Friday, October 9, 2020

Do Modern Christians Believe Their Myths?


The blogger Susan of Texas commented on this, "'This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.'  That’s a little too Jim Jones for me."

I don't know about Jim Jones, and frankly I'm not sure Trump knows the Bible well enough to make an allusion like this one.  But once again I'm amused by the way that liberal secularists brush aside the less modernism-friendly elements of the New Testament.   Like so many on the left, Ms. of Texas focuses on the teachings of Jesus that touch on (or at least can be interpreted as touching on) social justice, or express the kind of kissyface-huggybear gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild G-rated Jesus taught in children in Sunday school.  (Maybe Sunday school was their last contact with official Christianity.)  This requires or enables them to ignore the vast majority of the New Testament, while attacking conservative Christians for reading the Bible selectively.

Myself, I have no stake in any version of Jesus, because I know there's no way to get at the "right" one.  And I find that fascinating.  The New Testament was written from twenty to a hundred years after the death of Jesus, and it's surprising that it contains so many conflicting takes on Jesus: rabbi, prophet, King of the Jews, messiah, high priest, miracle worker, exorcist, end-times preacher, fire and brimstone preacher, teacher of esoteric wisdom, Man from Heaven, and more. (And that leaves out the hostile portraits concocted by outsiders trying to discredit his cult.)  Most people try to establish one or two of these as the real deal, which doesn't work.  I'm interested in how all these roles got packed into one figure -- or, alternatively, how one figure attracted so many roles -- in a relatively short time.  True, a century is a fairly long time, but we can see from Paul's letters, the earliest surviving Christian writings, that conceptions of Jesus had proliferated wildly in just twenty years, while Jesus' original followers were still alive, leading to some intense conflicts within the movement.

So let's take a quick look at the institution of the eucharist, the holy meal of wine and bread initiated by Jesus at the Last Supper just before his arrest and crucifixion according to the first three gospels.  The fourth gospel doesn't mention it there, but has Jesus announcing the necessity of eating his body and drinking his blood to outsiders in public -- which, as you might imagine, didn't go over well.  Here's the version in Mark, the second gospel (Mark 14:22-24, KJV):

And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body.  And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.
The story is so familiar, even to many non-Christians, that it's easy to miss how bizarre it is.  Investing the bread and wine with symbolic meaning is one thing, but then telling his disciples to eat his body and drink his blood is weird.  Imagine yourself in the disciples' place, being told in the middle of the Passover meal to violate -- even symbolically -- one of the strongest taboos in Judaism, that against consuming blood.  I should think that even, or especially, a twenty-first century secularist, would react strongly to such a pronouncement, out of nowhere.  I think that when I first read this story, as a kid, I assumed that it was part of the Passover meal; very much the opposite -- in that context it's more like a desecration.

Matthew's version (26:26-28) is very similar to Mark's, almost word for word, as is Luke's (22:19-20).  John, the fourth gospel, has a very different version, perhaps because John's last supper is not a Passover meal.  The eucharist comes up in John chapter 6, following Jesus' miraculous feeding of the multitude (6:50-56):

This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat?

Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.
"From that time," the gospel says, "many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him" (6:66).  In context, this is meant to indicate how wicked the unbelievers were, but it also reflects how shocking the eucharist was at its inception.  Remember Karen Armstrong's claim that people in those days knew better than to take religious pronouncements and scripture literally?  Only left-brained moderns would take Jesus' hard sayings at face value.  We can see from John's account that they tried unsuccessfully to interpret his talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, but Jesus didn't help; indeed, he seemed to bear down on the literal sense of the words.

We have another account of the eucharist, from the apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthian church (11:23-27).

For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.

For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come.
This was written (or rather, dictated) before any of the gospels.  Paul is supposed to have become a Christian within a few years of Jesus' death, so it's pretty early, and it's close to the versions in the first three gospels.  Even if you follow Armstrong and see the gospels as symbolic narratives, Paul's letters are something else, and he draws a different lesson from his story (vv 28-32):

But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.   
"Sleep" is a common Christian euphemism for death, so Paul is telling the Corinthians that if they take the eucharist "unworthily," they are eating and drinking "damnation" to themselves, and may sicken or die as a result.  I see no reason to suppose he's talking figuratively about that.  But if they do die, at least they will still be saved, and "not be condemned with the world."

Another point: Paul says that he received this teaching "of" -- that is, from -- "the Lord."  He says the same about his account of Jesus's resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.  Most interpreters take him figuratively, and assume that he learned it from Simon Peter and Jesus' brother James during a visit to the Jerusalem church a few years after his vision of the Risen Lord.  No one knows for sure, but Paul was emphatic that he got nothing from human teachers: he began his letter to the Galatian church by declaring himself "an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead)" (Galatians 1:1).  He mentioned his visit to Jerusalem (verses 15-19) not to acknowledge human teachers, but to deny he owed them anything, and to insist that he owed his apostolate only to Jesus and God.

Conservative scholars brush Paul's words aside nervously; a much-quoted joke is that when Paul spent two weeks with Peter and James, they presumably didn't talk about the weather.  These same scholars are disdainful of radical critics who deny the reality of the miraculous, but in this case it's they who have cold feet about the miraculous.  What's the matter, don't they believe that the Risen Lord appeared to Paul?  Don't they believe the Lord could have taught Paul his gospel without human intermediaries?  That joke is an appeal to common sense, which Paul and Jesus both rejected. I don't believe that Paul learned his gospel from the resurrected Jesus either, but I'm not a conservative Christian. It's strange that such people would prefer to see Paul as an exaggerator if not a liar ("Oriental hyperbole" used to be the usual scholarly euphemism), but I think as men think, not as God thinks.

I took this little detour because it's relevant to the eucharist too.  If you believe in the miraculous power of God, there's nothing outrageous about the idea that drinking Christ's blood and eating his body would, if done worthily, preserve believers from fleshly sickness and death.  What Jesus had in mind when he instituted the rite, it probably wasn't merely symbolic.  To accept Jesus' miracles, the reality of demons and their exorcism, heavenly choirs announcing the birth of the son of a virgin, and Jesus' resurrection from death, while denying the miraculous (don't say "magical") aspects of the eucharist is quite a stretch; but Christians are very good at straining at gnats while swallowing camels.

The same applies, however, to liberal Christians and to unbelievers (even atheists, oddly) who try to extract from the New Testament a Jesus who makes sense to them: a brown-skinned socialist liberal rationalist who only did miracles because he was dealing with primitive tribes who had to be cajoled with magic tricks. Or a mystical disciple of the Ascended Masters, an unworldly fellow who somehow blundered into the hands of the Romans.  Or a devotee of the Mother Goddess, married to Mary Magdalene, whose wisdom was distorted by the patriarchal church.  Or a humble rabbi whose message of Love and Kindness infuriated the superstitious Jooze, so of course they crucified him, and then distorted his pure teaching into a superstitious cult in order to control the gullible masses.  Or a radical insurgent whose anti-imperialist mission against Roman oppression got turned into a superstitious cult in order to control the sheeplike masses. What intrigues me is that all of these Jesuses can be extracted from the New Testament with some plausibility as long as you ignore most of it, and avoid dealing with alternative accounts.

I don't believe it's possible to get past the legendary and mythological accretions around the Jesus who lived and died (if he did actually exist, which some deny).  The more I read and thought about the many reconstructions others have attempted, the more it became clear to me that the historical Jesus isn't recoverable.  Most people, Christian or not, are evidently content with one or another of these phantoms.  If you still want to try to uncover the Jesus who lived and died in first-century Palestine,  you have to begin by seeing him in that historical and cultural context.  Not only the ignorant masses but Jesus himself believed in the supernatural, and for that reason alone he's going to be unacceptable to modern non-theists. That's why I find their Jesuses as entertaining as the Jesuses of conservative Christians.  Like most people who try, they end up with a Jesus in their own self-idealized image.  I believe that if you apply yourself to the problem seriously, you'll find that you can't honestly claim to know what Jesus was like.  And for a non-religious person that shouldn't be a problem. Why are so many atheists and agnostics determined to find a Jesus who'll mirror and ratify their own beliefs and principles? ... I suppose that question answers itself.

If you want to claim Jesus as your role model, you don't have to believe in the literal or even figurative truth of the New Testament, but I believe you have to account for what you keep and what you reject, and why.  Most of the people I know or encounter who reject conservative Christianity are sure it's not real Christianity, not what Jesus wanted or taught; but because of their biblical illiteracy, which they share with most Christians, they can't do much with the less appealing parts of Jesus' teaching except ignore it.  Just like the bad Christians they abhor.

It's thoroughly reasonable to be grossed out by the idea of eating Christ's body and drinking his blood.  But if you don't know that it's part of Jesus' teaching as much as "Love your neighbor as yourself," you're as ignorant as the Bible thumpers you despise -- more so, really.  The great scholar James Barr said that fundamentalists should be held responsible for the whole Bible, including the inconvenient details they'd prefer to ignore, such as the conflicting numbers of King David's chariots and horsemen; but the same holds for liberals and for atheist nonbelievers: they too are responsible for the parts of the gospels they reject no less than the stray sayings they yank out of context because they find them appealing.