged letters of St. Paul.  Yet the exact opposite has been occurring in most American research.  Any notion of the divinity of Christ has been stripped away from the interpretation of the gospel narrative.  Jesus's 'Jewishness' has become exaggerated to the point that one would believe that he owned a deli in Brooklyn.  The exegesis of the narrative has now been limited to thinking about Jesus in terms of the various Jewish political groups of the Common Era or according to one extremist interpretation, a particular sect of Greek philosophy.

The reality is however that the notion of Jesus as God coming down from the heavens came before any notion of his specific 'Jewishness.'  Indeed it is present in all the earliest writers from Christian antiquity.  With the discovery of gnostic writings from Egypt we have found countless authors who held fast only to Jesus's divinity.  Yet we have no surviving manuscripts from any tradition who put forward that he was only a man.  There are whispers of course in the Patristic writings that such tradition at one times existed.  Nevertheless there is no convincing proof that any of these claims derive from something more than mere exaggerated hyperbole.

Those in the business of religious scholarship of course wholly embrace the human Jesus because it is entirely self-serving.  As soon as cracks begin to show in the foundations of our assumptions there is the nagging worry that this may only be the tip of the iceberg.  What of the 'other' historical documents in our New Testament, like the Acts of the Apostles?  Might these also have been developed through the same Catholic falsification process which made Paul an opponent of mythicism?

Indeed when we look to the 'most convincing proofs' that Jesus was a historical individual - a passage which purportedly appears in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus - the door is nevertheless left open to the possibility that Jesus might have been something more than a mere man:

About this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the Messiah.
There are so many different versions of Josephus's writings floating around in different languages where Jesus is acknowledged to be both a god and a man to varying degrees that it is difficult to know what to make of this testimony.   Was this testimony added to an original work of Josephus which had no allusions to Jesus and which additions came first - i.e. those referencing the divine or mortal Jesus?

The best way to approach matters is to assume that there two mutually hostile traditions from a very early period which only became reconciled by invention of the ecumenical position of the Catholic tradition or as the Latin Church Father Jerome describes it:

The faith of the church, then, is trapped among formidable shipwrecks of false teaching. If it confesses that Christ is man, then Ebion and Photinus gain ground If it contends that he is God, then Mani, Marcion, and the author of the new teaching all bubble up to the surface. Let each and every one of them hear that Christ is both God and man—not that one is God and the other man, but rather that he who is God from all eternity deigned to become man in order to save us.
Yet even though what Jerome is proposing is certainly useful for bringing order to the Church it clearly has to be seen as secondary.  In its purest form there were a great majority of Christians in the earliest period arguing for Jesus the God and a strong minority devoted to what they perceived to be, a Jewish man named Jesus.

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