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Who is God in Our Times?

 

On September 19, 2015, my wife and I stood in line for an hour and a half outside the New School for Social Research in New York City. Noam Chomksy was scheduled to give a talk on power and ideology, and we were hoping to get a seat. We were delighted to be among the first to be let into the auditorium. Noam discussed numerous events and topics, and some of his points were downright revelatory (one example: Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld urged the Shah of Iran to develop nuclear weapons and pressured MIT into accepting students into its nuclear physics program; some of those students are now helping to run Iran’s nuclear program). Toward the end of the lecture, however, when Chomsky said, “The US is one of the most extreme fundamentalist countries in the world,” I wasn’t at all surprised.

A survey conducted in 2006 by political scientist Jon D. Miller of Michigan State University showed that only 14 percent of American adults consider evolution “definitely true” while roughly a third believe it to be “absolutely false.” Out of a sampler of 34 countries, only Turkey was less accepting of Darwin’s theories, while in nations such as Denmark, Sweden, and France, better than 80 percent of the adults questioned sided with Darwin. Perhaps more disquieting is the fact that 20 years ago about seven percent of U.S. adults were uncertain about evolution; that number has since tripled.

America’s uniquely fundamentalist position among industrialized nations is reiterated by a chart showing the relationship of wealth to religious belief republished in the June 2, 2010 opinion section of by the New York Times (“Why Is America Religious?”), which demonstrates that the “the wealthier a country is, the less important religion is to that country. The one exception: the United States.”

A somewhat medieval mentality, it seems, still holds significant sway in the world’s most powerful nation. If ‘medieval’ seems too close to hyperbole, recall Pat Robertson’s remark about Haiti and its “pact with the Devil” in the wake of the earthquake that hit the island. If you’re inclined to dismiss Robertson as a marginal political player, consider Ronald Reagan, who openly wondered whether Armageddon—in the form of a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union—was going to occur on his watch.  Or take the Bush White House, which in 2003 had to deny claims trumpeted by a BBC television program that Bush bragged to Palestine’s President Abbas, “God told me to strike at al-Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did …” When it comes to credibility, Abbas and the BBC are probably safer bets. We are dealing after all with a man who, in his nationally televised debate with John Kerry, said, “I pray over my decisions,” including the one to invade Iraq.

Reagan and Bush are not alone. According to the 2008 documentary Waiting for Armageddon, 20 million Americans believe we are now living in the End Times. It was in this atmosphere of religious recidivism that I began writing The Christos Mosaic. There are a number of serious issues that I hope the novel deals with in an entertaining way. One of them is this: we in the 21st century really can’t hope to understand the Bible without studying the world and times out of which it came. The vast majority of us today, for example, don’t speak Aramaic (the supposed language of Jesus) or ancient Hebrew, nor have we read the Gospels in the Koine Greek in which they were written. Moreover, most of us have no concept whatsoever of the religious milieu in which the Gospel writers lived, and even scholars can reconstruct it only vaguely for us. In short we’ve lost the calibrations on our compass.

To get an impression of the ancient Mediterranean’s spiritual mindset, I’d like to offer a brief biography of the Greco-Egyptian God Serapis. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, Alexander’s generals divided up his empire; Ptolemy got Egypt and took Alexandria as his capital. Faced with ruling an Egyptian population and a large number of transplanted Greeks, Ptolemy needed a way to unite his subjects. Settling on worship as the most effective way to get everyone pulling in the same direction, Ptolemy created a composite god: Serapis. Serapis was the husband of the Egyptian goddess Isis, just as the Egyptian god Osiris had been. And Serapis’s animal was the divine bull, Apis—as was Osiris’s. (The name Serapis is a fusion of Osiris-Apis.) Whenever Serapis was depicted, however, the likeness was of a bearded, curly-haired Greek. Like Zeus, Serapis was the ruler of the gods, and like Dionysos, he was a fertility god.

