Sunday, February 12, 2017

Why Milepost100?

I've been focusing less on creating new Milepost100 sermon helpers and instead adding to my background knowledge. One big source for that has been Richard Carrier's recent work, “On the Historicity of Jesus”. In this peer reviewed scholarly book, he applies modern tools to the questions surrounding Jesus and discusses how two approaches to the New Testament have failed; the religious apologist, who attempts to find the meaning that has been handed down by the theologians for centuries, and the historian who looks for some historical truth behind the text.

“Modern apologists respond with implausible ad-hoc harmonizations, while historians attempt to isolate the historical truth behind the conflicting accounts. This method has been found invalid. If the gospels are myth, both efforts are futile. Both assume the author is recording a collection of historical facts reported to them. If instead they are intending to construct myths about Jesus, we don't expect historicity, they aren't trying to distinguish fact from fiction, so the text does not give it to us. External evidence helps, and we can't use this approach to disprove historicity, but it does limit our ability to determine historicity. Instead our focus would be to extract the mytho-symbolic meaning and intent.” 

To answer that question, it is more important to look at the background information, the history of what was happening while the scripture was being written, and what earlier scripture they would have had available to them at the time. This is the opposite of how Christianity is presented to us now, beginning with the birth of Christ and following through to later letters written about him as if he existed. It is presented that way, but in actuality, those letters were written first, by someone who never claimed to have met a living Jesus. The accounts of his actions in life, came much later by different authors.

To begin before that, at the beginning, with Genesis and one family, is to ignore all the other creation stories that were being written at the time. It ignores that there were very few who could write at all. There were no fact checkers, no media watch dogs. If you wanted to write a counter narrative to someone else's myth, you wrote another myth, using the same characters, but added a new element that expressed your values and your desired outcome.

Any phrases inserted on an ad-hoc basis that claim the writing is true are there to attach the value message to the story. These were not notes to future readers in future millenia, these were devices for the illiterate, telling them to simply remember the name of John and don't be like those who are like Thomas. The listener then could express their values through that simple formula and had no need to remember a chain of logical arguments or even a list of what the values are. If anyone asked, they could refer them back to the story.

Biblical writing has special challenges because we have so many translations, so many copies and so many differences across those copies. The slight changes made back when copies were done by hand could have been mistakes, or they could have been purposeful redactions to steer the political message in a new direction. We know that this type of changing of the narrative happened in modern times and have no reason to believe it didn't happen back then.

It doesn't help that Romans were attempting near genocide of the Jews just as the gospels were being written in the late 1st century, or as the Romans would have said, “repressing a rebellion”. They lost track of who the authors actually were and they had far fewer tools than we do now for determining truth from fiction in the writings they were left with in the early 2nd century. We can't be certain what later emperors were thinking, but just as myth writers are more concerned with message over facts, the 3rd and 4th century co-opting of the message of this tiny Jewish sect  certainly helped both the emperors and the Catholics.

The rest is history, and history that we can become increasingly more confident about as we get closer to the present. We also get better at interpreting earlier history. We find more artifacts and we determine by the lack of evidence, that some things are highly improbable. We are also very far removed from any conquering Roman emperors who might not want us asking pesky questions.

So I will leave the medieval history to the historians. I may mention it occasionally, but only to point out how a particular verse led to a later belief. I may also mention an early church father who was just as sceptical as I am about the truth of a particular passage. Primarily, I want to put myself into the mind of peasants under extremely difficult living conditions, hearing a message of hope for their people.

Milepost 100. The sermon helper that doesn't tell you what to think.

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