A response to my South African friends on modern scholars putting Jesus into an alien context

Honestly, my post on the Christian use of codices in the 2nd and 3rd centuries is coming. However, I didn’t want to just put this up as one more obscure Facebook post. For those not familiar, Quintin, a friend from South Africa, recently posted this on his wall: “I’d like to talk to some of my religious friends about their faiths. No debate, no judgement, no nonsense; I would just like some perspective. Any takers…? :)”

I was impressed, and glad to see someone who is actually interested in serious dialogue. I joined the conversation, and we made it a good one. In general, I hope that some of the non-religious understood that I generally agree with most of their criticisms in theory, although some of the specifics are a little more difficult. What I’m specifically responding to here is the book Jesus and the Goddess. The problem that faces me right now is quite obvious, as I haven’t read the book. However, I have a synopsis of the book that a reader of it felt was sufficient. Given that I have some experience with Gnosticism, and the historical and intellectual worlds of ancient Christianity, I feel that it is not unreasonable that I am able to respond to a book that I have not read. We are forced to do this all of the time in history. For example, the works of Pompeius Trogus on Alexander and the Diadochoi are lost, but we have an Epitome by Justin. Trogus’ works seem to have been encyclopedic, but Justin’s is a summary of that. Since a reader felt that the summary sufficiently described the book, I am going to work from that summary. It is not that I wouldn’t read the book, but rather that my local library doesn’t have a copy (no real surprise there) and that it would take a good two weeks, or more, to arrive from Amazon. Additionally, Grande Prairie isn’t exactly the literacy capital of Canada, and we only have one small bookstore, and a quick internet search reveals that they do not have it in stock.

I fully admit that I was very skeptical when I first read a synopsis on this book. After all, it claims to discuss secret teachings of Jesus that were repressed by the Roman Catholic Church. This just made all sorts of alarm bells go off. First, if you want to discuss secret teachings of Jesus that were suppressed, do not leave out the other churches. If the Roman Church suppressed these teachings, then the authors also need to account for the Orthodox, Coptic, Nestorian, Syrian, and Ethiopian Churches, not to mention the countless sub-sects under these wide headings. One cannot support any sort of early notions of papal supremacy credibly, so it is utterly impossible to say that “Rome made them do it.” My second element of concern is that this book did not appear in a search on JSTOR. Given the wide variety of academic journals available there, that is sufficient evidence to suggest that Jesus and the Goddess is not peer-reviewed.

Anyhow, on to what the synopsis says about the book that I’ve never read. I’m going to quote a passage, and then comment on it.

“The book starts out explaining that Christianity was merely a philosophy based on Judaism and Paganism to get the mainstream people to live their life more spiritual (a noble cause). Those who wanted more were pulled into an inner circle where they were taught the inner mysteries of the daughter of the Goddess where the Goddess were referred to as Sophia.”

Frankly, this strikes me as a bit ridiculous. Since this is a historical problem, we have to ask what their source is. Once we know what source the authors are using, we can begin to ask other historical questions. In this case, there are a few pertinent ones: What is the date of the source? Does it match the context that it claims to come from? What are its sources? How has it been passed down to us?

Since I do not know the particular source that he is using, I cannot answer any of these questions. However, we can operate from our other sources on early Christianity to see how this stands up. At this point, you should probably object, and make sure that I am not picking and choosing my sources, nor choosing only works that became canon. That would, essentially, rig the argument, but would also be unhistorical. We must consider all of sources here, including Christian, Jewish and pagan ones, if we are to determine if this clearly Gnostic claim has any credibility. (It strikes me as a highly-developed form of 4th c. Gnosticism, but without a source, I cannot prove that it is 4th c. Gnosticism.)

