Today is Easter Sunday which for Christians is the most holy day of the year. But have you ever asked yourself what the word Easter means? There is no apparent connection to Christian belief. I had no clue either until a few moments ago when I looked it up in my handy dandy Webster’s. It says: “word history: The word Easter . . . had its origins in pagan times. Eastre or Eostre the Old Germanic English spelling of Easter, was originally the name of a Germanic goddess who was worshiped at a festival at the spring equinox. Her name is closely related to Latin aurora and Greek eos, both of which mean “dawn.” Easter is also derived from the same root word as east, the direction of the sunrise. The Easter Bunny is another story entirely and for another time.
Theologian scholars have provided us with a plethora of information of where modern Christianity formed its holy days. Christmas is a fabulous example of this as those same scholars seem to universally agree that Jesus was born in the spring and not when we celebrate his birth. Early Christians, the early Roman Church in particular, were wont to end what they saw as pagan practices, in this case the pagan holiday of Saturnalia. I make mention of these two well-accepted facts as evidence the early Christian church was extremely interested in co-opting paganism, and thereby killing it off, than historical accuracy.
Conservative Christians of today have the unnerving tendency to use the Bible as their sole source for information about the ancients. But the truth is, there exists far more than those texts. For example, there are the Dead Sea Scrolls which refer to daily life and customs at the time of Jesus. Even though they were discovered in 1946, a complete and accurate description and final translation of them in far from finished. Still, they provide us with a very different view from that of the New Testament.
And this brings me to the time of Jesus. Was Jesus the son of God, something He never actually says himself but infers heavily, an angel of God, which would be very much in keeping with ancient Hebrew beliefs, or simply a great prophet? Maybe He was all three. But what we know of Jesus seems to fall far short of what we would like to know. For example, he is born, secreted to Egypt for fear of his life, disappears entirely for 12 years at which time he shows up at a Temple and declared a rabbi. Then he disappears again entirely for another 18 years for which we know nothing. And even those final three years of his life the “facts” given are quite thin and many beg for clarification.
As a degreed historian, I can say with authority that such books as the Gospels are to be placed in the category of folk lore. And this is not to say that folk lore in either unreliable or untrue, but as folk lore exists, it must be, in this case, assigned to stories of faith. The veracity of such stories must be questioned. But as with anything of the sort, there is likely truth to them as well.
Many books have been written about the “Historical Jesus.” I have seen a few and as books go they vary in veracity. That is, the ability of the author to keep his personal views and his prejudices apart from his writings is not always complete. Even so, they are attempts to find the real face of Jesus. In this respect I will add my own perspective which I can guarantee you are entirely prejudiced by my own views and are only my own view of this great and historic man.
One final thing; we also know for certain that the Gospels of the New Testament date back, at best, to 60 years after the death of Jesus. They are also written in Greek, not the native tongue of Jesus which was Aramaic. This means, just on the face of it, that a translation was made from one language to the other. And regardless of whether it was translated from one written language to the other or, worse, one verbal retelling to the other, translations from disparate languages speak to the astuteness of the translator to understand what he is translating. Historically, societies kept people who were customs keeper, story tellers, to insure a record of their being and beliefs was passed forward. Such existed even to the early parts of the American experience in the 17th and 18th century. The most valuable, and recognized as likely to be correct, is the first hand eye witness account of events. But these stories were usually, and at best, second hand. With regard to the life of Jesus, those original stories are second hand at best. But people of faith with tell you, rightfully so, that his was a mission of faith and thus the stories of his life must be viewed in the same light.
I find it curious in the presentation of the Gospels the claim that Jesus said he had not come to change the law, the ancient Mosaic Law is what he was referring to. But soon after when He is questioned as to the “eye for an eye” taken of the Old Testament, he responds with “turn the other cheek.” It seems to me that is a direct contradiction and changing of the law. I think the New Testament is replete with inconsistencies in logic, sometime from one verse to the next. There exist too many mixed messages and incomplete thoughts. Did Jesus actually expand upon such thoughts at much greater length? I think it reasonable to say that He most certainly did, and probably many times over. But such lengthy, and probably more enlightening thoughts, are lost to the ages because they were not transcribed as they were being pronounced.
