This is the second in the series of Inspection columns inspired by Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianites. His body: a metaphor for how little others have understood who he really was before and after, crucifixion.
As the body twitched and quivered into the arms of Death; animals approached. They ripped out legs, broke off arms. Scratching out eyes with claws, others attempted to shred and plunge their way into his body so they might eat his heart. Yet for each body part taken another grew. Despite this amazing regenerative ability, the body was still a body; risen or not… nothing more: a mere vehicle for the man, the prophet, the “Savior.” To this day they still fight over his carcass, regardless of the obvious, “He is not here.”
As the years passed some animals were killed off by others, but there were always thrice fold to replace them. If their goal was to become the sole source for divining his message: they failed, for others will always understand his message in their own way.
Who was this fellow, Jesus?
What best represents who he was?
Crossing oneself when passing an altar?
Oh, we know what the most stringent of orthodox Christians believe, not only because of the celebration of his birth placed at the end of this disciple-like twelve month cycle-circle, but because that view has long dominated humanity’s vista; too often forced down our collective throats to the point of “gag.” If it were up to the most fundamentalistic of the orthodox it would be all we are allowed to see, all we could consider; something that must lead to severe punishment if contradicted; as if just saying “happy holidays’ instead of “merry Christmas” is actually some conspiracy, or vile crime. We may not burn or physically torment those considered heretics: those deemed theologically incorrect much any more, but we often go way out of our way to avoid offending those who use offense as mere method to silence others.
I have always been intrigued by Jesus.
Who was this man that inspires so much devotion? Who was this enigma who walked the sands of what is now Israel some odd 2,000 years ago, whose teachings have spread worldwide? We know that the myths which surround Jesus weren’t born with him. They were around long before Jesus was born. Other deities and prophets have been supposedly “born of a virgin,” or “raised the dead.” There were many during that time who claimed to perform miracles.
Jesus and stories about him have stayed with us. Not one of the other wannabe stories can match the depth of that story telling, or the amount of stories told; leaving fading footprints in the form of footnotes being washed away by time… at best.
I am sure the orthodox would insist they; and they alone, have kept the flame alive; firmed up his footprints so all can know the one, the only, “true” religion. But what is “orthodox” changes, from Jews in high positions who led Jesus to the cross, to the Puritans who fined any sign of celebrating his birth. Yet Jesus lives on… not because, but despite, orthodox attempts to maintain theistic purity.
Jesus has resisted being nailed down by any one group of believers; any single sect, ever since he was born; probably on some date other than what we celebrate. Throughout history, when the Catholic Church, or otherwise orthodox, or Fundamentalists, have attempted to anchor him to a singular kind of cross, he has ripped himself free. People flock to him from all kinds of theological persuasions, and various variations; interpretations, of his story. And his story has embraced them.
New interpretations of his story have grown; become controversial movies, despite attempts to create serious shrinkage.
All these variations and interpretations remind me of Christmas wrappings.
The kind of Christmas presents Jesus still gives are actually wrapped in interesting paper: learning from each other; through discussion and the scholars who have studied and assessed the various scriptures both in the Bible, and writings banned from it. The orthodox have a long list of banned gifts. They’re checking it twice. Snooping into lives to decide who they consider naughty, or nice. But no matter how hard they try, stories and interpretations of stories, live on, revive: ripping themselves off of crosses and rise again.
The power of words is amazing, isn’t it?
On a website called The Chimp, a few weeks ago, we gathered; as often we do: believers and not, in what I consider a holy event: discussion. One thread claimed Jesus was Black.
Here was my response to the “Jesus was Black” claim…
“This is only true if you accept the rather absurd premise that racial make up is either Black or White: the same mistake Neo Cons and rabid fanatics of all kinds make about life in general.”
‘A man of color?”
“But even the question betrays, once again, our tendency to focus on form, not substance, on the absurdly inconsequential rather than the crucial.”
‘It’s the message, stupid.’
