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The monthly newsletter of the Internet Infidels


April 1999, Vol. 4, No. 4

The monthly newsletter of the Internet Infidels

In this issue:

"Hands that help are better far than lips that pray" --Robert Ingersoll


the wire
Mike Koller wires you into news affecting freethinkers everywhere. Get wired.

What's New on the Secular Web?

Added a book reviews page to the creationism section of the Modern Library

Added Massimo Pigliucci author page, Professor, Departments of Botany and of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Upcoming Events

  • The Craig-Price Debate, "Did Jesus of Nazareth Rise from the Dead?" April 16, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA.
  • Michael Shermer Lecture, "Why Do People Believe Weird Things?" April 20, 6:00 p.m., University Center 124A, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, CO, USA. Contact Joe DeSantiago at <jdesanti> or call (719) 633-1094.


Book of the Month

ImageExistentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature

By Iris Murdoch

In tribute to philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch, who died last month after a prolific writing career, we chose an anthology of her work as the book of the month for April. Collected here for the first time in one volume are Iris Murdoch's most influential pieces, spotlighting her brilliance as an essayist and critic. Included are her influential critiques of existentialism, written in the fifties, and her two Platonic dialogues on art and religion; incisive evaluations of T.S. Elliot, Gabriel Marcel, Sartre, Elias Canetti, Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Weil, and Camus; and key texts on the continuing importance of the sublime, the concept of love, and literature's role in curing the ills of philosophy. Existentialists and Mystics traces the genesis of one of the most impassioned intellects of our time - and her journey toward Platonism and the practical mysticism that permeates her novels.

Hardcover - 576 pages 1st Amer Ed edition (January 1998)


Web Scan

Helping you to sip from the information firehose

Each month mathew dredges the bottom of the net to bring to you strange religious claims, flim-flam schemes, pop-culture memes gone awry, and the downright superstitious. This month, mathew asks if we need a new calendar, explores the madness of Stanley Kubrick, and ponders over Atheists for Jesus. Can your browser handle the upgrade to web.scan? Give it a try at <URL:https://infidels.org/infidels/web.scan/1999/scan04.html>.


Internet Infidel Supporter Gerd Lüdemann Defends Book

Daniel O'Hara

A most intriguing event took place at the University of London Institute of Education on 18 November under the auspices of the SCM Press. The occasion was the recent publication of The Great Deception, the latest book from the prolific German specialist in New Testament and early Christianity, Gerd Lüdemann, who was there to outline and defend his views. The debate was chaired by the television producer and presenter, Roger Bolton, whose two programmes about Lüdemann's views will shortly be screened by Channel 5. The other participants included three British theological veterans; Morna D. Hooker, a former London and Cambridge professor; Dennis Nineham, distinguished Oxford scholar and author of the groundbreaking Penguin commentary on Mark's Gospel; and Geza Vermes, the former Catholic priest and a Dead Sea Scrolls expert who returned to his Jewish roots and wrote three important books on the Jewishness of Jesus. Also on the panel was A.N.Wilson , the biographer, novelist and author of best-selling books on Jesus and Paul.

Lüdemann outlined the "criteria of authenticity and inauthenticity" he adopts when analysing the NT data for genuine and later traditions. he set aside: sayings and acts of Jesus which refer to events after the resurrection; incidents where natural laws are broken; and material clearly addressed to a later community or a Gentile audience. Several others agreed these were useful guides, but if used inflexibly became too like a straitjacket. It was important to remember, they stressed, that the data had been processed and recombined over a long period before reaching its present state, so one could not confidently extract single strands and label them 'early' or 'late' in simplistic fashion.

Lüdemann argued that Jesus did not see himself as a "saviour," nor did he rise from the dead: these were later claims made on his behalf by his followers. There are thus essential dichotomies between the Church and scholarship, faith and reason, revelation and history. How, them is the teacher of theology to deal wit this dilemma? Bultmann, he said, believed much the same as he does about historicity, but had resolved the dilemma by claiming that Jesus did indeed rise: not physically, but into the Kerygma, the proclamation of the Church. Lüdemann finds this evasive and unsatisfactory. he wants to know what really happened between Good Friday and Easter Day. Did the disciples steal the body--a view associated with the eighteenth-century rationalist, H.S.Reimarus? Not very likely, but much more so than Mark's story of the empty tomb. Matthew, indeed, further claims that the authorities knew Jesus had risen from the dead, and been seen by the soldiers placed as guards over the tomb who were then bribed to deny it. A fantastic story, indeed: but this, says Lüdemann, is "the great deception," and it is one perpetrated by the Church.

