“And if I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I’m gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkey skull of yours ’til it rings like a Chinese gong!” — Hildy Thompson in His Girl Friday
The world is awash in pleas for your attention, ducklings, and so I, having naught but idle thoughts, have chosen not to add to the din. But at last a few motes of Quality have congealed in my mind to form a Thing, perhaps Two, that might divert you before you leave to find meatier, more gratifying items in the non-Vinny environs of the web.
That quote from Hildy has been on my mind of late because I’ve been preoccupied with superstition, and the monkey-skull-edness of the superstitious. It’s a terrible curse — I should just shrug and let the irrational live as they please — but I can’t help but want to provoke them, to shed the Perfect Light of my Esteemed Reason all about them until they sputter awake, gratefully as if they had been drowning and dozing simultaneously. So, on the topics of Scientology, astrology, homeopathy, Mormonism, and my perennial favorite Christianity, I wallow in my facts and historical analysis, greedily stuffing anecdotes and contradictions into my ravening hollows, in which darkness they bump noisily about and petition to be heard.
Early Christian History is a particular sinkhole of mine, that is so magnetic (both attracting and repulsing) that I never know what to do with the whirling energy that results. The best way I’ve found to encapsulate it is this: Modern scholarship about the formation of Christianity paints a portrait of the religion that is unrecognizable when compared to what I grew up believing, and what many Christians believe today. And I’m constantly hounded by the surely pointless desire to do something, create some kind of project that narrates the “five most surprising discoveries from modern Christology”, for example, although such things have already been written more accurately — and less hysterically — than I could hope to do.
But it will soothe me a bit to share with you some thoughts from my recent reading, in part because it’s therapeutic and in part because several of you have made kind comments about my earlier Christological chatterings. Maybe someday it will be A Project, for now it’s just a blog post.
Heresy — So many “heretics” in history were sincere, confused worshipers doing their best to make sense of muddled and contradictory texts. There was no single perfect Church founded by Jesus prior to his death that was corrupted by devil-minded heretics. There was instead an earnest attempt to make sense of his complex, challenging and contradictory theology, which became more difficult as the decades rolled by without a definitive text from the man himself. (How much simpler it would have been had he written down a few pages in Aramaic! Or better yet, engraved something in marble.) As it was, his followers were soon genuinely confused about how they should behave with respect to Jewish Law, the real meaning/imminence of the Kingdom of Heaven, the guidelines for day-to-day living. To that confusion add the threat of Hell for misinterpretation of vague strictures, the punishment of torture or death for disobeying the Romans, and you have some very panicky, finger-pointy people indeed.
The “orthodoxy” that arose was politically shaped, not based on interpretation of scriptures because the scriptures were (and are) contradictory. The Arians, for example, who believed that Jesus was not God’s equal, reasonably pointed to a number of scriptures that indicated a hierarchical relationship between the two: Jesus said “the Father is greater than I”, “not my will but Thine”, and several times asked God for permission, for information, etc. The Trinitarians, who defeated the Arians at a variety of doctrinal Councils, had competing scriptures and (more importantly) emperors on their side. The emperors had no interest in scripture, but definite ideas about which theological alternative would do more to promote their personal image and power.
Aside: The whole question of the divinity of Jesus is, to most Jews, laughable. Nowhere in the “Old Testament” does God reveal that he has a son, that there is a Holy Spirit, or that this divine son is what is meant by the messiah. The messiah was understood to be a human, political figure who would unite the nation of Israel, not a divine, spiritually transformational figure who would disparage Israel and bring “salvation” to the gentiles. Paul’s (ahem) theological creativity on this point is astonishing, and John’s transcendent prose in blasting away any shards of doubt about Jesus’ divinity that may have lingered from the earlier, Synoptic gospels is gutsy as hell. It’s fascinating to compare the Jesus of Mark, the earliest surviving gospel, who shies away from questions of his divinity and orders his disciples not to talk about whether he is the Messiah, with John, the last gospel, where Jesus emerges in the first verse in a blaze of divine glory. In fact, the nature of the divinity of Jesus was an open question – and fuel for heresy – for centuries.
