Archives For: Book Club

Announcing The Dish Book Club

Apr 2 2014 @ 1:55pm

Well, it’s more like a resuscitation of the Book Club, since we had one more than a decade ago now. But the format will be the same. Each month, we’ll pick a book, and Dish readers are invited to read it alongside us. After three weeks, we’ll start debating it, through posts on the Dish and a reader thread fueled by your thoughts on the book. If the author is still alive, we’ll try and get him or her to do a podcast at the end (on Deep bookclub-beagle-trDish) to answer some of the questions readers have raised and keep the conversation going.

If you’re like me, you find your time for book-reading increasingly constrained by our Googled minds and our overwhelmed lives. So think of this club, as I am, as an incentive to read alongside others the kind of book you might have passed on without the prompt of a Dish discussion. In the future, we will have guests championing a favorite book – sometimes new, sometimes old – and hosting the discussion alongside Dish editors curating the reader threads. Maria Popova, of Brain Pickings, has generously agreed to host the second club.

We had been mulling re-starting this feature and then a new book arrived that clinched it. I know some of you may flinch at such a religious subject to kick off the club, but the book is written for believers and skeptics alike, and focuses on the historical exploration of what the earliest Christians meant when they claimed that a first-century rural Jewish preacher was actually God. The reason I find this such a compelling area of research is because I have honestly always wondered what Incarnation is supposed to mean. I know what it means in the abstract – but what it means in reality eludes me. It is a mystery, and yet such a mystery is the linchpin of Christianity. The key questions are: what exactly did Jesus’ followers mean when they insisted upon this after Jesus’ death; and what can it ever mean to claim that someone is the Son of God?

The book is Bart Ehrman‘s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. Buy it through this link to join the club and thereby help support the Dish with a little affiliate revenue. Here’s the publisher’s official description of the book:

New York Times bestselling author and Bible expert Bart Ehrman reveals how Jesus’s divinity became how-jesus-became-goddogma in the first few centuries of the early church. The claim at the heart of the Christian faith is that Jesus of Nazareth was, and is, God. But this is not what the original disciples believed during Jesus’s lifetime—and it is not what Jesus claimed about himself. How Jesus Became God tells the story of an idea that shaped Christianity, and of the evolution of a belief that looked very different in the fourth century than it did in the first.

A master explainer of Christian history, texts, and traditions, Ehrman reveals how an apocalyptic prophet from the backwaters of rural Galilee crucified for crimes against the state came to be thought of as equal with the one God Almighty, Creator of all things. But how did he move from being a Jewish prophet to being God?

In a book that took eight years to research and write, Ehrman sketches Jesus’s transformation from a human prophet to the Son of God exalted to divine status at his resurrection. Only when some of Jesus’s followers had visions of him after his death—alive again—did anyone come to think that he, the prophet from Galilee, had become God. And what they meant by that was not at all what people mean today.

Written for secular historians of religion and believers alike, How Jesus Became God will engage anyone interested in the historical developments that led to the affirmation at the heart of Christianity: Jesus was, and is, God.

Join me in exploring this topic and the roots of Christianity. Atheists and non-believers are particularly invited. This will emphatically not be a debate within the confines of any religious community. It may even, I hope, be a way for religious and non-religious Dish readers to communicate with each other in the threads that will eventually emerge. We’ll start the debate the week after Easter, on April 23. So get the book now and start reading.

Update from a reader:

Fantastic idea to bring this back, and terrific selection for the first book. I look forward to reading the thread. Have to say, though, I have a real hard time reading physical books any more. Got mine for the iPad.

In fact, all of our affiliate links go to the electronic version of the book. We don’t get as much affiliate revenue doing so, but since the Dish has long championed the spread of e-books over the dead-tree version, we want to put our money where our mouth is. Also, following the lead of Popova, we will provide a link to public library access. Meanwhile, another reader shares a heartbreaking story about her Christian mother:

I just 1-clicked my way into the Dish Book Club (enjoy the affiliate revenue!). This is a book I would never have given a second, if ever a first, glance to normally, as I am a non-believer.

