The Making of the Christian Myth, By: Burton L. Mack
Fascination with sacred scripture seldom surfaces for observation or remark.
Their mystique is subtle, something that most persons in a culture would hardly recognize even if mentioned.
I have been pondering that mystique, asking why the Bible has such a curious hold on our minds and imaginations. I have not been thinking about the obviously embarrassing public displays of foolish obsessions wit the Bible in our time, listening for the hoofbeats of John’s four horsemen of the apocalypse, for instance, or citing Paul to prove that gays are sinners in the eyes of God. Madness of that sort can pop up in times of social or cultural crisis no matter what the issue or the mythic authorities might be.
I am thinking instead about all the seemingly innocent ways in which the Bible is taken for granted as a special book, and about all of the ways in which it works its magic in our culture without ever being acknowledged, consulted, or read.
The range of procedures for consulting the Bible is astounding. Students tell me that their grandmothers used to seek “a word for the day” by letting the Bible flop open to a “verse for the day.”
Ministers, priests, rabbis, preachers, and teachers by the thousands pore over these texts in quest of some lesson or message fit for their classes or congregations.
Groups are now forming outside the formal boundaries of institutional religion to study the Bible in the hopes of discovering some fundamental truth felt to have been lost in our recent past.
Think of the intellectual labor invested in the academic study of the Bible, the production of scholarly studies and guides for interpreting the Bible, and the huge flow of literature that constantly pours forth from church houses and commercial publishers of books on the Bible. One might well wonder at all this activity swirling around a single book.
This constant consultation of the Bible is partially explained by the important role assigned to the Bible in our religious institutions. Readings from the Bible are essential to liturgies, lessons from the Bible are basic for teachings and doctrines, and references to the Bible are felt to be necessary in the construction of theologies by those charged with the intellectual life of religious traditions. The remarkable thing about this kind of appeal to the Bible, however, is that it does not seem to matter whether all the theologies and teachings so derived agree.
And it does not matter that, for a particular teaching or view, the “biblical” basis may consist of only a small set of sentences taken out of context and pressed into a dogma. This is true even at the highest levels of serious theological discourse.
A study by David Kelsey (1975) has shown that, as one moves rom one theological system to another among the Christian traditions in America, the selections of biblical texts said to be basic for the system also changes. It is as if everyone knows that the voices recorded in the Bible are many and diverse but that everyone continues to treat the Bible as if it spoke with a single voice.
And even though the Bible is treated as a book with a single message, everyone understands that it must be studied as if the message were hidden or unclear. It is treated as if it were a collection of divine oracles that had to be decoded in order to arrive at the truth they contain. It is not odd that one needs to consult the Bible, study the Bible, comb through the Bible, or pierce the surface of its enigmatic language in order to discern the hidden truth that gives it the authority it has for our religions? It is not odd that we have not taken note of this curious preoccupation with the relentless “study” of the Bible in our society and that we do not ask what is about the Bible and our religions that lies behind such fascination?
The Bible also works its magic in our culture outside the bounds of religious institutions, although the ways in which it influences our collective sense of values and patterns of thinking as Americans are not readily recognized or discussed openly among us.
Most of us do know, however, that biblical imagery and themes pervade the history of Western literature, theater, art, and literature. We also know that the Bible was always involved in the conquest of other lands. During the “age of discovery”, for instance, Columbus studied the Bible in order to plan his voyages, and he read the parable of the feast in Luke 14:16-24 as a commission to circle the globe and “compel” the heathen to convert as Luke 14:23 enjoins (J.Z.Smith 1986), Should not such examples of the Bible’s influence in the history of our expansive civilizations bring a little frown of embarrassment to our faces?
We also have a vague notion of the importance attached to the Bible in early American history. It was the one book everyone had in hand, and it shaped the way we viewed the land, treated Native Americans, and constructed our institutions, including schools, universities, and the curricula of higher education. Many Americans have been quite intentional about treating the Bible as a charter for our nation.
Thomas Jefferson, for example, thought it important to match the level of enlightenment.we had reached in American democratic institutions wit a Bible purged of its myths and miracles. Thus the “Jefferson Bible’ contained only the pristine teachings of Jesus. As for the unpurged Bible, segregation in the South was long justified by quoting the curse on Ham’s posterity in Genesis 9:20-27 on the one hand, and arguing for the right to demand obedience from a slave by citing Paul on the other. When the lure of “developing” the “vacant” lands to the West in the late nineteenth century reached its peak, volumes of utopian poetry were written by leading American authors, such as Walt Whitman, rife with biblical themes about our manifest destiny as the people of God, called to create a paradise in the midst of an erstwhile wilderness.