Anti-Semitism – From the time of Jesus’ crucifixion in ~30 CE until the writing of the Gospel of John in ~100 CE, the fortunes of the Jews steadily worsened. There had been revolts against Roman rule on and off for a long time when Jesus lived, and the Jews were already on thin ice with their imperial masters. And when the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, around the time that Mark was being written, it was much easier to blame the crucifixion on the Jews than on the Romans. In each gospel after the next, the vitriol directed at the Jews becomes more damning and less hedged as they fall in the pecking order. The willingness of the gospel writers to defend themselves against Roman accusations of political treachery and simultaneously blame the Jews for Jesus’ death when the Romans were clearly the executioners is particularly disgusting. To me the most shocking verse in the gospels is Matthew 27:25, when “all the people” – meaning the Jews – say at Jesus’ sentencing: “His blood be upon us and our children!” And, determined not to let Judas or the Jews off the hook for the death of Our Savior, Luke 22:22 has Jesus say “and indeed the Son of Man doth go according to what hath been determined; but woe to that man through whom he is being delivered up.”
Chronology – I grew up thinking of the New Testament as a cohesive, indivisible, sequentially-ordered bloc of texts, which I imagined to have been verified personally by God. You began with the story of Jesus’ life, told 4 times in a row for emphasis, the beginnings of the ministry in Acts, the letters of Paul, the letters of some other guys, an “Oh, get with the program” appeal to the Jews (Hebrews) and then Revelation. Neat!
But that chronology is off. There were probably some texts written about Jesus in the first few years after his death, but they have not survived in a recognizable form. Instead the first writings that survive come from Paul, who never met Jesus, quotes him only four times in all of his letters, and shows no interest in his earthly ministry. For him, Jesus’ death and resurrection is the single stone on which he rests his entire theology. Paul, who had a certain competitive streak, never saw eye-to-eye with the apostles who lived with Jesus and who were more familiar with his sayings and deeds. To them, the crucifixion was a horrifying setback, something embarrassing and shameful. (In fact, it was centuries before the church embraced the symbol of the cross and began to use it in art.) Paul – whether he did so consciously for personal gain or not – seized upon the cross as unclaimed theological territory, and let his creativity run freely, creating the “crucifixion as victory” concept we are familiar with today. At least somewhat untrusted and unwelcome in Jerusalem, he made converts elsewhere, among gentiles and less-observant Jews, and integrated that into his theology as well. In Acts the apostles are resistant to the notion that Jesus’ message was for anyone but the Jews; they probably heard little if any of such talk from the actual Jesus. But as the star of the Jerusalem and the Jews fell, Paul seized the initiative, perhaps inventing and certainly solidifying the notion that Jesus always intended his message to be for gentiles as well as Jews.
Etc. – Scratching the surface like this is beyond aggravating. My notes on my reading are fragmentary, leaving open many more questions than they answer, and diving down into any one issue just reveals the gargantuan nature of these puzzles and the obscurity and unreliability of our sources, especially to the layman. If your curiosity is piqued, look for books by Geza Vermes or Charles Freeman, I’ve found them the most stimulating.
And now! If you’ve read this far you deserve a treat, something light that delivers opportunities for mirth at the expense of my foolishness and logorrhea.
Laugh away! – At my tap-dancing feet:
Laugh harder! – At me narrating one of my recent Starcraft battles. I made this video a few weeks ago, and tried to keep the jargon to a minimum and somehow capture for the non-player a little of my enthusiasm for the game. If you know anything about SC2 you’ll see that I’m horrible at it, but in any case it’s an amusing 14-minute peek into my madness:
Turn away in awkward silence! – At extra bonus footage of the same game, intended for completist Vinny fans only: