Death

My mother died four days ago, and will be buried the day after tomorrow. She lived a full life, marked by joys and sorrows. She did good work, and was known and loved. I was able to be with her at the end, with my siblings, holding her hand, and listening. She was at peace, which was all that I wanted for her.

You probably do not know who she was or who I am. It does not matter. Death is the same for everyone. Life does not go on forever, and we are folded back into the earth from which we strangely arose not many years ago. Words and deeds, achievements and monuments: their meaning vanishes for the dying, and for those living who have accepted death and made their peace with it. There is nothing to fear and nothing to lament in death itself. It is the reverse side of life, and something we knew was there all along.

My mother declined gradually over many years, due to an unusual degenerative disease that, unfortunately for us, was not diagnosed until a few months ago. I had misunderstood the meaning of her withdrawal from life and from me, fearing and believing that she was angry or depressed or ashamed or in some other mental anguish. It came as a relief to know that she was simply falling down in her body. It was not her heart that had failed or turned sour. It is regrettable to me that I had this delusion about her condition and her behavior. It drove me into miserable parts of myself. But I take it as a lesson about how little we understand in others, even those we think we know best.

In her last hours, I said to her, “you’re doing so well, Mom!” to which she replied with an eye full of life, “I’m at the beginning.” She was probably expressing faith in her future life with God. Or she was aware that her declining brain had quite literally reduced itself to happy and untroubled memories of her earliest childhood (which was a blessing for us). But I know that my mom lived most intimately in her meditations with the story of creation, the act of creation, and the beauty of life on this planet in all of its forms. I think she could have been saying that she was “at the beginning” of creation, in the sense of this saying from the Gospel attributed to the apostle Thomas, the so-called “doubter,” whose name my mother gave me:

The disciples said to Jesus, “tell us how our end will be.”

Jesus said, “have you discovered the beginning, then, so that you are seeking the end? For where the beginning is the end will be. Blessed is one who stands at the beginning: that one will know the end and will not taste death.”

Gospel of Thomas, 18

Christianity makes little sense apart from the ideas of Plato

A consistent refrain in writing about Christianity and its history is, how does any of this make sense? Why are the writings of Paul so prominent in the New Testament? Why are the Gospels so unconvincing as historical testimony? Why is there so much polytheism in the Hebrew Bible, supposedly the font of monotheism? Who invented the Bible, anyhow? Isn’t the Book of Revelation completely insane? And so forth.

It really depends on where you’re coming from. In the childhood home, or in the pew, or in certain kinds of school environment, the Bible is great. It makes perfect sense, when you don’t think about it much. But, when a person comes to intellectual maturity, when they begin to the think and reason like an independent adult, problems begin to appear. And they continue to appear and pile up and and never go away.

If the scientific revolution of the 17th century had never happened, one could argue, modern Christianity would have none of these difficulties. It is only because we now live in a world based on the idea of universal cause and effect, based on the principles and discoveries and affordances of empirical science, and all its transformative technologies, that religion is absurd. And I would argue that Christianity in particular became absurd when this modern way of looking at the world through cause and effect utterly dismantled and displaced the elite philosophy that had been dominant from pre-Christian times down to the early modern period, i.e. the 17th century: Platonism.

For all its historical complexity, Platonism is not difficult to summarize:

This world is the work of a God who is Reason. It is the nearest to perfection that can be realized in matter, constructed on a mathematical basis which accounts for the heavenly motions and the structure of physical bodies alike; and all this the human mind can learn to understand on the principle that like is known by like; i.e., by developing through the studies of mathematics, astronomy, and dialectic that resemblance to the divine order and its Author of which its own possession of reason makes it capable. For by virtue of that capacity, the human soul is akin to the divine…Moreover, the world is good because it displays order, the product of limit, measure, harmony and number, and behind them all of Unity, which becomes for Plato the final principle and the source of all goodness

W.K.C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. 5 (Cambridge UP, 1978), p. 444

In the Platonic worldview, everything in the cosmos is a copy or likeness of the divine ideas, which themselves are a likeness of the one supreme God. This way of thinking is foundational for the New Testament, for a religion that worships both the one God of ancient Israel, and the Son of God, Jesus Christ, and yet is not polytheistic or idolatrous in the manner of ancient cults and temples and local or national deities. Jesus Christ is, in essence, a platonic idea of the one God. In biblical terms, Jesus is the likeness (ὁμοίωμα) of God, because, it is believed, God wanted to represent himself to human beings in a saving, non-idolatrous way as Jesus Christ. Humans are to become like Jesus, because Jesus is like God, and humans to begin with are made in the likeness of God (Genesis). It all makes perfect philosophical, historical, psychological, and ideological sense once we see this idea in its proper context of the Platonism of middle-to-late antiquity, of the medieval era, and of the Renaissance and the early modern period. It was only fairly recently, in the history of world ideas, that Platonism has been overthrown and discarded by all educated persons, excepting a few eccentric academics and esotericists.

The key text is from Paul:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God [ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ], thought it not robbery to be equal with God [τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ]: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant [μορφὴν δούλου], and was made in the likeness of men [ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων]  and being found in fashion as a man [σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος], he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, etc.

Philippians 2:5-8

The tendency in scholarship on this passage is to lose the forest for the trees. To focus on technical historical questions (which are also, conveniently, unanswerable, so that scholars have a lot of room to maneuver and speculate). Such as, are there gnostic or docetic influences behind this account of Christ’s appearance? But the truth at work here is that the Christian idea of a divine/human mediator serves to transform 2nd Temple Judaism into a more universalist and Plato-friendly theology. The problem of monotheism is solved. We can have one ultimate, transcendent, infinite, and unseen God on the one hand, and we can also have a fully concrete, authoritative, worldly god who exercises lordship (i.e. political power) over the rebellious human creature, in the practical way that is essential to religion at all times.

