The Liberal Myth of Christian Origins

Because “Saving Jesus” comes but once a week, I thought I’d post this article by N.T. Wright (yes, I’m a Bishop of Durham groupie) in case anyone else is going through heresy withdrawal. Musing on the appeal of The Da Vinci Code, Wright identifies and critiques the worldview that underlies both this book and the theological movement from which “Saving Jesus” arises. (BTW, have you ever wondered why the logo for the DVD series looks like a ransom note? Is it that he gave his life as a ransom for many, and now he needs us to return the favor?) And now, here’s Tommy:

The New Myth of Christian Origins
The myth that I am about to describe and critique is well known and widespread. I have met it at Harvard; I have met it in Baptist churches in the South; I have seen bits of it all over the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, which is the more ironic since those societies used to be devoted, in theory at least, to the supposedly scientific historical study of religions and ancient texts, and this myth is anything but scientific or historical. There are five elements in the myth, and The Da Vinci Code offers a sketchy but clear enough account of all of them.

This is the myth: First, there were dozens if not hundreds of other documents about Jesus. Some of these have now come to light, not least in the books discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt 60 years ago. These focus on Jesus more as a human being, a great religious teacher, than as a divine being. And it is these books which give us the real truth about Jesus.

Second, the four Gospels in the New Testament were later products aimed at divinizing Jesus and claiming power and prestige for the church. They were selected, for these reasons, at the time of Constantine in the fourth century, and the multiple alternative voices were ruthlessly suppressed.

Third, therefore, Jesus himself wasn’t at all like the four canonical Gospels describe him. He didn’t think he was God’s son, or that we would die for the sins of the world; he didn’t come to found a new religion. He was a human being pure and simple, who gave some wonderful moral and spiritual teaching, that’s all. Oh, and he may well have been married, perhaps even with a child on the way, when his career was cut short by death.

Fourth, therefore: Christianity as we know it is based on a mistake. Mainstream Christianity is sexist, especially anti-women and anti-sex itself. It has aimed at, and in some places achieved, considerable social power and prestige, enabling it to be politically quietist and conformist. This, I find, goes down especially well with those who are escaping from either fundamentalism or certain types of Roman Catholicism.

Fifth, the real pay-off: It is time to give up, as historically unwarranted, theologically unjustified, and spiritually and socially damaging, the picture of Jesus and Christian origins which the church has put about for so long, and to return to the supposedly original vision of Jesus himself, not least in terms of getting in touch with a different form of spirituality based on metaphor rather than literal truth, of feeling rather than structure, of discovering whatever faith you find you can believe in. This will revive the truth for which Jesus lived, and perhaps for which he died….

Wright goes on to discuss the historical background and accuracy of the non-canonical “gospels” and reasons for their exclusion. The political payoff of the article, though, is here:

Early Christianity was not primarily a movement which showed, or taught, how one might live a better life; that came as the corollary of the main emphasis, which was that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had fulfilled his age-old purposes, had dealt with the powers of evil, and had launched his project of new creation upon the world. The early Christian gospel, which was then written up in the four canonical Gospels, was the good news, not that a new teaching about hidden wisdom had appeared, enabling those who tapped into it to improve the quality of their lives here or even hereafter, but that something had happened through which the evil which had infected the world had been overthrown and a new creation launched, and that all human beings were invited to become part of that project by becoming renewed themselves.

In particular, this included from the start a strong political critique. Not the tired old left-wing harangue in Christian dress, of course, but a more subtle, more Jewish, more devastating critique: Jesus is Lord, therefore Caesar isn’t. That is there in Paul. It is there in Matthew, in John, in Revelation. If the canon was written, or read, to curry political favor, it was dramatically unsuccessful. Those who were thrown to the lions were not reading “Thomas” or Q or the “Gospel of Mary.” They were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the rest, and being sustained thereby in a subversive mode of faith and life which, growing out of apocalyptic Judaism, posed a far greater threat to Roman empire and pagan worldviews than Cynic philosophy or Gnostic spirituality ever could. Why would Caesar worry about people rearranging their private spiritualities? And when Constantine, faced with half his empire turning Christian, decided to go with the tide, what was the church supposed to do? Protest that it would be more authentic to remain a beleaguered and persecuted minority? Let comfortable Western Christians think about what the church had suffered under Diocletian in the years immediately before Constantine — and what the church is suffering in many parts of the world today — and ask themselves who has compromised, and with what.

In fact, the contemporary myth gets things exactly the wrong way round. It isn’t the case that the canonical New Testament is politically and socially quiescent, colluding with empire, while the Jesus whom we meet in the Nag Hammadi texts and similar documents is politically and socially subversive, so dangerous that he had to be suppressed. It’s the other way round, and this may be among the most telling points we have to recognize for today. You may salve your own conscience by embracing Gnosticism, by telling yourself how very wicked the world is and how you are going to escape it once and for all by following the path of spiritual self-discovery and enlightenment. But if Caesar takes any notice at all, all he will do is sneer at you and go on his way to yet more triumphs of sheer power. And if that happened in the second century, we can be sure it’s precisely what’s happening today. Heidegger and Bultmann couldn’t prevent Hitler; Derrida and Foucault and their numerous disciples can’t do anything to stop the new empires of today. Certainly those who are advocating a new kind of do-it-yourself spirituality, and claiming that Jesus is somehow in or behind it all, cut no ice on the political front….