Read On

Announcing The Dish Book Club, Ctd

Apr 4 2014 @ 10:00pm

[Re-posted from earlier today]

In case you missed my announcement this week:

Well, it’s more like a resuscitation of the Book Club, since we had one more than a decade ago now. But the format will be the same. Each month, we’ll pick a book, and Dish readers are invited to read it alongside us. After three weeks, we’ll start debating it, through bookclub-beagle-trposts on the Dish and a reader thread fueled by your thoughts on the book. If the author is still alive, we’ll try and get him or her to do a podcast at the end (on Deep Dish) to answer some of the questions readers have raised and keep the conversation going.

If you’re like me, you find your time for book-reading increasingly constrained by our Googled minds and our overwhelmed lives. So think of this club, as I am, as an incentive to read alongside others the kind of book you might have passed on without the prompt of a Dish discussion.

Thus far, at least 450 readers have joined the book club by buying our first selection – Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became Godthrough the Dish affiliate link. One of them:

Thanks for this. I’m in. And thank God for Kindle! Read your re-opening of the book club, I clicked the link to the Amazon page, clicked once more to purchase Ehrman’s book (you’re welcome for the penny of affiliate reward) and tonight at dinner I’m reading the book. Before Kindle (or ebooks in general) it would have taken at least forty-eight hours to go from intention to read a book to reading it, rather than the four hours it took me.

Truth is, I got the Kindle for travel. But now, I find physical books insufferable and almost unreadable. I mean, just from a practical standpoint. I’ve read during meals as long as I can remember being able to read. Lately, though, I honestly cannot remember how I used to keep physical books open while I read. I recently started a hardcover nonfiction book from the library, and at meals I wind up using a stone coaster to hold it open while I use fork and knife in two hands, and half the time the book flies closed and flings the coaster across the table and into plates of food. Whereas when I read the Kindle at the table, it just sits there, advancing a page neatly every time I touch it.

But we don’t want to leave out any dead-tree lovers, so the link to the hardcover is here. Another:

Long-time reader and recent subscriber. I have a quick question about your Book Club selection: Will you also be recommending Harper Collins’ companion book, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature – A Response to Bart Ehrman?

Of course – we’re biased and balanced with all Dish content. Readers are encouraged to buy and discuss that book as well; the link is here. Another notes of Ehrman (who, by the way, has agreed to do a podcast with us):

Thanks for starting up the book club again, and for the selection. For agnostic/atheist/non-Christian readers who might be put off by the title, you might want to post this about Bart Ehrman:

ehrman_bart_12_020Ehrman became an Evangelical Christian as a teenager. In his books, he recounts his youthful enthusiasm as a born-again, fundamentalist Christian, certain that God had inspired the wording of the Bible and protected its texts from all error. His desire to understand the original words of the Bible led him to the study of ancient languages and to textual criticism. During his graduate studies, however, he became convinced that there are contradictions and discrepancies in the biblical manuscripts that could not be harmonized or reconciled. He remained a liberal Christian for fifteen years but later became an agnostic after struggling with the philosophical problems of evil and suffering.

He’s a fascinating scholar, and his The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture is catnip for Bible geeks.

Another is skeptical of the new club:

Oh brother. I’ve done in-person book clubs before and, frankly, they drove me bananas. Lots of people with prejudices getting in the way of, you know, the book. Hoping that a mediated online club will keep the dumbass quotient down.

During the week of Easter, after readers have had time to read the book, we will have a week-long discussion mediated and curated with just as much care as all of our reader threads. We will also provide a forum for unfiltered feedback and interaction between readers. Another:

Thank you very much for this feature. I was immediately excited when I read the title of the post, as I’ve been wanting to join a book how-jesus-became-godclub for awhile. My excitement diminished somewhat when I realized the first selection was a religious-themed title, as I am one of your atheist readers, but as usual you were very welcoming of the secular perspective. After reading more about the book‘s premise, I feel it will be very enlightening for non-believers as well, to see how belief movements are born and develop over time. We “nones” could no doubt learn a lot about how to steer our own community toward a brighter future. I regret that I will not be purchasing the book and contributing to the revenue stream (though I hope my above-the-minimum subscription makes up for that). Instead, I have requested the book from the library [others can do so here], and I’ll sadly have to put off starting The Bright Continent by Dayo Olopade, which I checked out after you first highlighted her work last month.

