Sunday, August 5, 2007
Jesus Christ (c 3 BCE c 30 CE)
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall he comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake - Matthew 5:3-11
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Lecture: Jesus of Nazareth
Powerpoint Presentation: Christianity
COPAC UK: Jesus Christ
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Library of Congress: Jesus Christ Historicity
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The historical documents referring to Christ's life and work may be divided into three classes: Non-Christian sources, Jewish sources, and Christian sources. We shall study the three in succession.
I. NON-CHRISTIAN SOURCES
The non-Christian sources for the historical truth of the Gospels are both few and polluted by hatred and prejudice. A number of reasons have been advanced for this condition of the Non-Christian sources: The field of the Gospel history was remote Galilee; the Jews were noted as a superstitious race, if we believe Horace (Credat Judoeus Apella, I, Sat., v, 100); the God of the Jews was unknown and unintelligible to most Non-Christians of that period; the Jews in whose midst Christianity had taken its origin were dispersed among, and hated by, all the Non-Christian nations; the Christian religion itself was often confounded with one of the many sects that had sprung up in Judaism, and which could not excite the interest of the Non-Christian spectator.
It is at least certain that neither Jews nor Gentiles suspected in the least the paramount importance of the religion, the rise of which they witnessed among them. These considerations will account for the rarity and the asperity with which Christian events are mentioned by Non-Christian authors. But though Gentile writers do not give us any information about Christ and the early stages of Christianity which we do not possess in the Gospels, and though their statements are made with unconcealed hatred and contempt, still they unwittingly prove the historical value of the facts related by the Evangelists.
We need not delay over a writing entitled the "Acts of Pilate", which must have existed in the second century (Justin, "Apol"., I, 35), and must have been used in the Non-Christian schools to warn boys against the belief of Christians (Euseb., "Hist. Eccl.", I, ix; IX, v); nor need we inquire into the question whether there existed any authentic census tables of Quirinius.
We possess at least the testimony of Tacitus (A.D. 54-119) for the statements that the Founder of the Christian religion, a deadly superstition in the eyes of the Romans, had been put to death by the procurator Pontius Pilate under the reign of Tiberius; that His religion, though suppressed for a time, broke forth again not only throughout Judea where it had originated, but even in Rome, the conflux of all the streams of wickness and shamelessness; furthermore, that Nero had diverted from himself the suspicion of the burning of Rome by charging the Christians with the crime; that these latter were not guilty of arson, though they deserved their fate on account of their universal misanthropy. Tacitus, moreover, describes some of the horrible torments to which Nero subjected the Christians (Ann., XV, xliv). The Roman writer confounds the Christians with the Jews, considering them as a especially abject Jewish sect; how little he investigated the historical truth of even the Jewish records may be inferred from the credulity with which he accepted the absurd legends and calumnies about the origin of he Hebrew people (Hist., V, iii, iv).
Another Roman writer who shows his acquaintance with Christ and the Christians is Suetonius (A.D. 75-160). It has been noted that Suetonius considered Christ (Chrestus) as a Roman insurgent who stirred up seditions under the reign of Claudius (A.D. 41-54): "Judaeos, impulsore Chresto, assidue tumultuantes (Claudius) Roma expulit" (Clau., xxv). In his life of Nero he regards that emperor as a public benefactor on account of his severe treatment of the Christians: "Multa sub eo et animadversa severe, et coercita, nec minus instituta . . . . afflicti Christiani, genus hominum superstitious novae et maleficae" (Nero, xvi). The Roman writer does not understand that the Jewish troubles arose from the Jewish antagonism to the Messianic character of Jesus Christ and to the rights of the Christian Church.
C. Pliny the Younger
Of greater importance is the letter of Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan (about A.D. 61-115), in which the Governor of Bithynia consults his imperial majesty as to how to deal with the Christians living within his jurisdiction. On the one hand, their lives were confessedly innocent; no crime could be proved against them excepting their Christian belief, which appeared to the Roman as an extravagant and perverse superstition. On the other hand, the Christians could not be shaken in their allegiance to Christ, Whom they celebrated as their God in their early morning meetings (Ep., X, 97, 98). Christianity here appears no longer as a religion of criminals, as it does in the texts of Tacitus and Suetonius; Pliny acknowledges the high moral principles of the Christians, admires their constancy in the Faith (pervicacia et inflexibilis obstinatio), which he appears to trace back to their worship of Christ (carmenque Christo, quasi Deo, dicere).
D. Other Non-Christian writers
The remaining Non-Christian witnesses are of less importance: In the second century Lucian sneered at Christ and the Christians, as he scoffed at the Non-Christian gods. He alludes to Christ's death on the Cross, to His miracles, to the mutual love prevailing among the Christians ("Philopseudes", nn. 13, 16; "De Morte Pereg"). There are also alleged allusions to Christ in Numenius (Origen, "Contra Cels", IV, 51), to His parables in Galerius, to the earthquake at the Crucifixion in Phlegon ( Origen, "Contra Cels.", II, 14). Before the end of the second century, the logos alethes of Celsus, as quoted by Origen (Contra Cels., passim), testifies that at that time the facts related in the Gospels were generally accepted as historically true. However scanty the Non-Christian sources of the life of Christ may be, they bear at least testimony to His existence, to His miracles, His parables, His claim to Divine worship, His death on the Cross, and to the more striking characteristics of His religion.
