Tag Archives: Gospels

Not So Gnostic

A certain, amorphous indignation comes over those of us trained in history when we encounter abuses of the same. In my case, some thought me conservative when I argued in my first book that Asherah as Yahweh’s wife wasn’t nearly the slam dunk some scholars were making it out to be. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to see Yahweh as happily married as the next deity, but it was a matter of the evidence being weak and not thoughtfully examined. That is to say, I sympathize—maybe even empathize—with Philip Jenkins. His book, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, is an historical dressing down of many in the New Testament scholarly community who’ve perhaps let a bit of historical rigor slip in order to understand the world of early Christianity.

You see, once upon a time, scholars took the Gospels as, well, the gospel truth. Contradictions were simply harmonized or glossed over. When newer ancient material began to be discovered, however, adjustments had to be made. Perhaps the “orthodox” story of Christian origins wasn’t the only option available. In the twentieth century some spectacular manuscript finds were made, including the “library” of Nag Hammadi—largely Gnostic—and the Dead Sea Scrolls. New understandings of early Christianity were possible when these texts were considered. Some scholars engineered sweeping theories about revolutionary ideas concerning Jesus and his buds. Jenkins laments the lack of historical precision that many of these reconstructions demonstrate, and he comes across as somewhat annoyed.

Sensationalism, as we all know, sells publications and gets presidents elected. We all like a good story. In the case of Jesus, this means that the reconstructions of scholars often challenge traditional views, and popular publications love it. Jenkins finds it distasteful. Although this book is well written, as all of Jenkins’ material tends to be, it probably doesn’t do his arguments any favor to have retained the tired trope of heresy. Heresy means nothing without a supernatural bias, something that historians must avoid. Heresy, after all, assumes that one and only one version is correct (orthodox) and the four Gospels demonstrate that such a simple dichotomy is more difficult to sustain than it might appear to be. Yes, the Gnostic texts may not be as early as the traditional Gospels, but the ideas may have been circulating from near the beginning. We know surprisingly little about Jesus, so it’s not unexpected that rumors would’ve flown, even in antiquity. A solid source of information on some of the early “other gospels,” Jenkins’ book serves as a useful reminder that history is almost never as simple as it seems it should be.

When under Rome

ZealotA question that has no answer: who was Jesus of Nazareth? Well, no single answer, anyway. When Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth came out, there was uproar. (Something, by the way, that publishers love.) How could someone suggest that not only do the Gospels disagree, but that they’re not even literal when they do? For those of us who’ve studied the Bible academically, there’s nothing too surprising here. Aslan’s perspective is often refreshing, even if he makes some basic errors (those of us who study the Hebrew Bible are pretty forgiving). For me, having the social circumstances of the New Testament spelled out in terms of the intense unrest of the first century explained a lot. It was a period of unremitting violence and frustration on the part of those coming to grips with life under Rome. Jesus was born and came of age when any outré idea could easily get you crucified. When it happened in his case, it was, as the Gospels point out, fully expected.

What might bother many readers is that Aslan doesn’t accept the story at face value. Jesus wasn’t unique as a healer, revolutionary, or messiah in first-century Palestine. In fact, Rome’s appointed rulers grew tired of such sons of gods that thousands of people were nailed up to warn others of the costs. Still, unlike the others, Jesus remained in contention even after his death. The belief in the resurrection didn’t hurt. Since Aslan is writing history, he can’t judge whether the resurrection or the healings actually took place. The traditions, he notes, are strong. He is surely correct that the Gospels aren’t attempting history. Written well after Christianity was already established, the writers had theological templates at their disposal. Not only that, they also had Paul.