Lüdemann has what some would call a touching faith that the truth can be recovered by a careful, scientific study of the sources. Several of his critics retorted that 'the truth; is not to be located solely in what Jesus actually did, said and thought--even if that could be recovered--but also in what the Church made of him. This form of "critical orthodoxy" as we might call it, which was well exemplified at the debate by Morna Hooker and to a lesser extent by Nineham, considered that after criticism has done its best (or its worst) there is still a considerable feather-bed of faith for the Christian to sink back into. Nineham, now in his anecdotage, quoted approvingly from the end of a work by his mentor, R.H.Lightfoot, in which, like Schweitzer in the final paragraph of The Quest for the Historical Jesus, he sets aside scholarship to embrace piety. This just will not do for Lüdemann, any more than it would do for D.F. Strauss, or - with due modesty - for me.

Vermes stressed that the material had gone through many stages, including linguistic and cultural translation, and that a better criterion for historicity is: would the material have made sense to a first-century Jewish audience? If not, we can consider it inauthentic. He regards Jesus as a charismatic exorcist healer, a preacher, a teacher and eschatological enthusiast, of which several are known in first-century Judea and Galilee. He considers Paul, not Jesus, the inventor of Christianity.

A.N. Wilson confessed he now feels much less concerned about questions of historicity than when he wrote his Jesus book. He now believes we should stop looking for the chimerical Jesus of history, and accept that Jesus is above all a cultural icon, "a collective work of art" forged through the centuries of Christian devotion and imagination. Naturally, Lüdemann is not impressed by this approach. He wants to know historical truth. he regards Jesus as an exorcist, citing Luke 11:14-20 and parallels as authentic confirming evidence. he does not go quite as far as Morton Smith, who frankly designates Jesus as a magician and provides massive supporting evidence for this view.

But even "exorcist" was too much for Morna Hooker, who prefers to think of Jesus as a "prophet," an epithet blissfully free of any suggestion of trickery or other distasteful connotations. She regards the faith of the evangelists as part of the evidence that NT scholars should take seriously. She refused to write off the possibility that Jesus had truly risen from the dead, claiming that we cannot know that he didn't. At this point I interjected that, by the same coin, we cannot know that Pinnochio did not come to life, or that Elvis is not still alive; but most of us agree that in rejecting both possibilities we have reason on our side.

In the light of Morna Hooker's persistent evasions, I suggested that she had sidestepped the question of whether the resurrection was something that happened to Jesus or to the disciples. While me might reasonably accept that some, at least, of the first disciples genuinely believed that they had experiences of the risen Jesus, they may well have been deluded. This seemed to me rather more likely than that they had all engaged in deliberate deception.

A further question raised in the debate concerned the disparity between what critical scholars know and what clergy are expected to preach. Most it seems feel that they must maintain a deception, or at least be economical with the truth, when addressing "the faithful" Morna Hooker dissented, saying that preachers could use what scholarship had delivered without fear: but it was pointed out that when the West Sussex clergyman, Anthony Freeman, had done just this a few years ago, he had been sacked for his trouble by the Bishop of Chichester. Others recalled that in earlier times both the Catholic Loisy and Protestant Strauss had been virtually destroyed by the Church for their candour.

It was a pity that time ran out before the issue of whether one needs to be a believer to teach theology could be debated. Lüdemann has just been dismissed for his post at Goettingen for his outspokenness, and several American and German publishers have dropped him like a hot potato. It is greatly to the credit of the SCM Press, and its Managing Editor John Bowden, who received a round of well-deserved applause at the end of the evening, that they have stuck with him throughout.

Judging from the enthusiastic audience of around 200, there are still many who value pioneering scholarship and fearless debate on the origins of Christianity, and who are rightly alarmed at the recrudescence of a militant fundamentalism. But surely they are a dwindling minority. My hunch is that there will be an increasing polarisation among the few who can still be bother with such things - between blinkered credulity and clear-eyed atheism. And I suspect that Lüdemann still has a further step to take. At least, the sort of critical orthodoxy represented by Morna Hooker, for which nothing of real significance appears to have happened in theology in the last thirty years, no longer seems a valid option.

