Friday, January 06, 2006

Email to Heather

Last week my friend Heather called me to relate a series of conversations she's had with her brother, who identifies himself as an athist. He is troubled by the lack of early sources outside Christianity writing about Jesus. After we talked about this for a little while she asked me to send her an email with the kinds of things I was saying over the phone.

This morning I sat down to write her a brief email. Two hours later, exhausted, I finally finished it. I was planning to write something for this blog today, on a similar subject, but now I don't have the time or the energy. So instead I am placing a copy of that email on this blog.

Much of the historical content in it comes from Hans Kueng's ("ue" = u umlaut, since the program I write this in doesn't have umlauts) mammoth Christianity: Essence, History and Future, though some of it comes from David Chidester's Christianity: A Global History. [note: some also came from lectures by Bob Urekew and Roy Fuller at Indiana University Southeast, and by Kathryn Johnson at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. Sorry I forgot to mention that earlier. Scholars do not get paid nearly enough to have their work appear uncredited in some hack's blog!]


First off, while you should be getting a formal invitation in the mail later on, you and yours (Dave and especially Noah) are hereby invited to Adam's first birthday party. The party will be at our house in Louisville on Saturday, January 28. You'll get more information when your invitation arrives, as we don't yet know what time the party will be or what (if anything) you should bring.

If you insist on bringing a gift for my spoiled brat, please bring him a book. He is, after all, my son, so that should be exactly what he wants, right? You are certainly not required to bring a gift, and it is not in any way expected that you will.

Now, on to business:

To be able to fully answer your brother's question (or is more of a concern?) I have to know specifically what bothers him. I'm guessing that it is a lack of historical evidence to back up the extraordinary claims which Christians make about Jesus (particularly miracles stories and especially the resurrection). You said that he is bothered about a lack of references to Christ outside of Christianity, though I hope he doesn't doubt, at the very least, that a man named Jesus lived in Palestine in the first century and was at the center of a reform movement within Judaism which eventually became its own religion. That, at the very least, is not questioned by any reputable scholars of history or religion in antiquity.

So I assume that when he says that he wants someone who is not a Christian to, in the earliest days of Christianity, make some reference to it; that what he really wants is some kind of outside confirmation of the extraordinary claims made by Christians of their Christ. Is that a safe assumption?

His concern - if I have it correctly - is not an uncommon one. The feeling is that you can't trust the people who were part of a movement to accurately report on their own movement, because they are biased and have an agenda. If, for instance, I was leading a new religious group which made incredible claims, you wouldn't buy my claims just because I was making them. You wouldn't buy them just because my brothers or my friends, or potentially brainwashed members of my movement were confirming them. You would want some kind of outside authority to verify my claims. And, the more ridiculous my claims, the more authoritative (and objective) you would want that outside verifier to be.

The claims about Jesus which were made by the earliest Christians (though they are not entirely the same claims which are made by Christians today, since our Christology - our understanding of what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ of God - has changed over time) are ridiculous claims; extraordinary claims. So your brother feels, I'm guessing, that it is only reasonable to demand that they be verified by some kind of outside authority, like perhaps an ancient historian or a Roman official.

There are, however, a few problems with this. First, our concept of "history" as a (semi)objective social science is a very modern one which 1.) did not exist in the time of Christ, and 2.) is coming to be challenged by post modernity. I'll flesh those out more:

1.) I can't say exactly when it is that history became a social science, but I can say that our approach to it was greatly changed by the so-called Enlightenment which started in the 17th century. It was only then that objectivity became the goal of those reporting history.

Josephus is hailed as a great historian of the first century, but he was not a historian as we understand the term. He was a general in the Jewish army during the Jewish revolt of 67-73 CE (the most significant moment was the destruction of the Temple, and as such the destruction of ancient Judaism, which was replaced with rabbinical Judaism) who was defeated and captured by the imperial Roman army. In captivity he turned on his own people, divulging secrets which helped the Roman army put down the rebellion. He must have comforted himself with the undeniable fact that the Romans were going to win anyway.

For his betrayal of his own people we was rewarded by the Romans with leniency, some money, and merely house arrest. He did his "historical" writings while under Roman supervision, in the employ of the Romans. He had at least two aims:

i.) To help the Roman empire understand his own people.
ii.) To please his Roman captors by glossing over their extraordinarily rough treatment of the Jews.

I mention this not to discredit Josephus, whose writings have given us a glimpse of life in Palestine under Roman occupation; but rather to discredit the notion that he is a "historian" in the sense that we understand the term. He was not objective in any sense, nor did he value objectivity. Like the Gospel writers and in fact all other writers in antiquity, he had an agenda, and if you know his agenda you can see how his agenda colored his work.