I understand you selecting the launch book, but I would love the opportunity to contribute to future book selections. Will you be soliciting nominations? Perhaps choosing a shortlist and posting a poll for Dishheads to vote on? Will the club be exclusively non-fiction or will you include fiction as well? If so what genres? Maybe there could be two clubs! Anyway, I look forward to participating.

In fact, we have already considered a reader poll of pre-selected titles, which we may do in the future. But for the second club next month, our guest-host Maria Popova will be making the book selection – and it’s a topic near and dear to most Dishheads, so stay tuned. Like every Dish feature, the book club will be an ever-evolving one, so your feedback is always welcome and appreciated.

A Book Clubber writes:

I just want to say how fascinating I’m finding Ehrman’s book. Can hardly wait for the discussion!


Dear Professor: The book is great. I love it. But I haven’t had much time to read, what with work and house hunting and 420 coming up here in Denver. I bet we’d all appreciate one more week to read about the Jesus transformation. It will make a more lively debate and we’d all be so impressed by your leniency.

with 41% of the book read …

Heh. Well I just had to absorb the Becker book in around 24 hours … so I’m a little behind myself. I plan to post my review of How Jesus Became God next week, and start the discussion with readers thereafter, so buy the book here if you still want to join. There’s still time. Another reader:

I don’t have an e-reader, so I bought the hardbound book. 1/2 finished – a good read. How do I join the book club? I want to play too!

You join simply by reading the book, in any form, and participating in the reader thread next week, if you like. Another:

I suggest you refer your readers to Harper Collins’ companion/response book, How God Became Jesus. bookclub-beagle-tr It sounds like you could benefit from reading it yourself, after your somewhat surprising admission that Ehrman’s book “may not be the most spiritually sustaining text for Holy Week.” Seeing that the only reason Ehrman has been noticed in the popular realm is for his (somewhat tired yet passed off as something new) arguments denying the truth of traditional Christianity, I wonder exactly what you thought the book would offer. That’s not to say that Ehrman’s work shouldn’t be recommended or discussed, only that a more interesting conversation might come from providing your audience with a more comprehensive understanding of the subject and the arguments on both sides. After all, I imagine that for many of your readers, the assumption is that Ehrman, like Reza Aslan most recently, is offering some fresh insight, when in reality, as Father Robert Barron notes here, it’s a more of the same old same old.

We actually made a quick mention of the response book in a previous post, but many readers may have missed it, so here’s the link to purchase that book as well, if you’re interested. Its counterpoints will certainly come up in the discussion thread, but the primary focus will be Ehrman’s book.

Update from a reader, who gets into the Book Club spirit already:

You quote a reader: “his (somewhat tired yet passed off as something new) arguments denying the truth of traditional Christianity.” I think you should encourage such responders (on both sides, of course) to cite specific instances from the book that support their charges.

Read On

Was Jesus God?

Apr 21 2014 @ 3:03pm

I’m in the home-stretch of the book, Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, the first selection for the Dish’s resurrected (!) Book Club. I know many readers are, as well. We’ll start the conversation this week – so hold your emails for a bit. I’m going to try and structure debate on the book into some clear, distinct questions, rather than trying to grapple with it all at once.

