Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sensationalism and Christianity

On an almost yearly basis there is a discovery that the media claims "will change Christianity." Usually those claims fall into two categories, both over the top. The first is the "this will rock the foundations of Christianity" discovery. The translation and publication of the Gospel of Judas a few years ago is a text book example of this type of discovery.

The publication of the Gospel of Judas was feted with a coming out party in National Geographic Magazine, in several books, and on the Nat Geo cable TV channel. It was picked up all over the internet and was featured in all kinds of news broadcasts. The truth about the Gospel of Judas was that it wasn't all that interesting. Sure, it's always fascinating to discover a lost tangent of one of the many early Christianities, but the Gospel of Judas was a late-comer. Most likely written hundreds of years after the death of Jesus it really wasn't all that earth shattering.

The idea that Judas wasn't a betrayer and was simply doing his job struct many Christians as blasphemous, but the idea had been proposed before. If someone could think of it in the 1970's as a plausible explanation for the behavior of Judas, it's not unreasonable to think someone else might have thought about it in 200 CE. Depending on your view of the crucifixion, Judas could be looked upon as the "Good Guy." Jesus can't die for your sins if he doesn't die. If I was starting a church in the year 200 and was looking for apostolic authority to do so, Judas would seem an unlikely choice, but if he was the only choice left . . . . . you could certainly rationalize it to make sense.

Students of early Christianity know that there were probably hundreds of gospels, and while we don't have all of those gospels today, we have many of them. The Gospel of Judas was no more revolutionary than the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and we don't talk about that last one very much these days. The Gospel of Judas was new though, and in these days of internet hype and the latest flavor it made a lot of people curious. That curiosity was of course short lived, and despite media warnings to the contrary, the Gospel of Judas did not have any significant impact on modern Christianity.

A few years before the Gospel of Judas hysteria the other type of "Christian discovery" was picked up by the media. This was one of those discoveries that "proved Christianity was real by proving Jesus was a real person." The "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus" ossuary (Jewish Bone Box) was a sensation. There were several scholars who defended its authenticity, and when it went on display in Toronto there were standing room only crowds around it.

The ossuary was undoubtedly real. It was a two thousand year old stone box, dating to the time of Jesus, and its use was common at that time. The only problem with the ossuary was the inscription, "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus." Even if that inscription is 100% authentic it's not earth shattering. James, Josephus, and even Jesus were extremely common names. If you came across something that said "Jason son of Michael brother of William" you wouldn't find it all that interesting, because those are pretty average names.

The Israel Antiquities Authority determined the inscription on the ossuary to be a hoax, specifically the "brother of Jesus" line. To me, even if the inscription were 100% authentic it wouldn't change anything. I'm already reasonably sure that Jesus was a real person, and even more so James (he's mentioned in Paul's letters). I'm also pretty sure that they were brothers. The existence of the ossuary doesn't prove that Jesus rose from the dead, and to me is more confirmation that he was simply who scholars think he was: A prophet of peasants and an inspiring figure.

This all leads me to the latest and newest greatest find in the field of Christian scholarship "the biggest find since the Dead Sea Scrolls" and according to one scholar "the major discovery of Christian history." The discovery in question, seventy tiny books with lead pages bound together with wire, has launched all sorts of speculation. Since some of the books are sealed people are already saying they could be the "lost codices described in the Book of Revelation." Other claims have these books as the first Christian texts, possibly dating from the time of Christ himself. I wish journalists would downplay the sensational and that people would concentrate more on the facts when dealing with these things.

First of all the books are said to come from one of the caves Jews and Christians used to hide in as the Romans destroyed the Second Temple. According to the scholars who haven't dismissed this "major discovery of Christian history" as a hoax, the oxidation on the books dates them to this period of history. So if we can reasonably date them to 70 CE, that's still forty years after the death of Jesus and a little over twenty years after Paul's first letter. Writings from the "time of Jesus" these are not, at best they are second generation and post-Pauline.

Since these writings obviously came from Jerusalem, they would be from the Jewish Christians who had set up shop in Jerusalem after the death of Christ. Those Jewish Christians were later marginalized as the Christian Church began to be appeal almost exclusively to gentiles and became more Pauline. (The break between Paul and the Church in Jerusalem was strained during Paul's lifetime.) As a result, the philosophies contained in those tiny books might be rather different from those found in modern Christianity.

