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Life of Christ a Work of Fiction?
[Opinion] A question for the post-Easter period
Bright B. Simons (baronsimon)     Print Article 
Published 2007-04-10 11:17 (KST)   

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Is There a God?

This Easter Sunday, a third of the world's population, in solemn communion, marked the resurrection from death of Jesus Christ, and his miraculous breaking forth from the stone tomb where his body had been under guard by Roman Legionnaires.

To many of these multitudes, gathered in every corner of the Earth from Yamoussoukro to the Outer Hebrides, the agony of their Lord in his final days is a pain that has traveled down the centuries, and one that they share with him, and can feel in the very depths of their souls, as if it had happened only yesterday. Imagine then their relief at his triumph over death and the worm; envisage their joy and ecstasy: their Lord has risen from the dead, he is GOD!

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It cannot be hard then given this background to understand the outrage that greeted the food artist Cosimo Cavallaro's milk chocolate sculpture of the flagellated Christ, which had been scheduled to go on display at the Roger Smith Hotel's Lab Gallery in the holy week preceding this year's commemoration of the miraculous resurrection of the son of God.

The protests had been led by a cardinal of the church, His Eminence Edward Egan, no less, for clearly Cavallaro's exhibition could not be defended on the grounds either of taste or decency. The period is a holy season; such insensitivity borders on the uncouth. The faithful cannot treat it lightly: it violates every dignity of their belief.

But before we are diverted into a lengthy dispute about the merits of religious sensitivities in modern society, we must promptly grapple with a much more urgent and fundamental issue.

Clearly, the sensitivity that surrounds the subject of Jesus's earthly suffering comes in large part from the total conviction of the faithful that this is no allegorical tale or parable. Many practicing Christians believe wholeheartedly that the remembered events of Easter are factual occurrences that continue to impinge on their daily lives as people redeemed by the life and death, in equal measure, of Jesus of Nazareth. Witness hence the outpouring of anguish in the wake of Gibson's overwrought "Passion of the Christ."

But what if no such events had occurred?

If the life of Christ is but a metaphor of the "good life," then surely Cossimo's undignified piece can not be convincingly accused of causing provocation, for whatever debased likeness of Christ it conjured with the aid of milk chocolate and exposed genitalia will have been much too speculative to arouse the raw passion that has greeted his current offering.

It is precisely because the Christian world believes it has an accurate depiction of the form of Christ based on the imprints on the mysterious Shroud of Turin that a seminal figure of Christ has come into being, attaining the status somewhat of a venerable icon.

And icons, as any religious person can tell you, are not to be trifled with.

But the image of Christ handed over to posterity by the Shroud of Turin asserts that Jesus once upon a time had a physical presence here on Earth. It affirms that this holy personage walked amongst humankind; that he bled from his wounds, and was doused with linen to dry his face. This is a flesh and blood account of a historical figure. Except of course some question the authenticity, even dismiss the history as a fraud.

To those not usually alert to the distinction between Church theology and Bible scholarship it will come as something of a surprise to learn that many of the most ardent deniers of the truth of a historical Jesus are Bible scholars. And among these none are more fanatically skeptical than the so-called radical school of New Testament scholarship. These are considered the extremists of the broader movement of critical New Testament studies.

The New Testament is the second of the two parts of the Christian Holy Scriptures. Written predominantly in Greek it documents the activities of Christ and his immediate followers. It may be contrasted with the Old Testament, that part of the Bible Christians share with Jews, and to a lesser extent with Muslims.

Amongst the principal exponents of the radical branch of New Testament scholarship the name of Earl Doherty springs readily to mind. He describes the entire narrative of the life of Jesus as the "gospel myth."

In Doherty and in several other radical Bible scholars, among whom we may count the German Scholar Arthur Drews and the Englishman John Robertson, we find a cluster of theories about how early Christianity was built on myths from Egypt, Babylonia, Persia and elsewhere to fabricate a notion of a historical Christ when in fact initially Christ had been construed as a wholly divine deity.

