Sorting Out Jesus
In Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012], I related my personal odyssey of questioning the things I heard in Sunday School and from the pulpit concerning the origins of Christianity. Using my Protestant heritage as a springboard, I sorted through history to discover I am more comfortable with Paul not even being seen as an apostle and with the historical recontextualization of early Christianity rather than its historical decontextualization. To my dismay, I saw the original tenants of Christianity plucked from history in total disregard to very relevant non-Christian tenants contemporary with the decades following the death of Jesus, all in the evangelistic zeal of forcing the life and teachings of Jesus to be relevant to all periods of history, including today’s modern world. Moreover, I saw this disregard and zeal as endemic to the faith-based epistemology of Christianity and most of the great religions of world history; by faith, one can believe anything, making believing in the truth more and more improbable.
In Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015], after speculating a long while about where in time the “Paul-sorting” should take me, I decided to make sure the faith-based epistemology of orthodox Christianity is as bankrupt in intellectual integrity as I suspected. Using a history of the Byzantine Empire as a springboard, I looked forward from Paul’s time at the most fundamental pillar of Christianity, the identity of Jesus, to contrast how different Jesus at his death and Jesus as defined at the First Ecumenical Council in the Nicaean Creed (325 CE or AD) are. The implication given us in the church pews that what the Church teaches as the definition of Jesus Christ has come to us intact from the time of his crucifixion is emphatically and clearly false. In fact, by the time of Charlemagne (800 CE), there were six more so-called Ecumenical Councils after 325 involving Rome and Constantinople necessary to continue tweaking and changing who and what Jesus was historically and theologically. And, as the Christian Church continued to splinter into countless divisions and sects (e.g. The Great Schism of 1054 CE and the Reformation of the 16th century CE), the failure of the faith-based foundation of Christianity was exposed, an exposure that continues to this day.
These two “sortings” beg an analogy to me. Imagine the original situation at Jesus’ death as a newly-made table top, not necessarily homogeneous across its area, but well-defined as a singular piece of construction. For almost 2,000 years eyewitnesses of Jesus, writers of letters to churches, writers of gospels of Jesus, bishops, archbishops, popes, monks, priests, and preachers have been adding their own “finish” to the table top, each addition an attempt to make the definition of Jesus “better.” Every layer, whether a clear coat, a translucent stain, an opaque stain, a waterproof-er, a paint, a veneer, or a polyurethane protectant, potentially is declared the new orthodoxy and the previous coats declared heretical. There is nothing in the faith-based epistemology, not even the revolutionary Protestant Reformation, allowing for a full “strip job” on the layers to expose the surface as it originally was; within the Christian faith, there is nothing to restore the table top. These “layers” need “stripping” to restore the “table top.”
An example of what I mean by a “layer” that needs to be “stripped” from the “table top” is the very Protestant revival of the Old Testament God to Whom blood sacrifices were made, and the continual justification of interpreting Jesus’ death as the ultimate sacrifice. The “blood layer” begins as early as the 1st century CE by evoking Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God, whose blood symbolically cleanses souls of their sins. I remember singing in the pews in my early years (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]) such “Blood Cult” hymns as:
Lewis E. Jones’ There Is Power in the Blood (“There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r in the precious blood of the Lamb.”); Elisha A. Hoffman’s Are You Washed in the Blood? (“Are you washed in the blood? In the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb? Are your garments spotless, are they white as snow? Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?”); Robert Lowry’s Nothing But the Blood (“What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus……Oh! precious is the flow that makes me white as snow; no other fount I know, Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”); William Cowper’s There is a Fountain (“There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.”). The cult of Mithraism, very wide-spread among the Roman military in the first four centuries CE and systematically purged from the empire beginning with the reign of Constantine I ( Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015]), traditionally had a literal blood-cleansing ritual, wherein the follower of the god Mithra was washed or baptized with the fresh blood of a sacrificed bull. Salvation in the early church became a metaphorical Old Testament-like parallel of this literal Mithric blood sacrifice, in my opinion. To broaden the appeal of early Christianity, the rationalization of Jesus’ criminal’s death was in those days whitewashed (layered) with a widely-recognized and respected (Old Testament, Mithraism), yet gory, religious motif. Protestant reformers brought the Blood Cult parallels back into the midst of their pulpits and hymnals.
Returning to the two “sortings” outlined by the first two paragraphs , they also beg another sorting as well as a “stripping,” one which has occurred to most readers, I’m sure. To get to the origins of Christianity, sort out Jesus himself. This, then, is the third in the “sorting” series — the sorting-out of a Jewish preacher from Galilee. As with the first two, this third sorting attempts to be historically-based, not faith-based. Hopefully, Jesus will be sorted out by removing the layers from his biography, by a furniture-like stripping restoration.