The idea that some of these sealed volumes might somehow relate to the Book of Revelation is fascinating, but not surprising. It's not surprising because Revelation is such a source of fascination to so many Christians that people constantly look to link to it. Since Revelation is so ambiguous that's easy to do. Secondly, if Revelation was written in response to persecution by the Emperor Nero the date of composition theorized for these small books aligns almost perfectly.

As a student of history and religion the revelations possibly contained in these books will not be about the authenticity of Jesus. Instead, I see them as a light towards better understanding the evolution of Christian thought and liturgy. If they came from the Jerusalem Church, even better. I'm curious as to what Jewish Christians thought as they saw the Temple destroyed.

Discoveries in the Holy Land and of ancient texts do little to dim or spark belief amongst the skeptics and the believers. They might possibly kindle interest in things historical for short periods of time, but nothing unearthed or translated will ever prove or disprove the existence of Jesus. While I don't think faith should blind us from reality, there are some things science will never prove or disprove, the reality of deity is one of them, and that's an article of faith.

(More on those little tiny iron books:

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

When Someone asks me if I think Jesus is the Son of God You Get a Very Long Response.

Over the weekend a friend of mine asked me if I believed that Jesus was the son of God, and though not said, I have to believe that he also wondered if I accepted Jesus as the messiah or as my personal savior. When you are me, and you believe in the validity of nearly all religions*, such questions are hard to answer with a simple yes or no. I certainly don't believe in the modern evangelical Christian reconstruction of Jesus, with its emphasis on only one side of the message-accepting him as savior, while ignoring the messages of social justice and acceptance of others. I also can't just look at a religious text and accept it at face value, I have to look at the environment in which it was written, and how it stacks up against other literature of the time period. Whoever created us gave us minds, so I assume we are supposed to use them.

I believe in God, or deity, or gods, or the Divine, or the Ultimate Mover, I believe in something at the heart of the universe. I am not an atheist. The world is too wonderful to just be total random chance, something set things into motion, and over the millennia we have worshipped and formed that something into a construct we can understand. Archeology today is pretty good. You can name nearly any god out there and I can give you a history about how that god's worship evolved. Yahweh had his Asherah, Aphrodite carried a spear, and Cernunnous flung around bags of cash. These things can be argued, but it's like arguing the sky is blue, some things are just facts, and they are often uncomfortable.

Due to my interest in all things historical and my desire to seek facts and the origins of things, I've come to discount the literalness of holy books. This doesn't just apply to your holy book, it applies to mine as well. I don't take Bullfinch or Homer literally, but that's not to say there aren't truths there. I think nearly all holy books are divinely inspired, and that the individuals who wrote them were trying their best to present truths and ideas to their followers. Sure, there are moments when politics slip in there, but for the most part, holy books present pathways to deity, provide a moral compass,** and offer hope and solace in times of trouble. The fact that I doubt Job or Noah existed as written in the Old Testament doesn't stop their stories from presenting truths, or helping to connect a worshipper with deity. Just because something is not true doesn't make it false, so to speak.

So I comb through books looking for information about deity/deities, even while not literally believing their stories. There's a third part about me too, and that's the part that makes me a religious thinker and not a religious scholar (though I respect scholars, can talk scholar, and can read scholars), I seek the divine***. I want to commune with deity. I want to have a relationship with deity. I believe everyone can do those things, and I believe that many people do. When someone tells me they have a relationship with Jesus, I believe them. Their religious experience is certainly as valid as mine. I do believe that people can get the messages mixed up, and that gods don't ask us to crash planes into buildings or bomb abortion clinics, but for the most part relationship with deity helps us with our daily struggles, provides comfort, and usually acts as a mechanism that helps us make good decisions. Before the atheists chime in, yes you can pretty much do all that without deity, some of us just need help, and I don't want to talk to myself. It's much easier to mutter under my breath to Pan.

So this leads us to the Jesus question. Yes, I believe in Jesus. Though the historical proof of his existence is pretty sketchy, I'm 99% sure that there was a guy who wandered the Galilee preaching some of the things currently in the New Testament at the time of John the Baptist. I say that Jesus' existence was sketchy because there's no record of him during his own lifetime. The first mention of "Christians" occurs in the year 50, and that's about the same time the Apostle Paul started writing letters about him, and that's all twenty years after his death. Josephus might have referenced Jesus^ but that's still over forty years after his death, as are the gospels. Mark wasn't written until at least the year 70^^ so it has the same problems as Josephus. I'm going with Jesus was real because he obviously had followers within fifteen years of his death, and Paul's letters make it clear than people like Peter and James (the brother of the Lord) knew him personally. Those are silly details to include if you aren't writing about an actual person.

