Sunday, December 18, 2016

Why I Am Not a Mythicist, Part II: The Martyred Magician

Jesus and his magic wand, raising Lazarus

For a guy who an increasing number of people believe never existed, Jesus sure has inspired a K2-sized mountain of books claiming to "solve the Jesus mystery." And all that stands atop a couple of thousand years of orthodox theology and Christological exegesis. 

You can really get yourself very quickly lost in the parade of PhDs who will publish endless editions on the most trivial details of Jesus' life, ministry and influence before you even get to the various volumes explaining that he was actually a Buddhist or a Pharaoh or an Essene or a proto-Muslim or a proto-Marxist or a proto-Scientologist or a space alien or a light being or…ugh

No wonder there are so many atheists nowadays.

Me, I'm not a Doctor of Theology nor a Urantian mystic. I'm just a guy who…notices things. And when it comes to getting to the truth of the New Testament, I follow Occam's Razor.
 "We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible."
Wait, that's not Occam, that's a quote from Ptolemy (not that Ptolemy). What Occam really said was:
“Nothing ought to be posited without a reason given, unless it is self-evident or known by experience or proved by the authority of Scripture.”
That's Occam.

Now, how I approach this is rather radical. Instead of getting out my magic goggles or my secret decoder ring or my tables of correspondence,  I simply read the text itself  and try to arrive at a working theory that requires the fewest number of moving parts. I find the story is interesting, and indeed, weird enough without coloring outside the lines.

You see the problem is with the "Jesus mystery" crowd -- and indeed, the Mythicists themselves-- is that hardly any of them know anything about magic and subsequently fail to look at the Gospels through a magical lens. All those mysteries are essentially solved once you accept that this story is in fact part of a very ancient tradition that brings us back to the earliest known civilizations in the Middle East.

But a few points to clarify first. 

One of the biggest guns in the Mythicists' arsenal is the fact that we have no contemporaneous documentation for Jesus' existence. But there would be two primary sources for that information, right? Jewish or Roman scribes.

But we have to ask ourselves, why would they notice Jesus at all? Because if we take the Gospels as a rough roadmap for the Jesus story, this omission from history isn't surprising at all.

A holistic reading of the Gospels leaves us with the strong impression that Jesus led a fairly small band of disciples, nearly all of whom abandoned him at his arrest. Luke names 70 disciples in one passage, but Mark- the earliest Gospel- does not, so we can probably assume there's probably some confusion here over humous and posthumous followers.

Only a small handful of his entourage- his mother and her friends, it seems- was said to attend the crucifixion and burial.

The brute fact is that Romans weren't champing at the bit to document every trouble-making Jew who popped up and proclaimed himself Messiah. Especially one whose followers hightailed it as soon as trouble arrived. It's simply not the way things worked back then. I doubt the Jewish authorities were worried overmuch, either.

And it's really not odd that we don't have Jewish sources considering that the entire country was, y'know, leveled to the frickin' ground some 40 years after Jesus' reported death. 

It's not like you had an internet to back up your files on to. If you lost a text written by some Temple inquisitor chronicling Jesus's arrest and execution to a fire set by marauding Romans, too bad, you lost it forever. That's why most of the information we have from Judea at the time is from Roman sources. And that includes Josephus.


Now as far as the argument that "every detail of the Gospels" can be traced to a precedent in the Hebrew Bible, there are three arguments I can offer in response. 

First of all, the Hebrew Bible is actually rather huge and documents the story of an entire people over a span of centuries (how many centuries exactly is a matter of debate). There wasn't an enormous variety of human experience (no one was jetting off to Maui or bungie jumping from skyscrapers, for instance) to draw on at the time so it's inevitable that something Jesus did would have been done by someone before and recorded in the Bible.

Hell, there are probably precedents for crap you or I do in the Hebrew Bible too.

Second, you're dealing with a culture that lived and breathed its religion. There was no separation between "church and state" because the two were entirely contiguous in their eyes. A lot of what went down was almost certainly an intentional attempt to retrace the steps of the ancient prophets that Jesus wanted to emulate. This is the same impulse that had ancient conquerors trying to recreate the lives of Sargon or Alexander by following in their literal footsteps.

Third, a lot of the examples cited as New Testament plagiarisms cited by atheists are just plain weak. Robert M. Price published a list of so-called parallels-- and I hope he'll forgive me for saying so-- but some of them are just eye-rollingly weak.

