It must be anti-Bloggingheads day on TLOG. William B. wrote this post criticizing Bob Wright’s piece in The Atlantic. Freddie is blasting away at Mickey Kaus. And I’m about to pile on Wright’s piece some more. [Sidenote: I actually am a big fan of Bob Wright generally. meaningoflifetv was a fantastic venture but this essay is not his best work imo.]
And really I should say this isn’t so much Bob Wright as he is summarizing a number of mainstream scholarly views on Christianity–just about all of which are more wrong than right. Wright is trying to make a potentially interesting analogy between the ancient world and our own (and religious participation in them), but his historical knowledge of the the past and his religious knowledge are really weak in points which dilutes his argument.
Some examples of what I mean:
For many Christians, the life of Jesus signifies the birth of a new kind of God, a God of universal love. The Hebrew Bible—the “Old Testament”—chronicled a God who was sometimes belligerent (espousing the slaughter of infidels), unabashedly nationalist (pro-Israel, you might say), and often harsh toward even his most favored nation. Then Jesus came along and set a different tone. As depicted in the Gospels, Jesus exhorted followers to extend charity across ethnic bounds, as in the parable of the good Samaritan, and even to love their enemies. He told them to turn the other cheek, said the meek would inherit the Earth, and warned against self-righteousness (“let he who is without sin cast the first stone”). Even while on the cross, he found compassion for his persecutors: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
That may be true that for many Christians Jesus represents the birth of a new kind of God. Except of course said Christians would do well to actually read their own Scriptures (which say the exact opposite) and stop being so moronic.
The notion that the Old Testament portrays a violent, evil God and the New Testament a loving one is an ancient heresy called Marcionism. It just happens to also set the stage for much later anti-Semitism. Not exactly a progressive-cosmopolitan view of the matter seems to me.
Newsflash: Jesus was a Jew. Jesus worshiped the God of Judaism. Since he was a you know a Jew. And since his followers were you know also Jews, when they saw in him or felt through him if you like the spirit of God, then it was the spirit of the Jewish God.
The writings that we now know as The New Testament (the tragically wrongly named I should add New Testament more on that anon) proclaim Jesus as Kyrios (“Lord” Jesus Christ). Christ you may recall was not the last name given Jesus by his parents Joseph and Mary Christ but rather a confessional statement. It’s saying Jesus is Christ, i.e. Messiah (Christos is the Greek translation of the Hebrew masiach, the anointed). Worth pointing out that any number of figures in the “Old” Testament are referred to as messiahs. Anyone who gets anointed is a messiah, including a non-Jew like Cyrus the Great King of Persia whom the Prophet Second Isaiah calls a messiah.
Anyway, Jesus Messiah is the Lord, the Kyrios. Now Kyrios is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Adonai or the Lord. Or the name of God. The God of the Hebrew Jewish people. i.e. not a different God. Since what we call The New Testament is a series of writings by Jews it’s somewhat odd to think they were Jews who thought up another God.
Moreover, they are not historical biographies in the modern sense of the word. Which is why Wright’s next paragraph is pretty well wrong from beginning to end.
But there’s a funny thing about these admirable utterances: none of them appears in the book of Mark, which was written before the other Gospels and which most New Testament scholars now consider the most reliable (or, as some would put it, the least unreliable) Gospel guide to Jesus’ life. The Jesus in Mark, far from calmly forgiving his killers, seems surprised by the Crucifixion and hardly sanguine about it (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
Here’s the problem with not knowing the genre of writing that is Gospel and what the writers intended by their writing. When the meaning they intended to convey is missed, then people typically end up importing their own pet scholarly views (as per William’s critique of the business-y language of Wright) onto the text.
The “My God my God why have you forsaken me” is not intended to be understood as the actual words on Jesus’ mouth. Or if you prefer, that is not the interest of the writers. If Jesus said it fine, if he didn’t no biggie. The point is the intended meaning. And here you need to know something that is not obvious to the average our-world contemporary reader but would have been to the average their-world contemporary reader/hearer. When The Gospel of Mark quotes Jesus as saying “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” he is actually quoting the first line of Psalm 22. To quote the first line of a Psalm is to intend (if you know the rules of quoting here) the entire Psalm. The entire Psalm. As in:
To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.
1My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
3Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
6But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’
9Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
12Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
14I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
15my mouth* is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shrivelled;*
17I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
18they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
19But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!
20Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life* from the power of the dog!
21 Save me from the mouth of the lion!
From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued* me.
22I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;*
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,*
but heard when I* cried to him.
25From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26The poor* shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live for ever!
27All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.*
28For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
29To him,* indeed, shall all who sleep in* the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.*
30Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
31and* proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.
Notice anything? Notice how it begins in sorrow and ends in proclaiming trust and praise in God? The reason Mark has Jesus say those words is to convey that entire course of spirituality not to argue Jesus was surprised by his death. The emphasis is on the faithful response through suffering–on the end of hte Psalm which is totally missed if you focus on whether “Jesus said this or not?”. Further Psalm 22 is a theological precis for the entire story of the Passion and Resurrection. It is the central guiding metaphor and text for the entire Passion sequence in Mark’s Gospel. Notice how the lines about “my mouth was dry” and then stories about Jesus “thirsting”. Or “they cast lots for my clothes”. All of the mini-elements of the Passion story (e.g. the crowd mocking him) are further references to Psalm 22.