[Reprinted with permission of the New Humanist edited by Jim Herrick.]


Secular Humanist Scholarship Established

College of Charleston Mathematics Professor Dr. Herb Silverman has contributed funds to establish a new student scholarship at the school.

Dr. Silverman, who has taught at the College of Charleston since 1976, has created the Silverman Secular Humanist Scholarship to recognize and encourage students who are secular humanists. "Secular humanism encourages critical thinking," said Silverman, "and an academic institution like the College of Charleston is a most appropriate place for young people to continue to develop that habit."

Students may apply for the Silverman Scholarship on the basis of academic merit and financial need. They must also demonstrate an interest in ethical and moral behavior, not on the basis of a religious system of reward and punishment, but from a rational humanist point of view. A faculty committee will select the recipient. The scholarship is renewable provided the recipient maintains a 3.0 or higher grade point average, full time student status, and continues to consider him/herself a secular humanist.

Applications can be obtained from the College's Admissions and Financial Assistance offices and from Dr. Hugh Wilder, Chair, Department of Philosophy. Write to these offices at the College of Charleston, 66 George St., Charleston, SC 29424.


Holy Men Work Miracles in Indian Villages

Several hundred villagers in northern India watch entralled as a long haired sadhu, or holy man, dressed in saffron robes, draws ash out of thin air, explodes huge stones with "mental power" and turns water into blood.

Captivated by his supernatural deeds - an offering to the gods to bring prosperity to the village in the state of Haryana, 130 km from the national capital New Delhi, and ward off the evil eye - the simple folk want to give generously to the "divine power" facing them. But as the awe-struck audience members reach into the pockets, the holy man whips off his saffron robes to reveal himself as the local college science teacher. He then repeats his performance, except this time showing his audience how he achieved the "miracles" through sleight of hand and a few chemicals.

Such events are part of the movement launched by the Indian Rationalist Association across 18 of India's 25 states to expose thousands of "godmen" who deprive village folk of large sums of money after impressing them with "supernatural acts".

"Charlatans have a strong hold on villagers and exploit their fears with feats that are a matter of elementary chemistry," said spokesman Sanal Edamaruku, at the Rationalist Association headquarters in New Delhi. He said association volunteers had visited thousands of villages across the country for more than two years, demystiying "miracles" simply by telling people how they were performed. The association claimed its campaign had led to villagers in several states stoning holy men and chasing them away.

Association members said standard tricks used by the holy men included setting objects alight through "mind energy", eating glass, walking on fire, piercing their flesh with a steel trident and even levitation. One trick that never fails to inspire awe is a small explosion caused by sprinkling "holy drops" on a stone, achieved all too easily by pouring water on scattered sodium crystals. Similarly, setting fire to candle and piles of dry grass through "mental power" is executed by using chemicals that ignite on exposure to sunlight. Piercing the body, on the other hand, is done with specially built tridents bent at strategic points to give the impression of deep penetration. Walking on fire, swallowing ground glass, producing ash out of air and levitation can all be executed through combination of chemicals, craftly erected apparatus and deft manipulation.

"These holy men have a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry," said a Rationalist Association activist."And, with their flowing beards and flamboyant robes," he added, "they created an ambience of mystique and magic for simple rural folk, which scared them into parting with their money."

The association whose membership has swelled to 86,000, was launched in the late 1940s by a clutch of scientists and intellectuals in the southern states of India. Over the years, however, it has spread across the country. All of its activists are volunteers and it is funded by donations.

[Peter Hanna, Editor of The Rationalist News, Australia wrote this article. Reprinted with permission from the International Alliance Against Fundamentalism published by the Indian Rationalist Association.]


The Historical Jesus

Jesus was a Jew who lived in a peasant society in the decades leading up to the First Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE. The Jewish people groaned under the yoke of Rome's colonial oppression. The earliest layers of New Testament (NT) material concerning Jesus suggests that he was both a miracle-worker and a wisdom teacher. By being declared a king (or perhaps declaring himself a king) Jesus was found guilty of treason against the Emperor. The fifth Roman procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, crucified Jesus sometime during his ten-year appointment that began in 26 CE and lasted until his forced removal from office in 36 CE.

