Daily Archives: 2010-05-22 18:29:30 GMT+0000

Jesus: a Saviour Just Like the Kings and Gods of Egypt and Babylon

The Good Shepherd, mosaic in Mausoleum of Gall...
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Thomas L. Thompson wrote The Messiah Myth to demonstrate that the sayings and deeds of Jesus in the Gospels (and David in the OT) are the product of a literary tradition about Saviour figures — both kings and deities — throughout the Middle East. The subtitle of the book is “the Near Eastern roots of Jesus and David”.

A number of New Testament scholars have expressed concern that contemporary classical literature is not widely read and studied by their peers. One’s understanding of the Gospels and Acts — and even the New Testament letters — is enriched when one can recognize links between them and other literature of their day. Thompson goes a bit further than this, and appeals for a greater awareness of the longstanding tradition of literary themes and images that were the matrix of both Old and New Testament narratives.

Some scholars see in Jesus’ sayings certain gems that are unique or holy or brilliantly enlightened and worthy of the deepest respect. They see in his deeds of healing and concern for the poor and weak a noble character worthy of devotion.

Some see the themes of concern for the poor and condemnation of the rich and powerful as evidence that Jesus was tapping in to popular revolutionary or resistance sentiments among peasants and displaced persons in early first century Galilee.

Other scholars see in the saying evidence of economic exploitation such that a sense of resentment could easily morph into a Jesus movement.

All of the above interpretations are thrown into question when one notices their echoes in the OT – and especially throughout the wider world of the OT. The wordings vary, but they are all clear reiterations of the same motifs.

But after one becomes more familiar with the literary heritage of the ancient “Near East”, one must legitimately ask if all those sayings and deeds of Jesus are nothing more than stereotypical tropes that authors wanting to describe any God in the flesh or Saviour King would inevitably use. What is said of Jesus was said countless times of your average typical Saviour Pharaoh or Mesopotamian monarch or deity.

Naturally we expect the Gospel authors to be more influenced by the Jewish texts than Egyptian or Mesopotamian ones, but Thompson shows that the this is all part of the same package. What we read in the Old Testament is much the same as we read among Egyptian, Syrian and Babylonian literature. It’s all part and parcel of the same thought world.

Thompson asks readers to re-read the Gospel narratives about Jesus in the context of the literary heritage of the Jewish scriptures — and to understand that heritage as itself part of a wider literary and ethical outlook throughout the Middle East. Don’t forget that Jews were not confined to Palestine but were well established in communities from Babylonia to Egypt, too.

The following extracts are from Thompson’s discussion of The Song for a Poor Man. It is only one of the several facets of this heritage that Thompson addresses. One sees that the ancient world was full of Saviours like Jesus. It must a have been a happy time and place (tongue in cheek). read more »

Why Christianity Happened: Origins of the Pauline Mission” (reviewing ch.5 of James Crossley’s book)

Arkansas Mass Baptism 2nd effort
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Earlier I reviewed chapter 2 of Why Christianity Happened by James Crossley, and here I look at his final chapter (5), “Recruitment, Conversion, and Key Shifts in Law Observance: The Origins of the Pauline Mission“.

I was curious to understand what Crossley had to say in favour of a social history approach to explaining how antinomian Pauline Christianity can be explained if the earliest Christian movement began among circumcising, sabbath-keeping, synagogue-worshiping, food-law observant Jews. Crossley seeks to explain Christianity’s origins through socioeconomic paradigms. Social history, he argues, is where the truly historical explanations lie.

Paul’s views on the law and justification by faith can thus be seen as an intellectual reaction to and justification of a very down-to-earth and messy social problem. (p.172)

I fully agree with attempting to explain Christian origins in secular terms and according to the models of the social sciences and socioeconomic models where possible. Unfortunately, his attempt to explain the origins of the Jesus movement through the Lenski-Kautsky and Hobsbawm observations of how certain social movements arise flounders on the absence of evidence, or misapplication of Gospel evidence, as discussed in my earlier review of chapter 2.

The problems facing Crossley’s explanation in that chapter, and in chapter 5 which I will address here, arise from the default assumption that the narrative outline of the Gospels and Acts is grounded in genuine history. Although he treats these texts as if their narratives contain allusions to the real historical origins of early Christianity, he at no time justifies this assumption. (See “footnote in box at end of this post for further discussion of this point.)

The trap laid by the assumption of historicity of Gospels-Acts

When Crossley (or any) historian locks himself into the Gospel-Acts’ narrative paradigm of Christian origins he is stuck with just a single form of Christianity and must find a way of explaining how so many extremely variant forms of Christianity read more »