But as an appetite-whetter and encouragement to finish reading, here are some early reviews. First up, Fr. Robert Barron attacks the core of Ehrman’s thesis – that “explicit statements of Jesus’ divine identity can be found only in the later fourth Gospel of John, whereas the three Synoptic Gospels, earlier and thus presumably more historically reliable, do not feature such statements.” Barron calls this idea “nonsense”:

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the crippled man who had been lowered through the roof of Peter’s house, saying, “My son, your sins are forgiven,” to which the bystanders respond, “Who does this man think he is? Only God can forgive sins.” What is implied there is a Christology as high as anything in John’s Gospel.

how-jesus-became-godAnd affirmations of divinity on the lips of Jesus himself positively abound in the Synoptics. When he says, in Matthew’s Gospel, “He who does not love me more than his mother or father is not worthy of me,” he is implying that he himself is the greatest possible good. When in Luke’s Gospel, he says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away,” he is identifying himself with the very Word of God. When he says in Matthew’s Gospel, in reference to himself, “But I tell you, something greater than the Temple is here,” he is affirming unambiguously that he is divine, since for first century Jews, only Yahweh himself would be greater than the Jerusalem Temple.

Perhaps most remarkably, when he says, almost as a tossed-off aside at the commencement of the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it said, but I say…” he is claiming superiority to the Torah, which was the highest possible authority for first century Jews. But the only one superior to the Torah would be the author of the Torah, namely God himself. Obviously examples such as these from the Synoptic authors could be multiplied indefinitely. The point is that the sharp demarcation between the supposedly “high” Christology of John and the “low” Christology of the Synoptics, upon which the Ehrman thesis depends, is simply wrong-headed.

Another critic is Michael Bird, one of the contributors to How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature – A Response to Bart D. Ehrman:

[W]hile Ehrman insists that there was a continuum between gods and humans in the ancient world, I contend that Jews and Christians held to a strict monotheism that delineated God from the rest of the created order. And when they mapped out where Jesus belonged on this ledger, he was clearly on the God-side – not semi-divine or quasi-divine, but identified with the God of creation and covenant.HGBJ-Cover

And whereas Ehrman thinks that Jesus was a prophet who proclaimed God’s judgment of this world, I argue that the historical Jesus saw himself as proclaiming and even embodying God’s kingship. Jesus believed that, in his own person, Israel’s God was becoming King, which is why Jesus spoke and acted with a sense of unmediated divine authority, why he identified himself with God’s activity in the world, why he believed that in his own person Israel’s God was returning to Zion as the prophets had promised, and why he outrageously claimed that he would sit on God’s own throne.

Meanwhile, Greg Carey criticizes the way some Christians have engaged the book, arguing that “it doesn’t help to dismiss Ehrman for being an agnostic, as if agnostics have nothing to teach Christians about the Bible, Jesus, or faith”:

[T]here is a live conversation among biblical scholars about how most Christians came to regard Jesus as divine. In other words, Ehrman’s book raises questions that should interest us all. This is not about liberals and secularists attacking the church. It’s an ongoing debate that crosses the usual party lines. …

Most Christians, however, have no idea that Ehrman’s book represents a genuine conversation among informed scholars. This is unfortunate. Nothing Ehrman is saying would surprise a biblical scholar at even the most conservative theological school. This knowledge gap constitutes a failure of educational ministry in the churches. We Christians should be learning to engage legitimate public conversations about Jesus, about the Bible, and about our faith. And we should attend to spiritual development that equips us to enter those conversations with humility and love.

I might as well state one core reason I picked this book. I strongly believe that Christians need to absorb all we can about the origins and debates over the texts that have come to form our faith. We should have nothing to be afraid of but the truth.

Read On

Oberammergau Passionplay 2010 Final Dress Rehearsal

[Re-posted from earlier today]

That may seem a rather strange way to kick off discussion of a book about the beliefs of Christians in the decades and first few centuries after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. But it’s the question that lingers in my head after reading Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of A Jewish Preacher From Galilee.

What Ehrman does in this book – as he did most memorably in Misquoting Jesus – is explain how the texts that we have about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus came to be written. I am not qualified to judge the details of the scholarship – my knowledge of such matters is a tiny fraction of Ehrman’s. I know no Aramaic or Hebrew and very little Ancient Greek. Readers with more expertise may well, with any luck, deal with some of the specific controversies – such as the notion that Jesus probably wasn’t buried at all – as we go along.

