Saturday, October 10, 2009

Virgin martyr & Lost Christianities

One of several books I’m reading is Bart Ehrmann’s Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Ehrmann presents variant forms of Christianity, showing that this religion could have developed in other ways and that present doctrine was not carved in stone.

Among the book's tantalizing facts is information about the Acts of Thecla, a popular Christian work I’d known about. Ehrmann finds it fascinating and adds it to his list of “forged” Christian documents. He applies the term “forged” to all literary works that are not what they purport to be, a standard that would indict many writings in the Bible. The Acts of Thecla was the equivalent of a novel in a time that did not strictly distinguish fact from fiction.

Thecla was “a household name” in Christian antiquity, the most famous convert of Paul, and the heroine of outlandish miracle stories. Enraptured by Paul’s message of sexual renunciation, she devotes herself to Paul and to chastity, but this distresses her mother and Thecla's fiancé. Ehrmann writes,
Her following was huge. Pilgrims flocked to her shrines in Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt. Devotees committed their lives to her adoration. Revered as a model martyr and worshiped as a saint, in some parts of the Christian world Thecla vied for centuries with Mary, the Mother of Jesus herself, as most important person outside the Trinity.
She would appeal to voyeurs today as well, because she is stripped naked and thrown onto a fire, rescued by God, then stripped naked and thrown to beasts, again rescued and brought through more martyr trials, and the miraculous rescues continue.

We know that the accounts were fabricated but not whether they give any factual information at all, a point debated by scholars, who also wonder how to account for her huge popularity. I suspect that the stories’ similarity with romance novels was one draw, that a female protagonist (rare at the time) was another, and that below-the-surface voyeurism drew people to this virgin martyr, although this story tells us that early Christianity was as fervently anti-sexual as our time is besotted with sex.

Thecla got the attention of Tertullian because she teaches men and apparently baptizes herself, a terrific no-no for Tertullian, who considered women unfit for any sacred function. No one in Christian history surpasses Tertullian for sexism. He is quoted as saying every woman is Eve, the gate of hell, the temptress of the forbidden tree.

Two things draw me to Thecla's story: My grandmother Blonigen’s name was Thekla (spelled this way), and Tertullian is always fun to read about.

While Thecla reigned as the virgin with sex appeal, knock-down, drag-out fights in the form of fierce debates raged in the religion. From the second through fourth centuries, there were many Christianities. The conflict threw orthodox against Gnostics. (This simplifies it almost to distortion, because there were many variations.) Gnostics de-emphasized Jesus’ bodily presence, some to the point of denying that he had a normal body. The orthodox insisted, rightly, that he had a normal body. This they could not relinquish because they believed Jesus’ bodily suffering bought our redemption.

This theory of salvation through Jesus’ death comes from Paul, and it became a central pillar of Christian belief. But very early writings reveal that apparently not all followers of Jesus focused on the redeemer Jesus.

Q and the Gospel of Thomas contain nothing but lists of Jesus’ sayings. Thomas was found many centuries after the New Testament took form, but Q is hidden in plain sight in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. German Lutheran scholars figured out that the authors of these gospels must have been working with the same source document—a list of Jesus’ sayings. Q comes from Quelle, meaning “source” in German. Anyone comparing Matthew and Luke can easily compile a list of nearly identical sayings from these gospels, and scholars debate about the most authentic forms of each saying. Sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are similar to those in Q, and both focus on Jesus’ teachings, not his death.

Gnostics also believed his teachings had paramount importance (“gnosis” means “knowledge” in Greek); they believed Jesus brings salvation with secret knowledge, NOT by dying and rising! But, they believed, only certain select people were privy to this secret knowledge. Their undemocratic selection has no appeal for us today, but their type of knowledge does. "Gnosis" meant, not knowledge of facts, but reflective or insightful knowledge—know thyself. Dig deep below the surface and intuit the wisdom of the ages. Know self, know human nature, and this leads to knowledge of God.

The point is that our religion could have evolved differently; it could have included more symbolic interpretation from Gnosticism and less emphasis on worship of the redeemer god-man.

Few Christians today are aware of these facts, well known by scholars, that subvert the assumptions of the typical Christian today.
• Jesus of Nazareth had no intention of letting people worship himself or starting a new religion. He was a committed Jew, but the New Testament and centuries of teaching have hidden this fact. In my writings I attribute the founding of Christianity to Paul, but he didn’t intend to start a new religion either.

• In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ enemies are Satan (1:23-26), the Scribes (3:22-27), his own family (3:31), and the people of his native place (6:4-6). In Luke his enemies are “the chief priests, officers of the temple guard, and elders” (22:52)—a shift toward marking Jews as bad people.

• “The loaded phrase ‘the Jews’ appears a total of 16 times in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, while in John it appears 71 times.” So writes James Carroll in Constantine’s Sword. He brings to light another unhappy detail. In John 8, Jesus debates the Jews who say, “Our father is Abraham,” and Jesus tells them (8:44), “The father you spring from is the devil.” Scholars today don’t attribute to the historical Jesus these words that build antagonism toward Jews. Carroll's point is the gospels' trashing of Jews. My added point is the gospels' unreliability as history.

• The first followers of Jesus did not think of him as God but, by about 70 years after his death, the messenger was becoming the message in the natural progression of human discourse. Titles implying divinity were applied to Jesus as well as to God.

