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Monday, June 26, 2006

"Who Do Men Say That I Am?"

The Debate Over the Nature of Jesus

Jesus asked this question of his disciples, and thanks to The Da Vinci Code it seems now to be the theological question of 2006. Here's the passage in Matthew 16:

Jesus [to his disciples]: Who do men say that the Son of man is?

The disciples: Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.

Jesus: But who do you say that I am?

Simon Peter: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Jesus: Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

And the story concludes: "Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ."

There's lots to be gleaned from this story, but I am fascinated by the "laundry list" in the first response: "John the Baptist... Elijah... Jeremiah... one of the prophets." Some of these same disciples had seen Jesus with John the Baptist; the other figures named had been dead for centuries. Jesus couldn't possibly have been any of the people named--in rational terms.

So even the disciples who knew him in the flesh could not identify him in terms of A - B - C logic. Peter's answer isn't exactly "scientific" either, but it is the one that Jesus seemed to have been fishing for. (I note in passing the ambiguity of Peter's description: Is it not still possible that we are all the Christ?) And what about Jesus' admonition to keep mum?

No wonder, then, that twenty centuries later we still can't figure out who he is.

Da Vinci's "controversial" painting

I spent the day doing background reading for a course I want to teach about The Da Vinci Code. I have been working on several themes regarding the question of who Jesus was; the role of Mary Magdalene and the Sacred Feminine; Secret Societies like the Templars and the Priory of Sion; and some of the key figures from history like Leonardo Da Vinci.

Around the same time as the release of Dan Brown's book (and not necessarily following it), a flood of theorizing began on the person of Jesus. Freke and Gandy's The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God?, for example, was published well before The Da Vinci Code, but covers some of the same ground. The authors believe that there never was a "historical Jesus," that the "Jesus myth" was a Jewish/Gnostic re-working of the mystery religions that spanned the Egyptian Osiris and the Greek Dionysus.

And this is one of the saner books out there. Even more interesting are The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold by Acharya S. and Tony Bushby's The Bible Fraud.

Let's do Bushby first. The basic thrust of his claim is that "the Historic Jesus" was a twin:

The Untold Story of Jesus and His Twin Brother, Judas Khrestus... Mystery and intrigue surround the church web of deceit, corruption, murder and debauchery. In THE BIBLE FRAUD, you will find the truth about Rabbi Jesus and his twin brother, their birth, marriages and deaths, as well as the bloodlines that have resulted from events of that time. (From Amazon)

In this interview Bushby discusses the book; here are some highlights:

  • One of the twins became a Rabbi (Jesus) and "the other became rather a wild drinking man" (Judas Thomas the Twin)
  • Mariamne (Mary the mother of Jesus) was King Herod's granddaughter; "she was raped by a Roman archer" who later became the Roman Emperor Tiberius.
  • The twins were raised in the House of Augustus, so "Jesus is called King over thirty times yet records of history never record Jesus as being King." Also, "Because Augustus and the twelve first Caesars were deified, these twin boys were called the 'Sons of God.'"
  • Judas was arrested for trying to seize the Roman throne; he was to be crucified but claimed the right to have another crucified in his place. This was Simon of Cyrene.
  • Judas went to India, and Jesus (because he was part of the plot) fled to France and then England, where he "became an honorary Druid"
  • Jesus married Mary Magdalene, "a Celtic princess," and their bloodline can be traced to the modern European monarchy
  • Constantine was "of the same blood" as the twins, and had their life stories blended together at the Council of Nicaea. "...there was talk amongst the old Churchmen of Jesus as having two natures. The problem was they had the two twin boys mixed up so he deified them both as one and combined both parts of their name and they became Jesus Christ."

I'll leave it to you to read the "debate" over this book on the Amazon page.

And now for The Christ Conspiracy by Acharya S., "A book that virtually proves that 'Jesus Christ' is a mythical character," they say:

Contrary to popular belief, there was no single man at the genesis of Christianity but many characters rolled into one, the majority of whom were personifications of the ubiquitous solar myth, whose exploits were well known, as reflected by such popular deities as Mithra, Heracles/Hercules, Dionysus and many others throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.

The story of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels is revealed to be nearly identical in detail to that of the earlier savior-gods Krishna and Horus, who for millennia preceding Christianity held great favor with the people in much the same way as Jesus does today.

Thus, the Jesus character is not unique or original, not "divine revelation." 

These redeemer tales are similar not because they reflect the actual exploits of a variety of men who did and said the identical things, but because they are representations of the same extremely ancient body of knowledge that revolved around the celestial bodies and natural forces.

The result of this mythmaking has been The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold. [From the website]

But wait! Acharya S. is not finished! She also wrote Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled. "This 595-page follow-up book to The Christ Conspiracy backs up many of the contentions found therein and addresses criticisms thereof":

Picking up where the bestselling and controversial The Christ Conspiracy leaves off, Suns of God leads the reader through an electrifying exploration of the origin and meaning of the world's religions and popular gods. Over the past several centuries, the Big Three spiritual leaders have been the Lords Christ, Krishna and Buddha, whose stories and teachings are curiously and confoundingly similar to each other. The tale of a miraculously born redeemer who overcomes heroic challenges, teaches ethics and morality, performs marvels and wonders, acquires disciples and is famed far and wide, to be persecuted, killed and reborn, is not unique but a global phenomenon recurring in a wide variety of cultures long before the Christian era.

