I have just read a life of Jesus (Killing Jesus, by O’Reilly and Dugard) and wasn’t satisfied with it at all. So I looked further to see what else there was. My ebook source had 1403 results for the term “Jesus”; Amazon had 211,539. Granted there will be some repetition, and a few video/audio ring-ins among these results. But surely, I thought, Jesus must be merely a factor in this abundance of interpretations, not the fact at the heart of it? I suspected that Jesus was in many cases a pretense to say something about another subject.
I came across these ebooks:
The Third Jesus (Deepak Chopra) about spirituality in our lives
Jesus of Hollywood (Reinhartz) about depiction of Jesus in the movies
The Jesus I Never Knew (Yancey) in which a bible student finds the ‘real’ Jesus
The Messiah Before Jesus (Knohl) about the Dead Sea Scrolls’ ‘suffering servant’
The Jesus Legend (Eddy) on the reliability of the Synoptic gospels’ account
Jesus Remembered (Dunn) a study of early Christianity
Jesus and His Death (McKnight) about how Jesus ‘really’ saw his own death
Jesus Under Fire, a collection of essays about the Jesus Seminar
What Jesus Demands from the World (Piper) is, apparently, obedience
Neither God Nor Man (Doherty) on patterns of myth in the Jesus story
The Gospel of Jesus (Robinson) what Jesus ‘really’ said
The Missing Jesus (Chilton et al) on Jesus the Jew
The Jesus Papers (Baigent) the ‘real’ Jesus
The Case for Christ (Stroebel) investigates Jesus as the son of god
Jesus, Interrupted (Ehrman) on inconsistencies in the gospels
The Wicked Priest (Vining) on Jesus the Essene
The Jesus Mysteries (Freke et al) Jesus as a pagan myth
Zealot (Asian) Jesus as a freedom fighter
etc, etc, etc.
In almost all of this the agenda was to highlight a ‘missing’ interpretation of Jesus. I suppose the primary agenda was to sell a book, but, that aside, I thought you could divide up most of these titles under headings, and according to the motivation of their authors. I’ve not read most of the books I’ve listed (some of them I have, and lots I have read don’t appear on my source of information, probably OP). But I’d divide them into these categories:
1. Spirituality, whether New Age, born again, personal transformation, Buddhist or pop
2. Fundamentalist, that is, Jesus is god, there is no other, believe and be saved
3. Pop culture e. g. Jesus as team leader, life transformer and motivator, recipe for success
4. Cultural comment, as in Hollywood, hippies, drive in churches, and end of the world scenarios
5. Mythic patterns of ancient Greek and Roman religion
6. Development of ancient religious institutions such as Judaism and Christianity
7. Historical contexts e.g. Zealots, Essenes, Jews, the Messiah, the Roman Empire
8. The bible, the gospels and their texts and transmission.
More generally, authors seem to want to cover either/or:
1. the message
2. the texts
3. the institutions
4. the history.
This is not the way I see the matter at all. In my view there is no reason not to form a composite view of Jesus. Or, in some cases, not form a view. Religion is like quantum physics. Two contradictory opinions are OK.
For instance, if one wants to trace the historical Jesus (whom I refer to as Jeshua or Yeshua, Aramaic for Joshua), there is an immediate stumbling block. There is no evidence for Jesus whatsoever. He might as well be Zeus as far as evidence is concerned. The evidence usually quoted is, all of it, accounts of ancient beliefs about Jesus from 40 or 50 years later than his supposed time period. This is supplemented with social and political history of this later time and place, and conclusions made from this material.
This is not an unusual situation. Much of ancient history is about people we only know of from the surviving accounts of three or four ancient writers who give no evidence, make up speeches, exaggerate numbers, pass on superstitious beliefs and all of whom are biased to some degree or other. We have to proceed with caution, as we do with the examination of many ancient cultures, such as that of Crete for instance, though in these cases we can supplement deduction with archaeology.