II. JEWISH SOURCES
Philo, who dies after A.D. 40, is mainly important for the light he throws on certain modes of thought and phraseology found again in some of the Apostles. Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., II, iv) indeed preserves a legend that Philo had met St. Peter in Rome during his mission to the Emperor Caius; moreover, that in his work on the contemplative life he describes the life of the Christian Church in Alexandria founded by St. Mark, rather than that of the Essenes and Therapeutae. But it is hardly probable that Philo had heard enough of Christ and His followers to give an historical foundation to the foregoing legends.
The earlist non-Christian writer who refers Christ is the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus; born A.D. 37, he was a contemporary of the Apostles, and died in Rome A.D. 94. Two passages in his "Antiquities" which confirm two facts of the inspired Christian records are not disputed. In the one he reports the murder of "John called Baptist" by Herod (Ant., XVIII, v, 2), describing also John's character and work; in the other (Ant., XX, ix, 1) he disappoves of the sentence pronounced by the high priest Ananus against "James, brother of Jesus Who was called Christ." It is antecedently probable that a writer so well informed as Josephus, must have been well acquainted too with the doctrine and the history of Jesus Christ. Seeing, also, that he records events of minor importance in the history of the Jews, it would be surprising if he were to keep silence about Jesus Christ. Consideration for the priests and Pharisees did not prevent him from mentioning the judicial murders of John the Baptist and the Apostle James; his endeavour to find the fulfilment of the Messianic prophecies in Vespasian did not induce him to pass in silence over several Jewish sects, though their tenets appear to be inconsistent with the Vespasian claims. One naturally expects, therefore, a notice about Jesus Christ in Josephus. Antiquities XVIII, iii, 3, seems to satisfy this expectation:
About this time appeared Jesus, a wise man (if indeed it is right to call Him man; for He was a worker of astonishing deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with joy), and He drew to Himself many Jews (many also of Greeks. This was the Christ.) And when Pilate, at the denunciation of those that are foremost among us, had condemned Him to the cross, those who had first loved Him did not abandon Him (for He appeared to them alive again on the third day, the holy prophets having foretold this and countless other marvels about Him.) The tribe of Christians named after Him did not cease to this day.
A testimony so important as the foregoing could not escape the work of the critics. Their conclusions may be reduced to three headings: those who consider the passage wholly spurious; those who consider it to be wholly authentic; and those who consider it to be a little of each.
Those who regard the passage as spurious
First, there are those who consider the whole passage as spurious. The principal reasons for this view appear to be the following: Josephus could not represent Jesus Christ as a simple moralist, and on the other hand he could not emphasize the Messianic prophecies and expectations without offending the Roman susceptibilities; the above cited passage from Josephus is said to be unknown to Origen and the earlier patristic writers; its very place in the Josephan text is uncertain, since Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., II, vi) must have found it before the notices concerning Pilate, while it now stands after them.
But the spuriousness of the disputed Josephan passage does not imply the historian's ignorance of the facts connected with Jesus Christ. Josephus's report of his own juvenile precocity before the Jewish teachers (Vit., 2) reminds one of the story of Christ's stay in the Temple at the age of twelve; the description of his shipwreck on his journey to Rome (Vit., 3) recalls St. Paul's shipwreck as told in the Acts; finally his arbitrary introduction of a deceit practised by the priests of Isis on a Roman lady, after the chapter containing his supposed allusion to Jesus, shows a disposition to explain away the virgin birth of Jesus and to prepare the falsehoods embodied in the later Jewish writings.
Those who regard the passage as authentic, with some spurious additions
A second class of critics do not regard the whole of Josephus's testimony concerning Christ as spurious but they maintain the interpolation of parts included above in parenthesis. The reasons assigned for this opinion may be reduced to the following two: Josephus must have mentioned Jesus, but he cannot have recognized Him as the Christ; hence part of our present Josephan text must be genuine, part must be interpolated. Again, the same conclusion follows from the fact that Origen knew a Josephan text about Jesus, but was not acquainted with our present reading; for, according to the great Alexandrian doctor, Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the Messias ("In Matth.", xiii, 55; "Contra Cels.", I, 47).
Whatever force these two arguments have is lost by the fact that Josephus did not write for the Jews but for the Romans; consequently, when he says, "This was the Christ", he does not necessarily imply that Jesus was the Christ considered by the Romans as the founder of the Christian religion.