Are Krishna, Buddha and Christ "real people" or myths?

These godmen were not "historical" people who all "walked the earth" but mythical characters of the famous "mysteries." A major element of the secret, international brotherhood, these mysteries extend back thousands of years and are found worldwide, reflecting an ancient tradition steeped in awe and intrigue. The reasons for this religious development are unveiled in this in-depth analysis containing fascinating and original research based on evidence both modern and ancient, captivating information kept secret and hidden for ages!

From the cover of Suns of God

I haven't seen this book, but the excerpts on line are filled with the worst kind of howlers, e.g. "To begin with, Buddha's mother, Mahamaya, was fecundated by the 'Holy Spirit,' while a 'heavenly messenger' informed Maya that she would bear 'a son of the highest kings.'"

How, in good conscience, could she make such mistakes?

A clue, I think, lies in her sources.

In The Search for the Buddha: The Men Who Discovered India's Lost Religion, historian Charles Allen chronicles the gradual unraveling of the mystery of Buddhism by (mostly) British civil servants in 18th- and 19th-century India. The early impressions of the Buddha are themselves howlers: he is referred to by early Western investigators as "Bood-ha, a mysterious, heretofore forgotten deity." Sir William Jones, one of the first great "Orientalists," postulated that the Buddha may have hailed from Ethiopia. (The curled hair of his statues is part of the "evidence.") Indeed, it was quite some time after Europeans arrived in Asia that they put together the idea that the religions found in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Thailand (Siam), Burma (Myanmar), China, and Japan had any connections at all!

It is in this environment of slowly-dissipating ignorance that many of the works relied on by Acharya S. were created. Furthermore, we know that one of the works she cited, the "Abhinish-Kramana Sutra," is available only in a translation by "the Rev. Samuel Beal (1825-89)," a man who might likely have leaned toward Christian terminology in his translation. (The translation is again in print as Romantic Legends of Sakya Buddha [Amazon]).

Here's another unlikely quote: Buddha was called "the Lion of the Tribe of Sakya, the King of Righteousness, the Great Physician, the God among Gods, the Only Begotten, the Word, the All-wise, the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Intercessor, the Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World, the Anointed, the Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour of the World, the Way of Life and Immortality." This one seems to come from a book cited as The Fountainhead of Religion. The full title is actually The Fountainhead of Religion: A Comparative Study of the Principle Religions of the World and a Manifestation of Their Common Origin from the Vedas and it was written by Ganga Prasad, a Hindu (writing in 1927) who was clearly trying to prove that all religions derived from the Hindu scriptures.


The Point: Okay, I've spent way too much time representing "alternative" views of Jesus. To what end? Just to let you know that there are crackpots out there? No, there's more to it than that.

I want you to know that all this energy being spent on determining who Jesus really is is a waste of time. It started long ago, with books like Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus; and it arises from a mistaken notion. Who cares if Jesus was married? Who cares if he was crucified, died, buried, resurrected, and ascended? Who cares if he ever lived?

Once again, the idea that the Bible is history is a mistake. To mistake "religion" for history and science is, as Joseph Campbell so often said, like going to a restaurant and eating the menu. The story of the life of Jesus (or Buddha or Krishna) is the story of our potential for transformation. It is not about "where (or whether) the bones are," but about the fulfillment of our true natures. The Buddhists get this; in many sects, there is little insistence on historicity.

In fact, I have often said that questions like "Were Adam and Eve real people?" are questions that would only be asked by post-Enlightenment Western people. I think our forebears up to the Renaissance, and most of the peoples of non-Western cultures, never asked such questions, accepting the story as a story.

Listen: I once wrote a paper about applying the "historical approach" to religion. In order to assess the value of this approach, I wrote this (in part):

A man walks into a doctor’s office with a frog on his head. The doctor looks at him and asks, "What happened?" and the frog says, "Well, it started as a wart."

The purpose of a joke is to make people laugh; the value of a joke lies in its humor. One could assess the humor of a joke on a scale of one to ten (assigning this, I suspect, a value closer to one than to ten), and thus evaluate its efficacy in achieving its goal of making people laugh.

Once this assessment has been made, one wonders what value there might be in applying "the historical approach" to the joke by asking the following questions: "Who was the man? How did he really manage to get a frog on his head? Where was the doctor’s office? What were the doctor’s credentials? Is it medically possible for a man to develop from a wart? Can frogs talk?" and so on.

(If you really must read it, the paper is here.) My professor "got it," that I was basically mocking the whole idea of historicity. (This is despite the fact that his dissertation advisor had been Mircea Eliade, famed as "The Father of the History of Religion in American." Elsewhere I argue that Eliade was really something of an anthropologist rather than an historian.) But anyway, I think that this whole "public debate" is more fascinating in that it is happening at all than in anything actually being said.

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