Another essay on the plausibility of Christianity

I got into a (very civil, actually) discussion on FB about this. The other person began with a CS Lewis quote claiming that the statement: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God” is a fundamentally ludicrous idea. I replied that, given what we know of both history and text, the notion of accepting the ethical ‘love your neighbor, care for the sick and the poor’ message of the historical teacher, while remaining skeptical of claims to divinity is quite reasonable. 

She reasserted that it was not really logically possible to accept even an ethical dimension to Jesus without accepting the divine. Her reasoning seemed to be little more than ‘because Bible.’ And also CS Lewis. Essentially, the argument is this: 1) Jesus was a great moral teacher (bible says so). 2) Jesus said he was divine (bible says so). 3) If he said he was divine and was not, he lied. 4) Great moral teachers do not lie (I say so). 5) Therefore, either Jesus was not a moral teacher, or he is divine. 

Oh, the fallacies just abound in that little bit of reasoning! Let us look for a moment at the false dichotomy of ‘he is or he lied.’ We know, even from the firmest apologist’s point of view, that the Jesus represented in the gospels spoke in metaphor and allegory. He is, even within the gospel texts themselves, often misunderstood. To suddenly pull a 180 and claim that much of anything that Jesus supposedly claimed is crystal clear and must be either true or a lie is a huge logical fallacy, even if we take all of the text at face value.

But there is far more going on here. For me, personally, and academically (which I can’t really separate) it is the evidence of history (and lack of evidence in some cases), that makes it plausible that there was a Jewish man named ‘Yeshua’ (a name as common as John or Bob in our time), who preached about loving God and loving your neighbor. That is, after all the core of the Jewish decalog. And there were literally hundreds of these messianic preachers in Judea in this time period. That he may have been crucified by Rome at the request of the Jewish establishment tells us nothing. The Jews didn’t like trouble makers (what occupied people want to make their occupiers really mad?) Rome didn’t look kindly on dissidents, either, executing scores of them in this time period, many by crucifixion, a favorite punishment for traitors and rebels.

However, the assertion of actual divinity is firstly almost inconceivable from a Jewish messianic preacher (a claim of actual divinity would be the pure blasphemy to any faithful Jew, which, if the gospels are to believed even historically, the Jesus portrayed therein most certainly was). Even among the splintered and fringe sects among 1st C. Palestinian Jews, this would simply been all but impossible. More to the point, regardless of the semantics of the claim itself, is the fact that such a claim also postdates the supposed time frame of this man’s life (the historical details we are given in the synoptics contradict each other, so we can’t be sure of the exact dates for anything). 

Paul, trained in the mystery cults of the Hellenic world, with their dying and rising gods, is the earliest author of the NT, and admits outright that he neither knows or cares about ‘Jesus the man’ in his lifetime. His vision of the Christ is highly rhetorical (not surprising given what we know of his training; his roots in classical rhetoric are evident in his text), and wholly spiritual. He says little to nothing about the mortal person of Jesus or the claims he may or may not have made. In fact, his entire narrative far more closely resembles that of the countless dying and rising god cults in whose narratives Paul was steeped, coming as he did from a classical education.

The synoptics (referring to Luke, Mark and Matthew, called thus because of their strong similarities in structure and content), come next, but the earliest of them is written roughly 30 years after when we think Jesus’ execution would have occurred, by followers of followers; third- and fourth-hand accounts, told by people with their own interpretations of things, and their own reasons for writing. You will notice, if you read them carefully, that there is little mention of a divine Jesus in the synoptics. Each of them reflects their writer’s ideas, background and perspective. And we know that these are not simply a person sitting down and writing what he recalled. For one, they come a generation or more after Jesus’ death. For another, we can see large sections that were copied directly from each other, and in some cases, what appears to be another source text which we no longer have. (This is part of what I mean by textual evidence; meticulous analysis of the text in terms of structure, syntax, grammar, etc. Much the same way we can tell the difference between the writing of say, Jane Austen and a novelist writing now. It’s the same language, but it reads differently, reflecting the time period. It would be fairly easy to spot a passage in Austen that was added in modern times, for example.)

