Reading Christianity

1 Leonardo Da Vinci The Annunciation

I have an update service which informs me when computer software I use release a new version. I recently went to the software site where I download applications to update one, and found a bible study application among the software on the site. I was intrigued. Isn’t it good, I thought, that Christians have computer aids like these to help them in their devotions. I did a search on the site, and found over 50 bible applications. An interesting point was that over half of these were freeware. Many were based on the King James Version (KJV), though one included original languages, Hebrew and Greek.

In a world which looks as though the human race is committing suicide, killing each other with increasing efficiency, poisoning the environment, destroying the very air we breathe, all for the sake of temporary monetary gain, it seems there are people trying to react to others with kindness and compassion, one of the messages of Christianity. How valuable is that!

I got to thinking though. What a peculiar thing that Christians should study the bible. Less than ten per cent of it has anything to do with Christianity. Spirituality and faith, yes, but not specific Christianity.

Now, what I have to say here does not denigrate the bible. Nor does it show disrespect to Christians who study it. I just have a few comments on the strangeness of Christians being interested in such a document.

To begin with, Christianity I take to mean the belief that god, in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, died to save all of mankind from the punishment due them for Original Sin, inherited through the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Christians are those who follow these beliefs, with guidance from a Christian church. I grew up a Catholic, and this is what I learned as a child, so I take it as correct.

2 Jesus on the water

But the bulk of the bible Christians use is made up of the holy book of a completely different religion, Judaism. Jews call it the Tanakh, and for them it is the record of a covenant between god and the Jewish people, and a record of the rites to be followed to conform to this covenant. Early Christianity simply appropriated the Jewish scriptures, which they had interpreted as including prophecies of the coming of Jesus. That act was a public statement they believed the Jews were mistaken in their beliefs.

For much of the history of Christianity the Jews were blamed for the death of Jesus, and persecuted by Christians. Hundreds of thousands of them were murdered by Christians. Jews were heavily taxed, confined to certain occupations, in Europe at any rate, their movements restricted, and often they had to wear special clothing that marked them as Jews. The edicts of Nazism must have seemed all too familiar to Jewish people of the 1930s.

That was then. Last century Christianity saw an ecumenical movement that tried to bridge gaps between Christian sects and other faiths. But Christians are still telling Jews they don’t know the true meaning of the Jewish scriptures every time they open the Christian bible and refer to what they call the ‘Old Testament’. ‘Testament’ means witness to the truth, where we get ‘testify’. Surely it’s time to give that book back to the Jews?

Imagine how Muslims would react if Christians incorporated the Qur’an into the Christian bible, claiming Muhammad was merely confirming the truth of Christianity through his mission and that Islam is simply wrong.

This so-called Old Testament contains much that is spiritually uplifting. The Book of Job, Jeremiah, Isaiah, some of the Psalms, even that crotchety old J author in Genesis. And much not of use even to Jews I  imagine, Leviticus, Kings and a few other books. But there is absolutely nothing there about the spiritual meaning of Jesus’ death.

Unless, like some Christians do, you say that something which refers to the Jewish covenant ‘really’ stands for a prophecy about Jesus. This is an arbitrary act, and could just as well be applied to any text ever written, and is not a valid way to treat the Jewish writings. It’s like numerologists who see messages in the sixth word on the sixth line on page 666 of their edition of the bible. It seems gratuitous disrespect to all Jews to use their scripture this way.

3 Mary Magdalene

What about the New Testament? Like a lot of others, I feel that the four Gospels contain some of the most inspiring messages ever made to mankind. But the Gospels reveal that Jesus was a Jewish teacher who taught the same precepts as other Jewish teachers of his day. He did not believe in the significance of his death as saving mankind from the consequences of Original Sin. He probably had never heard of Original Sin, a contribution later made to Christianity by (I think) St Augustine.

‘Jesus’ is Latin for Joshua (Hebrew), or Jeshua (Aramaic, what his friends called him), and ‘Jesus Christ’ is Latin for Jeshua Chrestos, Joshua the Messiah. Jesus seems according to the Gospel record to have been part of a reforming movement in Judaism of his day associated with a group of teachers known as Pharisees: some of his followers thought he was the forecast king who was going to give Judea back to the Jews, and throw out the Romans. This was another Jewish movement of his day. He may have countered those expectations by trying to focus the people on spiritual values instead, and involuntarily created an explosive situation in Jerusalem.

The Pharisees moved away from the religion of sacrifice based on Temple ritual, and preached to the people, often using everyday, meaningful metaphors and examples, and the story or parable form. Other, similar, teachers are known. One of the greatest figures in Judaism was Hillel, called the Elder to distinguish him from other teachers of the same name. Hillel lived at the same time as Jesus, and some of Jesus’ sayings, such as “Do under others as you would have them do unto you” are also recorded as being said by Hillel.

So the Gospels record the life of an enlightened Pharisee who was in accord with the most progressive Jewish religious ideas of his day. This was a Judaism influenced by its place in the Graeco-Roman culture of the first century, and incorporating ideas from dominant philosophies of the Greek world such as Stoicism and Epicureanism, which were guides to conduct. These in turn may have incorporated ideas also found in Buddhism.

There’s still not much here that seems relevant to Christians. Everything so far pertains more to Judaism. The parts of the Gospels relevant to Christians are at the beginning, where Luke has added a birth story of the divine man with parallels some think to contemporary stories about Zarathustra; and at the end, which concern the resurrection of Jesus. This is still not Christianity, the doctrine of the death of god to save mankind, but rather an attempt to prove Jesus is god by showing him being born miraculously, and dying on the cross then coming back to life. However it is still of great significance to Christians.

