Thursday, April 30, 2009

Creating Jesus 4: Religiously Interpreted Experiences

Our sources are filled with claims of visions of the divine, hearing the voice of God, where the person says that he or she encounters God immediately and directly (what we call mysticism). It is not necessary for the historian to make decisions about whether or not the people in the stories really and truly saw God or heard his voice and move to explain this as hallucinations or madness. These internal or private "events" are similar to miracles. They are interpreted and given a very particular religious value. Whatever was experienced by the person (which I have no way of verifying or not, since it is an internal event) is understood by the person or those who transmit his or her story as authentic religious experiences (or in some cases like Simon Magus, inauthentic - remember the religious community holds the hermeneutical keys). Whatever may have happened in actuality becomes a religiously interpreted experience in our source.

Like miracles (which also may represent human experiences that have become religiously interpreted as miraculous), mystical experiences are very interesting to the historian because they tell us how the seer understands a number of things about his or her world. His or her religiously interpreted experience (particularly if the person is a founder of a tradition) can impact significantly the orientation and growth of the religion.

So although I won't say as an historian that a religion started when "God so-and-so appeared to Mr. so-and-so" and commissioned him (thereby making a religious claim historical fact), I can and should say that "one of the significant impacts on the origin of religion such-and-such is Mr. so-and-so's vision in which he understood God so-and-so to have commissioned him" (thereby understanding the religious claim as a hermeneutic that impacted the history of the religion).

The same is true of miracles. Although I won't say that Jesus walked on water (thereby making a religious claim historical fact), I can and should say that it is evident from the nature miracle stories that some of the first Christians understood Jesus in highly exalted categories, capable of doing what is not normally done by humans, like walking on water or multiplying food or walking through closed doors. These are actions that readers then and now would have attributed to divine men and gods, not your average Joe (thereby understanding the miracle claim as a hermeneutic that tells us something about early Christian theology rather than history).

Creating Jesus 3: we must say "no" to the miraculous

There is always a negative reaction to any serious discussion of miracles that I have in the classroom (virtual or real). The gut reaction that people have is: who is to tell me that miracles don't happen or couldn't have happened. And behind this lurks the claim that God can do anything God wants to do. Let's unpack this even though it makes people so uncomfortable (and as a warning, there will probably be a lot of things I am going to say in this long series of posts that will make for discomfort).

The claim to the miraculous is not the same as the claim to the unexplainable. Something might happen to me that I can't explain (in fact things happen to me quite often that I don't have a ready explanation for), but it doesn't become a miracle until I make it a miracle, a manifestation of the supernatural, by my interpretation of the event.

This is a very important distinction to make. Humans experience events all the time that have no ready explanation for them. But it is only our move to interpret those events as "miracles" and then as "religious miracles" and then as "religious miracles of a particular religious kind" that make the event supernatural and grant it miraculous meaning.

This is why I emphasized in so many of my ground rules that our sources are humanly-authored and reflect human experience and very particular interpretations of those experiences. We are NOT to assume what is said by these authors is what actually happened, could have happened, might have happened, or should have happened. Our sources are records of how the Christians came to understand their experiences and frame them religiously and yes, miraculously, in very very particular and even peculiar ways.

Traditional Greek Icon: Jesus Walks on Water

Let's take the example of Jesus walking on water. What are reasoned (or critical) explanations for the story?
1. The Christians made it up whole cloth to make a theological statement about Jesus: that what he could do was so miraculous that he could walk on water which no normal human being could do. This proves his divinity. Only gods walk on water.


2. There was an event that was remembered and interpreted as miraculous. This sort of miraculous embellishment happens all the time in storytelling. Need I remind us of a very recent event in which Eilan Gonzalez, the five-year old boy who survived a sea journey from Cuba on a homemade raft, became "The Miracle Child" over the course of a couple of days. His story became a story about dolphins protecting him from sharks so that he was in perfect condition when he got to Florida (they forgot to mention that his mom had wrapped him in her coat, tied him to an inner tube and gave him a bottle of water which allowed him to survive the elements). Then the Santerian priests began to embellish the "miracle" by saying that Eilan had been saved by "angels at sea." Although this is a religious miraculous interpretation, apparently it had developed from the five-year old's "eyewitness" testimony that he thought an angel kept him company at night. Finally his story was keyed to Catholic interpretation: Castro became Herod, Clinton became Pilot, and Elian became the Messiah. This is an example of a modern miracle during an age when we can document what actually happened and interview the eyewitnesses. I hope you can see from this the problems with eyewitness testimony even a few days after the event.
If the story of Jesus walking on water was completely fabricated or had its roots in some historical event, we can never know. We can conjecture all we want about a terrible storm in which Jesus and his disciples were caught on a boat and Peter almost drowned and Jesus was able to rescue him against all odds, but the fact remains that Jesus' walk on water is an interpretation that makes it a miracle. The miracle is framed in such a way that Jesus does something a normal human can't do. This works to prove to the audience that Jesus is a god.