Something I’d never considered was the dispute between Paul and the Jerusalem church. Yes, I’d noticed the stark contradictions between the letters of Paul and the one of James, but seeing the underlying conflict of those who knew Jesus personally (James, Peter, John) and Paul just never occurred to me. Paul doesn’t dote over the historical Jesus. His Jesus is divine from the start, and those who try to preserve Jesus’ words get in the way of the theology he’s developing. His letters express anger at those who teach what Jesus said over who he was, spiritually, anyway. Only with the destruction of Jerusalem was the way cleared for Paul’s gentile Christianity that eventually won out over Jesus’ teachings. It’s all very interesting, but I can’t buy it all. There are too many convenient connections here, and history abhors neatness. Nevertheless, Zealot is well worth reading. It tells an old story from a new perspective. And even if your Jesus is different from Aslan’s you’ll find something profound here that will only make your image stronger.

Pauline Resurrection

271px-Bartolomeo_Montagna_-_Saint_Paul_-_Google_Art_ProjectPaul is dead. Has been since the first century. In biblical studies, however, he is undergoing a kind of resurrection. Studies of Paul are coming thick and fast, with many claiming, with some justification, that Christianity was his invention. Biblical scholars have long realized, however, that many New Testament letters do not come from Paul. Some never made that claim (Hebrews), while others seemed to have played on the popularity of the epistle genre and added Paul’s name to gain authority. Or maybe they were written by somebody else called Paul. Far more intriguing to me is the fact that in the authentic Pauline letters, the apostle from Tarsus mentions other letters he wrote that were not preserved. This should strike no one as unusual; would Luke’s grocery list have been preserved as scripture if it had been found? Probably not. Still, these missing letters do raise an issue that might crinkle brows with thought. What have we been missing?

Paul, like other scripture writers, had no idea he was writing “the Bible.” In fact, the Bible is one of the most obviously cobbled together holy books in world history. It is inspiration by committee. We have known for many many decades that there were other Gospels, for example. Some scholars treat the Gospel of Thomas as canonical, while others have reconstructed Q down to chapter and verse. The Hebrew Bible cites some of its sources that have gone missing. Some of the existent biblical books in their current state are obviously somewhat garbled. An imperfect scripture. And I’m wondering what Paul might have written in those missing letters.

The process of constructing a Bible has been examined time and again by scholars. Mostly they accept the material we have to work out some scheme of how Christianity decided “thus far and no further” and these books only will be Bible. Isn’t there, however, a problem when we know that other bits of parchment were floating around out there with the apostolic stamp of approval? What if Paul changed his mind over time? His current letters, the ones that survive, aren’t always consistent. It’s the job of exegetes to try to tell us what Paul really meant, but the fact is we know that this founder of Christianity sent more advice to more people and nobody bothered to keep a copy. Those bits that were preserved are not systematic or comprehensive, making me wonder just how solid a foundation a theology built on such small bits might have. Nobody, it seems, wrote a life of Jesus in real time. It took a couple decades at least before people started to sketch out his life’s story and teachings. By then Paul had already been killed. His letters, slowly gathered over time, formed a nucleus of a faith that grew to be the world’s largest. And, despite all that, we don’t know what he fully said. And we never will.


ChristMythTheoryEither there was, or there wasn’t. An historical Jesus, I mean. I just finished reading Robert M. Price’s The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems, and I have to admit that it raises some interesting points. In short, Price positions himself among the Christ Myth school—scholars who doubt that there was an historical Jesus. This proposition may come as a shock to many who are raised never to question the orthodoxy of religion handed down from parent to child. Given the popularity of Christianity worldwide, it may seems like a difficult premise to accept. Price suggests that the figure of Jesus might’ve been a midrash (commentary) on Hebrew Bible texts. When you look closely at many of the Gospel episodes, they are couched in language from the Hebrew Bible, and for those familiar with ancient midrash, the elaborations he proposes aren’t that far-fetched. The real question, for me, is a bit more broadly based—how do we ever know what really happened? Religions, as I suggested yesterday, are echoes from the past. The past, despite the internet, is inaccessible to us beyond what ambitious writers and artisans have left behind for us. The bulk of making history is interpretation.

