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.

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.

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. Desperate times call for desperate measures. 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 experiencing a psychotic drama in America because our sacred scriptures are fundamentally psychotic and irrational.