Friday, May 16, 2008
A few evenings ago I was sitting on the porch of an old friend’s Pretoria home. We were some way down a bottle of Bells – three glasses each. It was then that he asked me about the origins of Christianity.
This particular friend and I have come a long way together. We are known for the ability to finish a bottle of Bell’s together and for a legendary holiday.
Many years ago when we both lived in Pretoria on one holiday, we made the approximately 1 200km trip by car down to Cape Town for the holiday.
We would reach Cape Town by around 8:00 or 9:00 pm, headed for the clubs in Sea Point and by 3:00 or 4:00 am we were sitting at the door, asking every sexy girl leaving the club for a place to stay for the night (I have always been an optimist 🙂 )
Needless to say that if (most of the time – “when”) we did not have any luck picking up girls by this time, we would end up spending the night at a sympathetic guy flat. We would keep this up till we could spot a cheap back-packers lodge or a campsite to pitch our tent for the rest of our stay.
A few evenings ago we were not about to go on a holiday. Instead, we were involved in the other activity we are known for and my friend poured a double Bell’s with soda as we got comfortable for the discussion ahead while the African sun was setting over the Pretoria horizon.
The subject of the origins of Christianity. The Bible looks at face value like a wholly remarkable book. Even more remarkable than the “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”. Unlike the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy with the words “DON’T PANIC” printed in bold on its cover, the Bible requires us to panic! And it seems as if the central theme (the command to “PANIC”) and the counter-panic-measure (the death of the leader – creating ant-panic, something like anti-matter) is the central theme of all 66 books which makes up the Bible.
It is claimed by many that this consistent message (PANIC and ant-panic) is something “supernatural”. If one did not know any better, you could think that it came from a “GOD”. This is however far from the truth.
Apart from the fact that everything on earth points away from even the remote possibility for the existence of the God of the Bible, there are really only a few central hubs of tradition in the Bible where everything came from.
Many different writers with the same calibration point will seem to be writing over many generations with seemingly remarkable consistency in content, but this would be easily explained by the fact that they were all calibrated to the same reference point.
One does not need any special training to see this.
The first five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) is the cornerstone of the entire Bible in a magnificently majestic way. It is the Southern Cross of the entire Bible. The point that every bible writer referenced (with the exception of some minor authors and possibly some aspects of the Psalms).
The Pentateuch (the collective name for the first five books of the Bible) is nothing less than the constitution of the ancient nation of Israel – the Jews. It is the founding document for the ancient nation and the founding document for the Jewish and the Christian faith.
The rest of the Bible (in particular the Old Testament) merely looks back to these books. The historical books of the Old Testament tell about the consequences of obeying or disobeying the commandments in the Pentateuch.
It is however not simply historical in nature. It is prophetic-historical in nature. Unlike the normal understanding of the term “prophetic”, meaning an ability to predict the future, these books are prophetic in the sense that it re-interprets history from the perspective of the Pentateuch. It is looking back.
After the account of how the territory of ancient Israel was conquered, the historical books of Kings and Chronicles follow as the prophetic commentary on the tribes of Israel coming together and being united under a Bismark like figure. In the same way, as Bismarck unified the German tribes and formed the modern-day nation of Germany, King David or a King David like figure brought the nomadic tribes of Israel (Israel’s sons as head of the tribes) together and formed a powerful new empire.
Whether the first five books of the Bible were written along with many of the other books of the Bible by someone like the scribe Ezra or and Ezra-like figure, this is how the Old Testament was set up structurally. Most of the books following the Pentateuch look back at the Pentateuch.
There is a further structural break in the Old Testament that can be clearly seen namely the exile. Books dealing with events before the exile and those dealing with events after the return to the land by some Jews.
After the exile, the theme of the Messiah or the Saviour becomes more developed, but even the later prophets continued to mainly reference the Pentateuch.
It is no wonder that there seems to be consistency in the message of the Old Testament. It is like thousands of authors writing on the constitution of the US. They will deal with the same basic subject matter.
The New Testament is equally unremarkable in its supposed central theme.
Matthew, Mark and Luke are effectively the same accounts, literally copied from one or two sources with some original material added by each writer. Luke continues where he leaves off in his gospel and he also gave us the Acts of the Apostles, but one can broadly group Acts with the Synoptic Gospels.
John contributed the Gospel of John and the three Epistles.
