The Three-Tiered Cosmos and Other Lost Causes (EHJ series)

"The historical Jesus community does not worship; it gathers."

—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus, 171

My college Hebrew professor once woke me up to the dramatic differences between ancient and modern world-views by drawing us a picture of the cosmos as the writer of Genesis understood it. On a dusty green chalkboard he drew a line to represent the ground, then added a half-circle above it to represent the firmament—the vault or arch of the sky. Underneath, he drew a few pillars to hold up the earth, with the space in between representing the world of the dead. Finessing a bit, he added a few windows into the semi-circle, which the gods could open to smell the delicious scent of burning meat on an altar and sprinkle down life-giving water onto the earth in return for the gift. According to the Babylonian epic of creation, the Enuma Elish, which is much older than the Hebrew Bible and on which arguably writers of the Hebrew Bible shamelessly riffed, the firmament was built of the corpse of Tiamat, goddess of creation, who takes the form of water:

Then the lord rested, gazing upon her dead body,
While he divided the flesh of the ... , and devised a cunning plan.
He split her up like a flat fish into two halves;
One half of her he established as a covering for heaven.
He fixed a bolt, he stationed a watchman,
And bade them not to let her waters come forth.
(end of 4th tablet)

You might be interested to learn that human beings in the Enuma Elish were created from the blood of a traitor god Kingu, and destined to be servants of the gods at least in part because of this heritage. The Hebrew God YHWH also assumes the servitude of mankind, but—more optimistically, it seems to me—makes us not of blood but of the dust of the earth. In this sense, the Hebrew worldview had more in common with the Egyptians, who for example in one ancient spell described the relationship between god and humans in the following manner:

It is in the body of the great self-evolving god that I have evolved,
For he created me in his heart,
Made me in his effectiveness,
And exhaled me from his nose.
(Coffin Text Spell 75, in Hollis, "Egyptian Literature": 129)

Each of these stories of who we are, where we come from, and how we relate to ultimate reality in turn shape our values. It is to such varying understandings of god, the cosmos, and human meaning—in a word, theology—that David Galston turns in chapter 8 of Embracing the Human Jesus, which we have been reading for the past several weeks on this blog. Galston's whole project has been to ask what would happen if we tried to build a community based on the historical, human Jesus. In this chapter, David asks if we bracket and set aside the idea of a divine being clothed in human flesh, and let Jesus just be human, how would it change our theology?

Courtesy of the British Museum. Clay tablet; map of the world; shows the world as a disc, surrounded by a ring of water called the "Bitter River"

We don't live in a world that is quite as small as the one envisioned by ancient Mesopotamian peoples. To put it in Galston's words, "Sometimes ancient problems, even when explained with modern sensibility, remain ancient problems" (181). We can't make the ancient view of the heavens fit ours. There just isn't a divine corpse up there holding back the waters of chaos. We've gone up and looked around; we know! What's up there is a dark, cold space punctuated by light. We can still feel awe when we regard it, sense beauty in its formation, and desire to know it. What we can't do necessarily is worship it as divine.

Galston is arguing that, in the same way, "a word like sin may not be just outdated, it might be a fundamentally flawed way to think about life" along with notions of Jesus as a divine savior and divine intervention in human affairs (181–82). Another notion that goes to the wayside it prayer, in the traditional senses of supplication and thanksgiving. Although many generations of theologians have found ways to make these notions palatable to modern people, it's still basically the remains of a bygone era. What makes more sense now is to replace the language of God with the language of life, as philosopher Don Cupitt has argued. Although individual people may hold onto these notions for psychological reasons such as the comfort it brings, or out of nostalgia for family and cultural values, Galston urges us to resist this temptation especially in the public sphere, and most especially in church:

All of these expressions deflate the community experience by directing the collective will away from history and from authentic language about life. ... An imperative of the historical Jesus community must surely be that the language of the community needs to be directed to history, raised from within the solidarity of people, and hold inspiration to act now. (184)

What I found most meaningful in this chapter was the unswerving commitment to this life, and the warning not to escape it by redirecting our attention to an external, possibly nonexistent reality. Even if it does exist, Galston points out, we still have to live life here, now. Importantly, the conviction is for public life. We don't worship; we work. I stumbled here on the realization that we often informally define religion itself as involving an attitude of worship. Buddhism, Taoism and other world-views are frequently described as "philosophy" instead of "religion" on this premise. If there's no worship going on, is it still religion? The next chapter of Galston tackles that question. For now, we are charged not to hope but to act, as in the example of the Good Samaritan: "It is not about a world where someday there will be no enemies; it is, rather, the practice of compassion that shatters the present world of enmity" (185).

