Thursday, October 22, 2009

Jesus: The Augustan Hippie

An enormous effort continues to be expended on the issue of Jesus' historicity, and perhaps the most significant work done has been by long time Dead Sea Scroll scholar, John Dominic Crossan. Most of his compelling case is laid out in his 400+ page monograph: The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. But the depth of the research clearly shows his conclusion is overpowering: That no genuine divine being existed, rather a very unusual hippie persona, who evinced a disdain for all the normal customs, rituals, formalities. In other words, given the era and time, an "Augustan Hippie". (Under the reign of Emperor Augustus)

A formidable problem in researching and writing about historical personages, is that myth often becomes conflated with facts. This is especially true when the research entails exhaustive dredging up of numerous obscure scrolls, manuscripts- not to mention cross checking of sources.
That is why John Dominic Crossan's book is all the more remarkable. It shines out like a beacon, against a morass of many other comparable books with far less scholarly qualities. At the outset, let me say the book is not easy reading, in terms of mastering insights into textual analysis and their import for interpretation. For this reason one can be sure no limited minded fundamentalist will open its covers.

Which is a tragedy, since a crack of light shining into the darkened neurons of the fundies might well make them more human, as opposed to inhuman and intolerant.

My own ability to ferret out the key research done by Crossan was no doubt aided by my having attended a Jesuit-run university in New Orleans ca: 1964-67. So, I'd already taken courses in biblical exegesis, Quadriform Gospel analysis and Comparative Religion. My mind was therefore already open to the possibilities Crossan presents.

Crossan's conclusionary take on Jesus is perhaps best summarized on p. 422:

"His strategy, implicitly for himself and explicitly for his followers, was the combination of free healing and common eating, a religious and economic egalitarianism that negated alike and at once the hierarchical and patronal normalcies of Jewish religion and Roman power.

And lest he himself be interpreted as simply the new broker of a new God, he moved on constantly, settling down neither at Nazareth or Capernaum. He was neither broker nor mediator but, somewhat paradoxically, the announcer that neither should exist between humanity and divinity or between humanity and itself. Miracle and parable, healing and eating wwre calculated to force individuals into *unmediated* physical and spiritual contact with God and unmediated physical and spiritual contact with one another.
He announced, in other words, the borderless kingdom of God."

Jesus as a historical person, in other words, entirely fit within the egalitarian Gnostic scheme - as opposed to the Pauline 'god-man/Savior' theme. (The Gnostics, as biblical scholar Elaine Pagels notes, considered anyone who identified with God exactly as committing a sacrilege and blasphemy).

What or who was Jesus, at the end of the day? From the weight of Crossan's arguments and insights - not to mention the consensus of The Jesus Seminar Project- he was an extraordinary man. But a flesh and blood human nonetheless.

In Crossan's final conclusion - with which I wholeheartedly concur from everything I've seen- Jesus was a "peasant Jewish Cynic". (As Crossan points out, p. 421, a 'Cynic' embodied "a life-style and mindset in opposition to the cultural heart of Mediterranean civilization, a way of looking and dressing, of eating and living and relating, that announced its contempt for honor and shame, for patronage and clientage. ....Hippies in a world of Augustan yuppies.")

Little wonder then that Jesus' habits would infuriate not only Jewish orthodoxy but the Roman government. Leading ultimately to execution for what they'd have perceived as "subversion" of the Empire.

Geza Vermes, a scholar of ancient Judaism concurs with this take. He is a Jewish Studies professor at Oxford University. According to Vermes, Yeshua (Jesus) was crucified because he "clashed with Jewish and Roman leaders" and was regarded as a "potential threat to law and order and consequently to the welll being of the Jewish people".

They thus decided he "had to be eliminated for the common good."

Vermes goes on to note the 'spark' that ignited the hostility was probably Yeshua doing the "wrong thing" by tossing out the money changers, "in the wrong place" (the Temple). At the "wrong time" (Passover).