Ptolemy’s god was created purely out of political expediency although the religion Serapis presided over was not. Today, except in the case of a very small, fringe cult, this would be unthinkable—you just don’t go around mixing and matching gods. In the first-century Mediterranean and in centuries previous, however, it was not only acceptable, it was routine. The Mystery religions, of which the cult of Serapis was one, were classic examples of this sort of syncretism. In Asia Minor the Greek goddess Artemis was grafted onto the cult of the Anatolian mother goddess Kybele and stood at the center of the Ephesian Mysteries. The Pythagorean Mysteries took the Mysteries of Osiris and replaced the Egyptian god with a Greek one—Dionysos, who evolved into Dionysos Zagreus, the divine figure worshipped in numerous Mystery cults. His dual name reflected that fact he was also a composite of two gods, but the minor figure of Zagreus (who is slain and resurrected) was almost completely assimilated by the more prominent god.

This syncretism worked on a local level as well; a city-state often chose a god who already had a strong following to head up their Mysteries. The Eleusian Mysteries near Athens, for example, venerated Demeter and her daughter Kore (also known as Persephone, who was the mother of Zagreus). Using a familiar god as the front man—or woman—was a simple but effective way of gaining converts to an alien religion or to a newly created one. (We can see a vestige of this practice in car interiors: the plastic Jesus sometimes glued to the dash often has blond hair, fair skin, and blue eyes, which, had Jesus lived, is hardly likely.)

Ptolemy’s strategy worked brilliantly. Serapis became enormously popular, and the cult spread well beyond Egypt; the Serapeum in Alexandria, destroyed by fanatical Christians in 385 AD, was by all accounts one of the finest edifices of the ancient world.

Another problem when reading the Bible or even the Gospels (a much less complex undertaking) is that we don’t know who wrote them. Any of them. Not only are the authors anonymous and the Gospels unsigned (only later were they given names), but we don’t even know what the Gospels originally said because we do not have any originals. Or even copies close to the original dates of composition. Over the centuries, scribes subtracted, inserted, added, and embellished as they saw fit. As Saint Origen pointed out “It is an undeniable fact today that there is a great deal of diversity among the manuscripts, either because of the carelessness of the scribes or the perverse audacity of their superiors in adulterating the text, or again to the fact that among us are clergy who add or delete as they see fit, deeming themselves correctors.” And this is by about 230 AD! Imagine the mess we have now.

Let me provide an example that involves one of Jesus’ finest moments.  In “What Did Jesus Do?”, published in The New Yorker (May 24, 2010), Adam Gopnik (a fine writer as it happens) moons over the prophet he thinks he’s found in the Gospels: “there is … something neither quite Greek nor quite Jewish about Jesus’ morality that makes it fresh and strange even now. Is there a more miraculous scene in ancient literature than the one in John where Jesus absent-mindedly writes on the ground while his fellow-Jews try to entrap him into approving the stoning of an adulteress, only to ask, wide-eyed, if it wouldn’t be a good idea for the honor of throwing the first stone to be given to the man in the mob who hasn’t sinned himself.”

There may not be a “more miraculous scene in ancient literature,” but it never happened, and Jesus wasn’t around when it was written. As Helmut Koester points out in Ancient Christian Gospels (p. 248), “the pericope about Jesus and the adulteress … is missing in the older papyri (Papyrus 66 and Papyrus 75) and in the oldest uncial codices … as well as in the oldest translations … and appears for the first time in the 5th century.” In other words, some scribe snuck it in about 400 years after Jesus had already met his much-discussed end. And it caught on (it is good). Thanks to this anonymous copyist, we see with crystalline clarity how even certain things we have come to think of as “pure Jesus” (quotation marks mine) are pure fiction.

