2011-06-16

Christianity’s history myth and myth of innocence

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by Neil Godfrey

I could retitle this “Religion’s history myths” and write about Judaism and the Moslem religions, too, and probably a few others. But it’s safest to stick to what we know best.

I was reminded while writing about the last chapter of Jesus Christ Harry Potter what miserable times inflicted so many in the Roman world that saw the growth and eventual dominance of Christianity. I get the impression that for many people the best means of escape was to escape life completely: celibacy, asceticism and martyrdom were for many the highest ideals one could aspire to in “life”. And one reads the with some pain the intolerance and hatred that sears through so many of the writings of the Church Fathers, and reflects on the brutality that must have accompanied the archaeological evidence of wanton destruction and humiliation of the religious and artistic works of the former era.

As I wrote in my previous post, I can’t help but be reminded of the reasons so many willing martyrs (e.g. suicide-bombers) have been found among certain groups today. When life is thought to be no longer worth living under certain conditions, when personal despair, humiliation, hopelessness, mean that an individual’s “real life” has effectively ended, when all this is so unbearable, some people prefer to swap their physical existence for a symbolic existence. (Compare my review of Ghassan Hage’s Against Paranoid Nationalism).

Martyrs are supposed to be shining beacons through the ages. But how can anyone respect the mentality that produced the letters of Ignatius. Do these express anything more inspiring than pornographic lusts for self-immolation?

The winners write their history, and Christianity’s birth and early growth have been upheld as times of glorious purity and heroism.

There are many sincere and good Christians today as there were then, no doubt. But try as they will to cover or explain away or even rebuke the sins of their brethren, does not their primary allegiance continue to offer a silver lining of respectability for the irrational and the darkness that has been at the core of this religion since the creation of that myth of innocence in the Gospel of Mark.

 

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12 Comments

  • 2011-06-16 12:50:09 UTC - 12:50 | Permalink

    As I wrote in my previous post, I can’t help but be reminded of the reasons so many willing martyrs (e.g. suicide-bombers) have been found among certain groups today. When life is thought to be no longer worth living under certain conditions, when personal despair, humiliation, hopelessness, mean that an individual’s “real life” has effectively ended, when all this is so unbearable, some people prefer to swap their physical existence for a symbolic existence.

    According to Celsus, Christianity was spreading among the lowest classes in that society: children, women, slaves, and other uneducated people. It would seem that the same class of people in the modern world are prone to suicide bombing. But religion in general seems to also appeal to that same class of people – the people without power. It’s one of the great paradoxes of women, particularly. Women are statistically more likely to be religious than men, yet at the same time religion has done more harm to women than men.

  • Randy Patton
    2011-06-18 04:12:19 UTC - 04:12 | Permalink

    Regarding the creation of the myth of innocence in the gospel attributed to Mark:

    See SGF Brandon’s treatment of the subject in his book “Jesus and the Zealots”.

    The Judeans must have been taxed to within an inch of their existence.

    The Herods needed to collect tax to maintain their profligate life style and their building programs and to collect money for the Roman tribute.

    The Romans in addition to the tribute moneys collected toll and head taxes.

    The obligatory and optional sacrifices due the Temple were just disguised taxes which were used to support the priests. And there were three groups of priests competing for their share of the proceeds, the traditional Torah mandated Zaddokites, possibly members of the Hasemonean family still trying to hang onto their heads and privileges, and the members of the Egyptian and Babylonian families the Romans had imported to serve as High priests.

    The Siccariots who carried out assassinations in crowded places were the periods analogues of suicide bombers. And Josephus accounts of Judean freedom fighters who preferred death or suicide to capture by the Romans also paints a picture of an underlying desperation and nihilism, the attitude of a class of people with nothing to loose.

  • Steven Carr
    2011-06-18 18:24:22 UTC - 18:24 | Permalink

    ‘And Josephus accounts of Judean freedom fighters who preferred death or suicide to capture by the Romans also paints a picture of an underlying desperation and nihilism’…’

    Of course this all changed dramatically after the Romans killed Jesus. Christians started writing how the Romans held no terror for the innocent, did not bear the sword for nothing, and were God’s agents, sent to punish wrongdoers.