Those who consider it to be completely genuine
The third class of scholars believe that the whole passage concerning Jesus, as it is found today in Josephus, is genuine. The main arguments for the genuineness of the Josephan passage are the following: First, all codices or manuscripts of Josephus's work contain the text in question; to maintain the spuriousness of the text, we must suppose that all the copies of Josephus were in the hands of Christians, and were changed in the same way. Second, it is true that neither Tertullian nor St. Justin makes use of Josephus's passage concerning Jesus; but this silence is probably due to the contempt with which the contemporary Jews regarded Josephus, and to the relatively little authority he had among the Roman readers. Writers of the age of Tertullian and Justin could appeal to living witnesses of the Apostolic tradition. Third, Eusebius ("Hist. Eccl"., I, xi; cf. "Dem. Ev.", III, v) Sozomen (Hist. Eccl., I, i), Niceph. (Hist. Eccl., I, 39), Isidore of Pelusium (Ep. IV, 225), St. Jerome (catal.script. eccles. xiii), Ambrose, Cassiodorus, etc., appeal to the testimony of Josephus; there must have been no doubt as to its authenticity at the time of these illustrious writers. Fourth, the complete silence of Josephus as to Jesus would have been a more eloquent testimony than we possess in his present text; this latter contains no statement incompatible with its Josephan authorship: the Roman reader needed the information that Jesus was the Christ, or the founder of the Christian religion; the wonderful works of Jesus and His Resurrection from the dead were so incessantly urged by the Christians that without these attributes the Josephan Jesus would hardly have been acknowledged as the founder of Christianity.
All this does not necessarily imply that Josephus regarded Jesus as the Jewish Messias; but, even if he had been convinced of His Messiahship, it does not follow that he would have become a Christian. A number of posssible subterfuges might have supplied the Jewish historian with apparently sufficient reasons for not embracing Christianity.
C. Other Jewish Sources
The historical character of Jesus Christ is also attested by the hostile Jewish literature of the subsequent centuries. His birth is ascribed to an illicit ("Acta Pilati" in Thilo, "Codex apocryph. N.T., I, 526; cf. Justin, "Apol.", I, 35), or even an adulterous, union of His parents (Origen, "Contra Cels.," I, 28, 32). The father's name is Panthera, a common soldier (Gemara "Sanhedrin", viii; "Schabbath", xii, cf. Eisenmenger, "Entdecktes Judenthum", I, 109; Schottgen, "Horae Hebraicae", II, 696; Buxtorf, "Lex. Chald.", Basle, 1639, 1459, Huldreich, "Sepher toledhoth yeshua hannaceri", Leyden, 1705). The last work in its final edition did not appear before the thirteenth century, so that it could give the Panthera myth in its most advanced form. Rosch is of opinion that the myth did not begin before the end of the first century.
The later Jewish writings show traces of acquaintance with the murder of the Holy Innocents (Wagenseil, "Confut. Libr.Toldoth", 15; Eisenmenger op. cit., I, 116; Schottgen, op. cit., II, 667), with the flight into Egypt (cf. Josephus, "Ant." XIII, xiii), with the stay of Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve (Schottgen, op. cit., II, 696), with the call of the disciples ("Sanhedrin", 43a; Wagenseil, op. cit., 17; Schottgen, loc. cit., 713), with His miracles (Origen, "Contra Cels", II, 48; Wagenseil, op. cit., 150; Gemara "Sanhedrin" fol. 17); "Schabbath", fol. 104b; Wagenseil, op.cit., 6, 7, 17), with His claim to be God (Origen, "Contra Cels.", I, 28; cf. Eisenmenger, op. cit., I, 152; Schottgen, loc. cit., 699) with His betrayal by Judas and His death (Origen, "Contra cels.", II, 9, 45, 68, 70; Buxtorf, op. cit., 1458; Lightfoot, "Hor. Heb.", 458, 490, 498; Eisenmenger, loc. cit., 185; Schottgen, loc. cit.,699 700; cf."Sanhedrin", vi, vii). Celsus (Origen, "Contra Cels.", II, 55) tries to throw doubt on the Resurrection, while Toldoth (cf. Wagenseil, 19) repeats the Jewish fiction that the body of Jesus had been stolen from the sepulchre.
III. CHRISTIAN SOURCES
Among the Christian sources of the life of Jesus we need hardly mention the so called Agrapha and Apocrypha. For whether the Agrapha contain Logia of Jesus, or refer to incidents in His life, they are either highly uncertain or present only variations of the Gospel story. The chief value of the Apocrypha consists in their showing the infinite superiority of the Inspired Writings by contrasting the coarse and erroneous productions of the human mind with the simple and sublime truths written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost.
Among the Sacred Books of the New Testament, it is especially the four Gospels and the four great Epistles of St. Paul that are of the highest importance for the construction of the life of Jesus.
The four great Pauline Epistles (Romans,
Galatians, and First and Second Corinthians) can hardly be overestimated by the student of Christ's life; they have at times been called the "fifth gospel"; their authenticity has never been assailed by serious critics; their testimony is also earlier than that of the Gospels, at least most of the Gospels; it is the more valuable because it is incidental and undesigned; it is the testimony of a highly intellectual and cultured writer, who had been the greatest enemy of Jesus, who writes within twenty-five years of the events which he relates. At the same time, these four great Epistles bear witness to all the most important facts in the life of Christ: His Davidic dscent, His poverty, His Messiahship, His moral teaching, His preaching of the kingdom of God, His calling of the apostles, His miraculous power, His claims to be God, His betrayal, His institution of the Holy Eucharist, His passion, crucifixion, burial, resurrection, His repeated appearances (Romans 1:3-4; 5:11; 8:2-3; 8:32; 9:5; 15:8; Galatians 2:17; 3:13; 4:4; 5:21; First Corinthians 6:9; 13:4; etc.). However important the four great Epistles may be, the gospels are still more so. Not that any one of them offers a complete biography of Jesus, but they account for the origin of Christianity by the life of its Founder. Questions like the authenticity of the Gospels, the relation between the Synoptic Gospels, and the Fourth, the Synoptic problem, must be studied in the articles referring to these respective subjects. [Adapted from Catholic Encyclopedia (1910)]
Jesus of Nazareth
Powerpoint Presentation: Christianity
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
I will argue that the book of Matthew with its companion gospels offer a new and radical idea -- radical not so much in content, as in the example and attitude of their central figure, and especially in the idea of faith. In parallel with this idea of radicalism I will also argue - paradoxically - that the movement inspired by Jesus -- the grand belief system called Christianity -- was neither radical nor new. This system -- which begins in the theology of Paul, was rather a synthesis of old ideas -- a grand synthesis and as such it can be seen as the last great gasp of antiquity -- the final contribution of a dying Greek culture.
Part of the enduring success of Christianity is due to this synthesis. In fact, Christianity -- much like Buddhism - became a full-fledged philosophical system, as well as a religion. It's a system with a small canonical set of core texts -- the gospels -- and an enormous body of secondary literature developed in large measure with the ethical perspectives developed using tools of reason developed in Greece by Plato and Aristotle, and a formidable army of their intellectual heirs -- know today as the "Church Fathers."
Participation as a religious Christian does not require reason. Philosophical Christianity of course does. There are Christians who are zealously Christian and totally non-philosophical. There are philosophical Christians who are completely non-religious. And there are those who are both -- occasionally in unusual ways.
One of the more zealous philosophic Christians I know of is a man named Hans Kung -- a Catholic theologian. I would regard Kung as an intensely religious Christian -- but his religiosity is unusual. He does not believe in the virgin birth; he does not believe that Christ performed miracles; he does not believe in the divinity of Christ; yet, he is profoundly Christian -- but has been forbidden by his Church to proclaim his beliefs. Like Socrates Hans Kung abides by the law and remains within the fold.
One of the reasons for these strange dichotomies is the introduction into the Christian system of a sophisticated and new epistemological artifact -- a mysterious device called "Faith." I spell it with a capital "F" to differentiate it from the more casual use of the term -- as blind faith. Faith offered promise of certain grounding knowledge of fundamental truths. Faith was in the words attributed to Jesus in Matthew 11:25 available to anyone -- especially the humble: I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the clever and revealing them to mere children.
This I think is one key to the universality of Christian belief. Jesus claims knowledge of certain truth was accessible to anyone with the right "attitude." Jesus himself said that understanding of the parables required faith. In Matt 13:14: The reason I speak to you in parables is that they [those with no faith] look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding. Earlier in 13:35: I will speak to you in parables and expound things hidden since the foundation of the world.
That is a spectacular carrot! Faith brings certainty to all who accept it -- with faith even a child -- especially a child -- can, in effect, shoot through Plato's divided line -- come to know the good -- without resort to dialectic or reason -- without the hard intellectual work that the Greek philosophical systems demanded.
Some elitist intellectuals find this abhorrent. Faith implies or seems to imply uncritical belief -- an irrational acceptance of something inaccessible to normal rational process. Why is this so intellectually unsatisfying? It should be clear to all of us by now. We had just finished a semester buried in intellectual inquiry. Its apex was seen in the Republic. We do not need faith in the Republic to understand that "justice" is the best course of action. We saw that justice was "right" because we figured it out for ourselves - or at least Plato did through his process of dialectic. This gives him and us a "rational" basis for moral decisions. Just action is right action because we move forward. We become better. It is in our interest. It is in the best interest of the city. It is in the best interest of the soul. We become more wise. We shake off -- in Socrates language -- the phantoms and shadows that masquerade and enslave us. Justice breaks the chains that bind -- we become truly free. All of these benefits emerge from a difficult rational and intellectual exercise.
In Romans 5, Paul provides the intellectual and theological justification for this faith mechanism -- gives it authenticity if you will - in describing how the mechanism works. Faith brings something called "grace," which comes to man through the living Christ. Grace - really a sure awareness of God - is a free gift of God. Grace was made available to man through the sacrifice of his son - a sacrifice made to atone for the fall of man.
You or I do not of course have to accept the elements of the idea of faith. But the idea is central both to the radicalism of Jesus and the later theology of Paul. But, what Paul offers here, in his letter to the Romans, is a reasoned argument for this system and how faith works. Because Paul grounds the justification of faith on argument, the doctrine begins to accrete certain intellectual appeal. It attracts an intellectual crowd: people like T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis -- to name a few moderns. Because the argument also suggests a reward -- knowledge of things hidden since the foundation of the world, -- there is an impulse to check it out -- to experiment -- to see if it works.
