Book Club: Was There An Empty Tomb?

Resurrection

A reader challenges a part of Ehrman’s book we haven’t discussed yet:

Reading your thoughts and the reader responses so far, I’m surprised no one has mentioned Ehrman’s claim, in Chapter Four, that Jesus most likely wasn’t given a proper burial, meaning there was no tomb for his resurrection to leave empty – nor an actual body left to be resurrected, as theological orthodoxy would seem to demand. An excerpt from this chapter was recently featured on The Daily Beast, in which Ehrman makes this explicit: “Without an empty tomb, there would be no ground for saying that Jesus was physically raised.” And clearly, as Ehrman shows in his book, the “empty tomb” features prominently in Christian apologetics on this issue. The idea that Jesus really was buried allows Christians to ask, “Well, then what did happen to Jesus’ body?” If he wasn’t eaten by dogs, then we need to somehow account for his body, which people certainly would have been looking for after his followers started saying he was raised from the dead. Or so the argument goes.

bookclub-beagle-trAs it happens, the chapter on this issue by Craig Evans in the evangelical response to Ehrman’s book was the one I actually found perhaps most persuasive, and your readers should be aware of it. Evans cites a variety of ancient texts – including passages from Philo, Josephus, and Roman legal documents – that give us good reasons to think Roman authorities were tolerant of Jewish religious customs. It would take too long to go through all of Evans’ evidence, but their cumulative force is striking, and he makes clear that his argument especially concerns what the Romans allowed in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious life, where religious demands for performing certain rites, like the burial of the dead, would have been especially forceful (Jews in other places, such as Alexandria, seemed to fare worse).

Even Ehrman’s own book unwittingly offers evidence for this. Recall the account he gives of Pontius Pilate erecting images of the Roman emperor in Jerusalem, which violated Jewish beliefs about “graven images.” What happened after the Jewish uproar over this? They were removed.

Evans also makes clear that tolerance for Jewish burial customs extended, in various circumstances, to those who were crucified. Most interestingly, in my view, is the archaeological evidence he marshals on this point.

He walks the reader through examples we have of tombs and (more frequently) ossuaries containing the remnants of those crucified or nails of the kind used in crucifixions covered in calcium, meaning they were once in human bones. In short, not everyone who was crucified, and certainly not all Jews, were simply left for the wild dogs or carrion birds to eat. Evans cites Jodi Magness, a Jewish archaeologist at Ehrman’s own UNC-Chapel Hill, who summarizes the matter this way:

Gospel account of Jesus’ burial are largely consistent with the archaeological evidence. Although archaeology does not prove there was a follower of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea or that Pontius Pilate granted his request for Jesus’ body, the Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial are consistent with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law.

And speaking of Joseph of Arimathea, Evans argues that even that story has some real credence. Because the Sanhedrin, or Jewish Council, delivered Jesus to the Roman authorities, they would have been responsible for arranging a proper burial. So whether or not Joseph actually existed, the broad outline of the story he figures in is, according to Evans, reasonably consonant with the customs of the day.

Lastly, Ehrman makes a big deal of the fact that in the early creed Paul cites in his first letter to the how-jesus-became-godCorinthians, it merely says “And he was buried” rather than “And he was buried in a tomb.” When I read Ehrman’s book, I couldn’t understand quite why that mattered. Being buried implies a tomb, or a grave of some kind, but regardless being buried is not the same as being left to the dogs. Evans makes exactly the same point. And as for the supposed lack of symmetry in the creed – the line corresponding to the one just mentioned says “And he appeared to Cephas,” which leads Ehrman to think Joseph should be noted as the one who buried Jesus – Evans makes the reasonable point that naming who Jesus appeared to after his resurrection would be a far more important detail to include than the name of who buried Jesus, so the comparison doesn’t quite hold. Of course, maybe Joseph wasn’t named because that particular tradition arose later, but even if it did, the lack of knowing exactly who buried Jesus does nothing to alter the other contextual evidence that leads Evans to argue that it wouldn’t have been unusual for Jesus, a Jew in Jerusalem, to be given a proper burial.

