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A veteran journalist's take on such diverse subjects as religion and religious violence, democracy, freedom of expression, sociology, journalism, criticism, travel, philosophy, Southeast Asia, politics,economics, and even parenthood, the supernatural, film criticism, and cooking. Please don't hesitate to participate by starting a comment thread if you have an interest in any of these subjects...or anything else, for that matter... p.write@gmail.com

A cult is born


I realise that the book I’m writing is interfering with the frequency with which I’ve recently been posting to this blog, so I decided to post what follows: a 1st draft of a small section of one chapter . I’d be grateful for any feedback you might want send my way; just use the comment function at the bottom of the page. (Once again, the images here are just some I pulled down from the net, and are not part of the manuscript.)

On a sad note, I was distressed to hear that Christopher Hitchens just died. He had faced his death by cancer with his customary grace, wit, and courage. A very important voice has been silenced. Rest in peace, Hitch.

Christianity’s origins
Patrick Guntensperger
It’s important to note that the Christianity of the  right that dominates the politics of the western world and which proudly asserts its “fundamentalism”, is not only a fairly recent phenomenon, but it is far from being a conceptually coherent or even homogenous set of doctrines. Christianity, like most religions, is a grab-bag of often conflicting doctrines, arising from myths, agreed-upon historical falsehoods, fairy tales, and hard-sell marketing. In the case of Christianity, even its name is a misnomer; Paulism would be a more accurate title for what guides the lives of the faithful today. But, of course, accuracy was never the salient feature of the transmission of any religious doctrine.
At the centre of Christianity is the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Little is known about the historical Jesus; virtually everything we think we know about him comes down to us from texts written by members of his fan club who were born long after his death. Nevertheless, it is possible to extrapolate somewhat from the biblical accounts of his life. It is impossible to say anything definite, however, as the gospels – the four written accounts that are officially sanctioned and form the core of the New Testament, the second section of the most commonly accepted version of the bible today – are inconsistent and even contradictory; they are nearly useless as historical references. We can however tease out some indications of the historical figure of Jesus.
Jesus appears to have been a Jewish prophet and rabbi who lived in Palestine, an outlying province on the eastern fringes of the Roman Empire. He seems to have done most of his preaching during the reign of Augustus, but neither the date of his birth nor his death is clear. There is some suggestion in the gospels that he was born in Bethlehem, where his parents had to travel to be counted in a census; there is no historical record, however, of such a census that fits the bible story, and the notion of people being required to return to a clan home or ancestral place of residence or birth is historical nonsense. Although records exist of criminal proceedings and judicial executions under Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Palestine at the time, there is no historical record of Jesus’ crucifixion outside of the bible.
It is thought today that Jesus may have been a lapsed Essene, a member of a cult of ascetic Jews who lived in the desert near Jerusalem and were responsible for the writings that are known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. If Jesus had been an Essene, the biblical stories clearly indicate that by the time he began his itinerant “ministry” in the villages in the Galilee region, he had rejected their monastic and ascetic lifestyle in favour of one that included wine, large groups of friends and the company of prostitutes.
The bible’s depiction of the three years during which Jesus developed his cult following gives a picture of a steadily growing crowd of followers and hangers-on with a core group of disciples and a few family members and prostitutes. There is, if one reads the accounts without preconceptions, a gypsy carnival spirit about the charismatic preacher and his fans, a sort of proto-hippy traveling circus, or, given the preacher’s predilection for magic tricks, an early Magical Mystery Tour. The group camped out, slept in friends’ homes and accepted the hospitality of locals as they gradually made their way from the shores of the Sea of Galilee southward toward Jerusalem. As the troupe traveled, Jesus preached abandonment of family and employment, casting off of responsibility, and following him, as he went from town to town, picking up more acolytes, telling stories, and performing magic.
Jesus’ first biblical magic trick was the transformation of water into wine at what appears to have been a rather well oiled wedding feast, given that the guests managed to polish off all the wine initially provided by the host, by the time the party was just getting started. It is suggested by a number of biblical scholars and historians that this wedding, just some two miles northeast of Nazareth, was in fact Jesus’ own. In support of this is the observation that Mary – his mother – came to Jesus with the news of the impending dry spell and had him do something about it; very much the behavior of a Jewish mother at her son’s wedding. As a guest at the wedding that involvement would have been presumptuous of Mary and none of Jesus’ business; as the mother of the host and groom, however, the story makes some sort of cultural sense.
It seems clear that Jesus began to take his press seriously,and like many other charismatic cult leaders, from Charles Manson to Jim Jones, he began to succumb to the temptations that come with being worshiped by fanatic idolaters. He may even have come to believe, as many of his followers apparently did, that he was the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. This,however, is a far cry from believing he was divine; even at his most deranged, it is extremely unlikely that he would have been so blasphemous as to believe himself to be god.
It was incredible hubris for this young rabbi to consider himself to be the Messiah…the Messiah is one of the most critical tenets of Judaism, and Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. The word Messiah is a phonetic attempt at the spelling of a Hebrew word, “Mashiach”; in Greek, the word is “Christos”. Both words mean “the anointed one”, from the verb “mashach”, found in more than 100 different places in the Old Testament and meaning “to smear, spread, or anoint”. Anointing was the ceremonial induction into positions of leadership in the Jewish community, employed to formalise one’s elevation to the priesthood, recognition as a prophet, or coronation as a king. Many were anointed, but only one was given the title of “the Anointed One”, the Messiah. And that was the long awaited and prophesied deliverer of the Jews and redeemer of their sins.
This in itself was sufficiently blasphemous for the more conservative Jews to determine that their rabbi had contravened the dictates oftheir bible and according to Mosaic Law should be put to death. Since the Messiah was prophesied to set the Jews free, Jesus’ claim to be the Anointed One was of interest to the Roman occupiers. But this being a time and place of religious fanaticism, charismatic preachers were a dime a dozen, and Pilate really didn’t take Jesus seriously. Nevertheless, the Pharisees, who were the most powerful of the Jewish sects in Jerusalem at the time, insisted on his execution and Pilate, to keep the peace, and justified by the implied intent to foment revolution, complied. It should have ended there.
And it probably would have too, if it wasn’t for Saul of Tarsus (Saint Paul).
Born in Tarsus, in what is now southern Turkey, but raised in Jerusalem, in fact, Saul was working very hard to rid Palestine of the remnants of Jesus’ rag-tag group of followers. As a free-born Roman citizen and a Pharisee, he prided himself on putting what he later called “Christians” to death. The Sanhedrin (Jerusalem’s council of 23 religious judges) had considered Jesus’ remaining followers to be sufficiently inoffensive that they had discouraged, although somewhat half-heartedly, their persecution; nevertheless, the self-righteous Saul delighted in ferreting them out. He was, he later confessed, a participant in the stoning death of the proto-martyr, Stephen.