From this perspective, the reigning question of life becomes, what actions are you taking that go beyond hope and actually challenge and change a present reality?

This is part of an ongoing series on David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. You can find chapter 7 here. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

The Sound of an Appalling Love (EHJ series)

“When Jesus is given back his humanity, so, too, is the whole of the Christian tradition and those of the past who defined it for their time.”

—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus, 161

I could not help but think, as I read chapter 7 of Embracing the Human Jesus, of Louise Erdrich’s delightful novel The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, which tells the story of a woman disguised as a priest to the Ojibwe people. At times painful, at times comical, it is a story of lost people reaching out to one another, and in the end Agnes DeWitt truly becomes Father Damien Modeste; in her dual identity she manages to embrace and live out her role as a sustainer and guide for her people. Yet throughout the novel the Pope represents a lovely but distant Christian God, who offers nothing to sustain Agnes/Modeste through the trials of reservation life, including several battles with the devil, who appears to Agnes in the form of an aggressive black dog. Agnes/Modeste addresses the Pope in letters variously as his Holiness, Rock of the True Church, and the Fountain of Hope, until at last, devoid of reply and in her final hour, she writes:

Pope!
Perhaps we are no more than spores on the breath of God, perhaps our life is just one exhalation. One breath. If God pauses just a moment to ruminate before taking in a new breath, we see. In that calm cessation, we see. All I’ve ever wanted to do is see.
Don’t bother with a reply.
Modeste
(344)

The solution to Damien’s despair, a theme that returns repeatedly throughout the book, is to remain fully present, to embrace life: “After returning from despair, Father Damien loved not only the people but also the very thingness of the world. He became very fond of his stove—a squat little black Reliance with fat curved legs. The stove reminded Agnes of a cheerful old woman who had given her bread as a child…” (215). Elsewhere Father Damien declares, "What is this life but the sound of an appalling love?" In the dissolution of the identities of Agnes and Father Damien, the holy and the earthly become one. Compassion is what binds her to this dense, messy place, not to escape it but to embrace it.

In Embracing the Human Jesus, David Galston is likewise advocating for a profound transformation of Christian liturgy that celebrates where we are rather than pines for a separate, somehow better, heaven. Liturgy is the pattern of rituals for a given religious community. The liturgy of a traditional Christian church service typically opens with confession, then moves on to reading from the Bible, then thanksgiving and receiving of the Eucharist bread and wine, and finally concludes with the blessing and commission to “go out and preach the good news.” What Galston recommends in its place is a new liturgy based on the historical Jesus. We gather, we learn from one another, we share a meal and we continue our journeys with good tidings for one another. It’s important that this be a ritual that is celebrated in a historical Jesus community; rituals give power and significance to an act. It imitates what we already do at a family meal, but on a larger scale, suggesting community can be seen as extended family. “Compassion marks the end of religious battles between the mighty gods of human creation who set their truths against one another,” writes Galston. “Compassion is the turn to complementarity, which is the understanding that human beings create truths and live them only in relation to others.”

