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.

Satan & January 6

In these bleak months of winter 2020-21, as Trump exits the stage and Trumpism putrefies into various expressions of private madness and public “domestic violent extremism,” I have been thinking about the everlasting dominance of what biblical scholars call “the apocalyptic worldview” or “apocalypticism.” This is nothing less than the actual religion of the Christian Bible, which always subverts and destroys the attempts of Constantinian religion, modern conservativism, or irenic Jesus liberalism to present the Bible as some kind of benign pillar of civilized consciousness.

Apocalypticism rests on a number of core convictions:

  1. The present world is horrific and intolerable.
  2. Therefore “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) is Satan, an evil demon.
  3. But we are the good people, children of an ultimate father 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. You can take Jesus’ word for it: there will be a “great tribulation” (Mark 13:19).
  7. After the great tribulation comes the destruction or obliteration of the created world as we know it.
  8. Then the savior god will appear and resurrect the bodies of the dead.
  9. There will be judgment. The souls and resurrected bodies of the wicked will suffer unending torment, while the souls and bodies of the faithful good people will be rewarded with heavenly bliss of some sort.
  10. The End (credits: Jews under Seleucids, Jews under Persians, Persian Zoroastrians).

That’s the basic myth of apocalypticism. The best book on this topic is Chaos, Cosmos, & the World to Come: the Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith, by Norman Cohn (Yale University Press, 1993). Cohn shows how this myth evolved out of a more ancient “combat myth” that was common to all major civilizations of the ancient Near East and India. These civilizations knew that they were fragile and could meet their doom at any time. So they told stories of a “chaos monster” that threatens to destroy the human order, but who would be defeated by a divine hero figure who would step in to defeat the monster and put the world to rights. Nothing odd about such stories to a generation raised on Star Wars, the Matrix, Harry Potter, the Batman trilogy, etc.

But Zoroaster and his followers, especially under the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BCE), changed the script considerably. They introduced new ideas, like: a perfectly good god; his counterpart, a perfectly evil god; a war between them, unfolding over the course of all human history; the necessity for humans to choose and take sides in this war; a resurrection and an afterlife; a judgment based on one’s behavior. All of these ideas were more or less new, even though the Egyptians had their own ideas about resurrection and rewards and punishments in the afterlife. The crucial change was that Zoroastrianism applied this model to history, and therefore to all cultures and peoples, high and low.

Second Temple Judaism, the origin of all Judaism as well as of Christianity, had its birth and childhood under the Achaemenid Empire, which controlled Judea and the Jews for the better part of 2 centuries (comparable to the lifetime of the United States of America). All the Jewish ideas that made New Testament Christianity what it is originate from this time (a fact which is fundamentally concealed and repressed by the adoption of “the Old Testament” as a foundation stone). Cohn thus argues that ancient Jewish apocalypticism and its Christian offshoot originate from ancient Persian ideas.

What does this have to do, really, with Satan, and with the insurrection of January 6? Everything. The Satan myth is essentially the combat myth. (See The Old Enemy: Satan & the Combat Myth, by Neil Forsyth (Princeton University Press, 1987). The name “Satan” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “the opponent” or “the adversary.” The Combat Myth fits perfectly within contemporary American politics. People are fundamentally uneasy about social, existential changes wrought by technological forces in the Information Age. The Bible itself is felt to be no longer relevant, and therefore “under assault.” America’s Civil War and Cold War are unresolved. Our children’s racial and sexual identity is being stolen from “us,” i.e. White Christian European Western Civilization. The worst are full of passionate intensity.

The Trump presidency was a psychotic eruption of the Combat Myth. Here was a great savior figure intervening on behalf of a dying white Christian America, ready to do battle with the children of darkness. His priapic excesses, if technically criminal, were proof of his titanic powers, and not any detraction from his greatness. Extraordinary times, you know. David and Solomon also womanized on a grand scale. That was how they thought in 2016, and it is also why Trump is so often imagined as a messiah figure. The job of the messiah is to overthrow the powers of darkness, and that’s what Trump was supposed (i.e. imagined) to do. This all makes sense within the fictional universe of the Bible, i.e., apocalypticism.

The reason both religious and secular people today are so blind to the apocalyptic bona fides of Trumpism is that we are in thrall to outdated conceptions of Christianity, the Bible, religion, prophecy, God, etc. We are trapped in a 2nd Millennium Model of what those things essentially are. If you think, for example, that C.S. Lewis was essentially right about the character of Christianity, then you have no concept of the apocalyptic energy of scripture. Lewis ignored apocalyptic themes, and made demons into pop-psychological characters of banal comedy. His Christianity, as well as of all mainline Protestant and Catholic varieties in the post-WW2 era, is essentially the “Christianity and Water” that he derided.

In a time of extreme, dualistic opposition between two cultures derived from the Bible, which both see their side as essentially good and their opponents as essentially evil, it can be hard to tell Satan apart from the Messiah. To some the cult leader is a new Christ; to others he is a Satanic figure. Either way, his role is to be a fighter, an opponent, a cosmic adversary. Trump and Satan have everything to do with one another, whether or not one believes in Satan or in the real existence of evil beings.

We are going through all this psychotic, irrational nonsense in America because America’s sacred scriptures themselves are fundamentally psychotic and irrational.

god ≠ the source

Have you ever noticed that we’re all supposed to know who “god” is? For example: “I was talking to god the other day.” “You were talking to whom?” is an impolite response. We’re supposed to know already who “god” is. Not “my god” or “the god I believe in” or “the supreme being,” but just…god.

It’s offensive of me to write god’s name in the lowercase. He (and He’s a He for sure) spells his name with a capital “G.” For our christian culture, it’s ok to speak of “the gods,” or “a god,” but if you are talking about the god that we all apparently know and address our prayers to, it’s a capital “G.” This is how we know we’re talking about the true god and not any false gods.