Josephus (37-100 CE) is our primary source for the history of first-century Palestine. He was born Joseph ben Matthias into a priestly Hasmonean family, but after he became a Roman citizen he adopted the emperor's name, Flavius. Flavius Josephus spent some time with the Pharisees, Essenes and, for three years, was a disciple of an ascetic teacher name Banus (Life, 2). During the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 CE), he led an army against the Romans but in 67 CE was captured in Galilee by the Roman general Vespasian. Josephus impressed Vespasian and, when in 69 CE Vespasian became emperor, he released Josephus from prison. After Jerusalem fell in 70 CE, Josephus returned to Rome and began writing the history of the Jewish people. His two major works are The Wars of the Jews (c. 75 CE) and The Antiquities of the Jews (c. 95 CE).

Josephus is considered important for historical Jesus research because his writings focus on the socio-political events that occurred during Jesus' life. Interestingly, Josephus writes about John the Baptist's teachings at great length (Antiquities, 18.5.2), but tells us very little about Jesus and his ministry. In a much-contested passage of the Antiquities, the following passage (without the Christian interpolations) is what scholars generally agree Josephus writes about Jesus:

Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man . . . . For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. . . . When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. . . . And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared (18.3.3).

Even though Josephus tells us very little, we can still discern a few very important things about Josephus' portrayal of Jesus. Jesus was a wisdom teacher. This is an especially important attestation of the Q gospel's portrayal of Jesus. Also, Josephus is aware of the pejorative term "Christian" (messiah-followers) and refers to them as "so called" Christians because, as a Jew, Josephus did not believe Jesus to be the messiah. The Roman historians Tacitus (Annals 15.44) and Seutonius (Lives of the Caesars 6.16) use the term Christian in a pejorative sense and we learn from 1 Peter 4:14-16 that the term was used derogatorily against Jesus' followers while they were persecuted.

Other than Josephus, the only other historian that seems to mention the historical Jesus is Tacitus (56 CE-117 CE). In his Annals he writes:

The founder of this sect, Christus, was given the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator, Pontius Pilate; suppressed for the moment, the detestable superstition broke out again, not only in Judea where the evil originated, but also in [Rome], where everything horrible and shameful flows and grows (15.44).

Most historicists believe that Tacitus and Josephus provide reliable extra-biblical historical evidence for the view that there existed a historical Jesus. However, our feature article, written by Earl Doherty, argues convincingly that this conclusion is presumptuous and that there is room to doubt whether there really was a historical figure of Jesus.


jesus.jpg (9245 bytes)Feature

Was There No Historical Jesus?

Earl Doherty

Our knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, the presumed historical figure at the beginning of the Christian movement, comes from one unique set of documents, the Gospels. Beyond these, in the surviving writings of the first hundred years of Christianity, we are told virtually nothing about him, or about the story those Gospels have built around him.

When we examine the Gospels through the eyes of modern liberal scholarship, we find that they are anything but reliable historical records. They present the story of a deity come to earth, in communication with God and other supernatural entities, performing miracles, rising from the dead. Many of the details of that story are an adaptation or reworking of scriptural passages, from Jesus' baptismal scene based on Psalm quotations, to his miracles which retell the Old Testament feats of Elijah and Elisha, to virtually every element of the Passion account, from the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the smallest detail of the crucifixion scene. The account as a whole is another retelling of the classic type of story, found throughout centuries of Jewish literature, known as the Suffering and Vindication of the Innocent Righteous One.

This modern analysis of the Gospels has placed them in the category of "midrash", a traditional Jewish scribal and teaching device in which elements drawn from the scriptures are combined and reworked to create new prescriptions for moral behavior and new interpretations of divine truths. Traditional midrash often did this through entirely fictional creations, whose story elements served symbolic purposes, like morality tales.