Overall, then, this is one point where my layman reading of both sides of the argument makes me lean toward Ehrman’s evangelical critics.

Agreed. Another critical point worth reiterating in this context: perhaps the most striking thing in the book is that Ehrman explicitly states he has changed his mind as to when the belief in Jesus’ divinity arose. He used to think it came about decades later, but is now convinced by the evidence that the resurrection was a very early Christian belief. So the empty tomb is a real possibility and the resurrection was claimed by the earliest Christians. Sometimes religious beliefs are weakened by historical evidence; but sometimes they are actually strengthened.

(Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here. Email any responses to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com rather than the main account, and please try to keep them under 500 words. Painting: The Resurrection Of Jesus by Piero Della Francesca.)

Book Club: Apocalypse Then

A reader writes:

Beyond all the crap about resurrection, Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who predicted the end of the world would come very soon, probably in his own lifetime. And that realization colors how I view Jesus’ most important message.

I am not a Christian. But my religious identity has nothing to do with belief (what do I know?) and everything to do with the way I live my life. The only parts of the New Testament that I admire are Jesus’ parables and his teachings. Leave your family. Give up material things and live in poverty. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Don’t show off or try to be better than others. This is radical stuff – a lifestyle I respect, but am too cowardly and weak to pursue. Therefore, I do not call myself a Christian, because I cannot live up to Jesus’ commands. And as far as I’m concerned, anyone who doesn’t live like Jesus (i.e. a vagabond) has no right to call himself a Christian.

So a big thought hit me hard: Jesus’ unique and radical teachings only make sense because he was an apocalyptic preacher. Leave your family and pay no attention to tomorrow because the world is about to end. In the context of the end of the world, it all makes sense. Of course you should abandon material things; they’re all about to be wiped away.

So now I’m left with this conundrum: Jesus’ teachings only work against a background of imminent destruction. AND, obviously, the world did not end. Does that then invalidate his teaching? Without the apocalypse at the foundation of Jesus’ ministry, aren’t we badly misinterpreting what he really meant?

We’re certainly avoiding a rather obvious point: one of Jesus’ most emphatic predictions in his lifetime was wrong. Dead wrong. Now you can try and elide this by insisting that he didn’t put a date on the end of the world, but that ignores the urgency of his warnings. Does that invalidate Jesus’ teaching, as my reader suggests? Well, the first thing to say is that Christianity spread rapidly even as its main prediction turned out to be wrong. And, as Ehrman notes, it seems that the reality of the belief in the resurrection is what galvanized and sustained this religious movement after its guru’s untimely and dishonorable death. The resurrection occluded the failed prophesy.

how-jesus-became-godDoes that in turn render the radicalism of Jesus’ calls for total poverty, homelessness and suffering less powerful? I’d say it makes them more powerful. They become less a last-minute preparation for the end-times than a deeper and more radical critique of worldliness in all its forms. They become less a means to an end, and more an end in themselves. And Jesus taught these things, in the Gospels, without constantly referring to them as mere end-times necessities. Power over others is to be foresaken as an eternal truth about human life; wealth is an obstacle to happiness; what matters at all times is being present to others and to God, not running around with this goal or that; forgiving makes you happier than bearing grudges; revenge only perpetuates the cycle of hatred, rather than breaking it. All of these counter-intuitive ideas are our true destiny as humans if we can only master them. They are the only sure means to internal and external peace.

Now, of course, other religious traditions speak of similar things. You can see in Buddhism, for example, the insight that possessions hurt rather than help. You can see in Taoism the wisdom of letting go, of seeking peace by striving for less. And all of these impulses – which contradict what we now understand as our evolutionary nature – transcend “the restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” This profound insight – the early Christians believed – didn’t come from within us, but somehow from above us. And a person who walks this Bronzino-Christ-Nicewalk is indeed living as close to divinity as human beings can get.