One thing about ancient Judaism in the Hellenistic period, i.e. 2nd Temple Judaism, which is often ignored in scholarship, is the fact that it was extremely popular outside of the land of Palestine. It was popular in the region of Babylon and the East; extremely popular in Alexandria, where the decisive Greek translation (LXX) of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) originated; and it was popular in Rome and the regions of Greece, Spain, and North Africa. Judaism was a giant hit for many centuries during the rise of Rome. A great book on this topic is Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People (tr. Yael Lotan, Verso, 2009). Sand is an Israeli historian of modern France, who developed a thoughtful critique of the essentially modern idea of nationalism, and of the way it has been projected back into ancient times in spite of an unsupportive historical record. It turns out that a great deal of the ancient Jewish diaspora consisted of originally non-Jewish (non-“semitic”) peoples, who encountered the great Books of Moses and the prophets and the other writings, and found them just as alluring and fascinating as people do today in Africa, Asia, etc. So they converted to Judaism.

But there were problems. There was always the awkward fact of Jewish particularism. Jews had to be circumcised. They had to follow onerous dietary laws. They could not intermarry with gentiles. And so naturally there arose a desire for an updated version of Judaism, not having anything to do with temple sacrifices or the bloody conflicts in Palestine, that would suit the needs of diverse, struggling, rootless subject populations of the Roman Empire. Through Philo and Josephus and various Alexandrian intellectuals, Platonism became the major trend in Jewish thought for centuries after the conquests of Alexander. It is entirely to be expected that Paul and the Evangelists and the other authors and editors of the New Testament would have adapted their ideas to this environment, would have known how useful Platonic ideas about divine cosmic mediation are to any monotheistic religion, and would have expressed their gospel accordingly. It was something that did not need to be said, just as today no one needs to argue for the importance of gender equality and racial equality.

Once a person has digested Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Darwin, physics, neurobiology, paleontology, etc., there is no road back to Platonism. We live in an intelligibly material cosmos. All things are connected through cause and effect, not through divine Platonic ideas. Unless, of course, modern culture wants to put blinders on, and confine itself to the ideas of an essentially literary mind such as C.S. Lewis; or perhaps some anti-Enlightenment ideology: Marxism, Nazism, Fascism, etc., which certainly converted a large portion of the educated classes of the 20th century, whose forbears would have been Platonists.

Christianity worked when there were two classes: the ruling class, and the illiterate class. The truth of Plato could sit comfortably above, and dominate, the “story truth” of the Bible. In the Information Age, no such hierarchy is conceivable. Only wealth and military power and the technologies of mind control are powerful. And they do not recognize any providential ordering of the world.

The One Book to Read on Early Christianity

For the past 5 years or so I’ve been looking at recent scholarship on the origins of Christianity. As with the murder of President Kennedy in 1963, we have a surfeit of sketchy “evidence,” and far more questions than answers. I have already written briefly about the vexed question of Jesus’ historical existence. The separate and more basic question—how did Christianity come about?—also admits of no definitive answer. We don’t even know who the first Christians were, or where they were. In order to get one’s house in order about these fundamental matters, we first need to interrogate the history of the New Testament itself.

There have been only a few legitimate achievements in recent historical research. The one book that, in my humble opinion, stands above the rest is David Trobisch’s The First Edition of the New Testament (Oxford, 2000). Maybe it isn’t a page-turning thriller, but as historical detective work into the foundations of Western civilization, it is both fascinating and important.

The thesis of the book is that the New Testament was carefully assembled and crafted as a literary unit, and published as a specific book (or rather, anthology of books), at a specific time and place, by a specific group of people, with a specific purpose.

This idea may not seem like a big deal, but it is. Trobisch’s evidence is solid, and he knows what he is talking about. His expertise is widely recognized, and he sits on the committee of the German Bible Society that publishes the Nestle-Aland critical edition of the Greek New Testament.

Instead of constructing a story doubtfully based on little scraps of information from dubious authorities (“the Church Fathers”) pertaining to a supposed “formation of the New Testament canon,”—a story that happens to flatter both the modern Christian Church and the guild of religion scholars—Trobisch concentrates our attention on the actual manuscript tradition. And having poured over some 5000+ manuscripts, many of which have only come to light in recent decades, he uncovers the outlines of what must have happened.

A specific person, or (more likely) a group of persons, created the New Testament. They compiled, arranged, and edited these 27 documents, the bulk of which had already been composed by some earlier group of persons, also unknown, into the story of Christianity as we have always known it, which is that (1) God sent Jesus into the world; (2) Jesus sent some apostles (and a few of his own brothers) into the world as his witnesses; and finally (3) the brothers and apostles and their disciples (8 guys: “Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter, & Jude”) saw to it that their testimony was permanently recorded in a “New Testament.” This collection was appended to a Greek “Old Testament” collection of older Hebrew Scriptures (the Tanakh), and so it was a 2-part, Christian Bible. So it has ever been.

The conventional theory of “The Canon,” invented by 19th century scholars, holds that (1) numerous Christian writings emerged independently, each with their own claim to authority; (2) various collections were made of these writings; and (3) Church authorities of the 4th and early 5th centuries, such as Athanasius of Alexandria or Augustine of Hippo, effectively closed and therefore defined the Canon for all future generations.

What is Trobisch’s argument that it didn’t happen that way, that the Christian Bible was created at a much earlier time (the 3rd quarter of the 2nd century CE)?

He works with the most basic facts–always the best procedure. Such as that our 4 Gospels are invariably handed down to us only under certain titles: “The Gospel According to Matthew,” “The Gospel According to Mark,” “The Gospel According to Luke,” and “The Gospel According to John.” They are always arranged in that precise sequence.

The complete titles of the Gospels in the manuscripts read as follows: εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μαθθαῖον, εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μάρκον, εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Λουκᾶν, εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Ἰωάννην. They consist of three elements: the first element, εὐαγγέλιον, designates the literary genre; the third element refers to the authorial source; and κατὰ [“according to”] connects the two. Each of these three elements is very unusual.

The term Gospel is used to refer to the content of the message as well as to the act of preaching in the New Testament. It is not used to indicate a specific literary genre. And so far no evidence has surfaced in pre-Christian literature, either, that the term can be used to refer to a literary genre.

Indicating the authorial source by κατὰ and the accusative is extremely rare for book titles…

The third element of the titles, the name of the authoritative witness, cannot be derived with certainty from the text of the writings. The alleged authorship of the titles is not repeated in the text of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The possibility that the titles were independently formulated this way by the authors of the Gospels may be safely ruled out. It would be too much of a coincidence for two independently working publishers to have decided on the same unusual genre designation, the same authorial source, and κατὰ as the syntactical connector.

