Saturday, April 07, 2007

More On My Disbelief

"The scanty and suspicious materials of ecclesiastical history seldom enable us to dispel the dark cloud that hangs over the first age of the church.. The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings."
In the previous installment I touched on the long-standing conflict between modern science and the mythical basis for Christianity. This to me went to the heart of one of First Freedom First's themes, in fact two - Academic Integrity and Sound Science, which I will bundle together and refer to as Intellectual Freedom. The sad fact is that nowhere has The Church exerted its theocratic muscle so much and so grievously as in defense of doctrine against reason and of myth against fact.

I don't think you can get anywhere with an argument unless you start at some point of mutual agreement, and here's what I've got to offer: Truth is good, lies are bad, right? And can we also agree that a person with a strong argument doesn't feel compelled to torture or kill those who don't agree with them? Great, because as Thomas Paine said, "To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, is like administering medicine to the dead."

I am aware that what I am delivering here is an argument, albeit one-sided. I would prefer something more on the lines of a Socratic Dialogue, but this is a blog, not a chat room. And The Church has had a couple of millenia to present its side of the argument virtually unopposed, so I don't feel I'm being too heavy handed. In fact I'll forgo my little diatribe into how brutally Abelard, his lover Heloise, and Galileo (really the father of modern physics) were treated by the theocrats of their respective days - all for having expressed views that could be proven by direct observation (that's called science, by the way) because they contradicted some 'established fact' of doctrine. I'm also going to waste my great segue into how Socrates' death was of a piece with these later sages. And for good measure, I'll assume you've already heard about the Crusades and the Inquisition, and it would follow from the agreement we reached in the previous paragraph that you think they were pretty bad, and reflect poorly on Christianity.

Getting all that stuff out of the way allows me to go on to the history of Christianity which, as Gibbon noted, is based on rather scant and suspicious materials. About 15 years ago I was challenged about my disbelief by a good friend who was a Christian. Why don't you give it a chance? I agreed to check out the validity of the Christian story on the same basis as I would consider whether the siege of Troy was historical, or the labors of Hercules. I kind of got carried away with the project.
You can skip the next four paragraphs if you like. Since I have no official credentials, I thought I should establish that, though holding no degree in either theology or history, I have at least read the syllabus.
Within a couple of years I had almost worn out my library card checking out books about the earliest Christian writers (Tertullian, Origen, Clement of Alexander, Eusebius, etc.), pagan sources (chiefly Flavius Josephus) along with material concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library. (the latter is often referred to as the Gnostic Gospels, but not all of the material contained therein is gnostic, depending on how you want to define that term) I had also accumulated a fair sized private library on the subject - not only the literary history but also the archaeology of the area and related studies. I think I can claim to have done my homework, and then some. Here's a small sampling of some of the books I own, all purchased in the pursuit of the truth about ante-Nicene Christianity.
  • The History of God - Karen Armstrong
  • Secrets of Mount Sinai - James Bentley
  • The Hero With a Thousand Faces - Joseph Campbell
  • The Historical Jesus - John Dominic Crossan
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered - Robert Eisenman & Michael Wise
  • Pagans and Christians - Robin Lane Fox
  • Who Wrote the Bible - Richard Elliott Friedman
  • The Secret Sayings of Jesus - Robert M. Grant
  • The Gnostic Gospels - Elaine Pagels
  • Adam, Eve and the Serpent - Elaine Pagels
  • The Origins of Christianity - Archibald Robertson
  • The Nag Hammadi Library in English - eds. J.M. Robinson, Richard Smith
  • Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls - ed. Herschel Shanks
  • The Passover Plot - Hugh Schonfield
  • The Secret Gospel - Morton Smith
  • Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism - John Shelby Spong
  • Masada - Yigael Yadin
There are plenty more, but most are in boxes right now and hard to get at. They run the gamut from impressively objective scholarship to breathtaking intellectual dishonesty. Leading that latter category are such works as
* Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowall, and
* The Bones of St. Peter by John Evangelist Walsh.
Actually the latter book contains some good information, but Walsh chose to ignore it.