Redaction criticism has shown that each evangelist has crafted his Gospel to conform to his own--meaning his community's--particular theology and needs. Many Gospel incidents, such as the denial by Peter, are storytelling devices designed as lessons for the community. Such elements fit the sectarian milieu which Christianity is now recognized to have inhabited. It is a universal phenomenon that a religious group in opposition to the establishment, beset by rejection and persecution and needing to generate faith and fortitude within its own ranks, creates artificial traditions and literary embodiments which glorify the beginnings of their movement and provide sanctified origins and precedents for the sect's beliefs and practices.

Once the Gospels are recognized as midrash and the product of sectarian needs, once they are seen as symbolizing the community itself, its experiences, its challenges, its myths past and future, we remove any necessity to see such "foundation documents" as having anything to do with genuine history.

Robert Funk, head of the Jesus Seminar, in his Honest to Jesus, follows an increasing trend in reducing the Gospel story to a mere handful of "reliable" bare facts. Where the Passion story is concerned, he observes that its literary structure and intricacy preclude any possibility that it was developed or transmitted in oral form. From its inception, the story of Jesus' trial and execution was a written narrative. This strongly suggests literary fabrication from start to finish. Moreover, all Gospel versions of that narrative are directly or indirectly dependent on the first one composed, Mark. Given the widespread and varied nature of the Christian movement during its first century, we should expect to find many divergent accounts of Jesus' fate (based on fact or otherwise), produced by many communities. Instead, incredibly, only one version of the events which are supposed to have begun the faith was formulated and set down, with all other versions slavishly copying this single product. And before that story is disseminated in the 2nd century, many Christian writers show no knowledge at all of the events portrayed in the Gospels, whether from literary or oral sources.

All signs, therefore, point to the Gospels as literary creations by a handful of authors, their content fabricated out of the Jewish scriptures, partly under the influence of Hellenistic and Jewish philosophical concepts, and designed to serve theological and instructional purposes. What, then, prevents us from regarding the entire story of Jesus of Nazareth, including the human character itself, as fictional?

What should prevent us from doing so is finding corroboration for that character, and at least the basics of the Gospel story, in some other part of the early Christian record. In fact, such corroboration cannot be found. (Nor can it be found in non-Christian records of the first century; Josephus has long since been discredited as reliable, conclusive evidence.)

From Paul and the other first century writers we would not know even the fundamentals: where or when Jesus lived, the names of his parents, the places and events of his birth, boyhood and ministry. Nor would we know the time and place of his death, or the agents of that death, not even the fact that he underwent a trial. The name of Pontius Pilate does not appear in Christian correspondence until the early 2nd century, nor do the other characters of the Passion account. For all that early epistle writers speak of Jesus' suffering and death, they never give us a single aspect of that execution, not even the name of Calvary itself. (The one reference to human responsibility for Jesus' death, 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16, is dismissed by most liberal scholars as a later interpolation, since these verses contain a clear allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened after Paul's death.)

As for Jesus' resurrection, there is nothing in any epistle which tells of the story of the empty tomb, the role of the women, the details of any post-resurrection appearances. (The list of "seeings" in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7 cannot be squared with any Gospel account and are now acknowledged to refer to visionary experiences of the heavenly Christ in the same manner as Paul's own.)

Did Jesus undergo his own baptism, appoint apostles, make apocalyptic predictions about the end of the world--all issues of extreme relevance to the early Christian mission? In the epistles we hear not a word of such things. Did Jesus even preach? Modern scholarship, relying heavily on an excavated Q, has revised the picture of the historical Jesus to create a teaching rabbi whose personal impact led to a range of responses to him, spreading across the empire. Some impact. Early Christian correspondence is full of ethical maxims and prophetic utterances which closely parallel the pronouncements of Jesus in the Gospels, yet never are such things attributed to him. In 1 Corinthians, Paul calls two minor directives "words" he has "from the Lord," but the context, and some scholarly opinion, suggests that these are communications Paul believes he has received directly from Christ in heaven, a common feature of the early prophetic movement. Elsewhere, the silence on Jesus as any kind of teacher, let alone the presumed source of Christian ethics, is complete.

As for any traditions about Jesus' miracles, no one breathes a word of them, not even the raising of such as Lazarus from the dead when Paul is seeking to convince his Corinthian readers that humans can be resurrected!

