’Splain to Me

I have been reading a rather interesting book (“The Mythmaker” by Hyam Maccoby) about the making of Christianity. Not too long after making the claim that Jesus would have been appalled by the claim that he was God and that he was a human sacrifice, absolving all humans of original sin, the author goes on to say “For Jesus himself had merely claimed to be the Messiah, and that this claim was not in any way blasphemous, and his followers, after his death, had merely continued to believe in his Messiahship in the same way (having come to believe that he had been brought back to life as a miracle), but without regarding him as a deity” (italics mine).

The phrase “having come to believe that he had been brought back to life as a miracle” literally jumped off of the page at me.

What evidence is there that Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem believed he had been resurrected? The only accounts I know of are in the Gospels and in the Book of Acts. The earliest Gospel, Mark, is estimated as having been written around 70 CE or roughly 40 years after the events described. It is also known that in its earliest versions “Mark” included no description of a resurrection. A lot happened between roughly 33-34 CE and the writing of the Gospels (ca 70-120 CE). And the Gospels say almost nothing about what the Jesus followers did after his death. Only in the book of Acts are there any descriptions regarding the actions of these folks. The people involved were Jesus’ mother, Jesus’ brother James, the titular head of the group, and his other sisters and brothers, the remaining disciples, a dozen or so (Acts comments on a replacement for Judas). The only bits and pieces available indicate that this group was a Jewish group, which had no intention of starting a religion, and certainly had no intention of pursuing gentiles to do so (and seem to upset Paul greatly by repeatedly calling him a liar). And, yet, some of these people could have been interviewed and their ideas transcribed in the years following 33-34 CE. Why was this not done? Or if it was done, why were these writings lost or destroyed? Acts and Paul’s letters also paint these people in a bad light (they doubted Jesus, they thought he was crazy, etc.).

If . . . if the remaining members of the Jesus followers did believe that he was raised from the dead in a miracle, why were these people not more active in proclaiming the message? (If you had in hand a person actually raised from the dead, what kind of action would you take?) The only answer is that the Gospels and Acts were written to support Paul’s efforts to create a religion based upon Paul’s ideas, not Jesus’. Paul wrote in Greek and when he quoted scripture he quoted Greek translations (the Septuagint); there is no evidence that he knew Hebrew, could either read or write it, so his connection to the very Jewish group Jesus left behind is tenuous at best. So, when the gospel writers set about to create a pre-history for Jesus (much like U.S. presidential candidates write self-serving biographies before running) they had to pick a side: was the Jesus Movement a sect of Judaism or was it something new. Clearly the writers were describing something new. And where did they get these new ideas? From Paul, whose letters were in circulation well before the writing of the Gospels and the Book of Acts. So, the reason Christian scripture contains virtually nothing in the way of input from all of the people who knew Jesus better than any others and who lived for decades following the death of Jesus, was that they had nothing to say in support of Paul’s ideas. Paul’s ideas were steeped in Greek paganism, not in Judaism and were in fact foreign to most Jews.

So, my question is: why do we casually concede significant points “having come to believe that he had been brought back to life as a miracle” in what is clearly a made up story. What evidence is there that any of Jesus’ followers, the people who actually knew him intimately, believed that he had truly come back from death? And if they did not, why should we?

’Splain that to me, please.

Categories: Christianity

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22 replies

  1. The structure of the story is a lot like greek heroic mythology.
    There are lots of heros who
    a) have a god or goddess as one parent.
    a) have a difficult and partially miraculous birth, where obstacles are put in their ways (e.g. Heracles hated by Hera right from birth, but think of Jesus birth story with the flight to egypt etc.).
    c) they have an adventurous and sometimes miraculous life.
    d) They perform a trip to the underworld (there is even a technical term for this: “katabasis”). I think the “underworld” as a place where the dead reside is itself not a jewish concept, It is greek and indoeuropean. Jesus does such a katabasis, like one would expect a hellenistic epic hero to do. The latin text of the credo sais (I don’t know how it is in greece): “descendit ad inferos, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis,”. Orpheus, Herakles, Perseus, Odysseus, Aeneas all do this (and many heros from epics in other cultures as well).
    e) Then he ascends to heaven (like Herakles, who goes up to the Olymp).
    This is a story clearly invented by somebody with a background in greek culture for greek/roman/hellenistic audience who expected a religious or mythic hero to have this type of life and death. The structure of this “Jesus epic” is clearly not Jewish, but greek.

  2. This is the kind of stuff I’d like to research more when I have time. Nice job, Steve — it’s a great point to consider.

    • If you write on it I will read that. So much of what I have read is third or fourth hand.

      On Wed, Dec 10, 2014 at 2:05 PM, Enquiries on Atheism wrote:


    • Sounds good.

      Yeah, it’s a big topic and there’s lots of nuance to it, from what I’ve seen. Since I came from an inerrancy camp, I tended to just stick with the simpler issues (failed prophecies, contradictions, bad morality, faulty science and history, etc). But I’m definitely interested in the textual stuff and all the theories about how it got started. If I ever find the time to really dig into it, I’ll be sure write something up on it and give you a heads up.

  3. why do we casually concede significant points

    We don’t. Silly people do, though

  4. Is the author an impartial biblical scholar, or have you noticed other biases? I find similar concessions in some of the books on Christianity that I own, and the most notable concessions are usually from “Liberal Christian” authors. They acknowledge some evidence against the more radical claims (like the historical veracity of Josephus, etc.) but then permit others that can’t be rejected easily, such as the resurrection of Jesus. One author, in particular, kept interjecting that the resurrection was a certitude, but he rejected Acts, acknowledged the discrepancies between the four gospels, outlined an accurate timeline for the publication of Paul’s work, etc. It was a difficult book to get through due to the random concessions.

    That doesn’t answer your question, but honestly, I don’t have anything better than what John said.

    • He seems the real deal to me (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyam_Maccoby) although what passes for a “real biblical scholar” has always been quite variable, especially the large number of biblical archaeologists who started from the premise “the Bible must be true, so … ”

      His arguments are clear and simple. e.g. Paul claims to have been a Pharisee, but worked for the High Priest, a Sadducee. This was highly unlikely, nor could Paul have received the training claimed for him. More likely the claim was part of the smear campaign directed at the Pharisees (in all likelihood, Jesus was a Pharisee). Of course, everything in print is suspect. His basic premise is that Jesus was a political operator, expecting a miracle (as promised) to get the Romans off of their backs, and Paul turned him into a religious operator in a manner that would have appalled both Jesus and his surviving followers.

      Haven’t finished his book yet, but so far it is quite brilliant.

      On Fri, Dec 12, 2014 at 3:09 PM, Enquiries on Atheism wrote: > >

  5. “Literally” jumped off the page at you? That’s definitely a miracle. Congratulations!

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