Monday, December 6, 2010

The Evolution of God: The Invention of Christianity

To understand Christianity one presumably starts by trying to understand Jesus. Unfortunately, little is known of Jesus in spite of the canonization of the four Gospels labeled Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John. These documents were produced well after the death of Jesus, and they present contradictory accounts of his character, his teachings, and of whom he thought he was. They were each written for a different audience and had differing motivations. Robert Wright, in his book, The Evolution of God, suggests an approach to obtaining what may be the best characterization of who Jesus was.

Wright points out that
“Historians of religion have an ironic rule for evaluating the Bible’s claims about history: the less sense a claim makes, the more likely it is to be true. After all, if the Bible’s authors were going to fabricate things, you would expect them to fabricate things that coexisted easily with their religious beliefs. When you see them struggling to reconcile some ill-fitting fact with their theology, chances are that fact is indeed fact—a truth so well known in their circles that there is no way of denying or ignoring it.”
He also points out that the of the four Gospels, Mark, the first (written around 70 CE), was the only one written while people who were actually familiar with events that transpired might still be alive and able to criticize any errors that were incorporated.
“Such is the general, asymmetrical pattern. Mark is more inclined than later Gospels to concede inconvenient facts....The later Gospels shroud Jesus’ life in more obfuscation, and more successful obfuscation, than Mark does. As the decades go by—70 CE, 80 CE, 90 CE—the Jesus story gets less constrained by historical memory and more impressive.”
Wright’s approach then is to place Jesus in the context of what was known about Judaism at the time of Jesus, attach greater credibility to Mark when other gospels provide alternate views of events, and to pay attention to the discrepancies between what was written and what has become assumed in Christian theology.

What picture of Jesus emerges given this approach?

First consider the question of who was Jesus. Wright would say the best description of Jesus derived from Mark would be that of an apocalyptic prophet. These people were not uncommon in Judaism, and Jesus was probably not alone in this field during his lifetime. He begins in a standard fashion by receiving the blessing of a current prophet, John the Baptist, and then going off to spend forty days alone in the wilderness. This is a standard means, among many societies, for inducing hallucinations and visitations by supernatural beings. If a prophet wanted to meet his maker, this was the way to go about it. According to Mark, Jesus began his career as a prophet by going to Galilee and immediately predicting the arrival of the “kingdom of God.”

The power of his message might have been in the immediacy of his prophecies. “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news.” Mark provides this as Jesus prophecy.
‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power....the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven.’
Later Gospels would have to dance around the fact that Jesus prophecy was proven false by confusing the issue and trying to redefine the meaning of both the prophecy and the “Kingdom of God.” Mark’s description is direct and to the point. To a Jew, the kingdom of God was the time when God would impose his
“....ideal state—which heretofore had existed only in heaven—on the otherwise imperfect world of human beings....God’s will was that those unworthy of citizenship would be cast out, consigned to eternal suffering.”
Mark presents an image of Jesus as a true Old Testament prophet by providing these as his words.
‘...if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where....the fire is never quenched’
Here we have a reference to hell, but none to heaven. Jews expected their Messiah to establish a kingdom on earth where retribution would be delivered to all those who had treated the Jews shabbily over the years. Heaven would be a concept that had to be incorporated into Christianity much later.

Wright derives from Mark an image of a traveling preacher who issued prophecies consistent with Jewish expectations. There is nothing to indicate that he was other than a traditional Jewish prophet.
“The Israelocentric nature of the coming kingdom of God is echoed elsewhere in the New Testament. Ever wonder why there were twelve apostles? In Matthew and Luke Jesus says that, once the kingdom of God has arrived, each disciple will get to rule one of the twelve tribes of a reconstituted suggests that the kingdom of God is also the ‘kingdom of Israel’.”
The author discusses several uncomfortable issues about Jesus’ life that proved troublesome to later writers and to the Christian Church. Jesus is transformed from a rather unsympathetic Old Testament prophet who only performed miracles in private (Mark) to a sympathetic and loving “God” who performed miracles in a spectacular fashion, including raising Lazarus from the dead (John). The author would describe this as the evolution of Jesus as required by the evolution of his followers.

The major discomfort for the Christian Church with the story of Jesus’ life involved his crucifixion. Mark has Jesus say, just before he died: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is not the statement that a member of the Christian church would expect to hear from Jesus, but it is what a Jew who thought he was the Messiah and discovered he wasn’t would say. One can interpret the Gospel of Mark in an Israelocentric sense and it all makes sense. But to the followers it was not acceptable so it was rewritten and more explainable utterances were attributed to Jesus. Nowhere in Mark is Jesus associated with a divine nature. It is not until John that the Christians had decided that Jesus was God and that declaration was made.

One can argue endlessly about the accuracy and veracity of the Gospels. Volumes have been written about the inconsistencies within the scriptures, about the obviously man-made manipulation of the documents and their meaning. To Wright that is a given and no longer really interesting. What he is trying to indicate is that the Jesus of the Christian Church probably bears no resemblance to the historical Jesus. But that doesn’t matter. Jesus was a prop used by the early Christians to create the church and the religion they needed. If the Jews were going to always reject Jesus then they had to attract Gentiles. That required a God that could compete with gentile gods, some of which were more Christian than the Jewish Yahweh. That required the creation of heaven and everlasting life as a tenet of the faith. They had to create a society of worshippers that could endure and thrive even under persecution. That required a code of ethics and behavior that could not be attributed to Jesus and his Jewish background. The church had to become universal, which meant shedding its Jewishness. The Old Testament Jesus had to be replaced by a more gentle and sympathetic version.
“In short, if we are to judge by Mark, the earliest and most reliable of the four gospels, the Jesus we know today is not the Jesus who really existed. The real Jesus believes you should love your [Jewish] neighbors, but that isn’t to be confused with loving all humankind. He believes you should love God, but there is no mention of God loving you....(What about the Jesus who said, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’? That verse not only comes from the last gospel, John, but apparently was added centuries after John was written.) In Mark there is no Sermon on the Mount, no beatitudes. Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Blessed are the meek’ or ‘Turn the other cheek’ or ‘Love your enemy’.”
Wright attributes the ultimate course and character of the Christian Church to Paul. He describes Paul as a masterful CEO who organized and encouraged and cajoled the followers into a relatively coherent entity. To him is attributed the moral code that we associate with Christianity today. Antisocial behavior became a sin.
“But if you’re going to start a religion that becomes the most powerful recruiting machine in the history of the world, an appealing message is only half the battle. The message has to not just attract people, but to get them to behave in ways that sustain the religious organization and spread it. For example: it would help if sin is defined so that the avoidance of it sustains the cohesion and growth of the church.”
The crowning step in the development of the church was Paul’s dictum that those who sinned (according to the church’s definition) “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” That last phrase now referred to everlasting life in heaven.
“Christianity would harness this incentive to carry the God of Israel well beyond Israel, into the religious marketplace of the Roman Empire, where he would thrive. The morally contingent afterlife was a major threshold in the history of religion.”
It is ironic that the religion of Jesus flourished because his followers redefined him and his teachings.

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