Yesterday I completed reading a most unexpected argument (an argument that led to the conclusion that Christianity did not originate with a historical Jesus) in a book I borrowed on the understanding it would do nothing more for me than clarify a few textual details about our early accounts of the Last Supper. I was following up sources associated with my earlier post, The Two Steps to move the Lord’s Celebratory Supper to a Memorial of his Death.
I see now that if I had paid more attention to a few bibliographies of mythicists here and there on the web and to Klaus Schilling’s summaries/translations (here and here) I might have been forewarned. But I came to the name Jean Magne and some of his works in mainstream scholarly literature and had no forewarning.
The book I am talking about is From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity: An Itinerary Through the Texts to and from the Tree of Paradise. Its Introduction arrests us with
The following pages set out the results of my investigations which started in 1945 soon after my return from captivity in Germany.
From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity (1993) consists of a partial translation of Logique des Sacrements (1989) and the complete translated text of Logique des Dogmes (1989). Anyone even slightly aware of prominent names in biblical scholarship could not fail to be somewhat impressed by the mention of Neusner in the same Introduction:
I would like to reiterate . . . my heartfelt gratitude to Professor Jacob Neusner who prompted this publication, writing to me on February 19, 1990: “I found your thesis entirely plausible. If you can get the book translated into English, I can get it published in a series I edit”, and again on April 23: “I thought your book showed how first-rate scholarship could produce a compelling and important thesis. This is why I wanted it in English”.
Earlier I had attempted to work my way through the original French text of Jean Magne’s “Les Paroles Sur La Coupe” [literally “the words on the (eucharist) cup”] and found the French very difficult indeed, so I was somewhat sympathetic to several of the infelicities in the English translation of Magne’s book in English.
The first part of the book, “From Christianity to Gnosis”, focuses on the textual evidence we have (canonical gospels, Paul’s letters, the Didache) for the origins of the current ritual of the eucharist/Lord’s Supper/Mass. What particularly struck as I read was the author’s method. This could be epitomized by the epigraph at the beginning of Magne’s second chapter:
Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.
(Magne, p. 23)
My search for the author of that epigraph eventually led me to the following explanation.
Dom Maerten’s criticism highlighted the difference which exists between the historical method based on authentic, dated documents and the critical method which, like an archeologist when he excavates, has to distinguish between the various redactional layers in biblical or liturgical documents. Errors of syntax are one of the means of reconstructing the prehistory of a text in order to attain History. The historian’s shortcoming lies in his frequent inability to distinguish between two literary genres : works that have an author and works of living literature where each generation has added its contribution.
Now that little point suddenly reminded me of another work I read and wrote about last year: Divine Revelation Not Limited to the “Bible Canon”. Revelation among many learned Judeans was not considered sealed up in a single book, but was always open to new understandings so that works in the names of certain authors multiplied. Adding to an existing text is not the same thing but it is similar. Did not the author of Revelation address this very practice when he pronounced a curse on anyone who would tamper with what he had just written — which ironically looks like something written over and around another earlier (non-Christian) text!
I cannot agree more with the first quote that speaks of the need to “reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts”. But when it comes to the particular method of reasoning as set out in the second quotation I have some niggling doubts.
So when Jean Magne showed how textual inconsistencies in the various sources appeared very much to be resolved by fitting Jesus words that he would not drink the cup again until in the kingdom back into the gathering at Bethany and not on the Passover itself just prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, I was fascinated. The Last Supper ritual of the Passover evening when Jesus declared the bread and wine to be his body and blood, etc. was a later addition to the Gospel of Mark. An earlier version of that gospel placed the arrest of Jesus immediately after his anointing for burial at Bethany.
I found the argument intriguing (and still do) but at the same time, and especially after many more such arguments relating to the various gospels and epistles, one is left with a very neat and very new picture of the evidence. It’s like the way the archaeologists found scattered pieces of an inscription at Tel Dan and studied to see the way they best fit together to make the most sense. Except with the texts we begin with texts that are already in one piece, only with lots of curious inconsistencies or non sequiturs in them that years of familiarity has very often hidden from us.
The point I am getting to is that after finding such nice fits by sifting out earlier from later strata one is left wishing one could find some additional independent source to test the new reconstructions. Have we built a new house of cards?
So I remain intrigued by Jean Magne’s arguments but I am also held in suspense, waiting for “the proof” to come along to confirm or demolish them. What I really would need to do, pending that moment, would be to devote considerable time and energy to a detailed study of Magne’s arguments and not simply rely upon a single reading of his book.