Trobisch, p. 38

The New Testament abounds with such peculiarities. There are also external features of the manuscript tradition that suggest an original editorial scheme: the use of the nomina sacra, a distinctive shorthand system for transcribing the most common words (“God,” “Jesus,” etc.); the novelty and ubiquity of the codex format of the New Testament manuscripts; the peculiar grouping and arrangement of all the books, not just the Gospels. Or the weird fact that Acts of the Apostles was never grouped with the Gospel According to Luke, of which it is the obvious sequel reflecting the same authorship, but always in a separate section alongside the epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude. Or the fact that 1 John is invariably classed as a “letter” even though it bears none of the marks of a letter (greeting, identification of author and addressee, farewell, etc.). All of these peculiar facts about the New Testament require an explanation not afforded by the conventional theory.

It is odd, but in a way unsurprising, that a Judeo-Christian civilization would have difficulty recognizing the common ancestry, veiled though it is, of the separate books of the New Testament. The difficulty arises from the conceit that there must have been multiple independent witnesses to the story that Christianity wants to tell about itself. We know that there were other scriptures, e.g. the Nag Hammadi library, that told stories of a redeemer, or that built upon the imagined universe of the older Hebrew Scriptures. The authors of all these heretical scriptures, the Sethians, Valentinians, Marcionites, Montanists, Ebionites, etc. were, of course, depraved lunatics who had no legitimate “apostolic” traditions; it is only we, the orthodox (“right-thinking”) Christians, who stand in the light of truth.

Stepping back from Trobisch’s specific argument, I want to close with a sketch of what I consider a realistic picture of the origins of Christianity. I reached this position after many frustrating encounters with theories and books and blogs and forums that abound with self-certain explanations of “what really happened,” none of them based on the type of evidence that could possibly compel a consensus from all informed and reasonable people. Here is a different approach:

1. The evidence we have for what “Christianity” was prior to about 175 CE is (a) poorly attested, (b) multifarious and unwieldy inasmuch as it is attested, and (c) taken on its own terms, gives little or no evidence of being a group of movements or traditions that were likely to converge and coalesce around a single narrative about a unique figure, i.e. Jesus of Nazareth, Jewish messiah, exalted Lord, sender of apostolic witnesses to his earthly life, death, resurrection, and prophesied return at the Eschaton.

2. Therefore, the least disputable and most definitive event in the formation of “early Christianity” (i.e. a phenomenon that we are explicitly defining as the precursor and substantial cause of Christianity-as-world-religion (from the Council of Nicea in 325 CE to the present), can only be the publication of the first edition of the 27-text New Testament, as reflected in our manuscript tradition that dates only from the 4th century. Other moments in the genesis of Christianity both before and after this publication—such as the earliest collection of the Pauline epistles, or the composition of the earliest Gospel, or the imperial establishment (i.e. in physical Churches) and “canonization” (i.e. legal mandating of) of the Christian Bible by emperors and/or their bishops—are both less certain and less important. That is, Christianity could have turned out more or less as we have it without these events having occurred. But we cannot imagine it turning out in its present form unless this 27-book anthology had entered the historical record when it did, in the form in which we have always known it. 

3. Attempts to establish a chronology of events and/or persons prior to the great publication in the 3rd quarter of the 2nd century are bound to be speculative, theological, apologetic, anti-theological, anti-apologetic, or otherwise not soberly historical. A few reasons for this inevitable divergence of opinion are that we have too much evidence of the wrong kind, too little evidence of the right kind (e.g. archeological), and that there is inevitably entanglement of modern historical readings of the NT with modern theological readings of it.

David Trobisch has performed the invaluable service of establishing us on solid ground, however small and cramped, on a terrain notoriously awash in mud and quicksand. We will never know the history behind the texts until we begin to understand the history of the texts themselves. And even then, maybe what we are left with is no history at all.

The Christian Roots of Zionism

I don’t have much to say about the horrors unfolding this month in Palestine. I do want to say something about the historical, ideological roots of this conflict. It is well known, or should be, that modern Zionism and the State of Israel were created by Christian Zionists in English-speaking countries, mainly the United Kingdom and the United States, but also with the support of other “settler-colonial” Anglophone nations such as Canada and Australia. Anyone who wants to know about the historical roots of modern Israeli Zionism in pre-modern Christian England can read Barbara Tuchman’s book Bible and Sword.

Christian American support for Israel, whether political, financial, or military, remains absolutely critical for the State of Israel today, and the prosecution of its policies.

In 2018, the citizens of Israel, acting as a sovereign people through their representatives in the Knesset (the Israeli legislature), solemnly declared that the State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Which is to say, it is a uniquely Jewish ethno-nationalist political community, defined according to an “ethno-religious” concept of what it means to be a Jew. Furthermore, this Jewish nation-state claims the unique right to national self-determination within the territory that it claims for itself, which it defines as the “historic homeland” of the Jewish people. Prior to 2018, it had been the conviction of many Israelis, mostly on the left, that Israel’s core principles are democratic and liberal, not nationalist and Jewish. It is very likely that many citizens of Israel still feel this way, and disagree with the law of 2018. But it is not for nothing that the voting citizens of Israel have repeatedly elected Mr. Netanyahu as prime minister and followed him down the dark path towards right wing racial and religious identitarianism. The growing power of the fanatical Jewish settler movement in Israeli politics, dedicated to the theft of other people’s homes and land, can no longer be ignored or excused.

It follows directly from Israel’s self-definition, and from the unwavering support it receives from the United States and other nations that mostly have their ethnic roots in historically Christian England, that the state of Israel enacts a policy of ethnic cleansing, and many other policies that are essentially racist, destructive, unjust, and inhumane.

Which is ironic, since both Americans and Christians make an elaborate show of how progressive they are, how anti-racist they are, how profoundly committed they are to the essential moral and political equality of human beings.

Did Jesus Exist? Some Fallacies

The first major scholar of the synoptic Gospels to cast serious and profound doubt on the question whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person was Bruno Bauer (1809-1882). Bauer is the central figure in Albert Schweitzer’s famous book of 1906, The Quest of The Historical Jesus. Schweitzer, believing that Jesus had existed, rejected Bauer’s thesis. He attempts to argue in The Quest that Jesus must have been a “thoroughgoing eschatologist,” who died under Pontius Pilate in the mistaken belief that he, Jesus, was in fact the heavenly “Son of Man” who was destined to fulfill the prophecies of centuries-old Jewish Apocalyptic narratives such as 1 Enoch and the Book of Daniel. It is not a convincing argument.

