Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The first quest of the Historical Jesus... and Christian models of Jesus

I've been slowly working my way through the audio version of Albert Schweitzer's "The Quest of the Historical Jesus" (1906), which you can get for free from Librivox.org. I'm nearly at the end of it. Its quite long winded, but comprehensive, thorough and fascinating. It is basically an exhaustive (but not exhausting) critical survey of pretty much everything published in the 19th century on the question of the Historical Jesus. In audio form it comes in at over 21 hours of listening, which is about three weeks' worth of commuting for me.

As I've said before (see this post and other posts tagged with 'Historical Jesus'), the quest for the Historical Jesus is an attempt to strip away the layers of faith from the gospel stories to uncover the real, historical character who was the basis of the Christian religion. The quest is based on the somewhat shaky assumption that some of the gospel material is truth and some of it is fiction.

As I've said before, ad nauseum, on this blog, there is no reliable method for testing any passage in the bible to determine whether or not it is true. If there was, this question (and many others) would have been solved long ago. 

What is clear from Schweitzer's survey is that the quest for the Historical Jesus is really all about starting with the assumption that the bits you can't believe in the bible are, necessarily, false, and the rest is probably true. From that, you whittle away at the passages until a figure emerges, who looks and sounds a bit like a possible historical figure, but actually generally represents the best aspirations of the quester himself. In other words, people go looking for Jesus and are surprised to find their own reflection there.

On the basis of this survey, 19th century Christianity was fixated on a few questions that don't seem to be debated in the church these days. These include: (i) Synoptic gospels vs. John - most of the questers seemed to believe that either John or the Synoptics was 'true', but not both equally, so they would pick the one they preferred and interpret the other through this. (ii) Miracles vs. Naturalism - many Christian questers in the 19th century appeared to have issues with the idea of miracles, OK, for some of them the resurrection was probably true, but the other stuff couldn't be. If anything, the 19th century church sounds a lot more 'rational' than the church is today. I can't help but think that 19th century Christianity in general, and the theologians in it in particular, were a much more mixed bag than current Christianity and current theologians. Christians today probably assume that the church in years gone by was either much as it is today (worship styles aside), or was more 'orthodox' in years gone by, whereas there is an assumed liberalisation of the church today. On the basis of this survey through the church a couple of hundred years ago, the opposite would seem to be the case. People seeking Jesus have always been finding a Jesus who mirrors some aspect of their own culture.

While thinking this over, I realised that this is - essentially - what all Christians do, whether or not they are seeking the 'historical' Jesus. Everyone who believes anything about Jesus, consciously or not, prioritises some bible passages over others (I've said this before too). For most believers its not a question of whittling away the false to reveal the true, but it is more a question of emphasising some aspects and diminishing the others, in order to form a 'working model' of Jesus in their minds. This process of diminishing some aspects and emphasising others is necessary to iron out the inconsistencies, conflicts and contradictions that are actually in the bible. It is impossible to create a 'working model' of Jesus taking all statements about him as being equally valid, but if you can emphasise some and diminish others, then a plausible model of Jesus can emerge. Someone you can really believe in. Someone you can persuade yourself originates in the bible and walked the roads of 1st century Palestine. Someone you can ask WWJD? about. 

The more I think about this, the more I see that this is what most Christians I know actually do. This is why there are so many different denominations of Christianity - each one emphasises different aspects from the others, and diminishes different other aspects. This is why the Jesus of Pentecostal Christianity is vastly different to the Jesus of liberal Anglicanism. Each denomination creates a working model of Jesus that emerges from its own preconceived ideas. None of these is actually the 'real' Jesus, the 'biblical' Jesus or the 'historical' Jesus. They are all, at best, flawed models of Jesus. And none of them can accurately show us what the 'real' Jesus, if there ever was one, was or is actually like. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Juvenile Bible (1804)

Wow. Just came across this blog post. This is amazing. A book for kids that summarises the entire bible in verse; alphabetically! One line of poetry per chapter in the bible, for the entire bible. You can read it all on Google books. Here is the gospel of Mark to give you a taste:
  1. A gospel Mark writes: Christ's baptised
  2. Declares he's sabbath's Lord
  3. Heals wither'd hand, doth devils command
  4. The sower sows the word

