The Gospels and their underlying Theistic/Spiritual, Magical /Supernatural and partially Predicatable and Explicable View of Reality. TMP (diagram)
As many scholars have noted when it comes to looking at the four gospels we are faced with documents which create a genre all on their own. They are not biographies, they are not histories, so what are they? Sit down and have a go at reading them, any of them, or if you read all four of them – not a huge challenge, for none of them are long and all of them are – in good modern translations – very readable. What then do you find?
The Gospels were all written with one clear purpose – to promote Jesus as the Christ, YHWH’s Son and the Saviour of all humanity and to engage and enthral every listener by their telling of his story.
They are all theistic in that they assume the truth of a basic contemporary Jewish world view and see the story of Jesus as being entirely in tune with and an expression of the will of YHWH.
(YHWH I stick to this ancient Jewish usage of simply using these four letters to indicate deity with its prohibition on imaging, utterance or anthropomorphising the Ultimate Mystery. I think this preserves a profound insight when the divine name is so over-used and taken in vain.)
Part of this Jewish world-view is an acceptance of the existence of magic, which is that a range of events which are experienced or reported as having happened are seen as being inexplicable and unpredictable in any natural, ordinary sense. Ranging from dreams and visions which are taken very seriously as coming from God or evil sources to provide insights into understanding contemporary events or which seek to provide predictions of the future, they extend to healings many of which are seen as the exorcism of evil spirits and extend even to raising people from the dead. Magic can also bring about inexplicable natural phenomena such as storms, earthquakes, droughts and floods and their opposite, good weather and adequate rain. When these magical events are seen as the work of YHWH or his subsidiary angels, they are usually referred to as miracles.
Not all magical events however are benign for the Second Temple Jewish world-view of the first century. While seeing YHWH as creator and the ultimate power, it also assumed the existence of demonic evil powers headed by Satan or Beelzebub together with evil spirits capable of tempting men and women to act in evil ways while also causing illness and demon possession. This means magic can be benignly theistic and “miraculous” or malignly demonic sorcery.
With regard to the Gospels they all describe examples of theistic magic in that they all see YHWH as being able and willing to back the teaching and activity of Jesus the Christ with signs and wonders to encourage belief in his Messiahship and trust in his person and in YHWH. They all consider this has happened on many occasions when YHWH is seen to have intervened in the history of his people, the Jews.
Finally they are all examples of a theistic and magical view of reality in that they purport to tell no fictional, purely symbolic or mythological story about a Jesus, but to portray reality, i.e. that the life, teaching and death of Jesus is that of a real person in history who had touched and changed for ever his disciples and those of his followers who had experienced his “resurrection” and victory over death and that he had done this not only in ways that are predictable and explicable, but also magical and spiritual
Combining these three elements, the theistic/spiritual, the supernatural/magical and the predictable and explicable in one world-view, the TMP world-view, strikes me as a useful way to describe not only these four documents, but the basic world-view which underlies them, a world-view shared with surprisingly minor variations across times and cultures. (see the diagram TMP at the start of this article)
They are also works of “propaganda” as the Catholic Church still uses the term. That is they were not written just to inform, entertain or explain, though they do all of that, but to move their hearers to faith, that is commitment and trust in Jesus and his message and to do that in any way they feel will bring about that result.
Compared to the sacred texts of other religions what strikes me is what vivid, accessible and memorable stories the Gospels are and contain, building up to a terrible climax and a strange final sense of victory. Start reading them anywhere and they quickly get you involved.
If then the Gospels are to be seen as works of TMP, how should we use them when many of us are sceptical about such a world-view? First we should remember that they were written to be read aloud to a congregation who would be lucky to have more than one copy of one of them and in which many members would have been illiterate. Mark can be read in one sitting taking about an hour and a half. The others take longer. In pre-industrial societies where even today we can see religious services going on for many hours, this was no problem even if it would be for us. The sort of numbered verse by verse analysis so beloved of “Bible believing” Christians was unknown and quite impossible. Like Protestantism, such an approach to the Gospels is a product of a print based culture.
The Western medievals, being unable to read the Gospel texts except in Latin manuscripts, were able to access the Gospel stories (and key stories from the Jewish scriptures) through the vernacular performance of their mystery plays and through works of art – mural, statues and windows and through participation in festivals, pilgrimage and ceremonies. In this way they were better able to recognise that Holy Scripture could often best be experienced as Holy Drama and Sacred Art. I would thus suggest this approach be revived and extended. For example, dramatised readings from the Gospels are something contemporary Christians could use far more often.
In the end however, if the Gospels are recognised as TMP documents, great for engaging heart and imagination, great for making Jesus come alive in the mind of the listener as a real suffering, angry, compassionate, inspiring, brave and witty human being. The question however still needs to be asked, at least by some of us. How far can we go behind these wonderful (literally), arresting and dramatic books to find the “real Jesus” whose life, teaching and example lead to them being written and what do the claims of his “resurrection” from the dead mean for those for whom the TMP world-view is no longer an option? So despite Bauckham’s criticism of the whole project the hunt for the “historical Jesus” is on again.