4 Jesus cross

Another Pharisee influenced by Greek culture and philosophies was Saul of Tarsus. It is in the letters of Saul, or Paul, that there is the first mention of Christian doctrine in the bible. Tarsus was a trade and administrative centre under successively the Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and Romans, famous for its great library and many schools of philosophy, a centre of Greek culture in its area, which was southern Turkey, near the northern border of Syria. Saul, known soon as Paul, travelled widely in Greece and Syria, and his life might have contained a deep conflict between the very different ways of life he experienced as a devout Jew and as a man of Greek culture and Roman citizenship. This is one way to interpret the violence of its resolution, being hurled to the ground and blinded on the way to Damascus.

As a Jew, Paul was part of the covenant with the one god. But in Greece, he would have found many gods. Some of them appeared to worshippers as human beings, and were extensively portrayed in Greek statuary and painting as such. There were also many men who became gods, heroes, divine ancestors, city founders and others. Paul would have also come across the most prevalent religions in the Greek world, the so called mystery religions, where believers performed rites that ensured them eternal life in heaven. This was often followed by a feast where worshippers partook of the body and blood of the god. Paul would not have known these rites directly, as he was a practicing Jew. But he would have known many devout men who participated in them.

The Last Supper Restored, Leonardo Da Vinic

The appeal of these mystery religions, of which the Eleusinian Mysteries were the most famous, was strong. Perhaps Paul was affected, and as a result became an ultra orthodox Jew in reaction. As an orthodox Jew he helped to persecute the developing rituals of the early Christians, which were then a sect of Judaism similar to the one centered on John the Baptist. Nobody really knows this, it is just a surmise, but about 80 AD, or about 40 years after the death of Jesus, Paul finally seemed to resolve his dissatisfaction with both Judaism and the mystery cults by making a synthesis of both, which had the additional benefit of answering the question of how a good man had been contemned to die as a criminal. His doctrine was heresy to the Jewish followers of Jesus because it struck at the central doctrine of monotheism (and made the doctrine of the Trinity necessary), and was obscure to the Greeks. There was a break with the disciples in Antioch, the major centre of followers of Jesus (Jerusalem, and Jewish Christians there, was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans). Questions were asked wherever Paul travelled and preached, and to answer these Paul wrote his letters, of which seven survive in the bible. Here we have the first trace of exposition of Christian doctrine.

Other matter in the New Testament seems of marginal importance, at least to me, such as the few surviving letters attributed to disciples (including some attributed falsely to Paul), which are often merely about questions of administrative structure in the early church. Perhaps the most important book to Christians is Acts, which paints a fascinating portrait of Paul and his missionary journeys. As much of Acts seems not to be in accord with the genuine letters of Paul some critics see it as akin to a novel about Paul. However it must accurately reflect what early Christians believed about the history of the Church, no matter how inaccurate those beliefs might have been.

Perhaps the most questionable book is Revelations. This is a work of gnosticism which introduced a new element into Christianity, the concept of Judgement Day, and gives the signs which may be recognised of its coming. Revelations introduces the concept of anxiety into Christianity, which had been till then a message of good news. It ushered in the coming medieval obsession with sin and punishment and millenarianism.

Revelations apparently was a controversial choice when the New Testament canon was selected. It was rejected again and again, but so widely read in the first century it finally was accepted. The canon selection was quite strict, and many works of gnosticism were condemned. Philosophical speculation was rife in the first century, and the church had to cope with literally hundreds of interpretations of what the death and resurrection of Jesus really meant. There were dozens of Gospels, many reported versions of sayings by Jesus, lots of stories of his exploits. This process also involved teachers other than Jesus, such as the philosopher Apollonius of Tyana, who also was said to have healed the sick, raised the dead, risen to heaven and so forth. The interpretation of Plato by Plotinus could even be seen as part of this tendency in thought. Obviously, if the story of Jesus was to be more than just a story, much of this gnostic speculation had to go. The church evolved the ideas of orthodoxy and heresy.

6 Ancient Sage Apollonius of Tyana Healing

It was the writings of the church fathers which determined what belonged in both these categories. I find it surprising the Christian bible contains the Tanakh, stories of a charismatic rabbi, and a gnostic work, but doesn’t have the works of the teachers who actually expounded the doctrines of Christianity. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote Against Heresies, which survives in a Latin version; Augustine of Hippo’s Autobiography and City of God set out orthodox Christian doctrine. And many other early church leaders left letters and other writings of relevance to Christianity.

The bible contains what it does because these books were considered the earliest, most authentic evidence for the truth of Christianity. But Christianity developed slowly. It wasn’t a fully formed religion until the fourth century. The bible shows how it originated as a fusion of first century Jewish and Greek religious ideas.

My surprise is that in the bible Christians read so much Jewish religious thought and ponder the words of Greek philosophers such as John of Ephesos, whose Gospel is permeated with Plato’s ideas. I would have thought it best to leave out the Old Testament, some of the letters, Revelations, and include Irenaeus and Augustine. That would make a more Christian bible. Quotations from Isaiah, Gospel of Luke, Acts, some of Paul’s letters, Irenaeus and Augustine. Makes more sense to me.

Of course the other reason why the bible contains what it does is simply that it has done so since the fourth century. This is the way it is. The appeal to tradition is a powerful force in all religions; nobody has much faith in newly speculative theology (though Ron Hubbard hasn’t done too badly).

This is also why the most popular translation into English is the KJV, around for over 400 years, based on a faulty text and on outmoded scholarship. Despite that, it survives because it is a great work of English literature. No more accurate modern translation comes close.

So Christians will probably continue to read a seventeenth century translation of a work that includes much from other faiths, and omits much of specific relevance to Christianity. And they’ll get something out of it. It’s just that it might not be Christianity.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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