And the cliches we have used to announce our presence to the world have all ben taken from biblical imagery: “righteous nation,” “city set on a hill,” and “light to the nations.” What do you suppose we would have said about ourselves if we had not had the Bible?
In our own time, it is the frequent mediation of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” that reveals how naively and automatically the Bible plays its role in public discourse. The term Judeo-Christian means that we stand in the “biblical tradition,” and the biblical tradition is regarded as the source for the values that make our society respectable and legitimate.
No one finds it strange to hear senators quoting from the Bible or objects when presidents-elect place their hands upon it while taking the oath of office. It is as if we take our place in history by unreflected reference to the Bible.
A vague recollection of the biblical story seems to be in everyone’s mind, a story that begins at the creation of the world with Adam and Eve in the garden, that courses through the Bible and then through history of Western civilization to flow into the fulfillment of its promise in America with a culmination in the future of consequence for all the people of the world.
Those who have studied American popular culture tell us that the Bible has profoundly influenced the way we tell our stories, look for meanings, quest for transformations, imagine our futures and hope for apocalyptic solutions to our problems If the Bible is that important to our culture, is it not strange that we have not questioned the reasons why?
I have also been impressed with the authority we grant the Bible when discussing issues of social consequences. The list of issues currently under discussion includes the place of creationism in public schools, the role of women in our society, social attitudes towards various sexual orientations, Jewish-Christian relations, theories of white supremacy, patriarchal institutions, the use of natural resources, the definition of family values, understanding violence, how best to relate to other cultures, and what responsibility we have for maintaining human rights around the world.
Most of these issues could be discussed without referring to the biblical heritage, but the Bible is always lurking in the background, and positions have been taken on all of them that ultimately appeal to the Bible as the final word. When that happens, thinking and reasonable discussion stop. We do not know how to proceed after the Bible has been invoked. We are all complicit in letting an appeal to the Bible count as an argument.
One of the reasons for our silence when confronted with a proof text from the Bible is that we simply do not know what to make of the Bible and its contents .Thus we do not know what to say in response to those who use the Bible as an authority for their views.
Despite the enormous investment in biblical studies in our society, there is actually very little public knowledge about the Bible. One cannot assume that anyone knows why the individual books of the Bible were first written, how they were understood by those who first read them, when and why they were brought together in a single volume, what the historical significance of that moment was, how the Christian church has reinterpreted all of them many times in the course of Western cultural history, and what the lasting effect of that layered text has been.
It is the strange authority granted to the Bible in our society, an acquiescence that pertains whether one is a Christian or not, together with the poverty of our knowledge and public discussions of the Bible, that is the stimulus for this book.
Here we are with the Bible on our hands and we do not know how we got it, how it works, and what to make of it in public forum.
So, I decided to write this book!
I am a biblical scholar and historian of religion who has ben engaged in the academic study of religion and culture for thirty years.
A wealth of information is available in these fields of study that can help us understand how the Bible came to be, and how and why the Bible continues to affect our culture. This knowledge is vast, detailed, and scholarly, but it is not arcane. We know much about the history, literature, and cultures of ancient Near East and about the Greco-Roman world where the clash of cultures took place that gave birth to both the Judaism and Christianity. We have detailed knowledge of the original languages and content of each book of the Bible, and for most of them it is possible to describe the circumstances that occasioned the writing.
We are also able to say why a new piece of literature was written, how each writing drew upon other texts, ideas, and myths, and how the creative edge in a new literary composition was achieved by its author.
As for understanding the ways in which the ancients thought about God, practiced religion, constructed their societies, and valued human relationships, we are not at a loss. There are exceptionally rich resources in the fields of classical studies that shed much light upon the history of Israel, early Judaism, and Christianity.
And as for theory, the history of religions draws upon an even wider cluster of academic disciplines, including ethnography, cultural anthropology, comparative religions, and the sociology of religions.
It seem a shame that no-nonsense knowledge of this kind is seldom called upon when discussing the Bible in either parochial or public forums.
Perhaps a no-nonsense book about the making of the Christian Bible will help!
As everyone knows, the Christian Bible is not the same as the Hebrew Bible
Even among the lain traditions of Christianity ,the books included in the various Bibles do not agree. A major difference is found between the Protestant Bible, which excludes a number of books from the Old Testament, the so-called Apocrypha, and the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, which include these and, in response to the Protestants, call them deuterocanonical (a “second” canonical corpus).