But the book’s main claims about the origins and nature of the texts are not in any scholarly doubt. And bookclub-beagle-trthey challenge the traditional and reflexive mental universe that most Christians, and all fundamentalists, share. For many Christians in the modern world, there is an unchallenged notion of an inerrant text that contains what we have even come to call the “gospel truth.” It is entirely inspired by God. It has complete authority in Protestant circles and shared authority in Catholicism (along with church teaching and the sensus fidelium). It is the sole authorized account of the extraordinary story that changed the world.

And yet it isn’t the only account – we have many other extant Gospels that never made the cut. Those Gospels are not as compelling or as coherent or as influential – but they sure do exist. That very fact – established in the 20th Century – explodes any idea of “orthodoxy” among the first Christians. Like any human beings trying to grapple with grief and empowerment and fear and supernatural experiences, they did not understand them fully at first or ever. They disagreed among themselves about them. They had very different perspectives and interactions with Jesus. In the Gospels themselves, Jesus’ disciples are a mess half the time – misunderstanding him, betraying him, frustrating him, and abandoning him at critical moments throughout. Whatever else the Gospels teach us, they sure teach us not to trust Jesus’ followers for either truth or morality. Peter disowned him three times in his hour of greatest need. And most fled after his crucifixion.

And the Gospels offer radically different accounts of what Jesus did, said and meant. There is no single coherent account, for example, of Jesus’ last words in the cross, or of his first appearances after his death – critical moments that you might think would have been resolved as fact early on, but weren’t. If I were to come up with a phrase to describe what has been handed down to us in these texts, it would be a game of Chinese

Does this rebut Christianity in a decisive way? For many orthodox Christians, wedded to the notion of a single, coherent and inerrant text, it must. But since the scholarship is pretty much indisputable, it seems to me that it is not Christianity that should be abandoned in the wake of these historical revelations, but a false understanding of what the Gospels and Letters actually are. In the end, the sole criterion of a religion is whether it is true. And if you’re misreading its core texts and failing to understand their origins and nuances, you’re not committed to the truth. You’re committed to a theology that has become more important than the truth.

And I’d argue that seeing them in this flawed and human way does not reduce their power. In fact, their very humanness, their messiness, their reflection of competing memories and rival understandings and evolving theologies make the Gospels a riveting tapestry of anecdotage and love and grief. I think that when you treat these texts that way, the figure of Jesus does not become more opaque. He becomes more alive in moving and marvelous detail through the distorted memories of those who loved him and through the stories that the generations that never saw or knew him in the flesh told each other about who he was. Is this human mess guided by the Holy Spirit? That’s obviously a question only Christians can answer.

My own view is that the sheer vibrancy, power, shock, detail and beauty of these stories – and their enduring resonance over the centuries – makes the presence of the Holy Spirit obvious. In fact, if we want to understand how God interacts with human beings, these Gospels show the way. Even through their obvious literal imperfections, a deeper perfection shines. Agnostic and atheist readers will of course disagree. But my point is simply that, for Christians, there is no need to be afraid of the truth about these texts. Because as Christians, there can never any need to fear the truth. In fact, fear of what such scholarship might reveal exposes a defensive crouch and a neurotic denialism that can only lead us away from Jesus rather than toward him.

The truths of this book that only the neurotic or defensive Christian will deny are the following:

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Thousands Meet For  2nd Ecumenical Kirchentag

Readers get the conversation started:

I find Ehrman too reductive in his search for what’s true. The same lens of critique that he applies to the literalist – that a certain passage is contradicted, or impossibly out of context – can also be applied to his own conclusions.

For instance: So Jesus is not quoted as explicitly stating that he is God. Does that mean that he himself didn’t believe it? We know that the gospels can’t be trusted as a source of word-for-word quotation – that’s a central part of the author’s set-up. That means finding a lack of such clear self-proclamation doesn’t mean that in Jesus’s own mind, or in his private conversations, he didn’t expressly believe in his own divinity. Perhaps there are rhetorical reasons for why the authors of the gospels withhold such an explicit declaration? Perhaps it’s more powerful and compelling for how it is revealed?

