An Easter Reflection

I read this post on Dr. Bart Ehrman’s blog yesterday — twice as a matter of fact — and there is just no way I can skip it and not let it follow-up my own post April 1, 2018:  April Fool’s Everyone! Dr. Ehrman essentially echoes most everything I’ve posted and commented about Christendom, its very distorted and amputated history throughout its two millenia of existence, and how Christianity became the misguided monstrosity it is today. This is just too good to pass up. Therefore, I am simply going to repost what the acclaimed scholar wrote himself about Easter, or the modern myth that is the resurrection missing body of a Jewish reformer. Here is Dr. Bart Ehrman’s post:

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“It is highly ironic, but relatively easy, for a historian to argue that Jesus himself did not start Christianity.   Christianity, at its heart, is the belief that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought about salvation, and that believing in his death and resurrection will make a person right with God, both now and in the afterlife.  Historical scholarship since the nineteenth century has marshalled massive evidence that this is not at all what Jesus himself preached.

Yes, it is true that in the Gospels themselves Jesus talks about his coming death and resurrection.  And in the last of the Gospels written, John, his message is all about how faith in him can bring eternal life (a message oddly missing in the three earlier Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke).

These canonical accounts of Jesus’ words were written four, five, or six decades after his death by people who did not know him who were living in different countries, and who were not even speaking his own language.  They themselves acquired their accounts of Jesus’ words from earlier Christian storytellers, who had been passing along his sayings by word of mouth, day after day, year after year, decade after decade.   The task of scholarship is to determine, if possible, what Jesus really said given the nature of our sources.

Fundamentalist scholars have no trouble with the question.  Since they are convinced that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant word of God, then anything Jesus is said to have said in the Gospels is something that he really said.  Viola!  Jesus preached the Christian faith that his death and resurrection brought salvation.

Critical scholars, on the other hand, whether they are Christian or not, realize that it is not that simple.   As Christian story tellers over the decades reported Jesus’ teachings, they naturally modified them in light of the contexts within which they were telling them (to convert others for example) and in light of their own beliefs and views.   The task is to figure out which of the sayings (or even which parts of which sayings) may have been what Jesus really said.

Different scholars have different views of that matter, but one thing virtually all critical scholars agree on is that the doctrines of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection were not topics Jesus addressed.  These words of Jesus were placed on his lips by later Christian story-tellers who *themselves* believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead to bring about the salvation of the world, and who wanted to convince others that this had been Jesus’ plan and intention all along.

My own view is one I’ve sketched on the blog many a time before.  Jesus himself – the historical figure in his own place and time – preached an apocalyptic message that God was soon to intervene in history to overthrow the powers of evil and destroy all who sided with them; he would then bring a perfect utopian kingdom to earth in which Israel would be established as a sovereign state ruling the nations and there would be no more pain, misery, or suffering.  Jesus expected this end to come soon, within his own generation.  His disciples would see it happen – and in fact would be rulers of this coming earthly kingdom, with him himself at their head as the ruling monarch.

It didn’t happen of course.  Instead, Jesus was arrested for being a trouble maker, charged with crimes against the state (proclaiming himself to be the king, when only Rome could rule), publicly humiliated, and ignominiously tortured to death.

This was not at all what the disciples expected.  It was the opposite of what they expected.  It was a radical disconfirmation of everything they had heard from Jesus during all their time with him.  They were in shock and disbelief, their world shattered.  They had left everything to follow him, creating hardship not only for themselves but for the families near and dear to them – leaving their wives and children to fend for themselves and doubtless to suffer want and hunger with the only bread-winner away from home to accompany an itinerant preacher who thought the end of history was to arrive any day now.

This reversal of the disciples’ hopes and dreams then unexpectedly experienced its own reversal.  Some of them started saying that they had seen Jesus alive again.   In the Gospels themselves, of course, all the disciples see Jesus alive and are convinced that he has been raised from the dead.   It is not at all clear it actually happened that way.  The accounts of the Gospels are hopelessly at odds with each other about what happened, to whom, when, and where.  So what can we say historically?

One thing we can say with relative certainty (even though most people – including lots of scholars!) have never thought about this or realized it, is that no one came to think Jesus was raised from the dead because three days later they went to the tomb and found it was empty.   It is striking that Paul, our first author who talks about Jesus’ resurrection, never mentions the discovery of the empty tomb and does not use an empty tomb as some kind of “proof” that the body of Jesus had been raised.

