Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Myth of Jesus Christ [Chapter One]

Everyone loves a good story. Many stories are unconsciously handed down from generation to generation within families. ‘How I met your mother’ often develops into ‘how we came to America’ and then ‘how you came to be born.’ Storytelling is an indispensible part of what it is to be human because myths fulfill a need that science can never hope to provide – they give meaning to existence and help make life worthwhile.

It is almost impossible to go through existence without develop a narrative about your experiences. Almost everyone who cites the words ‘get rich or die trying’ is utterly impoverished. Yet merely by uttering this magical formula a failed life suddenly becomes transformed into a narrative in progress. Indeed some stories are just so good that they take on a life of their own. Such was the case with the myth of Jesus Christ.

It is impossible to say when the mythologizing of Jesus began. Most scholars date the gospel to the period which immediately followed the destruction of the Jewish religion in 70 CE by Roman armies. This is the first unusual feature of this myth – by all accounts, even the reports of the earliest Christian witnesses, was the gospel was not written as the ministry of Jesus was taking place - ‘as it happened’ as it were. The gospel began as a story of reflection.

Indeed what makes this reminiscence so unusual is that it was first written by someone who never actually met or saw Jesus. Most experts acknowledge that a certain Jew by the name of Mark wrote the earliest gospel. What prompted this stranger to lay down a narrative upon which he had no discernable authority or expertise? The answer must go back to our basic human need for myths, a deep need that was ultimately shared by the first evangelist.

We often tell stories to make sense of the world around us. Most scholars think that around the time the Jewish religion was destroyed, this particular Jewish writer revisited the story of Jesus. What good could the story of a life from another time do to help the suffering in the here and now for Mark and his generation? This is the essential magic of myth. The most sensitive souls, those who suffer the deepest, can somehow transform their experiences into something which speaks to a broad readership.

We don’t know much about the first evangelist beyond his name. Yet because we know the nature of humanity, we know this much is true. This is how myths work, this is how people function. Even though the gospel is sometimes identified as a biographical work’ this really is something of a misnomer. Mark’s gospel makes no mention of Jesus’s birth; there is very little reflection on his teachings and no explicit reference to his resurrection. The gospel ends with an empty tomb, an abundance of questions and a palpable sense of fear.

It may be difficult for most people to come to terms with it but if other people hadn’t come along after Mark and developed their own expanded narrative from his paltry original, there would be very little reason to believe Jesus was ever a human being. As the influential Welsh Presbyterian minister William David Davies says about the effect the lack of biographical information had on the earliest Christians. He notes “some early Christians thought that this omission in Mark was highly significant. In fact, it could be claimed that Mark, by this omission, helped to prove that Jesus was not really a man at all; He only seemed to be such. Thus, the Gospel of Mark became a weapon for Christians who despised the flesh and refused to ascribe any fleshly reality to Jesus.”

Of course the idea that Jesus might not have been a human being sounds like an utterly insane idea. Surely no one could have believed that something other than a man was ministering in Galilee, walking on water, passing through crowds and ultimately vanishing from inside of a sealed tomb. Yet the question isn’t what our parents believed or what their ancestors held to be true but determining what inspired Mark to lay down his original gospel narrative after the destruction of the Jewish religion.

The world must have been in great upheaval. The gospel or ‘proclamation’ of Jesus must have been conceived as a comforting message. Nevertheless it is difficult to see what reassurance contemporary believers in Judaism could have received from a story about their ancestors killing an ordinary man in Jerusalem in a particular year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius.

The whole narrative is clearly filtered through the perspective of someone living in the period following the destruction of traditional Judaism. This is because of course Mark was writing in the period immediately following the conquest of Jerusalem by Roman armies. Yet he is also telling the story of Jesus to people living in the apocalyptic aftermath of Jewish hubris – the people of Israel deciding to take on the most powerful nation on the earth and losing the right to practice their traditional religion as a consequence of that action.