“With the excesses of Nicaea, provable biblical alterations (see Bart Ehrman’s many books) and all we don’t consider; there’s enough here to argue about and discuss. What did he really say? What did he mean? Even the disciples didn’t agree.”
“Instead our arguments seem to center around the intellectual equivalent of what flavor bubblegum he might prefer.”
I understand: my response seems to contradict all I’ve typed so far.
Imagine the most perfect Christmas gift possible. A gift to all. One that works in so many ways; a gift that for a boy can be a bike, for a girl a doll, for an old man a loving old woman to live his final days with, a gift that makes otherwise self absorbed give unto others… This, intended or not, is the gift Jesus gives us.
And I intentionally smeared my own cynical opinions all over one interpretation, one revision?
So, yes, by posting that opinion I felt more than a little guilty. Who am I to criticize attempts to unwrap the gifts he continues to give with one’s unique perspective? Yes, who am I? “I” am the same as they: a person with the right to contribute to that vision; not all that unlike yet another stumbling, bumbling… always behind the Master and his message, disciple. The very kind of person Jesus reached out to, attempting to touch them with words… hoping they’ll find meaning.
Hey, if it brings them closer to the message, then that’s a wonderful thing. I was also reminded of Klan members and suicidal cultists who abuse this these gifts use Jesus as if he were a weapon or some purer, holier than thou, hand grenade.
The story of Jesus means nothing if we cannot understand it; each in our own unique ways, and attempt to bridge gaps between our differences; learn from each other. I was simply sharing my own perspective, hoping to learn too.
None of this is new. Indeed one must call it a “tradition.”
Squabbling amongst followers is as old as his ministry itself. The disciples fought amongst themselves. According to Bart Erhman, in Lost Christianities, the Ebionites attacked those who would eventually become the more successful; orthodox… winning side, if you wish… shortly after the crucifixion. They believed, for example…
“Peter, not Paul, is the true authority for understanding the message of Jesus. Paul has corrupted the true faith based on a brief vision… Paul is thus the enemy of the apostles, not the chief of them… a heretic to be banned.”(Pg 184)
Let’s flip this theological coin…
The Marcionites, of course, would have probably felt comfortable switching Peter with Paul, Paul with Peter in that paragraph. Some followers; various kinds; including some of the Gnostic sects, might have inserted Mary in the authority position. Others, soon to be considered orthodox, would consider Mary’s gender closer to “enemy…” a unique circular firing squad made up of the same names of quarreling folk musicians.
Yes, I did manage to find some way to use that joke a second time, if you remember my previous column on this subject.
My lawyers eagerly await your call at 1-800-SUE-AKEN. That’s right, 1-800-SUEAKEN. Operators aren’t waiting.
There are many stories of Paul and Peter visiting and revisiting “churches,” if one can really call them that during a Christian meets lion era, attempting to correct what the other had taught. Are these true stories? Well, let’s just admit that the accepted text of the Bible more than hints at such squabbling between disciples; so it seems likely.
Little is known beyond the manger story until his ministry. Luckily, as Bart Ehrman points out in Lost Christianities, various stories have been snatched, sometimes literally, from history’s fire; like The Infancy Gospels. One can be assured many of the stories in Infancy were tales that Nicaea would never have approved in any version of the Bible. Even if true, they don’t reflect well upon the image they wished to carefully craft. In one, Jesus strikes a child dead who won’t play with him: then raises him from the dead later. In another he models bird from clay only to be told it was the Sabbath, so he gives them life and they fly away. Not as bad as the first, but back when these books were debated violating the Sabbath was more problematic.
After killing a teacher who punished Jesus for being a wise guy, pun intended, Joseph told Mary…
“Do not let him go outside. Anyone who makes him angry dies.” (Pg. 205)
I ask again… are these stories true? Probably not. But like the stories Nicaea accepted that many now insist must be true “word for word…” can you imagine what they might be saying about those who walk our streets and inhabit our TV screens 2,000 years from now? How might stories about Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama, or George Bush, change hundreds of years from now… thousands of years? And we have a lot more power individually and collectively; a lot more sources to help keep the stories straighter than they ever had. Not that we use them all that well. The path has always been more than a little crooked. If just a few years later some believe the poorly placed lie “Saddam never let the inspectors in,” what chance does truth have?
