The Third Way, 50: Saviours and Salvation, 6 – The Jesus Story, 2

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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  They have latched and continue to latch onto a now obsolete and superseded “liberal orthodoxy” created by a concerted effort over two centuries to “demythologize” both Jesus and the Gospels and go hunting for the “historical Jesus”.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? 

The Third Way, 49: Saviours and Salvation, 5 – The Jesus Story, 1

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“And there is salvation in no one else.  For there is no other name [than that of Yeshua/Jesus] given among men [humans in general intended] under heaven by which we must be saved.”

Peter the Apostle of Jesus speaking to the Jewish Sanhedrin ca 33-4 CE, according to The Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 4, Verse 12.

The present series of articles on this blog is considering the whole panorama of the innate human orientation towards the absolute and the transcendent, and the sense of our need to both save and be saved in some great sense.  December 23, 2019, the date of this post, two days before Christmas, is an appropriate occasion to contemplate the greatest of all salvation-saviour stories, that of Jesus/Yeshua of Nazareth.  This Jesus, called “Christ”, is the Christian candidate for saviour of the whole human race, and indeed of the whole creation itself, and December 25th is the date in the Christian calendar when his birth is celebrated. 

Let us therefore have a look at Jesus’ candidacy.  We will certainly not exhaust this subject today.  Eventually, we will also pay appropriate attention to other major candidates, and indeed to the whole conception of needing salvation and in what sense it is needed, if indeed it is, in future.

Let us at the outset of this discussion dispose of the most absurd disparagement of Jesus and his “mission” to save the human race and the world.  It is that Jesus/Yeshua was never actually a real historical person, but an invention, a concoction of various elements of legend and myth and fancies cobbled together two thousand years ago by a group of unscrupulous ancient Jewish hucksters from Galilee seeking to dupe their gullible countrymen and take financial and social advantage of them. 

It is embarrassing to even give recognition to such absurdities by mentioning them, but the state of affairs in Western culture has become such that it has to be addressed.  This idea is alive and very well in chat-rooms and forums on the Web.  The author of these blogs has also personally run into enough people in the real world who believe or half-believe this outlandish statement that it must be addressed as an actual idea in a growing percentage of the general population.  My children have all had discussions of this nature with numbers of their peers when they attended college and since.  We meet them at work, at school, and socially.  Unfortunately, it is all too often presented as true by educational authorities in High Schools, Colleges, and Universities who should and, at least in some cases, do know better.  Why they think this is a justified manipulation of their students one may only hazard to guess.  Perhaps the root of this sort of outrageous distortion is their own hostility to Christians and Christianity, plus their own ignorance, as in failure to make any attempt to educate themselves as to the historical facts.

Without creating a tiresome list, let it be said that the historical facts are ample to verify that this person, Jesus of Nazareth, really lived and died in the early first century CE in the Roman province of Palestine.  Contrary to the egregious and facile declarations of too many even quite well-educated people (I’ve even encountered a Ph.D. or two who have said this kind of thing), there are sufficient sources outside the New Testament, the primary Christian documents about Jesus, to verify his life and death in historical time and place.  And it must be pointed out that these “extra-Biblical” sources are, almost without exception, hostile to both Jesus and Christians.  Such sources include both Roman and Jewish historians and writers, as well as references (quite hostile) in the Talmud.  That Jesus called Christ was a real historical person is an incontestable historic fact, unless one simply wants to display one’s spleen and stupidity, or perhaps the extent of one’s ignorance.

In the light of this extraordinary attempt to erase the very existence of Jesus/Yeshua from history, one is left with the question, “Why?”  Why such vehemence, such anger, such stubborn and, it appears at times, unassailable determination to block out that life, that comet in time and place, from any serious consideration as to his identity and the meaning of a life and career that appears to have been astoundingly brief as such things go, but even more astoundingly profound and shatteringly impactful?  Surely there is something there deserving of the most careful examination?  In the ordinary course of things, the execution of a troublesome radical in an obscure part of a great empire should have had ended at most as a footnote about an obscure local folk-hero in a backwater part of the greatest world-state in history.  That it catalyzed the greatest religious revolution and social movement in history instead surely deserves some examination and explanation!