The portrait of the leadership of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus is clearly filtered through this lens. In one of the early narratives of the original gospel, the worshippers in a synagogue are egged on by their elders to attempt pushing Jesus over a precipice thinking he was an ordinary man. They are mistaken and pass right through his spiritual being and plummet to their deaths instead.

These narratives were of course changed or adapted in the late second century to avoid making the old teachings about Jesus possible. Nevertheless we know about their existence because of reports which still survive from early Fathers of the Church ‘condemning’ the ‘dangerous beliefs’ of contemporary forms of heresy. Nevertheless in spite of all the warnings that are given to believers to avoid these alternative Christian assemblies we have to wonder if the caricature of the Jewish leadership ‘make sense’ in light of the catastrophic decision to revolt against the Roman Empire.

One can certainly argue that it is the primary function of religion to establish myths which bind people together. Once the Jews had the right to participate in the Jewish way of life taken away from them a crisis of faith occurred and Mark, we may suppose, sought to fill this void with the publication of his gospel. Almost all of our earliest sources within the Church either state or imply that St Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome. A minority opinion puts forward the view that it was written in Egypt at the request of his disciples. The fact that no one connects Mark with Palestine or Jerusalem is significant because it reflects what we have already noted was a post-apocalyptic environment.

The world in 75 CE was barely getting used to the idea of life without Jewish religion. The Jewish leadership had been vanquished by the armies of the Roman Empire, yet Mark through his gospel was recasting that defeat as attributable to something supernatural. His genius ultimately was to formulate a mythical narrative which reduced the Empire itself to an inconsequential player in the age old struggle between God and his people. God had descended to earth over forty years before the current disfavor and was rejected and ultimately crucified by the Jews at the instigation of their leadership. This was the new myth which Mark released into an unsuspecting world.

Jesus only appeared in the likeness of man in Galilee. He only appeared to be a suffering human when beaten and crucified in Jerusalem. What was Jesus in reality? The gospel apparently never answered that or any other mystical question direction but that its narratives were “ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition … the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but by living voice [viva voce].” Indeed it was held that the true wisdom of the gospel was only revealed to those who had been perfectly enlightened in mind, body and spirit.

It is well established in scholarly literature that traditions outside the Catholic Church promoted the idea that humanity could only be saved through being brought into acquaintance with secret knowledge. The Greek terminology was ‘gnostikos’ or in its Anglicized form - gnostic. The idea that Jesus came to bring knowledge to humanity is not necessarily a heretical concept. Yet for whatever reason the Catholic Church began to tighten and restrict the definition of what properly constituted the notion of ‘right belief’ - the literal meaning of the word orthodox.

Indeed for greater part of the last two millennia if you wanted to inquire into the truth about Jesus Christ, you given all you needed to know standing beside your fellow brethren on Sunday and repeating a variation of the following words over and over until you forgot you 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.

This Nicene Creed ends with an ‘Amen’ and it was supposed to settle the ambiguity and obscurity that Mark seemed to have deliberately injected into his narrative. Yet is any of it true? Does any of this fourth century doctrinal compromise reflect the authentic vision of the original evangelist?

We shall for the first time make the case explicit. Jesus was not understood by Mark to be a human being. He descended from heaven in the twelfth year of Tiberius and ultimately came to announce the gospel. He is reported to have passed right through angry crowds because he was conceived as having no material substance. He was reported to have walked on water because he was conceived as having no material substance. He was reported to have disappeared from the sealed tomb and leave it empty because he was understood to have no material being.

The gospel that began with as an account of an earthly visitation by a divine being was ultimately transformed through a series of deliberate changes into a narrative which seemed to be about a man. This is clearly one of the most important questions of our time. It consumes discussions on the internet and is even making its way into some of the leading universities in our country. Bart Ehrman, the best-selling New Testament scholar from 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 in his most recent book.

Yet scholarship has until now failed to divine the essential issue. The real question isn’t ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ but rather what was Mark attempting to set down in his narrative? We shall ask continue to ask this one important question throughout the course of this book aided by a most important discovery made in an obscure monastery in Palestine a little over a half century ago …

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