It wasn’t until I read this chapter that I really understood what David meant in his opening chapter about relativism, that we have to allow for the incompleteness of our knowledge. We can’t escape it. We live within history. We live and understand ourselves in relation to others, and even define the universe in relation to ourselves (what is time, for instance?). “Truth is the activity of living; it is what defines the relation between myself and another” (167). I've experienced this as a reality in my own life. To quote another of my favorites, Judith Butler’s essay “Beside Oneself” speaks movingly of what grief reveals about how inseparable the “self” is from others. She writes:

I am not sure I know when mourning is successful, or when one has fully mourned another human being. I think … one mourns when one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be one that changes you, changes you possibly forever, and that mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the full result of which you cannot know in advance. ... I don't think, for instance, you can invoke a Protestant ethic when it comes to loss. You can't say, 'Oh, I'll go through loss this way, and that will be the result, and I'll apply myself to the task, and I'll endeavor to achieve the resolution of grief that is before me.' I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts the day with an aim, a project, a plan, and one finds oneself foiled. ... Something takes hold, but is this something coming from the self, from the outside, or from some region where the difference between the two is indeterminable? (Undoing Gender: 18)

A ritual of community, openness to others, and compassion for others is rooted in being-with rather than trying to hold apart and purify one soul, which, in the end, is not possible. Grief reveals this in a profound way, as my very ground of being is swept out from under me, forcing me to acknowledge that I am a mishmash of connections all concentrated into one point of light.

The brilliance of the Louise Erdrich’s novel lies not in the success of Agnes’ disguise but rather in how completely she belongs to her community. It is no coincidence that every member of the community acknowledges at different moments that Father Damien is Agnes, and yet the movement of the story never depends on “unveiling” her dual/ambiguous identity. There is no ultimate confession, although she attempts to confess various things in various ways—words that, tellingly, never quite reach their intended destinations.

In the end, there proves to be no burden to relieve. There is no sin, no end to history, just a quiet pulsing of one life into the world that leaves the faintest of marks. Nevertheless, it does leave a mark, and so we all bring the world closer to whatever vision carries us onward.

This is part of an ongoing series on David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

"Breath of God" © drm (Flickr)

"Breath of God" © drm (Flickr)

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

Parodying Violence in Ferguson (EHJ series)

“To stand in front of a tank and be willing to be run over is absolutely not a funny situation, but it is a case parody. … The student tries through non-violent resistance to publicly humiliate the army in an exaggerated and literal demonstration of its callous oppression.”

—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus, 134

Smoky photos of police in riot gear alongside protestors in street clothes with paper signs, breathless cries of frustration from reporters, rumors of fire hoses and international investigations—in a heartbeat, fifty-year-old iconic images of racially charged history explode with latent power. Ferguson, Missouri, has reminded us that our everyday reality is pregnant with past violence.

The images are kept alive in our imaginations by family lore, literature and media, ready to escape when triggered. “The circulation of violence becomes a habit of life, and everybody makes a contribution,” writes David Galston in chapter 6 of Embracing the Human Jesus. We operate out of these habits as though they are the natural way to be—our “default reality” (115). Most of the time they exist as a backdrop, something that doesn't need to be thought out or noticed, but then something happens to awaken us to our assumptions. In Jewish Dogs: An Image and Its Interpreters, Kenneth Stow tells compellingly of how the slur “Jewish dog” is perpetuated in seemingly harmless ways across history—such as through cartoons and children’s games—only to rear up in more serious forms when new developments in political and social conflicts excite feelings against Jewish people.

Consider: if we recall the murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till in a conversation about Michael Brown, as I’ve seen people do this week on social media, what are we hoping people will do with that connection? Likewise, NPR ran a story about a black teen who was ‘almost another dead black male’—the catch? His mom was white. My children's skin color is darker than my own, so yes, this concerns me. But what I want to know is what we’re trying to accomplish with all these images.

Protest as parody

Ferguson protest © Light Bringading (Flickr) | Tiananmen protest © ryanne lei (Flickr)

David Galston suggests we can see non-violent resistance as a parody that demands change via embarrassment of the oppressor’s assumed power. Parody is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as imitation “for comic effect or in ridicule, often with certain peculiarities greatly heightened or exaggerated.” This was a strategy employed by the historical Jesus, and it was probably what motivated Roman authorities to kill him. Many readers will be familiar with the following interpretation of "turn the other cheek": When Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek,” he probably was not encouraging us to passively accept abuse. Rather, it was a demand for equality. “To be slapped on the right cheek is to receive the backhanded blow of your oppressor’s right hand. It is symbolically a ‘downward’ blow meant to put you in your place” (134). Yet when you turn the other cheek, you demand a blow “that assumes equality.”