I’m not trying to disparage the Gospels or Christianity; rather, I’m trying to point out that no matter how noble our intentions, we cannot understand the Bible without immersing ourselves in the history of the ancient Levant, out of which it came, and without reading the extensive commentaries of various scholars on both Testaments. Even then, we must admit—as do scholars themselves—that much remains unclear. What we cannot do is consult a millennia-old book, which has baffled scholars for centuries, as though it is free of human error and our sole guide to understanding ourselves and the world.

MYTHICISTS AND HISTORICISTS

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand,
nor look through the eyes of the dead,
nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either,
nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
— Walt Whitman

 

In 1596 a cobbler was brought before a tribunal in Amsterdam on charges of heresy. In spite of his blue-collar background, the shoemaker had taught himself Latin and Hebrew in order to bypass the Dutch clergy and make his own study of the Bible. The incident is recounted in Still Life With a Bridle, Zbigniew Herbert’s lyrical and brilliantly observed essay collection. (Do buy the book to see how it all turned out.)

Our ambitious shoemaker was a Historicist; that is, he believed in a flesh-and-blood Jesus of Nazareth, albeit one thoroughly demoted from his status as the Son of God. Thomas Paine, on the other hand, the most famous pen-wielder of the American Revolution, was a Mythicist. In part III, section 4 of The Age of Reason, he wrote:
These repeated forgeries and falsifications create a well-founded suspicion, that all the cases spoken of concerning the person called Jesus Christ are made cases, on purpose to lug in, and that very clumsily, some broken sentences from the Old Testament, and apply them as prophecies of those cases; and that so far from his being the Son of God, he did not exist even as a man — that he is merely an imaginary or allegorical character, as Apollo, Hercules, Jupiter, and all the deities of antiquity were. There is no history written at the time Jesus Christ is said to have lived that speaks of the existence of such a person, even as a man.

In other words, Paine believed Jesus of Nazareth was entirely a fiction. (The Age of Reason, incidentally, published in three parts between 1794 and 1807, became a bestseller.) Clearly the idea that Jesus never existed isn’t new. What is new is that the idea is gaining currency. So much so that renowned biblical scholar Bart Ehrman felt the need to pen, or rather key (who writes without a keyboard anymore?), a book called Did Jesus Exist?, which (no doubt deliberately) shares the title of a book by GA Wells, a scholar among the contemporary Mythicists Ehrman attempts to refute. (Wells, it should be noted, has somewhat modified his position since presenting his original thesis.)
If you read Ehrman’s book without the benefit of having made some sort of in-depth study—formal or otherwise—of the Bible, or if you fail to give equal attention to the counterarguments of those who have, Ehrman’s case seems persuasive. It is rather convincingly refuted, however, in Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus (another play on titles; this time the allusion is to Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus, first published in 1906 in German). In this collection of essays, Frank Zindler, Richard Carrier, and Earl Doherty, among others, take Ehrman thoroughly to task, highlighting some rather unscholarly mistakes and some that are downright embarrassing.

My own awakening to the possibility that Jesus of Nazareth probably never walked the Earth began with Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy’s book The Jesus Mysteries. I knew virtually nothing about the Mystery religions before Garrett Gilmore, an American ex-pat living in Istanbul, loaned me his copy. I read it with great interest although even as I did so, I saw numerous signs that Gandy and Freke were fudging the evidence … skewing translations, lumping Mysteries gods together to make it easier on the reader, adding too much paint-thinner to their pigments. Nonetheless, there was plenty of material in the book to raise serious doubts in my mind about whether Jesus had been an actual man.

I went on to read Samuel Angus’s 1925 classic, The Mystery-Religions, A Study in the Religious Background of Early Christianity and Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion. Having already read The Golden Bough (a reprint of the two-volume, 1890 edition), Joseph Campbell’s Occidental Mythology, as well as other books dealing with the evolution of mythologies and religions, it became obvious that the dying-rising aspects of Jesus had been borrowed from much older Mystery cults.