Similarly, we’re left with a problematic assertion if we see Jesus primarily as how-jesus-became-godan apocalyptic preacher: He was wrong, unless you interpret his “prophesy” as being epochal in time span rather than immediate (in the mind of God a generation could last thousands of years, one supposes). But isn’t it equally possible that this clear assertion of his apocalyptic preaching are also examples of rhetorical flourish on the part of the writers – to convince people through fear to change their fundamental belief system?

In the end, what do we know? I think you should consider staying clear of words like “truth,” and instead position the gospels and religion as sources of “meaning.”

These are two sharp points. I’d summarize them this way: The very limits of what these texts can tell us about what actually happened not only leaves the possibility that Jesus had no idea he was God, but for that very reason also leaves the possibility that he did. Both are in the texts. And when you zoom out a little, the very limits of our understanding of this man – filtered through the game of telephone of repeated oral memories – leave a span of possibilities open. The Gospels themselves offer us a variety of contradictory interpretations and factual accounts of many aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching. Maybe instead of trying to make them all make sense, we should let go a little, and accept that we will never fully know and never fully understand. Jesus, to borrow a phrase, is a known unknown and also an unknown unknown. And the very fallibility of the texts make this an unavoidable conclusion.

The Incarnation itself is, of course, utterly baffling. Ehrman shows this by charting an exhaustive survey of how early Christians tried and kept failing to understand it. A human who was exalted to divine status at his death? At his baptism? At his birth? Before his birth? From the beginning of time? You can watch the Christian imagination expand as the years go by when grappling with the ineffable concept of a person both fully human and fully divine. And at every resting point, the idea eludes any rational understanding.

To wit: If Jesus were divine, he would know everything, including his future resurrection, right?

Read On

[Re-posted from earlier today. The whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God is here. Please email any responses to rather than the main account.]

A reader turns the conversation toward something I wrote:

You clearly do not believe in Occam’s Razor. You write that “Jesus was not the only first-century who was deemed to have a virgin birth, martyrdom and resurrection. In fact, these were quite common tropes in the Greek and Roman world at the time.” Next paragraph: “And in that astonishing vision of a Jesus fully alive after death, so much that had mystified his disciples in Jesus’ life and teachings suddenly became clear. This man truly was God.”

So you’re acknowledging that there were a fairly large number of Jesuses bookclub-beagle-trrunning around Judea at the time, all making similar claims. But in the next breath you declare your certainty that the one you worship really was the Son of God (whatever that means) and the rest were phonies.

So which explanation is simpler, and infinitely more probable: (1) you are right, the universe is ruled by an immortal, all-powerful entity that shares attributes with some creatures living for an ungraspable brief period of time on one tiny planet among a countless number of other planets in an infinitely large universe, and who had a son that was identical to these isolated creatures, and decided to sacrifice his son to pay for the follies of these creatures, or (2) the Christian myths of the resurrected man/god, which had been around for a long time before your cult figure was born, for a variety of historical reasons, became centralized in this one figure? The question answers itself.

Andrew, I’m sorry, but you have to see why most Christians must put on the blinders and believe in rote dogma. The whole mess otherwise falls apart so, so rapidly.

Another reader:

I’m always confused when I’ve read you write things like “Even through [the Gospels] obvious literal imperfections, a deeper perfection shines.”

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All of these readers seem to answer “yes” to the above question:

I was raised a Christian in a tiny, Midwestern town where everyone went to either the Catholic church or the Protestant church. I was surrounded by unquestioning believers until I left for college. I had lost how-jesus-became-godmy faith in my early teens and it stayed lost for the next 40 years or so. But I now consider myself a Christian, with all the attendant doubts and questions. I credit books like Ehrman’s and groups like the Jesus Seminar for my change of heart.

Why? Because their research and scholarship affirmed the actual existence of Jesus and his horrific death. Up until then, Jesus was just a mythical being, like Zeus or Thor. I felt I finally had something solid to stand on, and so I started my faith journey.

