Monday, March 12, 2012

The Myth of Jesus Christ Chapter One

Everyone loves a good story. It has been said that the life of every living soul is a narrative in progress. ‘How I met your mother’ becomes ‘how we came to America’ and then ‘how you came to be born.’ Yet in some cases, there is only a great story. There’s just a myth detached from any historical reality.

Joseph Campbell popularized the understanding of myths as “facts of the mind in the fiction of matter.” In other words, the essential truth of an experience lays buried within the details of what only seemed to have taken place to the naked eye. The challenge of the artist is to capture something beautiful and inspiring from the shapeless, ever-changing sands of time. When he succeeds at affording us a vision of the experience behind all experiences, i.e. God, he is no longer identified as a mere artist. He is now called a mystic.

Storytelling is such an indispensible part of what it is to be human. Myths fulfill a need that science can never hope to provide. They give meaning to existence. They make life worthwhile living at least insofar as each of us has the potential to participate in the divine. Indeed we needn’t think of ‘divine’ here as something abstract and sublime. We are literally born into a world where direction comes from the outside. Our lives are neatly organized schedules until the moment we become emancipated from our parents and then we face our first ontological crisis. What are we supposed to do? From whence do we gain our new set of instructions for living?

This is how it has been from the very beginning. The transition from birth to life and back to darkness is the essential journey of every human being. It was out of love, the deepest and profoundest affection, that myths were woven into the fabric of this experience. If our ancestors lacked the creativity to develop stories of their own, there were cultural myths that served the same purpose.

It is utterly impossible to go through existence without develop a narrative about one’s own experiences. More often than not, people learn to develop a sense of who they are from examples in the media. 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 the internet, television and various other media can be argued to serve the function of sheltering us from the pointlessness of our own existence. We exhaust ourselves each day with work and as a ‘cure’ for what little active spirit we have left in us we bombard our consciousness with electronically produced realities. It is only owing to the fact that we live in such a different world than our ancestors that we have often have difficulty making sense of their interest in religion and spirituality. At its most basic – they didn’t own an Xbox.

Yet as if we can imagine for a moment taking ourselves out of all that is familiar and stripping away all that is artificial - not merely parallel realities created in electronic media but pharmaceutically induced ones as well. If we then placed ourselves back in the world at the turn of the Common Era would any of us find the ancient obsession myth at all absurd? It isn’t just that religion is a primitive form of ‘entertaining’ oneself. It would seem to us rather that the distractions we narcotize ourselves with are nothing more than impoverished descendants of the ancient mysteries.

Our ancestors were always ‘in touch’ with their own inner soul. There was no such thing as ‘virtual reality.’ Each of them fully experienced the life that was given to them. They searched for the common experience that connected them to their fellow man and this was of myth and the ancient mystery religions.

There was of course a great religious variety in antiquity. Yet in the Mediterranean world at least participation in the mysteries became the most important form of spirituality. At its most basic, groups of people gathered throughout the ancient Hellenistic and Roman Empires in secret and were guided through an initiation established in the name of a god or goddess particular to a region or part of the world. These were highly dramatic events which usually took place at night with the proceedings illuminated only by torchlight. The end result of the experience was apparently a direct apprehensive of the hidden presence of the divinity.

It is difficult not to read about these associations without suspecting that they were knowingly or unknowingly engaged in the consumption of mind altering drugs. It is difficult of course to prove what went on during these rituals. Nevertheless the charge does surface from time to time in ancient accounts. It is similarly difficult to penetrate the veil of secrecy surrounding the Christian mystery religions. Nevertheless we see a similar pattern here too especially in the ancient center of Alexandria.

In early Christianity we not only witness the consumption of food and alcoholic drink but also ritual nudity and men and women mixing together. Many traditional cultures within the Empire were very suspicious about this mixture of elements. We hear about drug taking, alcoholism and sexual libertinism yet such reports are limited to semi-legendary ‘sects’ of the faith.

The important thing for us to see here is that the myth of Jesus Christ developed from this cultural environment – that is the drama of the mystery religion. Much of modern scholarship developed from within Protestantism which itself was a reaction against what many of these north Europeans saw as the abominable mythopoetic practices of the Roman Catholic Church. As such there has been a tendency - almost from the very beginning of the study of early Christianity – to overestimate the historical value of Jesus of Nazareth.

In other words, the fact that Jesus fit within a supernatural narrative of the ancient mysteries was basically ignored by most academics. The gospel was a biography which had to be about a real person named Jesus. According to this model the idea that Jesus was God or a god was layered on top of series of facts which are still discernible from the existing gospel narratives. The real purpose of scholarship, it has always been assumed, was to disentangle the ‘real Jesus’ from the mythopoetic ‘exaggeration’ of the early Catholics.