The story of the formation of the Christian Bible cannot be told without explaining the differences among Protestant, Catholic, and Hebrew Bibles, or without reference to the Jewish scriptures that Christians came to call the Old testament, for the way each of these collections of scripture took shape affected the other collections and left lasting marks upon the cultures that produced them. It is, however, the New Testament part of the Bible that makes it a Christian Bible, and it is the Christian Bible that has influenced our culture.
We shall see that the New Testament was linked to the Jewish scriptures of the Old Testament in just a certain way, and that it is this link which gives the Christian Bible its peculiar logic and force. This linkage is what we eventually need to understand in order to have some public discussion about the Bible’s continuing attraction in our time. But in order to understand that link and its logic, we need to see why the New Testament writings were written in the first place and how they eventually became the New Testament of the Christian Church.
As I toyed with the idea of writing such a book about the New testament, I found myself confronted with a sort of catch-22. The catch is that for most people the New Testament is taken as proof for the conventional picture of Christian origins, and the conventional picture is taken as proof for the way in which the New Testament was written.
The conventional picture comes to focus on a very small set of persons and events as storied in the gospels. It is the story of Jesus’ appearance in the world as the son of God. A divine aura surrounds this special time that sets it apart from all the rest of human history. Most people suspend their disbelief and let the story stand as the miraculous moment that started the Christian religion. All that followed, including the transformation of the disciples into apostles, the birthday of the first church in jerusalem, the conversion of Paul, and the writing of the New Testament gospels and letters by the apostles, is thought to be a response to those first incomparable events.
Thus the unfolding history is imagined on the model of dominoes falling in place when triggered by an original impulse. This creates a circular, interlocking pattern of authentication in which the New Testament is both the result of and the documentation for the conventional view of Christian beginnings.
For this reason, the New Testament is commonly viewed and treated as a charter document that came into being much like the Constitution of the United States. According to this view, the authors of the New Testament were all present at the historic beginnings of the new religion and collectively wrote their gospels and letters for the purpose of founding the Christian church that Jesus came to inaugurate. Unfortunately, for this view, that is not the way it happened!
Scholars locate the various writings of the New Testament at different times and different places over a period of one hundred years, from the letters of Paul in the 50s of the first century, through the writing of the gospels of Mark and Matthew in the 70s and 80s , the gospel of John and Luke around the turn of the second century, and on to the acts, letters, and other writings during the first half of the second century, some as late as 140 to 150 C.E.. This fact alone introduces another history of Christian beginnings that is not acknowledged by or reflected in the writings of the New Testament.
To make matters worse, for the conventional view, these writings stem from different groups with their own histories, views, attitudes, and mix of people. In some cases it is possible to trace the connections between two different writings. An example would be the way in which the gospel attributed to Matthew was dependent upon the gospel attributed to Mark. But even in cases such as these a careful reading of two related writings always produces a long list of differences.
No two writings agree upon what we might have thought were fundamental convictions shared by all early Christians. Each writing has a different view of Jesus, for instance, a particular attitude towards Judaism, its own conception of the kingdom of God, a peculiar notion of salvation, and so on. This means that the impression created by the New Testament of a singular collection of apostolic documents, all of which bear “witness” to a single set of inaugural events, is misleading.
We now know that there were many different responses to the teachings of Jesus.
Groups formed around them, but then went different ways depending upon their mix of people, social histories, and discussions about the teachings of Jesus and how they were to be interpreted and applied.
Some were of the type we call Jesus movements. Others became congregations of the Christ whose death was imagined as a martyrdom to justify a mixture of Jews and gentiles as equally acceptable in a new configuration of the people of God (or “Israel”). Still, others developed into enclaves for the spiritual enlightenment or the knowledge Jesus had taught.
Each of these branches of the Jesus movements, including many permutations of each type, imagined Jesus differently. They did so in order to account for what they had become as patterns of practice, thinking, and congregating settled into place. And they all competed with one another in their claim to be the true followers of Jesus.
Many of these groups had their own gospels (Cameron 1982), and some produced rather large libraries that are still available to us from the second, third, and fourth centuries.
As for the New Testament, it turns out to be a very small selection of texts from a large body of literature produced by various communities during the first one hundred years. These New Testament texts were collected in the interest of a particular form of Christian congregation that emerged only by degrees through the second to fourth centuries.
Towards the end of the book I will begin referring to this type of Christianity as “centrist”, meaning thereby that it positioned itself against gnostic forms of Christianity on the one hand, and the radical forms of Pauline and spiritist communities on the other.
It was centrist Christianity that became the religion of empire under Constantine, collected together the text we now know as the New Testament, and joined them to the Jewish scriptures to form the Christian Bible. When these writings were first written there was no centrist tradition, and none of them fully agreed with the others with respect to their views of Jesus, God, the state of the world, or the reason for the Jesus movements.