The implication of the claim is that the "knowledge" obtained from faith is no worse than, perhaps better than, the knowledge that emerges from an intellectual process. There's another critical point we need to appreciate in reading and attempting to understand this text. This "knowledge" is not automatic. God offers it through something called "grace." Grace is something we are free to accept or to reject. If we accept the freely given gift of grace, "F"aith follows. Christ touches on this in Matt 13:15. Those who refuse the gift of grace listen but do not hear, see but do not perceive.
The idea of faith is powerful -- even amongst non-believers. I want to quote the Jewish scholar Schlom Ben-Chorin writing about the person of Jesus the Jew but from a jewish perspective. I feel his brotherly hand which grasps mine, so that I can follow him ... it is not the hand of the messiah, this hand marked with scars. It is certainly not divine, but a human hand in the lines of which is engraved the most profound suffering ... the faith of Jesus unites us, but faith in Jesus divides uu¦
2. What was so radical?
It is ironic that the Jesus of Matthew put forward no new system of morality. He accepts the Law -- both worldly and Judaic -- but he saw the world as a bridge -- cross it, do not build your house upon it. The only important thing is the kingdom of God -- a kingdom that Jesus believed - wrongly - was immediately at hand. The ethical requirements Jesus demands for entering this kingdom are uncompromising - and really impossible - without faith. It was no longer enough to abide externally by the Law. It was necessary now to enter into the soul. You had to obey the "will" of God. And the will of God was to love God and neighbor. The most radical aspect of the love ethic and this was new was Jesus commandment to, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that use you.
Along these same lines the Sermon on the Mount is often presented as a paradigm of Christian radicalism:
How happy are the poor in spirit;
theirs is the kingdom of heaven,
Happy the gentle,
they shall have the earth for their heritage.
Happy those who mourn:
they shall be comforted.
Happy are those who hunger and thirst for what is right:
they shall be satisfied.
Happy the merciful,
they shall have mercy shown them.
Happy the pure in heart:
they shall see God.
Happy the peacemakers:
they shall be called sons of God.
Happy are those who are persecuted in the cause of right:
theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matt 5:3-10
Yet none of these ideas or attitudes is particularly new -- in fact, most of it was "the current money of the synagogue" in Jesus time.
Much the same can be said for the Lord's Prayer in Matt 6:8:
Our father in heaven,
may your name be held holy,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven,
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us.
And do not put us to the test,
but save us from the evil one.
An ancient Yiddish prayer from the temple period begins in a similar fashion:
Glorified and hallowed be his great name in the world,
which he created according to his will.
In fact, here is not a single passage in the prayer that is without parallel in Jewish prayers known at that time.
The truly radical element that emerges from Matthew is in the essential idea of Jesus. The essence of this idea is freedom. Through faith, man can really become truly free. The attitude that emerges from this faith is transcendent. This independence from the world while immersed in the world is the source of Jesus' strangeness in the face of hostility and persecution: his utter serenity. This absolute faith enables him -- like Socrates -- to question everything in the world. Socrates had done that too, but unlike Socrates -- who questions because he knows he does NOT know. Jesus questions for different reasons and from the certain knowledge faith guarantees. This serenity faith brings means that nothing worldly has importance - death, suffering, persecution, and abuse, are meaningless. That's freedom! The only important task is to follow God into the kingdom of heaven. How radical is this? Here is what Hegel said: Never have words so revolutionary been spoken, for everything otherwise looked on as valid is represented as indifferent, unworthy of consideration.
This radicalism -- was in fact practiced by early Christians, but it was not universally admired. The Greek wit Lucian of Samosata satirizes this Christian ethos in his work Peregrinus written about 140 AD -- about a century after Christ's death:
These poor souls (the Christians) have persuaded themselves that they are immortal and will live forever. As a result, they think nothing of death, and most of them are perfectly willing to sacrifice themselves. Besides, their first law-give (Paul) has convinced them that once they stop believing in Greek gods, and start worshipping that crucified sage of theirs, and living according to his laws, they are all each other's brothers and sisters. So, taking this information on trust (meaning faith), without any guarantee of its truth, they think nothing else matters, and believe in common ownership -- which means that any unscrupulous adventurer who comes along can soon make a fortune out of them, for the silly creatures (the Christians) are very easily taken in!
3. Jesus the man
What sorts of influences likely affected this Jesus of Matthew ? Where did this radical ethic come from? According to tradition Jesus (named Joshua at birth -- a name than became Latinized as Jesus) came from a large family -- there were five brothers and an unknown number of sisters. Jesus would have had no formal education but would have attended synagogue where he would have learned of the prophets, Psalms, Daniel and Enoch, and learned of the idea of the Messiah, the Last Judgment and the coming Kingdom
In their annual journey to Jerusalem -- a pilgrimage made by all good Jews at that time -- Jesus would certainly have learned of and been influenced by the ideas of a Jewish sect known as the Essenes -- who practiced an ethos influenced in part by Buddistic ideas. Jesus likely knew too of a group called the Nazarenes -- a sect that rejected temple worship and denied the binding character of the law.
