Category Archives: Christology

New Testament in 90 Seconds

Having spent a few days arguing the primacy of a homogenized New Testament narrative to the Standard Hollywood Story (SHS), I received a bewildering number of carrier pigeons from deranged followers of The God Project Dot Net demanding I explain just what this so-called “New Testament” actually was without excessive footnoting or jeremiads in Aramaic. Herewith:

“The New Testament in 90 Seconds”

27 books — all written in Greek, none by an author who met the historical Jesus. 4 are Gospels, 1 post-Easter pseudo-history (Book of Acts), 13 letters attributed to Paul. Content composed between 60 and 120 A.D. — or 30 to 90 years after Jesus’ death. Didn’t assume final form until the 4th century, probably by practical consensus and not committee.

Earliest content are some letters of Paul (1 Thessalonians). Earliest Gospel is Mark, which was used (in some cases copied) by Matthew and Luke, who also shared a lost source of Jesus’ sayings called “Q.” As earliest, Mark is considered closest to historical Jesus; it portrays him as an apocalyptic prophet who did not believe he was God and thought the world would end soon.

Matthew is extremely Jewish — marinated in the Hebrew Bible, most intent on showing Christianity succeeding Judaism. Luke is the cleanest storyteller, most like the Jesus of myth. He also wrote the Book of Acts, describing Pentecost and the spread of Christianity to the Gentiles (sans circumcision). John is very different: later, more anti-Jewish, with Jesus as essentially divine and self-aware.

Paul wrote 7 of his 13 “letters.” (He probably did not write 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Collosians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.) These are real letters, written to communities he had founded, left and is now reprimanding for getting something “wrong.”

1 Corinthians is a treasure-trove of info about early Christian practice. Galatians is a diatribe against those who believed Christians had to be Jews first (remember: Jesus and 12 were Jews). Romans is Paul’s only theological treatise, explaining the tricky matter of how a criminal’s execution actually gets believers right with God (“justification”).

Paul did not invent Christianity — the Gospel writers did. But he was its first intellectual and a tireless missionary, the only real personality other than Jesus to emerge from the New Testament.

Other books include the epistle of James, which Luther hated because it argues for works over faith. The Letter to the Hebrews, really a sermon to non-Jews arguing for the superiority of Jesus to Moses and Christianity (the reality) to Judaism (foreshadow). 1 and 2 Peter, which describes early persecution and suffering as parallel to Jesus’ and a mark of favor.

And the Book of Revelation (singular). An example of a popular genre called apocalyptic in which delicate current political realities were encoded in sci fi-like stories and given triumphant endings. “666” is a numerical code for Caesar Nero, a Christian persecutor, and the book fantasizes about his destruction at the hands of God. It is not about America, kids. Really.

Real to Reel to Reel too Real

Latest The God Project Dot Net claim proving our utter clinical insanity in a world gone mad: That standard Hollywood screenplay structure as taught at pagan institutions globally is unknowingly soaked, steeped, marinated and architected by none other than the Jesus story as written by those woefully underpaid early screenwriters Mark, Luke, Matthew and John.

Last time we laid out what that screenplay “structure” looks like. Herewith, we present the Gospel parallel:

The New Testament Screenplay Blueprint

3 Acts: Standard Hollywood Structure (SHS) demands three Acts, each of which take place in a different location. Each Act starts at dawn. Act 1 ends up-beat, Act 2 ends down-beat, Act 3 ends up.

The Jesus story has 3 Acts — Act 1 is in Galilee and covers Jesus’ birth and preparation for ministry … Act 2 is outside Galilee in the rural areas as Jesus preaches with his band of sidekicks … Act 3 takes place in Jerusalem and includes his trial and death.

SHS demands an incident at 10 minutes (sometimes called the “Inciting Incident“) that shakes up the routines that have been presented in the opening scenes. Jesus’ birth is the Inciting Incident.

At 20 minutes, there is an important meeting or landing and the formation of the Heroes’ team — Jesus meets John the Baptist, who is his first team member and starts his ministry by baptizing him.

30 — SHS demands an odd mini-war where the Enemy does something evil to raise the stakes. Jesus goes into the desert here and is tempted by Satan (the ultimate Enemy).

Act 2 starts at 40 minutes — Jesus starts his ministry proper here. He’s assembled his 12 core team members (aka disciples). This is the “Love Act” where we slow down and get to like the good guys, seeing them at their best: Jesus turns water in wine, cures sick people, delivers inspiring Sermons on the Mount, etc.

At 60half-way up the mountain! — SHS requires a sudden physical event that amounts to a declaration of open war on the Hero. This is the point when Herod executes John the Baptist. So starts Jesus’ fatal war with the Jewish authorities.

Somewhere before the end of Act 2, SHS asks that the Hero has a kind of “leap of faith” — s/he commits to the journey totally and the ultimate goal becomes clearer. Here is Jesus’ transfiguration when he reveals himself as divine to Peter and James and predicts his own death.

Act 3 begins at 80 minutes — SHS demands a scene change (often at dawn). Jesus goes into Jerusalem on a donkey and will not leave until after his death.

SHS asks for a series of escalating thrusts-and-parries among the Hero and his allies and the Enemy. Jesus complies mightily, taking on the moneychangers, the high priest Caiaphas and the Jewish authorities, and the Romans.

In the midst of the escalating tensions, SHS requires a major Revelation or Betrayal at 90 minutes. One word: Judas.

The ending of the SHS is the most predictable section: a confrontation with the Enemy’s subordinates, the Enemy itself … Jesus’ trials before the Sanhedrin and Pilate are archetypal, as is his Passion (the cross, the flogging, foul language) ….

Here’s where I think the SHS gets most explicitly Biblical. Think about your typical action movie — how Bruce Willis or Rocky or The Rock is physically knocked around almost to the point of death … and at a certain point, they literally almost die. Remember E.T.? He’s dead … No, he’s not!

Parallels with Jesus are obvious. Pay attention next time you’re at the multiplex. See if there aren’t 3 acts — up, down, up. See if there isn’t a major Judas-like Betrayal in Act 3. See if the Hero doesn’t get beaten up (physically and/or emotionally) and “die” … only to rise again!

It’s sort of unsettling if you think about it too much, as we have. Why?

Great Jesus Hoax 3D

It’s sort of funny to watch the late Columbia Professor Morton Smith toy with his adversaries as he defends the authenticity of the so-called “Secret Gospel of Mark,” which he claimed to have stumbled on in a monastery library at Mar Saba, Jerusalem, in 1958. The debate was a like a game.

You can’t catch me, he taunts, through the pages of his recently republished account of the “discovery,” The Secret Gospel. I’m smarter than you!

Like an unrepentant James Frey, Smith starts his screed with this hilarious warning: “No doubt if the past, like a motion picture, could be replayed, I should be shocked to find how much of the story I have already invented. Memory is perhaps more fallacious than forgetfulness.”

Huh? I can only imagine what the publisher of my memoir “Bad Dog (A Love Story)” would have said if I’d put that in my Author’s Note. P.S. I’m making this up!

Despite being a New Testament scholar, Smith was an atheist, driven out of the warm arms of Jesus by mysterious, bad childhood experiences. His Secret Gospel tells a tawdry tale of pedophilia by the Son of God Himself. It also supports Smith’s belief that so-called “miracles” like the raising of Lazarus in John were late accretions to early, non-miraculous gay orgies — um, I mean, events.

Early on in his misremembered account, Smith says, he “cast about, trying to find plausible reasons for assigning both letter and Gospel to the middle ages, the Renaissance, or the seventeenth century.” Or the 20th? For reasons he doesn’t share, he decided it was genuine. In other words, the least likely explanation became for him obvious.

Okay. He then decides Jesus must have baptized his followers (although this is not mentioned in our actual Gospels). And in a spurt of camp humor he writes [enhanced by my italics and “!”]:

“Thus the body of each possessed Christian is in effect a part (a “member,” that is a hand or foot or whatever [!]) of the body of the Messiah, who lives and acts [!] in [!] them all.” (p94)

But Jesus was not content to act in his disciples bodies — oh, no. He also enjoyed other baptismal actions, as Smith hints in a snickering footnote:

“Manipulation, too, was probably involved; the stories of Jesus’ miracles give a very large place to the use of his hands.”

