Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Jesus: An Interesting & Well Documented Hoax

Cheryl texted me over the weekend:

Sitting in living room with roommate and friends…watching movie that claims the body of Jesus has been discovered.

Sunday evening another text:

Have you heard about the Jesus bloodline? What do you think?

I responded:

Yes! An interesting and well constructed hoax.

I love conspiracy theories. Take some iffy historical information and fill in the gaps with wild speculation. Next to UFO’s the alternate histories of Jesus are among my favorite conspiracy theories. I prefer the Jesus and Mary Magdalene version of Christianity even if it is most likely bogus. It simply paints a gentler version of the gospel message that is more palatable to the mythmaking part of my psyche and therefore more palatable to me as a whole.

I haven’t had a chance to speak directly with my friend. But, I am assuming that the movie she was talking about in her first text was James Cameron’s The Jesus Family Tomb. I haven’t seen the movie myself, but I did read the book based on the documentary by Simcha Jacobovici (one of the filmmakers on the project).

I found it fascinating that Jacobovici, who, I believe is an observant Jew, would be interested in the possibility of proving the existence of Jesus of Nazareth the part mythical and allegedly historical person behind the Christian religion. Throughout the book he took an objective tone discussing the possibility of discovering the remains of Jesus and left off theological ones. He comes across as a fair minded and inquisitive person who is seeking the truth to a perplexing historical question – was there a historical Jesus behind Christianity? But, he also appears to clearly believe that he and his team have touched the remains of Jesus. I remain doubtful.

Whether or not the documentary and subsequent book is based on good science and good archeological discipline I cannot comment. I have no credentials that would allow me to assess that. As a person with an untrained eye I find that it is especially important to remain skeptical and demand rigorous proof. As forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs suggests, it is difficult for average jurors to know the difference between legitimate and junk science. This is the attitude we need to take when evaluating information like this. Currently, the jury is still out. In the field of Christology there is a lot of junk science much of it coming from amateurs and self appointed prophets of the “real truth.” Let’s refer to this delusion as Eric Von Daniken Syndrome.

There are several problems with proving the historical existence of Jesus. The first being that given the intense emotional investment people have regarding Jesus and what he represents, even the truth itself (should we ever actually be in possession of it) would be subject to debunking. Jesus and the origins of Christianity is one of those subjects where people prefer their beliefs to the truth. As a recovering Catholic I was raised to believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore discovery of bones believed to be Jesus would jeopardize that basic tenet of faith. If there are bones then Jesus could not have physically ascended to heaven after rising from the dead.

As I progressed on the path to non-belief I spent some time believing that the physical resurrection of Jesus was not factual. The gospels, it seemed to me, were taking about a metaphorical or mystical experience. Today, I tend to view the story of Jesus death and resurrection as an element borrowed from the pagan mystery traditions of Egypt, Greece and Rome. They seem to me neither to be a real nor a mystical event. It is simply the wishful thinking of those who need to believe in something beyond this life. The resurrection of the body does not seem to be an element of Jewish religion. At least not as far as it was understood and practiced in first century Palestine.

I am not suggesting that the Jesus story of Christianity was pilfered from the ancient pagans directly as some of the more radical scholars and conspiracy theorists suggest. There are many who see the mythos of the Egyptian god Horus to be a near exact template to that of Christianity. But, that undervalues the richness of both mythical traditions. This type of thinking is often the work of those who have a beef against the established traditions of Christianity. That doesn’t dismiss the many similarities to be found in the mystery religions of Horus or even the Greek God Dionysus, to give another interesting example. But, it does not lend any real credibility to the shoddy thinking being bandied about in the popular press and media today. History may be written by the victors, but the losers protest loudly in denial and attempt to rewrite it.

If Jesus of Nazareth is a creation rather than a historical figure than it would seem that we need to look no farther than the so-called Teacher of Righteousness of the Essenes found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and other places. It seems that this person – most likely an anticipated messianic figure rather than an actual person – was the back story that the Apostle Paul drew upon when outlining his vision of what was to became the backbone of orthodox Christianity. Mainstream Christianity is largely Pauline in theological flavor and intent. Paul was still a Jewish man both culturally and by way of religious temperament regardless of the transformation from observant and righteous zealot to an apostate.