But the experience that would have affected Jesus would have been the teaching of John the Baptist -- undeniably a real historical figure whose life was chronicled in some detail by the Jewish historian Josephus. The elements of John's teaching that likely consumed Jesus were his notions of hypocrisy, the last judgment and the idea that if Judea was cleaned of sin, the Messiah and the Kingdom would come. If we accept tradition, the historical ministry of Jesus began with John's imprisonment.
What was Jesus like? Unlike John the Baptist, the Jesus of Matthew is NOT an ascetic. He provides wine for a marriage feast. He lives with sinners. He associates with women -- of low and high repute. He attends banquets in the homes of the rich. Generally he moves amongst the poor and the untouchables. The character described in Matthew is not an intellectual. Jesus is no Socrates. Yet, he is not without intellect. He answers tricky questions from the Pharisees with the skill of a lawyer. His great skill lies however in a keen perception -- intensity of feeling and singleness of purpose.
The Jesus of Matthew taught with a simplicity required by his audience -- using stories and metaphors in the form of parables common in the east . He does not use argument. The force of his teaching was directed towards an internal reordering of priorities -- a proper attitude of soul -- reminiscent for me of the call to Justice in soul offered by Plato through Socrates in the Republic. Jesus ordering of soul is based -- like the Republic -- on the cultivation of virtues. These were not the virtues of Plato: courage, moderation and wisdom. In Jesus the virtues were humility, poverty, gentleness, and peace.
The Jesus of Matthew would certainly have met hostile and understandable opposition. Jews of all sects -- except perhaps the Essenes -- would have opposed his teaching. He repeatedly called the Scribes and Pharisees hypocrites. He would have been suspect for legitimate reasons: his apparent assumption of the authority to forgive sin; his association with the hated employees of Rome; his association with women of low repute; and particularly for his outward behavior, seen by many as a cover for real political revolution -- a revolt by the poor against the rich. Authorities would also have been frightened by his promise to destroy the temple -- not quite sure it was only a metaphor.
4. Did Jesus of Nazareth Exist?
This is not a spurious question. A secular response to this question must remain equivocal. Aside from these New Testament accounts -- accounts written to solidify and bolster a new and growing movement, there are no independent historical records of the existence of the historical figure Matthew describes in his Gospel.
The Jewish historian Josephus Flavius who died around 100 AD does make two references to Jesus in his writings. One of those is clearly an interpolation -- an addition made by a copyist . The second reference -- the one many commentators feel is genuine, refers to the execution of a man named James in the year 62 AD. Here is the passage:
He (the governor) assembled the Sanhedren of judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus, him called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. And when he had formed an accusation against them as breaks of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.
G.E. Wells wring in The Jesus Legend argues that Josephus probably wrote of the death of a Jerusalem personage called James, and a Christian reader thought he must have meant James the "brother of the Lord" who, according to Christian tradition, led the Jerusalem church about the time in question. This reader accordingly noted in the margin: 'James -- brother of Jesus, him called Christ', and a later copyist took this as belonging to the text and incorporated it. Other interpolations are known to have originated in precisely this way. It should be noted also that in Josephus' entire corpus the term "the Christ" occurs only in these two suspect passages, with no attempt to explain it to his readers.
The Jewish rabbinical literature also makes no references to an historical Jesus before the second century -- well after the gospel accounts had represented Jesus as a teacher and wonder worker. And Paul, whose epistles were written as early as 30 years after Christ's death, makes no reference to the sayings of Christ contained in the Gospels -- the primary source of much of what we know about the historical figure. None of this disproves the historical Jesus. The existence of many figures from antiquity -- who few would deny as real -- are evidenced by flimsier sources. The earliest material we have for example on Sophocles -- the author of Oedipus -- is a manuscript dating from the 8th century AD -- 1,400 years after his death.
As far as the gospels themselves are concerned there is general agreement that all four were written well after the historical events they describe. Mark's gospel was written first about 70 AD. Matthew and Luke were written independently probably around 90 AD. Both Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources and a second now lost "gospel" biblical scholars have named "Q." John's Gospel -- different in character to the first three -- was written later.
Given that Matthew and Luke wrote without reference to each other, but that both used Q as a source, an interesting picture of Jesus emerges from attempts to reconstruct the lost Gospel Q. The Jesus of Q is not a messiah. He was not born of a virgin. He did not perform miracles. He did not die on the cross. There was no resurrection.
What remains nonetheless is an extraordinary character -- the basic radical elements of the ethos I described above -- and an intriguing figure who made a lasting impression on his followers, believed in an immediate Kingdom, and saw himself as a successor to John the Baptist. What this means is that the gospel we have here may contain embellishments -- embellishments designed to bolster the fortunes of a struggling movement during an extraordinarily competitive period.