Heh heh. Get it? Read this with learned commentaries from Professors Beavis and Butthead.

Smith goes on to argue that most likely (1) Jesus wrote stuff, (2) it was “suppressed”, and (3) it was suppressed because of its “libertine content” [i.e., tales of orgiastic initiations]. No evidence exists for any of these (3) points.

So twisted does Smith’s pretzel logic become that at one point he actually says:

“So the total neglect of the letter [containing the Secret Gospel] through seventeen centuries argues for its authenticity.” (p136)

Whassup? Smith seems to be inventing a new historical principle here: If there’s no evidence that something happened, that proves it happened!

Interesting. A recent book by Stephen Carlson called The Gospel Hoax lays out compelling reasons to think Smith forged the Gospel himself as a younger man. In addition to a devastating dissection of the letter’s handwriting, Carlson shows how Smith embedded clues to his own identity within the Gospel. Amazing.

Augustine got it right, after all: The ultimate reason for the Fall of Man is narcissism!

The Historical Jesus in 90 Seconds

Jesus was at least a human being, male, who lived in Palestine in the first third of the first century. Human Jesus is not the Jesus of faith. Christianity is a post-Easter religion; its subject is Christ after death. But with David Friedrich Strauss in 1836, historians began the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

No physical artifacts exist attesting even to Christianity until 160. Only three non-Christian documents mention Jesus within 100 years of his death: a brief note by Pliny the Younger; a mention in Tacitus’ Annals in connection with Nero; and two passages in the Jewish historian Josephus’ Antiquities that say Jesus was a wise man said to work wonders and was crucified.

Everything else comes from believers. Sources outside the New Testament, including infancy gospels, were written 100-200 years after Jesus’ death and are fictional. So the only non-trivial record of Jesus’ biography is the New Testament. Data outside the four Gospels include nine bare facts in the letters of Paul, including that Jesus was a Jew, had brothers, 12 disciples, a last supper, was betrayed and crucified.

Gospels are problematic sources. Unless you’re Evangelical, contradictions are clear. (Look at the infancy stories of Matthew vs. Luke; the death scenes of Mark vs. John.) 200 years of debates center on how and what to trust as fact. Scholarly consensus: Mark came first, about 60-70AD; Matthew and Luke used Mark a decade or so later; John was last and independent. None knew human Jesus.

Criteria applied include favoring data that are earlier, appear in multiple sources, and are less likely to be made up (e.g., crucifixion, considered humiliating). The authors were educated Jews with the Hebrew Bible top of mind; Matthew, in particular, includes many details meant to mirror David and the Prophets. The “prophecies” of Jesus found in Isaiah and Psalms could easily be retrofits.

Using criteria, what does human Jesus look like? Definitely a Jewish male, born around 4BC in Palestine under Roman occupation. Also, most likely:
He was from a small semi-rural town of Nazareth in Galilee and spoke Aramaic. Had brothers, including one named James, and perhaps sisters. His parents were named Mary and Joseph; dad worked with his hands, and Jesus learned such a trade before abandoning his family at about age 30 to follow an apocalyptic guy named John the Baptizer.

Jesus himself held apocalyptic beliefs – “the time has been fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). He knew the world would end soon, God would rule a place on Earth where mighty would be humbled and humble glorified – an inverted world. This would happen soon (“Some of you standing here today will not taste death until you see the kingdom” Matt. 6:28). Alarmed, Jesus collected 12 male followers to parallel the 12 tribes of Israel.

He preached itinerantly for a year and ran into minor trouble with some strict Jews, but was observant. Was widely rejected. Did not believe he was God – but a kind of prophet. Told parables. Counseled keeping the Commandments, giving up possessions, loving others but leaving your family: time was short. Hated the rich. Associated with social misfits, criminals, women. Reputed to be a healer of the sick.