Bauer proposed that the (original) author of the Gospel According to Mark composed the story of Jesus of Nazareth as imaginative literature. The other three Gospels were constructed on the basis of (among other things) this story, and everything in the history of Christianity–all that is founded upon the rock of that story–is likewise not grounded in any verifiable or even plausible historical reality.

Unfortunately, the question of Jesus’ historical existence has been muddled and distorted and rendered a “stupid controversy on the internet.” As far as I can tell, the element of distortion and fallacy goes back to Bauer himself. Now, one obvious reason why I cannot put forward this claim with total confidence has to do with an embarrassing failure of modern scholarship. Inexplicably, Bauer’s work on the New Testament has never been translated into English. Wtf?

In 1841, Bauer published his Kritik der evangelischen Geschichte der Synoptiker. This is his great work on the historical incredibility or implausibility of the synoptic Gospels, which so impressed Schweitzer. But much later in his life, in 1851 and 1877, Bauer published other books on Paul and on the allegedly Greco-Roman origins of Christianity and the New Testament. It is in these latter books that Bauer became the first serious representative of the so-called Christ Myth Theory, a.k.a. Jesus Mythicism. This topic consists of the history of scholarly attempts to demonstrate both the negative proposition that Jesus never existed, and the positive proposition as to how exactly Christianity did originate in history, despite the non-existence of any such figure as Jesus. In the history of this literature, from Bauer’s writings on Paul in 1851 to the 21st century writings of Earl Doherty, Thomas Brodie, and Richard Carrier, there has never been anything like an agreement among mythicists as to how the worship of Jesus Christ and other aspects of earliest Christianity originated in the ancient world in the 1st or 2nd century CE.

The reason is obvious: the evidence for establishing the positive proposition of the Christ Myth theory is insufficient for the job. And why would that be? Any number of factors would explain why this is so. But let’s not be stupid about this. No historically literate person can suppose that the political establishment of a strict, monotheistic (“one true god”), Chalcedonian (“Jesus was both man and god”), and intolerant form of Christianity in Europe from 380 to 1789 CE had nothing to do with the loss of any evidence from ancient times that we might have inherited for the history of earliest Christianity. The past is a dark hole, and it is a fantastic delusion of both Christian and anti-Christian historical scholarship in the modern era to assume dogmatically that we must have sufficient evidence to reach a compelling verdict on these matters.

It is fallacious not to distinguish the following propositions:

  1. That Jesus of Nazareth existed has been an unshakeable presumption or axiom of Western, Judeo-Christian culture since the Council of Nicea (325 CE).
  2. The Gospel portraits of Jesus of Nazareth are not credible as narratives of real historical events.
  3. Surviving historical data, including the New Testament scriptures, do not constitute credible evidence that Jesus of Nazareth existed.
  4. It is likely that Jesus never existed.
  5. Jesus never existed, and Christianity originated thus and so.

Presumptions and axioms cannot be proved. If they could, they would not be presumptions and axioms. But they certainly can be questioned, doubted, and shown to be fallacious, fantastical, or delusional. Bauer showed in 1841 that the synoptic Gospels make no sense as history. Among other things, they fail to explain why their Jesus would have been executed by the Romans for sedition. Or how anyone came to believe that he was the Messiah. Or had been resurrected from the tomb. Or what it would have meant in Palestine circa 30 CE to believe in a messiah, hope for his arrival, or accept the report of his resurrection from the dead. And so on. These are only a few of the hopeless and foundational incoherencies of the synoptic Gospels.

Schweitzer gives a long list of such questions, both in his specific chapter on Bauer, and in chapter 19 (“Thoroughgoing Skepticism and Thoroughgoing Eschatology”), in which he opposes his own views and those of his ally Johannes Weiss to the skeptical conclusions of Bauer and William Wrede. Schweitzer does not actually attempt to refute Bauer or the skeptics. He pleads against them. He says that they lack “intuition” of Jesus’ true historical nature. But he does not attempt to argue, specifically, that propositions 1-3 in the above list are false. Far from it.

Here is the central conclusion of The Quest for The Historical Jesus:

The historical Jesus of whom the criticism of the future, taking as its starting point the problems which have been recognized and admitted, will draw the portrait, can never render modern theology the services which it claimed from its own half-historical, half-modern, Jesus. He will be a Jesus, who was Messiah, and lived as such, either on the ground of a literary fiction of the earliest Evangelist, or on the ground of a purely eschatological Messianic conception.

Ch. XX, “Results,” p. 396

Schweitzer himself incorporates Bauer’s skeptical, negative conclusion about the historicity of Jesus into his own conclusion, explicitly. And it makes no sense. How can “criticism” portray a “Jesus, who was Messiah, and lived as such,” on the basis of a literary fiction? Schweitzer equivocates.

Schweitzer’s equivocation is a necessary consequence of modern Christianity’s attempt at a dual allegiance both to itself and to the empirical study of reality. (Most Christians today have only the one allegiance to their own faith.) It’s embarrassing. But that’s what a society based on biblical religion demands of its conscientious historians: dishonesty, equivocation, having it both ways, lying, and confusion.

Such is what we also get from the brash, middle-minded, best-selling pseudo-historian Bart Ehrman (by training, a textual critic of ancient Christian literature), who pretends to provide a neutral, professional, even-handed, and so of course objective assessment of Christianity’s historical claims, but who in fact is little better than a shill of America’s theo-conservative publishing industry. Ehrman pretends to be a disciple of Schweitzer, and so much is true when it comes to politically judicious and theologically sensitive equivocation.

But anyone who reads The Quest knows that Ehrman and his best-selling colleagues in the Jesus industry are full of shit. The real Schweitzer was a skeptic, who honored the fearless honesty of Bauer.

Conclusion

Jesus Christ is the deity of a world religion. Faith automatically proves that he existed, that the Bible tells the truth about him one way or another. The great German critics of the past exposed the emptiness of the concept of an actually historical Jesus. But hold on now, contemporary scholars of religion have worked up a great consensus that yes he sure as hell existed. But their work is lifeless and stupid and generally nothing but a repetition of discredited claims from the 19th century, which anyone of curiosity can read about in Schweitzer’s great book. But people don’t trust old books or try to read them. There is a ridiculous notion on certain internet forums dedicated to biblical studies that only contemporary scholars currently employed at reputable institutions have authority to pronounce on matters Biblical. For evangelicals with a college degree, this guild is akin to the Catholic Church’s Magisterium of yore.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Matthew 23:13

Trust us, Jesus existed. Trust us.

What Resurrection? Silence in the New Testament

The New Testament does not actually present the “bodily” resurrection of Jesus as historical fact. A lot of people don’t know this, either because they have not read the Bible carefully and critically, or because they have not read it at all. Every year, the churches and the apologists and the media get up in our faces and tell us in some crude but utterly confident tone (too confident, of course) that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Many of them, including people with college degrees, regard it as “historical fact.”

I’m not even talking about the miraculous, i.e. not believable, aspect of the resurrection. I kind of feel like an asshole just for writing this post. Why disturb anyone’s “harmless faith” in the afterlife? People need this stuff.

Right. Well for one thing, children do not need to believe in eternal punishment, which is historically inextricable from Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead (whatever people may tell themselves, wishing away the doctrine of hell from their minds as if it were a preference or a mental error.)

But the main problem is not even that the resurrection is unlikely to have happened, or that believing in it today is irrational. Forget all that. The problem is that the very text of the New Testament–a large chunk of it–indicates that the earliest Christians had not even heard of the story of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, much less believed in it.

Approximately half of the texts of the New Testament–as many as 14–know nothing of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. By “Jesus’ bodily resurrection,” I mean that specific tradition (or proclamation) according to which Jesus’ dead body (a) was miraculously removed from its tomb, (b) appeared in living form to his disciples and/or the apostles, and (c) was exalted to heavenly glory. Each of these three aspects is fundamental for the 4 Gospel writers (including the author of Mark’s Gospel, let us suppose) and for Christian belief in general. It is a bit more complicated for the Pauline epistles (e.g. 1 Cor 15 and Philippians 2), but for the sake of argument let’s just assume that Paul’s account is essentially consistent with that of the Gospels and Acts.

The texts that know nothing of Jesus’ bodily resurrection include 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation.

These are the final 14 books of the New Testament, in their traditional (i.e. medieval) order. That’s quite a large chunk of the Christian Bible.

Geza Vermes, in his book The Resurrection: History and Myth (Doubleday, 2008), puts it more diplomatically. After writing 129 pages on the Gospels, Acts, Paul, and the Jewish background to the idea of resurrection, he observes laconically that “the remaining books of the New Testament contribute remarkably little to the problem of the resurrection” (emphasis added).

It should be noted that, in the weightiest of these 14 texts, Hebrews and Revelation, as well as in 2 Thessalonians, Jesus is indeed an exalted savior figure, who transcends death. But there isn’t a trace of the bodily resurrection narrative. Likewise, the Johannine letters do not mention the words “resurrection” or “risen,” or anything to do with the resurrection story. Nor do the epistles of the supposed brothers of Jesus, James and Jude.

The silence of 2 Thessalonians is particularly striking, since this text is widely thought by scholars to have been modeled explicitly on the structure, vocabulary, and theme of 1 Thessalonians. (Consensus opinion is that 1 Thss is authentic Paul, whereas 2 Thss is a forgery based on 1 Thss.) The proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection is prominent in the first letter, but entirely absent in the second. If 2 Thss was in fact a cleverly crafted rejoinder to 1 Thss, then the omission of the resurrection theme must have been a conscious choice and not some sort of accident.

Some of these 14 NT books, in particular 1 & 2 Timothy and 1 Peter, seem to pass on a tradition of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. But on closer inspection, it is evident that they do not. (Remember, the bodily-resurrection-of-Jesus narrative involves an empty tomb, appearances to disciples/apostles, and the heavenly exaltation. All three elements are involved, but the appearances are the most important.)

Let us consider the most prominent passages:

Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.
(1 Timothy 3:16)

This is perhaps an early creed. But “vindicated in (the) spirit” is extremely vague language for so important an event. “Taken up in glory” is the generic language of apotheosis. Nothing here suggests the bodily resurrection tradition.

Grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher… (2 Timothy 1:9-11)
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel. (2 Timothy 2:8)

It is according to Paul’s gospel (“it has now been revealed”) that Christ “appeared” and that he “abolished death” (abstract) and “brought life and immortality” (generic). These are no more than vague assurances about an afterlife, based (through forgery) on the authority of Paul.

Of all these 14 texts, 1 Peter has the best claim to a bodily resurrection narrative, so let’s examine it in detail.

By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable… (1 Peter 1:3-4; cf 1:11, 1:21)

The name of the thing is here, certainly, but nothing more.

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22)

Once again, “made alive in the spirit” is vague language. If Peter knew of a bodily resurrection tradition, as surely he did if we are to believe the Gospels and Acts, why be so vague about it? The heavenly exaltation is affirmed, but without any of the narrative context of the resurrection story. It is simply a bare doctrine.

We could say a lot about this “descent into hell” discourse, which only appears here in all of the NT. But all we need to point out is how mythological it is, and how far we are from any “eyewitness testimony.”

Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you… (1 Peter 5:1)

The author claims to be an “eyewitness,” but not of the resurrection: only of the sufferings of Christ. The only glory that this Peter knows of is either in heaven, or is to be revealed in future times.

While it is true that the bare idea of Jesus’ resurrection, or the assertion of his heavenly exaltation, is found in many parts of the New Testament, we must recognize that such claims amount to little more than what is found in the OT stories about Enoch, or Elijah, or the general resurrection prophesied in the Book of Daniel. Or for that matter, in any number of religious texts and traditions of the Hellenistic era. But as Christian theologians and apologists have always asserted, no such vague or general ideas about an afterlife can be compared with the tradition of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. That tradition is dominant in the “front part” of the New Testament, but starkly absent from the “back part,” i.e. from 2 Thessalonians to Revelation.