Embellishments and obvious contradictions notwithstanding, the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Luke and Mark, do agree in essentials and do paint a rather consistent portrait of Christ. There are elements in the stories that would not have been fabricated for a completely mythological figure. These include the flight after Jesus arrest; Peter's denial; Christ's inability to work miracles in Galilee; his early uncertainty as to his mission; his confessions to ignorance of the future; his moments of bitterness; his cry on the cross. It stretches the imagination that so appealing a figure could be created by a few simple men in a single generation.
It should also be understood that some of the embellishments in the gospels be seen in the light of the times. It was a time when Jews were waiting anxiously for a Redeemer. It was a time too when magic, witchcraft, demons, angels, possessions and exorcisms were generally taken for granted -- as were miracles, prophesies, divinations and astrology. In that context the miracles ascribed to Jesus, although wrongly interpreted, are not beyond belief -- water walking and bread making notwithstanding.
Jesus himself attributed his miracles to faith. The symptoms of people with nervous disorders were alleviated in his presence. The little girl he raised from the dead was not dead. Jesus said so himself. Little girl, arise! Jesus experienced psychic exhaustion after his miracles -- was reluctant to accept them and attributed his powers to a divine spirit that came from within. He also advised his followers not to advertise his powers and did not want his followers to accept him because of his "wonders." It seems though that Jesus -- the Jesus of Matthew -- displayed a growing conviction that he was the Messiah and not just the successor to John the Baptist. This belief can no doubt be attributed to the growing adulation of his followers and his apparent "powers,"
Christ's death and "resurrection" present interesting problems for historical arguments. As I mentioned earlier, the entire passion story may have been a fabrication. There is however one other intriguing possibility. According to the traditions captured in the gospels, the man crucified on Calvary on that day in 30 AD -- if indeed a man was crucified on that day -- was on the cross for only six hours. Standard procedure in crucifixions administered by the Roman authorities involved much longer times. Christ's legs were not broken -- again a common procedure. The story of the spear in the side may have been an interpolation. Death in such circumstances would come normally after several days. Was the Christ of Matthew removed from the cross still alive? The discovery of the empty tomb by the two Mary's as described in Matthew points to authenticity at least in that part of the story. Women in Judea in this era were not accepted as credible witnesses. Why, if this part of the tradition was a fabrication, did the gospel accounts use women to discover the missing Christ?
If there was an historical Jesus, and I am inclined to believe there was, that figure may have acquired mythological traits. What he did, how he lived, and what he said, may have been sweetened to suit the purposes of the original gospel writers. This is not unusual. Great sayings tend to attach to great figures -- whether they were the originators or not. Jesus may not have said all he was purported to have said. One example of this may be the so-called golden rule in Matt: 7:12: So always treat others as you would like them to treat you: that is the meaning of the Law and the Prophets." This same saying is found in the literature of Buddhism and Islam as well as the wisdom literature of Greece and Rome -- in Herodotus and Seneca. In its negative form, what is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbour, the rule is ascribed to the Jewish sage Hillel, who died around the year 10 AD. In story telling in oral cultures the practice of adding the name of an important sage to a particular saying enhances the credibility and believability of the idea.
5. The Christian Synthesis
I have presented here what seem to be contradictory positions on the Jesus of Matthew. Does Matthew's Jesus offer a radical new message? Or is the Jesus of Matthew a myth spun from the web of older Jewish and Greek and Eastern ideas?
Or -- and this is perhaps an even more controversial position -- one that subsumes both of the above and argues that the belief system created in his name became the last great creations of the dying Greek mind.
Except for the core radicalism of the historical Christ, most of the elements of Christianity as it solidified into a system during the first centuries after Christ are really very old. What was new was the synthesis of currents of religion and philosophy from Greece, Judea, Persia, and the East.
The synthesis began with Paul -- the founder of Christian theology. It was through Paul -- a Jew and Pharisee raised in Tarsus -- that Stoic and mystic elements began to enter Christian thinking. Paul's fusion was essentially a melding of Greek metaphysics and Hebrew ethics.
In his early travels Paul once visited Athens, that familiar hotbed of Greek philosophy. His attempt to influence the Athenian citizenry was a complete failure. -- the Greeks there had probably heard too many ideas to be influenced by yet another attempt to transform their now jaded world views. Paul had better luck in Corinth.
It was there that Paul was able to begin the process of transforming Greek tradition into a Christian literature and ritual. The fusion that matured as Christianity involved assimilations from other sources too. From Egypt came the ideas of a divine trinity, the Last Judgment; the adoration of mother and child; and the mystic theosophy. From Phyrigia came worship of the Great Mother; from Syria the resurrection drama of Adonis; from Thrace, the cult of Dionysus, the dying and saving god; from Persia the Mithraic rituals that closely resemble the eucharistic sacrifice of the mass.
The Mithraic system deserves special attention.
According to Persian traditions, the god Mithras was actually incarnated into the human form of the Saviour expected by Zarathustra or Zoroaster. Mithras was born of Anahita, an immaculate virgin mother once worshipped as a fertility goddess. Mithra's ascension to heaven was said to have occurred in 208 B.C., 64 years after his birth.
