Saturday, March 29, 2014

Jesus & reality, part three

Jesus seems to have been real, but the diagnosis would be .. more than a little bonkers. More from Bart Ehrman's "Did Jesus exist?"

In part 1, I considered the theory that Jesus as a historical figure did not exist at all and was made up out of whole cloth, drawing on the rich archetypes, mistold tales, and inflated belief that characterize religion generally. Then in part 2, the opposing view, based on Bart Ehrman's book "Did Jesus exist" was presented, concluding that Jesus really did exist historically, though that is far from implying that all that was later written about him was true. The truth is somewhere in the middle, between complete fabrication and a kernel of truth surrounded by many-colored and textured swaths of fabrication.

The later parts of Ehrman's book touch on the next logical question- if we can use critical historical methods to conclude that Jesus really existed, what else do they allow us to conclude with confidence about him?

The central point of this analysis is that Jesus was a apocalyptic preacher, in the template of John the Baptist. This is a very significant conclusion, since this was a relatively small group in the community of his time. The Jewish community of Palestine had about five noticeable social-theological groupings, as Ehrman and others present it.

First were the Saducees. This was the establishment, ran the temple, and was the economic elite. They collaborated with Rome, and were thus thought traitors by more orthodox Jews, not to mention theologically impure, permissive, corrupt, etc.

Second were the Pharisees. These get plenty of airtime in the gospels, as they were more orthodox than the Saducees, sticklers for Jewish law, kosher, etc.. One might think of them as the hat-and-locks wearing set of the time. Jesus makes lots of points off them, but who killed him? The Saducees, as discussed further below.

Next was the Essenes, the ascetics whose Dead Sea scrolls have provided such trove of knowledge about their time. They were an even more extreme off-shoot of the Pharisees, and might be thought the mystics of the society, segregating themselves in the desert, (for the most dedicated), seeking purity, celibacy, poverty, silence, and community (men only!). They thought the temple, as run by the Saducees, hopelessly corrupt and impure. They certainly didn't have any role in running things, and seem to have strongly messianic hopes.

The last substantial set mentioned by Ehrman are the revolutionaries, (the Zealots), sort of the heirs to the Maccabee tradition. This was a more political outlook, that chafed strongly under the boot of Rome, and thought that the Jewish land was defiled not so much from lack of fidelity to the Levitical and Mosaic laws, as from lack of their own laws, and own government. This class would eventually lead the revolt of the later first century, which prompted the final destruction of the second temple by Rome.

Last is the apocalypticists. Ehrman paints them (as exampled by John the Baptist and Jesus) as quite different from the Essenes, let alone the other groups. But I have to say that the more I read about the Essenes, the closer these two groups appear. While the Essenes were very secretive about their teachings and mostly kept to themselves, the teachings were largely the same- a messianic assumption that someday, each would get what was coming, and that some kind of resurrection would occur. Each were strongly moral and focused on service to others. Each was anti-family, almost pathologically so, preferring to live in like-minded community. So it looks to me as though John the Baptist and Jesus could be thought of as Essenes who took the teaching outwards, to the people at large, and even challenged the Temple and its sponsors directly.

A side-note of interest was their attitude towards morality. The Essenes and apocalypticists were intense moralists and demanders of repentence. But the point was not to make a more pleasant or successful society for us all to live in. No, it was to get right with god before the judgement day, lest you be sent off to everlasting torment in hell. Family values it was not.. the exact opposite, actually. But somehow, subsequent generations have so bowlderized and cherry-picked it that, naturally, it now means that open carry is a Christian commandment, plus whatever else one favors.

This all was kooky enough. But Jesus took it up a notch by predicting that the Kingdom would come soon. In his lifetime, or in that of this hearers. And that his apostles would be the 12 kings, sitting on 12 thrones of the 12 tribes of Israel. This implied that he himself would be the top King.. the new David.

Ehrman makes a highly significant surmise that this plays right into the Judas story. What was his notorious "betrayal"? Jesus couldn't have been hard to find, with an entourage and all, staying in a city he didn't know very well, speaking in the public square to crowds. No, the betrayal had nothing to do with location, but everything to do with theology and politics, since if Jesus gave his disciples a secret teaching that they would inherit the kingdoms and he was to be the messiah and future super-king, then this was something both the Saducees and the Romans might want to hear about.
"Jesus, of course, did not understand his kingship [cause of his conviction and execution] in this way. He was an apocalypticist who believed that God would soon interfere in the course of human affairs and destroy the Romans, and everyone else who opposed him, before setting up his kingdom on earth. And the Jesus would be awarded the throne."
Needless to say, the kingdom never came, Jesus never returned, and never became king (except in our hearts!). Jesus himself was evidently somewhat surprised by the turn of events which left him hanging, so to speak, without god's intervention. His followers never expected him to resurrect, as shown by their complete lack of vigilence over his body, but came up with that story later on to rationalize a commitment and ministry whose rationale had otherwise been buried.

Which gets us to the theme of this post, which is that the historical record, as far as we can make it out with any reliability, indicates that Jesus was real, and was clinically insane. He believed not only in all the normal crack-pot things that were prevalent in his time, and were concentrated within the Essene sect. But on top of that he believed he was the ONE, the future king, and judge of all, etc.. etc.. When we see people in our day calling themselves Jesus Christ, or the postapocalyptic king, who will separate the sheep from the goats after the resurrection, etc.. etc.. we typically call them insane.

"But perhaps even more interesting are the implications for the secular stagnation hypothesis, which holds that we are in a long-run stagnating economy because of inadequate demand. Is it a coincidence that the secular stagnation hypothesis is being revived exactly when income inequality is accelerating? If a higher share of income goes to the wealthiest households who spend very little of it, then perhaps these two trends are closely related."

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