The Jesus Scandal, Continued
Gnostic Teachings Vindicated by the Director of "The Terminator"
The New York Times for February 27, 2007 featured an article by Laurie Goodstein titled, "Crypt Held Bodies of Jesus and Family, Film Says." It describes a documentary to be aired on the Discovery Channel that "claims to provide evidence that a crypt unearthed 27 years ago in Jerusalem contained the bones of Jesus of Nazareth."
This news comes as the four-year wave of controversy over Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is receding into a weak undertow. With the release of the film (widely viewed as a stinker) based on that novel, public interest in the personal life of Jesus rapidly began to shrink. Or did it? Jesus is arguably the central figure of Western history, so interest in his life and circumstances may be perennial and inexhaustible. But how much does the importance of Jesus depend on the claim of his divinity? Were he proved to have been a mere mortal, might our interest in his person, if not his mission, suffer a profound and permanent decline?
Superior to Reason
Dan Brown drew on Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Baigent, Lincoln, and Leigh, which appeared in 1982. What happened in the following twenty years that set up The Da Vinci Code for its unprecedented success? The answer seems to lie in the growing appeal of a scandalous woman, Marie Magdalene. Her introduction into the story of Jesus changes the story, but does it challenge the belief in the savior's divinity? To some, it is difficult to accept that Jesus, if he were divine, would have engaged in sexual intercourse and had children. With Marie Magdalene in the picture, the threat to Jesus' divinity came indirectly, with the question of his miraculous survival of death left open. With the Cameron documentary, it comes directly, drawing upon archeological and genealogical evidence (DNA analysis) to refute the resurrection.
Cameron's film reasserts the claim that Jesus and Marie Magdalene were married, adding that they had a son named Judah who was buried with them. It produces as evidence two limestone boxes said to contain their remains. In his skeptical response to this claim, Lawrence E. Stager, a professor of archaeology at Harvard, said that "biblically illiterate people" would not be able to evaluate such alleged evidence. This hardly matters, of course. Few people who believe in the Bible have read it critically, or thoroughly, if they've read it at all.
To millions of believers, the divinity of Jesus is an irrefutable fact, even though there is no way to prove it—or, more pertinently, because there is no way to disprove it. Belief often has, or appears to have, more power than reason because it does not depend on logic and argument, which can be faulty. What cannot be refuted by reason seems to be superior to reason - but only to those who have surrendered their reasoning power and critical faculties before the proof process ever gets underway. In fact, reason can effectively refute beliefs stated in received doctrines such as the Incarnation, but believers hold to their convictions more for what they get from them, than from what is verifiable in them.
Whether or not it is true that Jesus was bodily resurrected by the Father, to believe so gives consolation and courage to untold millions and engenders faith that a superhuman agency can enable us to overcome death. The power of blind faith lies not in its veracity, but in what the believer gains by granting credibility to irrational propositions. Belief relies on the placebo effect. So great is this effect that beliefs can remain unshaken, even when they have been rudely contradicted by reality.
The issue in Cameron's film is denial of the resurrection and the attribution of a normal death to Jesus. He did not ascend into the clouds, but was buried like an ordinary mortal. Salvationist ideology connects the resurrection with the status of divinity: because Jesus was the divine virgin-born son of the Father God, he was uniquely qualified to be brought back from the dead by God. In refuting this supernatural feat of resuscitation, Cameron's film also challenges the presumed divinity of the savior.
Historically, the divinity of Jesus is a Catholic dogma established at the Nicean Council of 325 CE. Eyewitness accounts describe how the emperor Constantine had his armed guards shift their spears from the vertical position, at shoulder, to an angle with arms extended out straight, forcing the vote for Jesus' divinity by an overt threat of violence. Far from being dry debates among bearded patriarchs, the Nicean councils involved nasty confrontations over doctrinal issues. They sometimes broke up in fights and even led to the murders of dissenting members. As I have explained elsewhere in this site and in my book, Not in His Image, the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the state religion as a political move. It served Constantine to have its figurehead regarded as divine so that the emperor could underwrite his politics by a superhuman agent, invoking an authority that could not be challenged by mere mortals. This is why the dogma of the Incarnation was established. It set the precedent for the conquest of the world under the emblem of the cross: in hoc signo vinces, "by this sign you conquer."
It could be objected that the divinity of Jesus was recognized by those around him in his time, and attested by certain passages in the New Testament. But in fact, references to Jesus' divinity in the NT are extremely ambiguous. Nothing he says and nothing said about him in the anecdotal passages of the Gospels confirms in a clear way that he was regarded as a divine being, the incarnate son of the Father God. The straightforward assertion of divine sonship in the Gospel of Saint John is just that: an unsupported doctrinal claim put forth by one author. Likewise for the assertion of Saint Paul, who elevated Jesus into "the Christ" without ever having known the person in human terms, in flesh and blood. The New Testament contains no veridical evidence, and not even one convincing anecdotal scene, that proves Jesus was regarded as divine in his time and setting. Some books of the NT state that Jesus was divine, but nowhere does it show him being treated as such by illustration in any realistic scene or situation.
Robert Eisenman, John Allegro, Hugh Schonfield, and others have shown that statements such as "He is verily the Christ—i.e., "the messiah," christos being the Greek equivalent of mashiah—cannot be construed as an affirmation of Jesus' divinity, because mashiah did not have that connotation, either in the Hebrew original, or in the Greek transliteration. It merely denotes that Jesus was held to be, or suspected to be, the messiah predicted in the Old Testament: namely, the fully human warrior-king awaited by Jewish insurgents who aimed to overthrow Roman rule in Palestine and establish a Jewish theocracy.