Needless to say I also have a Penguin Classics copy of The Jewish War by Flavius Josephus, along with a number of bibles. I find The New American Bible (St. Joseph edition - this is a Catholic bible with papal imprimatur, nihil obstat and all that cool stuff) to be the most useful - with its footnoted concordance you can easily find related texts. You can readily find for instance that when Jesus first spoke in the temple he was quoting Isaiah, " I come to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord." Sorry, I don't know chapter and verse, that was off the top of my head.
The following is a highlight of the fruits of my study, excerpted from an unpublished essay I wrote some time ago. I think it very important to recognize the tension that exists in the New Testament between the original teachings of Jesus and those of St. Paul, who was in some ways his antithesis. This point of view stems mostly from an examination of Paul's earliest epistle (Galatians), where he is obviously struggling against 'the Jews', who can be none other than the surviving disciples led by St. James, whom he also identifies as the 'so-called gnostics.' Another important point that Galatians demonstrates is that the Gnostics were there from the beginning of Christianity, and did not emerge decades later as the church has always taught.

In the gnostic Gospel of Thomas is this saying,
"Know what is before your face,and what is hidden from you will be revealed to you;
For there is nothing hidden which will not be manifest."

The latter phrase of this saying made it into the canon at Mt.10.26, Mk.4.22, Lk. 8.17 and Lk. 12.2.

Contrast this original teaching of Jesus with Saul of Tarsus' words at 2 Cor. 4.18,

"We do not fix our gaze on what is seen, but on what is unseen. What is seen is transitory; what is unseen lasts forever"

Paul's teachings ask the rhetorical question, "Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?" Mysticism suited Paul's purposes well, since it obscured the falseness of many of his arguments. Ignore the man behind the curtain. Submit to my authority in this tangible world, and I will reward you in an unseen world that you will only encounter after death.

Here, again from the Gospel of Thomas, is what Jesus taught his disciples,

"Do not speak falsely,
And what you hate, do not do.
For all things are revealed under heaven.
For there is nothing hidden which will not become manifest,
and there is nothing which is covered which will remain without being uncovered."

In my interpretation of Gnosticism, the primary consideration was given to truth and honesty. I think it is highly significant that the Gospel of Thomas itself was hidden for centuries only to be eventually uncovered, enlightening anyone who cares to read it with an open mind.

Early Christian burial shrouds found at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt bear the inscription, "there is nothing buried which will not be raised." This is a tantalizing resurrection image perhaps, but can we know if this was what Jesus meant, or a later interpretation by the people of Oxyrhynchus?

I believe that Jesus taught a philosophy that could be described as empirical in its essence, though admittedly that is a radical new way of looking at his teachings. Jesus the atheist? Perhaps the facts support this in ways that no-one has previously considered. From another Thomas saying, which has been cut up and scattered through the canon, we have this;

Jesus said:
If those who draw you say to you, 'Lo, the kingdom is in heaven',
then the birds of heaven will precede you.
If they say to you, 'It is in the sea'
then the fish will precede you.
But the kingdom is within you and outside you.

Putting aside the question of whether George Harrison ever read this, it sounds to me like an early attempt at existentialism. A later, related saying in my opinion seals the deal of making Thomas' Jesus much less a mystic than the canon portrays him, and much more of a realist;

(Jesus said,)
They will not say, Lo, here! or Lo, there!
But the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth,
and men do not see it.

Through Thomas we see a Jesus much more in keeping with a modern secular society, but one much less amenable to manipulation by authoritarians. As Elaine Pagels points out in the Gnostic Gospels, the normative variety of Christianity quickly became as hierarchical and authoritarian as the Scribes and Pharisees of the Gospels. I don't think it coincidental that this Pauline influence radiated not from Jerusalem but from Rome.
There are a couple points not in the essay I should explain. One is that I obviously consider Thomas to be earlier than the canonical Gospels, and more authentic to the original teachings of Jesus. While that currently is a contentious point, the Gnostic Society notes, "There is a growing consensus among scholars that the Gospel of Thomas – discovered over a half century ago in the Egyptian desert – dates to the very beginnings of the Christian era and may well have taken first form before any of the four traditional canonical Gospels." There's certainly not room here to go into a detailed explanation as to why I believe this, but the main argument falls along the same lines as that which put Mark prior to Matthew. And I imagine no-one can fail to see that I am following the general Blog Against Theocracy theme, and particularly that of appeal to intellectual freedom. If this doesn't blow any cover I may have had over my radical heresy, I don't know what would.

Read Part III: What I DO Believe

Resource: Translations from The Nag Hammadi Library are all over the internet now, so a google or yahoo search can really turn up a lot on the subject. You can get some background on the discovery, translation, and interpretation of these documents from the Gnostic Society Library. A translation of the Gospel of Thomas is also available here, but I really recommend the print edition of The Nag Hammadi Library in English.

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