Christ in this view is therefore simply the product of recycled myths that have been stripped of the more blatantly mystical parts and situated in more familiar geographical settings to ensure greater acceptability in an increasingly more skeptical world.

An example of such myths we are told is the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh. Radical scholars draw what they describe as striking parallels between this account of a human sage and his interaction with the gods and the narrative of Jesus' life, and assert that both the myth and the gospel accounts derive from a common source of legends involving such supernatural beings as Osiris, Horus, Bacchus and Eanabi, in which virgin births, risings from the dead, journeys between Heaven and Earth, seclusion in wildernesses and celestial events in the wake of births, all feature as embroidery on an earnest recounting of events that never took place.

To buttress the "life of Jesus is a myth" thesis, systematic doubts are often raised about all aspects of the traditional account.

How come no contemporary of Jesus ever recorded the events documented in the gospels from the point of view of an eye witness?

Why do none of the writers of the four gospels of the New Testament ever claim to have seen Jesus?

If Herod, king of Jesus's homeland of Galilee, actually, in a bid to slay the infant Jesus ordered the slaughter of all infants in the town of Bethlehem, wouldn't this be the kind of event that will receive attention from many people not associated with the Gospel story at all?

Wouldn't some scholar from among the Roman colonizers, some itinerant Greek bard, or indeed a Jewish Historian, apart from Christ's own followers, find this worthy of preserving for posterity?

Further, where is the physical testimony? Where is but even the tiniest remnant of Jesus's life as preserved by devout followers?

Where are the writings, figurines, jewelry, pieces of clothing used by Jesus, his immediate followers, or dedicated to his name by the thousands reportedly healed by him, rescued from demonic bondage or from the damnation of spiritual ignorance?

Seeing that all the second and third party accounts of Jesus were written at least a generation after his death, why should we accord any credibility to those accepted by the Church Fathers, notably Irenaeus, as reliable and not to others? Especially when the selection of some of these canonical New Testament texts had been mired in so much politics? Martin Luther, founder of the protestant movement that split the western church in two, famously described one New Testament scripture, the Letter of James, as an "epistle of straw" because it appeared to argue that salvation could be attained through good works as well as through grace and faith in the Lord. Luther's theology asserted the opposite, hence his discomfort.

Is the life of Christ as told over the centuries, a concoction of fiction and stale myths spiced up to serve the expansionary agenda of religious elites?

Or, at best, has the Church deliberately distorted what may have been a mediocre episode in the history of an unremarkable Levantine tribe in some Da Vinci Code-style conspiracy to swindle the masses?

How do believers maintain their faith in the face of scientific assaults on the authenticity of their beliefs as in, for instance, the use of radiocarbon dating to suggest that the Shroud of Turin may have been a medieval forgery rather than a physical relic of a 1st century God incarnate who became known as Christ?

Presented this way the arguments against the historical existence of Jesus Christ appear very formidable. Note however that the contention is not about the nature of Jesus, that is whether he was as good, holy and majestic as the Gospels claim he was -- a subject that has been discussed in these pages before -- but about whether the man actually lived and did at least a fraction of the things attributed to him and, in particular, whether those activities laid the foundation, in whatever form, for the emergence of the Christian faith.

The radical theorists deny the historicity of Christ even on these narrow grounds.

In their view Jesus was a relatively common name in 1st century Palestine but no person of that name verifiably corresponds to the central accounts given in the Gospel.

No Jesus was as an infant the target of royal assassination attempts in Bethlehem, fled to Egypt as a consequence, returned to dwell in Nazareth (simply because there was no such place as Nazareth), stirred massive crowds with his revolutionary reinterpretations of the Jewish faith, attracted the ire of the religious authorities as a result, was thus tried by the Roman Procurator of the Province, was sentenced to death upon conviction, and crucified on a stake.

