The tone, tenor and plot of Luke’s account of the Jesus birth narrative is very different from that in Matthew’s gospel. It is set on grander scale, Mary is more prominent, and Joseph recedes into the background. Both authors in constructing their fictions have chosen very different ways to tell the story. For those interested in any [...]
Christians carry around in their heads what I call the mush gospel. We mush together the various stories from all the gospels into a single story/gospel that is idiosyncratic. This mush gospel is built up from reading, from hearing the gospel stories read, and from sermons and hymns. We use that mush gospel to make [...]
Why were certain books excluded from the New Testament? “The stunning truth is that we have hardly any evidence of the process of how the canon was made. By and large, we don’t even have evidence for the character of the debate,” explains Westar Fellow Hal Taussig, who presented A New New Testament November 23rd, 2014, at the San Diego Convention Center as part of the Westar Institute Fall 2014 national meeting. “The most we have is an individual scholar [in the second through fifth centuries] saying, ‘I like this book; I don’t like that one.’”
Why did those in power decide to “close” the canon, or collection, of texts that now appear in modern Bibles? Was the decision experienced as oppressive, as foisting certain groups of people like the Valentinians out of the fold? Or did the people who made these decisions actually seek to protect a certain amount of diversity, such as by keeping the Synoptic Gospels Mark, Matthew, and Luke alongside the Gospel of John, or Paul’s Corinthian correspondence alongside the pseudo-Pauline Pastoral Letters 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus? It’s difficult to know.
Even today there is no one ultimate collection of “Christian” books. It’s even possible that the New Testament didn’t truly narrow the playing field—and biblical literalism didn’t truly have a leg to stand on—until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. After all, even the best scribe can’t hand-copy verbatim every time. Notes with corrections appear in the margins at the very least, and the entire discipline of textual criticism in biblical studies involves grouping manuscripts into families based on inherited variations in the texts.
Incidentally, should it be of interest to you, scholars of Islam are also fascinated by the question of accuracy but (1) tend to focus on the life of Mohammed rather than the text of the Qur’an, and (2) as a result, must work largely with oral traditions. This is called isnad, the chain of transmission that accompanies stories and sayings of the prophet Mohammed. The classification system is complex and accounts for issues such as broken or unreliable transmission, and closeness to the source. Reader beware: as with the study of early Christianity, the study of Muslim isnad is riddled with theologically motivated logic, so seek out a reputable scholar.
Back to the subject at hand. Hal Taussig is the editor a twenty-first-century Bible called A New New Testament (ANNT) that combines traditional and newly discovered texts. The new texts were selected by a council of nineteen religious leaders and scholars. Many of the new texts came from a remarkable collection found in 1945 in upper Egypt, popularly known as the Nag Hammadi library. This discovery revolutionized studies of early Christian history but has not achieved the same level of public recognition as the equally outstanding discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. One audience member at Taussig’s presentation asked, “How much of the squirreling away of Nag Hammadi texts is political, and what can we do to bring these texts into public view?”
“What I would call Christian fear and scholarly timidity is political,” Taussig responded. “By and large, churches haven’t needed to act against these discoveries because scholars have already done that so well. The public has both creative and commercial force to put behind these new materials. Let’s get to know the texts as a public. Let’s allow sophisticated, complicated discussions to take place around them.” On this blog we’ve been reading Karen King’s book What Is Gnosticism? and discussing some of the political and ideological issues related to the study of the Nag Hammadi texts, so I won’t get into those issues here. The gist of it is the creep of theological ideas into historical research. Many researchers who perhaps embrace Christian beliefs personally or at least are heavily steeped in Christian traditions have continued to give the canonical texts first place in any story of Christian origins. Anything that didn’t make it into the Bible is automatically treated as secondary, suspect, or impure.
Maybe the best thing to do to honor Taussig’s presentation, then, is to share a sampling of these texts here. Of the many Nag Hammadi texts Taussig introduced, let’s look at one: The Thunder, Perfect Mind. Here’s a translation of the full text, but I also quote it below.