The “Historical” Rabbi Yeshua
I now refer to the Jesus of history as Rabbi Yeshua. It appears this is the way he was addressed in his life-time and I do it assuming (unlike those who would see the whole Jesus story as a myth) that he actually lived and died in Palestine over two thousand years ago as an exceptionally talented but otherwise normal man rather than the divinised impeccable persona of Christian faith, the Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour of the World as the Gospels and other Christian Scriptures and official “orthodox” Christian teaching portrays him. In similar vein I speak of the Teacher Gotama rather than the Buddha, the Blessed One, the Lord who fully attained perfect enlightenment. (n.b. the tendency for religions to attribute to their founders infallibility in knowledge and morality)
I am of course well aware that there is no way I or anyone else can produce an “objective” picture of Yeshua free of personal bias and assumptions. Trawling the gospels for “accurate facts” will always be a tricky business for one is not dealing with certainties, but judgements about probabilities. I simply do the best I can from where I stand. I also accept that while there is a growing amount of written and archaeological evidence about Judaism and the Palestine of his time, the pre-eminent and most trustworthy sources we have of what Yeshua thought and taught remain the four canonical gospels.
The Apocalyptic World-view
The evidence is strong that Rabbi Yeshua inherited, inhabited and put his mark on a world-view that was an extreme version of TMP, one that from a modern perspective comes across as dark, alien and fanciful. This is because first century Palestinian Jews and the Gospel writers clearly lived, thought, felt and expressed themselves very differently from the way we do.. (University educated, 21st Century people convinced of the consistency of the cosmos and the power of science to reveal and change the world) Oddly however, we find a depressing parallel between then and now which is that it must have been as difficult to remain rational and balanced about life in Palestine then as it is for many living there today. Now we see, as Yeshua did then, so many lives being torn apart in the most vicious of conflicts, made worse by tyrannical foreign rule. Trying to make sense of life and trying to keep hope alive without taking refuge in religious or political fantasies or involvement in violent extremism was then and remains now a hard thing to do. TMP it seems, flourishes in such a context.
The Jews of this time remembered or had experienced the Greek Seleucid oppression of their culture and religion and they had just undergone a bloody and brutal invasion at the hands of Rome (as described by Josephus.) One way of dealing with life Yeshua and many of the Jews around him resorted to in order to make sense of what was happening to them and to keep hope alive, was to see themselves as living on the edge of an apocalyptic catastrophe. (see p34 Oxford Companion to the Bible) They saw themselves as living in a cosmic battle zone and in the expectation that at any moment there could be a breaking through of divine or demonic powers into everyday life, but that after the wars, disasters and battles that seemed imminent, everyone would see the final victory of YHWH and his angels over Satan, his demons and the idolatrous pagan powers of darkness.
Their belief was that while they were living through a time of misery and darkness it had been magically revealed to them (in writings based on dreams and visions) that they were on the edge of a coming end to history when YHWH would magically intervene to save his people (eg Revelation and Daniel). This must strike us as nothing to do with Greco-Roman history, but rather with a wildly optimistic fantasy. We should however remember it was a fantasy that is no more deluded than the current fantasies men and women are prepared to die for i.e. that YHWH has given the land of Israel to the Jews and that Allah wills the re-establishment of the Caliphate and the imposition of Sharia Law on all who live in Palestine, and in the case of the leaders of the Islamic State that setting this up is to prepare for the imminent supernatural return of a Muslim version of Jesus.
(We also should not forget that while mainstream Christianity, Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox currently pays little attention to the apocalyptic contents of the scriptures, the coming End of the World remained expected into the second century by some leading Christians (like Papias 75-163 CE). There was another surge of belief that it was coming as the first millennium approached, then again with the coming of the Black Death, then during the Thirty Years War after the Reformation and on and on at times of crisis in Europe and America. It has also been and is today a central theme amongst not just the Witnesses of Jehovah, but American Evangelicals who tie it in with support for Israel, so the Jews will be in the right place when Jesus comes again to show them he really is the Messiah – the Rapture.)
Operating then within this quite widely accepted TMP apocalyptic world view, one which it appears was a particularly strong feature of Galilean Judaism, Yeshua quickly rose to prominence in the shadow of another apocalyptic preacher, his relative John the Baptist. John was arrested after baptising Yeshua and then executed under bizarre conditions (at the request of Salome) by Herod the Roman appointed tetrarch who had arrested him for criticising his sexual behaviour.. Like John Yeshua emerged as a charismatic preacher, a practitioner of a simple life and a person of ascetic self-discipline. His early life however, is unknown.