Moreover, whenever the Gospels tell their later stories about the tomb, it never, ever leads anyone came to believe in the resurrection.  The reason is pretty obvious.  If you buried a friend who had recently died, and three days later you went back and found the body was no longer there, would your reaction be “Oh, he’s been exalted to heaven to sit at the right hand of God”?  Of course not.  Your reaction would be: “Grave robbers!”   Or, “Hey, I’m at the wrong tomb!”

Body of jesus the man

The empty tomb only creates doubts and consternation in the stories in the Gospels, never faith.   Faith is generated by stories that Jesus has been seen alive again.   Some of Jesus’ followers said they saw him.  Others believed them.   They told others — who believed them.  More stories began to be told.  Pretty soon there were stories that all of them had seen him alive again.  The followers of Jesus who heard these stories became convinced he had been raised from the dead.

Jesus himself did not start Christianity.  His preaching is not what Christianity is about, in the end.  If his followers had not come to believe he had been raised from the dead, they would have seen him as a great Jewish prophet who had a specific Jewish message and a particular way of interpreting the Jewish scripture and tradition.  Christianity would have remained a sect of Judaism.  It would have had the historical significance of the Sadducees or Essenes – highly significant for scholars of ancient religion, but not a religion that would take over the world.

It is also not the death of Jesus that started Christianity.  If he had died and no one believed in his resurrection, his followers would have talked about his crucifixion as a gross miscarriage of justice; he would have been another Jewish prophet killed by God’s enemies.

Even the resurrection did not start Christianity.  If Jesus had been raised but no one found out about it or came to believe in it, there would not have been a new religion founded on God’s great act of salvation.

What started Christianity was the Belief in the Resurrection.  It was nothing else.  Followers of Jesus came to believe he had been raised.  They did not believe it because of “proof” such as the empty tomb.  They believed it because some of them said they saw Jesus alive afterward.  Others who believed these stories told others who also came to believe them.  These others told others who told others – for days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, and now millennia.  Christianity is all about believing what others have said.  It has always been that way and always will be.

Easter is the celebration of the first proclamation that Jesus did not remain dead.  It is not that his body was resuscitated after a Near Death Experience.   God had exalted Jesus to heaven never to die again; he will (soon) return from heaven to rule the earth.  This is a statement of faith, not a matter of empirical proof.  Christians themselves believe it.  Non-Christians recognize it as the very heart of the Christian message.  It is a message based on faith in what other people claimed and testified based on what others claimed and testified based on what others claimed and testified – all the way back to the first followers of Jesus who said they saw Jesus alive afterward.”

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Here was my comment and question for Dr. Ehrman. He usually gets back to me within a quick, reasonable timeframe:

Dr. Ehrman, a wonderful summary of today’s meaning of Easter in modern Christian churches. Well done. Thank you.

As your colleague, Dr. James Tabor has studied, written and published, Paul/Saul and his Christology is a major force in spreading and growing the Gentile/pagan side of the “faith.” When I super-impose the full context of the Hellenistic Roman Empire and geopolitical and socioreligious infrastructure over and onto Second Temple Judaism and the Messianic Era, to me personally the gradual and eventual overshadowing (and eventual success) of Paul’s “Neo-Religion” opened up to all Gentiles, with several Greco-Roman ideals of Apotheosis, throughout the Empire (endearing the social classes struggling to survive — blossoming welfare system) takes on an entirely DIFFERENT form than Jesus the Reformer had ever intended! Notwithstanding Jesus’ true pure teachings/reforms, the new Gentile religion was too far gone, popular, and honestly distorted — particularly when the Jewish-Roman War wiped out so many of the outlying sects and those in Jerusalem by 70 CE! Which might have been some of Jesus’ very Jewish 2nd generation followers? Perhaps?

And I am utterly challenged to find out WHY did Paul go to Arabia for 3-years and WHAT was it that he learned there (about Jesus)? Because when Paul returned from Arabia he obviously had a different version of “the Way” and the Kingdom of God than the disciples and the Jerusalem Council had, yes? Any thoughts?

We’ll see what his response will be. Personally, I find Paul’s/Saul’s business in Arabia for 3-years to be very significant in better understanding why and how a floundering Jewish reform movement led by Yeshua/Jesus, suddenly took off 200-300 years later to become the Western Hemisphere’s primary religion. Who better to ask about that than one of the renown experts in biblical history and that era, right?