Galston does not mean to argue that Jesus taught exactly this popular lesson of non-violent resistance as it is now associated with him. It may have nothing to do with what the historical Jesus actually said and did. Rather, “the point is to extend ancient wisdom of the Jesus school into our time and language” (139). We carry the momentum of his teaching forward in our own ways. As the late Marshallese storyteller Jorju Arre once explained, he only told stories to the people who asked, even if that meant only one person would ever hear them (Kelin & Nashon, Marshall Islands Legends & Stories: 169). Sometimes we need to demand stories of the past that propel us toward a better future. If we don’t ask, it won’t be remembered.

Emmett Till’s mom left the casket open. Protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989 refused to move from in front of tanks. What are we doing when we set up and recall such highly visual protests? We are declaring the imbalance of power. We are not allowing it to go unseen. It’s a parody of the oppressor’s control. True, we don’t laugh; but we sure see the ridiculousness of our oppressor’s demands for peace and quiet.

This is part of an ongoing series on David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

Jesus, the Buddha and the Prodigal Son (EHJ Series)

"The church as school, Jesus as teacher, and Christianity as lifestyle are all part of taking the historical Jesus to church."
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

Consider this: Suppose you had the opportunity to spend a couple afternoons learning from the historical Jesus and the Buddha. After listening to the lessons they offer, which one would you follow? Jesus likely said things like, "Love your enemies" (Luke 6:27 / Q) and "The empty jar is full because it is empty" (Thom 97:1–4). The Buddha likely said things like "A mind unruffled by the vagaries of fortune, from sorrow freed, from defilements cleansed, from fear liberated—this is the greatest blessing" (Mangala Sutta), and  "The root of suffering is attachment" (Sunakkhatta Sutta, Pali canon).

In attempting to grab a couple representative quotes from each, I quickly realized that (1) it's hard to know what quotes are authentic, and (2) it can be hard to decide which quotes best convey each teacher's world-view. By the way, if you think you're on safer ground finding the historical Buddha than with the historical Jesus, think again. Here's one entertaining response to this problem. I've also heard David Galston, whose book we've been discussing the past several weeks on this blog, warn about the problem of the historical Buddha on at least one occasion.

Nevertheless, the quotes above I hope convey that Jesus is most often associated with loving where hate is expected, and giving where greed is expected. In other words, his wisdom turns on irony. The Buddha is most often associated with the problem of attachment to what is temporary/transitory. We suffer because we fixate on what ought to be rather than practicing openness to what a given moment brings.

These are not identical attitudes. They don't necessarily cancel each other out, but they set different priorities. So who would you follow?

We are in the midst of a chapter-by-chapter reading of David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don't be a stranger—share your thoughts below!

Chapter 5 of 9, "Life Practices and Schools in Antiquity," Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
« Chapter 4

David Galston suggests we understand the essence of teachings associated with Jesus as a "Trinity of Satire"—paradox, hyperbole, and irony. He gives examples of each, including the two quotes I cited above. An example of hyperbole mixed with a little irony is the parable of the Prodigal Son. In this parable, "the loser is celebrated and the winner feels jealous," Galston explains. "The one with all the power is insecure and cannot let it go to enjoy the moment. The one with nothing is having the time of his life."

If you have 5 minutes to spare, you can watch a video of David telling this parable and interpreting it.

David point out that Jesus' saying, "Love your enemies," is a paradox—an impossible statement. Once you begin to love your enemy, s/he is no longer your enemy. By embracing your enemy, the very idea of enemy becomes empty. Perhaps this was what sparked the philosopher Martin Heidegger to declare in Being and Time that our relationship with others is largely based on a false notion of "the they." He writes,

"We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the great mass as they shrink back; we find 'shocking' what they find shocking. The 'they', which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness." (164, emphasis mine)

In other words, we build up this idea in our heads of who the Other is, and we begin to think that we really understand that other person or other group, that we either are with them or against them. But when we have an authentic encounter with another human being, that whole notion falls apart. They are not the caricature we thought they were. "They" never existed at all. What we have left is another complex human being.