It is reasonably speculated by some that he, and possibly John, spent time with the Essenes. They were an extreme apocalyptic Jewish sect who rejected Temple worship and the legitimacy of all Jews (the priesthood and the rabbinate) except themselves. They may have been based at Qumran on the edge of the desert and their texts show they lived communally in expectation of the coming of one or more Messiahs. Some were celibate, some married, they gave up private property and rejecting violence spent their time in prayer, manual work, meditation and the study of sacred texts, which interestingly we are told they interpreted symbolically. Josephus describes them as the third party in Judaism living in houses spread across Judea. (Interestingly Josephus, the Jewish exponent of Greco-Roman history writing (the Jewish War written in 75CE) changed sides from being the Jewish commander in the war against Rome to servant and backer of Vespasian. His justification for doing so was the experience he had of a vision that came to him while hiding in a cave during the brutal siege of Jotapata. He too was influenced by the apocalyptic world view and took TMP for granted)
The gospel tradition asserts that Yeshua started his ministry after a solitary forty day withdrawal into the desert after his baptism by John. He also appointed twelve disciples to the symbolic role of Apostle, a way of saying that like Moses he was setting out to build a new People of Israel. (Twelve tribes) and this means he may have considered, as the Gospels all assert, that he saw himself as having a Messianic role
Were there any Buddhist links?
As well as possible links with the Essenes it is also looks possible, though still resisted and ignored by many biblical scholars with the exception of B.H. Streeter, that he met and talked to travelling Buddhist monks (bhikkhus) who together with Buddhist merchants since the time of Alexander and his Seleucid successors were known to have come on occasions along the much used “Silk Road” from India. Recent archaeological finds have revealed how extensive and important this trade was. (The Buddha and the Christ. Bampton Lecture 1932. Not only was Streeter a very influential pioneer of Biblical Criticism with his Four Document Hypothesis, but he pointed out the parallels between the Sermon on the Mount and the teaching of the Buddha. If you go to Wikipedia you will find this whole issue of Buddhist influences on Christianity has inspired fierce controversy particularly among Americans. This link to the 2006 article has much that is impressive. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Christianity_and_Buddhism/Old_version)
Certainly many Westerners (including myself) who have explored both the Christian and the Buddhist traditions have been struck by the similarities between Yeshua’s teaching and practice and that of Gotama, particularly as regards moral behaviour and attitudes to others, (see Gotama’s Five Precepts) and the lists of textual parallels that have been found make the assertions of (Christian) scholars that Gotama’s teaching had no influence on Yeshua hard to accept. There is some evidence Buddhists had a monastery/vihara in Alexandria and it is suggested the title given them, Therapeutae is a misreading of Thera vadan. (The Way of the Elders.) Philo of Alexandria’s description of them does not however sound very Buddhist, more Essene, but the evidence he had about them was sketchy and hearsay) There is more acceptance by academic scholars (Including Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch of Oxford) that the Buddhist example of the Bhikkhu Sangha (monastic Order) influenced the growth of the Christian monastic tradition in Syria and the desert.
Like missionary bhikkhus Yeshua engaged with all who crossed his path, regardless it seems of gender, religion, or moral character, and like them showed no subservience to social status or wealth. Like them Yeshua and his disciples dressed simply and depended on the alms of disciples and hearers. He also showed himself a powerful healer of mental and physical distress with a message of compassion and openness to others and the poor which mirrors Gotama’s teaching on the need for generosity. He was a resolute promoter of forgiveness, and like Gotama emphasised non-violence.
Yeshua’s distinctive teaching and style
Whatever influence the Buddhist tradition did or did not have on Yeshua, his developed teaching and style while having moral and practical similarities was also very different and diverged from and did not address issues faced by Gotama. Unlike Gotama he emphasised his relationship with YHWH, using the language of theism and a simple prayer to YHWH who he advocated should be addressed as Father. (Gotama rejected the worship of any god and placed morality and the practice of mindful awareness through meditation as the key to developing insight) Yeshua operated within the common Jewish apocalyptic world view. (unknown to Gotama who thought of an infinitely old cyclical, uncreated world) He also spoke of the soul as being the non-physical, non-bodily essence of a person. (Gotama taught annata, not self, that to act or think of ourselves as having a bounded, individual identity separate from the body or others is a destructive delusion) Yeshua spoke of a Day of Judgment in apocalyptic and immediate terms. (Gotama spoke of kamma, that all thoughts and actions have inescapable consequences) Yeshua referred to eternal life as the quality of ultimately meaningful life experienced both here and after death in heaven or hell. (Gotama spoke of tasting Nibbana, enlightenment, freedom, happiness, peace in this life while emphasising the inevitability of suffering and death and operated in a culture which used the language of multiple rebirths into different “realms”.).Yeshua’s followers have seen the magical miracles associated with him as signs that YHWH endorsed him. (Gotama, while never denying the existence of gods, devas and evil spirits or magic regarded any attempt to practice good or bad magic, astrology or levitation in order to promote his teachings as spiritually irrelevant to the task of concentrating on the basics, the cause and cure of pain, suffering, alienation – dukkha.)
