Thursday, April 21, 2011

Don’t Myth-understand It

I hope you’ll find time to visit my site on Friday, Saturday, and Easter Sunday. I’ve written some pieces that will help take you through each day of that weekend from a special perspective. It may be a powerful new way of thinking about Easter weekend for you.

But back to the topic at hand. There are a lot of theories out there attempting to explain away the Resurrection of Jesus. I’ve discussed many of them in this series, and there are a few others out there as well. All of them have pretty much been vaporized due to lack of any credible support. And so the modern skeptic of the Resurrection today usually stakes her claim on a fairly new default theory.

It’s all a myth. A legend. A fairytale.

As in the belief that Jesus never rose bodily, and either he or his disciples never intended people to believe that his actual physical body rose from the dead. Instead, what they really meant was that he had risen in their hearts. That after he died, they realized his message was still very powerful, and so his spirit was alive in them in the same way your parents’ might be alive in your heart after they’ve passed on.

The people that believe this say that the disciples experienced what is called a resurrection of “Easter faith” and this was the true message of Jesus—‘believe in the way I lived my life, believe in the teachings I gave you to love one another, believe that the power of love is stronger than death. And then—oh then my disciples I shall never truly die for I will live on inside you.’

See, now we’re cookin’. Now we got the guru mystic Jesus goin’ on. Come on people now, smile on your brother!

According to this theory, it was only much later, after all the original disciples had died, that the church started morphing and mythologizing the story into one where Jesus had risen physically and was God in human form. And so Christianity isn’t really untrue, from a certain point of view (thank you Ben Kenobi)—it’s just more of a feeling thing than an absolute reality. If you feeeeeeel Jesus in your heart, then it’s symbolically true for you and that’s just super! For you.

There’s just one problem with that.

It doesn’t correspond with the historical facts in any way.

Just like the other theories, it’s an explanation made of balsa wood. Might look good upon a quick glance, but it falls apart under the slightest weight.

The plain fact is that there simply was not enough time for a myth of that nature to build up. It takes several generations for a true story to turn into a legend, but the gospels and much of the New Testament were written while the original followers were still alive. And not only were Jesus’ followers still alive, so were his detractors. They would have been very quick to speak up had they been able.

Not only that, but all the writers attesting to the Resurrection make it abundantly clear that they are specifically referring to the physical resurrection of Jesus. They leave no room for doubt or hedging whatsoever on the matter. Check it out:
The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe…This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. (John 19:35, 21:24)
I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ…I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. (Galatians 1:11-12, 20)
And my personal favorite:
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)
Doesn’t get much clearer than that! But just in case you’re not convinced, here’s another. In 1 Corinthians 15 we see Paul reciting the earliest church creed, wherein he states straight out that “Christ has been raised” and actually appeared to many people, including 500 at one time. This letter was written between 55-57 A.D., and Paul notes that he is repeating a message he had delivered to them earlier. He visited the church in Corinth in 51 A.D., so this creed had to predate that. Already that’s only a gap of 20 years after Jesus’ death…far too short a time for a myth of resurrection to creep out.

But many believe it goes even earlier than that, to within about 5 years after Jesus’ death. Many scholars believe Paul learned this creed either in Damascus itself or in Jerusalem 3 years after his roadside experience.

This shows, without even needing to read the gospels, that the earliest Christians all believed in a physical resurrection. Paul goes on to say many of those people Jesus appeared to are still alive! Basically, go ask them yourself! If you’re making up a story, that’s not something you’re going to say.

Besides that, the style of the gospel stories is as far from myth as you can get. They are purposefully written as eyewitness accounts, not fantastical tales. The gospels are littered with tiny details, place names, and other observations that have no relation whatsoever to a mythological legend. Read some of the old stories about Egyptian gods that you learned about in school, or read about Zeus and his pantheon of gods and goddesses. Then sit those next to the gospels and compare the two. It’s so obvious that the point really doesn’t even need to be argued.