That we are now even compelled to have this kind of discussion in the West is almost as astonishing as the original story itself.  All of this begs a whole host of questions and cries out for the deepest kind of inquiry.  What does it say of us that we deliberately propagate this collective historical amnesia?  After all, once upon a time not very long ago and not far away at all, on this very planet, in that part dubbed “the West”— not some other fantasized galaxy we know nothing at all about – this figure, whose birth used to be “the reason for the season” but whose name our public media and leaders now scarcely dare pronounce, was considered the greatest and best human being who ever lived. 

Not so long ago, he was publicly acclaimed as such by the vast majority of the nations of the West, who used to willingly refer to themselves collectively as “Christendom”.  In fact, we have reached the point in Canada where a certain Prime Minister now in office even called some of the followers of this man “the worst of all Canadians”, or words to that effect.  And most of the major political parties of this same nation have made it quite clear that serious disciples of this man who hold certain unwelcome opinions about certain moral and social issues need not apply to be candidates or party officials.

But today’s blog is not the time and place to rehash such local minutiae.  Our subject is the Jesus Story as a salvation-saviour tale.  All we can do here today is discuss some preliminaries in order to “clear the ground” for the real discussion in the next few episodes.

As already mentioned, the major sources of this story are found in the “New Testament”, a collection of 27 “books” written by disciples of Jesus or disciples of the disciples of Jesus.  The content of the New Testament is partly historical and biographical, as found in “The Four Gospels” of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the Acts of the Apostles, a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, written by the same author.

Part of being able to even discuss this subject is the question of the historical reliability of these sources, which purport to be eye-witness, first-hand accounts, or based on eye-witness, first-hand accounts, of the life, and particularly the public life, of Jesus/Yeshua, and the ensuing first thirty years or so of the history of the “Church”.  The “Church” is the community of disciples and believers which sprang from Jesus’ life and ministry.  This community of followers began to spread across the Roman Empire and even outside of its boundaries.

As with the absurd statement that Jesus never really lived, we are obliged to refer to the extraordinary and even strenuous efforts of many modern scholars seeking to establish the validity, or, in many cases, the invalidity, of the earliest sources and records about Jesus and the early Church.  Once more we must ask the question, “Why this marked animosity and hostility which is so exceptional towards this one particular person, life, community, and institution—moreso than any other except Judaism?”  We do not see the like when we observe the efforts to study the validity of sources for other religions, and far less outright scepticism regarding other ancient documents, such as the writings of the great Greek philosophers or Roman histories.

Let us once more begin with the most absurd of these endeavours to “uncover the real Jesus of history”, who is assumed to have been lost in hagiography and mythologization.  The so-called “Jesus Seminar” is our qualifier for this dubious distinction.  This is a group of self-appointed textual critics of the Gospels, university professors of very liberal bent, who deem themselves the world’s foremost judges of which parts of the Gospel accounts of Jesus are “authentic”.  They dissect each verse and story and vote on it, leaving a very thin husk of rather meager, insipid fare which eliminates all hints of the miraculous and “unnatural” and reduces Jesus to a shadowy social radical who upset the wrong people and got himself killed for his trouble. 

What is left can in no way qualify as an inspiring saviour-figure .  The result is perhaps an even greater mystery than the traditional Christian one of seeing a human being as the incarnation of God Himself.  How could this version of the “authentic Jesus of history” have ever inspired the creation of the greatest social-spiritual institution in the history of the human race?  How could that Jesus have ever instilled the willingness to die for him and his cause in many millions over the last two thousand years?  How could such a saccharin Jesus of so little substance have fueled the faith of thousands who knew him when he lived or shortly thereafter, when the truth of who he was or had been could not very well be hidden? 

The same questions can be put to some other recent, although somewhat less radical versions of the same sort of hyper-scepticism on steroids.  All are quite dubious applications of “higher literary critical” approaches to the New Testament.  Unfortunately, this sort of ethos in Biblical analysis and modern-postmodern interpretation seems to go mostly unchallenged in the Faculties of Religion of the vast majority of our higher institutions of learning. 

We will continue to look at the claim of Jesus to be the “Saviour of the World” in our next instalment.  In the meantime, may all who read this, and all your loved ones, be blessed and have a wonderful Christmas season and holiday.