Wiki pedia reports that most currant biblical scholars say there is no evidence for any contact with Buddhism and some say if Yeshua had come across bhikkhus his world-view was so different from the Buddhist world-view as to be totally incompatible, so he would not have been influenced.
Not only does the understanding of Buddhism shown in these remarks come across as hostile and superficial from what I have read, but I think it ignores the growing awareness of the deep contacts in trade and culture there were between the Greco-Roman world and India and makes it seem that neither Buddhists nor Yeshua were capable of dialogue or capable of seeing areas of agreement – again something Buddhists encouraged and it seems Yeshua practiced.
Yeshua’s moral teaching
Yeshua’s teaching and example on love, forgiveness, non-violence and turning the other cheek, of seeking the spirit rather than the letter of the Torah can be seen as being based upon his understanding of Judaism, particularly the teaching of Rabbi Hillel, (d. 7CE) but more generally it seems Yeshua found that for Jews your neighbour was your fellow Jew and following the Torah was then ( and often still is) a highly divisive and legalistic exercise. Yeshua came to see “your neighbour” in the poor, the sick, the outcast, the heretic, the child, non-Jew goyim and of course women and following the Torah meant taking the risk of exercising the most compassionate action.
The teaching and example of Gotama which emphasises inner intention proclaims the same or a very similar approach. His teaching and example of the practice of generosity dana and sympathetic love metta together with the five moral precepts he suggested his lay and renunciate followers explore and use (refrain from taking life, refrain from taking what is not given, refrain from the misuse of sex and the senses –adultery, refrain from lying and hateful speech, refrain from drink and drugs that cloud the mind and lead to irresponsibility), are not legalistic rules to obey but warnings to help one avoid causing suffering to others and oneself and the “monastic” bhikkhu discipline is a voluntary system of training built on those precepts for developing greater insight and inner freedom.
Whether Yeshua came to his conclusions about love agape with or without coming across dhamma teaching or simply by his reflections on Jewish teaching we may never know. Certainly there is similarity here and I would assert that it is these teachings which are seen as the most attractive and compelling element in Christianity for many if not most Christians and for many outside the Church and this happens regardless of the acceptance of a TMP world-view.
As regards Buddhism and Hinduism certainly by the time of Irenaeus (d 202CE) and Tertullian (d 225 CE) the teachings of holy men from India were seen as heretical and a distraction to be condemned, but given the way Christian theology and practice developed with its emphasis on orthodoxy and uniformity that is hardly surprising. Perhaps the Buddhist encounter with Yeshua has simply been written out of the story, as the influence of Nestorian Christianity has been written out of the history of China.
Conflict with the Jewish Establishment
Whatever influences lead Yeshua to teach and think as he did, it is pretty clear his approach to religious life was not acceptable to the religious and political Jewish leadership of that time. They saw him as a comparatively ill-educated rabble-rousing populist preacher with possible Messianic pretensions and odd views about Samaritans, women, (“fallen” and respectable) and non-Jewish goyim that could stir up the wrath of Rome and undermine their own religious and political authority.
Any reading of the Gospels makes one thing quite clear. Yeshua was a brilliant speaker and a truly charismatic individual who travelled around Palestine attracting huge crowds. He had them captivated not by philosophical discourse, but by his use of memorable stories, witty comparisons, angry denunciations of religious hypocrisy and a collection of enigmatic aphorisms and “parables”. These created an unforgettable impression on those who heard him and have been remembered, quoted and misquoted ever since and which are both accessible and challenging to old and young, the educated and the illiterate. This is an amazing achievement bearing in mind how short his “ministry” was, and that he wrote nothing down.