Jesus was by all accounts a radical of His day. He struck fear into the established religious leaders of the day. Why? He was, contrary to what the Gospels claim, turning old Jewish law on its head and providing His followers with a completely new way of looking at things. He advocated peace. He was the first historical figure to suggest the separation of church and state when he said to give to Rome which is Rome’s and to God which is God’s. He advocated for the poor suggesting in his story of the good Samaritan, that those of means give half of what they own to the poor. He very pointedly stated that man was by his very nature a sinner and that time best spent was that in bettering himself rather than pointing out the shortcomings of another. And to that point, Jesus never once condemn anyone to hell, as modern evangelists like to do. For that matter, he never mentioned the place which would have been in keeping with Jewish tradition which had, and still has, no heaver nor hell.
His actions suggest that He actively sought to modify ancient traditions. Baptism, as He underwent with John, was nothing new. It was the symbolic cleansing of the spirit. It also was not done with children but with adults who were ready to admit their sins and ask to be cleansed. But if Jesus were God it is impossible that He had sinned so why do it? Quite simply because he understood extremely well the role of the leader. He knew that charisma, which He had in spades, was the manna which fed the souls of those who chose to follow His teachings. I think it entirely possible that Jesus was proposing the ideal of spiritual health over religious dogma. He did, after all, seek out the dregs of his society and only asked of them that he believe in His teachings. Not once is he heard to say that a man must attend the temple and must contribute monies to keep His church healthy. Why do you suppose that was? Is it possible He believed a church was truly inside a man and not within four walls?
In the time of Jesus, and for most of the centuries which have followed, women were second class citizens relegated to the rear of the temple and denied any say what-so-ever in its conduct. Unfortunately too much of that exists today. And so enters the most misunderstood character of the New Testament, Mary Magdalen. The early Christian Church had absolutely no idea of how to handle her existence in the presence of their messiah but she was mentioned in the Bible so they also could not ignore her. Certainly, they thought, Jesus looked upon this woman as they did, a woman of low moral character who only came to beg for forgiveness and her penance was to wash His feet with her hair. The problem with such a telling is that it bears no relationship to the truth. That truth is theologians have never found a woman of that name or conduct. But they have found a similar woman, or possibly several women, who can account for that personage. Likely Mary was a woman of means who had been moved by Jesus’ ministry. Maybe she was a woman from Samaria, people seen as only slightly better than the brutal Romans and equally hated. But for her to seek audience with a rabbi, a man of such stature and position was unthinkable at that time and for many centuries to follow. But Jesus, being who He was, denied no one for any reason. And I suggest, and I think it likely, she, along with several other women, became one of His Apostles. Remember, at the end of His crucifixion it was only the women who saw to His removal from the cross, transportation, preparation, and final burial in the tomb. No man, certainly no apostle, was anywhere to be found. You ask, if they were truly Apostles why not mention it? Simple, it was an “inconvenient truth.”
A rather famous atheist, Dr. Isaac Azimov, most well-known for his science fiction writings, but also a professor of bio-chemistry at Boston University, made an interesting observation about the writing of the New Testament. He noted that the Aramaic language in the day of Jesus had around 5000 words. Today’s English language, in contrast, has over one million. He observes that the Aramaic word for virgin is identical for the word for young girl. Does this suggest the early Christian Church’s aversion to the discussion of sex? I think it extremely likely. How would the historical figure of Mary as something other than a virgin square with the telling of the birth of Jesus? It would have necessarily meant that Mary had engaged in sex with Joseph. I think it likely the church desired nothing less than something which could be passed off as miraculous. And a virgin birth suited their interest. They also do not mention Mary’s age, which could have been as young as 12 and Joseph as a man who could have been well into his 50s. Not unusual in those days.
But back to Jesus. To the established high ranking Jews of the day, Jesus appeared a threat to their power. We know for fact that Rome had absolutely no interest in the crucifixion of Jesus, to the contrary. The ministry of Jesus had suggested radical changes to long standing beliefs of the Jews but never once challenged the power of Rome. And the ultra-conservative Jews of the day simply could not stand for that. I am suggesting that this ancient Jesus was in fact seen as some sort of liberal reformist who was bringing needed change to old conservatism, a conservatism which was contrary to the best interest of the Jewish masses. But that would have meant the illuminati of the Jewish religion would have had to accept changes. That is something to this day conservatives find difficult if not impossible.