    I suppose Paul was working on the maxim ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’, when he claimed that the Romans did not bear the sword for nothing, after they had mocked, flogged, beaten, and crucified Jesus.

    • John
      2011-06-18 22:38:03 UTC - 22:38 | Permalink

      I’ve been thinkkng about Rom. 13:3 (“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval”) and 1 Cor. 2:8, and I’m not seeing what the problem is.

      Whatever Paul thought was “good” about Jesus, he says this information was “a secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 2:7), and “none of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (2:8).

      Had the “rulers of this age” understood this (the rulers in Rom. 13:3, by the way, are earthly), according to Paul they would not have crucified Jesus.

      As for whether the rulers of this age live on heaven or earth, I suppose they live where the “debater of this age” (1 Cor. 1:20) lives, on the earth with the “wise man” and the “scribe.” God “made foolish the wisdom of this world,” and “the world did not know God through wisdom,” (1:21), like the rulers of this age did not know “the secret and hidden wisdom of God.”

      • John
        2011-06-20 02:56:59 UTC - 02:56 | Permalink

        As Doherty points out, it is possible that “rulers” can be heavenly beings, like in the deutero-Pauline Ephesians 3:8-13:

        “[T]o preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places … So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you,” and 6:12: “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (6:12).

        But unlike 1 Cor. 2:8, these verses do not refer to the death of Jesus, but to the struggle of spreading of the gospel, which is more like 1 Corinthians 4:1-13:

        “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God … we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men” (4:1, 4:9).

        Acts understands “rulers” in the context of the death of Jesus in an earthly sense:

        “And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers” (3:17).

        This is the context of 1 Cor. 2:8: “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory,” and this understanding allows the meaning of “rulers of this age” to be consistent with the earthly “debater of this age” in 1 Cor. 1:20 and Paul’s only other use of the word “rulers” in Rom. 13:3, 6.

  • 2011-06-18 22:00:01 UTC - 22:00 | Permalink

    Hi Randy. It surely concerns you that the Gospels portray a Jesus who is nothing like a Robin Hood or William Tell or even Spartacus national freedom fighter/liberating bandit that Brandon’s scenario would lead one to expect.

    Jesus is a way of escape, not a righer of wrongs, yes?

  • randy patton
    2011-06-19 01:27:23 UTC - 01:27 | Permalink

    Neil :

    Good point, here are some thoughts on the matter.

    Robin Hood robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Both his violent actions and his non violent charitable activities were recounted.

    Assume the canonical gospels are a cleaned up version of Jesus’ biography, a post revolt production written by accomodationists who did not want the Romans to think they were militants in need of extermination. Jesus provides free health-care, educational sessions, and food for his hungry followers, all things a revolutionary is expected to do. However, the violence has been incompletely suppressed or censored from their accounts.

    The canonical gospels are not history, they are propaganda, issued by a sect trying to gain acceptance in the period immediately following the Jewish Revolt. At least one group of christians, probably influenced by Paul’s ideas, was trying to survive, in a hostile environment. If the Romans suspected that they harbored any sympathy for the Jewish revolution, they risked being exterminated. The canonical gospels reject beliefs that could be connected with Judean nationalism: it did not support reviving the Temple cult, it rejected the leadership of the priests and dogmatic adherence to the rules laid down in the Torah, and there was an implied rejection of the violent Judean sects. Paul had outlined this before the war’s outbreak, with his with his explicit statements in support of Roman authority.

    Traces of violence, however, remain throughout the canonical gospels.

    In John’s version of the Temple cleansing, Jesus wields a “flagellum”, a flail or scourge, not a “scuta” or quirt or whip as in the synoptic accounts. He is depicted wielding a real weapon, one used by peasants denied access to swords, a weapon that can maim or kill. This is not a simple quirt, a mere tool to impel co operation, as seen in the canonical gospels. The flagellum was a killing tool.