I mean, they're stretched like taffy. Like this:
Jesus Consorts with Sinners:
T1: Matthew 9:12 - Hosea 6:6:
"For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings."
OK, you could conceivably stretch that passage to its breaking point and cite it as precedent for Jesus' consorting with sinners and tax collectors, but only if you're feeling extremely generous. Moreover Hosea is pretty harsh on sinners in the verses Price doesn't cite in the very same chapter (including prostitutes), so the parallel just crumbles to dust in your hands.

Escape to Egypt:
T1: Matthew 2:15 - Hosea 11:1:
"When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son."
This passage says nothing about an escape to Egypt but is about the alleged Egyptian captitvity. The next verse- which Price fails to cite- makes that perfectly clear:
But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images.
And worse, Price often fails to include the actual passages in his list, most often because they're not really parallels. Like this:
Jesus and Beelzebub: T2: Matthew 12:24 - 2 Kings 1:1-4
 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”
OK, but what about Kings? Well, the two verses have absolutely nothing to with one another, except to both mention Beelzebub:
After Ahab’s death, Moab rebelled against Israel. Now Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria and injured himself. So he sent messengers, saying to them, “Go and consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury.”  But the angel of the Lord said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Go up and meet the messengers of the king of Samaria and ask them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going off to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron?’ Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘You will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!’” So Elijah went.
Again, none of this is to say there are not parallels between the Old and New Testaments. In fact, the Gospel writers often strain to make them in order to establish Jesus as the true king of Israel and fulfillment of the Prophets and so on and so forth. 


Now let's take Occam's Razor to its strop and see if we can't carve our way out of some longstanding logjams when it comes to Jesus' existence and ministry (or magical work, if you prefer).

You see, recently I've noticed (there I go again) that there was a tradition of Jewish magicians, trained in ancient Babylonian magic, whose stock in trade was exorcism and spellcraft against demons (Babylon had a major demon infestation issue).

And I can't help but notice that Jesus' show-stopping routine was usually exorcism.

And again, wielding my Occam like a surgeon, I dispense with some of the more speculative theories and look to what is actually said in the Bible. Winding back to that Matthew passage:
 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” 
Beelzebul is believed to mean "Lord of the High Places", or "Lord of Things that Fly." He is said to be identified with Ba'al who is in turn identified with the Babylonian Bel, aka Marduk, in whose name exorcisms were performed.

This in turn was an art Jewish mages learned during the Babylon Captivity and brought back home. 

Now I can practically hear your thoughts here- this guy is no different than the rest.

Just leaping to one conclusion after another to hammer the evidence into his own favorite little cubby. But let me add this. According to Jewish Mysticism and Magic: An Anthropological Perspective, a common practice among Babylonian magicians was to write incantation texts on earthenware bowls. 

Why is this significant? Read this:
A team of scientists led by renowned French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio recently announced that they have found a bowl, dating to between the late 2nd century B.C. and the early 1st century A.D., that is engraved with what they believe could be the world’s first known reference to Christ. 
If the word “Christ” refers to the Biblical Jesus Christ, as is speculated, then the discovery may provide evidence that Christianity and paganism at times intertwined in the ancient world. 
The bowl, which is dated to the period between the late 2nd century B.C. and the early 1st century A.D., reads: 
“DIA CHRSTOU O GOISTAIS,” which has been interpreted by the excavation team to mean either, “by Christ the magician” or, “the magician by Christ.” 
Team leader Frank Goddio of the Oxford Center for Maritime Archaeology, said that “It could very well be a reference to Jesus Christ, in that he was once the primary exponent of white magic.”
A to B to C. No channeling or Reticulans necessary.


Now what is especially unusual about the Gospel accounts is that Jesus is almost universally scorned by Jewish authorities, who hardly even offer a grudging admiration of the man or his work.

Not only is he attacked as a sorcerer (which you'll find was the majority opinion on him among Jewish and Roman commenters in the years after his death), he's called a glutton, a lunatic and a drunkard and is attacked for the company he keeps (sinners, probably meaning sexual sinners of various types, and tax collectors). Ouch.

Remember, this is the supposed Son of God they're writing about here.

I've seen various explanations for these embarrassing details but they feel a bit too raw for me. They feel as if Jesus was the target of unflattering gossip in his time, gossip that long survived him and was bad enough that the Gospel writers were forced to address it.

I'm sure entire volumes have been written about all of this by scholars with credentials running up and down their legs but I'm just calling it like I see it.

But there's one noted Bible scholar who believed Jesus was, first and foremost, a magician.