Despite the fact that my father, the late Robert E. Czyz, Sr., was an atheist and had raised his children as atheists, I was firmly in the camp of the Historicists—until reading The Jesus Mysteries. I wasn’t, however, quite convinced. The two scholars whose works led me to defect to the Mythicist camp are Robert Price and Earl Doherty (Doherty is a classicist, and while he does not have a PhD, his cogent arguments and command of logic more than make up for the absence of post-surname letter clusters). Price’s Deconstructing Jesus and The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man were nothing short of revelatory, as was Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle.

Around 2006, while living in Istanbul, I was browsing the Internet for books about the Dead Sea Scrolls (I knew even less about them than I had about the Mysteries) and came across a number of provocative observations made by John Allegro, several of which found their way into the novel. Like my protagonist, I made frequent trips to Istanbul’s Market of Second-Hand Booksellers, and on one of these trips I came across Robert Eisenman’s James, the Brother of Jesus. I found Eisenman’s interpretation of the Qumran legacy persuasive although I’m well aware many scholars (Ehrman among them) disagree with Eisenman’s conclusions. I’m also indebted to Mr. Eisenman for his interpretation of the written material, biblical and otherwise, relating to James the Just.

Another book that shaped my view of Christianity and early Christian history is Helmut Koester’s Ancient Christian Gospels. While Koester is a Historicist, he is an objective observer, and his book perforce contains material that seriously challenges the Gospel portrayals of Jesus. I should also mention Frank Zindler’s four-volume collection Through Atheist Eyes, which, though I came upon it only recently and have read very incompletely, has confirmed much of what I have come to believe and furnished a number of compelling details that add a little more resolution to the overall mosaic.

For those who cling to Ehrman’s thesis that there was a historical figure known as Jesus of Nazareth, Ehrman himself has rather disturbing news: Jesus of Nazareth was neither divine nor “the suffering Messiah.” In Jesus Interrupted, he points out that both of these concepts are Christian inventions. In other words, the most ardent defender of the historical Jesus categorically denies both Jesus’ divinity and a literal reading of the Gospels. Robert Price, an avowed Mythicist, sometimes avers that maybe, possibly, there is some shadowy likeness of Jesus to be found in the first century, but once we strip away the falsehoods and deliberate fictions, there is so little left, nothing definitive can be said about him.

A novel such as The Christos Mosaic necessarily depends on the work of scholars whose works, in turn, depend on the work of still other scholars. While I’ve acknowledged my intellectual debt to scholars and authors who have scrutinized scripture (above), there are two other writers whose books were vital to my research: Peter Watson, author of The Medici Conspiracy, and Roger Atwood, author of Stealing the Past. Both books discuss in disturbing detail the unmitigated cultural disaster known as the black market for antiquities and both are engrossing if dismaying reads.

Frank Zindler, a polymath and tireless researcher no matter the field, mentions somewhere among his numerous essays that he has seen one paradigm shift (continental drift was a radical idea when first introduced), and he would like to see another in his lifetime: the recognition that Jesus of Nazareth is as much a mythical figure as Osiris or Dionysus.

I’m somewhat less ambitious. I hope this novel will lead readers to do their own research (like our cobbler) and perhaps heed Emerson’s exhortation to establish “an original relation to the universe.” It’s time to admit that Jesus—in the absolute best-case scenario—was merely a man, and a man of his time at that—not the Son of God (a rather odd concept to begin with, as if God would need to procreate, an act that would belie His perfection since He should be able to accomplish whatever He wills without a son, a holy spirit, or any other helpmeet), not a prophet (Jesus didn’t even predict the discovery of the two continents where he’d eventually have more followers than anywhere else), not even terribly original. It is time to stop looking outside ourselves for a savior and start doing the work on our own. We don’t need superpowers or magic despite the films breaking box-office records by pandering to this savior complex. Whatever your perspective happens to be—Historicist, Mythicist, agnostic, Muslim, Jew, atheist, or something else—I think Professor Cutherton’s dictum applies: the unexamined faith is not worth believing.