    The term “vessels” which Jesus forbids entry into the Temple courtyard, in the Gospel of Mark, can be translated as sutler’s goods or military supplies (see an unabridged Liddle Scott Greek English Lexicon, for alternative translations). Peter engages in an act of violence, though Jesus is seen to distance himself from it. The Gospel of John states that a cohort was sent out to arrest Jesus, the use of such a large detachment suggests the authorities were concerned about facing a determined resistance to the arrest.

    In Luke, the disciples give up their extra possessions and arm themselves with two swords, as do the Sicariot assassins described by Flavius Josephus.

    There is a passage in Hippolytus’ “Against Heresies” which mentions an aggressively militant sub group of the Essenes who have given up their extra possessions and travel about armed, analogous to the Luke passage cited above.

    In the miraculous feedings Jesus groups his followers in cohorts, centuries and maniples after the organization of a Roman legion.

    Throughout the canonical texts Jesus is threatened with arrest or stoning, a constant undercurrent of the authorities disapproval and violence directed towards him, their attempts to rid themselves of this troublesome man.

    Even today, revolutionary organizations, compartmentalize their activities, and have a “legitimate” or political wing, and a militant wing. Consider the IRA, the Zionist organizations of the Israeli independence era, and Hamas. The canonical gospels present Jesus “legitimate” activities, while downplaying any violent activities he or his followers took part.

    There are other early texts which also either directly state or strongly imply that Jesus was associated with bandit like activity (For example, see Lactantius quoting Sossonius Heirocles on Jesus the leader of 900 bandits).

    Therefore, it does not bother me overmuch if the “official” texts written promoted and transmitted by the winning side downplay or suppress a record of Jesus’ bandit like actions. Their censorship was not complete and enough of the loser’s or suppressed view point survives to let one paint a picture of a Jesus who used violence when he deemed it necessary.

    The mainstream academics in theology have created a canon of works that it is acceptable to refer to when questing for the historical Jesus. They are not disinterested. A review of the credentials of tenured theological types, even at UK or US or German secular institutions show most are graduates of institutions sponsored by a religious organization or have strong religious backgrounds, They are promoting and trying to preserves a certain religious viewpoint which dates back to the orthodoxies of the 19th c. They have over the generations made texts that do not support their viewpoint of limits to further study. One has to ask why a text in Syriac or Aramaic or Armenian is somehow less valid that a Greek or Latin text written by a so called Church Father, except for the fact that it does not support the accepted or orthodox views of the western christian churches. Any scholar who starts looking at the texts rejected by previous generations of academic orthodoxy risks not getting tenure. Therefore the same texts are endlessly recycled. The same old ideas are endlessly re-circulated as meta data. Old articles are reassessed, without reference to the primary sources or seeking to find new primary sources. The is no progress, and no significant threats to the Sunday school interpretation of christian history are ever proposed.

    A recent example of this is the way “liberation theology” school dropped so quickly off the academic map.

    The gospel’s presentation of mythologized Jesus offering a spiritual future existence as an escape from the world’s present miseries, does not preclude the existence of a minor bandit, who was willing to take direct political and military action to make this goals an immediate reality.

    Other messianic claimants or prophetic claimants with “spiritual” goals had no compunction about picking up a sword, if that is what was needed to make their plans go from being an idea to being a fact in place. (The assorted “lestai”(thieves/bandits) listed by Josephus, including Menahem, and also Bar Kosiba, Mohammed, the Mahdi,)

    I apologize for being windy, but I felt there was a lot of material to be covered.

    • 2011-06-19 13:49:44 UTC - 13:49 | Permalink

      Randy, this is one side of the historical Jesus I have not yet addressed on this blog, so take my comments as exploratory tests of your/Brandon’s thesis.

      Assume the canonical gospels are a cleaned up version of Jesus’ biography, a post revolt production written by accomodationists who did not want the Romans to think they were militants in need of extermination.

      But this is what needs to be proved, not assumed from the outset, which is begging the question. Someone else assuming another type of Jesus biography (e.g. Jesus as a rabbi) will find evidence to support that, and so on.

      Jesus provides free health-care, educational sessions, and food for his hungry followers, all things a revolutionary is expected to do. However, the violence has been incompletely suppressed or censored from their accounts.