Took the 12 to Jerusalem at Passover where he offended Jewish authorities, perhaps because he predicted the Temple’s destruction; they complained to the Romans. Jesus had a last meal with his Disciples. He was betrayed by Judas, who may have revealed Jesus called himself King of the Jews (in the new post-apocalyptic Kingdom). Romans arrested him; a brief trial; executed by crucifixion that day, abandoned by his friends.

* Inspired by this great lecture course by Rock Star Theologian Bart Ehrman

The Revolution Will Not Be Sermonized

"Do you find me attractive?"

We were talking about G. K. Chesterton’s mini-classic Saint Thomas Aquinas: ‘The Dumb Ox’, joking at us from the depths of Depression Era England. Chesterton claims Aquinas as a revolutionary after a millenium of Neoplatonism, and Augustine looms over Chesterton’s church as the Christian philosopher who forgot about Christ:

“[T]he Thomist was free to be an Aristotelean, instead of being bound to be an Augustinian. But he was even more of a theologian; more of an orthodox theologian; more of a dogmatist, in having recovered through Aristotle the most defiant of all dogmas, the wedding of God with Man and therefore with Matter.”

There you have Chesterton’s big So-What: that in arguing against the Paris schoolmasters for the orthodoxy of Aristotle — in applying the rigorously inductive method of observation, seansation and inference, always starting with the world of matter — Aquinas was, in fact, recovering the meaning of Christianity: that God became Man.

Or: “[A] Christian means a man [or girly-whirly] who believes that deity or sanctity has attached to matter or entered the world of the senses.”

So matter can be divine (in Christ), and so the scientific method can be a form of divination. In fact, Chesterton claims Aquinas as a kind of proto-scientist who rescued Catholicism from modern Evangelical pinheadedness by recognizing “that the meaning of Scripture is very far from self-evident and that we must often interpret it in the light of other truths.” Our senses can be deceived — but so can our pastors.

In the last few chapters, Chesterton summarizes basic Thomism for us; and since I haven’t seen it done quite like this before, I’ll lay it on you:

  1. “There is an Is” — that is, if we don’t believe that something exists, we don’t believe anything
  2. “[T]here instantly enters with this idea of affirmation the idea of contradiction” — where there is Yes, there is No; where there is True, False
  3. Everything that Is is “in a state of change, from being one thing to being another”
  4. However, this flux implies incompleteness, moving toward a potential that is never quite reached: “Being is often only Becoming; beginning to Be or ceasing to Be; it implies a more constant or complete thing of which it gives in itself no example”
  5. So: “The defect we see, in what is, is simply that it is not all that is. God is more actual even than Man; more actual even than Matter; for God with all His powers at every instant is immortally in action.”

QED: “[T]here is a Great Being, in whom all potentialities already exist as a plan of action.” (Now, I’m not sure how he gets from potentialities to “a plan,” but perhaps you do?)

There you have it: God — The Action Hero!

Top 5 Branding Secrets of Christianity

I recently contributed a few posts to the BNET business blog. In the spirit of meta-blogging, I chose as my topics “The 5 Worst 5-Worst Lists” and “The 5 Best 5-Best Lists” — since, as even the most casual glance at BNET’s content reveals, 80% of the most popular blog posts take the form of a ranked list. Today’s top posts: “12 Cool Gadgets That Could Have Changed the World” (e.g., PicturePhone) and “Top 10 Lies That Customers Tell” (e.g., “I will read your brochure”).

In America, job #1 is to follow in the dinky, twig-like footsteps of the great Rachel Zoe: “I am frus-tra-ted, Brad! I am working on my brand!

Jesus was a Jew of the first third of the first century; he lived and died a Jew. All his followers were Jews. At his death, there were at most a few hundred devotees of this executed criminal. Yet today, there are over 2 billion Christians in the world and only about 40 million Jews. That’s branding!

