Sunday, 15 July 2012

Sunday Sermon: Jesus in History

Good morning Everything! God of gods, totality of being, all-rocking dance of nature, thank you for the experience of life. Thank you for the opportunity to experience at all. It is our living privilege, and we are grateful for every moment. Bless your living Earth this week in all its ecological and social tapestry. And bless us, your humble people. Help us to not be overwhelmed, but to keep our nerve even if we were to gaze upon your fullness. Help us to do thy will. Amen.


This is the first of a series of three or four anticipated sermons about Jesus. You've probably heard of him. I guess he's up there with the most heard-of people there are, and the most talked about. My intention this morning is to introduce the series and provide a rough sketch of a plausible historical character behind the layers of myth and story.

But frankly, when I come to do the latter I am mostly at a loss, and I say that after a fair wack of my lifetime (not to mention the last 24 hours) reading and considering the question. To begin with, it is arguable that Jesus did not exist at all, and that the entire gospel narrative is a construction of myth from various sources. I have occupied that position and defended it in the past, but the more I have comprehended the textual evidence we have available, as honestly and as critically as I have been able, the less I have been able to doubt that there was a man. Jesus did live and teach. I wish I could say any more about him with as much certainty.

With as much certainty however I can also say that John (who Christians later called 'the Baptist') existed, and taught, and Jesus was his successor. And I think we can, but not without a lot of critical thinking, be fairly clear on a central set of teachings, which include what I call the Gospel of Empathy but also include some pretty far out nonsense. But it's impossible to say which parts were authored by John or Jesus, and often unclear which parts were added between the time of these ministries and the time their words and acts were recorded in script.

We don't know anything about Jesus' birth at all, but we might assume he was born in the Gallilean village of Nazareth, as there is no reason to doubt the tradition of him coming from there.  He was itinerant however, possibly from a very young age. It's possible he had a few followers before being baptised (or not) by John, in Galilee, but they joined John's movement and embraced its teachings. Most of the action happened after John's execution when Jesus inherited the movement. Like John's, Jesus' ministry didn't get to run for long.

Frankly Jesus was pretty obscure. It is the only other way to deal with the evidence for him not existing at all. My conviction that Jesus did exist is built upon the existence of the series of narrative traditions which appear about a century later, all obviously about the same story but just as obviously with an already long period of independent creation and development. Branching forth almost immediately from these is an ever-broadening and diversifying tradition of secondary literature which variously affirms the earlier material. And upon analysis these traditions - the Gospels, including the non-canonical ones - turn out to be based on earlier documents that already have a degree of independence. So, in brief, the conclusion is that this upside down funnel of history must lead back to a spout - an origin.

But nobody else at the time seems to mention Jesus, including prolific and world-knowledgable Jewish authors like Philo. The evidence for the story balloons very quickly, but in the first generation there is almost none. So if we are by burden of secondary evidence obliged to agree that Jesus actually existed, we are forced to conclude that he was also virtually unheard of outside his own lunch break.

I come across a really odd bit of criticism in this regard. It goes like this: If Jesus had thousands of followers, healed the sick, performed miracles and was raised from the dead, people would have been talking about that. So there should be multiple contemporaneous independent sources. There is not, therefore Jesus is non-historical. I just want to ask these critics, "Are you being rational or not?" If Jesus is historical, he didn't perform miracles, and hence the lack of ra ra about them should follow, as far as I can see. The only thing this sort of criticism establishes is that the movement celebrated in the gospel traditions was originally small and unnoticed.

Jesus' crucifixion under the authority of Pontius Pilate did occur, according to Josephus and Tacitus independently and without any good reason to make it up or to have been deceived about such a thing. Josephus, the earlier of the two, writing about 75AD, noted as an aside that 'some of Jesus followers are still active even now'. But the charismatic Jesus movement was barely heard of outside Galilee and, though he no doubt drew some sizeable crowds on occasion and drew scattered admiration, his real core of committed believers probably wasn't much more than the twelve. It's quite possible that there was less than 500 'believers' in the then-teaching of Jesus at the time he died, and apart from near the Jordan in Galilee, they were scattered and limited to individual households. All of them were Jewish and considered themselves such.