Would You Join the Jesus School of Wisdom?
David poses an interesting question here. If the whole issue of Jesus wasn't about deciding whether or not he is God, but rather, whether or not we would follow his teachings, would we do it? This is the third time I've read David's book. The first time was a couple years ago when it came out, and since then I've undergone some changes in perspective that offered me some surprises when I got to this chapter. I now doubt that Jesus has much meaningful to offer somebody who comes from a strongly agrarian perspective. I no longer believe the Jesus school demonstrates closeness with the land.

This is an important issue to me for two reasons: (1) Just because Jesus may have resisted the Roman Empire, doesn't mean he did so in a way that cultivates a positive relationship with the earth. Those are two separate issues. Jesus may not be a good role model for what to me is our single greatest challenge in modern life: replenishing our damaged earth. (2) Itinerant teachers like Jesus may also not offer good advice for long-term communal life.

If these two values are high on your list, you may need to search elsewhere for a school of wisdom that can provide helpful insights. That's how I felt after reading this chapter.

This claim might need justification. It's true that Jesus uses nature metaphors, but I think he has more in common with people who live in urban settings. Even today, especially today, urban life makes migrants out of us. "Though we fled from distant lands to America, we continue to live much like refugees, never staying long enough to cultivate the richest values possible in a specific place," says Ben Falk in The Resilient Farm and Homestead. "We need the opposite kind of culture, a people that mean to stay" (14)

We already know the Jesus movement involved itinerant teachers who traveled from community to community, dependent on those they met to sustain them. Galston observes the similarity between this practice and that of the Greek Stoics, who likewise lived with little beyond the clothes on their backs. They did this on principle; it was part of the lifestyle of the school. It makes me think of Thoreau at Walden's Pond. I value simplicity to a point, but simplicity is easier for the itinerant than to the person who stays in one place, embedded in a community with all the messiness that entails.

By contrast, agrarian people usually live in multi-generational households in the same basic landscape, and are deeply shaped by that landscape the longer they live on it. This attitude is present in the Bible, mostly in what became the Old Testament. "The very pervasiveness of agrarian thinking in the Bible challenges the common assumption that those who composed or edited the writings were members of an urban elite whose perspectives 'distort or ignore the everyday reality of [villagers'] lives," explains Ellen F. Davis in Scripture, Culture and Agriculture (3).

I am especially taken with Davis' interpretation of the Israelite's exodus from Egypt. She sees the commandments given to the Israelites as a way to separate them from the exploitative practices of Egypt (or, metaphorically, the Israel's ruling class at the time the story was written). "Exploitative agricultural economies were for millenia a fixed feature of various Near Eastern societies," she explains, "including that of Israel and Judah in the period of the divided monarchy" (72). She notes that in this story the Israelites are not allowed to keep the manna overnight. In short, they aren't allowed to stockpile or control the distribution of food.

In complete contrast to agribusiness in both ancient and contemporary cultures, the first story of Israel out of Egypt shows that food is, more than anything else, an expression of God's sovereignty over creation and generosity toward humankind. (73)

I would substitute "God's sovereignty over creation" in this sentence with something about honoring our inability to force life to come into being. Davis is right, I think, to identify the importance of gratitude. In every book I have read, and every interaction I've had with long-time farmers in their least frustrated and anxious moments, gratitude is their highest value. In the words of Rilke:

Though he works and worries, the farmer
never reaches down to where the seed turns
into summer. The earth grants.

In this, I at last find a commonality between the Jesus tradition and the land-based attitude I am currently cultivating in my own life. While I think anybody with commonsense knowledge of nature would disagree with the notion that ravens "neither reap nor sow" (how untrue!), and with the notion that worrying about the future isn't occasionally useful to a cultivator of the land (surely it's helpful to prepare for contingencies!), we can at least agree with Jesus on this: "Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these" (Luke 12:27).