Look, if Jesus was really nothing more than a sage or mystical guru, then he was absolutely, ridiculously terrible at it. If he never meant his followers to take him literally, then he utterly failed in every one of his core teachings! He becomes very likely the worst teacher in all of human history, as he would be responsible for misleading literally billions of people over the course of two thousand years! To say that this would make him totally incompetent as a spiritual master would be the understatement of the millennium.

Somehow I don’t think you’ll find too many people taking up this line of argument.

Resurrection 2: The Sequel, or Haven’t I Seen This Movie Before?

One final observation on the subject of myth. Some make the argument that the Jesus story is not unique in the slightest. Indeed, there are many ancient cultures and ‘mystery religions’ that tell of gods dying and coming back to life. These stories were meant as allegories for the seasonal harvest cycle, in which a god dies in the winter and rises again in the spring, just like the crops. Jesus, they say, is just another version of that story.

All the explanations given earlier for why the Jesus story is not myth apply here, as well. The gospels appeal soberly and firmly to actual, historical events which really happened at a specific place and time in the world.

Those skeptics argue that Jesus is not unique because he is one among many. I argue just the opposite. Jesus is the fulfillment of these stories. God has set eternity in our hearts, and my belief is that these other harvest god stories are a reflection that all of us have some deep, primal, archetypal understanding of the gospel message. The fact that this idea exists in cultures across the world shows that there is a reality in the idea of God dying and rising again. Those stories are smudged reflections of the true story.

After all, the concept of death bringing about life is written across the entire universe. A seed is buried, a tree is born. A tree dies in winter, is born anew in spring. A star explodes in fiery death, a solar system has the needed building blocks to form.

Every single thing that you eat for nourishment—every fruit, every vegetable, every piece of meat—was once alive, and it’s death provides you with life. Even your own body is continually dying and remaking itself. There is not a single cell that currently makes up your body that existed 10 years ago.

So why is it so surprising that the death of the Second Adam brings about life for Adam’s heirs?

In the end though, after all is said and done, if the resurrection isn’t actually true, then it isn’t anything true.

Jesus’ story, as C.S. Lewis brilliantly observes, is myth become fact.

--Jeremy
Truth poorly defended loses not its truthfulness;
likewise Falsehood aptly defended loses not its falsity.

<--Part Nine                  Home                      Part Eleven-->

12 comments:

  1. Jeremy,

    I note a rhetorical device you use here that is common to apologists: the false either/or choice.

    It's possible that the Gospels are a combination of historically accurate accounts and myth as well as religious polemics designed to create belief in a strongly held doctrine.

    It's just like Lewis' false choice of lunatic, liar or Lord. Another possibility is "someone into whose mouth many words have been put that he never actually said".

    I'm sure you don't believe the Gnostic Gospels-you would agree that they are an example of someone putting words into Jesus' mouth.

    Whether or not the Gospels actually do put words into the mouth of Jesus that he never said remains debatable. But it is at least a POSSIBILITY that Lewis' rhetoric doesn't even introduce or allow.

    Finally: the Jewish people, perhaps alone, did NOT have a tradition of God becoming a Man. Even anything, THE single most important doctrine of the Jewish faith is that God has no shape, form or size and is NOT a man and NOT flesh.

    It's the major reason that most Jews rejected the Paulist ideas about the incarnation back then and continue to reject them today.

    Jews would argue that the rest of the world got it wrong and continues to get it wrong as long as they believe in anything other than One, non-incarnate, no-form God.

    PR

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  2. "The gospels are littered with tiny details, place names, and other observations that have no relation whatsoever to a mythological legend."

    So are the Odyssey and the Iliad. Homer gives incredibly detailed accounts of battles, who picked up what weapon, who did what to whom, what was spoken, to the point where it nearly becomes unreadable in places. He also relates clear myth, such as which Gods took what sides in the battle between Troy and Greece, etc. etc.