Compare that situation (of the historical Jesus) with another ancient event of about the same time as Jesus, the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 AD. We can fit this into a chronology of ancient Syria and a history of the Jews. We have accounts about it from ancient historians contemporary with the event. There is archaeological evidence that the destruction took place at that time. There is an indication in later developments in the Empire and in Judaism that it had occurred. In other words, there is not only evidence, but what there is corroborates with other evidence. So we can be reasonably sure Jerusalem was destroyed by Titus in 70 AD.
Now, some of the authors I came across pounced on this lack of evidence for Jesus, and suggested that Jesus was ‘invented’ in various ways in order to start a religion. Wow! Very controversial! But just as unfounded as taking the gospel as, er, gospel.
I would just say that we don’t know whether Jesus existed or not. Not that he did exist because the gospels say he did, not that he didn’t because there is no evidence. Just that we don’t know, because there is no evidence.
In the same way, astronomers don’t know what dark matter is. Its existence can be deduced from the behaviour of other astronomical events, but still, we don’t know whether it’s there. There’s no direct evidence it is.
This lack of evidence is not in contradiction, in my opinion, with belief in Jesus as saviour, or in Jesus’ moral teachings and example, or Jesus as team leader, magician or Hindu seer. Withholding judgment on the historical evidence while living as a Christian is OK. You can do both at the same time. (I’m not a Christian myself, because I think it limits god to see it that way, but I wouldn’t want to bother anyone with my peculiar beliefs. But I support those with strong beliefs who do good to others).
An area I am very interested in is that of mythic patterns of belief. A myth is a transforming belief that is part of a religious practice. There is a lot of evidence of Jesus as part of a belief system. Ancient Greek and Latin authors make reference to the beliefs of a group they refer to as ‘Christians’, dated as early as 90 AD. The letters of Paul talk of organisational and theological issues involved in the central doctrine of Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus, about 80-90 AD. The gospels talk about the beliefs of cult systems in various Greek cities based on the belief that Jesus was god, and these are dated 80-120 AD. The church Fathers wrote letters expounding right doctrines, and condemning heretical ones from 100-200 AD. The church was organised by Gregory the Great, and became the state religion of the Roman Empire from about 400 AD.
It is often said that all this would not have developed as it did had Jesus not existed, and that this is proof of the historical man Jesus. I think the search for a historical Jesus is a waste of time. Firstly, as mentioned, there is absolutely no evidence. Secondly, by the time there is, the search must become one for someone who was both god and man. No one is ever going to find god that way, by finding fragments of his cradle or reminiscences of his last days in Jerusalem. God is not material. God is beyond understanding. So the search is futile.
However discovering people’s beliefs is possible. They are human, and often understandable.
What people believed at about the time of Jesus included:
1. the Jews thought a Messiah would come and defeat the Romans and set up a world empire of the Jews
2. the Jewish Zealots were convinced the battle should start now, not later
3. the Persians had taught the Jews what Zarathustra believed, there was a cosmic battle between good and evil
4. the Essenes had taught that the kingdom would come through the suffering of a great teacher
5. the gnostics believed that the earth was evil, ruled by an evil god and that hidden signs led to escape
6. the Greek and Middle East mystery religions believed that a saviour god would die to free mankind from death.
The Roman Empire had taken all these beliefs and mixed them up in a common culture. You could encounter any or all of them in one of the big cities of the Empire, Alexandria, Ephesos, Antioch, Tarsus, Rome. Then the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, and before and after that event released a stream of Jewish refugees into other cities. The Jews were insular, kept by the great empires of their earlier days in their little corner of Syria and Lebanon and Jordan. Now, suddenly, they were exposed to other belief systems they found offensive. The result was to make them define themselves and their culture as never before. They emphasised the rituals and the customs they had inherited in a much more rigid way. They became the People of the Book, as they wrote and revised and edited their scriptures. But they also had to adapt to a new surrounding. They absorbed, whether they liked it or not, foreign ideas. Many could no longer speak Hebrew. And beliefs from Greeks, Persians and Romans influenced their faith.
Among the refugees from Jerusalem was perhaps a little band of Jews who followed a rabbi called Jeshua. He was a charismatic teacher who had been killed by the Romans, and his followers needed to make sense of this devastating event. They did, and the result was called Christianity. Christianity was a syncretic belief system with roots in many other contemporary belief systems. Syncretism (a combination of beliefs from different sources) was prevalent throughout the Empire.
