Monday, January 9, 2012

The Myth of Jesus Christ Part 2

It is certainly less difficult to explain Christianity as a religion developed around followers of a man named Jesus.  To this very day, political movements and religious faiths are founded by charismatic individuals.  The story of ' the man Jesus' also adapt very well to books, plays and movies and then there is the lure of Christmas.  Who would dare mess with this most wonderful birthday celebration where each of us receives presents for coming to the party?   The idea that anyone could have denied all these 'glad tidings' seems contrary to the most fundamental principles of Christianity.

Indeed to believe that Jesus was some sort of 'angelic spaceman' sojourning on the earth for a brief period appears incredibly naive.  Doesn't this happen with every great man?  His followers become so eager to venerate his legacy that they turn him into a god?  And then scholars can chime in and tell us that our oldest terminology reinforces the humanity of Jesus quite certainly.

For when we deconstruct the original Latin terms 'Christianus' (from whence we get the word 'Christian') and Christiani (= 'Christianity') it is absolutely impossible to put forward that such a terminology was used with a divinity.  The term was almost exclusively used to describe political partisans of a certain person.  As such Jesus would have been conceived by the first users of this name to be the human founder of an assembly or association.

The linguistic evidence - on the surface at least - would seem to confirm that Jesus was a man.  Yet appearances can be deceiving.  Archaeological evidence make clear that those who held Jesus to have been a god never identified him as 'the messiah' (or 'Christos') but 'the right one' (or 'Chrestos').  The two words not only look very similar on paper, to Greek speakers in the period they would have been almost impossible to distinguish in every day conversation.  

Moreover, while the word 'Christian' may seem perfectly fine to us, it would have looked very strange to a native Greek speaker.  The name is an obvious Latinism, or if you will a word borrowed from the ruling classes in Rome by Greek speakers.  Nevertheless the exact opposite is generally assumed about the spread of Christianity - namely that it developed first among Greek speakers and then spread to Rome.  Indeed the Acts of the Apostles make this explicit when it tells us that "the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch."  Antioch is a city in the Roman province of Syria where a great many Greek speakers lived.  It is impossible to believe that the earliest disciples chose to use a Latin name to identify themselves at this first assembly.

How do we reconcile the Latin influence in the historical accounts of the development of Christianity?  While some scholars have tried to embrace the perplexing terminology the majority of scholars argue that since Christian writers seldom used the term until late in the second century, it was more likely to have been created by non-Christians. The variants Chrestos, Chrestus, and Chrestianoi often appear, and Chrestus was a familiar proper name, meaning "good, useful." So it is argued that non- Christians heard christos and converted it to the understandable Chrestos, which was thus the original form of the word they used to identify believers.  I think we can actually go one step further and notice that Clement actually tells us the exact terminology which his Alexandrian co-religionists used to describe themselves - chrestoi.  The same identification is made by Justin Martyr a generation earlier.

The idea that chrestoi was the original term for the followers of Jesus has a lot going for it.  It is clearly associated with the groups who identified Jesus as a god named 'Chrestos.'  Moreover the specific term chrestoi has a long history in the Greek language before the appearance of Jesus.  Chrestoi was the proper designation of the aristocracy in ancient Athens and was juxtaposed in early historical writers with the demos or 'general population.' As one historian notes the "chrestoi were citizens of high status with claims to special responsibilities and ptivileges; the poneroi (the wretched) provided the amorphous human backdrop against which the chrestoi stand out."

Some will certainly feel that there is nothing further from the Christian ideal than a class of 'nobility' within its ranks.  Nevertheless it must be remembered not only that the Alexandrians frequently divided their community along elitist lines - i.e. 'spiritual' and 'carnal' members - but moreover most traditional Christian denominations assume a similar distinction between those of priestly and secular rank.  Moreover the idea certainly goes back to the description of the ancient Israelites wandering in the desert under the leadership not only of Moses but a group of seventy elders 

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