    I'm not being sarcastic: pick up the graphic novel versions of both of these works, put out by Marvel Comics if you don't have time to read the actual Homeric work.

    You'll see a clear example of myth that also includes great detail, as much or even more so than the Gospels.

    You can make other points if you like about people claiming to be eyewitnesses etc but my point is that there are examples of mythical works that are similar to the Gospel's relation of historical places, details etc.

    The Golden Bough is another Lewisian example of a straw man-clearly a myth and nothing like the Gospels. Lewis loves straw men.

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  3. The Jewish Scriptures do have a tradition of God becoming a man, although Jews who do not recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah do not acknowledge this. It is what we see in Isaiah 7:14, the name "Immanuel" means "God with us". There are many other passages of the Old Testament that foretell that God will visit His people in person.

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  4. Alan,

    This is a silly example of how apologists try to squeeze things from Jewish scripture that just aren't there.

    Immanuel means "God is with us" as in, "God is on our side" not "GOD HAS TAKEN ON A HUMAN BODY/STRUCK A TENT OF FLESH".

    Sigh..

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  5. It means both, PR. The first Christians, devout Jews all of them, understood the Torah in a new light after Jesus' mission on Earth was completed. Jesus himself stated that all the Scriptures--which at the time included absolutely zero books of the New Testament--spoke of him. (John 5:39-40, 46) After his resurrection, he taught them *from the Torah itself* how this was foretold by God from the beginning. (Luke 24:25-27)

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  6. "It's just like Lewis' false choice of lunatic, liar or Lord. Another possibility is 'someone into whose mouth many words have been put that he never actually said'."

    You are absolutely correct about this, and modern apologists have added to his trilemna. Kreeft & Tacelli expand the concept to the "quintilemma"--Lord, liar, lunatic, myth, or guru.

    Jesus as Lord still comes out looking fantastically well.

    "The Golden Bough is another Lewisian example of a straw man-clearly a myth and nothing like the Gospels. Lewis loves straw men."

    I'm not sure you understand the meaning of The Golden Bough in Lewis's life. Either that, or I am woefully misunderstanding your point....which is entirely possible. But when Lewis read The Golden Bough it *confirmed* his early atheistic suspicions that the biblical stories were all myths. He *agreed* with the premise of the book, until he became a Christian years later and saw that the story of Jesus indeed was a myth...a *true* myth.

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  7. You are losing my larger point: the Gospels are written by the authors(whomever they were) as polemics, not histories.

    They were designed to get people to believe in their message, which was a doctrine of the Church they were promoting: that Jesus came in the flesh, as an historical person, and who raised from the dead as a physical body.

    They were written to combat the "heretical" early Christian sects that were, essentially, mystery religions that taught that Jesus NEVER came as a flesh-and-blood person in the first place.

    The authors were perfectly capable of inserting historical place names and details into the myths, to make them appear as if they were reports of what actually happen. Even so, they got some historical details incorrect.

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  8. "the Gospels are written by the authors (whomever they were) as polemics, not histories."

    For someone who claims elsewhere that we have almost *no* knowledge as to who, where, and when these Gospels were written, you sure seem to know a lot about them. PR, I'm sorry to say it, but you contradict yourself almost every time you leave a comment.

    Your middle two paragraphs are absolutely correct. I don't argue with that one bit. What you fail to understand is that this has no bearing on whether they are truthful or not.

    If someone in Iran wrote a book detailing exactly how the Holocaust actually happened in an effort to combat those who say it was all a Jewish hoax, would you automatically dismiss it as biased?

    The bias of an author is not nearly as relevant to determining the truth of falsehood of their claims as their *ability* to tell the truth. In this, the gospel authors pass with flying colors. Besides, you can just as easily argue that their bias spurs them to be as accurate as possible when recording their words.

    "Even so, they got some historical details incorrect."

    Really? Which ones?

    Look, if you want to go down this road, then you fall into the "gospels were written by liars" camp. That's not a very good camp to be in, as the evidence for this is staggeringly slim.