So as our gift to you, to incorporate into your own Personal Brand, we offer “The Top 5 Branding Secrets of Christianity”:

  1. Be Open Source — Judaism is the BlackBerry of world religions: it has a proprietary operating system. It was (and is) a collective, rather than individual, religion founded on a particular ethnicity with a significant (for males, anyway) initiation rite. After the Jerusalem Council around 49 AD, Paul convinced his fellow Jewish Christians to admit gentiles freely, with no restrictions or requirements beyond a simple sprinkling with water.
  2. Create a Cult of Your Founder — Apple is a good example, of course: a highly charismatic founding figure, whose origins are shrouded in mystery, somewhat asexual, smart but not an intellectual, casually dressed, a great talker. Think also of Microsoft, KFC, and Wal-mart.
  3. Flatter Your Customers — Successful brands exude optimism; nobody likes a gloomy product. The Hebrew Bible is a monumental work, of course, but it can be rather dour (“The living know at least that they will die; the dead know nothing” – Ecclesiastes 8-9). On the other hand, Christ forgave even a guilty criminal at the end of John, and Paul admits all to salvation.
  4. Build a False Sense of Urgency — The original cult around Jesus was apocalyptic. They literally believed the world would end soon: “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Mark 13:30). Certainly, John the Baptist (“The time has been fulfilled”) and Paul himself (1 Thessalonians) thought the end was near. Many Christians to this day believe the world is ending soon. The effect is like the clock on QVC — “Act Now! And by the way, Act Now!”
  5. Keep Pushing Out “New News”Hershey’s keeps its delicious brands top of mind with a bewildering rat-a-tat of line extensions: Reese’s Big Cup, Hershey’s Drops, Almond Joy Pieces and the super-yummy new Reese’s Minis (test markets only) — a continuous stream of innovation that keeps fans wanting more. Likewise, since the Reformation, Christianity has unleashed a bewildering variety of splinter cells, denominations, sects, cults and more — all calling themselves Christians. Don’t like Methodism? Try another flavor.

Merry Xmas, Pagan Mistranslators!

At yesterday’s Advent mass in Catholic churches across the planet, the first reading was from Isaiah, who is speaking to King Ahaz:

“The Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” (Isa 7:10-14)

Lady Gaga

"I hate Santa!"

Ahaz is afraid a Syria-Israel alliance will defeat his country, Judah, in battle, and Isaiah makes this prophecy to reassure him. In this period, Jews had two kingdoms – Israel and Judah – and Israel eventually capsizes to the Babylonians.

A few minutes later, the priest read the famous passage from the Gospel of Matthew describing how Mary “was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” Joseph was going to divorce her “quietly,” because they had not bonked, and he made the logical assumption. The passage ends (cue echolocator):

“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel ….'” (Matt 1:18-24)

Scripture don’t get no clearer, sistas: Isaiah prophecies in 780 BCE … Jesus’ birth fulfills 780 years later. However, let’s mention here a well-known mistranslation issue much beloved by Atheists, who certainly have a point. (Richard Dawkins mentions it in The Selfish Gene.)

Here’s the ish: All the New Testament writers spoke and wrote in Greek and referred to the standard Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint (or LXX). The Septuagint uses the word “parthenos,” which means “virgin.” Whew. Trouble is, in the original Hebrew, the word used is “almah,” which means simply “young woman.” Not necessarily virgin, just young.

So we have centuries of tortuous Christian doctrine about how Jesus can have been physically born from a woman (Mary) who was nonetheless genitally intact, when all the original prophecy requires is that she be youthful. In a Vanity Fair piece last year, Christopher Hitchens claimed no Catholic really believes in the virgin birth, and he may be on to something.

It gets worse. “Name him Emmanuel?” Huh? Matthew translates the word “Emmanuel” as: “God is with us.” The “God” part of this translation is the particle “El,” at the end. In the 1930s, an excavation at Ugarit in Syria uncovered a library of stone tablets written in Akkadian. They showed these pagan Canaanite enemies of the Jews worshipped a God called … “El.”

We Catholics are in a world of hurt: Mary may not be a virgin, Jesus is named for a pagan God … what’s next, pop stars biting the heads off Santa dolls?!

* If you want to know more about “El” – and a lot of other things – I recommend James Kugel’s fascinating How to Read the Bible, p422-424. I’m half-way through and it is rocking my kasbah.