Monthly Archives: April 2009

Jesus and Shamanism

(For Nazrudin)

Identifying the historical Jesus is no easy task.  Some deny his existence altogether; others find as many identities for him as searches performed, with Jesus often ending up  strangely congruent with the researcher’s own christological views.  An old admonition to biblical scholars goes something like, “Beware of the Jesus you are comfortable with.”  The present writer finds the work of New Testament scholar Marcus J. Borg helpful in this matter.

Addressing theories claiming that the figure of the New Testament Jesus is mostly an amalgam of mythological – and especially pagan mythological – conventions,  Borg suggests an alternative view.

From what we now know from global comparative religious studies, Borg says, Jesus can be identified as fitting among several different types of religious practitioners.  That is, Jesus, and figures like him, abound in documented spiritual “types” found in religions across the world.  Obviously, these people are not fictions in the present or from the past.  They are real, and not myth.  It is not necessary, Borg claims, to leap to paganism and mythology to delineate Jesus, because, like documented contemporary religious figures, Jesus, too, was real, and not myth.

Borg applies the criterion of comparative religious typology to Jesus and finds that Jesus has in common with global religious types such attributes as:

Spirit person or holy person, familiar with God, Spirit, heaven, the underworld, ancestors, etc. 

Charismatic mediator, a person whose personality draws to himself or herself others in his/her group, and who mediates between the (earthly) group and heaven.

Transformative sage, a person who delivers wisdom teachings (such as parables, metaphors, koans) designed to cause inner spiritual transformation in the recipient.  A subset of this category might be called Teacher of Enlightenment, defined as one who is mystically, spiritually enlightened (who has attained bodhi or samadhi), or has at least undergone several powerful enlightement experiences (one who has had satoris).

Wonder worker, healer, exorcist, a person who cures illnesses and “heals” the social stigma attached to diseases; one who influences his/her environment and the “heart”  in little understood ways; one who expels demons or “unclean” spirits considered as causes of mental, physical and spiritual malaise.

Social prophet, a person who attempts to change the religious status quo in the interests of intensification of the tradition, supplementation of the tradition, or evolution of/breaking with the tradition.

Renewal movement founder, a person who reforms and transforms the religion and/or its traditions to the extent that s/he is considered to be the leader of a new, sectarian group within the larger religious grouping.

Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament easily fits with all of these observed, documented figures and categories.  Conversely, these figures and categories reflect what is written of  historical figures like Jesus.   The present posting will explore Borg’s suggested comparative categories at a very primal point in the Gospel story: namely, the traits of Jesus’ ministry that have strong affinities with shamanism.  We will also avail ourselves of the scholarly work of the late Morton Smith, Alan F. Segal, Larry Hurtado, Bruce Chilton, Robert Eisenman, Hugh Schonfield and many others.

Jesus the Shaman

(The supposed crudity, ignorance and filth commonly associated in the West with shamanism will in this essay be regarded as mere prejudice.  As shamanic scholar Michael Harner has said, in addition to ethnocentricity, there is an equally biased form of perception: cognicentricity, the notion that one’s own cultural way of knowing is the only correct way.  The present writer eschews the condemnatory view of shamanism, and recalls that the earliest connotation of “enlightenment” was probably shamanic enlightenment: the perception of reality in an ineffable spiritual “light.”)

Consulting Morton Smith, we present a partial list of shamanic-magical traits ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament.

Jesus continued a ritual of water immersion begun by John the Baptizer, developed by Jesus, and practiced by Paul.  As Smith said, if we view primitive Christianity as a baptismal group, we see the rite as initiated by John, developed by Jesus as a (short) middle term, and culminating in Pauline baptism.  “Jesist” baptism effected union with the Holy Spirit and/or Jesus’ spirit.

In the miracle stories Jesus cures by touch, manipulation, by looking heavenward, sighing or groaning, invoking Aramaic phrases to affect the cure, anointing with a salve compounded with dirt and spittle, touching the afflicted person’s tongue or eyes, expressing anger at the demons responsible for illness, driving out  demons, instructing disciples to pray and fast before performing exorcisms.

In the “biographical” stories Jesus undergoes a ritual of water immersion administered by an acknowledged prophet, during which a dove-like spirit descends on him and a divine voice declares him to be “Son,” Jesus is then”driven” (Mark’s term)  into the desert by his newly-acquired spirit where he undergoes a shamanic ordeal of prayer, fasting and temptation during which “his” spirit defeats another, “unholy” spirit (“the devil”); and after which Jesus returns from his ordeal with a mission and the new power “to make anyone follow him” –  as well as the power to drive out evil spirits and to control them remotely, as well as to perform miraculous cures,  to still storms and to raise the dead; to communicate his exorcistic and healing powers to disciples, to provide food miraculously, to change water into wine, to walk on water, to make miraculous escapes and to travel invisibly.

Jesus claims to possess the keys of the kingdom,  undergoes metamorphosis and enjoys the gifts of precognition and telepathy; Jesus claims authority to interpret scripture, to establish and represent the Kingdom of God, and to reform tribal cultic practices;  Jesus introduces new rites that unite his followers to him, such as foot washing, baptism, and the eucharist; Jesus claims unity with supernatural beings and exclusive knowledge of his god.

Moreover,  Jesus continues to act posthumously, exhibiting invisibility, bilocation, materialization/dematerialization, and levitation; this risen or “post-Easter” Jesus is now claimed to have ascended to the heavenly realm, continuing to work wonders from that exalted location and who, in a monotheistic Jewish context  (!)  can now even be prayed to (the Aramaic Maranatha Prayer).  Jesus, the “man who came down from heaven,” who embodied a (or the)  Holy Spirit, is now a risen, radiant, star-like heavenly being.  He is, in fact, on the way to becoming an example of that peculiar christology condemned by the rabbis, namely, a “second Power in heaven.”

Jesus the Vision Questor

With Jesus’ immersion in Spirit one can plausibly theorize that he was enlightened or at least customarily experienced satori-like glimpses of enlightenment.  His culture did not possess the Eastern “psychology of enlightenment” that existed in Buddhism and Hinduism, but judging from the christological titles assigned to him by the early Jewish “church,” we may surmise that he had undergone a kind of “Jewish” enlightenment.  Surely his self-description as the Son of Man points to this.

Some maintain that this Aramaic expression  bar nasha, (in Hebrew, ben adam)was simply Jesus’ self-deprecating manner of indicating himself.  In this context bar nasha simply means “the man,” and Jesus was merely euphemistically referring to himself: “the Son of Man says this” was Jesus’ humble way of saying, “this man, this guy, I myself, say this.”

However, this view ignores Jesus’ sayings that ascribe a heavenly, mystical meaning to “Son of Man.” In his trial before the high priests, Jesus answers the question of his messiahship by saying in so many words, “You have spoken correctly: I am the messiah, and you will see the Son of Man coming with Power in the clouds with great glory.”  This is, if nothing else, a “high-christological” statement embedded in a deeply Jewish context, and it verges on the dreaded “Two Powers” heresy.  No wonder that on hearing the high priest tore his robes and charged Jesus with blasphemy.  In this context, “Son of Man” is can no longer be seen as an innocuous self-designation.

This is an explicit identification of the Son of Man with a celestial figure closely associated with “the Power” (God).  Jesus is calling himself this Son of Man, or is at least claiming an intimate familiarity, if not identity, with that heavenly figure. When we recall (in a safely) metaphorical sense that  the Torah already contained “two Powers'” heaven, Jesus’ statement becomes very bold and provocative.  Ezekiel, Isaiah and Daniel describe a Primal Man, Heavenly Man, Adam-like Man, the Adam Kadmon – a “Standing One” in heaven next to God’s throne.  He was sometimes called Metatron, the one who stands beyond the Throne. He was sometimes called Yahoel (“Yahweh, Junior”).  Yahoel was God’s chief assisting angel, who bore the divine Name and had the power to exercise divine judgment.  Jesus, the Son of Man on earth, certainly verged on acting as if he had the knowledge and authority of a Yahoel or an Adam Kadmon.

H.J. Schonfield envisions Paul’s Christ as the “unmanifest” Adam Kadmon made temporarily manifest in Jesus and then returning to his place in heaven; carrying with him his transformed humanity, in and as,  the risen, exalted, glorified Jesus.  Certainly Jesus’ earliest Jewish followers viewed him as standing by God’s throne, bearing God’s name, and charged with (eventually) administering God’s judgment.  In this early, primitive, monotheistic, Jewish context Jesus is Son of God and Son of Man, the functional equivalent of the Standing One, the heavenly Son of Man, Metatron, Adam Kadmon, the Primal Man, and Yahoel.

Clearly, given Jesus’ own mystical, parabolic  statements, self-designations, miraculous/’magical/shamanic deeds, and the claims made for him in the earliest forms of Christianity, it is extremely reasonable to view him as enlightened.  How did his enlightenment come about?  We can’t possibly know, but we can make educated guesses.

Some of the earliest Jewish views considered that Jesus became enlightened – i.e., was adopted by God, was granted the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and was charged with a mission – during his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptizer.  Some versions present this as a public event, others as a private vision where Jesus sees the heavens opened, a dove-like spirit descending on him, and hears the bat kol or divine Voice adopting him as “Son.”

Jesus’ presence among the crowds that flocked to see John indicates that he, too, was a religious seeker.  At the very least as a loyal Israelite, Jesus was likely to have been interested in the transformative (and inexpensive) potentials of John’s baptismal rite.  Moreover, the New Testament and other sources document a close connection between the Baptizer and the Galilean.  A plausible scenario is that, among other devout Kingdom-seekers, Jesus joined John’s movement, with John acting as mentor to the young pilgrim.  The New Testament may preserve elements of this when it mentions that before baptizing Jesus, John knew Jesus, was Jesus’ cousin, and recognized Jesus’s spiritual potential.

John’s Gospel reports that Jesus, after John’s having witnessed the descent of the spirit on his unusual cousin, began his own baptizing movement.  John’s Gospel states that Jesus himself baptized; then contradicts that claim by saying that only Jesus’ disciples baptized.  The irreducable point here, though, is the report that Jesus was baptized; was associated with John possibly as a disciple; received a holy spirit through John’s ritual; supported the practice of baptism, even to the extent of  starting his own version of it.

Moreover, John’s Gospel reports that Jesus in his baptizing ministry began to make more disciples than John was making.  In plausible deference to his old teacher, Jesus moved his activity away from John’s locale.  Here we have an example of Jesus the Spirit-filled leader of a new baptismal group, separate from, and becoming more popular, than John’s.  Moreover, Jesus’ new ministry probably contained a new teaching about the Holy Spirit, which is not surprising since Jesus had recently experienced a transforming encounter with God and God’s Spirit; in fact, Jesus’ form of baptism was actually said to convey the Holy Spirit or Jesus’ own personal spirit – a strikingly shamanic notion. In fact, John’s Gospel (chapter 3) sandwiches Jesus’ (secret, nocturnal) baptismal teaching about the Spirit between two chapters dealing prominently with Spirit, the Baptist, and baptism (chapters 2 and 4).  So here we see that the factors: Jesus, John the Immerser, baptism, reception of the Holy Spirit, are deeply shamanic and deeply connected in the New Testament portrayal of Jesus and his ministry.

As we have seen, Jesus the religious seeker underwent a water immersion ritual during which “the heavens opened” and a tutelary Spirit descended from those heavens.  He underwent a typically shamanic ordeal of prayer and fasting.  During that ordeal he found that his Spirit, or his new life in the Spirit, overcame another, evil spirit.  After this experience, Jesus the shaman became a “master of spirits,” able to understand the principles of their activities and able to cast them out – even remotely.  He spoke for his Spirit and the God represented by that Spirit, and communicated living experiences of his Spirit, and of himself, as the radiant Son of Man (e.g., the Gospels’ “Transfiguration,” resurrection and ascension narratives).  Even now he continues, claim the scriptures and modern Christians,  to be an effective messiah, a shaman-magician, a risen holy person, charismatically mediating the Sacred from heaven within human hearts united with his own holy spirit. In Messiah Jesus, the manifest and unmanifest Adam Kadmon,  the ultimate flourishing of Jewish shamanic enlightenment blazes forth.