This should give us pause. Yes, there are undeniable events, witnessed and recorded by many. What really happened, however, is an atomistic enterprise. Take Lincoln’s assassination, for example. It happened, we’re pretty sure. What happened, we reconstruct from what we have left for us in witness accounts. But as National Treasure 2 shows, a little imagination can throw the whole picture askew. Or even closer to our own time—what really happened at John F. Kennedy’s assassination? Some of the facts we have, others we never will. Some posit high-level withholding of information. Try to put that together with a truly messianic figure that some claim is actually divine. The Gospels differ a bit on the details, particularly after Jesus’ execution. What really happened? A harmonization of the Gospels? Anything at all? Who was there to see it?

Religions are deeply tied to past events. Even the modern religions that are constantly emerging—new ones are formed on a nearly daily basis—soon distinguish themselves because of their histories. To get at those histories that we didn’t witness, we need to rely on the records of those who did. Some of those religions just won’t take off—the Shakers, for example, are slowing going extinct. The Oneida Community is already gone. Others, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, scrape the stratosphere with their success. And these are just examples of religions from the Second Great Awakening. Did Joseph Smith really meet all those figures he claimed? How can we know? When it comes to Jesus, we might think we’re on solid ground (as Smith would agree, if he existed). Price asks us to consider that assumption anew. Direct evidence may not be plentiful, but on the strength of ancillary evidence, most of us see Jesus as historical. Of his life we have very little. What you make of him, however, is a question of faith. And interpretation.

Whence Jesus?

Either he did, or he didn’t. Exist, that is. Jesus of Nazareth, I mean. When a friend sent me a link to a conference on proof of the non-existence of Jesus, I had to look. Such claims have been made before, but new documents are being found all the time and I supposed that I had been too busy commissioning books on religion to find out what was happening in religion. After all, the Gospel of Judas emerged, reversing, for a while, the idea of Judas’ good-guy/bad-guy polarity. A Coptic fragment suggested Jesus had been married. Maybe something new had come along. The story on PR Web announces that Joseph Atwill will unveil his new discovery later this month, proving that Jesus did not exist. While the article doesn’t give too many specifics (why would anybody come to the conference if it did?), the initial hype seems overblown. The gist of it is that the Romans invented a peaceful messiah to try to calm the foment to rebellion that constantly plagued the borders of the empire. Is he onto something?

Perhaps what Atwill has unwittingly stumbled onto is the truth that proof derived from ancient written documents is notoriously difficult to verify. Historians have criteria for determining whether ancient documents are “historical” or not. Their methods, while not foolproof, have rescued some great lights of human thought from the netherworld of fiction: Socrates, Solomon, and Gilgamesh, a shaky consensus holds, were historical characters. Of course, each of them has their detractors. No one is perhaps as contentious as Jesus of Nazareth, although, all things considered, his historical place is fairly secure. The Gospels are not eyewitness accounts. Paul seems to have been misinformed on some points. No authentic, contemporary documents describe Jesus. If, however, he was an obscure figure until some thirty years after his death, we would not wonder at such lack of attestation.

What does it mean to be a historical person? I used to pose this to my students. Each of us in the classroom knows we exist. There are records to prove it. How many of us, however, will make it into the history books? After the zombie apocalypse occurs, and civilization collapses, written records may be destroyed. Are we, Guy Montag-like, destroyed with our papers? Historical existence is something determined by others long after we are gone. Most of us don’t stand a chance of making it into the twenty-second-century’s history books. We simply will have been. But what of Mr. Atwill’s proof? Well, we don’t have it yet. Even if he has a letter from Caesar Augustus or Tiberius saying “let’s make up a story of a baby born in a manger,” it is pretty certain that the historical importance of Jesus will remain secure. If you can drive through any one-horse town in this country without finding a church of some kind or another, perhaps I may be wrong. In another century or so, I won’t be in the history books, but I will be history.

Come listen to a story 'bout a man named Josh... (photo credit Ricardo André Frantz, WikiCommons)

Come listen to a story ’bout a man named Josh… (photo credit Ricardo André Frantz, WikiCommons)

When in Rome

69ADMost biblical scholars know that the synoptic Gospels began to take their rough shape around 70 C.E. Many middle school children have heard stories of the Romans, in their bullying way, putting Christians in the arenas to be savaged by wild beasts. It would take a precocious child, or adult for that matter, to recognize that in 69 C.E., Rome went through four emperors. I found Gwyn Morgan’s 69 A.D.: The Year of Four Emperors quite informative, not having be a precocious child (or adult). The times I’ve taught New Testament courses I have found myself fascinated by the stern and stoic culture that the Romans constructed. Maybe it is because I see so much of our own society in it. Maybe it is because the New Testament is much easier to understand with a basic grasp of the early Roman Empire.