Morton Smith was a professor at Columbia and the author of the controversial Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (which we'll get to) and the equally-controversial Jesus the Magician. The book raised a firestorm of controversy but what Smith did was actually very simple- he read the Gospels and the various commentaries on Jesus and Christianity from antiquity and compared them with what we know about ancient magic. And he found the evidence to be frankly compelling.

From a New York Times review:
 (I)t was his reputation as a magician that caused him to be thought of as a god, the Jews went out of their way to emphasize Jesus’ humanity, calling him illegitimate, ignorant, ugly, dishonest, and blasphemous. Smith constructs a picture of Jesus as the opposition saw him: the bastard son of a soldier called Panthera, he was reared as a carpenter, but went to Egypt and learned magic, returning to Galilee tattooed with magic spells... 
Having made himself famous, he claimed to be Messiah and/or the son of a god. He taught his disciples to reject Jewish Law and to practice magic, binding them to him with rituals of cannibalism (the Eucharist) and sexual promiscuity. The scribes opposed all this wickedness and began a campaign which ended with his trial for magic and sedition. After the crucifixion, his followers stole the body from the grave and continued to practice his magic and his obscene rites. 
He argues that Matthew, in sending the infant Jesus on an unnecessary trip to Egypt, was apologetically toning down the truth, which is that he went there much later to learn magic.
And you say that like it's a bad thing. Preeminent Bible scholar Bart Ehrman had this to say about Smith's book:
Magic in the ancient world was not what it is today. For most of us, magic involves ruses, tricks, and sleights of hand: the modern magician is an illusionist skilled in the art of deception. In antiquity, magic was real. 
It accomplished what it claimed to do — not through deception but through the power to make things happen. Spectacular things. Seemingly impossible things. Things that violated the normal course of nature. The ancient magician was a miracle worker.
But one thing I might quibble with is the interpretation of the alleged "flight into Egypt."

What if in fact this story were concocted to account for the fact that Jesus was an Egyptian Jew or even a Jewish Egyptian (ie., a convert)?
There was a large and prosperous Jewish community in Alexandria-- the super-metropolis of its time and probably more recognizably modern than we would like to admit-- and Jesus may well have come from that community and made Aliyah, as it were, in order to fulfill his religious destiny.

It works like this: followers of Jesus are going hither and yon spreading his message to Jew and Gentile alike. But memories are long enough that some people remember him as an Egyptian, an ethnic group that has a thorny reputation with Jews and Syrians and so on. People hear of Jesus and say, "you mean that Egyptian who was crucified way back when?" 


So the authors of Matthew take a bit of poetic license and have Jesus born in Bethlehem but escape to Egypt to pacify the xenophobes. I mean, their very souls are at stake, no?

In that light, I'm not quite sure his name was ever actually "Yeshua" or variants thereof.  His name could actually have been 'Jesus', a product of the vigorous Hellenization of the Jewish community in Egypt. There's actually no record- at all, in fact- of it being anything other than the Greek.

All of the New Testament texts were written in Greek, a detail of history I always found a bit curious. 

But people today don't realize how porous the borders between religions were in Alexandria, something Hadrian commented on when discussing the matter to a friend named Servianus. In fact, his letter might tell us a lot about many of the issues we're dealing with here; Egypt, magic, identity:
The land of Egypt, the praises of which you have been recounting to me, my dear Servianus, I have found to be wholly light-minded, unstable, and blown about by every breath of rumour. There those who worship Serapis are, in fact, Christians, and those who call themselves bishops of Christ are, in fact, devotees of Serapis.

There is no chief of the Jewish synagogue, no Samaritan, no Christian presbyter, who is not an astrologer, a soothsayer, or an anointer.

Even the Patriarch himself, when he comes to Egypt, is forced by some to worship Serapis, by others to worship Christ. They are a folk most seditious, most deceitful, most given to injury; but their city is prosperous, rich, and fruitful, and in it no one is idle.
Some have claimed the letter is spurious but the fact is that it doesn't tell us much we don't actually know from other sources. And gives you a good idea why Jesus might wanted to have hidden his true nationality, if in fact that was the case.


So did Jesus really come back to Israel as a child as some of the Gospels claim, or did he in fact go there in order to join a major religious movement, one that the Bible acknowledges he submitted himself to? 

Did he go to Israel to follow a leader so important that Jews would later claim the sack of Jerusalem was God's judgment and wrath for this man's assassination?

What has to be noted as we ponder this question is that Mark-- generally acknowledged as the first Gospel to be written and the gospel that places the greatest emphasis on his magical work--- begins with the words of John the Baptist and immediately proceeds to tell of Jesus' Baptism by John, skipping Jesus' birth narrative and childhood stories completely.

Oh, Occam…