So the ground rule remains the same: we must say "no" to the miraculous as history. The move to the miraculous is interpretative and theological. So while miracles might interest us as historians because they will tell us a lot about how Jesus was interpreted by the early Christians, they are not historical events - not in Christianity, not in Judaism, not in Islam, not in Buddhism, not in Hinduism, not in any religion.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Creating Jesus 2: Ground rules

Before we start on the adventure of determining how a Jewish rabbi became God, we need to establish the ground rules (our method and assumptions).

1. This is a critical venture, not an apologetic one. This is perhaps the most important ground rule we can put into place, and stick by at all costs. What the theologians back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries realized is that for the study of religion to be an academic enterprise comparable to the study of history or literature or the arts, it cannot be apologetic. If we want to understand how any religion comes into existence and grows, we cannot be invested in the promotion or rescue of that particular religion. We have to leave our own theological interests at the door.

2. We cannot grant special privileges to the religion we are studying. This means that we cannot allow for God to perform miracles when it is convenient for our explanations. We cannot suspend what we know to be scientifically true about our world and grant a religion special treatment or supernatural explanations. The critical study of religion is not about proving or defending one's own religious beliefs or the special claims of a particular religious community. It isn't about disproving them either. The critical study of religion does not amount to outsiders attacking what should not be attacked. It is about dealing fair and square with religion in an objective scientific manner using reason that relies on verifiable research, and not allowing for special knowledge of God, revelations, or privileges to be granted to the religion. For those people who want to use the post-modern avoidance strategy and argue that there is no objective truth but only pluralisms, well you need to go back and reread your philosophy and your science. Although the historical enterprise is recognizably subjective, this does not mean that it is unscientific or that it does not result in research that is as objective as possible.

3. We must suspend canonical thinking and boundaries. We must deal equitably with all of our ancient sources, having no preconceived judgments about them based on whether they are in or out of the bible, whether they support or deny traditional theological or christological formulations, and whether they were written by the winners or the losers in the battle over Christianity. There are no heretics or heretical literature, except in terms of how various historical groups may have perceived each other.

4. We begin with the assumption that Christianity did not fall out of the sky one day, but it originated on earth among human beings and developed in complex social, political, and religious environments.

5. The sources that have been left behind were written by human beings and reflect the complexity of the growth of Christianity.

6. Our sources are not neutral. They were not written to report objective factual history. They were written for a variety of reasons including apology and polemic and propaganda. They often reflect a communal interest, and thus do not necessarily tell us what happened but what the community wanted to happen, thought should happen, or wanted remembered about them.

7. Our sources are dependent on the human being, physiologically, psychologically, emotionally, socially. The stories they relate are the consequence of human experience and human memory which itself is a constructive process with many implications. Eyewitness testimony (even in those cases where we might have it in our sources) does not guarantee the "reliability" or "authenticity" of anything reported. Not only is intentional lying a possibility that we cannot simply set aside, but human memory (because it is a social constructive process) has been proven to distort. Social memory likewise.

With these ground rules in place, we will be ready to begin trying to figure out how Jesus became God.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Gerd Lüdemann writes about the History of Religions School

Professor Lüdemann just sent me a copy of his latest article which is the lead article in the Toronto Journal of Theology 24/2 (2008) pp. 171-181. He has posted this on his website. It is the first item in his "immediate interest" bibliography. [But it looks like the PDF link in the next paragraph will bring the article to you immediately. I didn't realize if I cut and paste a PDF link that it would actually work on my blog. This will open up new possibilities!]

Toronto Journal of Theology 24/2, 2008, pp. 171–181: The Relationship of Biblical Studies to the History of Religions School, with Reference to the Scientific Study of Religion PDF

The History of Religions School of the 19th/20th century was VERY important for the development of historical critical studies. Lüdemann hopes that the piece will raise awareness among students of this highly influential school of thought.

I am happy that he wrote this piece because I have been concerned for several years about the obsession with post-modern trends that, in my opinion, are ravishing the academy and its ability to function in the next generation of scholars in terms of philology, linguistics, and historical hermeneutics.