Gratitude—for the earth, for others, and ultimately for our own fleeting lives—is a value I'd like to prioritize. Is that more in keeping with Jesus or the Buddha? I don't know enough about the life of the Buddha, or popular ideas about that life, to comment intelligently on it. However, Jesus' itinerant lifestyle suggests he resisted or was encouraged to abandon the ties to the exact lands and households that once sustained him. To be sure, he may have been forced out by social and personal pressures. I think this may have impoverished the lessons he taught in the particular area we most need wisdom today.

The Prodigal Son is the closest we come to what we need, with a twist: do we have the day-in, day-out staying power of the oldest son? Are we willing to celebrate what we have, including our brother, rather than be celebrated for nothing?

Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

Den förlorade sonens återkomst, Alex Kull (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Den förlorade sonens återkomst, Alex Kull (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Bibliography

David, Ellen F. Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Falk, Ben. The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1962 [Original 1927].

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

Myth and the Historical Jesus

When Jesus is deconstructed and when it becomes clear that the Christ of miracle, mystery, and authority never existed, it is a short step to wondering if the Jesus story as a whole is a myth—something made up, perhaps by a creative school, reflecting both the deepest construct and value of human spirituality. But the historical Jesus as such never existed.

Very few scholars of history and of biblical studies draw the conclusion that a Jesus of history never existed. The main division in scholarship concerns how to appropriate Jesus. Was he an apocalypticist or a wisdom-centered teacher? Few question if he ever lived. Still, on a popular level, Jesus understood as a myth, and strictly a myth, seems to be gaining ground. So, was he or wasn’t he? Did he ever live or is it all a good story?

The critical examination of the Christian gospels, especially with the rise of form criticism*, recommends the conclusion that Jesus as the center of Christian dogma emerged in the itinerant preaching of the earliest Jesus movements. Basically, people spoke in the name of a “living” Jesus who had died. Preachers spoke “in the spirit” of Jesus, thus making him alive in their witness. The Gospel of John is the least historical gospel in that Jesus said basically nothing found there. But John is “historical” in the sense that it records the “speaking in the spirit of Jesus” of a relatively early community. We find in the speeches in that gospel characteristic expressions of unknown individuals who spoke as if they were the living Jesus. This was the charisma of the early church, which, of course, eventually needed to be regulated in some form.

The earliest social movements related to Jesus preserved his memory in this way. Sometimes an individual or group might speak “as if” they were Jesus—making up things believed to be consistent with the living Jesus—but sometimes the memory preserved expressed something Jesus very likely did say, or almost said, as a historical being. The parables and aphorisms of Jesus are the case in point. These forms of speech do reflect the voiceprint of a historical person whose basic mode of teaching was preserved, if re-interpreted, in the teaching and preaching of the next generation. Form criticism was all about finding the voiceprint of the teacher that was carried forward in new shapes by the students.

Now comes the myth problem. It all starts by asking how much of the Jesus material is fictional, arising from later generations who spoke “in the name of” Jesus without actually saying anything the historical Jesus said. And how much of the Jesus material can be identified with some confidence as an originating voiceprint, something close to historical? The line between these two questions is often blurry, and it is exactly this blurriness that inspires the possibility that all the material is mythical, that is, made up “in the name of” Jesus. Once that step is taken, the natural conclusion is that there was no historical Jesus.

It is actually hard to prove there was a historical Jesus using conventional forms of history. Jesus was an unknown. We have to remember that the big name in his lifetime was Socrates. Everybody, including Jesus, had heard of Socrates. He was famous. Jesus as a Galilean peasant was not famous, and he had no chance at ever being famous. In light of the rise of Christianity it is hard to imagine that Jesus was so unknown. Added to this is the immediate context in which Jesus lived. He was illiterate, or very likely so, and poor. His community was also illiterate and poor. No one was able to hire scribes to read great works to them, to record great thoughts by them, or send letters home. The Christian gospels recording the popularity of Jesus and his large following is almost certainly imaginary. His crucifixion by the Roman authorities was done without blinking—another nobody in a long line of nobody rabble rousers.