It is also the case that, with the exception of seven letters by Paul and the Revelation to an unknown John, the writings selected for inclusion in the New Testament were not written by those whose names are attached to them. Many modern Christians find this fact difficult to comprehend, if not downright unnerving. The problem seems to be that, if so, someone must have been lying.
A better way to understand this phenomenon is to realize:
One helpful observation is that anonymous authorship of writings intended for use in social institutions such as schools, temples, and royal bureaucracies was standard practice in the scribal traditions of the ancient Near East.
Another is that, in the early period of collecting lore, interpreting teachings, and trying new ideas fit for the novel groupings spawned by the Jesus movements, many minds, voices, and hands were in on the drafting of written material.
No one thought to take credit for writing down community property even though authorial creativity is everywhere in evidence. Even the earliest collections of teachings and stories about Jesus, such as the Sayings Gospel Q, the gospel of Thomas, and the little sets of anecdotes and miracle stories from the pre-Markan tradition bear the marks of literacy and creativity, though none was signed by an author.
As for the later attribution of anonymous literature to known figures of the past, that also was a tradition of standard practice during the Greco-Roman period. In the schools of rhetoric, for example, teachers had their students write speeches and letters appropriate for such figures to see if the student had fully understood the importance of a historical figure. It was what a recognized figure stood for that was deemed important, not his personal profile.
Scholars agree, in any case, that for these and other reasons, most of the writings of the New Testament were either written anonymously and later assigned to a person of the past or written later as a pseudonym for some person thought to have been important for the earliest period. Striking examples of the latter are the two letters said to have been written by Peter, both of which are clearly second-century creations.
Thus, over the course of the second and third centuries, centrist Christians were able to create the impression of a singular, monolinear history of the Christian church. They did so by carefully selecting, collecting, and arranging anonymous and pseudonymous writings assigned to figures at the beginning of the Christian time.
As they imagined it, this history was foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament, inaugurated by Jesus and his sacrifice for the sins of the world, established by the apostles in their missions, and confirmed by the bishops in their loyalty to the teachings of that illustrious tradition. And because all the New Testament writings were now regarded as written by apostles and their associates, the differences among their views of Christian beginnings were effectively erased.
In the centrist Christian imagination, the four gospels merged into an amalgam of the one gospel story, and the letters of Paul and the other apostles were read as “witnesses” to these dramatic events that inaugurated the Christian time. This means that the impression modern readers have of the New Testament as a chanter document for Christianity, a kind of constitution written in concert by a college or congress of apostles, is thoroughly understandable. That is exactly what the centrist Christians of the fourth century intended. The problem is that this charter was created for the fourth-century church by means of literary fictions. It is neither an authentic account of Christian beginnings nor an accurate rehearsal of the history of the empire church. Historians of religion would call it myth.
If we want to understand the reasons for the emergence of Christianity in all its forms, what the fundamental attraction was, why people invested themselves in it even to the point of taking on new personal and social identities, why some came to believe in the mythic claims at the core of the centrist creed and thus the New Testament, and why that kind of Christianity won over others to influence fifteen hundred years of Western culture , we will have to pop open the catch-22.
We need to dismantle the New Testament as a singular collection and locate each writing in its own time and place.
We need to reconstruct the history of the many groups that formed in the wake of Jesus, ask questions about their ideas, activities, and motivations.
We need, in brief, to set the conventional picture of Christian origins aside and re-describe the times by using all the information available to us from whatever source we can find. Only by so doing will we be able to gain a fresh perceptive on the writings of the New Testament and ask about the rhymes and reasons that gave birth to their mythologies.
It will not be easy to set the conventional picture aside.
That is because the text that need to be reassessed are so intricately entangled with that picture. Consider the fact that the very names for these texts belong to the myth of Christian origins and that we have no other names for them. I will have to refer to “Mark,” for instance, as the author of the Gospel of Mark, and to “Matthew” when referring to the author of the Gospel of Matthew, even though both are pseudonyms that support the conventional myth.
Scholars grow accustomed to this problem and solve it by learning to imagine an unknown editor behind each of the apotolic fictions. This “editor” then becomes a figure representing the very complex processes of literary production in school and community traditions where many hands are known to have contributed to a composition.
No critical scholar thinks about a historic Matthew when referring to the Gospel of Matthew or when using the name Matthew as a shorthand designation for either the author or the text of this gospel. But for many people, the mere mention of the name Matthew immediately conjures up the conventional picture of Jesus and his disciples according to the gospel story.
I will therefore have to ask the reader to understand my predicament as we proceed. I will have to use the conventional names for these New Testament texts, but I hope not to be misunderstood. I will not be referring to the familiar figures of the traditional picture of Christian origins.