So, I believe in Jesus, but I don't think he was the Jewish messiah. There are a lot of problems with accepting Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, mostly because the Jewish Messiah was supposed to be radically different from Jesus. This causes problems if you are saying that your religion is the true continuation of the story presented in the Old Testament. The Jewish Messiah was supposed to be a great political figure, and a military one, and he was supposed to bring glory to Israel. He was also supposed to be a human being, and not a part of God in the literal sense, or turn the monotheism of Josiah into something else. Jesus certainly filled some messianic prophecy during his own lifetime, but he didn't do all the things the Old Testament prophets said a messiah would do, for example:

"The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them." Isaiah 11:6

You can certainly interpret that as meaning that the messiah will bring peace to the world, but a quick look around shows that there is very little peace in the world. Heck I can't think of a sustained period of peace in the last three thousand years of history. So obviously that doesn't work, and Jesus was not a little child during his ministry.

That is just one example, and there are lots of examples of Jesus not literally fulfilling messianic prophecy. I guess the argument could be that you aren't meant to take all the prophecy literally, but that doesn't make sense since apparently we are meant to take the rest of it literally. (You can't have it both ways.) Besides, the word "messiah" simply means "anointed one" and Isaiah^^^ names his messiah in Chapter 45 verse 1:

"This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut:"

Much like the sataan in the road appearing in the road to stop Balaam and his talking donkey being translate as angel instead of "satan" or "obstacle~" messiah is translated here as anointed one to avoid confusion later on. That doesn't change the fact that Cyrus is basically called the messiah for allowing the Jews to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem. These are the things my mind deals with on a daily basis, it would be far easier just not to know this stuff and wander along with the herd, but I can't do that, and that's why we are now up to seven little end note thingies at the bottom of the page.

So when looking at Jesus through the prism of Judaism in First Century Palestine, it's hard for me to think of him as the Jewish Messiah. Even when he does fulfill Old Testament prophecy it sometimes feels contrived and phony. To get Jesus to Bethlehem Luke has to invent a census that makes no sense in the context of Ancient Rome, and that there's no historical proof of. One could also argue that the majority of Old Testament prophecy fulfilled by Jesus was added by the gospel writers and didn't actually happen during his lifetime.~~ I don't think such a hypothesis is all that far fetched, especially in Matthew where the mission of the gospel writer is to prove to a Jewish audience that Jesus was in fact "the" messiah.

If Jesus wasn't the Jewish Messiah, what was he? In my mind (and in those of many who study the "Historical Jesus") he was a brilliant preacher and most probably a healer whose message appealed to many Jews outside of Jerusalem. Jesus was a social reformer, pure and simple, and a damned good one, with an amazing message to share. Jesus challenged the high and the mighty, and was fed up with the economic inequality in First Century Palestine. All of that "Prosperity Gospel" stuff you read today is just bullshit, Jesus would have been horrified.

And so Jason went to the Book of Luke and copied and pasted the "Beatitudes."

"Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God."

"Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied." "Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh."

"Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets."

"But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation."

"Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger. "

"Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep."

"Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets."

That is not the message of a man who is comfortable with the wealthy. That is not a man who is happy when someone's belly is overfull and there are those whose bellies are empty. This is a man preaching to the most down trodden of the down trodden, promising them something better in the next life, and warning the elite that they shall be judged for their neglect of their fellow man.

I don't want to get into the whole "Jesus was a socialist" argument today. I'm not going to say that he was (or wasn't), but it's obvious that Jesus was not comfortable with the world's wealth concentrated in just a few hands (sort of like it is right now!). If you are a Christian, I'm still baffled how you can be against taxing the ultra rich for the benefit of everyone else#, if Jesus could have taxed the Emperor or the Priests of the Temple and then given that money to the poor, he certainly would have. There's no question about that. The top of the pyramid was rotten, both Jewish and pagan, and he was pissed off about it. I'm sure he was a little bit apocalyptic too, promising an end of days if things didn't change, fair enough, lots of people were back then##.

To get back to one of the original questions we started with several hours ago in writing time, was Jesus the son of God (in my opinion)? I think we are all "Sons and Daughters of Deity," and that as a Jew Jesus certainly saw himself as a "Son of God," but I don't think he was a piece of Yahweh, or Yahweh transformed into the flesh. However, you'll notice many (many, many) paragraphs at the start of this that I wrote "we have worshipped and formed that something into a construct we can understand." I think Deity exists and is real, but I think we form it, I think we shape it. We take the divine energy of God and help transform it into something valuable for ourselves. Deity in its wisdom has given us many paths to it, and it takes the shapes and forms that we need it to so we can better understand it. In that sense, yes, Jesus is the Son of God, and worthy of worship.