4-4-2018 Addendum — Here was Dr. Ehrman’s reply to my question:

“I don’t think he went into the deserts of Arabia to meditate, reflect, and develop his views. I think he went to the cities of the Nabatean Kingdom (then called Arabia) to begin his missionary work. He claims that he realized the significance of Jesus for Gentiles as soon as he had his vision.”

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Live Well — Love Much — Laugh Often — Learn Always

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The Suffering Messiah That Wasn’t Jesus

I recommend reading my earlier blog-post:  Constantine: Christianity’s True Catalyst/Christ before starting this one to gain a little perspective of 1st century Jerusalem under the Roman Empire’s sphere of influence, in particular the influence of Emperor Constantine.

The canonical-Gospel writers paint a different picture of Jesus’ life and death than what the surrounding historical traditions of the period paint.  Around most of Judaism’s various sects, including the Diaspora, and throughout post-Davidic traditions, the modern story of a suffering Messiah was supposedly unheard of until after Jesus’ death; a unique tragedy.  Most New Testament Christian scholars argue that a suffering Messiah was completely uncommon in the time prior to Jesus’ life or during his life.  Prior to Jesus’ birth in 4 BCE, claims as the Messiah or the arrived Savior/Redeemer of David’s oppressed people are mentioned in the Gospels, e.g. Matthew 24 and Mark 13, Luke 3: 14-16, 22: 66-68, 24: 46 and John 7: 42, and 12: 34.  It is inferred from these passages that Messianic expectancy was active and alive among all Jews for a very long time.  But not a suffering or crucified Messiah.  This was the apparent reason the canonical-Gospel Jesus was such a controversy during his life among fellow Jews.  This has been the traditional Christian view since the Apostle Paul’s first letters and public preaching.  But this is not the entire picture.

What isn’t widely known today is that there is strong evidence of at least two suffering Messiahs PRIOR to Jesus.  As a matter of fact, contrary to the Greco-Roman Gospel traditions, the story of a suffering Messiah was much more common around the empire and outlying trade routes than Constantine’s bishops would have been comfortable tolerating or allowing.

David Jeselsohn and the Gabriel’s Revelation Stone

Did you know that Flavius Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian that many Christian apologists reference, writes about two earlier Messiahs other than Jesus?  Simon of Peraea and Athronges were both claimants and both killed by the Romans.   Following the death of Jesus there were as many as four further claimants by 70 CE, then two more by 135 CE (see Wikipedia’s page on Jewish Messiah Claimants). Addendum — on May 25th, 2018 at 11:30am CDT, I revisited the above Wikipedia link/list and it has been noticeably rewritten and/or changed since May 2011. The most obvious, significant change is the removal of all (3-4?) Messiah-claimants prior to Jesus of Nazareth. Wikipedia does allow “anyone” in the world to edit its pages. Certainly do your own research, but I’ve found another link demonstrating Messiahs before Jesus. Click here or here for two links to begin your research, or go to any large public library.

Interestingly, Josephus names Roman emperor Vespasian as one of the Messianic claimants.  This unusual designation by a Jewish-Roman historian indicates an established trend of Rome’s ruling figures to keep strict control of outer provinces, including Judea, by any means necessary even if it meant hijacking their Messianic traditions and making it their own; something Constantine turned into reality 255 years later.  What is important to note here is in a region such as 1st century Judea and Jerusalem who constantly rebelled against their rulers in Rome, the context of those unsuccessful rebel-Messiahs were intentionally handled and later scripted with Roman interests in mind, NOT local Jewish interests.

Messianic traditions were not exclusive to Judaism.  The traditions already existed in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism, religions founded well before Constantine’s Christianity began.  This makes Messianic expectations in whatever form common and not unique by the time Jesus arrives in Jerusalem.  The last aforementioned religion is of particular interest.  Zoroastrianism was founded between 1500-1200 BCE by the Persian prophet Zarathustra in what is now modern-day Iran.  Many Antiquities and religious scholars trace ‘anointed King’ traditions back to Zoroastrian stories.  As the kingdoms of Judea and Israel were often conquered by near eastern empires then exiled to foreign lands, inevitably some of the victors beliefs and traditions are assimilated into each other.  This morphing is widely accepted by historians.  Dr. Abraham Valentine Williams Jackson, an American specialist on Indo-Iranian languages writes:

“The typical passage is found in the Hþtokht Nask (Yt. 22. 1-36; and compares Vistþsp Yasht, Yt. 24. 53-64). For the first three nights after the breath has left the body the soul hovers about the lifeless frame and experiences joy or sorrow according to the deeds done in this life. On the dawn of the fourth day the soul takes fight from earth…”

Note: compare this to the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday, and his resurrection on Monday (the dawn of the fourth day).