This picture of Christian origins will not be easy to set aside for another reason. It is not just that the traditional picture is supported by the composition of the New Testament , and that the New Testament has been the only set of texts available for and imagining and “documenting” that picture. The fact is that Christians have an investment in that picture and that investment takes the form of believing that it is true. This has resulted in a conviction or desire to accept the gospels as histories, accounts of what literally must have happened in order to inaugurate the Christian faith.
Unfortunately, biblical scholars are not immune to this desire, and the history of the New Testament studies is dotted by the failed attempts of conservative Christians to counter critical scholarship and argue for the gospels as memoirs of the disciples who were with Jesus when it all happened. An example of conservative scholarship that argue for the historical accuracy of the gospels can illustrate this point.
In the library of Magdalen College in Oxford are three papyrus fragments from the twenty-sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. They contain partial lines of text from ten scattered verses (Matt. 26:7-8, 10, 14-15, 22-23, 31, 32-33). Since their acquisition in Egypt in 1901 and facsimile publication in 1953, these fragments have been known to scholars and recognized as coming from a second-century C.E. codex (leaves bound together to make a book, in distinction from a scroll). There are four main reasons for this dating:
(1) The fragments are of papyrus, thus from a time earlier than the shift to parchment took place around the beginning of the third century C.E.
In a recent article, however, Carsten Thiede, a German papyrologist, has proposed that the Magdalen fragments may be dated to the mid-first century (1995). His theory is based on the observation that these fragments were written in uncial script (Upright, block letters), a practice that was generally abandoned during the course of the first century. In order to make his case, Thiede has argued:
(1) that the script is similar to some Greek texts from Pompey and Herculaneum that have been dated to the first century;
The conclusion that Thiede wants to draw from this argument is that the Gospel of Matthew must have been written mid-first century by a disciple who had known Jesus and was still a live to record that history as it actually happened. What is more, since the fragments use an abbreviation for the proper name, Jesus, as well as for his designation as lord, Thiede thinks that his disciple must have recognized that the historical Jesus was in fact divine.
Critical scholars will not be impressed.
The fragments are easily explained as second-century texts; uncials could still have been used as late as 85 C.E., the traditional scholarly date for Matthew; Dead Sea Scrolls scenario is preposterous; his theory about the Markan fragment among the Dead Sea Scrolls has been discredited ; and the mass of detailed scholarship on the origins and history of early Christian movements and their writings has simply been swept aside in the eager pursuit of a chimera. From a critical scholar’s point of view, Thiede’s proposal is an example of just how desperate the Christian imagination can become in the quest to argue for the literal facticity of the Christian gospels.
Others, however, including the media, may think the “discovery” sensational.
It does not seem to matter that the “hard external evidence,” as an article in Time called it (Ostling 1995), amounts to the vague redating of three questionable fragments buttressed by flimsy argumentation. Apparently, a fragment in the hand is worth a hundred years of learning packed away in the dusty book os scholars. It is as if the gospels must be “ historical “ to agree with Christian persuasion, and thus any artifact will do. When asked what that means, however, what is it about the gospels that must be historical in order for Christianity to be true, the usual response from the average Christian is first a slight hesitation, as if that question had not occurred to the innocent believer, and then the answer is given, “Why, all of it, of course.” And that is where the conversation and the thinking usually stops. All of it?
Are we to think that all of it is historical: portents, miracles, resurrections, cosmic journeys, apocalyptic visions, angels, a crucified god, divine “breakthroughs,” and metaphysical transformations?
Are we to make an exception for that chapter of human history, a record of events held to be true even though fantastic according to normal criteria for making judgements?
Are we to feel confident about the accuracy of the gospel’s account on the basis of three second-century fragments that a scholar has tried to redate? The Time article was captioned: “An expert claims hard evidence that Matthew’s Gospel was written while eyewitnesses to Christ were alive.” That is certainly sensational enough to get the media juices flowing.
And it may sound good to many Christians to think that a gauntlet has been thrown to all those liberal scholars who say it did not happen the way the gospels say it did. But the average literate, non-specialist reader will be stymied. What indeed is one to do with the hoopla of the Matthew fragments? How can one tell which expert to heed? On what basis can anyone make a considered judgement?
The non-specialist needs more information.
A larger picture of Greco-Roman times, early Christian movements, and the history of early Christian literature is absolutely necessary in order to reevaluate any specific bit of “evidence” that may catch someone’s attention. This book is my attempt to paint that larger picture.
