Lost Words

Jesus has been poorly served by his followers …

 … at least the Buddha’s disciples preserved their teacher’s original sayings, and kept them separate from their own with the result that we have a fairly good idea of what the Buddha actually said and thought.  (“The Authenticity of the Pali Suttas”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 30 January 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org /lib/authors/thanissaro/ authenticity.html).

 That didn’t happen with Jesus.  Within a generation of his death “Christians” had taken his words and set them within fictitious narratives that gave them meanings that he never intended.  What happened?  Why did Jesus’ followers feel they could take his words and the Jewish tradition to which they were directed, and give them a new meaning altogether? 

 The excuse we hear most often is that the ancients were sloppy historians.  That is complete nonsense.  In fact, the incredible capacity for memorization among ancient and non-literate people is a well known phenomenon that belies any such excuse.  You can be sure Jesus’ words were memorized and remem­bered verbatim, and most certainly written down.  But they have been lost.  If the gospel authors failed to transmit exactly what Jesus said and did, there is only one reason:  they did not feel it was necessary or important.  The fact is that what Jesus said and did, and what he claimed to be, was Jewish.  Jesus’ followers who wrote the gospels in the generation after his death, on the other hand, were Greeks, not Jews.  For the Greeks to accept Jesus’ message as he gave it would have meant becoming Jewish.  The Greeks were not about to do that … they were interested in a religion that would replace the myths of their capricious gods recently “deconstructed” by the philosophers.  They adapted the man, message and mission of Jesus to suit their religious and philosophical projections.  This process had already begun when the gospels were written in the latter half of the first century and the early part of the second.  It is not insignificant that there are no Hebrew or Aramaic versions of the gospels, and all conjectured sources like the “Q” document or other collections of logia (“sayings”), which certainly existed, have been lost.  All the gospels are in Greek, and according to the scholars, show no signs of having been translated(This true even of “Matthew” which Papias claimed was based on Aramaic logia.  But, whatever his sources, Matthew’s Greek “reveals none of the telltale marks of a translation.” Geoffrey W Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (1959) Eerdmans,  p. 281). 

 The Christians who wrote the gospels were Greeks and they were convinced that they had “the real truth” discovered by Greek philosophy — especially Plato.  The Jewish Philosopher Philo of Alexandria encour­aged that conviction.  Philo lived in Egypt in Jesus’ time and  spent his life comparing the Jewish writings and Greek philosophy.  It was he who insisted that Judaism and Platonic philosophy were one and the same thing.  The Jewish “Book” (the Bible), he taught, was simply Greek philosophy re-packaged in the form of legends and stories for simple, uneducated, non-philoso­phi­cal people.  Both Moses and Plato agreed there was only one God, and so according to this school of thought, there could be only one truth.  That truth was expressed literally, factually, scientifically by Greek philosophy and allegorically, metaphorically, symbolically by the Jewish stories in the Bible.  It was philosophy and philosophy alone that had the real truth and expressed it in the proper words.  And the Greek Christianity created by Paul and “John” caught that football and ran with it.   So for example, they took the word “Messiah” and they translated it to mean Philo’s Logos, the first-born of all creation, the very “Wisdom” by which “God” created all things.  These were Greek philosophical categories; they were not Jewish and they were not Jesus’.

 The Christians who wrote the gospels reported what they chose to remember of what Jesus said and put it in terms that they believed and understood it to mean.  Through their “vision of faith” they “knew” the real truth, and the results are the mixed narratives we call the gospels.  They were primarily a re-inter­pre­tation of the Jewish Scriptures designed to justify Christians’ perception that Jesus was the Messiah, the chosen messenger of God, along with adumbrations of his divinity.  These were claims that Jesus himself never made; that fact is clearly in the gospels and available to the careful reader.

 What they did to Jesus, they also did to Genesis … and to any other part of the Bible they looked at.  They disregarded what the Jews thought, just as they disregarded what Jesus said and meant.  But it should not be a big surprise: Jesus was Jewish … and his Jewish message was ignored and his mission transcended just as the Jewish Bible was ignored and its meaning transcended.  The Greeks were not interested in Judaism; they had the “truth” in Platonic philosophy, and integrated everything they found into its worldview.

 The modification of Jesus’ message was inchoate in the first generation after his death; but it was just the beginning.  The subsequent three centuries of the historical development of Christianity were a clear example of the unfettered process whereby “memes” evolve.  (“meme” is a currently popular term that refers to a cultural unit, like an idea or a social value or practice.  The way “memes” change and grow in society is similar to living organisms and genes which evolve by natural selection.  It was coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene 1986)  Greco-Romans took Jesus’ words as they had received them, already adapted by the gospel accounts, and wrapped them in ever more culturally appropriate doctrinal packaging and ritual practice.  It was nothing less than the superimposition onto Christianity of the social stratification, authority requirements, religious prejudices and philosophical assumptions of the Greco-Roman world.    