The overall argument
The general case Magne presents is that although our surviving gnostic texts (Apocryphon of John, Hypostasis of the Archons, On the Origin of the World, Testament of Truth) are comparatively late, he finds that earlier Jewish and Christian texts (including the Dead Sea Scrolls) are best explained in places as attempts to refute the arguments that are often found in those later gnostic writings, or sometimes even advance them. The surviving forms of the gnostic works have themselves introduced efforts to rebut those earlier rebuttals. The Pseudo-Clementine writings about the contest between Simon Magus and Simon Peter may well attest to the real debates that were extant much earlier at the time of Paul and the authors of the gospels. (We know, of course, of the arguments from Roger Parvus, Hermann Detering and Robert M. Price that identify Paul with Simon Magus.)
Crucified in heaven
Before I fully grasped the extent of this argument I was struck by a passing comment on 1 Cor. 2:8 that I had posted about at length.
The passion of Jesus, crucified by the archons (1 Co 2.8), though presented as the messiah crucified by the Romans to the Jews . . . .
(Magne, p. 29)
Did Magne think that Jesus was crucified in heaven? Surely not! But . . . . Then later:
The function of the narrative is therefore to make the Jews accept a new definition of the Messiah which would allow them to accept as the Messiah they were awaiting Jesus crucified by the archons according to 1 Co 2.8, portrayed as crucified by their ‘high-priests’ and ‘archons’ (Lk 24.20).
(Magne, p. 43)
The answer did not become unequivocal until I got into the second part of the book.
The function of the Emmaus narrative, for example, will be to affirm that the heavenly crucifixion of the saviour by the Archons — terminating the reign of astral fatality and alluded to in 1 Co 2.8 —, transposed into a Roman-style crucifixion ‘by the archpriests and archons’, was predicted of the messiah.
(Magne, p. 69)
Did Magne really hold to the Christ Myth theory? Was he a “mythicist”? The last chapter is titled The Problem of Historicization. That should be a clue. The opening sentences leave no doubt.
To conclude, one last problem must be tackled. How were the principal characters in early Christianity, John and Jesus, who did not exist, any more than a few others who necessarily appear with them in the gospels, endowed with a quasi-biography?
(Magne, p. 203)
The same chapter outlined the history of various approaches among the scholars to investigating the historical Jesus: the form critical school and the redaction criticism school. Mention is made of Loisy — whose work on the eucharist set in motion the train that eventually led me to Magne — and some other names of interest:
In actual fact Loisy did not uphold the existence of Jesus for critical reasons, but because he was attached to the Church, and he needed a spark to kindle a fire : “Show me a spark”, he retorted for the benefit of his contemporary mythologists, namely A. Drews in Germany, Paul-Louis Couchoud and Prosper Alfaric in France. This challenge is equally valid for their successors: Georges Las Vergnas, Georges Ory, Marc Stéphane, Guy Fau and, currently in England, G.A. Wells. It is not enough to show that there is no proof for the existence of Jesus, nor that his life was written relying heavily on so-called prophecies, as P. Alfaric has clearly shown in his two short publications on the gospel of Mark, La plus ancienne vie de Jésus and Pour comprendre la vie de Jésus (1929), it is necessary to define why there was a need to write his life and explain how Christianity could have arisen without the existence of the one given as its founder, when it did in fact found him.
(Magne, p. 204)
As an aside, the last sentence in that extract is worth pondering more, since I think it is where today those who argue that there was no Jesus do not seem to present as compellingly as they might the need for Jesus to become historicized.
I flipped back and took more notice of a page between the Foreword and Introduction. It was a quotation by none other than Paul-Louis Couchoud:
PROBLEM AND DEONTOLOGY
… “Tell me, what is Jesus ?”
“Concerning Jesus, I replied, it is easy to believe but hard to know”.
“As it is for Buddha”, he said in the low tone of a thoughtful, educated man who has weighed up the secular faith.
I write for you, faraway hermit and for you, whoever you may be, who consent to examine this great question without bias, without passion, without partiality and with seriousness, courage and sincerity.
You must not tackle this great question until you have put yourself to the test. I wish every student of religion would take a sort of Hippocratic oath, like the future doctor at Montpellier in times gone by:
I swear, whatever my belief or lack of belief, not to let it influence my investigations.
I swear to be disinterested and seek neither controversy nor propaganda.
I swear to be loyal, to omit nor add anything to what I shall discover, nor attenuate or exaggerate anything.
I swear to be respectful and not to trifle with any beliefs whether past or present.
I swear to be courageous and fearlessly hold my opinion against all armed belief which does not tolerate it.
I swear to renounce it the very instant I find a solid reason or it is brought to my attention.
(Paul-Louis Couchoud, Le mystère de Jésus, Paris, 1924, p. 12)
(Magne, p. xiv)
I will no doubt be returning to Jean Magne’s book to manducate (a word he uses often) various pieces more slowly.
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