The plan of the book is to take the New Testament apart for a through examination of each individual writing, parceling them out to their own specific junctures of social and cultural history, and then tracing the subsequent fate of each through the period of the Bible’s formation.
Each writing will be given a separate discussion, including basic information about its date, authorship, literary form, relation to other texts, and the social circumstances for its composition. Information of this kind is readily available in a large number of textbooks known as Introductions to the New Testament. Since I draw upon this scholarship mainly to set the stage for asking another set of questions, I shall not labor the details. For the reader who wants to see detailed summaries of this traditional scholarship on introductory matters, I recommend the books of Duling and Perrin (1994) and Koester (1982). I assume this scholarship before going on to describe the importance of a text in the larger context of Christian beginnings in the world of late antiquity.
This larger sweep of Christian beginnings will become a kind of outline that needs to be colored in. An introductory chapter about the clash of cultures during the Greco-Roman period will set the stage.
We shall see that the breakdown of traditional societies during the Hellenistic period had far deeper consequences for personal and social well-being than is usually thought. After that, and against that background, we can place each of our texts at a particular moment in the history of early Christian groups and see how each was responding to its times.
We can do that by noting the way in which a group had formed and the role it saws itself play in the larger scheme of things. The scholarly terms for these activities, one behavioral, the other intellectual, are social formation and mythmaking.
Social formation and mythmaking are group activities that go together, each stimulating the other in a kind of dynamic feedback system. Both speed up when new groups form in times of social disintegration and cultural change. Both are important indicators of the personal and intellectual energies invested in experimental movements. Just as in our time of social change and multi cultural encounters, so during the Greco-Roman period, the merger of peoples and the disintegration of traditional societies sparked new patterns of association and called forth new ways of thinking.
Social conflict, curiosity about other cultures, and experimentation with human relationships unleashed remarkable intellectual efforts to reconceive the human enterprise. Early Christians were not unaffected. They were actively engaged in just such experimentation. That is, in fact, exactly what the Jesus movements were all about. If we do not come to see that, we shall never be able to understand the messages or mythologies of the New Testament writings!
A novel notion called the kingdom of God generated the excitement and influenced the formation of many different Jesus groups.
We shall have to ask why this notion was so attractive and why this kingdom movement spread, without assuming that the attraction was rooted in a common conviction about Jesus as a personal savior or that conversions were generated by the apocalyptic preaching of a Paul. Instead, we shall have to credit the personal and intellectual investments of many, many people in a religious movement.
We shall see that the notion of the kingdom of God called for reimagining society and that it contained both a critical (counter cultural) and a constructive (or utopian) edge. And we shall see that entertaining such an idea unleashed enormous energy, triggering social experiments that were daring and igniting the most fantastic images of a desired transformation of the world.
Social formation and mythmaking must, therefore, be given a prominent place in our redescription of early Christian history.. In every early Christian community from which we still have any evidence, social formation and mythmaking fit together like hand and glove.
The excitement created by the talk of the kingdom of God may be difficult for some modern readers to grasp.That is because the Christian religion is often thought to be solely about personal salvation, not the vision of a sane society.And we live in a time when “personal religious experience” and “private belief systems” draw upon our culture’s radical individualism to define the essence of any religion.
That is bound to frustrate our attempt to understand the importance and power of social concepts and mythologies in antiquity. However, we shall confront such concepts at every turn in our investigation. That is because, Christians actually saw themselves as a social construct. They were, they said, a congregation, a household, a family, a people, a nation, a temple, a city of God, or a kingdom. All the terms used for the status of the individual Christian were taken from social models: brother, sister, saint, helper. And for the language of “justification”, or “redemption,” it invariably meant the process of transferring one’s social location from the constraints of an ethnic or national identity to the “freedom” and “acceptance” experienced within the new congregation.
Even the so-called “christological titles” (Christ, Lord, Son of God) were social roles taken from social concepts and mythologies. They were not attributed to Jesus in order to imagine his personal divinity, as if becoming a god would have been a very important thing to have happened to a person. They were, instead, ways of imagining how important he had become as the “king” of the “kingdom” to which his followers now belonged. His followers did not congregate in order to enhance their chances of gaining eternal life for themselves as solitary persons.
They had been captivated by a heady, experiential drive to rethink power and purity and alter the way the authorities of their time had put the world together. They did that by creating a social space where it was okay to misbehave. As the offensive practice of one early Jesus group illustrates, they “ate with some collectors and sinners” without even washing their hands (Mark 2:15-17; 7:1-14). That is more than making a statement. That is actual social formation.