So in terms of any reason at the time why Jesus was to become one of the world's most famous dudes, size didn't matter, and neither did miracles or marvellous signs. The silence of the surrounding lack of evidence tells us that much.

But a moment of revelation - a manifestation of Logos as surely as any - had occurred, as within a generation there would be scattered groups of Christians, often living communally, from Alexandria to Greece. The best way to explain the taphonomy of the gospel evidence - none of which was written near Jerusalem except for perhaps the Gospel of John - is that the early movement, after the trauma of Jesus death and probably broader persecution of his followers, scattered, each telling their stories in the Hellenistic synagogues in Antioch, Alexandria, India (in Thomas' case apparently) etc, that these stories, each based on a memory of a man and a whole lot of claims a bunch of people had made about him, began their traditions.

These original tales were far more diverse than the ones presented in the gospels. Variously they were mixed not just with whichever elements of Judaism but with the mythopoeic symbolisms of the Hellenistic and worldly audiences, with personal biases and theories, and with aphorisms from everywhere. The gospels we have today were based on earlier texts which are based on hundreds of oral snippets from dozens of (real or claimant) witnesses. But at the same time as their diversity and indeed contradictions attest to their multiple journeys, their overall unity attests to the reality of an actual common source in real events.

And unless we are going to appeal to blind luck and a multiple outbreak of extreme serendipity, there must be something about that original real story which provoked the explosion of multiple conviction and excitement. External factors might be brought in to explain it, like the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 which would have profoundly shaken the Jewish world, spread refugees everywhere and brought about a further distancing between diaspora Jews and the ways of the Jerusalem Second Temple era.

Those sort of things might have helped, but they might have helped any number of new ideas. They may have helped Manichaeism too, or gnostic mysticism. Besides, despite waves of criticism suggesting that the gospels must have been written after the destruction of Jerusalem, it is increasingly clear to secular scholarship that there are layers of text, as well as a living and growing movement, well before that event. Paul's letters were probably penned in the 40s, and they allude to a number of established groups, all, we might guess, with their own incipient version of the story for use in their services.

I have two possible explanations, both of which are internal to the historical Jesus events and both of which might have survived in multiple narrative packages after Jesus death. The first is that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. That is, that the crucifixion was a failure (it happened), the corpse revived (it has happened) and the disciples, and Jesus himself, honestly thought that he had been raised from the dead. That would give a movement some kick. It's a highly improbable scenario, but is actually plausible and, if correct, would explain a lot.

But even that apparent miracle, in my mind, does not explain the explosion of the Jesus movement for its first two centuries. In the New Testament alone any number of resurrections are alluded to. Just because one really happened doesn't make the story any different to all the ones that were invented, especially after one generation of hearing.

The flesh of the second explanation will have to wait until next week, but in short it involves the message itself, or a key part of it called the gospel of peace, or what I call the gospel of empathy. In a way it is a precursor to liberal values, and most certainly not everyone who practices it today calls Jesus "Lord", and many who are still stuck in an era of judgement and retribution do call Jesus "Lord." According to Matthew's narrative, Jesus said that would be the case. For my part, I'll take the message, if it makes sense, and I think it does, and leave the lordship of the messenger. The message seems to be the point, a possible key to social peace.

In the next two or three weeks I am going to leave the historical Jesus behind. I hope my readers are aware that I have long ago left Jesus the god behind, and I note that my culture doesn't require religion to continue to obsess about and remanufacture this old story. Jesus Christ Superstar, The Life of Brian and The Da Vinci Code have all retold the story of Jesus, again, and joined the ranks of the gospels. In my job as a book dealer I am ever amazed not just at the variety of Jesus literature but at its wide popularity. Most of the Jesus books are non-Christian. Many of them are completely secular and many others come from different religious traditions. They have an extraordinary range of propositions, almost none of them which make much sense, but they keep getting published. It seems that it doesn't matter where someone's coming from spiritually, they have a need for some sort of take on the story.

And so I add my own take.

Every, once again I have made a sermon of my meditations. I offer it to you and to my readers sincerely and humbly. Help my readers in their own search for you Everything, especially that they not be deceived by the flaws that my words inevitably contain. Bless us all. Bless all life in the universe. And help us to do thy will. So be it.

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