This insight is perhaps encapsulated by the word logos, a form of divine wisdom about how to be happy and at peace through the law of love; and it is easy to see why Jesus’ life and example came to seem to his subsequent followers an incarnation of this logos, which of course is eternal. And Jesus’ decision to embrace his own torture and death with stunning equanimity and compassion represented the pinnacle of that divine achievement. How many of us could forgive those driving nails into our body? How many would stand by and say nothing when we are accused of something we never did? The Passion narrative is crafted to show how deeply Jesus walked the walk. It is by giving that we receive. It is by forgiving that we can be forgiven. Even in extremis. We will all die some day – which is our own looming apocalypse. And the only true way of grappling with that is through Christ’s logos.

Another reader:

I want to ask, (1) can a believer truly be open to evidence that Jesus, perhaps at one part of his life, said and believed things very different from what we normally attribute to him, and (2) can one – can a Christian – be open to the idea that, in these early beliefs at least, Jesus was wrong?

Take the body of assertions from Chapter 3 [in Ehrman’s book] about Jesus as an itinerant apocalyptic preacher.

I have heard such descriptions of John the Baptist and Jesus previously, but this is perhaps the first time when the sheer weight of these statements hit home. Ehrman’s evidence – supported by his criteria of independent attestation and dissimilarity – helped me to appreciate just how often the texts focus, as a whole, on judgment, on punishment, on reversals of ultimate fortune, and especially on a rhetoric of fear (and joy) in the face of an imminent end.  This vision of Jesus’ early and perhaps entire ministry seems as well founded as anything in the book.

But if you accept that we can indeed have a sense of what Jesus said and what Jesus meant by his apocalyptical proclamations – if we can get a sense of what these word meant in their historical and textual context – then how can this not have an effect on what one thinks of Jesus?

Sheep and goats; burning and wailing; shame and sinfulness; and the righteousness of new and better judgment: these are words that embody, for me, not an abiding love of humanity, but a mainly a hatred of sin. They do not promise to redeem creation, but rather revel in visions of un-creation, of joyous destruction.  These pronouncements do not so much love justice as much they enjoy imagining the punishment of injustice.  In loving God, this Jesus hates the world.

As a historical fact and a textual interpretation, this reading may be correct or incorrect.  But what if, on the whole, it seems right? What can one, as a Christian, do with these words and feelings?

We can balance them, I’d say, by other words and feelings, and see what was truly radical and new in Jesus’ teaching about how to live and die independently of the apocalyptic vision. But we cannot ignore that side completely. Jesus, Christian believe, was both fully human and fully divine. The human part was bound up in the culture and history of his time, its apocalyptic background, and its roots in Jewish scripture. The divine part escaped that. To believe in the Incarnation requires one to accept both, and to live with a Jesus we will never fully master and never totally understand.

(Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here. Please email any responses to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com rather than the main account, and try to keep them under 500 words.)

Update from a reader:

It seems to me a big reason Christianity spread after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, is that his followers began to reexamine his apocalyptic predictions in light of their post-Pentecost experiences. They understood “the age to come” to have actually begun – an age defined by the upside-down Kingdom Jesus had announced in his teachings, in which the last were now first, the greatest were those who served, and Jesus – not the Caesar whose government had put him to death – was Lord. The apocalyptic signs were all around them: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2).

They had no reason to disbelieve Jesus on account of his prophecies not coming true; they were now living in the new age he had predicted would come.

Another:

Enjoying this thread. There are other interpretations of Jesus’ prophetic “mistake” about the literal end of the whole world, which does seem like a pretty big paradox for literalists. Instead, lots of the end times prophecies/symbolism make sense when interpreted as applying to the ~70CE Jewish rebellion against Roman hegemony and consequent destruction of the Temple and massive slaughter of the population of Jerusalem, followed by Nero’s persecution of the early Christians. This lines up nicely with the modern dating of the texts in the New Testament (soon after the historical events), and means we can end the idiotic game of deciding which contemporary political figures are candidates for the role of anti-Christ (though that game is too popular to end anytime soon).