Early in his historical account, Morgan makes a salient point. I had to stop and consider the implications of it. Going over the sources for the reigns of Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and early Vespasian, mainly Tacitus, Morgan reveals the truth of history: it is story. Romans measured the value of an historian not only by getting the facts right; literary artistry was, in many respects, even more important than dry facts. What might this mean for the Gospels? Anyone who has actually read the Gospels knows they hold some obvious contradictions, some subtle, some not. In a culture that understands the Bible as “history,” in the modern sense, many believers kick their brains into overtime to harmonize discrepancies so that we can have, as Sergeant Friday would say, “just the facts.” But the Gospels, like Roman historians, are telling a story. There is some license here. After all, none of the writers were likely eyewitnesses of the events they describe.

The events of 69 also help to explain the frustrations that the Romans would so unkindly take out on the early Christians. The calm, logical world of reason and the force of law had repeatedly broken down (as they will), perhaps most spectacularly just as the Gospels were being written. Threats and fears of a total societal collapse whipped the Romans into a froth of intolerance. Those who threatened to rock the ship of state could be cast to the sharks, to adapt the metaphor. New religions with new gods don’t mix in a state where the old gods appear to have fled. Indeed, I couldn’t help but get the feeling, as I was reading about ancient history, that I was reading about things not so very long ago. Fear brings out religious conservatism in just about any society. The juxtaposition of the Gospels’ composition with Rome’s period of great stress might just be one of those metaphors that we can still use to explain how a rational civilization loses its grip on what’s really real. And that’s true in any age.

And Then There Were None

Whatever happened to evil? There was a time—when I was being reared in a conservative, evangelical, Republican household—that certain kinds of behavior were considered evil. And not all of them took place in the bedroom. Some of the most blatant acts of evil included using others for your own advantage, putting yourself first, and valuing things above people. Somewhere in the decades that I’ve been alive, all of that has changed—from a politician’s eye-view, anyway. Now that we’re in what’s passing for winter, some days are decidedly chilly. Seeing the homeless hunkered down in the Port Authority Bus Terminal (where there is even an organized, charitable group that tries to help them out), or sitting on subway vents to catch some of the warm air, or shivering on a street corner day after day, I wonder where the evil has gone.

In the neo-evangelical world of cheap prosperity and cheap family values, the name of Jesus gets bandied about like an over-inflated beach-ball. Many who utter his name obviously don’t read his life story. According to the Gospels, Jesus spent his adult life as a homeless wanderer who was particularly sympathetic to the poor. He doesn’t refer to them as evil, but he does have very harsh words for the privileged establishment. Such words harsh the euphoria built upon our own self-importance. As I see the homeless in the winter’s chill, it occurs to me that their lifestyle is much closer to that of Jesus than is the that of the executive who works 33 floors above them. Their demands on life are minimal. Their stares should make us uncomfortable.

And yet, look at those running for office. The amount of money they spend to make each other look bad is obscene. They try to make themselves look righteous for the Tea Party crowd, but their assets weigh them down. I shiver for the homeless. I shiver when I see the news about the ultra-wealthy bragging about who can dig up the most mud. Most of them would have no idea which end of the shovel to use. I’m afraid that having grown up in a modest setting has forever biased me against posers and average guy wannabes. I’ve had jobs that have involved shovels, sledgehammers, and hard scrubbing. The average person struggles and shivers sometimes. The average person spends some time on his or her knees and sometimes ends up on the ground. And even though the average person falls down more than our shining leaders, we never get quite so dirty. Politicians don’t sling the mud at us. To be honest, I think they don’t even see us.

The son of man has no place to lay his head