The God remained celibate throughout his life, and valued self-control, renunciation and resistance to sensuality among his worshippers. Mithras represented a system of ethics in which brotherhood was encouraged in order to unify against the forces of evil.
The faithful referred to Mithras as "the Light of the World", symbol of truth, justice, and loyalty. He was mediator between heaven and earth and was a member of a Holy Trinity.
The worshippers of Mithras held strong beliefs in a celestial heaven and an infernal hell. They believed that the benevolent powers of the god would sympathize with their suffering and grant them the final justice of immortality and eternal salvation in the world to come. They looked forward to a final day of judgment in which the dead would resurrect, and to a final conflict that would destroy the existing order of all things to bring about the triumph of light over darkness.
Purification through a ritualistic baptism was required of the faithful, who also took part in a ceremony in which they drank wine and ate bread to symbolize the body and blood of the god. Sundays were held sacred, and the birth of the god was celebrated annually on December the 25th. After the earthly mission of this god had been accomplished, he took part in a Last Supper with his companions before ascending to heaven, to forever protect the faithful from above.
Aside from Christ and Mithras, there were other deities (such as Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Balder, Attis, and Dionysus) said to have died and resurrected. Several classical heroic figures, such as Hercules, Perseus, and Theseus, were also said to have been born through the union of a virgin mother and divine father.
What Christianity offered -- in its first centuries at least -- was an amalgam of traditions and ideas with mystical, emotional and intellectual elements. Graft onto that mix the Roman capacity for organization and control and central authority -- as the newly emerging movement did within its first few centuries -- and you begin to see some of the reasons for its enduring and continuing success.
But the success of what? Through all of this analysis -- these comparisons to pre-Christian systems -- one thing remains standing -- the Jesus of Matthew -- that strange serene radical with his impossible demands. In spite of all that has been said the figure remains appealing. Why?
I'm quoting existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers:
Because Jesus stands at the end and margin of the world, in an exceptional situation, he reveals the possibility and hope implicit in all those who are despised according to the standards of the world, the lowly, the sick, the deformed; ... Both his actions and his words seem contradictory by the standards of reason: on the one hand, struggle, hardness, the ruthless alternative; on the other infinite mildness, nonresistence, compassion. He is the challenging warrior and the silent sufferer....The authenticity of Jesus' suffering is historically unique. The pain and terror are not accepted with resignation or borne with patience; they are not veiled; "My God, My God why has thou forsaken me?" Jesus insists on the reality of suffering and expresses it. When, forlorn and forsaken he is nearly dead with suffering, the minimum of ground he has to stand on becomes all and everything, the Godhead. Silent, invisible, unimaginable, it is after all the sole reality. The utter realism with which the uncloaked horrors of this existence are portrayed implies that help can only come from the utterly intangible.
Let me end with a comment from the radical Catholic Theologian Hans Kung -- While Kung rejects most traditional Christian elements -- virgin birth, miracles and so on, he comes down firmly on the side of the historical Jesus. He summarizes the essential importance of the Jesus of history as follows:
Looking to the crucified and living Christ, even in the world of today, we are able not only to act but also to suffer, not only to live but also to die. And even when pure reason breaks down, even in pointless misery and sin, we perceive meaning, because we know that because here too in both positive and negative experience we are sustained. Faith in Jesus the Christ gives peace with God and with self, but does not play down the problems of the world. It makes us truly and radically human -- open to the very end for the other person, the one who needs us here and now -- our neighbour.
7. Jesus, Socrates, Buddha
Jesus impact on global thinking has been enormous -- so too have the lives of other essential paradigmatic individuals. I would like finally to offer a few short concluding comparisons developed by Karl Jaspers between Jesus and Socrates, and Jesus and the Buddha.
Jesus' message is part of a history wrought by God. Those who go with Jesus are caught up in a passion that has its source in the moment of the most critical decision. Buddha proclaimed his doctrine in aimless wanderings, in aristocratic serenity, without insistence, indifferent to a world that is forever the same. Jesus builds on the Old Testament, Buddha on Hindu philosophy. Jesus demands faith, Buddha demands insight.
Jesus teaches by proclaiming glad tidings, Socrates by compelling us to think. Jesus demands faith, Socrates an exchange of thought. Jesus speaks with direct earnestness, Socrates indirectly, even by irony. Jesus knows of the kingdom of heaven and eternal life, Socrates has no definite knowledge of these matters and leaves the question open. But neither will let us rest. Jesus proclaims the only way; Socrates leaves man free, but keeps reminding us of our responsibility rooted in freedom. Both raise supreme claims. Jesus confers salvation. Socrates provokes us to search for it.
1. The Jerusalem Bible, Gospel According to Matthew, Doubleday
2. The Jerusalem Bible, Letter to the Romans, Doubleday
3. Wells, G.A., The Jesus Legend, Open Court, 1996
4. Jaspers, K, Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1985
5. Kung, Hans, On Being a Christian, Fount Paperback, 1974
6. Durant, Will & Ariel, Caesar and Christ, History of Civilization (Vol. 3), 1994
Books from Alibris: Jesus Christ