We look at Jesus from the perspective of 2,000 years of history, and he seems to us to be among the greats. Indeed, he is among the greats, but in the immediate experience of his life he belongs to a minor school or movement that was largely ignored and mostly unknown. Accordingly, it is not possible to expect a great recovery of contemporary witnesses to his life and times. What we can expect is second- and third-generation historians mentioning him in light of a new and rising movement that claims him as the true Caesar (the Lord, Savior, and Son of God).

Now, with this, the ancient historians’ attention is grabbed and among them the general questions arise: Who was this Jesus and who are these people? And, by the way, what are we to do with these folks, anyway?

History witnesses to Jesus in this secondary way. Later historians know about the rising movement and relay whatever information they can gather regarding its founder. The information is humble. It concerns that followers call him Christ, that he was related to another teacher named John the Baptist, that he was crucified, that the followers are poor and even ignorant, spreading rumors and lies. This is what we can read in Josephus (minus later Christian redaction), Tacitus, Suetonius, the letter of Pliny the Younger, and others (Mara ben Saparion, Lucian of Samosata, and possibly Thallus).

So why then does the idea that there never was a Jesus not only persist but gain popular assent? The answer here is the plain fact that despite the above, there is no extant contemporary witness to the Jesus of history. The earliest we can get is Paul, who said that Jesus was once historical (2 Cor 5:16) and who met and knew the “brother of the Lord” (Gal 1:19). Still, it remains simply true that there has never been found an eyewitness report about any incident in the life of Jesus. This simple fact is often the foundation for believing Jesus was only and purely myth.

The second element that supports the belief Jesus was a myth emerges because this belief is partially correct. Much about Jesus is indeed a myth. Really, much about anybody, including our own selves, is myth. With Jesus, like with Confucius or other ancient teachers about whom nothing contemporary exists, myth is part of the package. The earliest Christian movements did interpret Jesus in light of Jewish scripture—especially the prophets and especially 2 Isaiah. The dying and rising Jesus is consistent both with 4 Maccabees, where there is the notion of divine vindication, and Pagan gods, where there is the notion of regeneration. Jesus, his death and resurrection, fit right in with these common, and universal, mythic patterns. Early Christians could draw upon both Jewish and Greek sources in this regard.

Third, it is just a plain fact that many early Christian preachers spoke in the name of Jesus, saying things that Jesus never said. So, it is true that Christianity created Christ to the extent that the movement created a cache of Jesus sayings that contained both historical and non-historical (inspired) sayings. They are sometimes easy to tell apart. For example, sayings about the nature of Jesus and his divinity are made up; parables about the nature or reality of the Kingdom of God are not. Commentary on parables (on how they should be interpreted) is made up; the use of parables to convey teaching is not. Jesus never said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus did say, “A sower went out to sow” (Mark 4:3). And Mark did interpret the sower parable as an allegory about the quality of Christian believers. So, even within the Christian sources that witness to Jesus, much of the witness is myth. There is not much a historian can do about this situation except understand it. Still, it does not prove the case that Jesus never existed.

We all want something to believe, and sometimes when what we used to feel certain about become questionable, the reaction is to throw the whole thing out. I believed many things as a child about my family that turned out to be myth. I threw out the family when I was a teenager, but when I became an adult I discovered how I was also often a “myth” to my own self (believing things about myself that were not true). When I was an adult, I forgave my family for being human and learned to love in a mature way.

When the historical Jesus becomes someone who can inspire us and teach us about life outside of the Christian myth, this involves, and perhaps is the consequence of, the act of forgiving Jesus for being human. It is part of his fate, even his unfortunate fate, to be one of the greatest myths of human history. But this does not erase the voiceprint of a historical figure. True, it makes Jesus an enigma, as Albert Schweitzer famously said, but it does not eliminate the basic fact of his humanity.

© David Galston

*Form criticism is the analysis of the history of literary units like parables and aphorisms.

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David GalstonDavid Galston is a University Chaplain, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Academic Director at Westar Institute, and academic adviser to the SnowStar Institute in Canada. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity (2012).