The biblical criticism of the 19th century and the archaeological discoveries of the 20th (Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1940’s and the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Gospels in 1945), I think, have combined to allow us to do as full a strip job on the table top as we possibly can in the early 21st century. Soon after posting the second sorting, I discovered a scholarly book that helped me post this third sorting in a much shorter time interval than that between the first two. In 2014 Bart D. Ehrman, professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, published How Jesus Became God, Harper-One, ISBN 978-0-06-177818-6. As its sub-title suggests, this is a book that has already done my strip job for me — The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.
Using Ehrman to furnish any necessary details readers or I might need (such as specific biblical chapter and verses relevant to the point being made), I think one can get a pretty reliable look at what that table top looked like before the first coat was applied.
I arbitrarily choose 325 CE and the establishment of the Nicaean Creed as the starting place from which to work backwards in time, although, as earlier shown (Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015]), the definition and doctrine of the Trinity upheld by the orthodox today was at that time a long way from being determined. Looking down through the layers from 325 CE would be looking through a shadowy, nebulous accumulation of layers individually put down by a parade of founders and fathers of the Church for almost 300 years. The accumulation at this time is already a sophisticated, theological speculative hodge-podge from a plethora of sources, few of which have anything to do with the life of Jesus (Just read the Nicaean Creed and compare with the Synoptic Gospels); the table top has become so nuanced as to appear completely altered, the result of many layers over about three centuries. I shall list the names and dates of the members of this parade going back to the year Jesus died, circa 30-33 CE — each listing thought of as a “stripping” that gets closer and closer to the original table top. Each contributor on the list was either a heretic for a lifetime, orthodox for a lifetime, or, for many, switched roles as both heretic and orthodox during and/or after their lifetime. (Here I prefer using Ehrman’s definitions of “heretic,” meaning someone who believes differently from the “orthodox” of a particular time. Because of faith-based epistemology, it is neither accurate nor fair to use “right” and “wrong” with words like “orthodox” and “heretical,” as I have been guilty of in the past.):
Eusebius of Caesarea (circa 270-340 CE), Arias of Alexandria (256-336 CE), Alexander of Alexandria (250-325 CE), Novatian (210-278 CE), Dionysius of Rome (?-268 CE), Dionysius of Alexandria (c. 200-265 CE), Origen of Alexandria (185-254 CE), Hippolytus (170-235 CE), Tertullian (160-230 CE), and Justin Martyr (100-165 CE). This list is not exhaustive or complete, but it illustrates the breadth and depth of the Christology (knowledge of Christ) that was invented, debated, and hammered out over a period of about 200 years. These early theologians of the Church dealt ad infinitum (ad nauseum?) with such issues as 1) was Jesus human and in what sense was he human? 2) was Jesus divine and in what sense was he divine? 3) was he both human and divine and how can that be? 4) if Jesus is divine, how can that be compatible with the monotheism of Judaism? 5) is he divine and/or human in mode, essence, being, or some combination of these? 6) was he divine from the beginning or did he become divine at his conception? his baptism? his crucifixion? his resurrection? 7) what exactly is the Trinity? is it three-in-one, or one-in-three? how is it monotheistic? 8) is Jesus God? or begotten? or created? or exalted? 9) how can God die on a cross? did divine Jesus die on the cross? did only the human Jesus die on the cross? 10) where was the divine Jesus between death and resurrection? Etc….etc. (For the specific verses of Scripture used by these theologians, see Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.)
From the early 2nd century CE (100’s CE) to Nicaea (325 CE), then, the early Church struggled with who and what Jesus was. And each contribution in that struggle added “another layer to the table top.” For me, the question is begged, “Shouldn’t ‘God reaching down to man,’ as I’ve heard evangelical Christians describe Christianity, be clearer and more direct than that?” Or, similarly, “If Jesus was who modern Christians believe he is, why was it so difficult, convoluted, nuanced, and sophisticated just to define him?”
This brings us to the period between the death of Jesus (c. 30-33 CE) and the early 100’s CE, wherein layers were added in the form of evangelical biographies and interpretations applied to Jesus, most familiar of which are the four Gospels of the New Testament, the three Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and the Gospel of John. But there were far more than four layers:
The Gnostic Gospels of Nag Hammadi (c. 140-300 CE), the Gospel of John (c. 90-95 CE), Acts (attributed to Luke) (c. 80-90 CE), Gospels of Matthew and Luke (c. 80-85 CE), Gospel of Mark (c. 65-70 CE), Letters (Epistles) of Paul (50-57 CE), Three “Source Sayings” used by Matthew and Luke, “Q,” “M,” and “L” (c. 33-60 CE), and, for a philosophical source for the Gospel of John, Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-50 CE). Non-Pauline epistles from the New Testament and 1st century CE, such as Colossians and 1 John could have also been listed. The earliest surviving writing even close to being biographical of Jesus is the Gospel of Mark; Paul’s letters are essentially non-biographical of Jesus, focusing on congregational struggles with theological issues like the meaning of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. The baseline and bedrock of this list is that we have nothing from Jesus himself. So whatever the uncoated table top is going to look like, we know there will be nothing directly from the pen of Jesus; whatever Jesus is purported to have said, we know it had to be passed down in oral traditions over the decades to Mark and the Sources Q, M, and L. Why was nothing definitively written down right after Jesus died? We know that answer clearly: first-century Christians saw no need to write down the traditions of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection because there was no need — they all believed he would return to issue in a new earthly order before their generation died out. Two things spurred the writings about Jesus’ life on earth — spurred essentially too late to be assured of their accuracy, being by Mark’s time only from oral traditions and lost or obscure sources — 1) it became uncomfortably apparent Jesus was not going to return before the generation of his contemporaries died out, and 2) the Jewish Revolt against Rome in 62-70 CE, which all but obliterated the culture from which Christianity sprang and which assured that the prevailing interpretation of Jesus would be “Christianity-for-Gentiles” Paul, who did his work well away from Jerusalem and its environs (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]). The Jewish cradle of Christianity was destroyed; the Jewish/Christian groups we know through the theological clashes between Paul and the Apostle Peter, like those headed by no less a light than Jesus’ brother, James, likewise faded into oblivion; those of these groups who survived the revolt became despised by orthodox Jews on one side and by Pauline Christians on the other — despised into insignificance.
In my opinion, the importance of the cultural devastation of the 62-70 CE Revolt to the origins of Christianity cannot be overemphasized. When the Jewish fortress at Masada fell, there was a cultural, intellectual, spiritual, and epistemological vacuum created at the east end of the Mediterranean that no infusion of Roman propaganda or culture could fill. The new version of the dispersion of the Jews, or Diaspora, caused by the Revolt, added to the confusion wrought by destruction and its attendant religious vacuum. Into this vacuum could literally be placed by the writers of the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John almost anything (not to mention the writers of the other 17 Gospels later written and even later found intact or in fragments — e.g. the Gnostic Gospels) — again, anything, and there was little justification to include anything, except for oral traditions that had come to define what Jesus said and did; to exclude certain oral stories about Jesus would erode the credibility of the evangelists who wrote the 4 biblical Gospels. It was, in short, an opportunity to rewrite the story of Jesus any way they wanted. The inconsistencies among the four Gospels testify that that is just what they did. All four wrote in teleological fashion; they each had a message and an agenda, and, to me, none of their agendas included historical accuracy. The writings of Josephus about the years leading up to and during the revolt have far more historical credibility than the Gospels, due to this vacuum. (And, incidentally, the minute mentioning of Jesus by Josephus is often described as being added later by zealous Christian scribes.)
Thanks to the filling of this vacuum by writers of the Gospels, what was done to Jesus between, say, 33-110 CE, done by all these literary layers, was nothing short of a trumped-up biography of Jesus, all trying to apologetically divert attention away from the fact he died as a common criminal against the state, all trying to show he did not die in vain. The Old Testament Judaic mythology was blended with the mythology of Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Persia to exalt Jesus from a Jewish preacher from Galilee to the “pedestal” of Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God, the Angel of the Lord, and/or God himself. Anyone on such a pedestal could not be a forgettable failure. (Note Jesus was exalted, not incarnated as in the Gospel of John, by the Synoptic Gospels. That is to say, Jesus was seen as flesh become divine, not divinity from the beginning become flesh, as was the later foundation of the Trinity.)
To exalt a revered human being to such heights was not unheard-of in Jesus’ time. In the second half of the 1st century CE, after Jesus had died, the Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius was similarly exalted, complete with: a mother with an annunciation concerning the Egyptian god Proteus, celestial signs of his birth, recognition as a son of Zeus, teacher of a group of followers, a performer of miracles such as healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead, accusations of being a threat to the state, and an ascendant up into the realm of the gods. For details, see Life of Apollonius of Tyana, by Philostratus. The Roman emperor Caracalla (ruled from 198-217 CE) dedicated a shine to him in Tyana, and the emperors Alexander Severus (ruled 222-235 CE) and Aurelian (ruled 270-275) revered Apollonius as divine. Such exaltation might have been in some sense traditional. The founder of Rome, Romulus, was considered a divine/human mixture, believed to have been taken up by the gods to join them. In the Old Testament, Enoch and Elijah did not die, but were “taken” by God.