More of a chance than 2,000 years ago.
The light provided by our mass media culture is powered thousands of watts, billions of pages, an almost infinite number of dots on screens. And, yes, these are paths that the bleak, pitiful blackness of convenient lies use. Yet all it takes is a few, maybe even one, to make the light a bit more bright; less bleak. There are trillions of individual avenues on which truth might ride worldwide, waves on which might surf into our auditory canals… somewhere, somehow the truth usually has a chance; no matter how small or insignificant. Back then: pretty much none of the above. A story told and passed on may have done so more slowly, but had much more unchallenged power.
The very word “gospel” has a double meaning due to just how effective Nicaea was in establishing a claim of “absolute truth,” insinuating that anything not “gospel” is a lie, a con, dishonest and heretical. This was, perhaps, the ultimate attempt to glue, nail, spike and weld the corpse of Christ into a cross of one design. It almost succeeded, yet never will. Jesus, or at least his myth, is too powerful to be held by any mortal sacrifices made in the name of one set of believers or another.
While it is true that mass murder has been committed in his name, without that name one can be sure those eager to commit genocide, fratricide… as well as all the gruesome ways to slaughter each other kill with or without a “cide,” would simply find some other way to contribute to the collective moral suicide of the human race.
Jesus didn’t do this to us: we did.
Many of the words Jesus is claimed to have said point at us like Marley. He is every ghost; we are Scrooge: hoarding what we think only we have an exclusive right to, sharing what we have in pittances. His ministry reaches beyond the grave, knocks on the door of the human heart whispering, “Let me in.” This is the real strength of Jesus and his story, though those who claim to be the only true purveyors of his message will do anything to convince you otherwise.
As the body twitched and quivered into the arms of Death; animals approached. They ripped out legs, broke off arms. Scratching out eyes with claws, others attempted to shred and plunge their way into his body so they might eat his heart. To this day they still fight over a carcass that should be gone by now, but keeps regenerating. But despite this amazing regenerative ability, the body was still a body; risen or not… nothing more: a mere vehicle for the man, the prophet, the “Savior.” They’ve displayed his supposed parts; what he held or may have been wrapped in, a cup, piece of a cross… as if they have magical properties and hold the secret to his powers. Perhaps they will never realize, “He is not here.”
From birth to death we have fought to be by his side, but too often listen only to our own perspective, or insist those who agree with us are his only chosen messengers; the only ones on his side. This battle is reflected in the Bible, in all the books never accepted into the Bible and in all the differing faiths. Most of all… it’s reflected in those so tired of how we treat such disagreements and discussions; the single mindedness, that they shun the topic totally.
Jesus did not choose those who were closest to him who agreed with each other. Why have we insisted on doing so since?
I believe even if we misunderstand his message, Jesus would want us talking about, discussing and reaching out to each other: attempting to understand his ministry. The real miracle really wasn’t fish and loaves, walking on water or tears from some statue. The real miracle is he lives on in our attempts to understand and be more like we think he might wish us to be. This despite all we are told has to be; must have been: nothing more and nothing else possible.
No other human in human history comes close to achieving this miracle born thousands of years ago. It’s not a flashy kind of miracle like multiplying bread or walking on water, though one might argue it is one way to raise what some the dead again and again… despite bullets, bombs, beheadings and torture.
Miracles do happen. They’re just not always quite what we expect, or believe, them to be.
Inspection is a column that has been written by Ken Carman for over 30 years. Inspection is dedicated to looking at odd angles, under all the rocks and into the unseen cracks and crevasses that constitute the issues and philosophical constructs of our day: places few think, or even dare, to venture.
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