“The author has attempted in his article in the Biblical World to show how much the Messiah-idea in Judaism and the Saoshyant-idea in Mazdaism, probably taught by Zarathushtra himself, resemble each other.”

“The similarity between it (the Zoroastrian doctrine of the future life and the end of the world) and the Christian doctrine is striking and deserve more attention on the side of Christian theology, even though much has been written on this subject.”

Zarathustra, founder of Zoroastrianism, born approx 6th century BCE

American archaeologist and historian James H. Breasted found:

“There is plenty of evidence that the post-exilic religious development of the Hebrews was affected by the teachings of Zarathushtra, and that among the international influences to which the development of Hebrew morals was exposed, we must include also the teachings of the great Medo-Persian Prophet.”

“It was not until the rise of the Chaldean power (Neo-Babylonian) in the 6th century B.C. and the subsequent supremacy of the Persians after Cyrus, that the Babylonians disclosed outstanding intellectual interests and their noble astronomers laid the foundations upon which the astronomical sciences of the Greeks was later built up.”

English-born political philosopher John N. Gray and author of the book Near Eastern Mythology states:

“The Persians had their own mythology, or rather their own conception of the natural and supernatural order, formulated by the religion of Zarathushtra. This cosmic philosophy, influenced by Babylonian astronomy, had an effect on late Jewish thought and Messianic expectations.”

Writing down or documenting events was typically expensive and reserved mostly for select specialized individuals in 1st century Palestine and Judea.  Naturally, the spoken word or public speaking was commonly used regarding news-worthy stories or to do commercial business.  It is well established that the three common languages around 1st century Jerusalem were Greek (Roman), Hebrew (Jews), and Arabic (near eastern empires).  Jesus most definitely spoke Arabic and Hebrew, and likely knew enough Greek to get by (for further reading see Aramaic language-Imperial Aramaic).  It is conceivable that Jesus’ Arabian-Jewish heritage played a significant part in his own Messianic projection but also signifies that Messianic traditions were not exclusive to Judaism and equally likely they were brought to Judaism.

In July 2008 The New York Times released a news article Ancient Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection raising questions about the uniqueness of the traditional Christian Messiah, as well as the validity of the canonical-Gospel’s rendition of the resurrection selected by Constantine’s bishops.  When Antiquities collector David Jeselsohn purchased the tablet, he had no clue of its origins or implications.  The writing on the stone dates to the latter part of the 1st century during other Dead Sea literature of the time and prior to the birth of Jesus.  It is referred to as The Jeselsohn Tablet or Gabriel’s Revelation Stone.  The controversy among scholars of biblical archaeology lies in one specific line of the tablet.  National Geographic Expedition Week aired this episode about the tablet (below in two parts):

Go to this webpage for the next part Lessons from Another Messiah.  It could not be embedded here; my apologies.

It is important to keep in mind that after the three Jewish rebellions of 66-70 CE, 115-117 CE, and 132-135 CE much of the Hebrew speaking population of Judea was wiped-out and with it widespread spoken traditions of a Messiah.  From these fragmented remnants sprang the diverse earliest Jewish-Christians which eventually spread into an eastern empire social welfare system by the time of Trajan and on into Constantine’s reign.

With the exception of line 80 enough of the tablet is legible to know its meaning

With the combination of the Jeselsohn Tablet and the surfacing of original 1st century BCE Jewish Messianic traditions (e.g. Dead Sea Scrolls), it is becoming more clear that the Greco-Roman version of Christianity founded by Constantine’s bishops reflects only small portions of Judaic Messianism in its true eschatological forms.  What does this mean then to modern Christianity?