When Jesus died his Apostles and other disciples were at a loss for what to call themselves and they saw themselves, justifiably or not, as out-casts of accepted Jewish society. For a long time afterwards they simply referred to their religion as “the way.” The idea of calling themselves Christians had not yet formulated. Those early follower quickly moved away from Israel, a place they knew they would be persona non grata, first to Turkey and then to Greece and finally Rome. But it is also likely that these early leaders of the church were illiterate. The only formal education of the day existed strictly for the rich and those who devoted themselves to become Rabbis. Scribes were probably the only exception that, they being drafted into such a career by the ruling class. The Apostles could neither read nor write but such was not a part of their mission. None had come from background of what we might see as middle class. All are shown as being from the most humble of means. And a few, like Peter, were shown to be fairly rough and tumble. It is my belief that scribes were at some point enlisted to write down what had been witnessed by the Apostles, and others, as custom dictated. But the scribed did not write the New Testament!
When eventually these people arrived in Greece, a truly enlightened and literate society, those Greeks who embraced this earliest form of Christianity, ensured the survival of the faith buy putting it into print. But whoever they were had to immediately been confronted with the problem of the translation from Aramaic to Greek, which is where we derive our present day texts. If in history there ever was a more meaningful time for the expression “lost in translation,” this was it! It stands to reason that certain words either translated poorly or not at all from the original Aramaic to Greek. I can almost hear the conversation of the person from Israel trying to explain the concept, the word, he is expressing to his Greek counterpart, and finally the two agreeing upon a word the more or less expresses the thought. There is no way to know how much of that happened but it is a certainty that it did. And furthermore, what if one Gospel, say that of Matthew, had very differing views of events from that of Luke or John? How would they deal with that. Could it be that they simple chose the one which showed Jesus in the most favorable light? Or could it be that they allowed their own prejudices in and chose the one which most suited them. We will never know but it can help explain how four men who supposedly witness the life of Jesus gave differing versions. If I were a man on that day and was sitting down to lunch with Jesus, at some point I would certainly ask what he did before he started his ministry. Such a story would be immensely fascinating. Was such a story told but the early authors could not see the value of including such references?
But does this also explain the large gaps which exist from one Gospel to the next. This birth of Jesus is related at length in only one, so why not the others? Were they simply edited out? Did one story contradict the other leaving the Greek and Aramaic writers left to choose one telling of the other? The same thing happens at the death of Jesus. Also, were there records of Jesus’ ministry that were viewed as uncomplimentary which were left out for that reason? Remember, Jesus did have a fit of violence when he threw the money men from the temple. Which bring about the question as to why that is the only story from his birth to age 30? Also, did Jesus’ retreat to the desert for reflection really last for 40 days or was that a number of convenience because it squared with other 40 days incidents of the Old Testament, Noah in particular. And remember, the time from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday is also 40 days. Forty was a magical number in those days as was the number 13, the 13 generations of the house of David being one.
Modern day Christian fundamentalists have co-opted Jesus to their own selfish beliefs. They love literal translations and have little problems chastising anyone who suggests anything different. Today’s compelling argument for them is their anti-gay theme comes from Jesus saying that a man should not sleep with another man. They have not considered the fact that it was common practice in those days for men who led caravans to take along with them young boys with whom they would have sex and feel they have not violated their marriage vows. Could this have been what Jesus was speaking of and that He, being God and being fully aware of the gay people of his day, had been referring to pedophilia and not homosexuality? I think that to be much more likely.
I absolutely believe that Jesus would have a lot of problems with those who use their religious beliefs in the conduct of their political desires, ergo his give unto Rome that which is Rome’s admonition. I suspect the writers of our Constitution felt the same. I also believe that Jesus would have serious problems with the top 1% of wealthy today. He might refer such people to his saying what profit a man who gains a kingdom and loses his soul. He might ask them if they believe that what they practice is what He taught. And while I am certain he understood that wealth had its place, he repeatedly spoke of being generous with such wealth. He spoke of casting the first stone, turning the other cheek, treating others as you would want to be treated, judging as you would want to be judged, and absolute kindness and understanding.
If I were a part of the conservative right in this country, I would fear His saying to me, “you have already received your reward and now you will be judge harshly just as you did the least of my brethren.”