The usual rationalizations for this depth of silence are thoroughly inadequate. The early Church is said to have "lost all interest" in the earthly life lived before the overwhelming event of the resurrection, but no explanation is offered as to why the rising of a man from his tomb would lead to the total eclipse of the man himself and everything he had done. The explanations offered for Paul's own silence are invalid in principle, since every other epistle writer expresses himself in the same way. And they fail when examined in detail, since Paul could hardly have tramped the empire to bring the message about a crucified man to the gentiles without having learned something of that man's life. His listeners and converts, not to mention his rivals, would never have accepted a "lack of interest". Besides, Paul is preaching in competition with the Graeco-Roman mystery cults, whose own saviors acted entirely in the mythical realm. Would Paul have passed up offering his audiences a savior in the flesh, one who had recently been on earth to succor, heal, forgive, redeem in memorable events that had taken place in time and space?

And what would have led Paul to be converted in the first place? To react so dramatically to a humble teaching rabbi he had never met, to blasphemously turn a crucified criminal into the Son of God and Savior of the world--and then promptly cast aside all his historical features? If he had no use for Jesus the teacher, what led him to deify this man to an extent unprecedented in human religion? Why seize on this particular death which he did not even witness, one of identical thousands of that day, as the event of the world's redemption?

Little more sense can be made of the silence on the places of that salvation. No one for the first hundred years of the movement breathes a whisper about pilgrimages to Calvary, about celebrations at a burial or resurrection site. These places are never mentioned. Why are there no relics of Jesus' life, no surviving momentos which Christians would have been eager to possess, such as we find in the Middle Ages? Did no item of Jesus' clothing survive, no utensil he had used for eating, no cup from the Last Supper, no thorn from the bloody crown, no nails or pieces of wood from the cross before the 4th century? Did no one seek to walk on the same ground that the Son of God himself had so recently trod?

The range and depth of this kind of silence cannot be explained away, and certainly not by claiming that these "occasional" writings had no reason to refer to any of these aspects of Jesus' life and death. In fact, the epistles are full of passages which offer compelling opportunity for passing references to the Gospel story, for an appeal to the words and deeds of Jesus, to illustrate, support, exemplify the observations and arguments the letter writers are making. An individual silence in one document, in one writer, or in relation to a certain element of Jesus' activities in the Gospels, might feasibly be explained, but when the silence extends to every document, every writer, every aspect of the career of the Son of God on earth, all logic in such reasoning breaks down.

Who--or what--then, is Paul talking about? Who is the "Christ Jesus" that inhabits his letters, the divine Son who had undergone suffering and death in a time and place never spelled out? Where did Paul learn of him?

These questions are answered, clearly and unequivocally, in the early Christian epistles. When Paul and the others speak of the beginnings of their faith movement, they never refer to an historical Jesus as setting everything in motion. Rather, it is the action of God and the sending of his Holy Spirit which has marked the "arrival of faith" and the call to preach. The gospel they carry is God's gospel, not Jesus', and it comes through inspiration, not apostolic tradition. That apostolic activity, often a competitive one, can be seen in 2 Corinthians 11:4, which speaks of different versions of Jesus being preached by apostles claiming different spirits from God.

For that is what has been revealed by God's Spirit: Jesus himself, the secret of the Son whose existence had previously been unknown, the Son through whose sacrifice God was now making salvation available on the eve of his arrival from heaven. This new Son is a "mystery" revealed by God after long generations of having been hidden (Rom. 16:15, Col. 1:26, 2:2, Eph. 3:5). The epistle writers speak exclusively in terms of his "revelation", as in 1 Peter 1:20: "He was predestined before the foundation of the world, and in this last period of time he has been revealed for your sake." The onset of the movement is often phrased in a way which excludes an historical Jesus from the recent past (e.g., Titus 1:3).

Where specifically is information to be found about this Son? Paul vehemently declares that he got his gospel "from no man," but by revelation (Gal. 1:11-12). In Romans 16:25, Jesus is revealed by God after long ages "through the prophetic scriptures." Paul's gospel of the dying and rising Christ comes kata tas graphas, "according to the scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Paul also knows of what he calls "the Lord's Supper" through revelation (1 Cor. 11:23f). This Gospel-like incident, the only one to be found in Paul, is a mythical scene, probably created by Paul himself, similar to the sacred meals of the other savior-god cults of the time. It may have given rise to the Gospel Last Supper.