Paul wrote most of the rest of the New Testament and then there are a small and heavily disputed group of contributors. This will include the guys who wrote Jude, Hebrews, Revelation and James.
The many contributors to the New Testament very quickly dwindle down to three main “hubs” of tradition. The Synoptic Gospels and Acts, John and Paul.
The central theme of the New Testament is the life, death and implications of Jesus and a broadening in scope of the Pentateuch. It opened the narrow national focus of the Pentateuch to a spiritual nation which includes the gentiles as well, thus making it more superior in “marketability” to the old Jewish faith and this accounts for the fact that Christianity prevailed and became the dominant world religion for many years.
All of a sudden it is not that difficult to see how 66 books can look on the surface very much alike in style and message with two broad traditions being the Pentateuch and the tradition related to Jesus Christ.
I started to panic when my friend and his girlfriend got ready for a barbecue 9:00 pm on a Sunday night. I got premonitions of a disastrous Monday to follow. They put a few logs in the fireplace and lid the fire.
I did my utmost to disguise my panic. My friend must have sensed this since he poured me another single Bells on the rocks. A double.
If there was one guy whom I know did not panic according to the Bible, it was Jesus.
I pointed out to my friend that as the Messianic tradition develops in the Old Testament, the so-called prophets predicted that this guy would be anything and everything conceivable. If the scope of predictions were wide enough about this guy, it would be easy for many people to fit the bill.
He would be an exalted leader who would conquer all the national enemies and he would be lowly and rejected by all with seemingly little success. He would be accepted and he would be rejected.
With so many options, it is no wonder that so many candidates showed up in Jerusalem. They showed up in their droves (they even continue to show up to this day) and behind the scenes were the whispers – “could this be the expected one?” Every child born as a royal descendant from David had the inherent potential of being the saviour.
These Messiahs had many followers and as one could have been expected, most were brutally killed by the Romans and their followers dispersed. Their hopes shattered.
The conditions in first-century Palestine and Galilee were reason enough for any Jew in the promised land to live in a perpetual state of PANIC. With a perpetual state of PANIC comes and perpetual and heightened hope for an un-PANIC agent. A Saviour!!
Is it possible that one of the many Saviour who presented themselves, might have been sentenced to die, like the rest? What would happen if such a saviour, sentenced to death, would actually survive the attempt to execute the death penalty?
There are after all records of convicts surviving crucifixion. Not many, but there are such accounts.
What would follow would be clear even to my 11-year-old son. The mortal would immediately be turned into a GOD! The man would become a legend!!
The tradition that surrounded his life; the same stories that would have accompanied the activities of the many now-dead Saviour candidates would be immortalised.
And as it is, there is a remarkable scarcity of traditions surrounding the life and death of Jesus Christ. There is the Matthew/ Mark/ Luke account. One same very broad tradition.
There is the religious account of the spread of the tradition of Jesus and the institutionalisation of the new “faith” and there is the intellectual development of the tradition, mainly by Paul.
Then there is John and the few minor and disputed contributors.
We all know what happens to any story. Every time it is told, it is told with just some small aspect added to make it even more “amazing”. We all like AMAZING stories! We like the feeling of not panicking!
One example. When Jesus was presented to his followers after his “resurrection” (resuscitation – ?), I can see how the story could very quickly develop into “he simply appeared in our midst from thin air!”
None of this is far fetched.
There is the story of a Jew showing up in India with a few followers with the “signs of the crucifixion” on his body who apparently arrived in India after he survived a crucifixion at around the same time as when Jesus was supposed to have been crucified. In fact, the grave of this person can be seen in India to this day.
Whether this was in fact Jesus who was whisked away from Jerusalem by his followers after he survived the crucifixion is not the important fact here. It can not be established if this tradition developed in the time when Jesus was supposed to have been crucified. It may be a tradition that developed hundreds of years later.
What is important is that this is a real and credible possibility.
Jesus did not PANIC!!
Instead, he became immortalized as the Son of God, the LOGOS of Philo of Alexandria and the Messiah of the Old Testament.
Neither did I panic. My friend did not intend to have a barbecue. It turned out that he was just cold as winter was setting in in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Bells was almost finished. We agreed to continue our conversation the following weekend.
When my head hit the pillow that evening, I was dreaming good dreams. Calm dreams. Dreams in which nobody chased me and in which I did not have to PANIC!
(c) eben van tonder