The media routinely run hit pieces against Donald Trump. Nothing much out of the ordinary about that. The media also routinely take pot shots at Christianity. Sadly, there’s not much out of the ordinary in that either.
But recently a major media outlet, the Washington Post, has combined both prejudices into one single diatribe!
The article in question, by Berny Belvedere, takes Trump to task for talking about his success as a businessman while at the same time professing his Christian faith. The hitch, in Belevedere’s view, is that you can’t be successful at anything and be a true Christian, because, as he puts it, “failure is intrinsic to Christianity.”
The headline over the article, published June 27, communicates the exact same message: “Failure is Key to Christianity. Is Donald Trump too Successful?”
One response to this would be: how is it that Christianity, if it is such a failed religion, spread to the extent that it did, far beyond the Mediterranean world, and how is it that this same failed religion has also managed to endure for two millennia?
But let’s look a little closer at Belvedere’s thesis, for his logic is a bit convoluted (a more precise term for it might be “claptrap”).
The pervasiveness of sin is crucial for establishing the centrality of grace. Within this cradle-to-grave framework, failure is built in as a perpetual feature of the Christian system — not because God is uninterested in our success, but because spiritual failure is the instrument through which we come to sense what the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher called our “absolute dependence upon God.” Thus, when Trump declares that he doesn’t need to ask God for forgiveness, he is rejecting the central mechanism by which God has enabled fallen humanity to be made new again.
So why should Christians bother to undertake any task or objective at all, since of course every goal we set for ourselves is bound to end in failure?–this is the logic Belvedere employs. Also, when did Donald Trump ever say he doesn’t need to ask God for forgiveness? While Trump has made a lot of speeches–and while I certainly do not have a lexicon of every single Trump quote on record–I do not recall him ever making a statement of this nature.
While Belevedere avoids any direct attacks on Jesus…”Jesus and the apostles embraced a life of service over earthly glory,” he informs us (correctly, I would add), one does, nonetheless, get the impression his overall esteem is not especially high:
“Indeed, it’s hard to see how a movement whose founder was executed and whose earliest leaders were martyred can be held up as an advertisement for worldly success,” he asserts.
Belevedere is certainly entitled to his views about Jesus (just as Christians are entitled to their views about the rabbis who composed the Talmud), though one would think an objective assessment of early Christianity would include quotes from its critics as well as its supporters; Belevedere, however, gives us nothing, not a single quote from any early Christian apologist–ah, but he does supply us with a quote from one of their chief detractors!
Early believers — whom the second-century critic Celsus characterized as “foolish and low individuals” — often embraced the name-calling rather than resisting, since it meant that those who observed their good behavior would credit God rather than them.
One wonders: why throw in a quote from Celsus, a second century Greek writer who detested Christianity and whose views of Jesus are echoed in the Talmud? Belvedere simply drops in the quote and moves on without elaborating. Moreover, the assertion that early Christians “embraced the name-calling” would suggest that not only were these Christians failures, they were contrite failures at that, though this is not an entirely accurate portrayal, as the following passage from the Epistle of Barnabas, would attest (emphasis added):
Accordingly, let us be specially wary in these final days, for all our past years of faith will be no good to us now, in these lawless times and in the face of the many trials that lie ahead of us, we fail to offer such resistance as becomes God’s children to the insidious infiltration of the Dark One.
There is also a slight little thing called context. The third and final Jewish revolt, also known as the Bar Kokhba revolt, took place in the years 132-136 A.D. It was led by Simon Bar Kokhba, a man hailed by his followers as the Jewish messiah. Though the Romans were Bar Kokhba’s main enemy, clearly he did not care much for Christians either. The following is recorded by early Church writer Justin Martyr, who was born in Flavia Neapolis, or what is today Nablus, in the West Bank. Justin Martyr, as his name implies, was indeed a martyr for the Church, but he was alive at the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt, and in his First Apology he relates the murder of Christians by the Bar Kokhba rebels:
For in the Jewish war which lately raged, Barchochebas, the leader of the revolt of the Jews, gave orders that Christians alone should be led to cruel punishments, unless they would deny Jesus Christ and utter blasphemy.
