Thursday, December 22, 2005

On God, Christmas, Jesus, and such

First of all, Merry Christmas everyone. This time has always been very special in my family, as we always try to come together from our far-flung locations. Christmas is one way in which the family stays together, in which we manage to let each other know... "hey, you may drive me crazy sometimes, but I still love you and always will." I think this will be the first time I've ever not spent the holiday with my parents and sisters. Once I was stranded in Mississippi because of a snow storm (how odd is that?) and couldn't make it home for Christmas itself, but I rolled in on the 26th. This time... I won't be rolling anywhere!

So I have been less than productive this afternoon at work. I probably got a good solid hour in, but I've spent most of my post lunch time reading about the historical life of Jesus. I didn't learn much new, but it did turn me onto something of conteplative mood, so please forgive me as I do some stream of consciousness stuff now.

It appears as if there is very little in the historical record to support that Jesus ever existed. I'm sure my mother and father are more knowledgable about this than I, so maybe they can post a comment illuminating us. What evidence there is seems to come from Josephus, but even his account is suspect as it appears as if he wasn't a contemporary of Jesus but rather was writing after the fact; heresay.

One thing that does appear certain is that, assuming Jesus was born, he most certainly wasn't born in December. "Shephards watching their flocks by night" isn't exactly a winter time activity; more likely they'll be huddled up in a barn somewhere trying to keep warm. Aparently the church proclaimed Dec. 25th the day to celebrate the birth of Christ because it was already a popular pagan holiday, or around the time of several. Winter solstice and all that.

Which is fine... if we are celebrating the birth of someone that may not have even lived, we might as well make up his birthday as well. Dec. 25 is as good a day as any. What's important for Christians is just to have the celebration, to set aside a day every year to commemorate the coming of the Lord. When that day is should be of little consequence, so long as it exists.

What makes Christians so secure in their belief that Christianity is the one true way? What reason do we have to believe in Jesus and Jehova rather than Shiva or Mohommad? Or Zeus for that matter? It's not a new argument, and I don't mean to be argumentative, but it just seems so glaringly obvious that I can't resist stating it.

My boss, Mike, gave me a book about religious extremism... I forget the name. One very small point that it made was the following. If you were to transport through time someone, let's call him "Tim", from the first century AD to now, and then sit down and have a conversation with him, you would likely think "Tim" to be completely ignorant, uneducated, and completely out of place. Tim would be unable to comprehend how a television works; how an automobile works; whole branches of science wouldn't exist to him; heck, he wouldn't even understand what science is. Social conventions such as ethnic tolerance and value in cultural diversity would be contrary to his cor beliefs. Even the concept of "freedom" would likely be beyond his comprehension. In short, in almost every conceivable area of human achievement, Tim would be utterly primative and inept. I say almost, because in just one area - that of religion, Tim could very well be regarded as expert. In other words, over the past 2000 years the human race has made huge advancements in practically every aspect of our society and culture - except that of spirtuality. We are still using the same religious definitions, rules, and teachings to shape our spiritual beliefs that were developed at a time when people still belived that the sun traveled around the earth. The book uses this as an argument - not for athiesm - but that we must allow ourselves the same freedom to advance our understanding of the spiritual world that we have in the physical world.

A few years back I read another book called "Jesus The Man". It advanced the idea that, by using something called a "pesher" method, one could decipher a literal, historical account of Jesus' life from the gospels. The author postulated that the gospels were written at a dual level... the surface level for children and simpletons (her argument) who needed to believe in magic and miracles, and a second level for the true scholar of Judaism that details the actual life of Jesus and what he accomplished in extending his particular Jewish sect. I found it very interesting and it was attractive to me in that it made sense... even if some the logic the author used sometimes seems a bit reaching. Today I did a Google on reviews of this book, hoping to find an academic critique of the author's theories. I turned up a couple of reviews that were highly critical... a core assumption in her logic is that the dead sea scrolls are actually from the 1st century AD, which is apparently contrary to orthodoxy that holds they are from the 2nd century.

Anyway, I won't go into anymore except to say that, even though the criticisms of the author's work are rampant, I found little out there as an alternative. The bulk of the historical Jesus academic field appears to be populated by quasi-academics who graduated seminary with a firm belief in the almighty but a curiosity to find the truth behind the mythology. This fundamental belief in the Christian God colors their ability to do serious exploration about the history of Jesus. Barbara Theiring (the author of "Jesus the Man") may not be correct as she attempts to analyze the New Testement using a "pesher" methodology, but at least she is trying. She as come up with an interesting theory. Rather than simply claiming that she is wrong because she goes against orthodoxy, I'd like to see a serious investigation of her claims, as well as alternative theories to Jesus's life proposed that can be explored.

Well this was long and rambling, and probably not the kind of feel-good Christmas message you wanted to read. I'm really not a scrooge... just a skeptic. Someone in the news media made the point that the wonderful thing about Christmas is that it is really two holidays in one: a religious celebration about the birth of Jesus, and a secular one about the importance of family. One can choose to participate in either or both. I tend to celebrate the secular holiday, while most of my family celebrates both the secular and religious versions. And that's OK... it works. Even if I have become doubtful about the deification of Christ, Christmas is now and will always be a very dear and sacred time for me. A time of introspection, warmth and sharing; even rebirth.

So merry Christmas, everyone. May whatever path you choose in the new year bring you happiness and good fortune.



Sammy Jankis said...

Merry Christmas and good fortune to you as well, Llama. Wish you weren't on the other side of the world right now!

NaughtyLoki said...

Merry Christmas.

You've touched on a lot of topics during your ramblings. I have no statistics, but my gut feeling is that many of the people that celebrate Christmas in this country are celebrating a secular holiday. We have many citizens that grew up going to a Christian church but have never actually examined their own thoughts and beliefs. People that don't know what they believe can be very resistant to any deviation from tradition because it might actually force them to think about their belief structure.

That being said, I think it's high time that the Papists (you know who you are) answer for their crimes against history. The Enron guys are relative amateurs in the destruction of documents field. I don't know who Josephus had to pay in order to remain on the shelves, but I'll forget the whole issue for a cut of that sweet Josephus money.

kristybox said...

:). I enjoyed this entry, and naughty's comment.

If a holiday makes people think of others and come together and celebrate, that's enough for me, whether it's Christian, Pagan, or Llamian. At the same time, I will be going to Christmas Eve mass tomorrow night. Not because I believe that Jesus was born without sin on a cold winter's night in a manger. But because the story is inspiring, and inspiration breeds spirituality. Plus, there's really good music at the Christmas Eve service! ;)

-E said...

one of the best statements i have ever heard is this: "Everything in the Bible is True, and some of it actually happened."
i certainly don't speak for a majority of christians here, but it is the message of Jesus that is important, not whether or not he actually did this or that. life can be hard and cruel, but God came down and suffered with us. i am not nearly as eloquent as others, but that's my 2 cents.