A fascinating but unfortunately expensive book on this topic is Christ’s Resurrection in Early Christianity and the Making of the New Testament by the German historian Markus Vinzent. According to him, it was only after the preaching and publishing activity of Marcion of Sinope in the middle of the 2nd century CE that the Christian Church and its scribes became seriously interested in the tradition of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Marcion was reviving interest in the preaching of Paul, who for him was the only apostle. The publishers of the first edition of the New Testament, responding to Marcion’s challenge, made sure that all four evangelists were on the same page with the Pauline epistles. But as I have argued in this post, they still managed to pass along a lot of original Christian scripture that lacked Paul’s proclamation of the risen Jesus, or at least the Easter story of the Gospels.

Some days ago I posted a version of this essay on reddit, and the moderator of one subreddit dedicated to the “academic” study of the Bible (but in actuality a forum for a lot of evangelical bullshit) deleted it. Of course, moderator abuse is an abiding feature of that platform. Oh well, I thought, might as well stick it up here, since I haven’t been posting much lately. Thanks for reading!

Bad Friday?

Today is Good Friday in the Christian calendar: the day when Christians celebrate their belief that a historical man Jesus died for their personal salvation. A holiday symbolizing the belief that suffering, persecution, and death are redemptive events for humankind, and divinely ordained.

Here I want to share three thought-provoking reflections upon the significance of the Jesus sacrifice.

The first comes from an excellent recent book about the rediscovery of Lucretius’ great poem De Rerum Natura during the European Renaissance:

Religions are invariably cruel. They always promise hope and love, but their deep, underlying structure is cruelty. This is why they are drawn to fantasies of retribution and why they inevitably stir up anxiety among their adherents. The quintessential emblem of religion–and the clearest manifestation of the perversity that lies at its core–is the sacrifice of a child by its parent.

Almost all religious faiths incorporate the myth of such a sacrifice, and some have actually made it real. Lucretius had in mind the sacrifice of Iphegenia by her father Agamemnon, but he may also have been aware of the Jewish story of Abraham and Isaac and other comparable Near Eastern stories for which the Romans of his time had a growing taste. Writing around 50 BCE he could not, of course, have anticipated the great sacrifice myth that would come to dominate the Western world, but he would not have been surprised by it or by the endlessly reiterated, prominently displayed images of the bloody, murdered son.

Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve (W.W. Norton, 2011), p. 194.

The second is from Jung’s bracing essay on the meaning of evil and suffering with respect to the god of the Bible:

Redemption or deliverance has several different aspects, the most important o which is the expiation wrought by Christ’s sacrificial death for the misdemeanors of mankind. His blood cleanses us from the evil consequences of sin. He reconciles God with man and delivers him from the divine wrath, which hangs over him like doom, and from eternal damnation. It is obvious that such ideas still picture God the father as the dangerous Yahweh who has to be propitiated. The agonizing death of his son is supposed to give him satisfaction for an affront he has suffered, and for this “moral injury” he would be inclined to take a terrible vengeance. Once more we are appalled by the incongruous attitude of the world creator towards his creatures, who to his chagrin never behave according to his expectations. It is as if someone started a bacterial culture which turned out to be a failure. He might curse his luck, but he would never seek the reason for the failure in the bacilli and want to punish them morally for it. …Yahweh’s behavior towards his creatures contradicts all the requirements of so-called “divine” reason whose possession is supposed to distinguish men from animals.

Carl Jung, Answer to Job (Princeton, 1958), p. 53.

Both of these passages are severely critical of Christianity.

Finally, from a more detached and historical point of view, I found this reflection on the historical impact of Paul’s “theology of the cross” by a French scholar of early Christianity and so-called Gnosticism:

Pauline theology, a theology of the cross, breaks with the Old Testament’s vision of the world. Faith in the cross makes the optimism that usually reigns in the Old Testament writings seem naive, where for the most part the good are rewarded and the evil are punished in this life; furthermore, these writings hardly know of another life. The cross is the most striking sign that judgment. by what happens in the world is not the true judgment, that glory and power do not justify, that misfortune does not condemn, that it is not history that judges. The theology of the cross implies the “anticosmism” that is found in Paul…For Paul, faith in the cross in a sense brought about from now on the collapse of the powers of the world, insofar as this power worked upon the soul. Paul preserved the apocalyptic idea of the imminent end of the world; but he thought that, as from the present, the world had lost is sway over the souls of those who had faith in the cross. These people were already as if dead to the world and resurrected to another life. …Henceforth, there is something truly other and higher than the world for humanity.

Simone Petrement, A Separate God: the Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism (HarperCollins, 1990), pp. 36-37

This last quotation is particularly suggestive. One of my themes in writing this blog is the historical impact of Christian ideas, regardless of whether or to what extent they are consciously adopted or made the object of personal faith. The discourses of modern apologetics and of modern atheism have a tendency to reduce every meaningful aspect of the biblical heritage to a binary scheme: true or false, believable or not believable. Which is reductive and a cause of serious distortion and ignorance.

The Pauline “anticosmism,” or, this distance opened up from the valuations that control history and culture, has neither a simply good nor a simply bad significance. There is some deep relationship here with liberalism and pluralism and the freedom to live according to one’s own individuality or best judgment. (I consider all this a good thing.) On the other hand, anticosmism has a well known tendency to undermine, for example, collective political attention to major problems such as the ecological crisis, even when catastrophic climate change poses an existential threat to modern civilization. Or, on a different topic, one could associate a certain type of fantasy politics, that which characterizes the myth of the lost cause of the Confederacy in the past century and a half in American history, with a Christian aloofness from the real verdict of history and of social change. I am of course drawing with a broad brush, but such questions and many others linger just above the surface of modern life when we reflect upon the consequences–good, bad, or neutral–of the christian story of the crucified son of god.

Jesus & Insurrection

The mob of insurrectionists who invaded the US Capitol on January 6 offered a more or less Christian prayer when they took over the floor of the Senate, and have since been condemned by a large group of evangelicals (not to mention mainline protestants and the Pope) for Christian Nationalism, violent radicalism, racism, and delusional conspiracy mongering about the election.