I'm back

I apologize for not posting recently, but I have been focused on the end of the semester here at Rice and using every minute to finish up the Codex Judas Papers. It is done! I sent the manuscript to the publisher yesterday. Now I can breath a bit easier. I haven't forgotten about the How a Creating Jesus series. I will get that launched next week.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Apocryphote of the Day: 4-14-09

A poem that Mani wrote about his syzygos, his angelic twin (the great male angel who visited Mani and who Mani called the Paraclete or counselor spirit):
He who is the most protected
I received him piously
and I took him as my own.
I believed him,
that he belongs to me
and that he is a good and useful counselor.
I recognized him,
and understood that I am he
from whom I was separated.
I have borne witness,
that I myself am he
and am the same.
Cologne Mani Codex 24

Happy Birthday Mani

Mani, the great gnostic visionary, intellect, poet, painter and creator of the first world religion Manichaeanism, was born in 216 CE on April 14th, 1,983 years ago. I'll eat a cucumber tonight in your memory.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Creating Jesus: How Jesus Became God (1)

Several people have been e-mailing me following my lecture on Jesus the Jew and the Jewish beginnings of Christianity at the Museum of Natural Science. The question they want answered is how this rabbi became God in the Christian communities.

This has always been the central question to studies of Christology and there have been many scholarly models which have varying amounts of success taking into account the vast amount of written evidence. What is certain is that Jesus was not being worshiped as a god by his disciples during his life. This came later after his death. The question is how long it took to happen, and how it happened that a "monotheistic" Jewish sect took on the worship of a second god.

I have worked out my own model and published the bones of it in a piece called, "How We Talk about Christology Matters," in Israel's God and Rebecca's Children. But I have decided to run a series of posts on the subject following Easter, the day of the resurrection. We will explore many items here, without Christian apology, to determine from the written evidence what likely happened all those years ago.

I want to begin by ditching the language of Christology that we have used in the past, particularly the "high" and "low" narrative. This is apologetic language developed out of Protestant seminaries that places judgment on the Christological narratives of the early Christians. If a Christian text says that Jesus had human parents and was a prophet, it is said to be "low" Christology and "adoptionist" because God adopted Jesus as his son. If a Christian text says that Jesus was of virgin birth and was the Son of God, it is said to be "high" Christology and "incarnational".

This language locks us in a paradigm of development from "low" (which must be earlier) and "high" (which must be later). It locks us into a view that "high" Christology is preferable to "low" Christology (a contemporary church view for certain!). And it breaks down once we get a text that says that Jesus was born of human parents but was worshiped as God (a branch of Ebionites), or that Jesus was a created being (a super-angel) and yet was worshiped as God (Arius), or a number of other known cases. Even Paul (whose letters make up our earliest testimonies) is hard to discuss within these categories, so we practically have to bend over backwards to "make" his testimonies "fit" our pre-conceived paradigms.

So it is time to get rid of the old language and paradigms, and put something new in place, something that we grow out of the evidence, without apology for Christian theology which has its own agendas. It is this new paradigm that I intend to blog about.

Next time: what made the first Nazoreans, the first Christian Jews, christologize in the first place?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Apocryphote of the Day: 4-11-09

Jesus said, "Whoever does not carry his cross as I do will not be worthy of me."

Gospel of Thomas 55b

420-430 CE Panel from a small ivory box
7.5 x 9.8 cm.
British Museum, London

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Ask April: Who is Abrasax?

R. Eagle asked:
So is Abrasax the name of this Angel of the Jews?

Incidentally, Abrasax sounds like Carlos Santana's 1970 album, but the 's' and the 'x' or reversed. And I can't remember where I heard it, but someone told me it was the name of a fallen angel (or demon). Would you know anything about this, Dr. D.
Abrasax is not the name of the Yahweh Angel of the Jews according to Basilides. Abrasax is the astral lord who rules the celestial spheres. He is distinct from the Yahweh Angel who is the ruler of the lowest of the heavens (365th heaven) that is visible from earth. Abrasax probably originated in the magical traditions of Egypt and the Hermetic practioners. He is found named on many gems and in the Greek Magical Papyri.

His name was created to equal 365. In Greek numerology each letter is associated with a number. When the letters of his name are added up, they equal 365. Thus he is the god responsible for the astral sphere. He would be the one most powerful in controlling your fate. So appeasing him (and using his Name) would be very important and give you some sense of control.

His name is spelled variously: Abrasax and Abraxas. Thus Santana's album. Abrasax is no fallen Jewish angel, although he is a "demon" in the sense that he is a capricious very powerful power in the skies who controls your fate, ruling the entire universe. The fallen angel you are thinking of is likely Azazel.