I certainly don't just think that Jesus was just an extraordinary man and that the billions of prayers uttered in his name over the past 1900 years have just faded into the ether. No, there is a Christ### out there, a deity whose followers need his forgiveness, and the gospel that was written in his name. So I don't deny the divinity of Christ, many of the gods we worship (or have worshipped) certainly began their existence as normal people, and then through the power of faith were transformed into something more than that, something divine and glorious. Blasphemous to some I'm sure, but it's what happens when you live inside books with "Oxford Press" on their spines.

In some ways the gods need us as we need them. We help to shape that Cosmic Power that created the universe and nudged us along from little fishies to the humans we are today. While I don't think Jesus was the Jewish Messiah or a literal part of Yahweh, I think I can still have a relationship with Him, and I hope that more people in the 21st Century actual bother to read his words. We need them just as much today as the people of Palestine did in the year 30.

*I can't wrap my head around Satanism, which is the glorification of the ego, and I will make fun of Scientology until my dying day. I'm pretty tolerant, but I have limits.

**A Viking's moral compass in the 12th Century might have been different from a Christian monk's, but let's not kid ourselves, all three societies in Europe at the time-pagan, Christian, and Muslim were very violent. The Vikings were just more randomly violent.

*** I know scholars who do those things, but they separate those things from their research. I mix it all up together because these notes aren't peer reviewed, just peer criticized or cheered.

^Josephus' reference to Jesus was obviously tampered with after the book was copied and recopied. He certainly never wrote anything like "if he was a man at all." He was a Jew, he would have seen Jesus as a Jew, and that's just how it is.

^^That's the consensus of the majority of Christian scholars, and not just a slight majority, I'd say about 98% of them. It's not up for debate today.

^^^Scholarly consensus is that Isaiah was written by three different people, and those three different writings were contained on one scroll "The Isaiah Scroll." I call all three writers Isaiah, but they were three unique individuals. This doesn't take away from the brilliance of the writing, or the truthiness of it, it just is.

~In the Old Testament Balaam disobeys God and the Lord sends a "sataan" to block his path. Sataan simply means "obstacle," but you can imagine the conundrum if the obstacle sent by Yahweh was called a "sataan" or even just "an obstacle." As a result it's usually translated as angel, which is right sort of, but also wrong in a way. Read Numbers sometime and replace "angel" with "obstacle," you'll notice how much more easily the text reads.

~~I don't believe that entirely. I think Jesus probably tried to fulfill some of the prophecies when he entered Jerusalem in order to attract attention to himself, and by extension, his message for the Temple Priests and Roman Authorities.

#When you look at taxes as a whole, the rich pay less taxes as a percentage than the poor. When I say "tax" I'm looking at the whole enchilada, not just income tax. We pay sales taxes, payroll taxes, property taxes, tolls etc. As a middle class person I pay more of my income as a percentage than most of the super rich. Remember payroll taxes stop being collected after a certain (rather low) point, so anyone who reads this is certainly paying a higher percentage of payroll tax as it relates to total income than Charlie Sheen or Paris Hilton. So I'm guess I'm not even arguing for a real redistribution of wealth, I just want everyone to pay the same percentage in overall taxes. This piece is not about taxes, though again, it's hard to picture Jesus being happy with the top 1% controlling 90% of the wealth. If you don't believe that, please re-read your Bible.

##Christian Charity is capable of amazing things, no doubt about it, and I don't want any of my Christian friends to think I'm not aware of it. "Operation Blessing" (Pat Robertson's group) was on the ground in New Orleans before the federal government was. I know many good middle class Christian who give money to their churches that is used for the benefit of humanity. However, there are thousands of people out there who don't do that, and many of them are billionaires. The Koch Brothers don't give a shit about giving money to charities that actually help people, they give money to groups that keep their taxes low and let them pollute the Earth and bust up unions. Many are doing wonderful things in the name of Christ, many are doing horrible atrocious things in the name of "conservatism" and that has nothing to do with Jesus or Christianity.

###PBS had a special on about ten years ago called "From Jesus to Christ," which sums up sort of how I feel about it. Even though "Christ" is just Greek for "anointed" I use it to represent the spiritual, cosmic power of Jesus. Jesus was a man, Christ is what that man became.