I didn’t mind the messiness and contradictions in the gospel accounts at all. It makes it feel more authentic and vivid to me, like I was witnessing all those men and women trying to make sense of something new and strange. I would have been extremely skeptical if the New Testament had been a smooth and seamless account, because I can’t imagine actual humans responding to such wild events in a smooth and seamless way. I mean, it must have been so weird, y’know?

Another is on the same wavelength:

The problem comes when a screwdriver is used to drive a nail into the wall. Logic as we know it is not at the core of religion. This is not a diss; religion is akin to non-Euclidean geometry, or to quantum physics. It goes by a different creed, ethos, set of “rules” – whatever.

bookclub-beagle-trEhrman’s textual analysis is great, and I’ve loved his books. To see his scholarship as weakening Christianity, however, is to sell religion short. The story of Christ is a portal, a doorway to enter religious life. Its literal truth or untruth is of little to no interest. People who insist on the inerrant truth of this or that need to watch Rashomon a few times, take mushrooms, and chill out. The Gospels are full of Jesus telling parables; get the hint?


I am a practicing Catholic who attends Mass almost every Sunday, prays every day and even prays the Liturgy of the Hours as often as my hectic schedule allows. I love the Catholic Church despite having some great misgivings about some of its priorities and teachings, especially in the areas of sexuality. I concluded long ago from reading Ehrman, Geza Vermes and others, that the New Testament is almost an historical novel, with many (but by no means all) of the words of Christ having been made up by the authors of the Gospels. Since I believe that the fall of man in Genesis cannot be true, I cannot believe that Christ died and was resurrected as a sacrifice to expiate original sin.

So why am I a Catholic?

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I’m sorry for not jumping into the debate more this weekend, but the pollen bukkake in DC right now has reduced my lung capacity a bit, and thinking about the resurrection is even more difficult while hooked up to a nebulizer with albuterol than is usually the case. Mercifully, many of my responses to this batch of criticism were pre-empted, rather eloquently, by this batch of counter-criticism.

A few thoughts on this question: given the many contemporaneous accounts of other religious figures rising from the dead (indeed several in Caravaggio.emmaus.750pixthe Bible itself), and given that all Christians are supposed to rise bodily from the dead as well, why is Jesus so special? Why is he “consubstantial with the Father” in ways other resurrected beings are not?

The obvious answer to this is that the early Christians obviously believed that he was uniquely divine in some form. Ehrman makes a good case that Jesus was viewed as special by his disciples in his lifetime because they deemed him to be the Jewish Messiah who would reign supreme at the end of the world. The specialness of his being the Jewish Messiah was then combined with the staggering revelation that he had risen from the dead. It was that combination – a resurrected Messiah – that upped the ante, setting the seeds for the gradual evolution of the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Trinity. The story of Apollonius, otherwise very close to the story of Jesus, lacked the Messiah prophesy. And it also lacked the retroactive examination of the Hebrew Bible for various prophesies to be fulfilled in Jesus.

Moreover, as Ehrman notes, although there were countless semi-divine characters and resurrected prophets in the early Christian era, even though the human-divine admixture included angels and strange gods and the off-spring of unnatural sex between gods and humans, only lazarustwo people were ever designated the “Son Of God.” One was the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, and the other was Jesus, a rural apocalyptic preacher from Galilee. That is some elevated company to keep and it begs the question: why Jesus and no one else? What was so special about him?

What’s frustratingly lacking in Ehrman’s book – and it’s not its subject so it’s not Ehrman’s fault – are the teachings of Jesus and the way he lived. I don’t think you can understanding the full impact of the resurrection outside the disciples’ experience of the living Jesus, with his teachings and his healings and his miracles. For me, these remarkable stories are the missing tissue here. It is one thing for a prophet to be put to a gruesome death; it is another thing when that prophet lived and taught in such a way that he seemed to revolutionize human consciousness and then was put to death.

Jesus inverted so much of the world’s familiar lessons: don’t protect yourself in a dangerous world, make yourself vulnerable; don’t seek revenge on those who have wronged you, give them another chance to wrong you; don’t just love your friends, but love your enemies; don’t live abstemiously, give everything you have away to the poor; don’t worry about tomorrow, today will be taken care of; by all means obey the rules but never if they violate the deeper rule of love. Above all: love one another. These stories and sayings and teachings carry huge impact jesus_2.jpgtoday, even though we have lived with them for centuries. But I try to imagine myself as one of the disciples, busily fishing in the Sea of Galilee, and not only being astounded by these ideas, but dropping my life and abandoning my family altogether and following him because of the power of his ideas and example.

Then, in a sudden development, this radically non-violent individual is seized under false pretenses and brutally tortured to death. And again, even here, it is not so much his death that resonates as the manner of his death. He refused to defend himself; he embraced the ridicule; he forgave the men driving nails into his wrists; he reached out in love to one of the poor souls hanging next to him; and he despaired. This happens after most of his loved ones either denied ever knowing him or fled. Only the women who loved him and the disciple Jesus loved stayed behind.

Now put yourself in the place of those bewildered, terrified, disloyal former followers.

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A reader writes:

Something in How Jesus Became God that resonated personally was the discussion in Chapter Five regarding After-Death Communications as an explanation for the visions of the resurrected Christ that some disciples received. Our son was born with a severe heart defect and had to undergo open-heart surgery at age two. We were told there was a 90% chance of his survival. Two days after the surgery, he suffered heart failure in the ICU. We went through several weeks of alternating between hope and despair as to what could be done for him, bookclub-beagle-trincluding receiving a heart transplant, but eventually we had to decide to remove all life support. He died in our arms, slowly, hour by hour, as we watched his vital signs decline to nothingness.

Neither my wife nor I had ever experienced anything so emotionally tortuous. We both fell into depressions, and in my case I began to experience dreams that I was being visited by my son. What was exceedingly real about these dreams was the physical sense of holding him in my arms, his cheek next to mine, listening to him babble. A tremendous sense of contentment flooded over me, knowing that he was alive. I would wake up at peace, and it would take five or more minutes for me to understand I was back in a different world of pain and sorrow. These dreams persisted for a few months and then stopped entirely.

I’m not a believer in an afterlife, but I am a believer that experiences such as these could convince anyone that someone close to them who had died tragically and unexpectedly, was alive in a real sense – not here on earth, but in heaven (if they believed heaven exists). This could have happened to any number of Christ’s followers, and it was a very short step for them to then exalt Jesus as being at the right hand of the Father, since his disciples had spent three extremely intense years speculating that this unique and remarkable man could very well be the promised Son of Man, or even the Son of God.

My own effort to explain how I view the Resurrection of Jesus is in my last post in the Book Club here. But I also have personal experiences that are similar to my readers, and I wrote about them at length in my book about Pietro_lorenzetti,_compianto_(dettaglio)_basilica_inferiore_di_assisi_(1310-1329)surviving the plague of AIDS, Love Undetectable. I was diagnosed with HIV six weeks after one of my closest friends at the time had been diagnosed with AIDS. He had kept it a secret, until one afternoon he asked to meet me at the fountain in Dupont Circle, where he told me his diagnosis as I told him mine. The coincidence had us both smiling. We were already both Catholics and both writers and both gay in a terrifying era very different from today. But from that moment on, we bonded even more deeply, and over the next two years, I and his other close friends took care of him as he slowly slipped away from us. I saw him turn into a walking skeleton; I saw him pound the floor in pain; I saw him wracked by intense and unremitting fevers; I saw his breath literally taken away from him; I saw as cancer lesions speckled his body and advanced relentlessly toward his lungs; I saw the unspeakable shock and pain of his family; I listened to his voice, racked with fear and pain, over the phone at night; and I was entrusted with the details of his funeral. Watching my dear friend die at 31 of an agonizing disease will never leave me. And I will always, somewhere deep down, feel in some ways guilty for having lived, while he died.

But after his death, I felt his presence strongly at times. He appeared to me in symbols – like the sea-gulls that flew over the bay where we had released his ashes, or one gull that kept recurring in my life on the Cape and elsewhere as an almost sacred sign of his presence. He appeared to me in my dreams – and in one unforgettable one, I didn’t at first recognize him.

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