Of course, as is often the case with most things in academia, this line of reasoning was principally suited to the intellectual battles between Catholics and Protestants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Protestants effectively won the war and have dominated scholarship ever since. Yet the overall effect of this state of affairs is to pursue a hopelessly naïve goal - that is to uncover the pure unadulterated Jesus of history. There were of course very good arguments to support the notion that Jesus was not historical person. The difficulty again was that it wouldn’t have been useful for a Catholic – or indeed a Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox - of the previous century to utter them. This is because all of the surviving traditions from antiquity represent blatant attempts to reconcile this notion of ‘Jesus the man’ with the older, more established notion of ‘Jesus the god’.

It remains an unalterable fact that the oldest traditions which are almost universally regarded to have established a ‘canon’ of New Testament writings – i.e. one that was fixed by a rule (= Greek kanona) – explicitly denied Jesus any humanity. Indeed it is beyond doubt that ‘Nazareth’ as a place name only gets inserted into our version of their original gospel. In the original tradition of Christianity, Jesus had no home, no mother, no physical brothers and sisters and no nationality. He was quite literally a divine being who descended into the ancient Roman province of Judea to announce the gospel.

While our first instincts are to laugh at this notion, the reality is that it is the human Jesus which is absolutely incompatible with the mystery religion form of which certainly Christianity is to be included. The question isn’t how the heretics corrupted the Catholic canon to establish their strange traditions but rather how the divine Jesus of the ancient mysteries became co-opted by those wanting to fashion him as a living human teacher. There is absolutely no evidence of a Christian tradition which was not practicing ritual initiations. It becomes much more likely then that the insertion of Jesus the man into the gospel and various parts of the liturgy coincided with efforts to ‘reform’ the religion in the late second century. Indeed the celebration of the birth of Jesus can be dated to the third century, the veneration of his conception in Mary’s womb, to the early fourth century.

Like all myths, the idea that Jesus was a human being developed organically over time. It is impossible to say when the idea was first proposed. The idea may well date back to the first century. Nevertheless the important thing to remember is that the original template upon which our canonical gospels are based is one which supported only the existence of Jesus the god. It was this divine figure who functioned at the mystic heart of the liturgy. What role does the human Jesus even play in the core Christian experience of eating flesh, drinking blood and being refashioned after the likeness of God? Indeed if we remove these things, what is left to be properly called ‘Christian’?

We should acknowledge then that there are only two possibilities in early Christianity. Either Jesus was an actual person whose historical ministry was distorted by the overactive imagination of those who first preserved its legacy or the gospel was conceived from the very beginning as a supernatural ‘visit’ from God or a some sort of divine being. These are the only starting points for the religion. It is unfortunate that each of these positions has effectively been ‘co-opted’ by different sides in the modern debate over the existence of God. The historical Jesus is just as problematic for the beliefs of apologists as the mythical Jesus is for the nefarious purposes of atheists.

The way to get around much of the childishness inherent in this debate is to stay focused on what we can learn from the available evidence. While there are precious few clues which throw any light on the composition of the first gospel, most scholars date that text to the destruction of the Jewish religion by Roman armies at the latter part of the first century. Most experts are also in agreement that of the four surviving canonical gospels, the one ‘according to Mark’ is the most ancient. Matthew and Luke were written essentially as re-workings or even forgeries of Mark’s original text.

The two most basic points of agreement are surprisingly useful in establishing the inherent mythical characteristic to the original Christian narrative. Our memories become less reliable the further removed we are from an important historical event. If Mark wrote his definitive narrative at some point after 70 CE, it is easy to see why Matthew, Luke and perhaps others felt justified at ‘correcting’ his account. It wasn’t so much that they had access to better information. It is more likely that they wanted to establish the story of Jesus’s ministry in a different mythical framework.

So it is that we have reached the first and most unusual feature of this central Christian 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 they were first written by individuals who had never actually met or came into contact with Jesus. What prompted these strangers to lay down a narrative upon which they 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 create stories to make sense of the world around us. This predisposition for myth-making or mythopoesis only becomes stronger when cultures find themselves in periods of great turbulence and uncertainty. The fact that most scholars think that around the time the Jewish religion was destroyed is therefore particularly significant. Mark, the first gospel writer was undoubtedly revisiting the story of Jesus to help explain and make sense of the single most catastrophic event in the history of Judaism – the destruction of the Jewish temple. It is for this reason certainly that Jesus is constantly portrayed as ‘knowing’ that the Jews will ultimately be punished for their conspiracy against him.

Yet even this common sense solution to the problem of how and for what purpose the gospel was written presents us with ever new difficulties. For instance, even if we can connect the writing of the gospel to the crisis of the destruction of Jewish religious life, it is difficult to see who Mark was writing for. How could the Jews have derived ‘comfort’ from a narrative which told them they were being punished from the sins of their ancestors?

