October 2, 2008

Jesus et. al

Cameron shared this article on Google Reader and I felt compelled to comment on it.

Philosophical Approaches

The view presented in this article is essentially "higher criticism". The foundation of this view is that religions, including the Bible are a human narrative of evolving ideas about religion. As a result, similarities are considered to be proof of external ideas being appropriated into the doctrines of a specific religion, changing them as people's ideas evolve.

Another way of understanding similarities is that initially, there was one divine narrative which over time was perverted into a multitude of different religions, whose common origin yielded some similar ideas.

1 - The Scapegoat

The author clearly doesn't understand what the Scape Goat is. The scape goat was part of an OT religious ritual performed on the day of atonement involving two goats. A lot was cast on the goats. The one upon whom the lot fell was offered as a sin offering and the other was led out of the camp symbolically carrying the sins of the people [Leviticus 16]. It was not a ritual in which sins were symbolically placed on a goat which was then killed to placate a demon. The purpose, as with the much of the rest of the OT rituals was to picture the future sacrifice of the Messiah for the purpose of atoning for the sins of humanity.

The author attempts to relate this to Greek practices of using human "scapegoats" to appease the gods during times of calamity and Roman legal practices of allowing innocent people to take upon them the penalty of the guilty. Both practices probably postdate the Jewish practice by centuries. Therefore, it can not be said that they influenced the Jewish tradition. Rather, it is more likely that Jewish tradition influenced them. Furthermore, it should not be surprising that Christianity builds on Jewish tradtion. Christianity sees itself as the fullfilment and extension of pre-Christ revelation to the Jews. Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment [Matthew 5:17].

2 - The Essenes

It is also not surprising that a Jewish splinter groupd held views similar to those contained in the Old Testament and shared by the New Testament.

For example:
A - Love thy neighbor: When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, He declared:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. [Matthew 22:37-40]

This was not Jesus drawing on relatively recent tradition, but rather citing two passages in the Law as it was given by God through Moses:

And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. [Deuteronomy 6:5]
...thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD. [Leviticus 19:18]

B - Criticism of Conventional Jewish Society

The Jewish religious leaders had fallen into a deeply legalistic system which perverted mans laws over God's laws. As such, criticism was deserved, not simply a tradition borrowed from a relatively contemporary group.

C - Coming of a Messiah

As Christianity looks back to the central figure of Christ, Judaism looks forward to the future coming of the Messiah and has done so from the beginning. Immediately after the fall, God promised to send that a descendent of Eve would defeat the serpant (Satan) [Genesis 3:15]. More recently, Daniel the prophet foretold of a coming Messiah, who would be "cut off, but not for himself" [Daniel 9:25]. Isaiah the prophet foretold a suffering savior, bearing the penalty of the sins of others [Isaiah 53].

3 - Similar figures

Most of the rest of the article is devoted to a listing of figures, mostly mythical whose stories share some similarities with the narrative of Jesus. Many supposedly died and rose again, offered rewards to their followers, etc. Again, this is suggested to be indicative of a lack of divine revelation as merely human ideas evolved and cross-polinated ways of thinking. However, one would expect similar results if God had revealed a coherant narrative which was corrupted over time in various false religions.

4 - Why Jesus?

It seems to me that the most substantive point raised by the author is the question of why Christ and not one of these mythical figures.

First, the author claims that via the criteria of precedence, the Bible must be rejected many times over. However, within the list included in the article, the only tradition that might clearly be said to pre-date Judaism even from a critical perspective is Egyptian mythology.

Second, the primary distinction between Christ and the other mentioned figures is that only Jesus represents a monotheistic divinity. All the rest connected to pantheistic religions, often involving quarreling gods and goddesses. While a lot of discussion could be devoted to each of these separate pantheons, it seems to me that the problem of a consistent moral understanding is a good reason to reject them. As Socrates observed in one of the Platonic dialogues, it is virtually impossible to determine right from wrong in the presence of so many conflicting deities. Without a coherent moral system, good often boils down to picking a god and hoping some other god doesn't destroy you for it.

In closing, the author tries to argue that us relgious folk foolishly ignore the similarities between these figures and try to pretend they are very different. I would suggest that he tries to ignore the differences to take the lazy way out of answering his own question: which one, if any, is true?

No comments: