Monthly Archives: July 2010

A Non-Mythicist Jesus

The scholarly claim for a non-historical, “mythicist” Jesus is enjoying  a resurgence. Some of its promoters are Robert M. Price, Earl Doherty, G.A. Wells and others. The argument claims that Jesus was a mythological figure, a cosmic Christ-Savior who only gradually came to be viewed as a historical person. This view inverts the mainstream picture of a historical Jesus who was gradually transformed into a mythic figure. Mythicists generally argue that the New Testament’s earliest material is mythical, its later material (falsely) historical; that is, the Epistles with their exalted heavenly Christ expressed the earliest (mythical) view of Jesus, while the (so-called) biographical Gospels expressed a later, historicising perspective on Jesus. Therefore, mythicists support their claims by citing extra-Gospel New Testament texts that seem to describe the supra-mundane, celestial adventures of a mythical Christ figure. However, even among these texts, there are references to, recollections of, and assumptions about, a real Jesus who lived in actual history. The following randomly selected examples are offered as potential counter-weights to a purely mythicist view of Jesus.

Romans 1:3 – attests that Jesus was a human being, a Jew born and “made of the seed of David according to the flesh”

Romans 15:8 –  Paul states that he knows that Jesus’ mission was only to Israel

1 Corinthians 7:10-11 – Paul shows an awareness that Jesus had been concerned with matters of divorce, and Paul is bold enough to modify that teaching

1 Corinthians 9:5 – Paul is aware that Jesus had brothers, some married in Paul’s time (this is also a possible confirmation of the Gospel image of a celibate Jesus: had Jesus himself been married, Paul would likely have cited Jesus’ example rather than the example of “the other apostles, and the Lord’s brothers, and Kepha”)

1 Corinthians 9:14 – Paul recalls and refers to Jesus’ injunction that preachers should be supported by their followers rather than by mundane work

1 Corinthians 11:23 – Paul recalls an actual Jesus who was historically “handed over” to “the authorities”

1 Corinthians 15:5 – Paul is aware that Jesus had twelve special disciples

2 Corinthians 10:1 – Paul cites  “the meekness” and “gentleness” of Christ, as a human example Christians should follow

2 Corinthians 11:3 – Paul cites “the simplicity that is in Christ”, a possible reference to living by Jesus’ example

Galatians 1:19 – Paul explicitly identifies James (Yakov) as Jesus’ brother

* The following are some non-Pauline New Testament references to a historical Jesus. Although written pseudo-epigraphically – in Paul’s or other apostles’ names and as represetative of their authority – these texts fall outside of the generally accepted corpus of “the seven authentic Pauline letters”. However, this does not affect this essay’s listing of historical Jesus references outside of the Gospels. The cited texts are all canonical, even if “deutero-Pauline”, and directly affect the mythicist claim that references to a historical Jesus are not to be found in the New Testament’s extra-Gospel documents.

1 Timothy 6:13 – refers to Jesus’ trial, wherein he “gave good testimony” “before Pilate” – a claim that duplicates the Gospel’s historical claims about Jesus’ execution as a real event

Hebrews 4:15 – claims that, like human beings, Jesus was tempted “as we are”

Hebrews 7:14 – refers to a historical Jewish Jesus, the “Lord who sprang out of Judah”

1 Peter 2:19-24 –  testifies to the suffering of the human Jesus, who left an example “that you should follow in his steps.” Explicitly verses 22 through 24 state:

“[Christ Jesus] who did no sin, nor was there any guile in his speech: who, when he was reviled, did not revile in turn; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but committed himself to the righteous Judge; who himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live for that righteousness by whose stripes you were healed.”

Clearly, this text references a real, human Jesus who (though he was implicitly tempted), did not sin,  did not return threats and violence,  silently trusted God’s righteous judgment, and was crucified “on the tree”.

Of course, mythicists can offer the explanation that such examples must be interpolations of historicising “Gospel” materials anachronistically inserted into pristine mythicist texts . But since the texts as written do contain references to a non-mythicist, historical Jesus, the burden of proof rests on mythicists’ shoulders.

The Director who wasn’t There

In retrospect it is difficult to understand the popularity of Brian Flemming’s “documentary” film, The God who wasn’t There (2005), on atheistic websites that advertise themselves as bastions of education and rationality. Curious about all the hoopla, I finally buckled down and subjected myself to this viciously self-serving little diatribe.

The viewer might intuit that trouble lies ahead when the film asserts that for thousands of years “the sun revolved around the earth” – meaning, of course, that this erroneous idea was held to be true through the ages. No sooner does the film refute this terracentric fallacy than it asks, “If Christianity was wrong about that, could it be wrong about other things?” Missing here, obviously, is the simple fact that terracentrism was a cosmology held by most ancient people, from astronomers, astrologers, philosophers,  to merchants and sailors and emperors and, finally, priest-kings, prophets and other kinds of religionists. To select Christianity out of all of these candidates – and moreover, to ignore Christianity’s resiliency in admitting its incorrect involvement in pre-scientific mistaken identity – is symptomatic of Flemming’s entire approach and indeed the totality of his dysfunctional film.

Flemming soon repeats his folly. Introducing us to various “faces of Christianity” – the literally smiling faces of believers – the director-narrator darkly warns that there is another face of Christianity. The screen immediately cuts to the visage of mass-murderer Charles Manson, whose only involvement with Christianity that I am aware of was that he – and some of his “Family”  – sometimes thought of him as “Jesus”. Frankly, this egregiously nasty and wildly phoney association tempted me to stop watching then and there. But, because the film was advertised as containing interviews with serious scholars, I pressed on, to my chagrin.

Flemming’s main thesis is 1) that Jesus never existed and 2) that Flemming was screwed by Christianity. The film’s tone clearly suggests that point 2) is motivating point 1). Fleming has a chip on his shoulder and an axe to grind, and this personally negative tone falls across the film like a leprous shadow.

Regarding point 1), the film does present some scholarly reasons for thinking that perhaps there was no Jesus of history, that the original Jesus was a cosmic savior-hero whose exploits were only later condensed and reduced to the confines of a single historical human being and his historical life. The theory is intriguing. For instance, it goes some distance in explaining how, early on in the Christian story, so many different images of Jesus and so many varying christologies sprang into existence – and why the figure of Jesus has been reified into almost as many “fits” as there are scholars doing the research. From a certain perspective – the “mythicist” view – it looks as if a mythological being was being brought down to earth and gradually, inconsistently, clothed with human and semi-human attributes.

While this theory is worthy enough, my personal view at this time is based on the scholarly consensus that seven of Paul’s letters are “authentic” – that is, they have their major source in Paul’s own writing (at least his writing as taken down by scribes). In Paul’s letter (epistle) to the Galatians and scattered elsewhere through these authentic texts are Paul’s references to his personal acquaintance with Jesus’ own closest disciples, including James and Peter (Simon, Kephas). Now, unless these disciples completely imagined or invented their Master, it is clear that Paul was in contact with people who 1) knew that Jesus existed and 2) knew him personally. The fact that Paul frequently mentions the Judean disciples in semi-contemptuous terms (unlike them, Paul has a special revelation “not received from men”; the Judeans are mad circumcisers, etc.)  leads most scholars, via “the criterion of embarrassment”, to accept the disciples’ historicity, and therefore by implication, Jesus’ own historical reality. And this is where I place myself: the historical, pre-Easter Jesus was a Jewish mystic, parabolic teacher, and revitalization movement founder; the post-Easter Jesus was the risen, living, angelic, exalted/glorified Christ-Spirit, but still portrayed in primarily Jewish terms.  So, yes, for me, the pre-Easter Jesus was historical. But he doesn’t need to be, and if research should sway the consensus in the mythicist direction, I will need to re-evaluate my position.

As mentioned, this is where the film is best. Its clips of biblical scholar and H.P. Lovecraft afficianado Robert M. Price are informative and help to make a case for a mythicist, non-historical view of Christ. But most of the other interview material is peripheral at best and misleading at worst. The material featuring prominent atheists Sam Harris and Richard Carrier is moderately interesting but is utterly useless in making Flemming’s case for the mythical Christ. Rather, it only serves to unmask the director’s anti-religion agenda, as if to associate mythicism with a necessarily anti-religious and atheistic point of view. On the contrary – as Price himself has said many times – mythicism properly understood is a powerfully spiritual means of understanding world and self. Price has even cited myth-proponent Carl G. Jung’s famous reply to the question of his belief in God, “No, I don’t believe; I know”, as evidence of the psychological value of experiencing one’s own  “mystical, gnostic, inner” deity. But all such positives are ignored or mocked by Flemming’s shallow debunkery.

At the end of the film, Flemming abandons all show of objectivity, going back to his former conservative-Christian school to “interview” one of its chiefs, who requests that the taping be stopped. The problem seems to be that Flemming set up the interview under false pretenses, that the questions he formerly indicated would be asked were very different from the ones he actually does ask during the interview. His interviewee finally walks off-screen, to Flemming’s impotent, whining protests.  One’s sympathy falls toward the apparently victimized school head rather than to the corrosive Flemming.

As a final blow on behalf of Flemming’s self-justification, he finds that the school’s chapel is unlocked, a fortuitous opportunity for him to tiptoe in and make snide remarks about his endarkened, pre-atheistic student years. In his last image of himself, the chapel interior in the background, Flemming triumphantly proclaims that he has committed that famous Gospel “sin against the Holy Spirit” – and is proud of it. Finally, the true motivation of this film emerges: its director is hurt and petulant. And because of this, although he mis-states that he went searching for Jesus (but paradoxically only ended up finding Robert Price, Sam Harris, Richard Carrier and other mere atheistic mortals), the film fatally suffers. Aside from the few segments previously mentioned, this film is not worth watching. It is a shame that it gets so much free publicity on sites whose operators should – and unfortunately, in most cases, probably do – know better.

A “Buddhist” Film Review

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003), directed by Ki-Duk Kim.  South Korea.

This beautifully photographed and exquisitely paced film tells the story of a young monk, raised from childhood by an older monk/priest, in a floating shrine on a mountain lake. The film relates the wisdom of the elder monk and the follies of his young disciple, who has an affair with and impregnates a woman, leaves the shrine and who, like the New Testament’s Prodigal Son, finally returns full of world-sin. His old Master tries to rehabilitate his young charge. By the film’s end, we are to understand that the young monk has finally achieved inner peace, if not Enlightenment. Unfortunately, the film’s ending – spoilers ahead – does not support any sense of lasting merit for the protagonist’s attainments.

We are introduced to the young monk as a child, one of whose major amusements is tormenting various small animals that he encounters in a waterfall-fed stone basin. In this pond, the child finds a fish, a frog, and a snake,  to whom he ties stones fastened with string. The little boy giggles as he watches the creatures wriggle off and struggle with their burdens. However, while this is taking place, his Master, like a tutelary spirit, is watching the boy from a short distance. When the boy returns to the floating shrine and falls asleep for the night, the elder monk ties a heavy stone to the child’s back. The next morning, the old monk directs the boy, carrying his heavy load, back to the waterfall pond. There the boy seeks out the three animals he has wounded. The fish and the snake are dead; he finds the frog and unties the string and the stone, setting the frog free. He has begun to understand, through the imposed discipline of carrying his own stone, the suffering he has inflicted on the innocent.

The film continues, depicting the young monk’s trials and his difficult period of readjustment after returning to the shrine. At one point he is presented with a little boy – his own son, whom he must raise, as he was raised, in the floating shrine. Toward the end of the film, the young monk ties a heavy rock to himself and drags a statue of what appears to be Kwan-Yin (female Buddha of compassion) to the top of a high hill that overlooks the lake and the shrine. By taking on this discipline – imposed on him from without when a child –  as an adult, the monk affirms the value of compassionate understanding, as well as his Master’s truth of vision. One might think that the film would end here on a triumphal note of a soul rescued from egoic attachment to this illusionary samsaric world. But no: the film continues on for a few minutes, a time frame in which its affirmative message is questioned, if not overturned.

The whole thrust of the film is that the young monk learns that just as he has placed senseless, tormenting burdens on animals, so too he has placed burdens on other sentient beings, including himself.

His solitary pulling the stone up the mountain carrying Kwan-Yin reiterates the stone-pulling discipline that  the old monk imposed on the monk as a child. This time, it shows his own adult, mature, ultimate agreement with his Master’s principle that it is wrong to torment beings, and it symbolizes his acknowledgement of guilt. But in the film’s final minutes, the young monk’s own little boy is shown exhibiting exactly the same cruelty that his father had committed as a child so many years before. This is sickening to watch, and even worse to reflect upon.

This is what makes the film’s message unclear and the film itself a “downer”. Our young monk has spent a lifetime trying to learn compassion and the disavowal of power. Then, his own son hastens to duplicate his father’s worst behaviors. Only this time, when the son misbehaves, unlike the case of his father (who had the old monk as mentor), the little boy does not even have the advantage of his Dad following him around to monitor and correct his misbehavior.

Thus the ending scenario is even worse than its original presentation: our young monk had a guiding mentor who knew of, and corrected, his bad behavior. But, as filmed, it is clear that now the young monk’s son has no one watching out for him. This is unmistakably the meaning: had he chosen, in filming the little boy’s father-duplicating misadventures with innocent animals, the director could – as with the earlier scenario where the old monk monitors the young monk – easily have planted our young monk in the near background, the father checking up on his son. This explicit absence of adult-and/or Enlightened watchfulness and supervision in this second, final and significant scenario is glaring and can only be intentional. The director is clearly depicting the unfolding of samsara in the little boy’s life, but this time, without even a glimmer of future redemption. The viewer is unaccountably left with a feeling of “what’s the use?”

Among other things, Buddhism concerns itself with transcending the attachments and cruelties of egoic life. Spring’s final message, on the contrary, almost seems a capitulation to ego, attachment, and cruelty as eternal givens just barely, if at all, subject to human mitigation. It states that our condition of evil and ignorance – samsara – lives on, despite the hard lessons and best efforts of our young monk; despite the self-mastery of someone who has understood samsara’s illusional nature and is now raising his own little boy as a monk. Some might find this statement to simply be a pragmatic depiction of samsara’s prevalence. However, that interpretation does not make much sense in view of all that has gone before it in terms of suffering, guilt, struggle, seeking and attainment.

It is essential to realize – which the film fails to do – that the core Buddhist message is also that samsara can be depotentiated. Instead of expressing the hopeful Buddhist message that cruelty and self-power can be transcended, Spring’s climax practically rubs our nose in samsara, saying in essence: “See? Samsaric ignorance repeats itself in all generations.”  At this point we may justifiably ask: So? We sat through this long movie just to hear that cliched bit of common knowledge? Then why the huge build up of expectation and hopefulness, of struggle and inner peace sought/inner peace found?

In many reviews and on many websites Spring is advertised as some kind of classic Buddhist film, but I feel that this is not the case at all. Buddha said, “I teach suffering… AND the END of suffering.” This film mostly portrays the first half of Buddha’s dictum, leaving the human condition in a perpetual state of suffering, ignorance, and cruelty, while virtually ignoring the liberating second half which concerns liberation. Buddha taught that the Dharma was for all, and was the single Law that mitigates samsara.  But Spring seems to severely limit the universal thrust of Buddha’s intent by the way in which it depicts the “next generation” – in the person of the young monk’s child – as continuing on in an almost genetic line of cruelty.

“Narrow is the Way” seems to be Kim’s message – a way much narrower than the Buddha ever implied. If director Kim wants us to think that all will be well because after all the little boy is our young monk’s son and is being raised as a monk, he needs to think again. Our young monk himself was raised in a holy manner and still threw his life to the winds, even with Master-mentoring. But Spring’s final moments quite deliberately show the young monk’s child alone in the grotto, without a hint of fatherly-Masterly supervision… a dark unfolding with  an even darker implication. And that is what makes this movie a downer.