Another:

Wow – great insights from the readers! “In loving God Jesus hates the world.” Strong stuff, and not to be dismissed lightly, since it has remained one pole of the dialectic that has driven Christianity from the outset. The “little apocalypse” of Jerusalem’s fall to Titus solves part of the problem, but it does not really reach the deeper issue, if Christ is speaking to mankind and not just the Jews. The response that the Pentecost renders immediate the new age is intriguing, but it cannot resolve the other great failed prophecy stated in the kerugma – the declaration of the Christian’s faith reduced to its essence: Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.

Paul, the architect of the Church, understood Christ’s return to be imminent, like the prophecy of the apocalypse. Like the reader who suggests, correctly in my view, that Christ’s preaching of radical divestiture is made within the context of apocalypse, Paul preaches that his congregations must live their lives not in anticipation of Christ’s return, but live them in preparation for his return – tomorrow. As Christians, we can rationalize, but that path leads nowhere, I think. Best perhaps to focus on the here and now.

Book Club: Relating To Resurrection

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.

He was Patrick and yet no longer Patrick. His tormented shell of a body, racked by slow starvation and countless lesions, was now resplendent. His face was clear, his body more luminous than in life, all flaws removed. And he was happy. Weeks would then pass and I would suddenly be arrested by a sense of his presence – on the sidewalk, reading a book, sleeping on the beach. I cannot fully explain this, although a modern mind can always analyze it from the perspective of grief, survivor guilt, wish-fulfillment, and the like. And over time, Patrick’s presence diminished. But I experienced it as very, very real for as long as it lasted.

So, yes, I can indeed see the disciples having similar experiences – and they have been attested to in countless other lives as well, in studies and surveys over the years, as Ehrman notes. I infer from mine that Patrick is alive and well, and that one day, we will be together again. Perhaps at that fountain in Dupont Circle. And we will be laughing. And happy. And free from death and the fear of death. That is my faith. And I believe it was the faith of the disciples as well. It is what I mean by resurrection.

(Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here. Please email any responses to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com rather than the main account, and try to keep them under 500 words. Painting: Pietro Lorenzetti from the basilica in Assisi.)

Book Club: The Indispensable Jesus?

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.

In this miasma of fear, guilt, grief and disorientation, they suddenly see Jesus alive and walking around in various visions and mysterious manifestations. There you have the whiplash of the resurrection, and the obvious desire of the disciples to believe that all of it must mean something more profound than merely that Jesus was  a man of God who was unjustly put to death. He was more than that to them – and the resurrection made that indelible. And I find it perfectly reasonable to see why the disciples began to tell and re-tell the stories of Jesus life as a way to keep him alive in their hearts and minds and to buttress and deepen the meaning of this revelation. I find it perfectly human to re-enact his last supper with them as a way to keep his memory and his presence in their lives.

hatchescross.jpgIn other words, Occam’s razor needs to take into account the life-changing ideas and the soul-changing way of life Jesus of Nazareth gave the world. When I say a deeper perfection lies behind the fallible game of telephone that the Gospels are, I mean simply this. The words that Jefferson excavated, the stories that Tolstoy marveled at, the way of life that Francis of Assisi embraced, all of this and so much more come from this man’s words and life. There is always something astounding when the victims of violence refuse to fight back and seek to love instead. It defuses all of our evolutionary impulses. It negates what was previously thought of as human. It instantly makes one think of something divine.

There are many ways of understanding this, and Christians, as Ehrman shows, came up with countless permutations on the notion of God-Made-Flesh within the Trinity. None of it makes any worldly sense, the Trinity especially. It makes sense only as paradox and mystery, not as literal truth. And so I do not have a firm belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, because the Gospels don’t either. He is a vision, an angel, a man who walks through doors only to reveal himself in the flesh … and then he withdraws again from view. There is no single, literal account in the Jesus stories of his resurrection, which is one reason I prefer to leave its precise contours a little opaque. Ehrman suggests the conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead might be an instance of a very common form of vision of recently dead loved ones – which was not unique to the disciples but witnessed countless times across the globe then and now. And I sure keep that option open.

