Monday, March 24, 2014

Nothing new under the sun

There's nothing really new in this excerpt from Bart Ehrman's newest book. In fact, a quick look in my archives revealed he's just plowing ground already plowed by Reza Aslan about a year ago.  I don't want to repost that post, but I do want to highlight something from it by my New Testament professor in seminary:

The intellectual challenge of the Enlightenment was really about the ability and authority to name what is true and what is not.  Insofar as the Bible is finally about ultimate reality, that is, ultimate truth, the question of the historicity of the Bible, and with it the question of the historical Jesus, has always been bound up closely with the search for Truth.  The quest for the historical Jesus has, from its very beginning, also been about the search for God.  
The God of Jesus:  The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning (Harrisburg, Pennsyvlania.  Trinity Press International, 1998). p. 28.

I mention that because the comments at Salon are filled mostly by people denying the historical Jesus based on a great deal of ignorance and hot air.  What's interesting is not their insistence that Jesus of Nazareth is a fictional character, but the vociferousness with which they insist it.  And if I dropped this quote in that discussion, it would be like tossing a water balloon into the monkey house:  the flinging of poo would go on for hours.

For example, the idea that Jesus is a fictional character, and that only a few truly wise are now aware of this vast historical conspiracy, is laughable on its face.  But to put a bit of history and scholarship into the conversation:

"And so with the experience of Jesus, the experience (later) of the Resurrection:  it is decisive, even if today it is derided.  Denounce it, but it cannot be destroyed.  Why not?  Augustus Caesar was a "son of God," as was Tiberius after him.  Augustus was even thought to have been resurrected; so Jesus' resurrection was not unique in world history (although I've spoken of it here as if it was).  But why did Jesus' resurrection, and his life, have such an impact, while Augustus' didn't?  Jesus was an itinerant peasant from a Roman backwater who died a shaming and mostly overlooked death.  But Augustus?

Now, there was a religion.  All over the Mediterranean world one can find its legacy still today in grand temples and arches, dedicated to the gods "Roma and Augustus."  Rome was very clear about what it believed in.  It believed in power.  No one embodied that more than Augustus.  He conquered lands far and wide, from which great treasures were extracted.  He subjugated cultures, gave them a new language and new institutions.  He quashed rebellions.  His life was one great manifestation of power.  The imperial cult was about power.  And the great thing about a religion of power is that it provides its own authentication:  victory reveals the favor of the gods.  Resurrection became the ultimate symbol of that religion:  the final victory.  The ultimate bestowal of power was to rise beyond the limits of this world to join the great pantheon of the gods in heaven.

"Patterson. p. 51.

"Look on my works, ye mighty; and despair."  Some echo of the institutions of Augustus remain in Europe and, through Britain particularly, around the world.  But even the language Augustus imposed on others is dead.  And where is the religion he embodied?  It was a religion of power, of the lessons of the world.  Why did it vanish?  Maybe because "victory reveals the favor of the gods," and Rome eventually ran out of victories."

The power of powerlessness; or, perhaps, the limitations of power.  And the basis of an interesting question:  if the worship of Jesus of Nazareth is based solely on illusion and some massive 2 millennia old conspiracy, how has it lasted so much longer than the cult of Augustus, which once ruled the civilized world?  Because of Constantine?  Aside from the movie of the same name starring Keanu Reaves, how many people today have heard of Constantine?

The assertion that what Ehrman is peddling is "new" is equally laughable, and equally a lesson in power.  Salon advertises that way to draw readers; but nothing Ehrman says is any newer than when Reza Aslan said it last year.  And nothing Aslan said was new when I learned it in seminary over 15 years ago; most of it is readily available in paperback from real scholars like Patterson and Crossan, and has been for almost 2 decades now.  The arguments about the historical Jesus go back to...well, practically to the time of the historical Jesus.  What's still interesting is not the arguments, but that some people feel the need to  so strenuously maintain the arguments.  I think Patterson is right:  the quest of the historical Jesus has also been about the quest for God.

And, for the past couple of centuries, about the ability and authority to name what is true and what is not.  Which is yet another struggle for power; the lure being that power will finally pay off on its promise, and yield true power to the one who uses power to the end of the pursuit.  But the only purpose of power is to exert power; it has no other goal.  Power cannot, in the end, yield any insight, any telos, any final purpose or understanding.  Even the authority to name what is true and what is not is not in the hands of the powerful.

That authority is only in the hands of the community.  And even then, which community?  Yours?  or mine?

Aye, there's the rub.  And another reason for all the screaming, at least on the newest outlet of opinions, the intertubes.

1 comment:

  1. Not to be confused, of course, with Richard Rubenstein's shocking, groundbreaking, revolutionary, making-Christianity-never-the-same-again, "When Jesus became God," (c) 1999.

    The more things change.....