Look what Jesus’ biography had come to be by the year 100 CE. Born through a divine annunciation to a virgin (“young woman” actually) (The Cult of the Virgin — The Mother of God — a concept comfortable to Hellenized Gentiles familiar with goddesses), birth announced by a celestial sign in the night sky, visited by Zoroastrian “wise men” as an infant, attributed with knowledge and powers that astounded his elders, confrontation with Satan himself in the wilderness, a performer of miracles (healing the sick, raising the dead, walking on water, calming the storm, casting out demons, feeding the multitudes, etc.), talked of eating his body and drinking his blood (that Blood Cult effect, perhaps?), resurrected from a tomb after death by crucifixion, appeared alive-after-death before followers and before hundreds, ascended (taken up) to heaven, etc. etc. These additions, along with the “pedestal” attributes listed above, were the nature of the literary layers applied in the 67-year interval of Christian writings pointed out above. So exalted by the evangelists had Jesus become, the evangelist John would put into Jesus’ mouth some sixty years after he was crucified “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6), and the author of Acts (Luke) would put into the Apostle Peter’s mouth some fifty years after the crucifixion this description of Jesus: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) And these two examples do not include the layers added later by the Gnostics, layers giving Jesus powers and cosmic status not even considered by those who emerged contributory to modern Christian orthodoxy.
So, Jesus’ trumped-up biography is not unique, as centuries of Church purging of pagan literature tried to establish. These literary additions, these “layers,” must also be stripped before we can see the table top “in the raw.” But, to “strip for stripping’s sake” might strip away the table top itself. How can we know what to leave as the “table top,” the historically credible situation at Jesus’ death? Historians and philosophers have suggested there is no table top, claiming positions between Jesus never even lived (He was completely made up, like a character in Greek mythology) to the impossibility of knowing anything definite about the historical Jesus (Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus). However, there are at least three ways of reasonably “leaving” a “table top” upon which we can have some degree of historical reliability:
1) Take out of the Gospels the blatant theology and Apollonius-like trappings and fantasies, along with events that evoke wide-spread doubt, like the so-called “miracles.” Thomas Jefferson did exactly and literally this, with a pair of scissors. The result was The Jefferson Bible (1989, Beacon Press, Boston, ISBN 0-8070-7702-X), published, understandably enough, posthumously. The result was a stoic, humane teacher preaching love and respect for one’s fellow human beings amidst trying times.
2) Employ the technique of biblical critics such as Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee), whereby what is kept as authentic is that which is antithetical to the purposes of the evangelists who wrote the Gospels. To leave these “embarrassments” to the writers out would evoke the condemnation of those oral traditionalists who see them not as embarrassments, but as accurate descriptions of what Jesus said and did. An example would be the cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14, Mark 11:20-25, Matthew 21:18-22), an event that has given apologists for Jesus Christ “fits” for centuries, evoking strained and nuanced explanations. Another example is the geographical origin of Jesus. No matter how advantageous it would have been for the evangelists to have Jesus erupting from the “center of things,” Jerusalem, credibility would be lost among readers who knew directly or from the oral traditions he was from the relative “backwater” of Nazareth in Galilee.
3) Apply the philosophical/epistemological technique of Occam’s razor. When several explanations seem equally plausible, choose always the simplest, the one requiring the fewest assumptions. This is also known as the principle or law of parsimony. This technique is basic to the epistemology of science, as nature seldom fails to uphold parsimonious hypotheses (remembering, for our purposes here, that history is a forensic science).
When all this “stripping” and technique application is done, then, what is left? In what can we be reasonably confident that describes the situation at Jesus’ death? Ehrman gives a good answer, one I have little quarrel with: the only part of the Nicaean Creed to which he can subscribe in good faith is “….he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” I might even leave out the “buried” part. I would add, along with Ehrman, there were also a handful of his followers that believed he rose from the dead (Note believing that X occurred does not mean X occurred.) That is not much of Christian orthodoxy left after the “stripping” — a trial, an execution, and a hard-to-believe claim.
The stripped table top is the historical, reliable Jesus at his life’s end; the un-stripped table top is the trumped-up, and, thereby, unreliable Jesus Christ. A case could be made that Jesus’ real life was victimized by bad press, tabloid journalism, or around 21 gospel-writing “spin doctors” who never tried to write a consistent, collaborative biography of the preacher from Galilee.
The “layering of the table top” over the centuries has constituted and today still constitutes a decontextualization of Jesus from history. By “seeing through” all this decontextualization, it now is possible to recontextualize Jesus back into his historical setting. Applying techniques such as the three listed above do not leave a vacuum; there is a cadre of consensus among the forensic scientists known as biblical critics; there is a “table top” most historical observers can see. That “table top” is life’s end for “a probable Jesus.”
Next, I will continue with a description of Jesus I think most probable, from his birth to the “table top,” a biography based upon what we know today.