Since the Second World War, New Testament Studies has put more emphasis on the Jewish aspects of early Christianity than previously. The results have been a long time coming, and are not really surprising. We should not be shocked to think that Jesus and his earliest followers were Jewish, but rather that Jesus just beamed down one day and started teaching spiritual enlightenment that is foreign to his context. Regardless of what you think of the New Testament documents, it is plain to see that the early Christians viewed Jesus as the fulfilment of the covenant that YHVH had made with Israel. From the time of the later Maccabees, Judaism was badly fractured, and perhaps we are better off speaking of “Judaisms”. Volumes have been written on this topic, so I’ll sum it up very briefly. Despite Cyrus’ defeat of the Babylonians and the return of the Jews to Palestine, there was a general feeling that the exile had never ended. Immediately after the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleukids, the Jews began to squabble amongst themselves. Antiochos Epiphanes had been punished by God for his defiling of the Temple, but the coming of Rome made things more difficult. Gnaeus Pompey entered the Temple, and nothing had happened. Herod, an Idumean conqueror who seized what would become Judaea with a nod of approval from Augustus worked on upgraded the existing Temple. However, the damage had been done. Pagans had defiled the Temple, and despite its necessity to Jewish religious life at the time, it always carried with it the sense of expectation. The Jews of the Second Temple period wondered when God would rise up and toss out the foreigners. There was a Temple, but it wasn’t the eschatological temple, because it was built by foreign rulers with political agenda. Numerous sects rose up around messianic figures right up to the Bar Kohkba revolt, but there was a strong sense of longing for vindication.

There is no evidence to suggest that Jesus ever had much contact with Hellenistic or other pagan philosophies. One commonly asked question is where Jesus was during all those “missing years” of his life. Some have asserted that he went to India or China. The stumbling block that these theories face is that the Gospels are roughly Jewish-Hellenistic literature, albeit to varying degrees. In the context of that genre, we have good reason to suppose that, aside from the improbability of making such a long journey, Jesus was not doing anything that anyone viewed as exceptional. This is no different than the “missing years” in Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus or his Life of Demetrios: the Hellenistic bios does not record daily life, and the concept of a complete biography (in our sense of the word) was foreign. Given the Gnostic message that Freke and Gandy are proposing, one would at least expect that Jesus had some serious contact with Hellenistic thought, but there is no evidence for that, either. Given the genre of the Gospels, it is not unreasonable to assume that no such contact ever happened for a prolonged period of time. If it had, we should expect to see a little less concern over the Jewish-Gentile question in the immediate aftermath of the death and resurrection, but we do not. Additionally, there were no major pagan sites near Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. The main objection that I expect to hear runs something along the lines of “what about that porticoed, Greco-Roman street in Sepphoris? Sepphoris had an Odeon, and lots of pagan relics have been dug up.” Sepphoris was only a couple of miles from Nazareth, and archaeological digs there have turned up some interesting results. The town was rebuilt after 70AD, but the period up to then suggests Jewish occupation. There are no pig bones from the pre-70 period, despite many for the following centuries. There is also very little ceramic ware found, and this is due to the Jewish preference for stoneware, as it was harder to make unclean. There is also a lack of coinage bearing the image of Caesar. All of this suggests that Sepphoris was primarily a Jewish town, and that there were no pagans there to have an influence on the young Jesus. It also points towards a strong Jewish context in what Jesus taught. If the Gnostic teachings are a more accurate picture of Jesus, then we should expect some sort of evidence of a pagan influence on Jesus, not to mention a good reason why someone would forge the Gospels in a rather complex, Jewish, and embarrassing fashion. However, we see none of that. When the Hellenistic bios records seemingly irrelevant events in the life of an individual, it records them for the purpose of demonstrating how this has some relation to their historical significance. This is not like modern biography, where an author may record irrelevant events in the hope of producing a well-balanced picture of the figure in question. Freke and Gandy are trying to impose an alien context upon Jesus and his teachings, and have no relevant evidence for this.

