Thursday, January 17, 2013

Theological malpractice

I was in an online, ummm, discussion, about whether or not Jesus actually existed. Such discussions require a certain amount of googling. In my travels I stumbled on an iTunes course titled, “The Historical  Jesus”. It turned out to be pretty good. You can hear the student’s voices asking questions. There was at least one Middle Eastern woman and an older guy, possibly from Texas, plus a few more. I would have loved to go out for a beer after that class.

The teacher has been around for a while. He talks of knowing about the new archaeological and textual evidence back in the 1960’s. Much of that went underground somewhere in the decades to follow. Some of it resurfaced with “The Jesus Seminar”, but much of it is still ignored. I only listened to the lectures, but here is the reading list, including the professors own work, free online.

New American Bible: St. Joseph New Testament Study Edition [ISBN 0899423116]
Thomas Sheehan, The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity
Paula Fredriksen From Jesus to Christ, 2nd edition, Yale-Nota-Bene [9-780300 08457]
Bernard Scott, Re-imagine the World Polebridge [0944344 86 0]
Robert J. Miller, The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate, Polebridge [0944344 89 5]
Dominic Crossan Who Killed Jesus? HarperSanFrancisco [0-06-06141803]
Stephen J. Patterson, Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus [0-8006-3674-0]

By the way, Thomas Sheehan, the professor, is Catholic born, raised and still attending. He would often repeat that he doesn’t intend to challenge anyone’s faith, or change anyone’s mind on that topic. He does note that if you approach Jesus as he does, through his course, you may find yourself challenged, but that is not his intention. He would occasionally let his views on religion be known, they were more about people working together to find community for themselves, within God’s creation, but not as a way to win favor or avoid punishment. He would also argue that this was the message that Jesus, who he calls Yeshua, his Aramaic name, actually taught.

If you have some different ideas about what Jesus/Yeshua taught, you should take that up with Mr. Sheehan. He can explain where the theology that you espouse originated. Much of it came well after the death of Yeshua. He would argue that Yeshua did not see himself as the vessel of the message, or as divine. But I don’t want to get into those details. They interested me once, but no longer hold me for more than a few minutes.

What his course builds up to is the moments when the preaching of Yeshua was scrambled and turned into something more like history. Today the people who try to treat the Bible like history are called fundamentalists. At the time, they were people who had a message of their own, a political message, and were using the oral history of Yeshua to tell their story. They mixed the parables with the liturgy and said that these things; the virgin birth, the resurrection, actually did happen.

This does not trouble him. He understands that it was how it was done back in the latter days of the Roman Empire. What troubles him is that we have spent a few hundred years unraveling this, we have been lucky to recover ancient papyrus at Nag Hamadi, we have people who dedicate their lives to learning languages that are no longer spoken, and yet, we still have preachers telling the stories as if they are St. Augustine.

I have a study Bible that clearly states that the last chapter of the book of Mark was tacked on by later editors. They had to do it to harmonize it with the other gospels. Mark leaves you with an empty tomb and suggests you go back to your homes and live a holy life like Jesus. That is how you will bring the Kingdom. It makes for terrible liturgy on Easter Sunday. By the way, this is the New International Version, not some agnostic’s guidebook to Christianity. These are facts only disputed by those who refuse to look at the evidence.

For Sheehan, much of the evidence is “source” analysis; what were the authors of the gospels looking at, what were they reading and hearing. He also uses “literary” analysis; what type of writing were they doing and what message did they intend to communicate. So he looks at the book of John that has Thomas being an unbeliever. Now that we have recovered the gospel of Thomas, one that didn’t make into the canon, we can see how different it is, and guess that the author of John was giving a snub to the community of Thomas. Sheehan relies on the “textual” analysis from the people who translate the words, assemble the fragments and comment on the authenticity of the source documents.

This analysis does not end with the writing of the original documents. As he traces the formation of the early church, he shows how the Easter story, as presented in John, is “read back into” Matthew and Luke, then that reading is gathered together and read back into Mark. This proved difficult and thus the adding of the extra chapter. All of that is in turn read into the few comments about resurrection found in Paul’s letters. When St. Jerome translates the Greek into Latin he takes subtler meanings of words about waking up from sleep or being lifted up and uses the Latin for “resurrection”. From then on, we have a fabricated historical account of what happened in those three days after Yeshua died.

Sheehan steps out of his professor role at this point, about the middle of the 9th class, and says, this is, “…the stupidity, frankly, of it all.” And he notes, it has given “the village atheist” all the ammunition they need to say it is stupid. He continues,
“And the fact that it is performed by people with doctorates and people who have the authority to preach from pulpits, doesn’t make it any less ignorant. If you went to a doctor and she didn’t know about the latest treatments for cancer, you’d probably find another doctor. And if she treated you with information about cancer from 10 years ago, you would sue her for malpractice. But preachers get a pass. Even though they are dealing with issues that concern the existential commitment of people’s lives, ‘does my life have meaning, will I end up in hell if I do this, that or the other’, even though they advise on those based upon their alleged knowledge of scripture. They get away with it.”

And the people in the pews let them.

If you’re interested, the course is in iTunesU. It is from Stanford University, 2007, given by Thomas Sheehan. That should be enough to find it if you have iTunes. Or try this link.


  1. Don't you think that one of the most offensive things about modern Xianity is that its presented in an entirely Western manner? In other words, the overwhelming majority of Christians in our day and age really believe that the biblical Jesus and the biblical church were entirely Western in their thought patterns and practices.

    Its rather insulting to my intelligence, to hear fundamentalist christians act as though the new testament gospels and epistles writers thought like modern day Western theologians.

  2. I would have trouble coming up the "the most offensive thing about modern Xtianity", there are so many, but that is a good one. Sheehan talks about the images we use today, the paintings of Jesus with the "$40 hairdo", blonde hair of course, compared to the recent recreation of the common 1st century Palestinian man with darker skin and black mussed up hair.

    It is just one of the many indicators of how Xtianity (and other religions) have adapted themselves to the changes in culture. The history of Christmas is well documented, but continues to be sold as if it was always just like it is now.

    I once heard a pastor talk about adapting. He went somewhere as a missionary that had goat herds, but was not all that amenable to sheep. He changed "lamb of God" to "goat of God" and found they understood that better.