So 70 AD becomes a key date in the history of religious beliefs.
1. Judaism as we know it was formed
2. Jews encountered Greek mystery religions
3. Followers of Jeshua understood what his death had meant
4. Christianity was born
And from that date and after comes all the surviving evidence of Christian beliefs. Influential fellow, Titus. He may well be the indirect cause of both ‘modern’, non Temple Judaism, and of Christianity!
In Alexandria the Jews encountered the saviour Osiris, cut into many pieces by horned Set but resurrected by Isis. His journey in death was recounted in the Book of the Dead as a rite of passage to personal immortality. His child Horus the Sun was often shown being nursed by Isis, the prototype of a thousand Virgin and Child portraits in Western iconography.
In Rome they found the saviour Mithras, of whom it was said he was born of a virgin, and that wise men who followed a star came to worship him at his birth. He fought against the evil of the world, a kind of entropy, mentioned in the philosophy of Zarathustra, Anghra Mainyu. The faithful joined the religion through a rite of baptism, and celebrated a last supper where they ate of the flesh and drank of the blood of a sacred bull slain by Mithras to bring life and fertility to the world and give his followers immortality. Mithras died, and was resurrected, ascended to heaven, and will return to judge the living and the dead on the last day.
In Tarsus the Jews found a potent mixture of Great Mother worship, Greek philosophy, Gnosticism and lax practice of their own faith, and many became ultra conservative, including a certain Saul. Tarsus was one of the biggest cities of Roman Syria, probably the biggest. Jews had to listen to philosophers of the school of Thales expounding that Yahweh was the first principle, air, or water; that Yahweh was an evil god who held humans prisoner on an evil earth, the teaching of some Gnostics; and that the supreme god was not Yahweh but his wife, Astarte, the Great Mother, whose son Atthis died for the sins of mankind. Some of their own faith started to say that Atthis was really Jesus. Many Jews became concerned to restore orthodoxy, and Tarsus became a centre of Jewish learning and exposition of scripture as the Jews fought to keep foreign ideas at bay.
In Antioch and Ephesos they found the Great Mother, Astarte. Her temple at Ephesos was famous throughout the Empire. Astate was often thought of as the wife of Yahweh. She was the Mother Goddess worshipped in the region since the time of the people of Sumer 4,000 years earlier, and had had many names, Ishtar, Aphrodite, Ashteroth, Europa, Ariadne, and Inanna. Hymns to her survive, where she is worshipped as the saviour of mankind, descending to the underworld and experiencing death so as to rise again to Heaven. She was the Evening Star, the Star of the Sea. In later rites she had a consort, a human, Atthis, Adonais, who was killed and whom she resurrected. Similar rites involving Dionysios and Semele, and Orpheos and Eurydice, and the mysteries celebrated at Eleusis are known from the remains of Greek culture. God had died, and the people mourned. God rose from the dead, and the people rejoiced.
These are not ideas, or concepts. They are myths, forms of worship. Some of the authors of the books I looked at tried to argue that Christians had copied these ideas to create Christianity. But that ignores their function as spiritually transforming emotions. These mythic patterns weren’t thoughts. They were griefs and exultations fulfilled by religious rituals. That’s why they became part of Christianity. They served the same purpose in that faith as they had in earlier faiths. No matter what the culture, these emotions need to be experienced, and always will be.
Again, I can see no contradiction believing there was cultural transmission of myth, and a faith in Jesus, or an interest in spirituality, or in doing good to others. Why does it all have to start with Jesus? Because Jesus was god? But Inanna was god too. But there’s only one god! Maybe. But there could be many manifestations of one god. Why limit god? There I go again with my peculiar beliefs.
Basically I believe it’s possible to be a fundamentalist, pagan, New Age, personally developed, spiritually charged Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, first century historian, biblical textual critic. Mind you, you’d have to read all the books I came across, which would leave you little time for anything else, then integrate all their either/or arguments into a comprehensive either/and one. On the other hand you’d be a better person, and have done no harm to anybody else in the process.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.