John, the ‘odd man out’ among the gospels, was written fully 60-70 years after Jesus death, when the followers of this new form of Judaism (for that is what it was, at first – they weren’t speaking of a different god, after all) had begun to come into serious conflict with the Jewish establishment. This is evident in the text; almost every account we have of tension or violence between the followers of Jesus and the Jews comes from John. John is also the source of the vast majority of writing on the idea of Jesus as divine, which was the hotly debated and deeply divisive point of contention with the Jews. John is trying to establish this faith in Jesus as something different from Judaism; he is trying to defend and establish the idea of Jesus AS divine. However, the divinity of Jesus is not hotly debated right away, only once the new faith has come into contact with the Gentile, Hellenistic world, in the time when John was written. Why not? If it’s such a big point of contention, one would think it would have been the issue right away, but it isn’t.

The best explanation for this is that there was not an assertion of divinity by the possibly historical person (or amalgam of several people), we now know as Jesus, but that this was a development or adaptation of a core message which occurred when that message came into contact with other, similar narratives. We see this happen all the time, in this period and region, and throughout history. After all, we get Jesus’ winter solstice birthday from that of Sol Invictus; historically, it appears he would have been born in the summer months. We get many of our saints from local pagan gods (Nicolas in Scandinavia, Brigid in Ireland), and many of the Christian customs from those of the local people to whom the new faith spread. Is it so difficult to imagine that the unrecorded words of a single preacher among many might get adapted and added to over time, in a period when few knew how to read or write, and most of the transmission of the message came by oral tradition?

This is also is borne out by the rest of the historical evidence we have from the time, which is actually quite extensive; the Romans were obsessive record keepers. But neither Roman historians and record keepers, nor any others, ever make mention of Jesus in his supposed lifetime, only making note of the unrest and conflict in which the new ‘Jewish cult’ was involved in Palestine decades later. It’s much like a legend such as that of Paul Bunyon – a man becomes locally famous, a sort of icon, and the tale grows with retelling until it has become a legend. That doesn’t mean the actual meaning or value of the original message is void, only that it makes more sense once you clear away the legend. There is no reason to need the divine to make the ethical message valuable, any more than Gandhi or MLKJr need to be divine to have real, genuine value as figures worthy of respect, admiration, being held as ethical role models.

Again, that’s an academic perspective. I deal in history, evidence, and parsimony. I have found, and not only with myself, but with virtually every other academic I’ve spoken to in the fields of history, cultural studies, religious studies, etc., that the deeper one studies any mythology, the more clearly one is able to see it as the product of its time and culture. This is especially true when you have studied multiple mythologies, and found that really, the stories are all basically the same, and the answers the stories give are all basically the same, reflecting the same core human experience. From there, it becomes simply impossible to imagine that any one is somehow exceptional, or is somehow literally true when the rest are merely allegory. And since certainly they can’t all be true, there is no reason at all to privilege any one over any other, as none make any more or less sense. As the quote goes, we are all atheists with regard to thousands of gods. You are an atheist with regard to all but one, I am an atheist with regard to all.

That doesn’t mean I wholly disdain those mythologies—quite the contrary. In all honesty, I find a few of the supposed teachings of Christ to be quite fine, if stunningly basic and unoriginal, and others to be every bit as archaic and (in contemporary terms), backwards as one would expect from a male member of a first century patriarchal sacrificial cult. I do appreciate the tenacity and creativity of Christianity as a movement in the first few centuries; as socio-political or cultural trends go, it is certainly a unique success story in terms of adaptation, integration into society and having a knack for surviving. I likewise have appreciation for the complexity of Hindu mythology. I have tremendous affection for mythology in general as an evocative and creative form of metaphorical thought. I am especially fond of medieval Christianity. It’s a core part of my academic work, after all; and you can’t devote a career to studying something if you don’t have some affection for it. And if my saying that in those terms bothers you, remember that millions of other people would be equally offended, not by my calling Christianity ‘mythology,’ but because I called the Hindu stories mythology.