However, Saul experienced what is probably the most famous conversion in history. He claimed that one day while riding to the city of Damascus he saw a vision of what he took to be the resurrected Jesus, although how he recognised him, never having laid eyes on him, remains his secret. He was temporarily blinded by this vision and three days later when he regained his sight, he had come to the conclusion that Jesus was the Messiah and he dedicated himself to preaching his own version and interpretation of his words. He even had a new name – Paul, perhaps initiating the tradition of changing Jewish sounding names to more gentile ones when starting a career in show business.
For show business it was. Paul’s conversion was not a simple reversal of persecutor to proselytiser; he converted the essence of what Jesus had preached – kindness, tolerance, and love of life –  to what Paul believed in – bigotry, intolerance, punishment, and self-denial. He invented much of the logical absurdity that is the foundation to which “fundamentalism” refers.
After his conversion, Paul claimed to be a servant of the person he now called Jesus Christ, having appended Messiah (rendered in Greek) to the name of the crucified preacher he had never met. He further claimed that at his conversion he had been called to be an “apostle” and that he had been set apart to preach the “gospel of god”. An apostle, not to be confused with a disciple; the word is derived from ancient Greek and means an emissary or messenger,while “gospel” is derived from the Old English “godspel” meaning “good news”,which in turn is a literal translation of the ancient Greek “eungelion”.
And what he had to preach was indeed news; it certainly would have been news to the man Jesus. Among the things that the former Saul of Tarsus now claimed about the dead rabbi was that, as Messiah, his coming had been foretold by the biblical prophets; Jesus, after he had become more and more convinced of his own significance might well have agreed with this. But it would certainly have horrified the devout Jew Jesus to hear that Paul now also claimed that Jesus was the “son of god” and divine, and that he had physically risen from the dead to communicate some message that he had never preached during his corporeal life. Jesus of Nazareth would also have been very surprised to hear that all of this good news (which would have been news to him too) was not delivered to Paul by any person but rather directly by the resurrected Jesus Christ (a name which would also have been unfamiliar to him).
Paul validated his claim of Jesus’ Messiah-hood by pointing out that, according to some rather obscure prophesies (eg.2 Samuel 7:16 and Jeremiah 23:5), the Messiah would be of the house of David, a claim that could be made by Jesus of Nazareth as Jesus’ father Joseph was of David’s line. Paul tripped up a bit, of course, when he also insisted that Jesus’ mother was a virgin at the time of his birth. After all, Jesus could hardly claim to have descended from David via Joseph if his mother was a virgin. Details, details.
If one reads without preconceptions what history of Paul is available, what emerges is a none too savoury picture of a misogynist, a homophobe, a shameless self-promoter, an ambitious control freak, a world class exaggerator and embellisher, if not an outright liar, and a tireless talker; a tradition that Paul established and that has remained unchanged among evangelical Christian leaders to this day.



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Comments

  1. While I agree with you about certain modern-day Evangelicals, I still have an abiding faith, sans any dogma. Too many of these would-be spiritual leaders have ripped the fundamentals out of faith and construed them for their own piety.

  2. Hi! And thanks for the input!

    If this subject interests you, can i suggest that you look at some of the other pieces in the blog under the same label? I address these issues more thoroughly in some of the other things I've written; nevertheless, you deserve a reply.

    Without, I hope, sounding too confrontational, I must respectfully say this: It's politically correct to express one's respect for all religious views. I'm sorry, but I can't.

    By definition, faith is a belief in that for which there is no evidence, or in the face of overwhelming counter-evidence. It violates every principle of logic and reason. I have no respect for religious belief.

    Now, I could, I suppose, treat it like any other harmless eccentricity, like cross-dressing or being a Trekkie, or watching reality shows. That is, if it stopped there. The problem is that the faithful insist that their absurd beliefs be taught as science to other people's children, they use them to justify violence intended to curtail the human rights of others, and they fly planes into buildings because of their abiding faith. No, I have no respect for a belief in imaginary friends who tell us what to do. I don't respect David Berkowitz's belief system either, for example. And, frankly, I don't see it as qualitatively different.

    And as for the evangelicals; I think those sociopaths have not "ripped the fundamentals out of faith", on the contrary, I think that the hatred, intolerance, and bigotry they preach ARE the fundamentals. In their own sick way, these guys are the genuine article.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, it is my belief that religion is the most pernicious and dangerous force on earth today. That's not faith…that's a rational position for which I have a great deal of evidence and I'm happy to provide it…I don't simply state it because of a deep, inner feeling.

    I hope I haven't hurt your feelings or anything, because I have a great deal of respect for you personally. And I do hope you have a great Sunday, despite my little lecture!

    Best,
    Pagun

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