      Health care and education are relatively modern ideals and were not state (or “revolutionary”) functions in the days of Jesus. But healing the sick, raising the dead, and enlightenment were certainly ancient functions of gods and “saviour kings”. Propaganda from such kings included announcements of violent overthrow of the exploiting and cruel powers in order to “liberate” and “raise up” the poor and oppressed under the old regime. This is all part of the “messiah myth” discussed by Thompson in his book of that name.

      The canonical gospels are not history, they are propaganda, issued by a sect trying to gain acceptance in the period immediately following the Jewish Revolt. At least one group of christians, probably influenced by Paul’s ideas, was trying to survive, in a hostile environment. If the Romans suspected that they harbored any sympathy for the Jewish revolution, they risked being exterminated. The canonical gospels reject beliefs that could be connected with Judean nationalism: it did not support reviving the Temple cult, it rejected the leadership of the priests and dogmatic adherence to the rules laid down in the Torah, and there was an implied rejection of the violent Judean sects. Paul had outlined this before the war’s outbreak, with his explicit statements in support of Roman authority.

      Let’s magine Robin Hood has been captured and executed. Can you imagine his merry band, wishing to escape the same fate, continuing to boast their admiration for their late hero but re-writing all his deeds so that the ballads about him made him a harmless do-gooder who never once threatened the the sherrif’s authority? Even if one can imagine such a programmatic shift in their thinking, would not this re-write in itself be an offense to the Sherrif’s sensibilities, implying he had executed an innocent man?

      Traces of violence, however, remain throughout the canonical gospels.

      In John’s version of the Temple cleansing, Jesus wields a “flagellum”, a flail or scourge, not a “scuta” or quirt or whip as in the synoptic accounts. He is depicted wielding a real weapon, one used by peasants denied access to swords, a weapon that can maim or kill. This is not a simple quirt, a mere tool to impel co operation, as seen in the canonical gospels. The flagellum was a killing tool.

      The term “vessels” which Jesus forbids entry into the Temple courtyard, in the Gospel of Mark, can be translated as sutler’s goods or military supplies (see an unabridged Liddle Scott Greek English Lexicon, for alternative translations). Peter engages in an act of violence, though Jesus is seen to distance himself from it. The Gospel of John states that a cohort was sent out to arrest Jesus, the use of such a large detachment suggests the authorities were concerned about facing a determined resistance to the arrest.

      In Luke, the disciples give up their extra possessions and arm themselves with two swords, as do the Sicariot assassins described by Flavius Josephus.

      There is a passage in Hippolytus’ “Against Heresies” which mentions an aggressively militant sub group of the Essenes who have given up their extra possessions and travel about armed, analogous to the Luke passage cited above.

      In the miraculous feedings Jesus groups his followers in cohorts, centuries and maniples after the organization of a Roman legion.

      Throughout the canonical texts Jesus is threatened with arrest or stoning, a constant undercurrent of the authorities disapproval and violence directed towards him, their attempts to rid themselves of this troublesome man.

      There are other explanations for these that should be balanced against the suggestion that they are remnants of a violent past that failed the later story-teller’s censorship. Some of those alternatives are much simpler explanations — such as literary emulation of Moses and plot development — that find find much supporting material within the Gospels, too.

      Even today, revolutionary organizations, compartmentalize their activities, and have a “legitimate” or political wing, and a militant wing. Consider the IRA, the Zionist organizations of the Israeli independence era, and Hamas. The canonical gospels present Jesus “legitimate” activities, while downplaying any violent activities he or his followers took part.

      This sounds like an anachronism. The reason contemporary liberation (not revolutionary) groups do this is to respond to the state and political realities of the modern world. I know of no evidence this was known in ancient times among “revolutionary”? groups, least of all among Jesus’ followers.

      Therefore, it does not bother me overmuch if the “official” texts written promoted and transmitted by the winning side downplay or suppress a record of Jesus’ bandit like actions. Their censorship was not complete and enough of the loser’s or suppressed view point survives to let one paint a picture of a Jesus who used violence when he deemed it necessary.

