Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Myth of Jesus [Part Two]

So I got off my call with Rory musing to myself that I would spend the next year of my life trying to demonstrate a seemingly impossible premise.  Above and beyond anything proposed by other so-called 'mythicists' - i.e. those who argue that the gospel was a mere myth - I would put forward the argument that it was a story where 'Jesus' wasn't originally called Jesus.  Of course I would have a few tricks up my sleeve, developed by means of what my critics would certainly call my superficial knowledge of Biblical manuscripts.

The actual texts of the gospel, the letters of Paul and related literature from early Christianity never actually identify the lead protagonist in the gospel as 'Jesus' i.e. Ἰησοῦς or Iesous as the Greek letters are transliterated into our language.  No curiously enough, we find a strange scribal habit which extends to the very earliest period for which we have manuscripts, where the name we presume to be 'Jesus' is apparently reduced to a two or sometimes three letter code. 

A lot of intelligent people have studied this phenomenon.  One of the most authoritative experts on this so-called 'nomen sacrum' or sacred name is Professor Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.  Now unlike my friend Rory, this scholar has shown nothing but disdain for me and my theory.  I mention this because the purveyors of sensational theories often times seem to stack the deck in their presentations to make it seem like everyone likes and agrees with their thesis.  So to make it plain - Hurtado doesn't like me and doesn't like my theory.

There is of course a back story to his personal animus toward me.   It may indeed be justified.  I don't know it is hard to claim any sort of objectivity about something we treasure as deeply as own being.  The bottom line is that he is an expert - perhaps even the expert on the phenomenon of so-called 'nomina sacra' (the plural form of the aforementioned 'nomen sacrum' = singular) and in truth I don't see his research as posing any harm against my theory.  In fact I will be drawing a great deal from the work of the Edinburgh professor.  His ideas will dominate the scope and complexion of the entire discussion which follows. 

For it has to be said at the outset that it would be impossible for Hurtado to concede even for a moment that the 'one Lord and one God' of Christianity was really named something other than Jesus.  Hurtado is a very religious man. He is a huge fan, with reservations, of Wilhelm Bousset, especially his book Kyrios Christos, (German, 1913; rev. ed. 1921, 1965; ET by John E Steely, Kyrios Christos: A History of the Belief in Christ from the Beginnings of Christianity to Irenaeus, 1970).   Hurtado's critique of the book could very well be repurposed as a criticism of his own work -  "Although Kyrios Christos has proved enduring in its influence, the book also reveals the time-bound situation of its author, particularly his own religious convictions of a now quaint, Old Liberal bent."  All you have to do is substitute the words "Old Evangelical" for "Old Liberal" and you have effectively nailed the 'problem' that most of us would have if we were to sit down and have a discussion with the Edinburgh professor.

His views about Jesus and his place in the world would seem extremely archaic and out of step with what we have learned to believe about Jesus.  I think 'arch-conservative' (or perhaps better 'neo-conservative') begin to allow us to understand his mindset.  But, once again, that doesn't necessarily mean that Hurtado is wrong.  In fact, the more conservative thinker - at least in theory - the closer we are likely to get to the spirit of early Christianity.

Indeed the thing that makes me one of the most bizarre commentators on early Christianity is the fact that I am quite partial to archaic mindsets.  I happen to think that they don't go far enough.  This is because - as we shall demonstrate shortly - it is fairly easy to demonstrate that a significance reworking of the religion's original message took place in the late second century.  Hurtado and others like him go back to the revisionist - a certain Irenaeus of Lyons - and go along with his claims to be the mouthpiece of the original tradition which went back directly to Jesus himself.  My view is that this isn't conservative enough.

Irenaeus is plainly lying about being faithful to the original principles of Christianity.  On every page of every thing that Irenaeus ever wrote there is this consistent key message - i.e. 'I am the guardian of truth' - but alongside it an unmistakable references to even earlier school of thought (or even 'schools of thought') which Irenaeus and his teacher Polycarp of Smyrna vehemently opposed.  Hurtado's conservative soul tells him that going back to Irenaeus is 'good enough'; I can't possibly go along with that because it's a lie.  Irenaeus can't be understood to be faithfully preserving the original truth when there are so many signs that he was engaged at the same time with a wholesale revision of the very tradition he is said to be upholding.

Because Irenaeus is lying about some of his claims of faithfulness, it is best to view him as an innovator in conservative clothing.  Indeed there could be no other way in antiquity.  Someone couldn't just come along and say 'I bring before you something wholly without precedent.'   Ancient religiosity demanded precedent.   Indeed it is not surprising that Irenaeus himself consistently vilifies his opponents as innovators and inventors away from Judaism - the established 'mother-religion' from which Christianity developed.  This was a tactic on the part of Irenaeus and not - as Hurtado and others have it - a demonstrable fact. 

One tradition in particular will be the focus of our investigation - the extremely well established and influential Roman tradition identified as 'Marcionitism' in the writings of the Church Fathers.  Marcion allegedly was a powerful shipowner who came to Rome and - according to the myths developed by men like Irenaeus - almost bought the true Church with their money and influence.  In many ways Marcion's religion would seem very agreeable to Professor Hurtado's worldview.  They were considered by the time of Irenaeus to be arch-conservatives, refusing to allow many of the new works Irenaeus was promoting into their canon of sacred writings.

