Friday, February 06, 2015

How To Make The Bible Mean Whatever You Want It to Mean

In his Christmas column, the Guardian's tame religious pundit, Giles Fraser, asserts that Christianity is a radical, anti-establishment religion. Those in authority do not like it, because it involves the belief that there is a higher authority than the king. 

I think that this is probably the kind of thing you would expect a Church of England vicar writing in the Guardian to say. It's not completely true and it's not completely false. Historically, religion has been a tool in the hands of those in charge just about as often as it has been a thorn in their flesh. Fraser may think that conservative, establishment clerics are not true Christians. But they could say the same about him, and do, very frequently.

In support of his thesis, Rev. Fraser asks us to look at Jesus. As soon Jesus was born King Herod was trying to have him killed, because he could see that a divine king would be a threat to his earthly kingdom. And in the end, the Romans had the grown up baby-Jesus crucified because they saw his radical kingship as a threat to empire and emperor.

But wait a moment. How do we know that Herod tried to kill baby-Jesus? From the prologue to Matthew's Gospel. Wise Men from the East know that a king has been born because there's a new star in the sky; they head for the palace because that's a good place to look for a king; when there is no king there; they check out Bethlehem because that's where Jewish kings are usually born. Herod gets scared and orders a cull of all the babies in Bethlehem but baby-Jesus is whisked away to Egypt in the nick of time. The story isn't in Luke; it isn't anywhere else in the New Testament and it certainly isn't mentioned by any secular historian, even ones who hate Herod and would quite like to attribute a massacre to him. And it feels a bit too much like Harry Potter for comfort. The consensus is that it is not historically true. It's folklore, mythology: a story. (*)

Only the most tedious kind of pedant hears the question "How many sheep did Noah take onto the ark?"(**) and thinks that "None! Because there was no Ark and no Noah and no sheep! It's a made up story!" is a clever answer. It very probably is a story; but it's one of the stories which it is the job of Christian priests to tell and retell and explain. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that when Giles Fraser says "Herod tried to murder the child born in Royal David's city" we are supposed to hear an unstated "in the story..." at the beginning of the sentence. In the story Herod murdered the children because baby Jesus was a rival King. In the story Mary and Joseph ran away to Egypt. In the story the Romans killed Jesus because he was a subversive. 

Except that they didn't. Not in any of the four stories in the Bible. "In the story" it's the religious authorities who turn against Jesus: because he appears to be preaching sacrilege; because he appears to be threatening the Temple; because he was claiming to be Messiah without doing any of the things Messiahs are meant to do. "In the story" the the chief Priests, the teachers of the law, and the pharisees collude with Judas Iscariot to arrest Jesus. "In the story" they have to persuade the forces of occupation to have him killed. "In the story"—in one of the four stories, at any rate—the Roman Governor repeatedly says that he doesn't think Jesus has done anything wrong. 

So where does Rev. Fraser's notion that Jesus was killed by Romans for political reasons come from?

Some people are not content to just say "in the story". Some people want to read between the lines and infer what "must have" "really" happened. Some of those people think that the story in which the religious authorities had Jesus killed is an after-the-fact anti-Semitic slur. The story of Jesus being killed as an anti-Roman rebel is a bit of a hard sell if you are proselytizing in Rome. So someone (Constantine, probably: Giles Fraser blames everything on Constantine) came up with a different story, one in which the Jews are the baddies and the Romans are exonerated. Some people think it's a nasty story. It has certainly provided the pretext for a lot of anti-Semitism.

Let's reserve judgment about whether this theory is correct. Let's also hold back from wondering how you conduct an Easter service if you think the Passion story in the New Testament is a work of fiction, and nasty fiction, at that. The point which interests me right now is the ease with which a religious writer can move from talking about a story which is in the Bible, but which practically everyone thinks is folklore, to talking about a story which is not in the Bible but which some scholars think may be closer to what really happened, without giving the slightest indication that he's moved from one kind of story to another.

Perhaps Fraser himself regards the evidence for the "historical Jesus" as so overwhelming that he has long since discarded the Jesus of the Gospels in favour of the historical reconstruction. Perhaps, indeed, he has forgotten that there ever was any evidence: perhaps he has moved for so long in academic circles that to him "Jesus" means "the Jesus of historical reconstructions" and he has forgotten that it ever meant anything else. Maybe, when he looks at a passage which says "the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him" (Mark 14:1) he sees "the Romans realized Jesus was a threat to Imperial power." Maybe he's trying to throw some relatively benign dust in our eyes. Maybe he thinks that the story of how the Priests conspired with Judas to kill Jesus is so horrid that it can't be true. Perhaps he hopes that if he repeats the story about how the Roman's killed the revolutionary Jesus often enough, it will become the story which "everybody knows", in the same way that everybody knows that Three Kings followed the star to Bethlehem.  

Or perhaps his illustrations from the life of Jesus are really nothing more than blustering woo. Jesus is neither the character in the stories we have; nor the hypothetical figure historians think they can infer. He's just a place holder for "whatever Giles Fraser believes this week". Anti authoritarianism is good; Jesus is good; therefore Jesus is an anti authoritarian. No-one asks "what would Jesus do" unless they already know the answer.

It is this kind of thing which has caused so many of choir to which Fraser should be preaching to lose patience with the institutional church; even to the extent of muttering words like "post-evangelical" and "modernist". We have all, over the years, been told things by clergymen which couldn't possibly survive any even moderately engaged reading of the Good Book. This has made us suspect that some of them either haven't read the Bible (unlikely) or that they have read it but are relying on the fact that we haven't, and never will. This leaves us with an unpalatable choice between the crazies who have read the story and insist it all really happened, stars and whales and arks and all; and the professionals who were never very interested in the story to start with.  

(*) The Pope points out that in the first century, Bethlehem really was a Little Town. If it only had a population of a few hundred, then "all the babies" might only amount to five or six, not the thousands and thousands of later myths.
(**) Seven. Or possibly fourteen.

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