Posts Tagged “christian history”

Jesus weptWhen I heard Bill O’Reilly, Fox News’s screaming, tantrum-throwing prime-time gadlfy, was writing a book about the life and death of Jesus Christ, I groaned inside. Lots of people over the years have attempted to write about the historicity of Jesus, so it’s not as though the topic has never been handled. I’ve read a lot of those books, and most of them are poor attempts at historiography. Based upon reviews of Billy’s book I’ve seen, by scholars like Candida Moss, the Fox News host’s effort is no exception.

O’Reilly’s contention is that Jesus was killed, because … <drumroll please> … he objected to Roman taxation.

That’s right, folks. Billy-boy’s Jesus was a first-century tax protester, ergo he was killed.

Think about that for a moment. Just stop, and think about it. For a moment.

There’s a very simple and very obvious problem with this claim. It shouldn’t take most Americans long to come up with it.

Go ahead. Stop. Think. I’m sure it will come to you.

In case you haven’t got it by now, I’ll explain: According to the gospels (well, three of them anyway!), Jesus was clearly, explicitly, and specifically not a tax protester! Allow me to quote from the Billster’s own Catholic Bible:

Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away. (Mt 22:15-22)

They sent some Pharisees and Herodians to him to ensnare him in his speech. They came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion. You do not regard a person’s status but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or should we not pay?” Knowing their hypocrisy he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius to look at.” They brought one to him and he said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They replied to him, “Caesar’s.” So Jesus said to them, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’ They were utterly amazed at him. (Mk 12:13-17)

They watched him closely and sent agents pretending to be righteous who were to trap him in speech, in order to hand him over to the authority and power of the governor. They posed this question to him, “Teacher, we know that what you say and teach is correct, and you show no partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it lawful for us to pay tribute to Caesar or not?” Recognizing their craftiness he said to them, “Show me a denarius; whose image and name does it bear?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” So he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” They were unable to trap him by something he might say before the people, and so amazed were they at his reply that they fell silent. (Lk 20:20-26)

Given that Jesus was reported by three gospels to have said this, how can anyone rationally conclude that Jesus objected to the Romans’ taxation? Clearly, he did not! The Billster’s effort to turn Jesus Christ into a classical-era prototype teabagger is laughable, transparent, absurd, and — perhaps most importantly — directly contradicts what Christian legend tells us about Jesus.

Before anyone asks … no, I haven’t read O’Reilly’s book. And no, I have no plans ever to read it. (The same goes for Reza Aslan’s book that I blogged about back in July.) I’ve long since soured on books that claim to dig into the life of Jesus as a historical topic. Almost invariably those books have nothing to do with “history”; truthfully, most of their authors are not interested in “history” in the first place. All they’re doing is selling their own ideas about Jesus by cloaking them behind the claim of being “historical.” Unfortunately, the actual historicity of Jesus is more elusive than most people, including scholars, will admit. Barring some kind of discovery that sheds new light on the matter, that’s the way it’s going to stay. Centuries of Christian legends, history revision, myth-making, and trampling of the historical record, have made sure of it.

P.S. If you really feel the need to read about books that examine the historicity of Jesus, I suggest starting at the beginning of that contemporary effort, and read The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer (yes, that Albert Schweitzer, the famous philanthropist-physician … he’d been an accomplished theologian before embarking on a career in medicine). Although I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, nor do most other scholars, his book got the ball rolling, and that alone makes it seminal. For a more recent work on the subject, I suggest Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Easter brings the stupid comments about Christianity and its origins out of the woodwork, it seems. I noticed the following insipid tripe, served up by Ben Witherington III at Beliefnet. The number of logical leaps and anachronistic assumptions in his post is high. I will address just a few of them:

By all accounts, Jesus died by crucifixion — the most shameful and public way to die in antiquity.

While crucifixion was a shameful way to go, to call it “the most shameful” is a subjective value judgement. Many “shameful” means of execution were used in the Greco-Roman world. In the Near East especially, stoning was considered very shameful. So too was dismemberment. As for which of the three was “‘the most’ shameful,” that’s just too subjective a determination to make, even at that time. To make it now, is even more invalid and anachronistic.

No evangelistic religion in its right mind, operating in a highly patriarchal world, would make up the idea that the chief witnesses to the heart of their creed (death, burial, empty tomb, risen Lord) were women.

This assertion is exceedingly anachronistic, and is based solely on modern misconceptions about the ancients. It also betrays Witherington’s screaming ignorance of ancient history. It is certainly true that women were not treated well in Greco-Roman culture, compared to current occidental standards, but to claim that women could not possibly have figured prominently in a religion unless it were factually and historically true, is just stupid. Many religions involved female figures; the Isis/Osiris cult, for example, had as its main heroine Isis, consort of Osiris and mother of Horus. Most of the traditionally-Greek mystery religions had as prominent figures Demeter (Roman Ceres) and her daughter Persephone (nicknamed κορη or koré, meaning “maiden”). A list of prominent female figures in classical religion is far too extensive for me to provide here. Suffice it to say that Witherington is flat wrong on this score.

In the context of early Judaism, resurrection meant something that happened to a body. It was not seen as a purely spiritual or visionary matter, which is one reason why the Gospel accounts stress that the risen Jesus could be touched and could eat.

Actually, Witherington is a bit ahead of time on this one. The Christian notion of “resurrection” developed over the first couple centuries of Christianity. There was, in fact, no “accepted” Judaic notion of what resurrection should be, in the 1st century CE; in the Second Temple period the notion was not even accepted by all Jews (e.g. the Sadducees rejected it). Witherington’s comment here, then, is anachronistic; he claims that 1st century Christians made a value judgement which, in fact, they could not really have made in the way he says they did, at the time they made it.

It’s unfortunate that believers in Jesus assume themselves to be well-educated in ancient history merely because they are believers in Jesus. I’m not sure how or why they believe they possess this credential. Their bald assertions about what ancient Greco-Romans “would have done” or “might have thought,” only expose them as historical ignoramuses.

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