Spiritual Enlightenment: A Western Prejudice

There is a popular theory that Jesus had an important connection to India.  Some say that Jesus went to India during his “lost years” and studied with Buddhist monks.  Others say that Jesus traveled to India after surviving the crucifixion, and ministered to Diaspora Jews there, and preached against Hindu religious abuses.  That Jesus could have traveled to India is a possibility, of course, and any supportive evidence ought be carefully and critically sifted and assessed.  However, there is all too often a hidden agenda that drives this idea, namely, that Jesus’ teaching was un-Jewish, vastly superior to Jewish moral and theological views, and that Jesus must have imbibed Eastern ideas because (it is strongly implied) “Jews don’t get enlightened.”  This ideology is nothing but prejudice.

Although Jesus cannot be reduced to Jewish cultural categories, or entirely explained by them, nevertheless he was immersed in them, was at home in them, and expressed much of his mission in their terms.  He famously said that Torah would not pass away, and he frequently faulted would-be followers for not being faithful enough to Torah.  Moreover, he claimed that his mission was not meant to destroy or replace the Law, but to fulfill it.  He intensified rather than diminished Torah’s extant teachings on justice, mercy and compassion.

An understanding of Jewish mysticism, particularly the practice of “Ascent” (to the heavens), angelomorphology, Adam Kadmon/Son of Man/Second Adam christology goes far to establish a rich Jewish experiential basis for Jesus’ religious vision and sense of mission.

In Jesus’ day, the Kingdom of Heaven, God’s Realm ( particularly his throne room) were seen as accessible through mystical ascent, identification with angelic beings, and/or entering the membership of angelic councils (or, conversely, causing the heavenly realm to descend to earth).  One who ascended, like Enoch, might learn heaven’s secrets, meet heavenly figures, attain angelic status, and descend to earth with a divinely-given message or mission.  The Qumran sectarians, in fact, specialized in gaining spiritual power and wisdom by learning the names of angels and ascending to the heavenly court to attend Divine Worship as guests, or as mortals transformed into angelic beings.  The Qumranian author of the text “4Q 491” claims to have done exactly that.  So does Paul, who, whether “in” or “out” of his body, ascended to heaven and heard unspeakable things.  Practices existed whereby some Jews might obtain a tutelary spirit, just as Jesus was said to “have” – that is, to possess, or be possessed by – a (or the) holy spirit.

It is clear from all this that mystical experience and unitary theosis was readily available in Jesus’ culture, with no necessity for a leap to India, Buddhism, and Eastern religions generally.  Indeed, Jesus – with his mysterious pronouncements about God’s nature, his paradoxical parables, his claimed knowledge of the disposition and status of souls in the afterlife, his claim to be united to God, his claim to be versed in the ways of the Holy Spirit, and many other of his mystical assertions – surely resembles that other sage who revealed the Path of the Dharma.  The difference is that Jesus was a Jewish mystic in the stream of Jewish mysticism, not a Hindu reformer turned Tathagatha.

The issue of the source of Jesus’ authority was an important source of conflict during his ministry.  Given the several Jewish means of uniting with Spirit extant in Jesus’ time, it becomes highly plausible that through spiritual practice (or perhaps even spontaneously) Jesus had personal contact with “heaven.”  In the Synoptic gospels, Jesus speaks as one who reveals heaven, Spirit, and God because he knows of these things.  He seems almost to be  a man who came down from heaven.  Even more so in John’s Gospel, Jesus is explicitly the one who has gone up to, and come down from, heaven.   Moreover, he must return to the place where he enjoyed with God a glorious existence “before the world was made.”

