Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Christ Conundrum : A Brief Examination

The Christ Conundrum is a fascinating book by Andrew Carruth which essentially deconstructs the biblical stories of Jesus and presents a realistic historicity of Jesus.

As atheists, we tend to take different approaches in our debates with Christians on the historicity of Jesus and the Bible.

Some go as far as to take the position that Jesus didn’t exist at all as a historical person. A position, which, in my opinion and that of Andrew Carruth, is largely indefensible.

While I agree that the “divine” Jesus who performed “miracles” as described in the Bible was highly unlikely to have existed, I don’t doubt that there was a man who led the Christus sect and was crucified by the Romans for being a troublemaker.

Why? Because we know that someone espoused these beliefs, someone led a following of people who believed them and that someone was crucified. All of this has been verified by the existence of the Bible and independently verified in Josephus’ writings on the Jewish Wars. While there were sections of his writings that are suspect because it appears that they have been tampered with, this section of the Testimonium Flavium isn’t in dispute. Josephus does talk about and refers to Jesus by name in another section which is suspected to have been an interpolation by Eusebius.

That said, the other two approaches to history and biblical historiography are:
  1. Independently vetted material only is acceptable.
  2. All material available is reviewed and historical context amongst other criteria is used to determine validity.
If the first approach is used I consider the results knowledge that I feel confident of being likely to be true.

If the second approach is used I consider the results knowledge that is probably true but might not be.

Mr. Carruth has used the second approach in this interesting exploration of Jesus.

The only critique that I would offer to this approach is that I would have used all of the biblical material, including the Gnostic texts more extensively than he did and have done so in some of my debates on this topic.

However, to be honest, my approach would have and does generate controversy, particularly amongst Christians who do not accept the Gnostics texts as biblical.

Mr. Carruths’ approach, while less controversial, has the benefit of appealing to and generating interest amongst both atheists, liberal Christians and possibly even some fundamentalists.

In my humble opinion, he has made his case for his view of the historical Jesus exceedingly well.

He examines the political, cultural and social context of the period and the region, placing the historical Jesus firmly within that context, while using Scripture extensively to illustrate his points.

According to Mr. Carruth, and I would agree, early Christianity was Jewish. It evolved to adopt Hellenic and Roman characteristics as it became exposed to Gentile pagan beliefs.

“This apocalyptic cult of Jews represents the first roots of Christianity. Based on an understanding that Jesus was the messiah who had risen from the dead, they sought a continuation of their mission, which would take them into the lands of the pagans. It is in the Gentile world where the figure of Jesus develops into a fully fledged divinity…”

He attributes many of the apparent contradictions in the Bible and in ascribing Jesus philosophy and characteristics to these differing approaches between the Jewish and Gentile view. These are illustrated in his frequent comparison of the both the wording and approach of Mark (Gentile) versus Matthew (Jewish) in their Gospels throughout his book.

One of the many interesting ideas that he introduces is the idea that Jesus may not have been developing or introducing a new philosophy but engaging in a known Rabbinic tradition of the era, debate and interpretation of the Jewish Law. A tradition which apparently continues to this date.

“There are other references to Jesus’ Jewish nature. Luke states that “Each day Jesus was teaching at the temple.” (Luke 21:37). It is hard to conceive why he would teach there if he did not have a Jewish message. Indeed we shall shortly learn that the primary content of Jesus’ teaching was in line with the Judaism of his time and the fact that he was labeled as the messiah serves only to demonstrate Jesus’ fundamental Jewishness – the messiah was a very Jewish idea.”

“… some scholars have posited that Jesus might have been a Pharisee himself. It is true from a look at later rabbinic writing the Jews regularly argued amongst themselves in order to find the correct way of interpreting the law and Jesus debating the size of the phylacteries fits snugly with this image.

All Jews agreed that there is one God and that through his prophet Moses the law was given. Other than this there was no official dogma, no codified Jewish bible and religious practice was varied and open to interpretation. When Jesus is shown to be opposed to the Pharisees in actuality he was debating the best way to interpret the law, much as many a rabbi has done since.”

And just for fun, reading the sections on Why Does Jesus Ride Two Donkeys? and Why Do The Soldiers Want Jesus Underwear? will both enlighten and entertain you.

He concludes by summarizing the evolution of Christianity and examining its' political role during Constantine’s time.

The last question Mr. Carruth explores and perhaps the most controversial one is:

“With the conclusions that we have postured regarding Jesus’ Jewishness and his reconstructed mission, let us ask our resurrected Jesus what he thinks about everything that has been done in his name."

I’ll let you read the book, to explore the answers to that one. Open-mouthed smile

Enjoy.

This is a must read for both sides of the AvC debate.

It brings clarity to an otherwise murky topic, is a great read and written in a popular, easy to understand style.


7 comments:

Cameron Reilly said...

Thanks for the review, I'll certainly be picking up a copy of the book. It seems to me, though, that Josephus isn't much of a source for the historical arguments for Jesus. He doesn't claim to be or know any eyewitnesses. Reading the relevant sections of his books just seems to suggest there was a Chrestus cult in the first century, something that isn't in doubt. And the NT scriptures aren't much help either, as we can be fairly certain Mark is the only book that can claim some originality and we have no idea who wrote it and therefore have no idea as to the credibility of the author.

Anonymous said...

Hi man.

Me said...

I don't disagree with your comments on Josephus and the fact that there are no contemporary writings on Jesus. IMO that just indicates that the Christus cult was very insignificant and just one of numerous Jewish cults of the day and Jesus was just one of many "messiahs" killed by the Romans simply because they were considered to be troublemakers.

Me said...

Josephus only confirms 3 points:
1. The Christus existed.
2. They had a leader.
3. The leader was executed.

Everything else mentioned is either debatable or definitely suspect like the references to Jesus by name and his brother James, etc.

However, given the Bible also mentions James as Jesus brother, even if that reference is an interpolation I would give them that one :-D.

Me said...

According to Carruth, Mark is a Gentile and not a Jew based on his writings.

This is interesting given the fact that Matthew and Luke, both Jews, used Mark as their source and Mark doesn't take Paul's position that Jesus was divine.

I've notified the author through the publisher that I've posted this and have invited him to join this and the other discussion occurring on AvC.

Hopefully he'll have some time to give his input.

Thanks for your comments.

Cameron Reilly said...

The question I have about Josephus is who his source was? How did he know Jesus lived? Did he have access to contemporary sources that no longer exist and that no-one (including Josephus) mentions anywhere in the historical record? Or did he infer Jesus' existence from the fact that the cult believed he existed? The latter seems to make more sense and doesn't really add any credibility to the claims that he was an historic entity.

Me said...

Hey Cameron,

Josephus never mentions Jesus by name. It seems that the Christus cult was known and it was known that their leader was crucified as were many leaders of various Jewish cults of the day.

I can't speak for others but I use the name Jesus simply out of convenience when talking about the historical figure who led the Christus.

I'm not a historian so I could be wrong but I'm not aware of any contemporaries who wrote about the Jews when Jesus was supposed to have lived. And these cults were not only common but many of the leaders were crucified if the Romans considered them troublemakers.

Josephus was commissioned to write a history of the Jews and as a Jew himself he would have been familiar with the stories.