Bearing in mind the excitement, enthusiasm and devotion he engendered and the probability that he was seen by many as a possible Messiah who in some way would lead the Jews to “freedom” it is not that surprising that eye-witnesses talking about him and attempting to convey the impact he made resorted to the idiom of TMP – as tales of amazing signs and healings multiplied around him. We need to bear in mind the feverish apocalyptic world-view current which took for granted a cosmic battle. This makes it hardly surprising that stories of how he cast out demons, brought about spectacular healings, calmed storms, turned water into wine and even on occasion raised individuals from the dead became current. Some of these “events” however are clearly (by comparing different gospel versions) cases where a story or parable he told was recounted as something he had done or where the magic in the story was seen to have symbolic significance. (eg calming the storm)
It is however probable that those who told and heard these stories did not think of them as symbols or metaphors. They inhabited a TMP world-view where magic, both theistic and demonic, operated, and where dreams and visions were taken very seriously as giving us guidance about how to behave. They would simply regard what they heard as “fact” and “true” in ways many “Pentecostal” and African Christians still do, and those both Catholic and Protestant who today continue to inhabit cultures or subcultures where TMP thinking at odds with contemporary secularism is still strong. Also let us not forget many others who appear “secularised “ today easily slip uncritically into such thinking in particular contexts and easily accept the claims of “alterative health therapies”, astrologers and tarot card readers as worth taking seriously on the basis of some vague testimony or very little evidence. There is it seems increasing psychological evidence that a consistent, hard-nosed, critical secularism, sticking to a world-view that rejects TMP, magic, the supernatural, belief in God, gods, the soul and any form of life after death is more than all but a small minority can happily adopt or accept. Either in religion, art, in fact any area of life except mathematical modelling and scientific research, we make sense of our lives by mixing up our dreams, fantasies, imaginings and feelings with whatever we have to do rationally to get by and work and live in the “real world.”
I would however assert that Yeshua’s core message was not dependent on TMP, the occurrence or acceptance of wonders or “miracles.”, but was simple and he re-iterated it in many different ways. “Wake up, be open to YHWH whose “kingdom” is within you and show compassion and forgiveness to all others as you expect YHWH to show compassion and forgiveness to you.” (Very close to the teaching of Gotama who bypassed TMP and which can be summarised as saying, “Wake up, become mindfully aware of who you are and of your own mind and body. Wake up and show compassion to everyone as you follow the Master’s Way”).
Yeshua however, emphasised a coming imminent, magic, apocalyptic catastrophe (See Mark 13) which is not something Gotama predicted, though he did fear the day would eventually come when his teaching would go unheeded in the face of the human capacity for greed, hatred and delusion.
Despite his rejection of the Zealot path which sought armed revolt, Yeshua was regarded as a dangerous subversive and arrested on trumped up charges of fomenting violence against Rome. The Gospels unite in reporting that he was aware that his final trip to Jerusalem and the Messianic hopes it ignited in many would inevitably lead to his arrest, conviction and death and that he shared this premonition with his disciples in the course of a final meal.
The gospels all then spend much of their space describing how he was betrayed by one of his Twelve, arrested, tried, flogged and crucified. His endurance and behaviour in the face of this ordeal made an indelible impression on those who witnessed it, including on his women disciples.
Some, like Peter, despaired, and terrified in the face of Roman power, felt Yeshua’s life and mission had been a failure. Others did not and the very senior member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, laid his own safety and reputation on the line by offering his tomb for the burial of Yeshua. For him Yeshua was no failure but an inspiration revealing YHWH’s way of honesty and integrity and most importantly providing a new model for what it meant to be “chosen by God” the Messiah, not as a military leader but as a “suffering servant”. This John tells us was also true of the Pharisee Nicodemus, a member of a group Yeshua had often criticised for hypocrisy, but who spoke up for Yeshua and put his own reputation at risk after Yeshua’s death and delivered spices for his embalming.
After his death on a Friday at the end of the Shabbat the next day, the women disciples went to the tomb to embalm and clean the body – only to find the tomb empty. They ran away afraid and told the family and the male disciples. This event simply described by Mark was embellished by the other Gospel writers in the style of TMP to include encounters with Jesus who is described as being seen alive again.
His Body and His Resurrection
So who took and what happened to the body? Quite simply and not surprisingly we will just never know – short of some dramatic archaeological find in a Jerusalem dig. Any idea that he did not actually die but was spirited away to be patched up strikes me as highly implausible. He was executed by experienced Romans soldiers and it could have been either disciples or enemies who removed the body from Joseph’s tomb and buried or disposed of it somewhere else. It also seems to me that were his body to turn up in a dig nearby today it should make no difference to the validity of Christian faith in his “resurrection” just because so many have for so long accepted the TMP style of thinking the Gospel writers used.
Very soon however after the tomb was found to be empty the Gospels all describe in their different (and hard to reconcile) ways that the women and men disciples became convinced that Yeshua was in some special sense alive – with them and in them. Exactly what triggered the intensity of this experience in their hearts and minds may seem a little opaque to us now, but it was it seems shared when they met together to re-enact, as he had asked them to do, that last meal. That was when Yeshua’s words were remembered. In sharing bread and wine together he said they would be sharing his body and blood, and so in this way he was alive in them.
As the weeks passed it seems fair to suggest that at these meetings the disciples who had known Yeshua were asked to get up and tell their story again in order to inspire their hearers with a similar awareness. They also retold stories about his life, the things he had said and did, the people he had healed and the stories and parables he had told. So it was that building on the apocalyptic style they were used to they testified in a TMP way how they had come to “know” that Yeshua was alive, how he had revealed YHWH to them and how he had “appeared”.
