Saturday, April 16, 2016


People making gods, as usual- and the mythical nature of Jesus.

All aspects of the existence and nature of Jesus are a matter of theory, not fact. So much of the early literature about him is forged, made-up, laced by myth and parable, and templated by religious traditions, philosophical preconceptions and political exigencies, that the nature of (or existence of) the actual, historical Jesus is a matter of speculation and inference at best.

Bart Ehrman wrote an exasperated book about the evidence for the historical Jesus, affirming, despite his own lack of conventional faith, and through his dedicated scholarship in the field, that the consensus position of Christians and scholars is correct. The problem of the thin-ness of the evidence remains, however, since all the evidence comes from internal (Christian) and late (not contemporaneous) sources. This is not unusual or unexpected for any Roman of this time, other than the very highest levels of emperors and writers, but hardly allows a solid case either pro or con. A great deal turns, for instance, on one's interpretation of the word "brother", since Paul, in letters that are widely agreed to be reasonably authentic, refers to James as a brother of Jesus. If this means a biological brother, it means that Jesus, by this chain of evidence, really existed biologically. Whether his mother was a perpetual virgin is another matter, of course! Or was James a spiritual brother, as is the common usage has been for many religious communities? Ehrman, as an expert, comes down clearly on the biological side.

Myth, or just mythic?

Both cases, for and against the historicity of Jesus, are thus circumstantial, based on the credibility of scraps of evidence, or the credibility of a counter-story elaborated by the mythicists, where Jesus begins as a deity who is brought down to earth (euhemerized) for a variety of motives that are quite understandable, and precedented by similar gods and god-men before and since. Casting one's god as a real person makes the provenance and stability of his teachings more secure than that of a deity that communicates through revelation, and could do so again at any time. And stories are easy to make up and write down. A recent talk by Richard Carrier makes this case with gusto.

I am not going rehash the arguments here. But only say that the pro-historical case, while certainly traditional, popular, and even likely, is, even by Bart Ehrman's telling, hung on very thin threads of internal evidence, on texts whose transmission to us is an endless story of copying, re-copying, correction, obfuscation, politics, and forgery. The early Christian times are a fascinating period of political and archetypal turmoil. No path is straight, least of all the texts that purport to tell the story. Take for instance, the case of Marcion, who supposedly collected letters of Paul and devised the first Christian cannon. Marcion is thought to have written a good bit of it himself, and founded a theology that was very popular in its day, only to ripen into heresy later on at the hands of what comes down to us as orthodoxy.

The project of making Christianity's hodge-podge of scriptures fit the orthodox story as it evolved through the centuries is mind-bogglingly complicated and obviously ongoing, given the many versions of the Bible and of Christianity that are still running around. The process is reminiscent of the paradox of Islam, where those who take its origins and scripture most seriously are the most righteous and violent, whereas those who merge into more mature traditions, as they ripened through time into human, and typically humane, institutions, are much more resistant to the fundamentalist call.

Getting back to the foundations, what is the precedent for euhemerization such as what happened to the person or entity we call Jesus? And for its complement, apotheosis? These days, the traffic between heaven and earth has hit some kind of traffic jam. But in antiquity, it was far more common for people such as kings and emperors to become gods, and also for gods to come down to earth, in tales such as the Homeric epics. Divinity was assumed to exist, and divine beings were pretty much formed in the image of ourselves, at our most powerful. Both the Jewish god(s) and the Greek gods were distinguished by their power much more than their knowledge, let alone their emotional wisdom or kindness.

Even farther back, the template is of course the family, and the trauma of death. The death of any person, let alone a powerful, archetypal person like a parent, is unimaginable. How can life stop cold, how can existence simply end? Impossible. We have thus come up with a rich set of rationalizations and theologies of additional existence. They typically involve the movement of people (souls) from this world to some other invisible world, where they look back with fondness to what is still the important place, our world.

But then comes the important question of whether and how this spritual world, if it is to have any ongoing function for us, interacts with ours. Our souls clearly have some modus operandi by which they co-function with our living bodies, mortal though they are. Likewise, spirits and gods must have some way back into the world if we wish to involve them in our dramas. Thus we end up with a rich literature of heroic journeys to heaven (or the underworld) and back, gods taking up disguises as women or men (or animals), throwing thunderbolts, causing natural cataclysms, etc.

It is only the higher psychological and philosophical sophistication of our age that has slowed down this traffic, though it peeks out of our unconscious in the endless array of super-hero movies, not to mention a majority of the country that still holds fast to some version of the traditional theological stories.

Let us close with a couple of quotes from Thomas Paine speaking of the Christian believer, vs a true deist, from his deist book, "The Age of Reason":
"Yet, with all this strange appearance of humility, and this contempt for human reason, he ventures into the boldest presumptions. He finds fault with everything. His selfishness is never satisfied; his ingratitude is never at an end. He takes on himself to direct the Almighty what to do, even in the govemment of the universe. He prays dictatorially. When it is sunshine, he prays for rain, and when it is rain, he prays for sunshine. He follows the same idea in everything that he prays for; for what is the amount of all his prayers, but an attempt to make the Almighty change his mind, and act otherwise than he does? It is as if he were to say -- thou knowest not so well as I."
"The Bible of the creation is inexhaustible in texts. Every part of science, whether connected with the geometry of the universe, with the systems of animal and vegetable life, or with the properties of inanimate matter, is a text as well for devotion as for philosophy -- for gratitude, as for human improvement. It will perhaps be said, that if such a revolution in the system of religion takes place, every preacher ought to be a philosopher. Most certainly, and every house of devotion a school of science."

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