Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Myth of Jesus [Chapter Two Part Three]

Whenever anyone comes along and tries to reconstruct the origins of Christianity the ultimate test comes down to whether or not an idea is compatible with contemporary Judaism.  There are many so-called 'mythicists' who develop essentially stupid ideas about the myth of Jesus.  Some say Jesus was like Osiris or Hercules or a host of other pagan gods that they might happen to like or - on the other hand - to bring forward essentially to ridicule the Christian religion.  But any similarities between paganism and Christianity is unlikely to have been at the core of the religion.  The bottom line is that if Jesus was a divine figure he was a Hebrew divinity. 

So what framework 'works' within contemporary Judaism?  Well certainly Jews might have been attracted to a preacher, a prophet, a wonder-worker, a revolutionary, someone who claimed to be a second Moses or David.  But the gospel - even as it stands now - does not present this sort of a figure.  To be certain, significant editorial changes were made to a pre-existent gospel narrative.  We know this because the Marcionites objected to the addition of the birth narratives, the identification of Jesus from Nazareth, the idea that he had a mother and brothers, that he suffered on the Cross. 

It is equally clear however that these efforts were not aimed at taking a god and transforming him into an ordinary man.  Instead, Irenaeus and his associates, wanted to allow for the community who venerated a righteous man could co-exist with those who said he was wholly divine.  Again, it was this compromise that was completely incompatible with Judaism.  It would be impossible to expect that Jews could venerate a man of flesh and blood as God.  Nevertheless the two component parts of this understanding would be quite compatible with contemporary Judaism. 

Indeed it would seem that it is only because of the lack of imagination of scholars that the Marcionite paradigm for the gospel narrative has been effectively left on the side of the road.  Most scholars of religion come themselves from religious backgrounds.  It isn't enough for them to treat the gospel narrative as a story that might be accepted by Jews living at the time of the destruction of the temple - i.e. a kind of retrospective 'looking back' at a divine visitation in which the warnings of God weren't heeded by most of the Jewish population leading to the end of their ancestral religion.  No, for some reason they have to allow themselves to believe that a divine visitation actually happened. 

Of course the same historical demand isn't placed upon the story of Moses.  It is perfectly reasonable apparently for Jews to have embraced his encountering a heavenly man in a burning bush or an angel coming down and avoided the houses marked with blood and killed the first born of the Egyptians, or another luminous flying being led the Israelites out of Egypt and directed the waters to recede and then crash down upon the chariots of Pharaoh and indeed countless other divine manifestations in the wilderness and on the mountain.  This retrospective narrative of a divine visitation is perfectly acceptable.  So too the Dead Scroll literature looking forward to another future manifestation of the same being.  But that the gospel was its fulfillment, written from the perspective written after the destruction of the temple is somehow not even considered. 

The real obstacle here of course is our collective religious upbringing.  In churches across the nation and across the world, the Christian religion is geared to children and continues to reinforce extremely childish understandings throughout the life cycle of its 'believers.'  Most Catholics for instance will never open a Bible in their entire lives.  Most Protestants on the other hand will study the Bible but ignore the early exegesis as represented in the Church Fathers.  The small handful of individuals who go through the 'Bible' and study its early interpretation within Christianity are unlikely to top that off with an appreciation for first century Judaism. 

To this end, our understanding of who Jesus was and what he meant to the first Christians is hopelessly limited by our own childish upbringing.  Whereas for someone like Justin Martyr in the second century Jesus was above all else a mysterious divine being who encountered all the Patriarchs, the modern individual starts with Christmas moves on to Jesus's ethical teachings and martyrdom and develops an absurdly facile understanding of his resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father.  There is no context for any of the narratives of the gospel.  They can't possibly know what pre-existent literary sources the evangelist was drawing from because they have been fed and are continuing to be fed only milk.  They are wholly unprepared for the digestion of real 'meat.'

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