Using TMP they spoke powerfully and vividly, drawing no modern distinction between fact and imagination, history and symbol. They were not testifying to give evidence in a court, but in order to inspire their hearer’s to come to “know Christ.” This meant that with each telling their testimonies developed in ways that could be easily and dramatically imagined. This brought about for many who heard them an intense experience which they saw as a turning from darkness to light, from being “lost” to being “found” and of being “born again.” as they came to “know” Jesus.
It strikes me that the reality of the resurrection of Jesus is to be seen in this conversion process, this “coming to know the Lord” something which has continued throughout Christian history. The “resurrection” is the knowledge that “Jesus lives” that Jesus has become “known” in the hearts of believing Christians.
The important point is that this “knowing” is not and never has been brought about by an historical analysis of documents and evidence, but crucially by an act of faith, of surrender and trust to a perceived awareness of Jesus presence. This faith is not a case of trusting the unbelievable, but in the individual reaching the point of following an intuition, a deep feeling that whatever the trigger, this is no shallow emotional experience, but something fundamental that should be trusted. It is more like falling in love than solving a puzzle.
This experience comes about in many ways and is triggered, communicated and resonated through many levels and many people. It involves using story, ceremony, words, singing, listening, meditating and crucially I would argue the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine of the Eucharist. Again such “knowledge” has more to do with “felt truth” and intuition than historical analysis or philosophical reflection.
So today we have the Ecclesia and the Gospels which tell the Jesus story in a variety of slightly different ways, sometimes making different points, but all making use of this TMR world-view with its elements of theistic magic and supernaturalism. As regards what happened after his death these include the story of his “appearing” to Mary Magdalene after being mistaken for the gardener (echoes of Adam?), of his “appearing” in the breaking of the bread at Emmaus, (the Eucharist) of his “appearing” to the doubting Thomas. (Faith) Then there is his “appearing” to the disciples by the Sea of Galilee and causing a great catch of 153 fish, (Ixthus) and of his “appearing” to much larger groups of disciples, also in Galilee. (Think of the religious paintings of Salvadore Dali whose surrealism is a good example of theistic magic expressed in a “realist” style)
A most important “appearance” and by some years the earliest written eye-witness account we have (1 Corinthians) was to the Rabbi Saul the converted Pharisaic prosecutor of Yeshua’s followers who became a totally dedicated disciple, despite never having met him when he was alive. Paul however experienced Yeshua’s “presence” after his death with such vividness that he claimed in the strongest of terms that he was an apostle of Yeshua who he now called – using Greek – Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour. He then took at his baptism the name of Paul and asserted he had divine authority to speak on Yeshua’s behalf. Interestingly he never made use of theistic magic to describe what happened to him – though Luke in Acts did.
Paul took for granted TMP and shared the general apocalyptic world view with a vengeance and he developed and elaborated it giving Jesus the leading role as Messiah and apocalyptic Son of God. Expecting immanent divine cataclysm he set out across Syria, Turkey, Greece, Palestine, Cyprus and Malta and on to Rome with Peter urging those Jews in the synagogues and the goy “god fearers” who also attended them to accept the “risen Christ” into their hearts before the apocalypse arrived.
Not only was Paul creative in the apocalyptic role he assigned to Jesus, he also grasped the power of building Christian practice and experience around the two richly symbolic and dramatic ceremonies we now call sacraments. These were celebrated with readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly where they could be seen as in some sense foretelling Jesus and his Messianic role. We can be pretty sure they also included a public reading of his letters and the testimony of local disciples and eyewitnesses who were around and able to say what Jesus had done and said.
Baptism, the Christian initiation ceremony, proved to be very powerful. The ceremony symbolises dying to the old life of selfishness under the rule of Satan and rising again to a new life “in Christ”. Undergone by adult converts it involved total immersion after a period of fasting and prayer, this was then and continues today to be an effective way of experiencing being “born again” as they joined Jesus’ body, the Ecclesia.
The Eucharist became a weekly ceremonial thanksgiving meal commemorating Jesus “appearances” and rising from the dead, celebrated soon not on Shabbat but on the first day of the week. In this they partook of his body and blood in the bread and the wine to strengthen them to live as dedicated members of his body while they awaited Jesus coming again in power and great glory.
Paul was amazingly successful in getting the Ecclesia established through his journeys and letters, but ended up executed with Peter in Rome, so following what had happened to his Jesus and to Stephen whose death he had witnessed while he was the persecutor Saul. His mark on the new religion, first known as The Way, is almost or perhaps as great as the teaching and example of Yeshua himself and his thinking, teaching and letters are recognised as having influenced all four authors of the gospels,
What About Us?
