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


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.