The Thunder, Perfect Mind is an extended poem known as an aretalogy—the divine being who self-reveals, who talks about himself or herself. This was a popular form in the ancient world. Here is an example of an aretalogy of the goddess Isis dated to the second to first centuries BCE. It opens with the writer explaining his/her reason for daring to write in the name of the god, then launches into aretalogical language:
Taking heart, I proceed to what remains, knowing that this encomium is written not only by the hand of a man, but also by the mind of a god. And first I shall come to your family, making as the beginning of my praises the earliest beginnings of your family. They say that Ge (Earth) was the mother of all: you were born a daughter to her first. You took Sarapis to live with you, and, when you had made your marriage together, the world, provided with eyes, was lit up by means of your faces, Helios (Sun) and Selene (Moon). So you are two but have many designations among men. For you are the only ones whom everyday life knows as gods. (Trans. G. H. R. Horsely)
This sort of language probably sounds familiar because it also occurs in both Hebrew Bible and New Testament texts like the Gospel of John. What makes Thunder, Perfect Mind unique over against traditional early Christian texts is the presence of a predominantly feminine voice. For a sense of the conversations this can open up, try comparing verses from Thunder and John.
The Thunder, Perfect Mind (1:1, 5–7; 2:1–2)
I was sent out from power
I came to those pondering me
And I was found among those seeking me…
I am the first and the last
I am she who is honored and she who is mocked
I am the whore and the holy woman
I am he the mother and the daughter
I am the limbs of my mother
I am the sterile woman and she has many children
I am she whose wedding is extravagant and I didn’t have a husband
… I am the silence never found
And the idea infinitely recalled
I am the voice with countless sounds
And the thousand guises of the word
I am the speaking of my name…
The Gospel of John (1:4–5, 11–13)
That which came into being in the Word was life
and the life was the light of humanity
and the light shines in the darkness
and the darkness never overpowered it.
… He came to his own—yet his own did not receive him.
But to all who did receive him he gave power to become children of God—
to those who trust his name,
not through blood nor through will of the flesh, nor through the desires of men
but through birth from God…
As the Christianity Seminar also urged people to do, we need to read these new texts alongside traditional texts to begin to visualize what kinds of conversations were happening in Christianity before it became the religion of the Roman Empire. Separating them into arbitrary groups doesn’t help. Thunder and John, especially when read in full, share several themes, including the following at minimum:
- A being, sent out from power/God, comes to those who seek and are open to receiving
- This being takes the form of Word—the name of God or a personification of God
- This being, though divine, shares the full gamut of human experience, both honor and mockery/humiliation
- The speaker uses paradox to convey a sense of vastness within this single divine being and at the same time encourages the human seekers to share in that feeling (or even recreate it)
“Besides the Gospel of John’s Jesus and Thunder, no other ancient (or modern) divine voice presents itself as simultaneously both so glorious and so humiliated,” writes Taussig in ANNT (180). Virginia Burrus, the Bishop W. Earl Ledden Professor of Religion at Syracuse University, sees this kind of writing not as a sign of a "personal crisis" in which Jews became alienated with their tradition—one reigning explanation for the existence of "gnostic" texts—so much as a response to the powerful Roman empire:
[Hans] Jonas' (suspiciously orientalizing) syncretism and alienation are pointing toward what might be reframed as hybridity and ambivalent resistance to empire/colonization, characteristics which arguably mark all products of early Roman (and earlier) Hellenism, yet differently and to different degrees." (personal communication quoted in King, What Is Gnosticism? 189)
My own response to this text is startled acknowledgment that the writer knew Paul's letters. When I was working with the editors of the Acts Seminar Report, I learned that in order for an historian to claim that one author is alluding to another, by definition enough of the original has to be carried into the new work to give itself away. That happens in Thunder. "Why then do you hate me, you Greeks? Because I am a barbarian among barbarians?" (Thunder 3:3) alludes to 1 Corinthians 9:20 and Romans 1:14–15. In some ways the whole poem is a meditation on Paul's statements like this. "Advance toward childhood; Do not hate it because it is small and insignificant" (Thunder 4:5).
The malleability of the speaker, speaking for the divine, also suggests s/he is emulating Paul, with one crucial difference that I find fascinating: Paul doesn't mention sayings of Jesus much, but the writer of Thunder draws on both Paul's letters and Jesus' empire of God sayings. "Do not stare at me in the shit pile, leaving me discarded; you will find me in the kingdoms ... In my weakness do not strip me bare; Do not be afraid of my power" (Thunder 2:13, 17). The poetry that resulted is beautiful, but its very difference is a strong reminder that in the study of history we need to leave room for creativity and spontaneity, too.