But because it is a mystery, I do not discount the possibility of a literal resurrection either. What matters to me is the life-changing message of Jesus, potent and rendered in unforgettable metaphor and parable, lived by him to the astonishment of all who encountered him, and speaking of a form of justice, of life and of love that we rightly associate with some power beyond us – because so much in our evolutionary make-up screams against it and yet somewhere within us we recognize it is the only transcendence we are capable of. In that sense, Jesus was the intersection of timeless truth with time. And nothing could be more miraculous in the long and brutal history of humankind than that.

(The entire discussion for How Jesus Became God is compiled here. Please email any responses to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com rather than the main account, and please keep them under 500 words.

Photos: the road to Emmaus by Caravaggio; the Epstein statue of Lazarus in New College, Oxford; my own personal Jesus; and a cross at Hatches Harbor at the end of Cape Cod.)

Book Club: Can Christianity Survive Modernity? Ctd

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?

Another:

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?

You wrote: “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.” This sums up why I still consider myself a Catholic. As Ehrman lays out in his book, the beliefs of the early Church evolved as the theologians and philosophers tried to figure out who and what Jesus was. They couldn’t know, because even people who knew, loved and followed Christ apparently didn’t fully understand him. All the Church fathers had were the writings of others and oral traditions. What they achieved was a tour de force of logic and intellect as they refined their understanding of Christ.

Is this refined understanding accurate? Of course not, and neither is Ehrman’s, but it is the best we can do as mere humans. A Church that at least proclaims the hope and love exemplified by Jesus is my home.

Interestingly, Ehrman has written elsewhere that he is agnostic not because of where his scholarship has led him, but because of the issue of theodicy.

In Ehrman’s words:

About nine or ten years ago I came to realize that I simply no longer believed the Christian message. A ehrman_bart_12_020large part of my movement away from the faith was driven by my concern for suffering. … We live in a world in which a child dies every five seconds of starvation. Every five seconds. Every minute there are twenty-five people who die because they do not have clean water to drink. Every hour 700 people die of malaria. Where is God in all this? We live in a world in which earthquakes in the Himalayas kill 50,000 people and leave 3 million without shelter in the face of oncoming winter. We live in a world where a hurricane destroys New Orleans. Where a tsunami kills 300,000 people in one fell swoop. Where millions of children are born with horrible birth defects. And where is God? To say that he eventually will make right all that is wrong seems to me, now, to be pure wishful thinking.

Another reader:

“Does this book effectively debunk Christianity’s core claims in modernity … or does it point to a new way of understanding and believing them?” I have wrestled with this same question after reading Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot. What his book and Ehrman’s book point towards is that Christianity as we know is a Romanized version that is far removed from the actual lives and times of Jesus of Nazareth. But for me, both books gave me a stronger faith in Jesus. This may be because I have always been quite liberal in my interpretation of Christianity. For me, follow the Golden Rule, help the least fortunate amongst us, and trust in the teaching of Jesus have always been the central tenants of my faith.

I am often told that to be Christian you have to believe in the Resurrection. You have to believe that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins and was resurrected to sit by God. Both of these books ultimately arrive at this point as well. Is one a Christian if they do not believe in the Resurrection? If there is no Resurrection, is there Christianity?

This is a question I have grappled with and continue to grapple with at this time. However, I think the answer to both questions is that the Resurrection does not have to be literal, as is true of other parts of the Bible. Why would it diminish the faith if Christianity/the Resurrection were interpreted to be that Jesus taught us how to live a better life, temper our sins, have a relationship with God, and died for these teachings and went to Heaven as the Son of God, as all of us will as the son and daughters of God? This would only diminish the faith in so far as it would not appeal to 3rd and 4th century Roman authorities and fulfill a literal interpretation of the Messiah prophecies.

I don’t know about you, but the former provides me a stronger faith for living in the 21st century and is more accurately backed up by historical research. This is why I say both of these books should give us comfort as Christians living in the 21st century, as we can embrace a historical Jesus that is divorced from the politics of the creation of the religion that is named after him. As Aslan writes, this is a Jesus worth believing in and following towards a relationship with God.