Christ's role at this time is a dual one. He is a present force, serving as a spiritual channel between God and the world, to whom the believer is united in mystical ways. His other role is as Savior. He had undergone sacrifice in the lower celestial realm at the hands of the demon spirits, so Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2:8. It was "the rulers of this age who crucified the Lord of glory," and many liberal scholars acknowledge that the phrase refers to the demon spirits, not human authorities.

Bizarre? To our 20th century minds, perhaps. But the ancients, especially under the influence of Platonism, saw the universe as layered, with multiple spiritual levels rising above the earth to the highest heaven where God dwelled. In these spheres resided various spirits, angels, demons; salvific processes went on there. That higher realm was the "genuine reality" of which the material world was only an imperfect copy. Everything on earth had its equivalent, its ideal counterpart, in that upper realm, and thus a god could be spoken of as "man" (the ideal man, the direct copy of God), even as taking on "flesh" and "blood"--or the semblance of them, a concept found throughout early Christian literature--when he descended to the near-earth layers of heaven. Paul speaking of Christ as "of David's seed" and "born of woman" would fall under this concept, impelled by scriptural prophecies whose fulfillment was transferred to the mythical world.

The heavens also had paradigmatic figures who championed groups on earth, who underwent similar experiences to them, thereby guaranteeing benefits and salvation to those who were united with them through faith and initiation, like the Pauline baptism. This was the basis of the Graeco-Roman mystery cults, with their savior gods and goddesses. The latter's activities in the mythical world, sometimes involving suffering and death (like Attis and Dionysus), were not regarded as having taken place on earth or in history. Early Christianity was a Jewish sectarian branch of this common religious expression of the day, having its own Jewish features but with a high Hellenistic content as well. Paul's Christ Jesus was a savior god like all the rest.

This progression from a Christ who lives and operates entirely in the spirit realm, to one who comes to earth to live a life, is the course which Christianity followed over the space of its first hundred years, a process eventually to win over the entire movement, though not in all areas until the latter 2nd century, as witnessed by the many apologists outside Justin who fail to introduce any historical Jesus into their descriptions and defenses of the faith.

Scholars create an artificial picture, based largely on the Gospels, of a gradual process of deification for a human Jesus. But the earliest picture presented by the epistles shows that Christ is at his highest elevation right from the beginning. He is a cosmic saving deity who is the equal of God and bearer of all the divine titles, his throne-partner and agent of creation, the sustaining power of the universe, Lord of the world and the demon spirits, redeemer through a "blood" sacrifice. Such a cosmic deity is never equated with a Jesus of Nazareth, recently on earth. Instead, he is the reflection of the philosophical thinking of the day as expressed in concepts like the Greek Logos and Jewish personified Wisdom, which envisioned a secondary god or divine force acting as an intermediary between God and the world of humans and matter.

That a humble Jewish preacher, especially the one reputed to be found in the primitive layer of Q (which seems originally to have been a Greek Cynic product, much reworked before it reached Matthew and Luke, and pulled into the new historical Jesus orbit), could achieve such cosmic exaltation immediately after his death, and at the hands of Jews no less, is an impossible eventuality. When the Gospels were first penned, they embodied the cultic community's own experiences and doctrines, and were, I maintain, a symbolic translation of the mythical Christ Jesus into an earthly setting, not intended to represent history. Eventually, the spiritual Son and Savior was regarded as having come to earth and the Gospel story was adopted as history, leading to a recasting (as in Acts) of the early, now legendary, period of the Christian faith. A movement that had been a philosophical expression of its time, born in a thousand places with widely divergent beliefs and rituals, was pulled into one great myth of unified origins.

feedback.gif (1862 bytes)[Earl Doherty is a prominent voice today arguing for the non-existence of an historical Jesus at the beginning of the Christian movement. He has written for the Journal of Higher Criticism, edited by two members of the Jesus Seminar at Drew University in New Jersey. He has completed two manuscripts on his theories, as well as a contemporary novel about the investigation of the Jesus question, set against a background plot of today's struggle between secularism and fundamentalism. You can find out more about his views on ancient Christianity at The Jesus Puzzle website located at <URL:https://magi.com/~oblio/jesus.html>.]


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