What texts have you read outside the standard New Testament ones, and what did you discover? Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below
[divider style="hr-dotted"] Cassandra 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.
Last week we left off our reading of Karen King’s book What Is Gnosticism? with the problem of historians ignoring and distorting data for the sake of protecting the exalted status of whatever they believed to be true Christianity. They let theological concerns get in the way of historical ones. The most damaging idea introduced by this generation of scholars was the gnostic redeemer myth.
What is the gnostic redeemer myth? More or less invented by philologist Richard Reitzenstein by combining elements from many different texts, the gnostic redeemer myth is summarized as follows by twentieth-century theologian Rudolf Bultmann:
A heavenly being is sent down from the world of light to the earth, which has fallen under the sway of the demonic powers, in order to liberate the sparks of light, which have their origin in the world of light, but owing to a fall in primeval times, have been compelled to inhabit human bodies. This emissary takes a human form, and carries out the works entrusted to him by the Father; as a result he is not cut off from the Father. He reveals himself in his utterances (‘I am the shepherd’, etc.) and so brings about the separation of the seeing from the blind to whom he appears as a stranger. His own harken to him, and he awakes in them the memory of their home of light, teaches them to recognise their own true nature, and teaches them also the way of return to their home, to which he, as a redeemed Redeemer, rises again. (Bultmann, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart).
Bultmann, like other scholars of his generation, believed the gnostic redeemer myth to be a pre-Christian myth appropriated and transformed by Christian evangelists like the writer of the Gospel of John (Hammann, Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography: 319). Most of you will be familiar with the Christian version, as can be read in the second paragraph of the Nicene Creed:
I believe … And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
The gnostic and Christian myths mostly differed “in what each conceived to be the root cause of the problem [of the human situation]. For Gnosticism, it was fate; for Christianity, sin” (King, 105). Often viewed as a direct competitor with the Christian redeemer myth, the gnostic myth was deemed “an alien parasite whose infestation produced the heresies of Christian Gnosticism” (109). Scholars were able to assume this in part because they assumed a master narrative in which Jesus delivered an original, “pure” doctrine to his disciples that was later corrupted (111).
In chapter 5 of What Is Gnosticism?, Karen King introduces three scholars who became increasingly critical of earlier claims about gnosticism, especially the redeemer myth: Walter Bauer challenged the notion that “heresy was a secondary development in the history of Christianity” (110). Christianity "did not look the same everywhere" (112). Whatever form Christianity took in a given city or region, that was Christianity to those communities. There was no model or protocol for how Christianity ought to be until several generations later. Hans Jonas challenged the history of religions school’s obsession with tracing the origin of gnostic ideas as though a movement could be defined merely by the sum of its parts. “Myth demands interpretation,” he believed (128). We can engage myth on a psychological and philosophical level rather than merely dissecting it. Carsten Colpe dissected faulty assumptions in past studies of gnostic texts, such as the fact that no single text tells a complete version of the myth, and that the Jewish “Son of Man” from the book of Daniel cannot easily be tied to redeemer figures in Manichaean and Mandaean traditions.
While the work of this later generation of scholars carried forward some of the prejudices of the past, such as the assumption that gnosticism was immoral and inferior, their “enduring work” has been “to emphasize the multiformity of early Christian phenomena, as well as to demonstrate irrefutably that Christianity and Judaism are integrally entwined in a wider historical and cultural matrix” (148). This laid a crucial foundation for the further upset of assumptions about gnosticism that was to come with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts.
More on that next week as part of the Westar Christianity Seminar discussion of this book at the Society of Biblical Literature conference in San Diego!
This is the fifth post in a blog series on Karen L. King's book, What Is Gnosticism? This book formed the basis of the Fall 2014 Christianity Seminar in San Diego concurrent with the Society of Biblical Literature conference. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓
Cassandra 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.
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.
David 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).
Westar Institute fosters collaborative, cumulative research in religious studies and communicates the results of the scholarship to a broad, non-specialist public.