Posts Tagged ‘Christian mythology’

EPHESIANS 1:15-23

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

To say that “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (and so forth) might lead us to think that the resurrection was the decisive moment when Jesus became Lord and Son of God. Christian orthodoxy insists that he was Son of God since before the beginning, tending to blur even this distinction in its doctrine of Jesus as God. But this wasn’t Paul’s view. Jesus – Christ, Lord, and Savior to use some of Paul’s favorite designations – was not himself God, but rather was “declared” Son of God by the power of his resurrection (see Romans 1:4).

For Paul, everything changed at the resurrection – which wasn’t a mere miracle, but the transforming moment when Jesus was set free, raised up, and granted authority over the nations. Whereas the cross had been the world’s “No” to Jesus, the resurrection was God’s “Yes.” By declaring (which is more than just making an announcement, but making it so) Jesus his Son, God gave warrant to what Jesus had been all about.

The contrast between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was even more significant to Paul, however, for it wasn’t simply “the world” that rejected Jesus, but the Law that had put him away. The accusation, rationale, and judgment that had sentenced him to die was based on and justified by the Mosaic Law at the heart of Paul’s own religion. Jesus’ kingdom movement had promoted the values of human dignity, liberty and neighborly love over the authority of Tradition, Temple and Torah (Jewish orthodoxy).

The Law wasn’t against these values, we should be clear. But in defending itself – as orthodoxy and empire are wont to do – it forced the condemnation of Jesus, an innocent and truly righteous man of God. For that reason, the merit system of purity and obedience informed by and organized around the Law was nullified, undermined and rendered invalid by its own self-contradiction.

                                                                                                     

It doesn’t appear that Paul was personally familiar with the early history of Jesus and his kingdom movement. Nowhere in his letters does he refer to Jesus’ teachings or notorious way of life. He started out as a “bounty hunter” for Christians, taking them into custody for prosecution. As a Pharisee, Paul (as Saul) was deeply devoted to his religion and upholding its Law. The followers of Jesus broke the Law, or at least didn’t observe it to the extent Paul knew they should, and so they needed to be brought to justice – just as Jesus himself had been.

Tradition has it that the young Pharisee was looking after the cloaks of those who started stoning a Jesus follower named Stephen. As he looked on (with approval, we presume), Paul heard Stephen call to God in his last breath, to forgive those who were taking his life. It may well be that this (admittedly reconstructed) encounter with the kingdom movement in the martyrdom of Stephen impressed Paul in a way he wasn’t yet ready to acknowledge or fully understand. But the seed of revolution was sown.

On his way to find more Christians, the inner tension caused by the polarity of his fanatical devotion to God’s Law and the unconditional forgiveness of Stephen finally “broke” (resolved itself) in the realization that the spirit of Jesus was still alive and active, even after his crucifixion. Although Paul recounts this experience as more like a mystical illumination than a supernatural encounter, the distillation of its significance was symbolized as resurrection.

Perhaps we can state Paul’s transforming experience as simply as this: in a moment that would become the turning-point of his life, Paul understood that God’s love is freely given (grace) and unconditional (forgiveness) – not in some abstract sense, but personally, for him (Paul), the one who had been fighting against this love with all his religious conviction.

Resurrection, then, marked the threshold into a new age. The cross had canceled out the validity of the Law as a way of salvation; now grace, and the trusting response of full acceptance called faith, is the path for everyone – Jews and Gentiles, male and female, saints and sinners alike.

The resurrection is not some miraculous event locked in the past, and it’s not merely something that happened to Jesus. Rather it is that decisive and life-changing moment when a person fully accepts his or her acceptance by God. Love wins.

ACTS 1:1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

The author of the Acts of the Apostles (or Acts) is the same person who wrote the Gospel according to Luke, comprising a two-volume account of the Christian movement. Tradition attributes authorship to an attending physician who traveled briefly with the apostle Paul (which might explain the “we” references in Acts). Whoever he was, the author was Christianity’s first “court mythographer” – the one who composes the empire’s official history.