Ask April: The Gnostics and the Name

Mac asked:
Valentinian theology sources (some) describe the "Elect" as possessing the "Name". It seems this notion of possessing the "Name" comes from the Book of Revelation where it is said to be written on their foreheads (Revelation 14:1 cf. also 22:4)?

And now my question(s)...... What does possessing the "Name" mean in Gnostic tradition..... and does this particular Gnostic notion have a following in our time?
Indeed the Gnostics in general (that is various Gnostic groups) were concerned about possessing the Name. This wasn't because of Revelation exegesis though. In fact, Revelation displays an interest in this same phenomenon, as do many other Christian sources. Name possession was part of Christian ritual.

The Name that the Christians were wanting to possess is the Name of God, the divine unutterable Name, usually written as the tetragrammaton YHWH. The Christians understood that Jesus possessed this Name, that it was given to him when he was exalted to heaven. It is this Name that they are baptised into and likely it is this Name they are writing on their heads when they were anointing their converts with oil.

The Name was powerful. It did more than identify them as God's. Possessing the Name meant that they possessed the power of the Named, and were transformed by that power. It transfigured their souls. In addition, possession of the Name guaranteed them entry into God's realm at death. It is the password that let them into heaven. Think of it like the ticket you need to get into the VIP box at a sport's game. If you have the ticket, you can pass into the box. Otherwise you are turned away.

The Gnostics made the Name their trade secret so that different groups claimed that they knew the "real" Name of God and its pronunciation. If you joined the lodge, they would teach it to you. The Ophians used Kaukalkau. The Valentinians used IAO. Marcus the Valentinian used Jesus Christ, although he claimed that the name had a secret aeonic pronunciation known only to the aeons and revealed to him in a vision. The conventional Christians used a formula like "in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." Or some used "Jesus Christ." Although the conventional Christians understood this to be the YHWH Name given to Jesus.

This is still practiced in conventional Christianity. After water baptism, the convert is anointed with oil in the Name. As for what modern gnostic groups do or don't do ritually, I haven't a clue.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Ask April: 4-7-09

Last night after lecture there were so many great questions raised by the audience, that I began wondering whether some of my readers may have similar questions about the academic study of religion and the bible and early Christianity, questions that they would like addressed but no one to ask them. Then this morning Jim Deardorff inquired by e-mail about Basilides. So I've decided to open up the blog occasionally to field questions about the academic study of the bible and early Christianity you may have. So please use the comments for questions, and I'll see what I can do to get you an answer.

Let's start with Jim's question:
I've come across a statement in the old book by C. W. King (Gnostics and their Remains Ancient and Mediaeval) about Basilides placing "last of all the god of the Jews, whom he denies to be God himself, affirming that he is but one of the angels." Would you happen to know whom this statement originally came from -- Tertullian, or Clement of A., or Epiphanius, or Irenaeus...? I've looked in such sources without success, and wonder if it came from Helen Blavatsky in altered form without source cited.
Indeed the source for the idea (not the quote itself) is Irenaeus, Against Heresies, written about 180-190CE. In book 1.24.4, Irenaeus relates that Basilides taught that Abrasax (whose name numerically adds up to 365) was the astral lord of the 365 heavens in the celestial sphere. These heavens were populated by a number of angels, each of whom ruled its own heavenly realm. The 365th heaven - the one visible to us in our sky - is the domain of a clan of angels of the nations (72 in total). Chief among these angels is the God of the Jews.

Monday, April 6, 2009

There is a new lay magazine on Gnosticism that popped up in my mailbox today. It is the premier issue and it can easily be obtained from Amazon HERE. Miguel Connor's interview with John Turner is in this issue, along with a piece on the Gospel of Judas and other articles of interest. I am happy to see that the Judas gospel is already being discussed seriously in the larger community because this gospel has much to teach us about early Christian self-identity and the existence of Sethian Christianity in the second century.

The Beginnings of Christianity: A Jewish Story

Tonight I'm giving a lecture at the Houston Museum of Natural Science as part of their exhibit on early Judaism and early Christianity. The title of my talk "The Beginnings of Christianity: A Jewish Story." The organizers contacted me last week and said that the auditorium is sold-out and that I will be speaking to a 400-person audience in the IMAX theatre. This is something I've never done before! Anyway, I have a nice powerpoint lecture with some good visuals. Should be a great time. Given the amount of interest in this topic, I will have to put this into my forbidden gospels lecture series. I will be covering Jesus' view on law, the first community of Jesus followers as Nazoreans and People of the Way. I will be going over the Didache along with canonical sources, ending with Justin Martyr and Trypho the Jew.