Which texts did these early Christians accept into their very closed collection of holy books?  The answer emerges under cross examination when the so-called Scillitan martyrs are questioned by a proconsul c. 180 CE:

What are the things in your chest? Speratus [the martyr] said: Books and epistles of Paul, a just man. 

The steadfast devotion only to the writings of St Paul was an almost sure sign of heresy in Irenaeus's mind.  In Book Two of his Against Heresies he devotes an entire chapter to those who held an 'unhealthy' view of the perfection of this apostle.

We read - "with regard to those (the Marcionites) who allege that Paul alone knew the truth, and that to him the mystery was manifested by revelation, let Paul himself convict them, when he says, that one and the same God wrought in Peter for the apostolate of the circumcision, and in himself for the Gentiles."  Indeed those who study and attempt to piece together the original beliefs of the Marcionites are confronted with this passage and others like it end up finding themselves in the unenviable position of arguing against scripture.  For the Marcionites make clear - through second and third hand testimonies from men like Irenaeus that their original writings of Paul were changed by the orthodox. 

Modern scholarship has come along way in terms of at least trying to give voice to this Marcionite objection - everyone it would seem except Hurtado and his associates.  We shall be touching upon this work throughout our present investigation.  Nevertheless it is worth noting the main difference between Marcionites and the neo-Irenaean scholars like Hurtado.  Marcion only said that the founder of Christianity was wholly divine - i.e. was a god and had no mortality within him.  Hurtado, developing his understanding of truth from Irenaeus, argues for a mixed portrait of a man who was also god.  The 'Old Liberal' scholars whom Hurtado opposes want to squeeze out all the so-called 'historical' information about the man named Jesus out of the early material and basically ignore the divine claims of these sources.

As I just mentioned it is difficult for an arch-conservative such as myself not to admire much of Hurtado's efforts.  The undisputed Pauline letters certainly do use what scholars call 'high Christology' - that is the belief in Jesus as a god.  While Hurtado and others take the Pauline writings to be defined pretty much as we have them now (in other words basically ignoring the Marcionite question) even under these conditions it is difficult to avoid concluding that this 'high Christology' was already formed in the years preceding the tradition dating of the letters - i.e. 60 CE.  This makes the belief that Jesus was a god "really early" or indeed "really, really early."  Even without Marcion, Hurtado concludes that Paul's Christology may not have differed significantly from that of the earliest followers of Jesus (which we might date to 40 CE).  But here is where we run into a grave difficulty. 

For as Hurtado himself acknowledges, it is extremely difficult to believe that Jews living shortly after the crucifixion would have been willing to acknowledge a mortal man as God.  The Old Testament as it were, has specific warnings against doing exactly this - i.e. following a charmer or a sorcerer who makes such outlandish claims.  In fact the Marcionites specifically held that the Jews killed Jesus for this very reason and the claim that the founder of Christianity was a magician - that is, a man claiming to be a god through wonder-working - has echoed throughout literature ever since. 

Indeed, even though Hurtado is not likely to acknowledge the problem, it is the very familiar name Ἰησοῦς which poses the greatest obstacle for getting around this difficulty.  For 'Jesus' is clearly the name of mortal man.  It was only until very recently that human beings allowed themselves to adopt angel names (i.e. like Michael, Gabriel etc).  On the other side of the ledger, the Jewish divinities couldn't possibly have been imagined to use the names associated with human beings.  The closest we ever get to this is the recognition among Jews that the name Moses in Hebrew contains the very same letters as 'the Name' or His name (i.e. God's name).   Nevertheless it would be impossible for any Jew of any period to conceive of an important angelic being named Moses, Joshua or any of the other names of the patriarchs.

The closest we get to this once again is the example in the Pentateuch (i.e. the 'five books' of Moses) where Jacob wrestles with an angel and subsequently changes his name and according to tradition becomes the angel by taking his name i.e. Israel.  Yet this example serves to underscore our main point.  There is an important distinction between heavenly and earthly names.  Jews could not possibly have accepted the idea that a heavenly being named 'Joseph' or 'Jacob' or 'Joshua' could have ever existed in any period whatsoever. 

The traditional explanation of the two and three letter codes which identify the founder of Christianity might well be reflective of an orthodox in the mid to late second century to preserve the name Jesus with some mystical pomp and pageantry.  But then again, there might be a better explanation that Hurtado and others haven't even considered.  The original nomen sacrum - the letters iota and sigma (the Greek equivalents of our IS) - might simply have been an abbreviation of an established Jewish divine figure who was understood by the Marcionites sect and others to have come down from heaven.  

Again, the Jews of the time wouldn't necessarily have objected to a man-like being appearing in Jerusalem to warn them against the impending destruction of their beloved temple.  The real difficulty is in 'cutting and pasting' Hurtado's inherited faith - the tradition of Irenaeus - onto first century Jews with respect to the specific name Jesus.  Indeed, as many have noted before me, Hurtado seems to have a very active imagination of what Jews might be willing to entertain about a divine-like being such as the Christ!   Yet he is forced into this position because he won't allow for himself to abandon his inherited Irenaean assumptions - i.e. that Jesus was the name of his savior and that his savior was both mortal and immortal, man and God, born to a Virgin and the like. 

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.