Another:

Let me start by saying that I am at least a non-theist and very probably what almost anyone would describe as an atheist.  I also have a Jewish background and very strongly identify with the Jewish community.

So does Ehrman “debunk Christianity’s core claims…”?  Absolutely not.  What he does do is make it clear that these Gospels were written by human beings who had very human motivations, and not all of those motivations were directly related to pure belief in Jesus.  They had political motivations, personal feelings, and all the limitations of humans – not to mention very little or no understanding of the physical world that our science has begun to give us in the past 300 or so years.

It is of course possible that the core claims of Christianity are not true, but just because the gospels were written by flawed human beings doesn’t make them so.  It is certainly possible that the understanding of Jesus evolved along exactly the lines that Ehrman describes and slowly and gradually approached the current “truth” – or maybe even that the understanding of that truth can evolve further.  It is possible that the followers of Jesus simply did not or could not grasp the full truth immediately and that it took them centuries to get there.

On the other hand, it is very difficult to distinguish this process from another process – the development of a false religion over hundreds of years as its doctrine grew.  How can we tell the difference between a true religion in which theology developed and a false religion that added layer after layer of false theology?  I don’t think we can from examining the historical record of how the theology grew.

So Ehrman neither debunks nor proves Christianity, but I think he does make believers face the fact that the Gospels were written by humans (with all that implies) and theology is rarely completely static and fixed.  There I think he does a great service to Christians, if they will allow it.

Another atheist reader:

Your question of whether Christianity can survive modernism grabbed me.  It is a serious question whether any Church can survive, without another schism, the conflict between fundamentalists and “modernists” we see being played out in the world.  Pope Francis may have found the answer – de-emphasize the doctrinal elements of the faith and emphasize the compassion in the rituals and good works inspired by the faith.  A wonderful balancing act, in which I wish him all the best.

(Please email any responses to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com rather than the main account. Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here.)

Book Club: Occam’s Razor And The Gospels

[Re-posted from earlier today. The whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God is here. Please email any responses to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com 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.”

I don’t really know if you mean that the Gospels don’t actually need to be literally true AT ALL – that it’s really just their deep metaphorical, spiritual meaning that matters – or if you still believe that in some how-jesus-became-godareas they do have to refer to literal truths.

If it’s the first, then I could agree with that view of the Gospels – spiritual truth can be conveyed by all sorts of texts that are not literally true. But if it’s the second, then I wonder how Ehrman’s book doesn’t create a core doubt in you or in Christianity in general. Because it seems to me that it pushes the answer to the question of whether or not modernity and Christianity can co-exist towards “no”.

For example, Christians believe that Jesus was resurrected in the flesh. But we’ve learned that Jesus and the apostles lived in a world where virgin births were not unique to Jesus, and neither were people who were half-god and half-human. So I imagine that resurrection stories also existed outside of Jesus’ story. (And maybe that’s answered in a later part of the book than I’m currently in!)

A glance at the biblical record:

Nine individuals in scripture are clearly presented in the Bible as being raised from the dead. Of these miraculous resurrections, three occur in the Old Testament. At least three individuals were raised from the dead by Jesus. Both Peter and Paul raised a person from the dead and most importantly of all, Jesus himself was resurrected. In addition, an untold number of saints were resurrected at Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27:52-53). Also, it is incredibly possible that Paul himself was resurrected after he was stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19-20).

The reader continues:

If so, why is Jesus’ resurrection any more special than any other resurrection from a different tradition? If we believe Jesus’ story, shouldn’t we believe the others’ stories? Other people in other religions had equally strong faith. And if we don’t believe the other stories, why believe Jesus’? Couldn’t the apostles have been hallucinating, under some form of mass delusion? What makes Jesus’ story so special that you must believe it is true when others aren’t?