Maybe Belevedere would have a higher opinion of Trump if the presidential candidate denied Jesus and uttered blasphemies–oh, say, something along the comedic profanations of Sarah Silverman. And who knows? Were Trump to engage in such, he might even win an endorsement from the Washington Post!
What Belevedere shares with readers is his view that Trump revels in a “relentless and remorseless triumph, of uninterrupted glory in personal and professional affairs,” and he also critiques a former Trump family minister, the late Norman Vincent Peale, who he says preached a “prosperity gospel” that was contradictory to the teachings of Jesus.
That may or may not be the case, and my purpose here is not so much to defend Donald Trump (or his ministers, either past or present). Much would I prefer to leave that task to others, although as I have said previously, I do think Trump is the lesser of two evils–and that Hillary Clinton, were she to be elected, would be much more likely to get us into a major war.
Trump, whatever criticisms you may have of him, is not the sort of person who could easily be pushed around; Clinton, on the other hand, would be a malleable tool in the hands of the neocons. I’m not saying Trump would be the ideal president. His speech before AIPAC was a repulsive display of pandering. But overall he seems less likely to become a neocon play-toy and lead us into a nuclear war. With Hillary in the White House, neocons would be given virtually complete control over our foreign policy as well as America’s military forces, including its nuclear weapons.
The same media that seem to love attacking Trump, also seem to love wars. Hardly any wonder, then, that so many of these same media outlets from time to time express negative views of a religion whose central figure has come to be known as “the prince of peace.”
“Christianity rejects the excessive self-exaltation and self-promotion that Trump peddles,” says Belevedere. “Christianity requires weakness and failure.”
Detestation of Christianity–we see a lot of it. Generally it tends to be more subtle and low key than Islamophobia–but it is out there nonetheless, not only in the news media but in Hollywood as well.
By the way, the WaPo describes Belvedere as a “professor of philosophy at Florida International University.” Worth mentioning here is that negative views of Christianity are not uncommon among US academics, including even, ironically, among those who make their living as religious studies professors at major universities.
This is something I discussed in the preface to my first novel, The Memoirs of Saint John: No Greater Love. The preface, which I reproduce below in its entirety, covers a lot of other ground as well–including Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” invasion of Gaza–but it keeps coming back to this issue of US academics and their obsession with questioning the “historicity” of the Christian religion.
As you read about some of the conferences and seminars they have organized over the years, try imagining the same amount of effort being poured into a scholarly investigation of the “historical Moses” or, possibly, an inquiry into the claim that “God gave the land to the Jews” or even into the issue of whether or not modern day descendants of the Khazars have any historical link to the biblical Israelites. My guess is you’ll never see any of the like take place.
As we all know, there are some things which can be subjected to questioning…and others which are off-limits to historical inquiry. And as Voltaire rightly pointed out, these are the sort of things which tell us who really rules over us.
In an author’s note to Out of Egypt, the first installment in her Christ the Lord series, novelist Anne Rice comments on a curious anomaly encountered while doing research for her book, to wit the prevalence of New Testament scholars who seem to exhibit a visceral antipathy to their chosen field of study. It’s a phenomenon I also found in the course of researching this work. Rice referred to it as “skeptical scholarship,” conducted by “those who claimed to be children of the Enlightenment” and often with the objective of portraying Christ negatively or refuting his existence altogether:
Many of these scholars, scholars who apparently devoted their life to New Testament scholarship, disliked Jesus Christ. Some pitied him as a hopeless failure. Others sneered at him, and some felt an outright contempt. This came between the lines of the books. This emerged in the personality of the texts.
Rice goes on to compare other fields of study, observing for instance that Elizabethan scholars don’t pepper their works with snickering comments about Queen Elizabeth I, or spend their careers trying to undermine her historical reputation. She then adds: “But there are New Testament scholars who detest and despise Jesus Christ.”
