Thanks for all the comments on the last post. Sorry I’ve been late getting back to you all. I was doing a little traveling last week and got behind on the blog. Today I just want to respond quickly to some of the questions you asked on “What About Jesus?”
Kim wrote: “So if he [Jesus] was just another Jewish preacher, why/how did he become such a lightning rod? Was there something particularly different about him…?”
There were certainly other dynamic religious teachers and preachers who were more or less contemporaries of Jesus. Apollonius of Tyana is one who comes to mind. Hillel the Elder (110 BCE-10 CE) continues to inspire modern Judaism. (Many of the sayings attributed to him sound like teachings also attributed to Jesus.) So why did the Jesus movement triumph and persist? I think the reasons are pretty mundane. Competition between religions is not any different from competition among any other human enterprise, ideology, or product. Why did VHS triumph over Betamax? How did the A&P lose out to Kroger?
The triumph of Christianity was a case of the right message at the right time marketed in an effective way. It was a brilliant fusion of Judaism with elements of popular Roman mystery cults, and for a variety of reasons it struck a chord. For more on this topic I highly recommend The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark and The Evolution of God by Robert Wright.
Julia asks: “So what exactly did Paul’s letters say regarding Jesus if he never mentioned the virgin birth or miracles?” Paul mentions Jesus’ death and resurrection a lot. But aside from that he says hardly anything at all about Jesus’ life. It is particularly curious that Paul never quotes Jesus even when it would have been advantageous for him to do so. If I had to put money on it, I would bet that many of Paul’s teachings to the early churches got re-worked later and inserted in the mouth of Jesus. In Romans 12-15, for example, several passages sound very much like what we hear in the Sermon on the Mount.
A big turning point in my journey away from faith in Jesus as the Savior came when I learned that one of my favorite gospel stories, the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16), actually came from pre-Christian pagan sources and did not originate with Jesus at all. That was a serious wake-up call.
Toby wrote: “Mohammad has had followers for 1,400 years (or so) and Moses has had followers for 3,400 years (or so). Do we make the same conclusions about Moses and Mohammad that we do with about Jesus?”
Good question. And let’s not forget Buddha as well. Yes, the dynamics in each of those cases are similar to what happened with Jesus. In fact, revisionist historians of Islam are now beginning to doubt if Muhammad even existed. Buddha, Muhammed, Moses, and others are reminders that the historical impact of Jesus is not really all that unique. The same thing has happened throughout history around the world.
I’ve been re-reading Paul’s epistles this week, and it’s been a pretty horrendous experience. My primary emotional response has been exasperation and frustration. Why did I fall for this stuff for so many years, and why has it taken me so long to see the obvious? I guess it’s a little analogous to doing a crossword puzzle. Sometimes you stare and stare at it, and nothing is clicking. You come back to it later in the day and everything falls into place. You see answers that were staring you in the face.
Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul gave instructions for reining in the prophets, tongue-speakers, and–worst of all–the uppity women! who were destabilizing the order Paul had tried to impose on the community. After Paul tells everybody to get back in line he says this: “Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized.” (1 Corinthians 14:37-38)
So ultimately Paul functioned as just another cult leader–albeit an extremely successful one, who has managed to fool people for twenty centuries. “Do what I tell you because I speak for God. If you disobey me, you are disobeying God.” How is that any different from Joseph Smith saying that God told him to re-build his church? Or Jim Jones telling people to kill themselves in Guyana? Like them, Paul just made the whole thing up. There is absolutely no empirical evidence whatsoever that would verify that Paul had a special conduit to the deity. To start a religion you just have to convince enough people that you’ve had a divine revelation.
The scourge of revelation continues to wreck havoc on our world. In 1968 Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” which reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to all forms of contraception that actually work. The Second Vatican Council had put together a commission of scholars, theologians, bishops, and lay people to study the issue. The commission’s majority report to the Pope urged the church to allow the use of artificial contraception. In “Humane Vitae” the Paul flatly rejected the report. Why? Because like Paul, the Pope was privy to revelation, and revelation trumps reason every time. And now, because of the ridiculous revelation of an elderly, celibate bachelor over forty years ago–political discourse in this country is still being hi-jacked by true believers.