For me, Ehrman’s book bolsters the argument that the answer is that it’s not special. It shows that the Gospels are, as you say, messy, inaccurate, internally conflicted, human. They took from and paralleled other traditions of the time. Like many other religious stories, the story of Jesus is a universal spiritual quest filtered through the particular individual, cultural and historical conditions in which it existed. It’s not really special in the way that I think Christianity requires.  So, without that specialness, how DOES Christianity survive?

Another wants clarification:

“Does this book effectively debunk Christianity’s core claims in modernity … or does it point to a new way of understanding and believing them?” Of course the answer to your question depends on what exactly the “core claims” of Christianity are.

If the core claim is that Christ is the Son, co-equal with the Father for all eternity – or similar “high” Christological claims – I do think this book and books like it erect additional barriers to that belief, by shedding light on how they came to be formulated and exposing the gulf between them and the beliefs of the earliest Christians.  It’s very hard to believe that powerful men with very specific interests, writing hundreds of years after Jesus, would have more accurately grasped his nature then men and women closer to his own station, who had learned of him from his own disciples and others that knew him.

If the core claim of Christianity, on the other hand, is that Christ was in some sense God – for example, that Christ represented the extent to which a fully human life could be infused with the power and purpose of God – and that, furthermore, the manner in which he was God allowed him to conquer death and sin, the book does not impact this belief much one way or the other.

The challenge for every Christian is to understand how Jesus, fully human, was nonetheless God; and thereby to understand how we, fully human, can participate in God’s kingdom.  A critical, historical reading of the gospels is an aid in this effort, not an impediment.  If anything, the high Christologies of later years are the impediment, obscuring as they do the real, full extent of Jesus’ humanity, and thus relieving from us the burden of Christ’s greatest challenge to us – to live like him, and through doing so, to act out God’s kingdom in our own lives.

Update: My response to these arguments here.

Book Club: Did Jesus Know He Was God?

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?

And yet he is clearly racked with fear and agony and doubt throughout the Gospels – sometimes because, we infer, he knows what is about to happen (as in the Garden of Gethsemane), but sometimes also because he appears not to know what is about to happen (did he let Lazarus die by mistake or by design?). How, for that matter, could an omniscient God cry on the cross at his hour of death: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The narrative of Jesus makes no sense if he is merely a divine omniscience inhabiting a human shell. And it makes even less sense if he is a fallible human being completely bewildered by what is happening to him.

book-club-cartoonSo for me, over the years, as I have thought and prayed and simply wondered about this, I’ve come simply to the conclusion that it makes sense only to God, to a consciousness far greater than a human one, and that if we are to believe, we have to believe in this doctrine as essentially a mystery. I know agnostic and atheist readers will find this a cop-out, and it is, rationally speaking. All I can say is that my own experience of Jesus as a living God in my own life forces me to this unsatisfactory position. I cannot rationally reconcile the divine and the human as single concept. But my faith, my personal experience of Jesus, forces me to accept it.

But if I cannot rationally accept it, what do I mean by accept? I mean an embrace of wonderment at what the force behind all things can be beyond any human understanding. And I mean the sacrament of the Mass which, far from attempting to explain Jesus’ divinity in human form, merely claims to demonstrate it in ritual. I mean the sacrament of nature, where what is absolutely subject to rational understanding, from the viewpoint of science, nonetheless escapes those parameters when one simply regards it with awe. I mean an afternoon in early autumn at the end of Cape Cod, where light and water congregate and commune in something I can only call transcendent. We live in a universe both material and wondrous – and neither denies the other. That is how I have come to accept the incarnation as mystery and as necessity – both in Jesus and in the world.

(Please email any responses to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com rather than the main account. Unfiltered thoughts from readers on Facebook here.)

(Photo: The monumental main cross, symbolizing the Christian faith, is silhouetted in a puddle at the Theresienwiese during dusk of day 1 of the 2nd Ecumenical Church Day in Munich, Germany on May 12, 2010. By Johannes Simon/Getty Images. The original post contained the rather English term “Chinese whispers”, which confused many readers, so I’ve change that phrase to “game of telephone” which is the American equivalent. )