Rice very diplomatically doesn’t name those scholars to whom she refers. But we might pause a moment, just for the fun of it, and engage in some idle speculation. Could one of them have been Robert Eisenman? Eisenman is a professor at California State University Long Beach, Visiting Senior Member of Linacre College, Oxford, and author of the books James the Brother of Jesus and The New Testament Code. In an article published on The Huffington Post December 19, 2007, Eisenman expressed his belief that the writers of the gospels had fabricated the character Judas Iscariot out of motives of anti-Semitism. “The creators of this character and the traditions related to him knew what it was they were seeking to do and in this they have succeeded in a manner far beyond anything they might have imagined and that would have astonished even their hate-besotted brains,” he writes.
Eisenman was responding to an op-ed piece by April DeConick, religious studies professor at Rice University, which had appeared December 1 in The New York Times. The piece concerned the Gospel of Judas, or more specifically the National Geographic Society’s translation of that text from Coptic to English—faulty in DeConick’s view. Among Eisenman’s complaints was that Judas Iscariot’s “heroicization,” as he termed it, had been proceeding along nicely until DeConick had messed things up with the publication earlier that year of her book, The Thirteenth Apostle, and then with her commentary in the Times.
Far from being a villain, Judas was in reality a hero, the most trusted of Jesus’ disciples—this, according to National Geographic, was what the Gospel of Judas conveyed. And when he handed Jesus over to be killed, he was actually doing the latter’s bidding. A much-publicized TV special, and later a book, were dedicated to this reexamination of a man reviled through history and whose very name had become synonymous to betrayal. A new Judas seemed to be the order of the day. Ah, but not so fast, said DeConick, who found that the National Geographic translation team, consisting of Professors Rodolphe Kasser, Gregor Wurst, Marvin Meyer, and Francois Gaudard, had made “translation choices” which fell “well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field,” leading to a presentation of Judas that was completely opposite, in certain key respects, to what the text said in Coptic. For instance the National Geographic’s transcription referred to Judas as a “daimon,” which the team translated into English as “spirit.”
“Actually,” said DeConick, “the universally accepted word for ‘spirit’ is ‘pneuma’—in Gnostic literature ‘daimon’ is always taken to mean ‘demon’.”
Other examples of such questionable “translation choices” can be found in the pages of the Rice University professor’s book, The Thirteenth Apostle. The long and the short of it is this. The Gospel of Judas was composed by Sethians, a group of second-century Jewish Christians to whom the rather catch-all term “Gnostic” has been applied. The Sethians regarded themselves as the offspring of Seth, the third son of Adam, but rather than portraying Judas as a good guy and friend to Jesus, they actually branded him a demon who would “not ascend to the holy generation,” as DeConick’s translation phrased it.
In his Huffington Post rebuttal, Eisenman fumed that DeConick “wishes to check the heroicization of Judas that ensued and return to portraying him as the Demon (Daimon) incarnate—in Gnostic, as she puts it, ‘the Thirteenth Apostle.’” Not only was the character of Judas wholly manufactured by the “Gospel artificers” of the New Testament, the same might be said of Jesus himself, Eisenman seemed to feel. He hints in fact that future historical research may well prove this to be the case, and one way he underscores this point is by placing quotation marks around the name “Jesus” throughout a good portion of his piece.
Scholarly research to prove or disprove the historicity of the Christ of the gospels is nothing new. There have been numerous “quests for the historical Jesus” embarked upon over the years, one notable example being the Jesus Seminar. Begun in the mid-1980s, the Seminar consisted of a series of twice-yearly conferences in which scholars attempted, by means of popular vote, to rate the authenticity of various gospel passages. A color-coded system was devised under which red meant the passage in question was deemed a fairly accurate representation of what Jesus said, while black designated the opposite, with pink and grey representing varying shades of certainty in between. The Seminar’s findings were presented in several books published mainly in the 1990s, perhaps most notably The Five Gospels by Robert W. Funk—and there the matter presumably might have been laid to rest.