  5. Brings dead to life; casts legion out
  6. Five loaves five thousand feed
  7. He makes the ear that's deaf to hear
  8. Sev'n loaves their wants exceed

  9. Casteth a deaf-dumb spirit out
  10. Check's Zebedee's sons desire
  11. Casts changers out who sold and bought
  12. The vineyard let to hire

  13. Downfall of temple, and the world
  14. By Judas he is sold
  15. He's thrice deny'd and crucify'd
  16. Then rises as foretold
You'll note that everything is presented in four line verses, with each verse within a book beginning with the next letter of the alphabet. The author cheats a bit when books don't have multiples of four chapter chunks by simply extending the final chapter or two out to the end of the verse, using as many lines as needed. Thus Philemon, II John, III John and Jude, despite only having one chapter each, all have a four line verse.

And it includes the 10 commandments too:

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why did Jesus preach?

Why did Jesus preach? 

No, seriously, I mean it, why did he preach?

The gospel stories of Jesus show us many things, but if you read between the lines the following trends appear:
  • Jesus was popular among the people because he healed people and told entertaining stories.
  • Jesus primarily taught in parables which were generally not understood by his audience (and often not understood by his closest disciples).
  • Indeed, Jesus did not want his audience to understand! (Luke 8:10 "He said, 'The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you [disciples], but to others I speak in parables, so that, "though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand."')
  • At the merest hint of trouble most of his audience disappeared - they had no loyalty to him, he was only a passing entertainment.
  • Very few people had their lives transformed by meeting Jesus, and nobody is recorded as being transformed through hearing his preaching.
  • Jesus recruited his disciples by command ("Come, follow me") not through his preaching.
So what was the point? The end result of Jesus's ministry appears to be a handful of committed followers. They started the church after Jesus was gone, the church was not started by Jesus through his ministry.

Its not even as though Jesus 'planted the seeds' that would ultimately be 'harvested' by the disciples in their later ministry. If Acts is to be believed, the church grew primarily in gentile and diaspora-Jew communities. There is no record of mass conversions among the Galileans. 

The sole purpose of Jesus's teaching, therefore, appears to be the edification of later generations of Christians, who would get to read his words many years later after the gospels were composed, duplicated and distributed. [Note to self: Remember to read "Let the reader understand" by Robert M. Fowler sometime]. In other words, the primary audience for the teaching of Jesus wouldn't be born for at least a century or two after the preaching was done. This doesn't seem to be a very effective way of doing things. If the later readers were really the intended audience, it would have been far, far better if Jesus had written letters or books himself.

I don't think I'm going too far by saying that, as far as the stories presented in the gospels go, Jesus preaching ministry was a complete waste of time. Nobody came to faith, no-one was saved, people were entertained, but then they moved on to the next thing and Jesus was forgotten. It doesn't really read like a divine master-plan.

Friday, January 09, 2015

The Unbelievers

Just watched "The Unbelievers" a 2013 film documentary following Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss about at various speaking events (its on Netflix). It had a few interesting moments but was largely pointless. It would have been better to have watched or listened to just one of the Dawkins/Krauss discussions in full than to have watched this series of clips. Indeed, given that I did listen to one of those shows in its entirety, it was more interesting than the film.

But this film has lots of short snippets of other celebrity atheists (Woody Allen, Cameron Diaz, Ricky Gervais, etc.) at the beginning and end, so maybe that makes all the difference.

Does this film make a compelling case for non-belief? No.

Does it even give a coherent scientific message? No.

The entire point of this film is to say "look, there are lots of atheists out there and some of them are very clever and very popular" to the intended audience, which I guess is mostly American atheists. I guess the film makers hope that some believers (of whatever flavour) will watch it too.

Not sure that was 80 minutes well spent though. If I was you I wouldn't bother. Watch a full debate between a theist and an atheist on YouTube, you'll probably learn more.