2.) The post-modern critique of the modern concept of "objective" history is a simple one: that objectivity is totally impossible when you are dealing with humans. You can achieve a sort of relative objectivity, but even that is only possible when you acknowledge up front your potential biases and account for them. When you look at post-Enlightenment "modern" work you see many different biases which go unacknowledged by the "objective" scholar. I could outline them here, but at a certain point that sort of thing gets tedious. This isn't a thesis, but just an email to a friend, so I'm sure you'll grant the obvious bias which creeps into academia under the noses of the academics who see themselves as objective.

So the first problem with getting an entirely objective account of Jesus from anywhere near the time in which he lived and died is simple: objectivity is impossible, and wasn't even valued at the time.

But, your brother is not just troubled by the lack of an objective account; he is troubled by the lack of almost any account outside the early Christian movement. But, of course, that no one outside the Jesus movement was writing about Jesus should not be too surprising. Jesus was, in his lifetime, a rather insignificant figure. At the absolute longest he taught for only about three years, and some good scholars (even within Christianity) argue that he may have taught for less than a year.

In his lifetime he drew relatively few followers. He lived in a time of great religious and apocalyptic fervor in the Jewish community. Messiahs were popping up, leading small revolts, and getting executed every few years. There were, in fact, within 100 years of Jesus countless Messianic movements in the Jewish community under Roman occupation. There are really only two things which, initially, separate Jesus from the other so-called Messiahs of his time.

1.) He did not lead a violent uprising against Rome. Much has been made of the way in which Jesus contradicted the Messiah model. Christian triumphalists which proclaim that while the Jews were awaiting their militant Messiah God sent the real thing in the form of a man of peace (though Christians ought not get too haughty on the subject of violence in the name of God since, in the Crusades they perfected it!). Historically we can say that Messianic movements were in fact violent in nature. This was mostly due to the Jewish chafing under Roman occupation. When people are oppressed they want to throw off their oppressor, and they see violence as the way in which this is accomplished.

Jesus, however, was the model on which Gandhi based his non-violent resistance, and we saw how effective that was both in India and, as it was appropriated by MLK, in the American Civil Rights Movement. In this respect Jesus was very different from the other Messiah figures of his day. He, like them, however, met a very violent end. This brings us to the other initial thing which distinguishes Jesus from the other Messiah figures around the Jewish community in first century Palestine.

2.) Despite being crucified like all of the other Messianic threats perceived by the Roman empire, Jesus has in a sense survived. I am not yet talking about the resurrection, that ridiculous claim which certainly causes your brother great difficulty. Rather I am talking about the fact that, though we know that there were many other Messiah figures in the time of Christ, we do not know anything about them. In most cases we don't even know their names. There are no records of what, if anything, they taught. None of their movements survived their death. But the Jesus movement, though it has of course changed a great deal in the past two millennia, survives.

But it almost did not, which brings us to another reason why it is not surprising that there are no early records of Jesus or the movement which grew up around him outside the movement itself. Within the Roman empire Christianity began as a small reform movement within a rebellious minority religion. Jesus had very few followers in his lifetime, and all of them were Jews. The earliest Christians remained connected to the Jewish community and worshipped every Sabbath at the Temple. They eventually began to celebrate the resurrection on Sunday, but even then the first generation added that to their Sabbath rather than replacing the Sabbath with it.

The first Christian were a collection of Jews who, in some way or another, identified Jesus as the Messiah (Hebrew), the Christ (Greek). I could here get into early Christology (the study of what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ) but again that seems tedious for our purposes. If you'd like to know how the view of Jesus as the Christ changed from the earliest Jewish Christians to Hellenistic Christians to the Medieval Catholics to the Reformation, etc., then we'll talk about it sometime. In the meantime just understand that many people have historically meant many things when they said that Jesus is the Christ, and that there is no entirely uniform view which represents all of Christianity, no matter what your pastor says. The earliest Christians, the disciples and the apostles that he so reveres, did not see the role of Christ in the same way that he does.

But we're losing focus. The point is that Christianity began as a small sect of a minority religion, with very few members, all of whom would have identified themselves first and foremost as Jews. It is no wonder that the Roman empire could not at first distinguish them from the Jewish community in which they lived and worshipped. But, for at least two reasons they began to be distinguished from the Jews.

1.) People like the apostle Paul began reaching out to Gentiles, which created a real problem. With Christianity as a Jewish sect, to become a Christian was to become a Jew. For women this was not all that difficult, but for men it was. This is because Jewish men are to be circumcised This is bad enough for small children, as I'm sure you remember from Noah's circumcision. But for adults it was nearly impossible. This was a tremendous obstacle, and it kept Judaism from being effective in their evangelical efforts.