      This would be more persuasive if the evidence for violence disrupted the narrative flow of the Gospels. But I think the incidents cited support the suggestion that they are deliberately inserted for literary narrative/theological flow. I have discussed one example in some depth in an earlier post on the Cleansing of the Temple, citing Mack’s and Fredriksen’s awareness that this violent act is most happily part of the narrative structure of the larger story.

      The gospel’s presentation of mythologized Jesus offering a spiritual future existence as an escape from the world’s present miseries, does not preclude the existence of a minor bandit, who was willing to take direct political and military action to make this goals an immediate reality.


      True. But it does not preclude many other alternatives, either. The trick is to find arguments for them that are not generated from assuming the premise at the outset.

      • Steven C Watson
        2017-04-21 00:52:16 UTC - 00:52 | Permalink

        You have to plug something into the equation of your hypothesis to have somewhere to start. Randy is upfront with his assumption; the majority of biblical “scholars” will take theirs for granted, get upset when you point this out, and froth when you ask them to test their assumptions. I think Randy is drawing analogies rather than being anachronistic. We are more informed now than they were then; but in similar situations I expect similar behaviour. What happens today is probably what would happen yesterday; when you don’t think that you will accept resurrections, global floods, miracles and YEC. Don’t forget you have been doing this a lot longer than most people; know more; and have access to more. I’m guilty myself of expecting people to know what is blindingly obvious to me when they can’t, not having gone where I have gone yet.

        • R Pence
          2017-04-21 08:56:43 UTC - 08:56 | Permalink

          Hello Steven and Neil –

          This is a good place to say something that’s been stuck in my craw for some time reading about Christian origins – in particular, the polemics among scholars, credentialed and not.

          There needs to be some clarity when it comes to what is an assumption and what is a supposition. I hear all the time in these debates one person accusing another person of circular reasoning when maybe half the time what is really happening is that someone has made a supposition and then sees how well he can line up the facts in support of it.

          If you’ve ever done any of those logic puzzles on sale at the supermarket (at least in the US), in the advanced puzzles you find pretty quickly that you exhaust all the obvious inferences, and then you have to make a supposition of either some new premise or of the whole solution to see whether any contradictions result. This bold step of mentally adopting a hypothetical and testing all its ramifications is really what separates the basic puzzles (where it’s not necessary) from the advanced. And it’s what you always have to do in the absence of a neat totality of data.

          This is along the lines of what Steven says above. Now Randy Patton, I suspect, opts for the conventionally used ‘assume x’ because this is ordinary speech, and this introduces a kind of confusion. In my opinion, people would be better off if they said ‘suppose x’. An assumption is better understood as some hidden premise that you ‘assume’ is true inasmuch as you don’t open it up to falsification, consider it among the variables, etc.

          Circular reasoning is not supposing some X and then trying to see how the data looks with a few nips and tucks. Circular reasoning is when you say, ‘if x then y’ and ‘if y then x’, and **therefore** ‘x and y’. It’s when you say that because I can form a relationship between some interpretation of mine and the evidence, and then further interpret my interpretation in light of the evidence (and draw out more questionable inferences) that therefore it’s all true. In other words, it’s when you abandon the suppositional character of what you’re saying.

          Sometimes it’s a fine line and sometimes it’s not. But I hear this too much even from guys like Carrier and The Bible Geek: they’ll attack something as circular reasoning when it hasn’t yet reached that stage and can be understood as a supposition and drawing out available inferences.

          Cheers.

          • Neil Godfrey
            2017-04-21 12:32:04 UTC - 12:32 | Permalink

            It’s been a long time since I’ve discussed the methods and reasoning processes in posts. I did a number of times attempt to get to the nitty gritty of that discussion with James McGrath once or twice.

            Certainly there is a wide range of skills and awareness of sound argument among biblical scholars. Often it is not so much a particular line of thought that is circular but the method itself that underlies that reasoning process.

            But you are welcome to keep us on our toes (and clear headed) in our posts and comments.

            • R Pence
              2017-04-22 14:49:31 UTC - 14:49 | Permalink

              Truth be told, I didn’t read the above very closely. So my comment wasn’t meant as a direct criticism of you or the other participants. Cheers.

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