Our last chat in this series disposed of the two most egregious attacks on the Christian story of humanity’s need for salvation and its nominee for the role of universal saviour. Any reasonable and serious consideration of this story and its leading figure must first accept that Jesus called Christ actually lived and died as an historic person in First-Century Palestine, then a minor sub-province (within the greater province of Syria) in the Roman Empire. Next, any serious consideration of the story and of Jesus the person must accredit its main sources (the New Testament documents) with a considerable degree of integrity and validity. To treat them with the sort of cavalier arrogance and blatant hubris that has so often been the case since the Enlightenment (e.g. the so-called “Jesus Seminar” referred to in our last post) can no longer wash if the scholars involved wish to retain any measure of honour in their profession.
As with “climate change”, a great many intellectuals of all stripes in our present cultural climate need to undergo a paradigm shift regarding the meta-story of Christianity. They have latched and continue to latch onto a now obsolete and superseded “liberal orthodoxy” created by a concerted effort over two centuries to “demythologize” both Jesus and the Gospels and go hunting for the “historical Jesus”. The underlying assumption in this “quest” has always been that the Jesus seen in the New Testament could be only superficially related to the “real Jesus” who lived and died in time and space. Supposedly, the New Testament Jesus is a later divinized “Jesus of faith” created by manipulative theologians to keep the ignorant, superstitious masses in line so they could be manipulated, controlled, and used.
The continuance of this modern-postmodern myth about Jesus, the Gospels, and the early believers is a shameful blot on true scholarship. Admittedly, the course of New Testament scholarship in the last sixty years has been far from smooth. Old notions and preconceptions die hard for those who have invested most of their professional and intellectual capital in a preconceived framework which painstaking new archaeological and documentary research have shredded.
I will not bore the reader with details about this bumpy journey. Within its sphere, it is quite public for those wishing to explore it. There are even some flirting references to it in revisionist historical fiction such as Dan Brown’s da Vinci Code, and the much ballyhooed finding of the so-called Feminist Gospel fragments about Mary Magdalen’s “secret marriage” to Jesus. The popular and Internet media are quick to pick up such threads and trumpet them for their sensationalism, but usually neglect to mention their subsequent complete debunking by responsible scholars.
The thrust of the new understanding of both the New Testament and the time and culture in which it emerged is that the documents are amazingly attuned historically and culturally to that era. There is wonderfully detailed corroboration for this view through archaeology and documentary analysis of both the New Testament and an abundance of new and old sources (now better understood) from outside it. It has become a question of openness towards what we actually find there rather than dogmatism determining interpretation.
While this does not “prove” that the account of the life and teaching of Jesus and his Apostles contained in the Bible and the early Christian writings is “true” in its conclusions about who he is, it certainly creates a good probability that the record is “authentic” in its recounting of events, and probably in the content of what the participants and early witnesses tell us of those events. In a court-case based on circumstantial evidence, the verdict would have to favour the genuineness of the testimony. It then becomes a question of assessing the best and most accurate accounting for the evidence and testimony.
Of course, for those determined to automatically dismiss and reject the elements of the story that “smack of” divine power and the miraculous, this will not change their mindset. The issue then is their own operative worldview and that of our culture as much as that operative in First Century Greco-Roman and Jewish culture and of our witnesses.
Our culture’s operative worldview discounts and disqualifies a priori the action of God in time and space, even when the person observing something “outside the box” may intellectually accept the existence of God/a Creator/spiritual things. The observer therefore prejudges as in error the reports of such happenings from the culture of two thousand years ago. In or superior wisdom, we now “know” that that culture was open to the miraculous, which we also “know” stems from as simplistic ignorance, credulity, and superstition. In the same way, the modern-postmodern observer automatically discredits current reports about miracles and amazing, mysterious occurrences as either impossible or erroneous in detail or interpretation, or both.
After all, we “know” that it is simply impossible for anyone to walk on water, calm a raging storm by commanding it to stop, raise a dead person by telling him/her simply to “get up”, heal the eyes of a person born blind by smearing saliva-mixed mud on them, commanding “demons” (who we are certain do not really exist) to “come out” of a person and finding the person immediately afterwards “in their right mind”, etc., etc., etc. And, to top all this off, we have the totally incredible report of the person accredited with performing all these marvels having been crucified after terrible torture, being incontrovertibly dead (water flowing from the heart-cavity as per an eyewitness can mean nothing else), and, thirty-six hours later, being seen and reported very much alive and completely over it, except for some scars.
How are such things to be believed by any self-respecting, rational person? Even in antiquity the rationalists rejected such reports, as did even the religious leaders of Judaism who, theoretically at least, believed in miracles. And if, by some insane freak of the quantum, that person did come back to life, what could it possibly signify?
Here we have the crux of the matter. Did this Jesus person not only actually live and die, as even the hostile extra-Biblical sources amply confirm, but actually resurrect!? To accept that as an actual historical happening is simply beyond the pale. If that really happened, it is an utterly unique event, as far as we know. How can we avoid asking some truly enormous and significanct questions about that, if it’s true? And the first question is, “Is it actually true?”
We humans are remarkably adept at ignoring what we don’t want to look at and hear about (Sergeant Schultz or a five-year-old child blocking his/her ears and eyes illustrate this nicely). It’s so damn inconvenient to have to consider things that really disrupt our personal comfort and sense of proper order, or at least my/our sense of proper convenience for me/us and my/our particular sense of priorities. We/I are/am also especially skilled at blocking out things which contradict the way we/I construct reality within our/my personal space. A man self-resurrecting from stone-cold death should challenge my personal universe, but even two thousand years ago most refused to look upon it or hear of it! So much for gullible, ignorant, superstition!
In our in-turned self-orientation, it is easy to forget that our personal constructs are still very much formed by the larger culture and society in which we “live and move and have our being”. In this age, our society and culture have been very much reshaped by the Enlightenment and its ensuing waves to drive the religious and supernatural elements of the human psyche out of serious and conscious consideration.
This governing paradigm characterizes humanity as a purely animal phenomenon, neither morally good or bad in itself, and certainly not “sinful” or “fallen” and therefore in need of “redemption” and “salvation”. Therefore, there is no need of a “saviour” as per the old tales, which are simply mythological and legendary memories of the prehistoric emerging human consciousness and self-awareness.
The eruption of this Jesus-character into time-space is a most unwelcome distraction which must be contained within the operant “laws” of proven science and reason. He is tremendously inconvenient. It is actually impossible to overstate how inconvenient he is. He was even then, two thousand years ago. After all, that is why the powers-that-be of that day took so much trouble to remove him. They were every bit as skeptical and scandalized by this guy as our powers-that-be are now.
For us, he must be “put back in the box” of uniformity and conformity within the known, predictable parameters of the laws of standard-model science. It was the same story two thousand years ago, although culturally nuanced. But people back then knew every bit as well as we do that dead people stay dead. Even in our age of supremely individualistic reality construction and quantum unpredictability where everything becomes at least theoretically possible, this remains an absolute. After all, even within a quantum universe, the universe itself is a freak exception against all “laws of probability”. How much more is God-as-man-in-time-and-space, even if the “God-hypothesis” is allowed?
Nevertheless, that is the outlandish, extraterrestrial claim made for Jesus/Yeshua of Nazareth in Galilee of the First Century CE. Even more outlandish is that this claimant seemed utterly sincere in what he said and did and believed. His followers were shockingly sincere about it too. How could such a claim be made for anyone, even by first-century simpletons and bumpkins?