But Paul (and others like him) began to understand Jesus as not just the Messiah or Christ of Israel, but as a more universally redemptive figure. As such Paul saw no reason for Gentiles to convert to Judaism in order to become Christians. (This set up the biggest conflict in the early church, but I don't have the time or energy to deal with that here.) Gentiles started converting to Christianity without converting to Judaism, creating for the first time a group of Christians who were not Jews. This, along with tensions between Jews who were Christians and Jews who were not Christians, led to the eventual expulsion of Christian Jews from the Jewish community. (This, in turn led to the nasty and inexcusable anti-Semitism which was so prevalent in Christendom after Christians came to power.)

2.) Christians, at the same time, had a great excuse to distance themselves from Jews. This excuse was the great Jewish Revolt, which lasted from 67-73 CE. This revolt was doomed to fail from the beginning, but the first few years were not entirely bad. However, by 70 CE the war was turning nasty. Rome, sick of the persistent Jewish problem (Jews notoriously refused to assimilate into Roman society and adopt Roman values) destroyed the Jewish Temple, the very center of the religion and their identity as a distinct people. Christians seeing this did not want to meet the same fate, and began a campaign to be seen as distinct from Jews in the eyes of Rome. It is only after this campaign that it is possible for the Roman Empire to see Christianity as anything other than a small, insignificant Jewish movement.

The first reference to Christianity in any written report from an official in the Roman Empire (for this purpose the work of Josephus doesn't count since a.) he treated Christianity as a part of Judaism, and b.) he was not part of the Roman power structure) is found in the letter from Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan in 112 CE. Romans did have some dealings with Christians prior to this, though there is no written record of their opinions of Christianity until this letter. (Nero, for instance, famously had Christians burned as scapegoats for a fire he started in 64 CE, and Domitian is said to have persecuted Christians from 81-96 CE for refusing to take an oath to him.) In other words, your brother is right that there are no early records of Christianity from within the Roman Empire near the time of Christ, though I think that he is wrong to be troubled by this as the Jesus movement was so small at that time that you couldn't expect the over-extended Roman officials to notice.

So the only early record we have of Jesus or the movement which followed him comes from that movement itself. And, of course what they wrote about him is biased. The Gospels, for instance, are not treated by scholars as historical records, but rather as evangelical tools. And one should be a little bit suspicious of the content of evangelical tools. It is quite possible that they do not entirely accurately present history. But, they do reflect history. They are, in fact, the only early written record of the man who has come to be seen as the most significant figure in Western history.

The most troubling claim in them is the claim that God raised Jesus from the dead, and it is this claim that I think is perhaps most difficult for your brother to accept. What are we to make of obviously biased documents claiming that physically impossible things have happened? If a new religious group claimed, without any external verification, that their founder had been raised from the dead we would probably be a little bit more than just suspicious. We would find the whole thing to be ridiculous, belonging in the Weekly World News rather than the New York Times (though the Times is evidently not immune to the scandal of fiction masquerading as solid reporting!).

But we can, at the very least, say that the early Christian movement survived only because they had some kind of experience of the resurrection of Christ from the dead. It is this Easter encounter which, whatever it ways, redeemed the scandal of the cross and paved the way for Christianity to survive what every other Messianic movement could not: the crucifixion of their leader. The resurrection, however it is understood, is the foundation of Christianity, and to treat accounts of it merely as historical forgeries crafted by religious con artists out to trick the general public is to overlook how real the resurrection experience was for those who were part of the earliest Christian movement.

We cannot use history to say that Christ was bodily raised from the dead. We cannot use science to say it either. But we can use, at the very least, the power of religious experience to proclaim the resurrection. It was the resurrection which revived a failed movement and made it arguably the most powerful religion on the earth. It was the resurrection, and my experience of it, which revived and transformed me. You too, as you claim the name of our risen Lord and Savior, have experienced the resurrection. So, on this point, do not argue with your brother on historical grounds. In fact, do not argue with him at all. Rather model the power of the resurrection for him.

The arguments for and against the existence of God are a wash, no matter what people like Josh McDowell say. We believe in God first and foremost not because we are rationally convinced of God's existence, but because our experience of God provides our lives with meaning. The same is true for the resurrection of Christ. If we grant the assumptions of modernity (and in general we must) then it is impossible for the man Jesus to be raised from the dead. But given the power of the resurrection experience in the lives of those how have had it, we might want to grant that even the most irreversible laws of physics must have some sort of exception. But our willingness to grant this exception depends purely on the meaning which our faith brings to our lives.

Here then, whether or not the resurrection happened, it must be treated as a non-literal event. It must be treated as a myth which provides meaning, even if it is also history.

More later, I'm sure; preferably in person or over the phone instead of via email. I'm sure I'll need to explain some of this, but I had to get it down first.


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