It is an interesting fact, given this present political moment, that many scholars and critical students of the Bible maintain that Jesus of Nazareth was executed under Pontius Pilate specifically for the crime, real or alleged, of sedition against Roman rule in Palestine. According to E.P. Sanders, Paula Frederiksen, and many other scholars, Jesus was arrested, tried, and executed primarily because of two incidents related in the Gospels: (1) the riding into Jerusalem on an ass, signifying an intention to become king of the Jews in rebellion against Rome; and (2) the “cleansing” or expulsion of money changers from the Temple courtyard. Somehow or other, these two actions provoked members of the Sanhedrin and/or Pilate’s court to have him arrested, tried, and executed. The evangelists also, at various points, associate Jesus with the specter of “bandits” (lestai), a type of violent insurrectionary criminal who looms large in Josephus’ account of the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66-73 CE. And the disciples are depicted as having expected Jesus to inaugurate revolution.

The evangelists leave much room for debate (i.e. they are ambiguous) as to whether or not Jesus actually had insurrectionist intentions. The envelope of apocalypticism–not to mention the resurrection narrative–in which their story is presented raises a number of issues for any straightforwardly political account of Jesus’ time in Jerusalem.

For those who accept that Jesus’ death in Jerusalem by crucifixion is one of the few solid facts about his life, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that he was (a) executed as an insurrectionist; (b) understood by his immediate followers to be an advocate of insurrectionism; and (c) willing to make himself perceived by the Jewish and Roman authorities as an insurrectionist.

The conclusion seems to follow that the historical Jesus was probably an insurrectionist. Yes, no, maybe?

If one argues the contrary, his death makes little sense except as a literary, dogmatic device for the evangelists to fit him into a pre-existing Isaian/Pauline conception of an atoning messianic death for sins. Or unless, perhaps, one goes down the anti-Jewish path of blaming the whole thing on wicked, Satanic, unbelieving, spiteful Jews (certainly a theme in the Gospels).

We should not forget that the New Testament also includes a weighty diatribe against the very idea of insurrection against any earthly government whatsoever:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

Romans 13:1-7 (KJV)

“Damnation” is a bit of hyperbole from the era of the divine right of kings. The actual Greek word just means “judgment.” But even without the majestic monarchical wrath of King James’ translators, it is hard to miss how unequivocally authoritarian and despotic is this passage from Romans. It doesn’t sit well at all with the Gospel story of Jesus of Nazareth.

Does the Bible advocate any happy medium between despotism and insurrection? To expect it to relate some conception of reasonable, constitutional, restrained government is anachronistic. The world of antiquity from which the Bible emanates had no such conceptions. As on many other topics, when it comes to political morality and the right to rebel, the Bible contradicts itself or at best contains a welter of challengingly divergent “theologies.” But through it all, the basic story of Jesus defying the powers that be holds sway in the Western imagination. It is not particularly surprising that the authoritarian conspiracy cult around the 45th president is fueled by some such romantic notion of Jesus, who after all is a wrathful avenging angel in 2 Thessalonians and The Revelation of John, bent on the destruction of civilization itself.

The Christian Invention of “Cancel Culture”

A fateful date in world history is February 27, 380 A.D., which will be 1,641 years ago this coming Saturday.

On this day, Christianity achieved monotheistic perfection: domination of the State, which at that time was the late Roman Empire. Thus began the long era of Medieval Christendom, which lasted approximately 14 centuries, down to the French Revolution in 1789, and the enactment of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1791. We can define historical Christendom in Europe and its colonies as the era when Church and State reigned as mutually reinforcing and essentially unquestioned authorities over every aspect of private and public life.

You wouldn’t know about February 27, 380 A.D. from most conventional histories of Europe or even of Christianity. It is passed over in silent embarrassment. In the 1990s, as an undergraduate at Columbia University, I took several courses in Medieval history and in particular a comprehensive history of the Papacy. But I never heard about this particular event, nor about the crucial reign of emperor Theodosius I (379-95).

Today it is known as the Edict of Thessalonica, an imperial edict which established a distinctively “orthodox” form of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire. This orthodoxy was centered on the very same doctrine of the Trinity which is professed to this day by Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and many Protestants. It is impossible to overestimate the influence of 4th and 5th and 6th century Roman emperors (particularly Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian) on the formation and codification of the essential features of Christianity itself, particularly when their role has been universally ignored or downplayed by conventional historians.

This Edict, which passed into law, and signaled the first of many such laws that upheld Christendom for centuries, is so important that it is worth quoting in full:

IMPPP. GR(ATI)ANUS, VAL(ENTINI)ANUS ET THE(O)D(OSIUS) AAA. EDICTUM AD POPULUM VRB(IS) CONSTANTINOP(OLITANAE).

Cunctos populos, quos clementiae nostrae regit temperamentum, in tali volumus religione versari, quam divinum Petrum apostolum tradidisse Romanis religio usque ad nunc ab ipso insinuata declarat quamque pontificem Damasum sequi claret et Petrum Aleksandriae episcopum virum apostolicae sanctitatis, hoc est, ut secundum apostolicam disciplinam evangelicamque doctrinam patris et filii et spiritus sancti unam deitatem sub pari maiestate et sub pia trinitate credamus. Hanc legem sequentes Christianorum catholicorum nomen iubemus amplecti, reliquos vero dementes vesanosque iudicantes haeretici dogmatis infamiam sustinere ‘nec conciliabula eorum ecclesiarum nomen accipere’, divina primum vindicta, post etiam motus nostri, quem ex caelesti arbitro sumpserimus, ultione plectendos.

DAT. III Kal. Mar. THESSAL(ONICAE) GR(ATI)ANO A. V ET THEOD(OSIO) A. I CONSS.

It is Our will that all peoples ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine [sic] Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans…this is the religion followed by the Pontiff [Bishop of Rome] Damasus and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic sanctity: that is, according to the apostolic discipline of the evangelical doctrine, we shall believe in the single Deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit under the concept of equal majesty, and of the Holy Trinity. We command that persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom We judge demented and insane, shall carry the infamy of heretical dogmas. Their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance, and secondly by the retribution of Our hostility, which We shall assume in accordance with the divine judgment.

Codex Theodosianus, XVI.2, translation by Williams & Friell, Theodosius: The Empire at Bay (Yale, 1994), p. 53.

Thus in late Antiquity began the persecution of pagans, heretics, and Jews by the Christian Church and its lethal enforcer, the arm of the secular state.