Because of his reported association with Paul, who was the Church’s key strategist for outreach and expansion, Luke’s story of Jesus and his movement were likely influenced by the apostle himself – even heavily influenced. Nevertheless it is important to keep in mind that Luke was written at least thirty years after Paul, which leaves a lot of time for sifting, spinning, and further development.

Luke is to be thanked for the dramatic plot design that introduces Jesus through the divine portal of a virgin’s womb, tracks him through the miracles and teachings of his ministry, relates with omniscience his anguished prayer in the Garden and his private audience with Pilate and Herod, bears witness to the quiet conversation between Jesus and the rebels hanging with him, observes the risen Jesus on Sunday and eavesdrops on two disciples on their way to Emmaus …

And finally this: Jesus rising vertically into the air and disappearing on a magic carpet of clouds. “What are you looking for?” ask two angels suddenly appearing. “He’ll be coming back, just as you watched him leave.”

There you have it – the Great Story we all know and love.

                                                                                                

We are fairly certain that Luke was written not long after Matthew. Both of them used the plot of Mark’s Gospel (up to the empty tomb) and laced it with teaching material likely taken from a hypothetical source named “Q” for Quelle (meaning “source”). For this reason, the three Gospels of Mark (70 CE), Matthew (80 CE) and Luke (90 CE) are called the Synoptic Gospels, since they share (or “see”) so much in common.

A close comparison of Luke to Matthew strongly suggests that our author had Matthew’s account in front of him as he wrote. Having a better grasp of Hebrew (or maybe he was just more educated), Luke corrects some mistranslations in Matthew that almost border on the ridiculous.

For instance, where Mark’s original introduces us to a blind beggar by the name of “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus,” Matthew, not realizing that “Bartimaeus” translates as “son of Timaeus” in Hebrew, turns Mark’s single beggar into two blind men. Luke later caught the error and restored the original in his retelling.

And again, when Jesus is preparing to enter Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles, Mark tells us that he rode in on a colt to the cheers of his fans. As Matthew picks up the story, he finds an Old Testament passage (Zechariah 9:9) to use as prophecy of the event:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Matthew misreads (or inserts) an “and” before the reference to a colt, now making it necessary for Jesus to ride on two animals at once! Luke corrects the problem and reverts the story from a veritable circus act to a paradoxical victory parade on the back of a donkey.

But this might be the most fateful change that Luke made to Matthew’s text. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is standing on a mountain with his disciples. He confirms his supreme authority and then commissions his followers to spread the word and make more disciples. “And remember,” he says to them, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Close curtain. In other words, Matthew leaves us with the intriguing assurance that Jesus is still somehow present with the disciple community as it carries on in the world.

And what does Luke do? By making Jesus ascend into heaven – presumably so he can come back again – he leaves the disciple community spiritually bereft, as it were. Jesus is not “with you always,” but is rather absent from the scene until his return. Even if Luke fervently believed that the Second Coming was about to happen, this modification of the Christian myth would take Christianity still farther from the original gospel of Jesus – about as far away as one can get!

In transferring Jesus to heaven and later on, Luke thereby initiated the Age of the Church. Now, while Jesus is away and the priests are in charge, you’d better fall in line.

1 PETER 3:13-22

13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

You just have to wonder where an author finds the chutzpah to invent a doctrine about Jesus preaching to the departed souls in limbo (which in later doctrine became Purgatory) so they, too, could have a chance to accept the offer of salvation.

Or was it inspiration? Did the Holy Spirit put this idea in his mind by supernatural revelation? If we agree, then the discussion is closed. God said it, I believe it, and that does it.

But this might be another example of the emerging religion of Christianity establishing itself by setting in place the necessary mythological foundations. As the questions came up – Who was Jesus, really, and what was he about? How is our movement connected to our parent religion of Judaism? Did Jesus have to die that way? Did his death mean something? How is the world different after Jesus, and what are we supposed to do now? – a demand for meaningful answers required the tailoring of current myths from elsewhere along with some creative invention of their own.