Jesus, the man from heaven, taught a way of death and resurrection.  This was a spiritual, not a physical, process.  Those who would enter God’s Kingdom, said Jesus, must take up their cross (Luke says this must be done “daily”).  In historical context, the Roman cross meant a death preceded by carrying the crossbeam to the execution site where upright stakes awaited attachment of victim and crossbeam.  Thus to “take up” one’s cross meant death.  Jesus also alluded to losing one’s self or one’s life in order to find it.  This idea corresponds to ego-death in Buddhistic mysticism as well as in many other religio-mystical systems.  But again, the difference is that Jesus made these claims in a wholly Jewish context, using Jewish terms.  The Buddha, yogins, gurus and other Eastern figures may have presented similar means of dying to self, but Jesus formulated his means without assistance from the Orient.

That Jesus traveled to India is a fascinating historical speculation.  The point, however, is that much of what Jesus said, did, and taught was readily available – and readily available to develop and evolve in consequence of Jesus’ mystical experience – in his native Jewish culture.  If Jesus the Jew “got enlightened,” it was in a Semitic, not an Indian, context.

A Resurrection Riddle

Christianity proclaims Jesus’ resurrection as a new lease on spiritual life, and specifically as a proof of eternal life.  In Jesus’ rising from the dead, what God did for Jesus, God will do for us, and by raising Jesus, God stamped Jesus’ life with divine approval.  The resurrection is said to be Jesus’ victory over death, in which all believers will share at the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time.  The resurrection, celebrated at Easter, is Christianity’s central truth.  However, given the cultural climate in which the resurrection was first proclaimed, it is puzzling that it became enshrined so firmly, first in Mediterranean, and later in European, culture.

The ancient world generally held a belief in the afterlife.  The soul’s survival of physical death was a cultural given.  There were, of course, materialists and those who denied human immortality, but even these operated in a social milieu that widely held survival to be real.  From the earliest shamanism through Egyptian spirituality, classical “paganism,” Greek Olympian theology, to Rome’s own religion and its borrowing from Greek and Asiatic religions, the soul’s immortality was a common theme.

That being the case, the question arises:  What did the Christian doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection have to add to Hellenistic religion,  that Hellenistic religion did not already have?  The present writer does not have an answer to this question.  On the contrary, I find the eventual embrace of Jesus’ resurrection by Hellenistic and European culture a lively riddle.  Paganism considered that it already had spiritual immortality as its birthright.  Human beings were guaranteed immortality, usually,  not through a miraculous action of God or Gods, but because it is in the soul’s nature to be immortal, just as it is (say) in the nature of certain seeds to survive forest or grass fires.  No special intervention is required for the soul’s survival of physical death, although the ultimate disposition or state of the surviving soul can depend on the person’s moral behavior during his or her “enfleshed” life.

So, granted a prevailing belief in natural immortality, what could the addition of a risen body do to enhance or support or further that belief?  I can’t see that it does.  On the contrary, a resurrected body only adds an unnecessary complication.  If the mind, personality, consciousness of the individual is immortal, of what use is an extraneous body?  Much of Hellenistic culture, in fact, viewed the body as a spiritual impediment in this life, and would regard its posthumous survival, along with the soul, as dead weight.  Since our personal consciousness – our soul, our spirit – by nature survives death, the body’s survival is at best a non-issue, at worst, a difficult-to-explain encumbrance.

Typically, Semitic religion viewed the human person not as a soul temporarily incarnated in a body, but as a unity, a “body-soul.”  So that notion of an afterlife necessarily included resurrection of the body.  Jesus’ resurrection was held to be the first case in the coming general resurrection – the resurrection of the human person considered as body-and-soul.  Jesus’ resurrection, then, perfectly represented Semitic afterlife concepts, but was remarkabely unsuited for importation into  the greater surrounding Greco-Roman culture.  Therefore its existence and persistence  in Gentile Greco-Roman and northern European culture is somewhat baffling.  Certainly the “Church Fathers” and the network of bishops were responsible for spreading and maintainin Christian doctrines, including the doctrine of the resurrection.  But what accounted for its seemingly easy, if not enthusiastic,  acceptance by an audience that already possessed immortality as its birthright?