So what are we to make of all this today knowing as we do that we live in a mysterious, still only very partially understood, but as far as all our knowledge goes a mathematically and scientifically totally consistent universe? This means the apocalyptic, TMP world-view of the Gospel writers is simply not an option for those of us who have come to recognise this. This means accepting a universe in which there are no demons or disembodied spiritual powers and in which there is no room for magic, miraculous or malevolent, theistic or otherwise and certainly a universe in which there is no room for the physical resuscitation of dead people, Yeshua included. It is also a universe so full of relentless and unjustified suffering as to make it hard to imagine it being under the control of YHWH described as a just and loving “father”. At the same time it is hard to believe in the face of its very complexity and consistency that this whole show is just a mindless accident.
What I am saying here is that we – who see the universe as being totally consistent in the way it works -, have a choice. This choice is neither easy nor self-evident. On the one hand we might conclude that there are rational grounds for considering that there is a source or originator behind the whole process which has led to the evolution in us of that reflective awareness or consciousness which is the most amazing and mysterious thing we know and have the privilege of experiencing. That is to see in this totally consistent “magic free” cosmos an originator which we might still wish to call YHWH.
On the other hand we may conclude that the imposition of purpose or design onto this mysteriously consistent cosmos or using the language and images of theism in any way (anthropic or anthropomorphising) causes more problems than it solves, particularly as regards undeserved suffering if the “originator” is to be regarded as in some way good.
Either way it is a universe in which biological death is as certain as the inevitability of change, and as certain that causes and actions have consequences. It is also a universe in which our lives and our futures are uncertain, but in which we have a real ability to choose.( As Gotama clearly taught)
Again for “consistent universe” ones, theist and non-theist, Yeshua’s terrible death can be seen as also his “resurrection,” a triumph over death for his life and his teaching. This is because his example of courage and compassion, his sympathy for the sufferings of others was not defeated by his suffering or proximity to death. He did not turn to hatred, bitterness, despair or selfishness, and his example lives on in the lives of those he has inspired to seek to live in an open, compassionate, honest way despite the greed, hatred and delusion that drives many in what seems a remorseless and indifferent universe.
We also need never forget that millions suffer deaths as terrible as that suffered by Yeshua almost daily caused by cruelty, inhumanity, natural disaster or disease. In the face of all these horrors there is always a choice of how to react and which path to take. Here the teaching and example of Yeshua and Gotama remains valid and inspiring.
We “consistent ones” who reject TMR have to accept that we are and almost certainly always will be a minority. The vast majority of people, including often the surprisingly intelligent and well informed, for a variety of reasons, only push consistency so far and are then quite happy to see “the hand of God” or the devil at work, to believe that theistic “miracles” are possible and that heaven ,hell a re-incarnated future life or an apocalyptic Second Coming awaits us all, for good or for ill.
We should not let this upset us too much, or try and force them to give up what appear to us to be the error of their muddled and inconsistent thinking, particularly in times of personal crisis for such thinking has its place and continues for a reason –when it comes to making the most of life and “human well-being” sensitively used, it works. There are however many times when the use of TMP thinking can and does lead to intolerance, stupidity and the adoption in the name of God of appalling behaviour and attitudes towards others. Then it needs to be countered and exposed.
How This Paper Started
This paper has been triggered by a discussion with Jo Penberthy, vicar of Cucklington with whom I have had long, challenging and fruitful discussions. These have caused me to re-think my own positions on Christianity and Supernaturalism, a paper I now think I need to revise. I also re-read for the first time in many years the full passion stories in all four gospels. Jo also hinted that perhaps my New Testament studies were a bit out of date, so I wrestled with the book by Richard Bauckham she leant me. We also exchanged emails in which she said:
I absolutely take your point about the consistency of the world as we experience it and therefore the bedrock fact of dead people staying dead which moves you to see, if I understand correctly, that the stories of the appearances reflect the fact that after Jesus’ death, the going through that experience for the disciples resulted in them seeing that, despite Jesus’ death, all was not lost and that his ministry and his teaching were as valuable and potent still as offering a way of living positively in the face of death and the realities of life which would be most helpfully expressed in metaphors of Jesus rising. Is that fair?
My own position, starting from the same point, of dead people staying dead (which is always a bedrock of my Easter sermon) is diametrically different in that the post crucifixion appearances of Jesus to the disciples, arose not from events in the disciples ongoing journey with the memory of Jesus but from an event in the “history” of the man Jesus after which he appeared which shattered the disciples world view, hence the original ending of Mark and which they spent a lot of time coming to terms with, drawing on themes from the teaching of Jesus and the traditions prophetic and pharisaic upon which he and they both drew.
Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. 2006
This is an impressive, meticulously researched and carefully argued work by a major biblical scholar coming out of the Anglican Conservative Evangelical tradition. His starting point is to take issue with those many NT scholars who have attempted to uncover the “Historical Jesus” in contrast to the “Christ of Faith” of the Gospels.