We can only imagine what the question behind this particular “solution” might have been. What about the people who died before the time of Jesus? If his death fixed the problem (first assumption), and if salvation is dependent on hearing the doctrine (second assumption) and accepting that all this was done for you (third assumption), then they missed out. Are they in hell for something they couldn’t know and have a chance to accept? That wouldn’t be fair! So let’s get Jesus in front of them to proclaim the good news …

The apostle Paul had an easier and more reasonable solution to the problem of salvation before Jesus. If they didn’t have the special revelation of the Law and Prophets (Judaism), then at least God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are evident throughout creation (Romans 1:19-20). Each of us will be held accountable for the choices we make in the light we are given. Fair enough.

But wait a second, already by this time (late 60s CE) Christianity had made a decisive move, from a spiritually grounded moral revolution with dangerous political implications (under the leadership of Jesus) to a messianic sect of Judaism with a strong missionary campaign to win Gentile converts (under the leadership of Paul). As it went on, the new religion needed a devotional focus (Jesus the savior) and an orthodox company line (something like: Confess your sins, believe in Jesus, get baptized, and come aboard).

Now we have insiders (the properly saved) and outsiders (the unrepentant or ignorant throng). One day very soon Jesus is going to swoop down with his angels and take us with him to heaven, leaving the rest for unpleasant times ahead. In the meantime, if anyone interrogates your beliefs, here’s what to say; if they persecute you for what you believe, then you have good precedent in Jesus himself.

He had to suffer for our salvation, an innocent victim for the sinful race. There is no forgiveness without repentance, no pardon without satisfaction. Redemption through violence: it is God’s way.

Never mind that it contradicted the original gospel of Jesus himself.

 

ROMANS 5:12-19

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Earlier cultures, by virtue of being farther upstream and experientially closer to the wellspring of mythological thinking, apparently did not labor as do we, over whether a particular sacred story (myth) was factual or fictional. The story simply was, and its truth lay in the power of the narrative to draw the audience (primitive stories were oral performances, not written texts) into its magical depictions, dramatic situations, and moral conflicts, in order to either confirm or challenge the current worldview and way of life.

It’s important for us to remember that Paul was not a sixteenth-century Protestant reformer, but a first-century religious personality still steeped in the mythological world of his period. The question is not whether or not Paul believed Adam to have been an actual individual who lived as first in the series way back in the mists of primeval time, but rather who is Adam in the constellation of symbols and meanings that is Paul’s present worldview.

When the question is put that way we begin to sense that, for Paul, Adam is an archetype, an ideal type, exemplar, or primary pattern for what human beings are at some primitive level of their psyches. Adam represents what psychologists today call our “inner child,” the part of us that thinks, feels, and reacts out of a center of self-interest, who struggles beneath the burden of insecurity, guilt, and the fear of being out on our own.

His counterpart in Paul’s mythology is Christ, the New Adam, who is the resurrected higher self, our embodiment of grace, freedom, and love.

                                                                                                

In an earlier letter to the congregation in Corinth, Paul makes explicit use of this functional contrast between Adam and Christ, referring to Christ as “the last Adam” who has become for us a “life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:42-49). This creative duality between the two great exemplars of our human mythstory (history interpreted through the templates of myth), one representing our lower and the other our higher nature, was clearly Paul’s theory of choice for explaining the mystery of salvation in Christian terms.

As he set forth this mystery, it was imperative for Paul that his prospective converts to the Christian way see Adam not as simply a figure of past history but as a present force in their own personalities, and the same with Christ as well. Very early in his missionary career Paul had declared, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I [Adam: my lower impulsive self] who lives, but it is Christ [my higher self: the spirit of wisdom and love] who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

As we can see, then, early Christian mythology as formulated by the apostle Paul and others offered to the world a new way of conceiving the nature and destiny of human beings. The revealed path is one of growth, discovery, awakening, breakthrough, and fulfillment.