This Psalm came to be the way in which the so-called early Christians (really again Jews who thought Jesus was Messiah) understood the event of the Cross. Again this is not another God nor another form of worship/way of approaching that God except a Jewish one.
The idea that the real issue is whether this tells us about the “real” Jesus or not is so bad it’s not even wrong as they say.
The writing we know as The Gospel of Mark–since it doesn’t actually identify itself as being written by a person named Mark…that is a later church-interpretative layer put on the text–begins:
The beginning of the good news [Gospel] of Jesus Christ (the) Son of God.
The ‘the’ is in () because there is some argument as to whether it is “The” Son of God or Jesus Christ, Son of God (or perhaps son of God?). With or without the ‘the’ and capitalized or lowercase all make huge theological difference.
Regardless, the text is very clear from the beginning that it is Good News; it is Gospel. And it is about a character named “God Saves (Jesus) The Anointed, Son of God.” This is all code for those who with eyes to see and ears to hear. It’s all giving away the story. It’s not a biography–it’s a religious confession written in the form of a story.
It’s best to read the thing more as religio-literary confession than anything else. I don’t think that’s the only way to read it, but I do think it needs to be read in that manner (whether or not you believe it as a religious story you can read it on its own terms as if it were true). Particularly in a materialist soaked world that will otherwise import its own agendas onto the text. Agendas that are ultimately in a philosphical sense degrading in many regards of human freedom.
Don’t get me wrong. Applying analogies has its place. And Wright’s analogy is to the ancient world as a globalizing phenomenon much like ours. Fair enough. Just remember that some of this though is looking into the mirror. We see in the ancient world what we are interested in emphasizing and accustomed to seeing in our own. He has a point to be sure. However, the background Marcionite view really undercuts the effectiveness of the piece. It swims in (even if unintentionally) a background notion that Christianity as the universal love brotherhood evolutionary religion while Judaism then by contrast is considered the close-minded, regressive?/devolutionary?, in-group religion.
There are huge number of problems with this view, not the least of which is that what we call Judaism and Christianity weren’t really totally separate religions until probably about the 5th or 6th century. And they have never been totally separate. The Judaism of the ancient world constituted perhpas as much as 10% of the Roman world. And clustered in certain urban centers (e.g. Rome, Alexandria, Antioch) represented within the confines of those places a much higher percentage of the population. If we are going to do a historical analogy then we must not read back a modern form of Judaism onto the ancient one. There was no such thing as Judaism in the ancient Greco-Roman world. There were Judaisms. What we call Christianity being only one of them (and for a long time, a fairly minor one). Within those various Judaisms were any number of opinions about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Some very welcoming, others quite exclusive.
The notion that Christianity is the universal love religion is founded on the notion of Paul inventing a different form of religion (Christianity) from that of Jesus (presumably Judaism).
He [Paul] was to be the apostle to the Gentiles; as a Jew, he was to carry the saving grace of the Jewish Messiah—Jesus Christ—beyond the Jewish world, to many nations. (And he probably didn’t get this idea from Jesus, whose encouragement of international proselytizing at the very end of Mark seems to have been added to the book well after its creation.)
The problem here is that Mark’s Gospel (as Wright notes) is written after Paul is assumed to be this text that gets us back to the “historical” Jesus–as opposed to a document that is a confessional-pastoral document–and Paul is only writing theology and ideology in Wright’s view. Wright is correct that the proselytizing in Mark is a later addition but that doesn’t tell us that Jesus didn’t preach proselytizing. It may only teach that the community that gave birth to the Gospel of Mark didn’t or didn’t emphasize it. Whereas say the community (or communities) that gave us Matthew’s gospel did emphasize proselytizing. Just like Paul’s epistles clue us in about how he understood and practiced his form of faith in Christ Jesus. (Better term than Christianity, a term he never uses nor probably would have understood).
The later elements of the piece (adapted from Wright’s upcoming book on the subject) do have value in talking about the inherently economic and social aspects of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (particularly the former). It certainly encodes Wright’s quasi-Marxist economic historical/evolutionary psychological view that what truly drives history are material forces (and not say consciousness), which is I think a weakness. But as a corrective to those who hold a totally idealistic/emotional/inner sense of religion it’s worth reading.
Still he could have made that argument relative to Paul without all the really piss poor (mis)understanding of Jesus (as counterpoint) thrown in. As he relates towards the end, some writings of Judaism in the post-exilic period (4th/3rd c. BCE) show a new kind of rapproachment with various non-Jewish groups. Why not see Paul and Jesus as members within that Jewish-Christian (for lack of a better term) world?
**I should have added that in his discussion of Pauline house churches, Wright is still a little behind the scholarly cutting edge. He might consult Robert Jewett’s work on the idea that Christianity in ancient Rome consisted of more like slum/middling class rental housing (“tenement churches“). If we are going to talk about the globalizing world it is helpful to remember (then as now), the result is a mass of impoverished people within urban slums across the globe.