Or as we might call it today, Classical Christian Cancel Culture.

Despite the dissolution of the empire in the West, monotheistic Roman law imposed the rule of orthodoxy over many centuries, lands, and peoples, high and low. Pagan shrines were demolished. At first heretics were mostly marginalized and harassed, and deprived of legal rights. But then came the Crusades, the Inquisition, and finally the massive persecution and burning of many thousands of so-called witches (women) in the 14th to 17th centuries. The catalogue of Christendom’s horrors is long and vast and hard to comprehend. Although a vague image of it lingers in popular imagination, it was actually far worse than most people think. And it all started with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., which today hardly anyone has even heard of.

So it’s really something to hear Christians whine today about “cancel culture.”

These days they bewail the decline of their popularity and influence (and revenue). Rather than look in the mirror, they typically blame the aggressive and sinister influence of some very awful people: secularists, leftists, liberals. The disgraced former Attorney General, Bill Barr, gave a speech in Fall 2019 at Notre Dame University in which he accused non-Christian Americans of waging ideological warfare against Christianity. I had the misfortune of reading the speech this morning. I have two things to say to Barr and his fellow Christian Nationalists. (1) Even if you are right that a healthy society requires religion of some kind (a matter of dispute), there is still the problem that your particular religion is not very believable for most people. Witness the generation of young people turning to places like Youtube and Reddit for information and perspective about the religion in which they were raised, and their largely negative conclusions about the persuasiveness of the Bible and Christianity. You can’t practice a faith that you don’t believe, or believe something that your intellect judges to be fundamentally not believable. And (2), why are Christians so compulsively addicted to viewing themselves as victims? I think we already know the answer. Their true objective is to dominate.

Christianity has never been the foundation of any culture of toleration or pluralism or universal humanism. One is either for them or against them, and that never changes.

Principal New Testament Myths

In writing about apocalypticism and the combat myth in the preceding post, I began thinking about how various mythical patterns intersect in the New Testament, producing distinctively potent effects on psychology and culture that we see in the history of the Christian religion. Most scholarship on Christian origins and the New Testament, past and present, has focused on questions that can never be answered conclusively or even persuasively, due to the incompleteness of our evidence and the ambiguity of our sources: who Jesus was, and, what are the origins of Christ worship. Historicity itself is a mythical component of Christianity, which is perhaps an effect of a distinctively Jewish mode of interpreting history theologically. The New Testament authors followed the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) in making history mythological.

My outline of the myth of apocalypticism is provisional and flawed, but then again, any scholarly outline or summary of a complex, archetypal myth embedded in a large body of scripture or literature or other media is bound to be sketchy and inadequate.

I see three main myths in the New Testament: the apocalyptic myth, the combat myth, and the myth of the redeemer. Although each has its specific shape and character, they overlap and intersect considerably. The first is essentially cosmic; the second is both cosmic and existential; and the third is mostly existential. By “existential,” I mean that quality of myth which allows a human subject to identify more or less with the hero. It is a familiar idea in Christianity that believers see themselves in Christ, and Christ in themselves. We can call this mode of religion existential, as a mode of thought, or mystical, as a mode of experience. Existential themes in the New Testament express hopes and anxieties of individual believers, whereas cosmic myths construct a more collective meaning about history and the divine plan for the whole world.

The Apocalyptic Myth

  1. The present world is horrific and intolerable.
  2. “The god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) is Satan, an evil demon.
  3. We are children of a most high god who is pure goodness. “We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).
  4. The cosmos is a battlefield between good angels and evil demons.
  5. Human beings can and must choose to fight either for the side of good or that of evil.
  6. Things will get even worse, far far worse, very soon. There will be a “great tribulation” (Mark 13:19).
  7. The savior will descend to earth and overthrow the ruling powers of darkness.
  8. The savior will resurrect the bodies of the dead.
  9. The savior will judge the righteous and the wicked and assign their due reward: eternal bliss or eternal torment.
  10. The next world will begin, in which the good and the evil will have nothing to do with one another.

The Combat Myth (based on Forsyth, Satan & The Combat Myth, Princeton, 1987, pp. 446-52)

  1. There is villainy.
  2. A hero emerges and prepares to act.
  3. A consultation with authorities.
  4. A journey.
  5. A battle.
  6. A defeat.
  7. The hero recovers.
  8. Battle is rejoined.
  9. Victory.
  10. The enemy is punished.
  11. Triumph.

The Redeemer Myth

  1. The redeemer is one with God.
  2. The redeemer is present at the creation.
  3. The redeemer is one with creation.
  4. The redeemer descends from heaven to earth.
  5. The redeemer dies.
  6. The redeemer is made alive again.
  7. The redeemer effects a reconciliation for humankind.
  8. The redeemer is enthroned in heaven.

The last of these, the redeemer myth, is the most precisely articulated in scripture. Its essential structure is mapped out by J.T. Sanders in The New Testament Christological Hymns (Cambridge, 1974), which brings together a handful of hymnic passages and finds that they share the same basic myth:

  • The Prologue of the Gospel According to John
  • Philippians 2:6-11
  • Colossians 1:15-20
  • Ephesians 2:14-16
  • Hebrews 1:3
  • 1 Timothy 3:16
  • 1 Peter 3:18-22

The redeemer myth is particularly familiar to anyone reared in one or another tradition of medieval Western Christendom, i.e. Chalcedonian or Constantinian Christianity, as is clear from the first part of the Apostle’s Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

The redeemer myth is both existential and mystical. It tells a myth that every human being can apply to their own existence as a mortal being endowed with self-knowledge and longing. Furthermore, apart from the New Testament’s historical framing of its mythology, it has nothing to do with the story of the Jews. Some consider it “gnostic,” although that term is more ambiguous than helpful. Sanders and other scholars have sought its origins in various Hellenistic mystery cults that were popular in the Mediterranean at the dawn of Christianity. However, texts such as the Odes of Solomon show that Jews of the time were deeply attracted to and involved in such spirituality. Paul was not the only one.

My goal for this post was to lay out these three important myths against one another with the suggestion that they are all profoundly interwoven in the New Testament. What they mean and how they are related to one another are important questions for interpreters of the Christian Bible and Christianity in general.