The biggest problem with proving the historical reality of Jesus is quite simple. We lack hard evidence. The lack of evidence does not mean non existence, but there is nothing we can point to directly that says, “Jesus was here.” The oldest Gospel, Mark, didn’t seem to get written until some 30 plus years after the event it claims to report. This is hardly a first hand account. It seems difficult to discern how much history is mixed with legend.

This is a problem with important figures in ancient history. Their biographies become embellished with legend. It’s as the Scottish wit, Thomas Carlyle quipped, “History – a distillation of rumor.” This is especially true it seems when dealing with figures such as warriors, prophets and other religious leaders. I believe it is fair to state that the Gospels were not intended to be accurate biography – although no doubt the writers may have believed it was – rather it was intended to convey a special religious message.

Scholars have long debated the existence of mythical lost gospels such as Gospel Q which they postulate is the source for the presently accepted Gospels of mainstream Christianity. They argue that there must be a collection of sayings or such that the writers of the 4 Gospel traditions had to have drawn on. Perhaps – Perhaps not.

It seems to me that Luke developed the themes found in Mark. Matthew seems to be penned by a Jewish Christian to a community of believing Jews (the real Judeo-Christians). The Gospel of John is the odd duck. In fact it is so odd in comparison to the three synoptic Gospels that it almost didn’t make it into the canon. It didn’t help that many of the Gnostic or Heterodox schools of early Christianity used John as a foundational text.

It has been observed that the Gospel of Thomas (often mistaken to be a Gnostic Gospel) may be the lost sayings gospel Q given that about 1/3 of it would be easily recognizable by readers of the New Testament texts. This does nothing to answer our question of the historical fact of Jesus. I agree with the opinion of the author of Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, who wrote, “The origins of Christianity are hidden in impenetrable obscurity” (Mead, P 121). What we are faced with is the hearsay of accepted tradition. Tradition is more often habit than anything else. We do it, say it or believe it because we always have.

I happen to believe that there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth. I base it not on hard evidence, but on my limited understanding of religion as we experience it in Western civilization. In other words I am inferring based on indirect evidence available but mostly on my limited understanding of Judaism as a messianic religion. This requires a person to elevate.

Religions seem to have their beginnings as cults of personality. A charismatic teacher or prophet appears on the scene and delivers a message of hope to the disaffected and of coming punishment and damnation to the privileged. Historical figures that we know to exist such as Mohammad and Joseph Smith fit this description. It matters not whether the prophet is truthful, delusional or fraudulent as the case with Joseph Smith (who may have been both delusional and fraudulent). All that matters is that enough people gather around them and accept their teaching.

It seems logical that there was a charismatic teacher who bore the name Jesus or Yeshua in the 1st century of Palestine who managed to amass a following. Judaism is a religion based on the promise of a messiah who will liberate the captive nation of Israel every bit as much as it is a body of law and ethical codes of conduct. In the Gospel of Matthew the high priests are depicted as showing concern over the authenticity of Jesus’ teachings. They were concerned that the disciples might spirit away the body of Jesus making it appear as if the beloved rabbi really resurrected. In their mind this would make Jesus “worse than the last one.”

This Jesus would not have been the first prophet or Messiah to have gathered a crowd of followers. The history of Judaism is lousy with such figures – even today. It’s just that its louder offshoots Christianity and Islam upstage them. The historian Josephus is thought to have lamented the messianic quality of Judaism and blamed it, in part, for the sacking of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. After all it was this zealous messianic that leads to the civil uprising that eventually spelled the end of the nation of Israel until 1947.