I remember that the first author I noticed resorting to this tactic was Martha Nussbaum, the philosopher and polymathic scholar. I don’t remember where she wrote it.

We get our god-consciousness from the apostle Paul:

We know that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords,  yet for us there is only one God, the Father, from which whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him. However, not all people have this knowledge.

1 Corinthians 8:4-7

Today, all people do have this knowledge, or are considered strange if they don’t.

What can we say about the meaning of the word “God”? It is a proper name, just as Michael Jackson is a proper name. It denotes a person. But at the same time, and equally, it is a concept. God is that from which all things are. Both meanings are affirmed by theism, but only the second meaning is affirmed by pantheism, which denies the first.

Take note. I changed to uppercase “God,” because I am shifting the “from whom” to a “from which” in the translator’s rendering of 1 Corinthians 8:6, which I am perfectly entitled to do on account of the non-specificity of the relative pronoun in the original, ἐξ οὗ τὰ πάντα. Paul shows here his indebtedness to Greek wisdom, the philosophical wisdom about the true nature, the pantheistic nature, of God “the father.” There is in fact the very same ambiguity (or duplicity) in the scriptural sacred name “the father” or “the Father” as there is in our modern word “God.”

In NT scripture, “the father” is “our father.” This is true for Paul just as for the Jesus of the Gospels. But what we get in this important verse from 1 Corinthians is a suggestion of a more hidden meaning of the term “father,” which is pantheistic, pagan, profane.

The father is that from which The All is. In other words, THE SOURCE. This is a subtle, and un-Jewish way to speak of God.

The source of all things is not necessarily a creator. Even pantheists admit that the All, the universe, must have a source that is transcendent infinite. Affirming that there is something or other from which the All originates is not the same thing as believing in God, since “God” is that person that people all know and talk to.

Returning to the beginning theme of this post, “God” is a proper name of a person in our Western Christian/Post-Christian civilization. “God” is also the creator, and a creator can only be a person. Only a person creates, since creation implies decision and intention and a plan. The Biblical and theistic model of a divine creator of the universe is inherently anthropomorphic, based implicitly on the human model of what it means to create something.

The mere idea that the universe is not self-explanatory, that there must be an ἐξ οὗ τὰ πάντα, a that-from-which-all-things, i.e., a SOURCE, does not amount to the One Creator God idea that defines Western religion. A creator is a person. A source is not by definition a person.

Vague Beginnings

How do I imagine this blog?

I have used the title “Post-Christian World” because I feel like a large slice of contemporary culture (whatever this thing is that I call “we”) is a stalled historical dialect of Christianity and the Bible always asserting themselves, modernity always rejecting and transcending them, and a consequent welter of confusion and chaos erupting between the two. When I say that the world is “post-Christian,” I mean to say that we are always leaving Christianity, but have never quite left it. Somehow it is never quite in the past, never quite defeated. Obviously there is a large segment of furiously pro-Christian belief and sentiment that proclaims the failure of atheism, skepticism, liberalism, etc. Then there is an enlightened modernity that refuses religion and revelation with equal confidence. In the middle, there are very many confused people who view themselves as tolerant of both religion and science, both the Bible and modernity, but who really don’t have a clue about either.

My own perspective is that (a) the Bible is abidingly important, (b) faith in its full, original form is impossible, absurd, and destructive, (c) nothing in today’s world is an “adequate substitute” for the faith that once defined Europe and the West, and hence the perpetual power and appeal of back-to-the-faith ideologies; but (d) modern versions of faith (eg, evangelicalism) are even more absurd than the original type; and so (e) we are driven forward once again into a post-Christian, non-Christian, anti-Christian future.

I am ambivalent about how I am framing these topics. I don’t like the airy, German abstractness of it. It a modernist German conceit to imagine HISTORY as a great train we are trying both to build and hop aboard at the same time. Its failure is the necessary and well-known presupposition of postmodernity: a game I refuse to play, which functions as little more than a pretext for Biblical religion to re-insinsuate itself in contemporary life in a variety of ways, some genuinely destructive of the human enterprise. I am thinking particularly of the alliance in American politics between polluting industries, the Christian Right, and the conservative legal establishment that has recently become manifest in the appointment of Justice Barrett, and with her the triumph of a Christian Nationalist Supreme Court of the United States.

My focus in the blog will be on the foundations of Christianity in the Bible. I am particularly interested in Paul and his role in the genesis of Christian scripture and belief. I will also look at philosophical and psychological foundations of belief and faith, and some of the classic modern thinkers who deconstructed them, particularly Spinoza, Feuerbach, and Jung. I have some interest in ancient traditions parallel or prior to Christianity: early Greek philosophy, Middle Platonism, Demiurgic Christianities of the 2nd century (aka “gnosticism”), Hermetic philosophy, Neo-platonism, Medieval Kabbalah, and various figures of the early modern period. Also, some favorites in the 19th century: Romantic poets, Baudelaire, Emerson, Melville, Nietzsche.

I also have some interest in pantheism, an underrated and mostly unexplored landscape for post-religious thought and imagination. My own version of pantheism is allied with atheism, skepticism, and liberalism, similar to Spinoza. As a specifically western pantheist, I don’t have much time for the idea that empirical reality is an illusion. I look to Heraclitus as the philosophical founder of western pantheism, who invented the same type of pluralistic monism that we find in Hegel or William James. Unlike religion, pantheism is not a therapy, and it holds aloof of either optimism or pessimism. I harbor a suspicion that both Job and Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament are essentially pantheistic, but this is a claim I will have to explore in a future post.