He does this by asserting that those who have followed the path of form criticism have argued that the Gospel writers were each faced with a variety of mainly second hand sources circulating by word of mouth in a number of different early Church communities. Each of them then selected from these to write their own Gospel. In doing so they placed upon their sources the stamp of their own particular interests. The result being four books containing a lot of second-hand hearsay material written up in each case with a different agenda or “theology” in mind.
Against this approach he asserts, after a painstaking and methodical investigation of all the names of disciples and others in the NT, that in fact each Gospel writer was faced in his local congregation by a considerable number not of un-attributable oral traditions but of locally well-known eye-witnesses to what Jesus had done and said. This means their writing up of the words of these sources was a conscious attempt to preserve and do justice to their testimonies. For this reason he asserts that the Gospels should all be treated as being of the same type of literature as the Greco-Roman histories which were being produced by those like Josephus, Polybius and Tacitus.
Bauckham does not take issue with the generally agreed dating of the Gospels (between 70 and 120 CE) or the order in which they were written, that is – first Mark, then Matthew with Mark’s Gospel in front of him, then Luke Acts probably with both Mark and Matthew in front of him, and then John who also knew Mark and had his own sources. His conclusion however is that in each case the testimonies of the eye-witnesses are a vital element in the creating of these texts and that the inevitably personal and subjective slant of eye-witness testimony is not something to be discounted and treated as unreliable hearsay, nor does it validate attempts to get behind them to reveal some neutral unvarnished “objective” truth. That will always be impossible. Instead he sees the Gospels as fundamentally historical documents which the Christian with faith in Jesus is justified in trusting.
While I think that the case he makes for the continued existence and influence of named eye-witnesses in the early church when the Gospels were being written is well argued and he has given us good reason to trust more of what is written in the Gospels as being reliable, to say that the Christian with faith is justified in trusting the reliability of the Gospels because all judgements of historical documents are necessarily to some extent subjective goes too far. Two secular historians working with the same evidence may come to different conclusions as we have just seen in the case of Max Hastings and Niall Ferguson looking at the causes of the First World War, still one will be more right than the other and subsequent research should show that. In the case of the Gospels the most that Bauckham can give us is reason to believe more of the Gospel texts are actually an accurate reflection of eye-witness testimony than the form critical approach lead us to believe.
That conclusion raises two serious issues for Bauckham. The first is has he applied and is he prepared to see his “trust eye-witness testimony” approach applied to the religious texts of other religions? Possibly he is already happy with a pretty literal approach to the historical trustworthiness of the Jewish scriptures, but what then of the Koran? And what then of the Hadith, the traditions of the life of the Prophet, and what of the memorised suttas of the Buddha as found in the Pali canon? Or for that matter what about the Book of Mormon? If Bauckham has uncovered the usefulness of a new methodology or the trustworthiness of an old one, then if it is right it must be applied across the board to all religions and all history writing. This could lead to some interesting results, in particular to more inter-religious dialogue and comparative studies.
The second issue is more basic and it is this. Does the “trust eye-witness testimony” approach make the Gospels and their writers appear more or less credible from an historical point of view? The hard facts are we now know with certainty (yes certainty in any meaningful, common-sense way) that many things described in the Gospels cannot have happened if a literal “in the real world” interpretation of the texts is insisted on. This goes from the Virgin Birth to the so-called predictive prophesies to the casting out of “real” demons, the calming of storms, the walking on water, (sorry Barak Obama) the “miraculous” feedings of bread and catches of fish and most certainly the raising from the dead of the little girl of twelve and Lazarus, the earthquakes, day time darkness and raising of many dead Jews in Jerusalem. Most of all when it comes to Jesus having had an objective “in the real world” resurrection, as Jo Penberthy describes it as an “event in the “history” of the man Jesus after which he appeared which shattered the disciples world view.” We can safely say we KNOW such an event could not and just did not happen. (reasons why I think this are already given at exhaustive length see http://www.johnbaxter.org/rs/clearing-the-way/ )
I find it rather surprising that this issue of the believability of the Gospels as history in the face of our current awareness of the inescapable consistency of the cosmos is something Bauckham feels he can ignore. Instead he seems to think the veracity of the words of sacred Scripture can be evaluated simply on their own and without regard or acknowledgment of how the world works. Perhaps he has failed to realise or seeks to reject the mathematical and scientific consistency of the cosmos. If so he can certainly take comfort in not being alone, however my conclusion is that to try and force a reading of the Gospels as being “books of Greco-Roman history” does not strengthen their credibility, but, because of the scientifically inexplicable nature of much of their content, weakens it because it is simply an incredible (i.e. unbelievable) claim.
However as many have seen before me and as I now see more clearly as a result of exploring and questioning Bauckham, there are other ways of reading these texts, particularly if one has a different world view. If then the Gospels are not Greco-Roman history books, what sort of books are they? This is the question my paper on the Gospels and their underlying World-View TMP, seeks to address.
John Baxter 9-9-2014