But in December of 2008, one year after the Times/HuffPo crossfire between DeConick and Eisenman, came the launching of yet another “quest,” this time under the title of “The Jesus Project.” Like the Jesus Seminar before it, the Jesus Project consists of a colloquy of scholars who announced plans to hold periodic meetings in a “renewed quest for the historical Jesus”—this according to the Amherst, New York-based Center for Inquiry (CFI), the sponsor of the project. The initial meeting took place December 5-7 in Amherst, and one of the presenters was Eisenman. Others included Bruce Chilton, professor at Bard College and author of Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography; James Tabor, author of The Jesus Dynasty; German author and academic Gerd Lüdemann; and Robert Price, author of the somewhat mordantly titled The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man. Also listed as Project Fellows on the CFI web site: Justin Meggitt, senior lecturer at Cambridge University; Gary Greenberg, president of the Biblical Archaeology Society of New York and also a consultant on National Geographic’s Science of Bible series; and archaeologist Dorothy Lobel King.
Though invited, DeConick declined to attend, mostly it seems out of differences over method, coupled with the belief that “another quest for what we can know about Jesus will turn up nothing new.” (posting, DeConick’s Forbidden Gospels blog, Feb. 5, 2009). But CFI reassuringly pledged the “highest standards of scientific and scholarly objectivity” in the effort, and Project Chair R. Joseph Hoffman said he believed an important question to finally explore is “the possibility that Christianity arose from causes that have little to do with a historical founder”—this while acknowledging what he referred to as “Jesus fatigue” among the public. But from Hoffman’s perspective, the work of the Jesus Project was needed in order to correct shortcomings of the Jesus Seminar, which he believed had “raised more questions than they answered,” producing a Jesus somewhat akin to “a talking doll with a questionable repertoire of thirty-one sayings. Pull a string and he blesses the poor.” (“Rocks, Hard Places, and Jesus Fatigue: Jesus Seminar and Jesus Project,” Bible and Interpretation web site.) The Jesus Project, he seemed to feel, would do better.
Perhaps the scholars in attendance at that meeting in Amherst were too absorbed in their Jesus research to take much note of an intensive assault launched later that month by Israel against the Gaza Strip. Few seem to have commented publicly on it, despite many of them maintaining blogs and web sites of their own—a case in point being Richard Carrier. Carrier, author of Sense and Goodness Without God—who is also listed as a Project Fellow on the CFI web site—posted a two-part report on his blog describing some of the scholarly presentations and other events at that early December meeting of 2008. One of his posts was dated December 26, one day before the Gaza attack began, the other January 10—four days after Israel had carried out a missile strike on a U.N. school. In neither posting did he mention events transpiring in Gaza, even though he occasionally blogs on political issues (he was an Obama supporter in the 2008 election). Question: are scholars, so seemingly obsessed with proving or disproving what happened in Palestine 2000 years ago, oblivious to events taking shape there currently? Are they really unconcerned about the slaughter of innocents in today’s “Holy Land”? Or do they remain silent for another reason?
The Israeli invasion went on for twenty-two days and killed approximately 1400 Gazans, roughly 300 of whom were children. It was during the Gaza siege that I was completing the final chapters of this book. Sitting at home, I would write through the morning and early afternoon hours, and then around three in the afternoon switch over to the Internet where I would read of white phosphorous explosions, of hospitals overrun with victims, and of people taking shelter for days in bombed out basements with the corpses of their relatives. Gaza of course was the enclave through which the infant Jesus and his parents would have passed when fleeing to Egypt. Did the family perhaps journey smack dab through the area now called Ezbt Abed Rabbo, where Khaled Abed Rabbo saw two of his daughters shot dead while the girls’ grandmother carried a white flag attached to a mop handle? Or could they have paused to rest with their donkey at Zeitoun—maybe at that very spot where four small starving children, too weak to stand, were found next to the bodies of their dead mothers by rescuers, rescuers who had been trying to reach the neighborhood for days after it came under Israeli attack?
There were, of course, those who very much did not remain silent during the siege of Gaza. One of these was Irish human rights activist Caoimhe Butterly. Butterly was in the costal enclave at the time the attack started and spent the ensuing days working with Palestinian ambulance paramedics attempting to reach the dead and wounded. While Israel kept the media out until the killing was over, it was not able to stop reports such as Butterly’s from slipping through to the outside world. And in an article that appeared January 16 on the web site Counterpunch, she provided a vivid account of the agony.
The morgues of Gaza’s hospitals are over-flowing. The bodies in their blood-soaked white shrouds cover the entire floor space of the Shifa hospital morgue. Some are exposed, heads blown off, skulls crushed in. Family members wait outside to identify and claim a brother, husband, father, mother, wife, child. Many of those who wait their turn have lost numerous family members and loved ones.
Blood is everywhere. Hospital orderlies hose down the floors of operating rooms, bloodied bandages lie discarded in corners, and the injured continue to pour in: bodies lacerated by shrapnel, burns, bullet wounds. Medical workers, exhausted and under siege, work day and night and each life saved is seen as a victory over the predominance of death.
The streets of Gaza are eerily silent—the pulsing life and rhythm of markets, children, fishermen walking down to the sea at dawn brutally stilled and replaced by an atmosphere of uncertainty, isolation and fear. The ever-present sounds of surveillance drones, F16s, tanks and apaches are listened to acutely as residents try to guess where the next deadly strike will be—which house, school, clinic, mosque, governmental building or community centre will be hit next and how to move before it does. That there are no safe places—no refuge for vulnerable human bodies—is felt acutely. It is a devastating awareness for parents—that there is no way to keep their children safe.
As we continue to accompany the ambulances, joining Palestinian paramedics as they risk their lives, daily, to respond to calls from those with no other life-line, our existence becomes temporarily narrowed down and focused on the few precious minutes that make the difference between life and death. With each new call received as we ride in ambulances that careen down broken, silent roads, sirens and lights blaring, there exists a battle of life over death. We have learned the language of the war that the Israelis are waging on the collective captive population of Gaza—to distinguish between the sounds of the weaponry used, the timing between the first missile strikes and the inevitable second—targeting those that rush to tend to and evacuate the wounded, to recognize the signs of the different chemical weapons being used in this onslaught, to overcome the initial vulnerability of recognizing our own mortality.
Though many of the calls received are to pick up bodies, not the wounded, the necessity of affording the dead a dignified burial drives the paramedics to face the deliberate targeting of their colleagues and comrades—thirteen killed while evacuating the wounded, fourteen ambulances destroyed—and to continue to search for the shattered bodies of the dead to bring home to their families.
Reading of these events while at the same time working on a book such as this left me, in a certain sense, with a feeling of the past colliding with the present, with Palestinian mothers such as Sabah Abu Halima forlornly emerging as modern day Rachels, weeping for their children. Ms. Abu Halima’s home came under what appears to have been a white phosphorus shelling in early January. Her story was reported, oddly enough, by the New York Times—and that was one of the peculiar things about the Gaza war: that at least in terms of the categories and types of crimes committed, “mainstream media” seemed to verify much of what so-called “alternative” or “left wing” journalists such as Butterly were saying. Thus Times reporter Ethan Bronner reported on January 21:
In Gaza Ms. Abu Halima said that when her family was hit, “fire came from the bodies of my husband and children.”
“The children were screaming, ‘Fire! Fire!’ and there was smoke everywhere and a horrible suffocating smell,” she said. “My 14-year-old cried out, ‘I’m going to die. I want to pray.’ I saw my daughter-in-law melt away.”
Dr. Nafez Abu Shaban, head of Shifa’s burn unit, said the family’s burns, which he and an assisting doctor from Egypt had treated, were of a kind he had never encountered, reaching to the muscle and bone.
Despite such gruesome occurrences, widely reported, at least on the Internet, U.S. scholars maintained their silence. In this I’m not singling out only they of the Jesus Project, for that would be grossly unfair. The fact is, the vast majority of U.S. academics have had little to nothing to say about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a rather curious omission given the role played by our government in supplying the money and weapons that help perpetuate this festering sore. Yet the rule of silence is the one that seems to prevail whenever yet another armed conflict breaks out involving that Middle East country to which American taxpayers hand over an estimated three billion dollars per year, the same Middle East country that imposes a system of blockade and apartheid rule upon those it has colonized. This is not to say there haven’t been some exceptions. There have. One which emerged during the Gaza siege, one who, sort of, in a roundabout way, broke the rule of silence, was Kenneth Ring, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Connecticut. During and immediately prior to the 22-day attack, Ring posted online two collections of excerpts from emails he had received from friends in Gaza, one entitled “Gaza Voices, American Silence,” the second simply “Letters from Gaza.” Both ended up making the rounds at a number of websites, including Antiwar.com, where site visitors were able to discern for themselves the tragedy then unfolding, as described in the words of those living it. One of Ring’s correspondents wrote to him as follows:
Thank you so much for your concern and your noble feelings, I really appreciate them. You can say that I am fine but my people are not, you can never even imagine the destruction and the horror we’re living in, circumstances are the worstest, we haven’t had electricity for two days, and we just got some, It’s actually 4 o’clock after midnight, and it is an awful night. F-16 planes are joining our children with their dreams or what have become nightmares.
Ring by the way is a prominent researcher into the phenomenon of near death experiences (NDE), having authored several books on the subject. Not surprisingly, the NDE issue has entered the theology debate. With literally thousands of these experiences reported, it would hardly stand to be otherwise. The reports typically involve an “out-of-body episode” in which NDEers experience a tunnel and a light, encounters with deceased loved ones, a life review, etc. Many have also spoken of coming into the presence of a spiritual entity, often described as bearing unconditional love toward them. Skeptics of course abound, and one favored argument is the neurological one. Thus Carol Zaleski writes in the Oxford Handbook of Eschatology (2008, Oxford University Press, p. 619):
The second caveat is that the dying or nearly dying person is a fortress under siege, experiencing the mind-altering effects of drugs, anesthetics, sensory isolation and confinement, oxygen deprivation, or a host of other physiological and psychological stresses. Endorphins rush in to mute the pain and anxiety, sometimes resulting in ecstatic feelings; the temporal lobe creates a storm of fireworks, triggering panoramic replays of childhood memories and geometrically patterned visual hallucinations.
To such criticisms, NDE researchers have responded with accounts of “veridical” NDEs, episodes in which some aspect of the experience is verified by third-party testimony. A comatose patient, for instance, might later accurately report a conversation between doctors or nurses or even family members sitting out in the waiting room. In his book Lessons from the Light, co-authored with Swiss researcher Evelyn Elsaesser-Valarino, Ring relates the story of “Maria,” a migrant worker who suffered cardiac arrest at Harborview Hospital in Seattle. The following day, having been resuscitated by doctors, she described for hospital social worker Kimberly Clark an out-of-body episode she underwent during the moments she was clinically dead. Maria claimed to have floated outside the walls of the hospital where at one point she became distracted by an object sitting on the ledge of the building’s third floor—a tennis shoe. In considerable detail she described the shoe—it had a worn place in the little toe, and as it rested on the ledge, one of its laces lay tucked underneath the heel. Confused about the vision and desirous of knowing whether it had been real or simply a figment of her imagination, the patient pleaded with the hospital social worker to go and see if the shoe were there. Ring writes:
I have been to Harborview Hospital myself and can tell you that the north face of the building is quite slender, with only five windows showing from the third floor. When Clark arrived there, she did not find any shoe—until she came to the middlemost window on the floor, and there, on the ledge, precisely as Maria had described it, was the tennis shoe.
Now, on hearing a case like this, one has to ask: What is the probability that a migrant worker visiting a large city for the first time, who suffers a heart attack and is rushed to a hospital at night would, while having a cardiac arrest, simply “hallucinate” seeing a tennis shoe—with very specific and unusual features—on the ledge of a floor higher than her physical location in the hospital? Only an archskeptic, I think, would say anything much other than, “Not bloody likely!”
But for the archskeptics, it’s still not enough—and in a strange sort of way the debate over NDEs mirrors that involving the historical Jesus.
Scientists would doubtless find Gaza fertile ground for NDE research, but as I write this, the world seems rather less interested in out of body episodes than war crimes. As 2009 wore on came the release of the 575-page Goldstone Report, implicating Israel in violations of the Geneva conventions, including strikes upon hospitals, civilian homes, and U.N. facilities. The report (predictably) was rejected by Israel, and repudiated (equally as predictable) by the trained seals of the U.S. Congress. As the year came to a close, Gaza remained under blockade, its people still unable to rebuild, and on December 11, a group of Palestinian Christians released The Kairos Palestine Document, presented as “a word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering.” The Greek word kairos, like the word chronos, means “time,” but as opposed to chronos, which refers to chronological time, kairos designates a special, or opportune time. In the Gospel of John, in chapter 7 verse 6, the term is used twice, as Jesus speaks the words, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here.” The authors of the Kairos Document call upon peoples of the world to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement to end the occupation.
But to get back to the Gospels, how much of what they tell us can be regarded as historically accurate? Were they written by “artificers,” as Eisenman terms it, people with “hate besotted brains” intent on promoting their own agendas through the creation of myths? Perhaps we should pose these questions from a slightly different perspective and ask, “How well, in terms of overall truthfulness, do the gospel writers stack up against, for instance, today’s mainstream media? Could their minds be any more hate filled than the pundits who relentlessly pound the drums for one war after another?” Fables about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and similar fictions have been cleverly sold to us. They continue to be sold to us. Can we, then, reasonably assign to the gospel authors more credibility at least than that? I think we can—which is not to say they got everything right. These were not journalists or historians in the modern sense (perhaps not a bad thing!), and certainly there are discrepancies in the different narratives they have left us. One thing we can say in their favor though is they did not advocate for war. On the contrary. If we take the quotes they attributed to Jesus as expressions of their own views, it would appear they would have us love our enemies and turn the other cheek.
But what are we to make of the virgin birth, the resurrection, or stories of Jesus performing miracles? What are we to make, for that matter, of the thousands of near death experiences reported? For those who have never experienced miracles in their own lives, the natural tendency is to believe such things cannot and do not happen. But for people like Maria, the notion that a man might heal the sick or walk on water is perhaps not that tough of a sell. Modern day Indian saints such as Paramahansa Yogananda have in fact told us similar stories.
Yes, it is true, there are passages in the New Testament which portray Jews negatively. It is also true that the Talmud contains tractates in which non-Jews do not fare especially well either, and that there are halakhic laws that “inculcate an attitude of scorn and hatred for Gentiles.” (Israel Shahak, Jewish History, Jewish Religion, Pluto Press, p. 110). What is hoped for, of course, is that we might move beyond all of this, and to come to realize, before it is too late, that when we look into the eyes of another, we see ourselves. Something of the sort is indeed expressed in The Memoirs of Saint John by the aged Jewish hero of the story, to his young Gentile friend:
This doing away of divisions amongst humanity, learning to love one another as brothers and sisters—it must come, and it will come, for in a very real sense it is inevitable, Quintus. For when the sun is darkened, when the moon no longer gives off her light, and the stars fall from the sky, when all the tribes of the earth mourn, then the notion that we are Jew as opposed to Gentile, Greek as opposed to Roman, or this as opposed to that, will be seen for what it is—an illusion. And when that day comes, God, the God of love, will wipe the tears from the eyes of his children.
If we fail to do this, that is to see beyond these artificial separations, then we risk falling into an abyss, the vertigoes from which may be matched only by the human mind’s rather considerable capacity for justifying evil, a trait that seems to run through all ethnic races and branches of humanity.