But if so from where did the story of Jesus of Nazareth originate? How did this myth coalesce around specific historic sites, persons, events and personal biographies to give us this account of a great founder of a universal faith?

This is the question that tears large holes in the radicals' argument. As mainstream Bible Scholars, like the late Shirley Case continually remark, the radical theorists are effective when they clench their fist and hammer incessantly against any and every probability of a historical Jesus. Having razed down the accepted theories of gospel account, however, they struggle pathetically to erect an alternative theory in their place.

Some say that Jesus is an amalgam of various nomadic or hermitic Jewish preachers such as the Essenes who flourished several generations before the time of Jesus, or that he was first a spiritual potentate after the fashion of solar demi-gods such as Mithras and Apollo, but was gradually transformed into a human sage to attract more educated types into the faith.

The funny thing though is that this will have been incredibly bizarre. Every historical precedent suggests contrariwise: great sages become gods in time not the other way round. Dionysus, Hercules, Buddha, maybe even Krishna and Quetzacoatl, all followed the standard trend. It is of course not logically impossible that early Christians will choose this rather contorted approach, but the radicals will have to do a better job of persuasion.

And at any rate, why would a bunch of semi-literate Palestinians strive to entice educated Greeks by inventing a Jewish carpenter and endowing him with supernatural qualities upon the logic that he was prior to his birth a God? In all other historical instances of incarnation, the man-god has been a prince or warrior prince of some kind. Carpenters do not usually feature very often.

Given that Christianity never really did too well in the Jewish enclaves of Roman Palestine, why did these inventors of God-carpenters choose to carry the messianic baggage around their neck through Greece, Rome and further afield?

Surely, they could have followed a format more familiar to their prospective converts. They could have said that Christ was a great Jewish warrior-prince who was betrayed before he could throw off the yoke of Roman domination, was arrested and crucified, but raised from the dead and now enthroned in Heaven.

They were after all concocting from scratch, so why settle for anything less? And why not go all the way and invent artifacts to prove to skeptics that Christ really lived? And as for parallels with earlier legends or mystical accounts of similar personages, well what may one say about the parallels (increasingly less striking) between the lives and deaths of John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln? Do these undermine the historical validity of the accounts? Since when did historians expunge the word, "coincidences" from the vocabularies?

While a lot had been made of the fact that the earliest books of the Christian New Testament were written a generation after the supposed crucifixion of Christ, and that there are no eyewitness accounts, this argument is not as devastating as its exponents believe.

For within that generation Christianity had grown sufficiently to be viewed as a threat by the Emperor in Rome. Rather than something concocted by elites to dupe ignorant masses, the pattern of conversion had been the other way round: slaves and servants enticed their masters and mistresses to join the faith.

The patricians of Rome and elsewhere could easily have discredited the faith by exposing its roots as fakery. After all, the inventors of this creed had done half the work for them. They had mentioned geographically accurate towns, cited clearly disprovable incidents and even mentioned potentates such as Octavian (the first Augustus) and a Roman Procurator by the name of Pilate.

Gullibility indeed is one of humanity's most entrenched traits, but it is closely matched by incredulity. Given the religious mind's penchant for pilgrimage, it is highly doubtful that the inventors of the Jesus figure could have got away with fictitious place-names and prominent personages.

And surely if they were as smart as all that, to deceive learned Greeks and Romans, why did they not ensure that each account is a flawless duplicate of the other? The Christian scriptures openly admit alternative interpretations: from John's unabashed mysticism to Mark's practical narration to St. Paul's rich philosophy; and that is even after discounting the Gnostic and other texts considered inadmissible (apocryphal or uncanonical) by the Church.

Why leave gaps in the biographical account, in some cases by up to 30 years? Is this the standard style of fiction? Is this not more the attitude of a biographer: to stay silent where the material or recollection is too hazy to allow a faithful reproduction?