I shall therefore lift up profiles of groups and communities, paint portraits of authors where information and clues exist, and try to keep track of the people behind our texts as they come into view over the first several generations. They were a colorful lot for the most part, outspoken and more than a bit boisterous at times. A touch of humor and a strong streak of contentiousness show that they were real people honestly involved in a serious reorientation of social and cultural alignments.
The issues that surfaced for debate and the decisions that were thought to make a difference swirled around matters of primary significance for life together as social creatures----ethnicity, family relations, traditional values, ethics and etiquettes, rights and roles of leadership, and the bases of authority, ranking, and honor.
To take but one example of a social code that caused contention, the Pharisaic laws of .purity were so important in some early groups that they occasioned vociferous debate, realignments of traditional loyalties, and the redrawing of group boundaries. Families were split apart and the structure of village authorities was rearranged by taking sides on the definition of purity.Why? Because social relations were in the process of being reconsidered and reraligned in light of the novel social vision they called the kingdom of God.
As everyone knows, however, these early Christians did more than argue about power and purity or test the conventional codes of behavior by violating table etiquette. They also entertained some very extraordinary ideas, especially in regard to Jesus, his transformation into a divine cosmic being, and his status as lord of all history and creation. And the claims these Christians made about knowing the mind of God, his ways with the world, and the apocalyptic ending to all human history when the kingdom of God would finally be “revealed” were nothing short of fantastic.
If we cannot say how these early Christians came to such ideas, and for what reasons, we shall not be able to escape the catch-22 even though we catch sight of their many social formations. It would still be possible to think that the events imagined in their mythology had really overwhelmed them. That is the way the conventional myth of Christian origins paints the picture:
First, the miraculous and incomparable events surrounding the appearance of Jesus as the son of God, then the preaching of the gospel and the formation of church.
If we want to change that sequence we shall have to explain the emergence of these mythic ideas some other way. That other way will be to pay attention to mythmaking in the process of social experimentation.
That early Christians engaged in mythmaking may be difficult for modern Christians to accept.
The usual connotations of the term myth are almost entirely negative.
And when it is used to describe the content of the New Testament gospels there is invariably a hue and cry. That is because, in distinction from most mythologies that begin with a .”once upon a time,” the Christian myth is set in historical time and place. It seems, therefore, to demand the belief that the events of the gospel story really happened. And that means that the story cannot be “myth.”
It may help some to note:
(1) that mythmaking is a normal and necessary social activity,
That at least is my challenge. That is what I want to show by writing this book.
But how do myths make sense? And what kind of sense does the Christian myth make?
Every culture has a set of stories that account for the world in which a people find themselves. These stories usually tell of the creation of the world, the appearance of the first people, ancestral heros and their achievements, and the glorious beginnings of society as a people experience it. Terrain, village patterns, shrines, temples, cities, and kingdoms are often set in place or planned at the beginning of time .Scholars understand these myths as the distillation of human-interest stories first told in the course of routine patterns of living together, then rehearsed for many generations.
Telling stories about one another is what we do.
It belongs to the life and work of maintaining human relations and constructing societies. Telling stories is how we do our catching up, checking one another out on views and attitudes, and gathering information to justify judgements we need to make about something called character. It does not take long before there are more stories than we can remember and recall. Even in a brief family history, sorting takes place naturally over time, and only the most vivid stores are ever rehearsed.
Some, however, are told again and again.
These become stories that several generations might share.
As the size of the social unit expands, the number of shared stories shrink.
These stories invariably become dense icons, packed with features characteristic for the people as a whole. As the last generation passes and fades from memory, these stories are allowed to slip into a “once upon a time” where a honing of ancestral symbols take place.
In cultures where there is interest, capacity, and circumstances to remember more than three or four generations, where writing is invented and records kept, it is customary to develop a “historical” imagination as a kind of linear basket to hold the stories of importance for the collective memory of a people
Now only the most compact and generalized icons collect “at the beginning”, the point in the past beyond which the human imagination cannot reach. The others may be sprinkled here and there through the “history,” but sequence is not always important, and many of the stories in the basket may not be connected to one another in any particular way.
Rhyme and reason may be superimposed, however, in the interest of borrowing some of the luster of the past for the present shape of the society. When that happens we can begin to speak of an epic. Epic is a rehearsal of the past that puts the present in its light. Setting the present in the light of an illustrious past makes it honorable, legitimate, right, and reasonable. The present institution is then worth celebrating.
Naturally, both the past and the present may be highly romanticized or idealized, for epic is myth in the genre of history. The stories of Gilgamesh in ancient Sumerian and Akkadian civilizations were epic. For the Greeks, Homer was epic. Pindar’s poetry of illustrious family lines was epic on a small scale. The local histories of shrines, temples, and peoples in the eastern Mediterranean during the Hellenistic period were epic on a medium-sized scale. And the history of Israel, which, from the very beginning of the world aimed at the establishment of a temple-state in Jerusalem, was epic for the Jews.