One of the basic fault lines in the contemporary Western world is the line between neo-Gnosticism on the one hand and the challenge of Jesus on the other. Please note that, despite strenuous attempts to make this line coincide with the current sharp left-right polarization of American culture and politics, it simply doesn’t. Nor, for that matter, does it coincide with the polarizations of British or European culture either. So what is this real, deep polarization which runs through our world?

Neo-Gnosticism is the philosophy that invites you to search deep inside yourself and discover some exciting things by which you must then live. It is the philosophy which declares that the only real moral imperative is that you should then be true to what you find when you engage in that deep inward search. But this is not a religion of redemption. It is not at all a Jewish vision of the covenant God who sets free the helpless slaves. It appeals, on the contrary, to the pride that says “I’m really quite an exciting person, deep down, whatever I may look like outwardly” — the theme of half the cheap movies and novels in today’s world. It appeals to the stimulus of that ever-deeper navel-gazing (“finding out who I really am”) which is the subject of a million self-help books, and the home-made validation of a thousand ethical confusions. It corresponds, in other words, to what a great many people in our world want to believe and want to do, rather than to the hard and bracing challenge of the very Jewish gospel of Jesus. It appears to legitimate precisely that sort of religion which a large swathe of America and a fair chunk of Europe yearns for: a free-for-all, do-it-yourself spirituality, with a strong though ineffective agenda of social protest against the powers that be, and an I’m-OK-you’re-OK attitude on all matters religious and ethical. At least, with one exception: You can have any sort of spirituality you like (Zen, labyrinths, Tai Chi) as long as it isn’t orthodox Christianity.

By contrast, the challenge of Jesus, in the 21st century as in the first, is that we should look away from ourselves and get on board with the project the one true God launched at creation and re-launched with Jesus himself. The authentic Christian gospel, which is good news about something that has happened as a result of which the world is a different place — this gospel demands that we submit to Jesus as Lord and allow all other allegiances, loves and self-discoveries to be realigned in that light. God’s project, and God’s gospel, are rooted in solid history as opposed to Gnostic fantasy and its modern equivalents. Genuine Christianity is to be expressed in self-giving love and radical holiness, not self-cosseting self-discovery. And it lives by, and looks for the completion of, the new world in which God will put all things to rights and wipe away all tears from all eyes; in which all knees will bow at the name of Jesus, not because he had a secret love-child, not because he was a teacher of recondite wisdom, not because he showed us how we could get in touch with the hidden feminine, but because he died as the fulfillment of the Scriptural story of God’s people and rose as the fulfillment of the world-redeeming purposes of the same creator God; and because, in that death and resurrection, we discover him to be the one at whose name every knee shall indeed bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, confessing Jesus Christ as Lord to the glory of God the Father.

5 comments on “The Liberal Myth of Christian Origins

  1. Alegria Imperial says:

    Thank you, Jendi, for posting this article. I’m tempted to write “enlightening” to describe it but in my mind, it’s more than that: It puts down succinctly almost all essential points in this endless ‘search’ for Jesus and what Christianity is all about.

    It’s been 2000 years and we’re on to the next millennium and Man is still trying to pour God into his minute mold. Could it be that God’s becoming human, the very heart of salvation, is also the source of Man’s self-inflicted anguish and loss? Man can grasp God in the flesh literally yet at the same instant he also loses Him as spirit. He tries to follow God’s words that often seem crystal clear yet somehow their meaning dissipates, when in striving to really follow through Man loses the way.

    What could be the problem? Lack of faith it certainly is. But faith is not at all a simple virtue. It takes so much struggling to be able to take that ‘leap’, this according to Man. But Jesus has taken away the struggling. “Just let go,” he said a great many times in the gospel. Simply ‘knock’ or ‘come to Me’. But of course, Man has for centuries looked on such words as incredulous.

    The problem then, it does seem, has been pride or that which made Man become aware of who he is versus this unseen Voice who encompasses his being. In Genesis, Adam and Eve reacted with shame at least. Today, when a man realizes his smallness versus God, he pulls Him down to his puny size and hacks Him to pieces.

    From century to century embedded in Man’s history of struggle and triumph is this apparent contest with God, and each myth that he weaves reflects the height he has scaled. And now that he has reached the point when the only way to deal with God is turn away from Christ who came with a challenge too ‘heroic’ to believe in much less to have faith, and get on his own way toward self-discovery—as if he could indeed extricate himself from God—Man must have reached rock bottom.

    But again, ‘rock bottom’ or ‘cliff edge’ is when salvation does happen. I do pray that for all our sake, we learn to be genuine Christians and know that it is in only losing self-directed love that we gain that overpowering love we so yearn Thank you, Mr. Wright.

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    Thanks for this beautiful comment. You wrote, “Could it be that God’s becoming human, the very heart of salvation, is also the source of Man’s self-inflicted anguish and loss?” We humans have such trouble with paradox and dynamic balance between opposites — we want to pin down reality like a dead butterfly so we can control and comprehend it! So we collapse the Incarnation into “only God” (scary, remote judge) or “only man” (our pal Jesus). May your prayer be answered.

  3. anydiets says:

    And you have a cool site and blog!

  4. zhenimsja says:

    Hi, comrade! I’m absolutely accede to your way of assumption and everything joined.

  5. gyroscopyref says:

    And you have a cool site and blog!

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