The early Christians viewed Jesus in this eschatological context. The covenant god had acted, and vindication had come to Israel. Now it was time to bring the message to the rest of the world and increase Israel. It is well-accepted that the early Christians used pagan concepts to help and spread their message, but at this point we do not yet see a serious blending of the two, even in literature that has been deemed non-canonical. (In fact, only about a three dozen of the 400 demonstrably Christian manuscripts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries are what is today considered to be canon.) Do we see anything that resembles what Freke and Gandy are discussing in this literature? There are a few mentions of it, but the evidence is scant. Justin Martyr, ca. 150 AD, describes a system somewhat similar to Gnosticism in his discussion of Simon Magus. However, this Gnosticism mentions no “Sophia”, and appears to be a blend of Platonic philosophy and a Phoenician myth involving Ishtar-Astarte. The problem behind this is that none of Freke and Gandy’s claims can actually be linked to early Christianity. No one, outside of a few small sects with strong, outside religious backgrounds, believed in this. I have made it clear that early Christianity was strongly Jewish, and remained so in some quarters for a good two centuries. While pagan thought crept in, there is no evidence for a “de-Judaizing” Christianity of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Despite all of the variants of Judaism in this period, there was nothing that resembled this Gnosticism. The Qumran community, despite some appreciation for secret knowledge, still maintained a thoroughly Jewish worldview. There was no “Sophia”, nor was there any “Ennoia”. These concepts would have been thoroughly bizarre to Jesus, who primarily wandered about and taught, (in a typically Jewish style) much like a prophet. They do not belong in first century Palestine, and there is no evidence that the ideas that Freke and Gandy proposed has any relation to very early Christianity. The idea that Jesus came to spread some sort of mystical enlightenment is also foreign, both in light of the preceding historical context, and how his followers viewed what he taught and did.

“The Romans destroyed the female image of God and silenced everyone disagreeing with their rewritten version of Christianity which is Orthodox Christianity as we know it today, the one accepted today as the truth, not because it IS the truth, but because it won.”

While I will agree that orthodoxy is the “truth” because it won, I am very curious as to what sort of sources they are referring to regarding the Roman Church’s destruction of the female image of God. I am also suspicious, because the Roman Church did not begin to seriously act independently until the late 6th century, and no records suggest any sort of campaign against the female image of God. Christianity was widely know, and the Roman See had no authority over Carthage, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem or Constantinople, and we do not see these churches attacking some female image of God.

If Freke and Gandy are really suggesting that the church suppressed Gnosticism, they are right. However, in order for Gnosticism to be true, it needs to have demonstrable links to 1st c. Jewish Christianity, and at least moderately credible claims that either the texts which the Gnostics used are in some way more historically reliable than the other Gospels. A cursory reading of these Gnostics texts will demonstrate to the reader that they have no place in 1st c. Judaism, and no link to the historical Jesus.

“and who are also responsible for most of the religious wars we know of.”

For your own sakes, don’t get me started on “religious” wars, or you’ll have to endure pages upon pages of the contextualizing of these wars. Then I’ll be assigning you a host of books. There will also be an exam next week.

“It then goes on explaining the history behind the original Christians, how they took Jewish myths (Genesis which is the transcoding of the incarnation of the soul into physical being and Exodus which is the transcoding of the path from the physical being back to God) being influenced by the Jewish master Moses and the Pagan philosopher Pythagoras as well as Greek Mythology and how the myth was refined over centuries.”

Oh, they took the Jewish myths, all right. They took them right out of their original contexts.

“To those who say you can’t be a Christian and a Pagan or you can’t be Jewish and Wiccan or any combination of any religion are the literalists who strive towards orthodoxy,”

“Literalist” is an ugly term. Historical Christianity makes no pretensions about its exclusivity. There is no demonstrable link between what Jesus taught and what the Gnostics came to believe.

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One Response to A response to my South African friends on modern scholars putting Jesus into an alien context

  1. nick says:

    Well put. I’m still not sure how anyone with even the slightest historical background can buy the Jesus was really gnostic line.

    So, what’s your opinion on religious wars…?

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