When the second temple was destroyed in 70C.E., the Jews had a problem on their hands. Not only their ancient history, contained in the five books of Moses, but an immense body of literature from the Hellenistic period documented their intellectual investment in the temple-state as the proper goal of human history from the foundation of the world. Christians also had a problem.
Christians also had a problem.
They had no right to claim the history of Israel as their own.
But, early Jewish Christians had wanted to think of themselves as the people of God, heirs of the promises to Israel, or even the new Israel for a new day. It was natural to do so in order to feel right about the new Jesus movements. And so, before the destruction of the temple, early Jesus people and Christians had already started to point to this or that feature of the history of Israel in order to claim some link with the illustrious traditions of Israel.
As we shall see , all of the early myths about Jesus were attempts to paint him and his followers in acceptable colors from the Israel epic. But these attempts were fanciful, ad hoc, and incapable of competing with the obvious logic of the Jewish epic. The Jewish epic was a history that aimed at the establishment of a temple-state in Jerusalem, not a Christian congregation. When the temple’s end came, however, and the epic’s logic was in total disarray, Christians had their chance to revise it in their favor. It was then that revising the Israel epic became major focus for early Christian mythmaking .
Examples will be found in the New Testament gospels, all of which set their stories of Jesus at the end of the story of Israel. This happened during the late first century, the period during which the mythology of Jesus as the son of God swept through many Christian communities. And then, from the middle of the second century on,. The fur really began to fly. Both Jews and Christians wanted to read the history of Israel in their favor, and each needed the Jewish scriptures as documentation for social formations that did not match the temple-state at the end of Israel’s story.
Two myths were devised then, and they are still playing havoc with what otherwise might be a reasonable conversation between Christians and Jews about the texts we sometimes call the Hebrew Bible, sometimes the Old Testament.
We will have to keep track of these groups and their literature as best we can for about three hundred years or we will not be able to catch the important shift in group life and thought that had to happen before the collection known as the New Testament came into existence and the idea of a Bible finally was possible.
All these shifts need to be described if we want to understand the logic that resulted in the Bible. Just as with each separate writing, so the Bible itself came together at a certain juncture of social and cultural history. The reasons for the selection and arrangement of writings in the Bible cannot be found in any of the individual books read separately. The reasons have to be taken from the Christian authors of the second to fourth centuries. Only at the end of this period, when we finally catch sight of the Bible as we know it, will we see that it demands a particular way of reading the history of Israel, put a special spin on the appearance of Christ, and grants uncommon authority to the apostles and their mission.
By then it will be clear to us that the book was important because it gave the church the credentials it needed for its role in Constantine’s empire. We may then call it the myth of origin for the Christian religion. It will be the Christian myth in the form of the biblical epic that granted the Christian church its charter. It will be that epic that determines the Bible’s hold upon our American mind.
The Bible’s mystique is oddly misnamed by calling it the “Word of God.” We must come to see that, or we shall never be able to talk about the Bible in public forum when discussing our cultural history and its present state of affairs. What kind of a charter, do you suppose, is given to our culture if the Bible turns out to be our epic, our myth of God’s design upon both our past and our promise?
At the end of the book, I shall return to the questions with which we began about the reasons the Bible continues to fascinate us. I will offer a number of suggestions that draw upon what we will have learned about the Bible’s composition. I will .mention the Bible’s function as an epic charter for America, explain why that is not the way we like to have it described, and pursue two features of its composition that will help us understand why, despite our uneasiness with the notions of biblical epic and cultural influences, it continues to have a kind of mystical power. One feature results in a peculiar enchantment attached to its epic function. The other is to treat the Bible as if it were a crystal ball or an equation capable of getting to the heart of any human matter.
Each of these enchantments is firmly embedded in the structure of the Bible’s narrative arrangement, the one by design, the other by accident, and each is attached to a set of linguistic levers that automatically triggers wondrous mental gymnastic whenever the Bible is read.
These mental gymnastics are truly amazing feats of the human mind, and we shall take a moment at the end of the book to marvel at the lengths to which our imaginative capacities let us leap and tumble in the Bible’s big tent. Then, however, we will have to wonder aloud about the continuing value of the Bible’s guidance as we chart our global future. And the final question will be whether, given our moment in a postmodern world, we can continue our acrobatics on the Bible’s high wire without losing our balance.
And so the story begins. I an pleased that you’ve joined me in the venture.
Church of the Science of God
La Jolla, California 92038-3131
© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993