In fact the very serpentine wefts and warps of the literature on Christ's life that compels some like Albert Schweitzer to describe the Historical Jesus as an "enigma" point hardly to a fictionalized account but more to a core reality from which extrapolations have been made. Admittedly this prevents us from conflating the argument about the historical validity of Christ's work with his natural, actual, character but it nonetheless prevents hasty conclusions that the Christian religion rests on the perpetuation of a fraud.

The question is in view of this therefore not "irrelevant to theology" as Schweitzer claims. It is important for those who draw inspiration from the Church and from Christ to know that whatever the occasional flaws or misdeeds of the Church the creed of Christ did not begin with a deliberate lie.

But how do I propose to discharge the burden of justifying Jesus's relative anonymity during his lifetime? It is interesting how so much prominence is usually given to the fact that Jesus was not the subject of much contemporary commentary. Let's put some perspective into this matter. Palestine was an obscure province in a large and flourishing empire. It was overly infused with assorted religious schemes involving prophets, messiahs, mystics, and religious reformers. By every account in the New Testament, Jesus's earthly ministry was extremely brief -- no more than three years. He was executed well before he had won any significant number of converts from amongst the upper classes. Even more, he had no explicit political agenda. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that we are not swarmed by testimony about his work. The temple records which will have recorded his trial, the only event in his life that may have merited national attention, will definitely have perished in the Roman assault under Titus on Jerusalem.

Moreover, we should not dignify extremist skepticism with too much scholarly exertion, especially when the subject is history. As the German Philosopher, G.W.F.Hegel will have concurred: all history is a series of political positions. The validity or otherwise of Christ's existence is more a political than a religious controversy. One reckons that similar controversies would erupt over any historical incident or persona should the politics merit it.

Much of what we know of the great rulers of Egypt, for instance, depends on how intelligently we use evidence without insisting so naively or obtusely on eyewitness accounts. Indeed, any such rigid rules of evidence will deny virtually the whole of sub-Saharan Africa a history.

Rote memorization was for several centuries a respectable medium of historiography, and its use as a bridge between the life of Jesus and the narratives of the Gospels can not be presented as some form of incontrovertible evidence of likely fraud.

Nor can it, at any rate, preclude the possibility that several written memoirs of Jesus's immediate followers circulated around this time and served as the basis for the latter gospels. The loss of such material to posterity is easy to explain given the speed with which the Roman authorities moved against 1st century Christianity and the persecution that subsequently followed. Even today social elites burn manuscripts that offend them.

In fact there is much to the view that we should hesitate before bandying scientific standards of accuracy around when bent on discrediting the Gospel accounts. The much publicized radiocarbon testing of the Shroud of Turin which apparently disproved the tradition that it contains bodily fluids of Christ has come up against new theoretical arguments in recent years. It now appears that the tests may have been skewed by microbes on the surface of the cloth. The alternative account of its origin as a work of forgery seems on critical inspection, like many radical hypotheses, even more suspect. It has emerged that the sophistication required to fabricate the image on the cloth would probably not have been present in the Middle Ages, when it was supposedly faked.

We may even want to stand back, at this juncture of the discussion, and look at the matter again, with additional dispassion if necessary. Regardless what some cynics say Christ was indeed a remarkable sage. Those who contend that there was nothing original in his ministry refuse to look closely at the facts. This was a man who argued that we need not wait for some Gnostic or mystic insight to attain holiness, but that just as we are we can manage an outlook of unconditional love towards all our fellow men and women. Never before or since has such a message been preached before.

Within it laid the seed of the rational humanism that some today, bizarrely, contrast with the original Christian ethic preached by Jesus of Nazareth. It is interesting that when asked of his origins and mission at his trial, he mentioned "Truth," earning the baffled Pilate's even more fascinating response: "and what is Truth?"

Maybe had he not existed, and the facts overwhelmingly point to his having existed, it would have been imperative to invent him. For his life and teachings, even death and as some believe resurrection, are certainly a source of inspiration for many, many people in our turbulent age than can be numbered.

And, certainly, not just for mediocre food artists in New York.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Bright B. Simons

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