Vermes' (like Crossan and other researchers) thus rejects implicitly the facile explanation that the dispute involved the claim of being a unique Son of God who "exercised divine powers".
Vermes doubts seriously (as scholar Elaine Pagels of Harvard notes vis-a-vis the Gnostics) that those 'Savior' beliefs and words were part of the original message.

They were added later on, most of the additions from bastardizations of the Latin Vulgate in its transciption to the King James Bible - which is probably the worst version of the bible available- though it reads the best! As Bible scholar Bart Ehrman has pointed out in his book, 'Misquoting Jesus, (p. 209) the King James version is littered with places in which the translators rendered a Greek text derived from an earlier 12th century (Vulgate) edition "that is one of the worst manuscripts now available to us!" (Emphasis Ehrman's). As Ehrman points out, based on this, it is "little wonder modern (correct translation) editions differ from the King James". Of course, it is amusing that the literalist fundies believe this to mean their book is the supremely correct one and all other versions are wrong!

In context here, consider the claim of a miracle: Jesus “walking on water”. Prof. Hugh Schonfeld has a simple explanation for this: a mistranslation of the Hebrew word “al” which can mean “by” or “on”. So, when a scribe really wrote “walking by the water” it was mistranslated as “walking on the water”.

If one applies the (David) Hume test for miracles here, one therefore asks: Is the Schonfeld claim of mistranslation MORE or LESS miraculous than a man actually violating the law of gravity and walking on water? It doesn’t require a lot of thought, genius or effort to see that the mistranslation of a passage of the New Testament is LESS miraculous (or if you prefer, less improbable) than that a man actually, literally walked on water.

Exaggeration, probably by disciples or early biographers eager to inflate the rebel peasant Cynic into a divine entity, and God-man was also feasible. The erstwhile reason was to "convert unbelievers to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, or God" (cf. Rev. Thomas Bokenkotter, in 'A Concise History of the Catholic Church', notes, p. 17) . A simple example would be the changing of water into wine at Cana. This could easily be done using some berries common to the Mediterranean, which Jesus casually squeezed into water, making it change appearance - then by the power of suggestion convincing the witnesses it was "wine".

At the same time, Vermes - and others (Pagels, Crossan) are willing to grant that Jesus could spell bind a crowd with his words, and could "lay bare the inmost core of spiritual truth".
The central problem for the conventional Christian believer inevitably arises: how to reconcile his/her faith in a literal 'God-Man/Savior' Jesus, with the actual historical person. Who was more a radical, "liberal" freedom-fighter against the Roman state. (Again, imagine a well spoken 60s radical, like Yuppie Jerry Rubin, alive and well in the Middle East and dissing all the antiquated Jewish and Roman customs like he dissed the "establishment" in the 60s)

Crossan offers a hint ('Epilogue', p. 423):

"Is an understanding of the historical Jesus of any permanent relevance to Christianity itself? I propose that at the heart of any Christianity there is always, covertly or overtly, a dialectic between a historically read Jesus and a theologically read Christ. Christiany is always, in other words, a Jesus/Christ/ianity."

and finally (ibid.)

"This book challenges the reader on the level of formal method, material investment, and historical interpretation. It presumes there will always be divergent historical Jesuses, that there will always be divergent Christs built upon them, but above all, it argues that the structure of a Christianity will always be: this is how we see Jesus as Christ now."

For anyone with patience and a truly open mind, Crossan's research (embodied in his book) is a worthwhile excursion into the intricacies of textual analysis, and diligent comparison of ancient scrolls, sources. Its intellectual journey is breathtaking, and its conclusions even more so.
It goes without saying that it can't be everyone's 'cup of tea' because the (implied) threat to the pre-determined beliefs of many will likely overcome their ability to pursue open inquiry. One thing the fundamentalist is frightened of more than anything (maybe apart from his imagined "Hell") is open inquiry and the uncertainty that may be engendered from it.

Crossan on Christian Fundamentalists:

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