And even if an anecdotal passage did carry this assertion in an unequivocal way, how do we know that the Gospels report fact, rather than fiction? Christians who believe in the divinity of Jesus must also believe that the New Testament presents valid scriptural "evidence" for his divinity—precisely because God arranged it to be written there. Belief in the divine status and resurrection of Jesus cannot be sustained without assuming the supernatural authorship of the documents which are said to provide evidence for those beliefs. Christians bear a heavy burden of credulity: they are asked not only to believe in a divine agent who saves humanity from its fallen condition, but also to believe in the divine authorship of the texts that provide an account of this unique deed of salvation.
The Da Vinci Code was a double whammy. It not only shattered the received portrait of Jesus, it also shook the foundations of the Church's claim that the Bible is divinely authored and as such cannot be questioned. People who want to believe in Jesus, because the story of the savior's intercession for humanity, and his triumph over death, brought them courage and consolation—even if it was only a story—must go along with the Church's claim about the textual basis of the story. One of the most perplexing things about Christianity, which testifies to its longevity but not to its veracity, is how many people did go along with this claim, and how long it prevailed against critical protest. In fact, the historicity of the Gospels was demolished in the 19th century by Ernest Renan (The Life of Jesus, 1863), among others, and then later by Albert Schweitzer (The Quest for the Historical Jesus, 1906), but it took almost another century before the ripple effect of Biblical deconstruction spread to the mainstream.
It is not often been noted that the New Testament books that affirm the divine sonship of Jesus were written earlier than the anecdotal Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The earliest materials in the NT are the Pauline letters, composed around 50-60 CE. They affirm the divine status of Jesus before the story of Jesus was recounted anecdotally. In other words, the ideology of the savior role of Jesus preceded his biography. None of the Evangelists to whom the biographies are attributed witnessed the events they describe, and we cannot even be sure of who wrote the Gospels, which are certainly a collaborative venture and a pastiche.
Paul's Christology led the biographical writing project, with Saint John adding more doctrinal structure around 90 CE, when the Gospels were still running through early drafts. Pauline-Johannine Christology was so bizarre, so anomalous, that the team of authors who produced the Gospels, even though they accepted the savior concept, or were obliged to do so by their overseers, could not find a convincing way to integrate it into the story-line. The Gospels belong to the ancient genre called Hellenistic romance, a form of pulp fiction in that time. Other romances such as the Life of Apollonius of Tyana are filled with miracles, shamanic feats of magic, and supernatural events, but the supernaturalism of the new Christology was so weird—especially the three points indicated above—that it could not even be made palatable to the Pagan audiences who consumed the pulp fiction of antiquity. Hence, claims about divine sonship made by Paul and John are ambivalently and inconsistently supported in the biographies of the Evangelists.
Was Jesus really recognized as divine by those around him? To answer this question, we first have to ask what would have been considered "divine" in the Jewish and Pagan cultures where Jesus lived. Judaism flatly rejects the notion of human divinity, and maintains a strict division between the paternal god and humanity, so there can be no resort to Jewish sources on this issue. As for the Pagan view of divinity, it applied broadly to diverse supernatural manifestations, including the divinity of natural forms such as mountains and wells, and animals, and it even extended to the high intellectual attainments of seers and sages such as Plotinus, and acts of bravery performed by heroes such as Herakles and Achilles. Dionysos was pictured in human form, as well as in the form of a panther and bull, but he was not a god incarnate in the same mold as Jesus, i.e., a divinity embodied in a unique historical person. Human images of Dionysos in classical art do not pretend to represent a particular historical person who incarnated Dionysos. No Pagan deity was ever so incarnated.
All this proves, believers will argue, that the incarnation of Jesus was exactly what the Church authorities say it was: a unique case, not comparable to the Pagan gods. You cannot compare it to, much less reduce it to, a typical example of pagan epiphany (or theophany, to use the correct word: "the showing of the god, or the divine"). This may well be the case, but not quite in the way that believers insist. Cameron and his colleagues might be surprised to know that the Christian ideologues who claimed that Jesus was divine and ascended to heaven in a resurrected body were rigorously opposed by some Pagan contemporaries who called this claim anomia, "an aberration."
Gnostic scholars translate anomou as "perverse, depraved," consistent with Pagan views expressed, for example, by Pliny the Elder, who called Christianity "a depraved superstition." In the Pagan view, the deplorable superstition of Christian faith consisted of three interlocking propositions: the unique human incarnation of a divinity ("the Only-Begotten Son of God," according to the theology of Saint John the Divine), the bodily resurrection of the divine person after his death by crucifixion, and, perhaps the most objectionable point for the Pagan religious and ethical sense, the redemptive value of the vicarious suffering of the divine savior.
Gnostic writings such as The Second Treatise of the Great Seth squarely reject the resurrection, scornfully calling it "the doctrine of a dead man," and warn in no uncertain terms against the ignorance and illegitimacy of the apostolic order. A key point of the Gnostic argument was that Christians mistakenly claimed the special status of divinity for Jesus because they could not see the humanity of anyone in the first place: "This is what humans were going around seeking in vain because they did not know True Humanity (the Anthropos) in themselves." (The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, 53.12-17).
To Gnostics of the 4th century, the outrageous assertions in James Cameron's film would have been a matter of course, familiar and veracious. They warned almost 2000 years ago that the Incarnation is a malicious con.
jll: 28 February 2007
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.