Dr. Israel Knohl of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (and in above videos) is part of a group of Jewish historians and theologians that concentrate on reestablishing Jesus’ Jewish roots, in particular to the teachings of Hillel, a 1st century BCE liberal Jewish rabbi.  Because of the linguistic dating of the Jeselsohn Tablet it falls nicely into place with Hillel, and probably well-known to an adolescent Jesus.  If the tablet does indeed end up predating Jesus (as of Sept. 2019 most scholars have determined it is authentic and it does predate Jesus) and the scientific community are able to determine that one “lost” Hebrew letter, the implications on traditional Christianity are profound on many levels.  The most significant of these effects would be on the resurrection and ascension of Jesus being based on an earlier Jewish Messianic story (Simon of Peraea) and not on any real events.  Other effects would be on Christian exclusivity, atonement, salvation, incarnation, the Holy Trinity, and the virgin birth…all misrepresented by Constantine’s bishops.  Dr. Israel Knohl describes it this way:

“This should shake our basic view of Christianity.  Resurrection after three days becomes a motif developed before Jesus, which runs contrary to nearly all scholarship.  What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story. … [Jesus’] mission is that he has to be put to death by the Romans to suffer so his blood will be the sign for redemption to come.  This is the sign of the son of Joseph.  This is the conscious view of Jesus himself.  This gives the Last Supper an absolutely different meaning.  To shed blood is not for the sins of people but to bring redemption to [the nation of] Israel.

This sheds new light on the messianic activity of Jesus.  It proves that the concept of the messiah was already there before Jesus. … This is evidence that the idea of a suffering messiah, put to death and coming back to life after three days was known to at least a group of Jews.”

Robert H. Eisenman

Due to the might and influence of the Roman Empire upon its conquered, uncovering the real roots of Christianity, or more accurately Jewish-Christianity, has been by the hands of modern-day science and academia.  In their acclaimed books James the Brother of Jesus by Robert H. Eisenman and The Lost Christianities by Bart D. Ehrman, both authors portray 1st century Jerusalem struggling to maintain its religious integrity while subjected to Messianic Zionism and Roman oppression.  After the deaths of Simon of Peraea, Anthronges, and Jesus the Nasoraean, religious historians know there was a group of Jews within and around Jerusalem that followed closely rabbi Hillel’s Messianic interpretations.  This group would have included Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, close followers/disciples of Jesus and siblings including next in command, James.  These Jews are sometimes called Ebionites.  They believed Jesus was fully human and a prophet or great teacher, but completely rejected the idea of Jesus as God or the Son of God.  It is these very Ebionites that the Herod-ian Jews of Palestine labeled as apocalyptic Messiah-militants and by extension not in the best interest of Rome.  And interestingly Eisenman connects the Herodian Saul’s denunciation of old school circumcision-Judaism in Galatians 3 and 6:12 — remarkably a coincidental “evil” twin of the “Opposition Movement” of Essenes, Zealots, Sicarii, Nasoraeans, and Ebionites referenced by Josephus documenting the Jewish revolts — as practically identical to Saul of Tarsus, aka the Apostle Paul to the Greek Christians that Roman bishops favored.  It is right there that the difference between Jewish-Hillel-Simon-Jesus Messianism begins to compete with a Herod-Paul-Ignatius-Tertullian-Constantine Christianity over two and a half centuries…and loses in the end to mighty Rome.  The birth, appetite and growth of anti-Semitism was then unleashed in its bloody ferocity.

Bart D. Ehrman

With a historically accurate perspective on 1st century Jewish Messianic traditions and the Roman armies’ destruction of the Jewish Revolts and near annihilation of its Messianic rebels, it is not unrealistic to conclude that by the 3rd century CE the original context and purpose of Jesus’ life and death took on an entirely different meaning.  As I mentioned in my earlier blog Constantine: Christianity’s True Catalyst/Christ, it was a customary Greco-Roman method to govern its foreign provinces by any means necessary, especially when your mission is to reunite the Eastern Roman Empire with the Western Roman Empire.  Whether the Jeselsohn Tablet proves that Simon of Peraea was the first real suffering Messiah or not, or the bishops of Nicaea either got it all wrong or purposefully deified their own version of a Christ (Greek Apotheosis) through their canonical-New Testament, there is enough real evidence showing that the gap between our modern Christ — birthed from Constantine’s unification program — resembles little of its supposed Messianic prophetic fulfillment in light of the real Jewish Messianic traditions prior to Jesus.

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