    PR, might I suggest that your opposition to the message of the Resurrection is rooted in the will and emotion, and not in the intellect? I would highly suggest reading either Kreeft/Tacelli or Evidence That Demands A Verdict. If you are truly interested in whether these claims are true or not, voice your prayers to God and ask him to show you the path of truth. Whether you believe there is a God or not, even if you feel stupid for doing so, just ask. God is a rewarder of those who seek Him.

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  9. No; I'm saying that the Gospels were almost certainly NOT written by the people to whom you attribute them and by whose name they bear.

    Liars? No, propagandists who were out to promote a doctrine

    Your argument assumes that the people who wrote them were actual eye-witnesses and the evidence for that is incredibly slim.

    My opposition certainly IS rooted in will: I do not wish to be misled and believe in error, lies, and the beliefs of those who are peddling mythology.

    I want truth and I think that's valuable indeed. No sane person who puts any value on truth willingly submits to fake authority.

    PR

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  10. "Liars? No, propagandists who were out to promote a doctrine."

    Then they were liars. If they were writing things they knew were untrue, that makes them liars by definition. Especially damning verses would include Jn 1:14, Jn 21:24, Lk 1:1-4, Acts 1:1-3, and oh my goodness 2 Pet 1:16. These men are *clearly* making themselves liars if they knowingly misrepresented historical events or "fudged" the data.

    Have you ever actually read the New Testament for yourself, PR, or are you repeating the criticisms you've heard from others such as Ehrman? Most of these criticisms that you raise in your comments are easily dispelled on even the most superficial of readings of the actual source material.

    "Your argument assumes that the people who wrote them were actual eye-witnesses and the evidence for that is incredibly slim."

    I'm going to have to request that we agree to disagree on the matter of gospel authorship and let it rest. All we're doing in this regard is going back and forth saying "Yes it is," "No it isn't" over and over, which is fruitless for other readers.

    I am well acquainted with the documentary hypothesis, JEDP, Q, the gnostic gospels, and all the other higher criticism of the New Testament, and I believe all of it is invalid, or easily overruled by basic historical evidence which is easily studied. I urge you to read up on the Christian answers to all these criticisms and judge for yourself. "Evidence That Demands A Verdict" is probably the best repository of all that information that I have read, although there are many others.

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  11. "My opposition certainly IS rooted in will: I do not wish to be misled and believe in error, lies, and the beliefs of those who are peddling mythology.

    I want truth and I think that's valuable indeed. No sane person who puts any value on truth willingly submits to fake authority."

    Now this is something of yours that I can get behind wholeheartedly, and I respect your forthrightness.

    However, I think you reveal your inherent bias here, which is against false teachers, hypocrites, and the power-hungry. I share these feelings with you, but I believe you have misplaced yours.

    Forgive me for my rampant generalization, but it appears to me that you've thrown the baby out with the bathwater, thrown the Jesus out with the impostors. Certainly there are those who have used religion, even the Christian religion, to grasp hold of power and influence and dominate others.

    The crucial point is that in doing so, they directly oppose the very essence of Jesus' message as communicated in the Gospels. Even the most cursory reading of them and this fact jumps out clear as day. The Jesus of the gospels is bracingly fresh, merciful, honest, egalitarian, and anti-oligarchy.

    Fact is, you're in terrific company opposing those who would use religion to gain power over others. Jesus himself is right there with you. He *never* took the side of the oppressors, and in fact he brutally condemned those who would do so in Matthew 23. In all the gospels, the only people Jesus *ever* said a word against were those who were in power, those who were supposed to know better, and abused it to mislead others.

    Read that chapter--you may come to respect him a great deal more.

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  12. In the years since these comments I've read "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses" by Richard Bauckham. I believe this book is now considered among the very best in gospel scholarship and in it, he discusses at length and in great detail issues of the authorship of the gospels and their truthfulness in re-telling the story of Jesus. Cannot recommend this book highly enough!

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