What seems clear, at least to my own satisfaction, is that something happened in the first century. We may not know exactly what. But whatever it was, it was sufficiently stirring to the human heart as to compel people to begin relating narratives about it, composing songs, giving public performances, and eventually putting it all together, the factual, the speculative, as well as the interpretive, into written texts, and here I’m referring to the texts which later made it into the New Testament, as well as the many that did not; the apocryphal stories as well as the Gnostic treatises; the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as those of Thomas, Philip, Mary, and the rest; the Sethians, the Valentinians, the orthodoxies, the heterodoxies, and the in-betweens. Added to the references to Jesus we find in the writings of Tacitus and Josephus and it becomes a sizeable body of evidence that “something” did indeed occur, and that people were moved in dramatic ways by it.
What I’ve tried to write in the main here is an historical novel. The premise that Jesus existed I’ve of course taken as a given. That he furthermore said and did things that upset people in authority also seems clear, and the radical champion of the poor is very much the sort of Jesus the reader will encounter in these pages. Other historical facts, such as the Emperor Tiberius’ comment that, “Gorged horseflies suck less blood than fresh ones,” are also weaved into the story, but as in the case of any novel of this type, the kernel of historic facts that underlie the story are combined with much that is purely the product of the author’s imagination.
One other thing I feel obliged to mention is that I do not speak Aramaic, the native language spoken by Jesus, but there are a number of scholars who do, and three of these in the main I’ve relied on: Neil Douglas-Klotz, George Lamsa, and Rocco A. Errico. The explication of the Lord’s Prayer in chapter fifty-one is in fact drawn almost in its entirety from Douglas-Klotz’s Prayers of the Cosmos: Meditations on the Aramaic Words of Jesus. It may come as a surprise to many westerners, but there are remarkable, almost uncanny, similarities between the different Semitic languages. Take, for instance, the respective words for God, the root for which is usually El or Al. In Old Canaanite we have the word Elat; in Hebrew, God becomes Elohim; in Aramaic, Allaha; and in Arabic, Allah. As Douglas-Klotz comments, “If this simple fact became better known, I believe there would be much more tolerance and understanding among those who consciously or unconsciously perpetuate prejudice between what are essentially brother-sister traditions.”
I would also like to mention the work of Elaine Pagels. It was roughly eight or nine years ago I read her book, The Gnostic Gospels, stumbling upon a copy of it in my local public library, and it completely galvanized my thinking on early Christianity. But Pagels isn’t alone. James M. Robinson’s The Nag Hammadi Library is another valuable resource for those interested in learning more about the amazing diversity of early Christianity. Other scholars whose works I’ve found useful include Richard Bauckham, Helmut Koester, N.T. Wright, and Raymond Brown. I would be remiss if I did not also mention the website of Ramon Jusino, which too, as in the case of Pagels’ Gnostic Gospels, I likewise stumbled upon quite by accident some years ago. His article, “Mary Magdalene: Author of the Fourth Gospel?”, is what first got me to thinking about the Gospel of John possibly having been written by the woman whom, we are informed, went to anoint Jesus’ body on the third morning after the crucifixion. It appears Jusino actually wrote the article in 1998, which would mean it would have preceded the publication of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code by some five years. Essentially what Jusino does is make a strong case that Mary Magdalene, and not John the disciple of Jesus (or any of the numerous other possible candidates), was in reality the “Beloved Disciple” of the Fourth Gospel.
Christianity is a broad, multifaceted topic, but what it comes down to in a nutshell is inclusion. The teachings of Christ were and are a doctrine of inclusion, rather than exclusion. The kingdom of God was open to anyone who knocked. In the first through third centuries, that basic foundation, having been established, began to develop into many different strains and beliefs, but one thing they all seem to have shared in common is this characteristic of inclusiveness. Poor people, the dispossessed, even slaves, were welcome. Those in need were provided for. All of which probably accounts in no small part for the steady growth of the faith. Even the Gnostics, often lambasted for their “elitism,” posed few barriers, or obstacles, to the extent that anyone seeking entry was willing to apply him-or-herself to the path of knowledge. The concept of Divine love for humanity had been born, and it was a powerful idea. Under “The Way,” as Christianity initially was called, a poor widow with no more than two mites to her name could find herself more honored in the kingdom than a man of great wealth. Earthly wealth did not matter. It was of no consequence. For in the eyes of God we were all equal.
January 7, 2010