As difficult as it may be for modern observers to accept, this feature of the gospel was hardly unusual in ancient Jewish literature. The essential Jewish myth is that all of history comes down to the relationship between God and his people. Mark’s gospel was not a condemnation of Jews as a race but only the particular Jewish leadership at the time of Jesus. The message to contemporary Jews and those Gentiles who had converted to some nominal form of Judaism was clear – the wickedness of the previous generation was established by God. The all-powerful God of Israel hardened the hearts of the Pharisees in the same way he had Pharaoh in the story of Exodus. He had provoked the old leadership in order to clear the way for the revelation of something new.

As such the catastrophic loss which accompanied the loss of the Jewish religion in 70 CE was transformed into a secret revelation of blessings for humanity as a whole. This is the essential magic of mythopoesis. The most sensitive souls, those who suffer the deepest, can somehow transform their experiences into something which speaks to the broadest possible readership. John F Kennedy, one of the most inspiration orators of the twentieth century tapped into this understanding repeatedly in speeches during his transformative presidency taking a cue from what he claimed was the wisdom of the East - “When written in Chinese the word crisis is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” The fact that this interpretation of the Chinese word wei-chi (= ‘crisis’) was ridiculed by almost every linguistic expert has by no means dented its popularity. Kennedy made constantly made reference to this understanding in speeches while president House and it continued to a staple of executive addresses including those of his rival Richard Nixon. It would seem the core mythical vision of danger being intertwined with opportunity was so powerful that it emboldened western speech writers to ignore linguistic facts.

The lesson here is of course that deeper, mystical truths inevitably manage to dislodge the facts of history. Mark’s original vision of Jesus as a mythical being who descended from heaven were so powerful and spoke so deeply to the hearts and mind of his generation that they pushed away whatever facts where known about the actual crucifixion during the reign of Tiberius. Indeed it might be useful for us to know something about this master myth-maker if we wanted to come to terms with the way in which his gospel was written. Yet even here the great mystic seems to have been one step ahead of us.

We don’t know much about the first evangelist beyond his name. A sixth century text which attempted to shine some light on his person provides the following account of his gospel writing efforts – “and encountering the prophetic books, and pondering the reading, and musing on the hidden and obscure meanings of the God-breathed predictions, by divine illumination he harmoniously interpreted with excellence and perfection, making the releases of these lofty divine discourses clear to all. So from this and from his virtuous way of living, the people called this man mystery speaker (mystolektês) and holy herald (hierokêroux).”

It would seem that Mark didn’t want to distract us from the magic of his own narrative creation. So it was that he hid himself completely from view. As a result of this effort we have no easy way of finding his narrative perspective. Yet this secrecy is an important clue in itself. While the gospel is often described as a ‘biographical work,’ the life story of the ministry of Jesus we have already noted that this is really something of a misnomer. Mark’s original literary composition 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.

If the other writers hadn’t come along to expand Mark’s original paltry narrative, there would be very little reason to believe Jesus was ever human. The modern believer necessarily clings to this understanding because he feels that his faith would be irreparably challenged by the idea of God being presented walking and talking in mortal form. Nevertheless, as we have already noted the idea of an anthropomorphic visitation on the part of God is utterly essential for the salvation of humanity. If God doesn’t come in the shape of a man, it would be impossible to be mystically reborn after his divine likeness. Christianity could ably function without having a mortal Jesus. It did so from the very earliest period. With the removal of his divinity however, the mechanism of salvation and the very purpose of the religion is utterly destroyed.

So it is that 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.”

Again it is our modern, Protestant sensibilities which essentially resist this understanding of the original evangelist. 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.

As already noted 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.

Indeed it is perhaps one of the great ironies of history that it is only because of the survival of these hostile treatises written against ‘the heresies’ that we can begin to salvage an understanding of the very beliefs the Church Fathers tried to destroy. Mark only created a caricature of the Jewish leadership to help his readership ‘make sense’ of the catastrophic decision to revolt against the Roman Empire. It is also very interesting that all despite identifying Mark as a rich resident of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’s ministry, all the surviving accounts of his authorship of the gospel place this activity far away from Judea.

The starting point of the gospel was the Jewish concept of galut or ‘exile.’ It is utterly foolish to attempt an understanding of this literary effort without due deliberation on this fact. Indeed the world in 75 CE was barely getting used to the idea of life without Jewish religion. Its leadership had been vanquished by the armies of the Roman Empire, and yet Mark through his gospel recast that defeat as a divine triumph over Pharisees, the very same sectarian community condemned in many of the writings found at Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea.