Based on this alone it is – I believe – safe to assume that there was a historical Jesus at the beginning. The other argument is, as alluded to above, the work of histories losers or those who have issue with Christianity. Their alternate stories have the same evidentiary problem as the traditional story and in some cases even more. There is a lot of comingling of the legends and myths of pre-Christian Europe as is definitely the case with the Holy Grail story or San Graal (royal bloodline) that many favor. Most of this is wishful thinking or the residual elements of nature based pre-Christian belief systems that existed prior to Christianity’s assault on the world. It is amusing to note that those who tout these alternate histories are quick to point to the cult of the Egyptian god Horus while ignoring their own mythological templates.

The real question is not did Jesus exist, but rather, is the Jesus of the Christian religion – the risen Christ of Paul real? On that I believe we can offer a resounding no. This Jesus reads more like mythology. He was not the first God man to have purportedly walked the earth. There were others born of the seed of a god and from the womb of a human woman. The mythic history of humanity is filled with miracles workers and healers. Even the virgin birth is not entirely unique to Christianity. This Jesus is an archetype, although I have been recently told that the Jungian notions of universal archetypes have been discredited.

The challenge to Jesus’ followers came upon his execution. His ignoble death upon a tree (cross) made him an “abomination” to the Lord according to the Torah. He did not meet the criteria for the messiah. By these standards he is a failed Messiah. For those that did not fall away and still clung to hope and belief, what could the death of Jesus mean? We might reasonably expect the more educated followers of Jesus to pore through the Jewish religious texts looking for a way to validate their version of the truth. We certainly see people take liberties with scripture today doing the very same thing using the texts to fit their concept of the truth and vice versa.

Then there is Paul. The apostle himself will need more space then we can use here to address his part in the Christian story. As noted above his theological vision forms much of what is the backbone of mainstream Christianity even in this post modern era. He is somewhat of a problem for me. For many years as I rode the fence between belief and non-belief he was the lone figure that kept me from completely throwing in the towel. We know that he was a zealous observer of the traditions of the Judaism of his time. He was an equally zealous persecutor of the fledgling Judeo-Christian cult. He was present at the stoning of the martyr Stephen and acted as something of a “coat check” boy for the event. He was on his way to Damascus to serve “arrest warrants” on certain Jewish Christians when something occurred that changed the course of his life and, dare I say, history.

Those familiar with the story depicted in the Acts of the Apostles know that on his way to Damascus he was struck from his horse by a blinding flash of light. This light left him physically blind as well for several days until a Christian healer put his hands on Paul’s eyes. While Paul was lying on the ground in shock he heard a voice ask, “Paul why do you persecute me.”

Paul learns that it is the voice of Jesus the Risen Christ or the Holy Spirit that asks him this question. This experience begins a ten year journey of faith and a sojourn into Arabia as he puzzles out what this all means. At first he could scarcely believe what he experienced himself. The Twelve were even more skeptical and remained quite cautious of him at first. Given Paul’s, then still Saul, reputation at the time this skepticism is quite understandable.

Many critics of Pauline Christianity point to the fact that Paul never knew the historical Jesus and yet literally designed the religion. But, the historical flesh and blood Jesus was not the issue for Paul. It was the Risen Christ whom he encountered on the road to Damascus that was the issue. Since it was obvious that the flesh and blood Jesus was not going to deliver a military and political victory to Israel then it must be a uniquely spiritual victory that underpinned the life and death of the late miracle worker.

Did Paul contemplate the traditions surrounding him in an attempt to reconcile his experience with Judaism? Was Paul an unstable person? Given his extreme zealotry my thought is yes. There appears to be no real softening of Paul simply a slide from one extreme to another. The ascetic quality of the Epistle to the Romans further cements this view.

Eyewitness testimony in the New Testament text is not verifiable and at this point amounts to nothing more than hearsay. The unreliability of eyewitnesses has been well established for years. We also have the troubling problem of the Deutero-Pauline tradition which indicates that not all of the texts attributed to the apostle were actually written by him.

What emerges is the story of a delusional if not near psychotic religious zealot and the potential manufacturing of a religious tradition. Religions in the great monotheistic traditions of the desert thrive due to massive political machinery. In fact politics may well be the lynch pin of monotheism.

Next: St. Paul the Apostate

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