That transformation continued until Christianity became Catholicism — the official religion of the Roman empire at the beginning of the 4th century.  That was the event that put an abrupt end to its spontaneous evolution.  From that point forward Christianity became subject to the standardization and codification imposed by its new imperial managers.  But that did not mean a return to its roots in Jesus’ Judaism.  The changes that had already taken place were the very things that made a once threatening anti-imperialist Christianity attractive to the emperors, and any changes allowed from then on would be carefully monitored by the Roman authorities.  What suited their purposes they set in stone; what didn’t they made sure were anathematized, and their proponents exiled.  The empire would not abide division or uncontrolled change in its state religion.  If the empire knew how to do anything, it knew how to control. 

This helps explain why the “new” Romans had to violently suppress Judaism — something they had never done before.  The Jews had proprietary rights to the Scriptures and their interpretation.   If the Christian revision of a thousand years of Jewish fidelity, reflection and scholarship was not to be dismissed for the usurpation that it was, Jewish claims and the tradition that supported them had to be eliminated.  The empire would not tolerate a challenge of that scale to the very wellspring of its “divine power.”

This is the “Christianity” we have inherited, and the version preserved in the Roman Church is its most representative and least reformed repository.  It bears little resemblance to the mission and original intent of Jesus, whose words, if not totally lost, were buried in the “inspired” text of early commentaries we call “gospels” — which themselves became buried later under centuries and centuries of “infallible” magisterium, dogmas and pontifications.  Unearthing Jesus’ original message at this point is a dauntintg archaeological enterprise.  Jesus was a Jew.  The Doctrine of Original Sin is one of the extreme examples of Christianity’s arrogant disregard for Jewish tradition as well as the worst possible reversal of the Jewish religious values which were the source of Jesus’ teaching.  It turned his “loving Father” into a tyranical Roman psychopath.  It displays all the typical penchants of Greek philosophical thought: they interpreted everything as the allegorical expression of their cosmological and metaphysical certainties.  Augustine’s elaboration of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin as the allegorical narrative of a Platonic-style “fall” is a standing contradiction of the traditional Jewish interpretation of Genesis as legends of origin and the goodness of God.

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4 comments on “Lost Words

  1. Frank Lawlor says:

    Tony,
    Not only did the distortions you indicate take place, but the process continues. This morning I went to the local Amish store for a breakfast treat (their french toast is magnifico!) Outside the store sat two thirtish women, quite Irish looking, at a table collecting signatures for a referendum to prevent the children of immigrants from college acceptance as state residents. I spoke with them and they quickly identified themselves as assosiated with the local Catholic parish and school. They thought I was totally insane to suggest that what they were doing was contrary to gospel values. When I mentioned that Jesus was taken by Joseph and Mary to Egypt where they were also immigrants similar to the Mexicans who come here after a dangerous journey, they responded that Jesus was God and therefore he had every right to go into Egypt because he “made that country”!! What kind of doctrine do these products of a Catholic education accept? They really don’t see Jesus as a human being, as poor, as a member of a socially despised family low on the income scale of the time and place. They see nothing in his life that might correspond to our times and problems, nothing in his message that might apply to their values. The catholic church is sold as a magical ticket to an eternal elite status that only requires fidelity to some fantastical beliefs and formal rituals duly fulfilled. To challange that is seen as insanity or worse. The Nazarene faced the same distorted version of religion and died for trying to change that.
    Frank

    • Tony Equale says:

      Frank, Thanks for that. When my NY Jewish friends refer to people that they consider particularly holy, they use a familiar Yiddish expression: They call them “mensch.” The word “mensch” means “human being.” The significance is clear: A mensch is compassionate, kind, empathetic, able to recognize the shared humanity and the aspirations and sufferings common to us all. These are the standards to which Jesus called us. They are standards written in our hearts of flesh, not on tablets of stone. And they are the standards by which we judge true religion. “By their fruits you will know them.” Tony

  2. Bill Wilson says:

    Great blog. It is so sad that a misogynistic gynophobe like Augustine hijacked Christianity for the Roman upper classes. We have never recovered, and I even wonder if it is now possible to find authenitic gospel truth under all the layers of narrow-minded authoritarianism. At 75, I remain at Bronx-born Irish Catholic, partly out of habit, maybe out of residual guilt, and also because I appreciate the aesthetic values of liturgy and sacred music. They do speak to my soul. Whatever the nature of the power greater than me who made the universe, it is imperative that I remember I am not God. Uncontrolled hubris has been the root of more than one personal trauma in my life. Incidentally, I bought and read An Unknown God. It radically reordered my thinking.

    • tonyequale says:

      Bill … thanks for your comments. I have just been reading Augustine’s “Contra Julianum” which is his refutation of a bishop who had attacked his doctrine of Original Sin. This was Augustine’s last work and it “lay unfinished on his desk.” Talk about hubris! Besides his relentless insistence that the “justice of God” was made manifest in the torments of unbaptized babies, the verbal opprobrium he heaps on his opponent is withering. There is more than intellectual animus functioning here.

      I agree about ritual. The poetry that is “religion” must be rejuvenated — torn from its origins in literalist authoritarian dogma. A new poetry carrying the weight that the older symbols can no longer bear, must be spawned. We cannot live without it … poetry, symbol, song, dance, art, … or our roots in the mystery of existence wither and crumble. But religious ritual must celebrate the world as we now see it … not as imagined by a jaded Roman upper class power elite and those that blindly reproduce its vision. Good luck with your quest.
      Tony

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