• Before the 4th century, there was wide divergence of Christian beliefs. Some emphasized Jesus’ humanity; others downplayed it to the extent of denying he was a normal human being. Palestinians, the people of Jesus’ family and native region, did not divinize him.

• Beliefs about Jesus expected of Christians now—that he is one of three persons who make up God—grew from a demand by the Roman Emperor Constantine that bishops get together and decide what Christians should believe. There followed a series of councils called by emperors along with fierce disagreements. Men called “saint” today were among the most vicious contenders, and of course politics entered the discussion.

• As sun gods were popular in ancient religions, Yahweh and Jesus also became sun gods. According to Catholic scholar Hugo Rahner, the Israelites (ancestors of the Jews) worshipped Yahweh as a sun god. The Book of Malachi, which immediately precedes the New Testament, refers to “the sun of righteousness . . . with healing in its wings.” This, writes Rahner, “sounds much like the winged solar disc of Babylon and Egypt,” and the phrase “Sun of Righteousness” was often applied to Jesus by early church fathers. (Chapter 4 of Malachi appears in the RSV translation but does not appear in the NAB approved by Catholic bishops. I wonder why.)

• Jesus was widely perceived as a sun god, as evidenced by the worship day of Christians being called “Sunday,” the birthday of Jesus celebrated on the winter solstice, the sun's birthday, and churches orienting their altars toward the East. A fourth-century calendar entry for December 25 lists the birth of Christ along with the birth of the sun. (A later calendar adjustment accounts for the solstice now occurring earlier.)

These facts suggest that historical circumstances created Christianity, that religious beliefs shift and borrow from competing beliefs, and that New Testament writers contributed to the scapegoating of Jews by Christians.

Ehrmann’s Lost Christianities reminded me about the Didache, a very early church document that also indicates how our religion could have evolved differently. Its style and message differ from all the books that made it into the Bible. It doesn’t preach the message that Jesus Christ died for us, but tells people how to live well. “Lord” and “Spirit” are mentioned more that “Christ.”

A large piece of the Didache gives instructions for treating itinerant prophets and warns against “false prophets” who exploit their hosts by staying too long—freeloaders, as Ehrmann puts it. Apparently walking from town to town to preach was a popular occupation.

The communities are told to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, not on Mondays and Thursdays “like the hypocrites” (we don’t know who those were), and they are to say the Lord’s prayer three times a day. The prayer is surprisingly identical to ours. Of greatest interest are the Didache’s instructions on how to baptize and to have Eucharist. The baptized are to fast two or three days beforehand (Baptism for infants was unknown) and they are baptized with running water.

Eucharist instructions contain only words of thanksgiving—no lengthy Mass—and the words are like nothing we hear at Mass. The words of blessing/thanksgiving over the cup come before those over the bread. To give some background, the first Christians gathered together in houses for meals that included the ritual of Eucharist. This evolved into the Mass known to modern Catholics. The Mass has elements similar to pagan mystery religions, which also had sacred meals in honor of redeemer deities and initiation rites like Baptism.

Many other elements from paganism became part of Christianity. The god Mithra was more popular than Jesus Christ in the early centuries of the new era. There were seven Mithraic sacraments, one of them a meal with bread marked with a cross. It was called mizd, in Latin missa, in English mass. The myth of Mithra included a virgin birth, twelve disciples, Magi, and miracles.

A person, who often submits comments that I don’t publish because of their rudeness and repetitiveness, denied that Mithra had a virgin birth. So I looked for more evidence, and found it from Mia here.
There is reference to Mithra as being born of "Anahita, the Immaculate Virgin Mother of the Lord Mithras." Anahita was said to have conceived the Mithras from the seed of Zarathustra preserved in the waters of Lake Hamun in the Persian province of Sistan. In other contradictory traditions, he is also born without any sex but from the rock wall of a cave. One must know that there were separate Mithra traditions that may have changed and been adapted over time. This information comes from a Temple that bears this inscription dedicated to Anahita and dated to about 200 B.C.E.
Hugo Rahner, brother of theologian Karl Rahner whom I like to quote, admitted that "much of the stock of ideas and verbal images that belonged to the mystery cults found its way into Christianity." Indeed it did.

They used the simple human acts of eating, washing, and anointing as symbols of sacred power. They fasted, made sacrifice, sang hymns, recited litanies, walked in processions, bore sacred vessels, kissed the altar, communed with their God by partaking of a sacred meal, and had a professional priesthood. Their words and phrases endure in our literature: "mystery," "sacrament," “salvation,” “epiphany,” "the handing on of truth," and the good religious life as "victory" in a "war." Every time we recite the Gloria of the Mass with its paeans to the "most High," we revert to Hellenistic piety. From it, likewise, comes our gesture of priestly blessing—thumb and first two fingers raised, the other two bent. And our ideas of hell or Hades. And our saints who took on the traits of their lesser deities. And our halo which first adorned Mithras.

Christian apologists cite Old Testament verses as prophecies of Jesus Christ, proof to them that Christianity was more ancient than paganism. And so, the argument goes, pagans borrowed from Christians instead of the reverse! It’s nonsense. The influence went both ways but mainly from pagan to Christian, because pagan religions existed in the Mediterranean region before the Christians arrived.

Non-evangelical theologians acknowledge our debt to Hellenistic paganism, and it does not necessarily insult Christianity. It can affirm the Christian myth by showing its deep seat in the human psyche.

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