It is important not to lose sight of the underlying ‘Jewishness’ of the gospel’s literary purpose. The idea of a ‘mission to the Gentiles’ is something which happened much later. Mark’s genius 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. The great secret of Mark’s gospel was that Jesus was the same divinity expected to visit his people at the end times in those same texts at Qumran. In almost every critical text of this Jewish community established before the dawn of Christianity, there is a palpable expectation of the coming divine visitation. This interest has since dropped from Judaism, in no small part because it was so actively incorporated into the nascent Christian faith.

Nevertheless it would be a grave mistake to ignore the obvious reality that Mark developed his gospel from this most Jewish of apocalyptic expectations. Indeed it can hardly be seriously doubted that Christianity must have developed from a sectarian community related to the scrolls found at Qumran. Why then is their fixation on the visitation of God pushed to the background as a literary context for understanding the gospel narrative? Indeed one fragmentary scroll in particular – the so-called 11QMelkizedek – also provides us with the very reason that Mark decided to call his Jesus narrative ‘the gospel.’

The real point that becomes unshakable as we walk away from the traditional interpretation of Western scholarship on Jesus is that it finds great difficulty shaking itself from our inherited assumptions about him. The fact that Mark wrote his gospel in an utterly cryptic manner only served to bolster these historical claims to his person. As even the exponents of the mystical tradition of Jesus were ready to admit the gospel narratives were ultimately purposely “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].”

It is astounding that when western scholars read these words they are struck by something utterly alien to their sensibilities. Why on earth would anyone approach the scriptures in this convoluted fashion? Nevertheless for a Jew they seem utterly in keeping with traditional hermeneutics. It would be nothing short of the greatest sacrilege to have presented the mystical knowledge of truth in plain view of profane eyes. So it was that Jews of all ages have believed that Moses hid the beating heart of the Pentateuch for outsiders. The gnostics similarly believed that the true wisdom of the gospel was only revealed to those who had been perfectly enlightened in mind, body and spirit.

Humanity could only be saved through being brought into acquaintance with secret knowledge. In the Greek terminology of the earliest Christians such an individual who had undergone the appropriate initiation into the truth was called a ‘gnostikos’ or in its Anglicized form – a gnostic. The equivalent Hebrew term was maskil and there is evidence that many of the gnostics actually continued to adopt this terminology well into the third century.

The ultimate point of course is that Judaism and Christianity developed together out of a pre-existent expectation of a divine visitation, one which would ultimately see the noble and good portion of the community of Israel triumph over its adversaries. The idea of a human Jesus only represents the manner in which one branch of the shared tradition was co-opted by the Imperial government. The holy scripture of the earliest Church fell victim to this ‘corrective’ process and the final nail in the coffin was creed established at the time of the Empire Constantine to define ‘right belief’ about Christianity and its mysteries for all future generations:

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 was supposed to settle the ambiguity and obscurity that Mark seemed to have deliberately injected into his narrative. Yet is any of it really true? Does any of this fourth century doctrinal compromise reflect the authentic vision of the original evangelist?

At best one can argue that this dogma established an unfortunate prejudice which cast a shadow over all research into the Bible into the modern age. The reality was that Jesus was not understood by Mark to be a ‘real’ human being at all. Instead the narrative and indeed Christianity as a whole depends on the idea that a divine being descended from heaven during the reign of Tiberius to announce the gospel. Jesus is said to have passed right through angry crowds, reported to have walked on water and understood to have disappeared from the sealed tomb and leave it empty for the very same reason – he simply had no ‘solid’ material being to speak of.

Mark’s perfect mystic gospel was established as an account of an earthly visitation by a god. This vision was ultimately co-opted and transformed into narratives about a human teacher who failed in his bid to be recognized by the Jewish people as their messiah. What must be seen is that Mark’s deliberate effort to shroud himself and his narrative in secrecy can be argued to have only assisted this later effort. After all the police can only be called if a crime can be demonstrated to have been committed. With regards to Mark and his creation, there was no body and no victim willing to immediately come forward and ‘file a report’ with the authorities. Indeed the ‘authorities’ were likely behind the scenes encouraging the very same reform effort.

The internet is filled with discussion groups and websites devoted to the question of how certain we can ever be that there was an historical Jesus. Many of the world’s leading scholars have either published or are in the process of releasing books on this very controversial subject matter. 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 ‘Did Jesus Exist?’

Yet it shall be argued here that scholarship has until now failed to divine the essential issue. The real question is not ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ but rather what was Mark literary purpose in setting down his very cryptic gospel narrative? We shall ask continue to ask this one important question throughout the course of this book aided by a number of discoveries and traditions which shall hopefully shed some more light on the enigmatic original evangelist. Most of these sources are ignored by modern scholarship. In some cases the oversight is accidental – a product of the material being preserved in a language which most scholars of early Christianity do not generally possess. At other times however, the omission of material quite deliberate. It would seem at the very least that not everyone in academia is up to the task of demystifying Mark and his original creation of the Christian religion.

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