Thursday, April 02, 2015

How To Make The Bible Mean Whatever You Want It To Mean (2)

I promise this will be my last post about Giles Fraser. He writes substantially the same column every week, so I could continue writing substantially the same rebuttal indefinitely. And writing about this kind of thing forces me to adopt an attitude of piety which must be hysterically funny to anyone who knows me personally. I sure you would all rather be ignoring another Star Wars piece. 

But I did think his last one was a good example of the total intellectual bankruptcy of the liberal position, so I am going to have one last go at showing what my problem is with the guy.

There are a number of different ways of reading the New Testament. But I think it would be quite a good idea for anyone setting themselves up as an Expositor to pick one, say what it is, and more or less stick to it. At one time, I attended a Charismatic "house" church. They had a pretty clear approach. The Gospels, they believed, were accurate written accounts of stuff that really happened. They were also the inspired and infallible word of God, but what God had mainly inspired the writers to do infallibly was to accurately record what had really happened. Any honest writer would have written much the same. Thus: “Many learned people have used human wisdom to invent some reason why St John tells us that the miraculous drought consisted of 153 fishes. But in fact, God’s word tells us this because it is the number they actually caught.”

At almost the other extreme, I expect that by now we have all read Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. He thinks that the Gospels are stories — stories which Christians have instead of answers to hard questions about God and suffering. He says that he thinks that the story is true; but doesn't think that's really the point.

And obviously, people in olden times thought it was all allegorical. Five levels of allegory, only one of which was suitable for the Common People. And scholars have applied various criteria to try to construct (they admit that it's a construct) a figure called "the Historical Jesus". 

So: what is Giles Fraser's approach?

His latest piece is about Easter and Passover and Holy Communion. He thinks it is nice that Jews can be flexible about how they celebrate Passover, and that it's a shame that Christians are bound by strict liturgical rules when they celebrate the Eucharist. I get that. But when he starts talking about God and Jesus and the Bible and stuff, my head starts to spin, slightly. 

This year, in an unusual quirk of the calendar, Passover and Easter overlap, with the Jewish celebrations beginning on the day Christians call Good Friday. Though this is rare, it is unsurprising....


This is an odd way of putting it. For centuries Christians celebrated Easter on the date of the Jewish Passover, which ever day of the week it fell on. The decision that Easter Sunday should always fall on a Sunday, and that Good Friday should always fall on a Friday was made at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Fraser believes that for the last sixteen hundred and ninety years, the thing calling itself "the church" has not being following Jesus but a "death cult" largely invented by Constantine and promulgated at Nicea. So it's mighty interesting that he is so keen on Easter being at Passover and a bit suspicious of the Nicean “first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox” formula. 

– not least because the last supper that Jesus ate with his friends the night before he died was a Passover seder. “Do this in remembrance of me,” he told them.


Allow me to improve the above: 

"...not least because three of the Gospels say that the Last Supper was a Passover seder. The other one very definitely says that it wasn't.  'Do this in remembrance of me' he told them, according to one of the four."

It's not Giles' fault that the four evangelists don't agree. Most academics and many clergy would counsel against harmonization. But if you are going to merge four different stories into one composite version, sheer honesty requires that you signal to your audience that this is what you are doing. "We have four stories about the Last Supper. They don't agree on every point. But what seems to have happened is something like this..."


“Remember: Jesus wasn’t a Christian. But for the Christians that followed, he was re-described as the lamb sacrificed at Passover. “Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed for us,” says St Paul, taking his own Jewish theology of temple sacrifice and boldly, even offensively, applying it to a man who was strung up by the Romans as an enemy of the state."


This says a bundle. 

If Fraser is right here, John the Baptist never said "Behold the lamb of God..."; Jesus never said "the Son of man came to lay down his life as a ransom for many". If Fraser is right Jesus saw no connection between his own death and the Passover sacrifice. That was a wholly original idea, thought up by Paul. If Fraser is right, all the bits of the Gospels that talk about the Priests conspiring with Pilate to have Jesus killed — Judas and the arrest in the garden and the trial, pretty much our whole Easter narrative is fiction. This is not a matter of interpretation: Fraser is rejecting the story in the Gospels and offering us an alternative one. 

What does it mean to say that Jesus death was "re-imagined" as a sacrifice? If it means "Christians realized that the true, objective significance of Jesus' death could best be understood in terms of Jewish temple sacrifice (even though Jesus may never had said so in quite those words)" then Fraser and us Evil Constantianian Death Worshipers are pretty much in agreement. But if he means "Christians thought up the idea out of their heads, and its a pretty idea, even though obviously it isn't true, whatever 'true' means" then I think Fraser is... Well.... Not Christian. Something else. A heretic, and quite a boring one at that. Unless I am and he isn't. Or we both are. 

But let's not worry about orthodoxy. The point is that Fraser's arguments do not work on their own terms. The liberal case never does. 

Pay attention, please. This next bit is quite boring. 

There are four Gospels. One of them doesn't really have a "last supper" and if it does, it definitely isn't a Passover. So we can put that one on one side. Let's compare the three which are left. The bits which envisage Jesus death as a sacrifice and were therefore made up by St Paul I have deleted: 

Mathew: And as they were eating, Jesus took bread and blessed it, and break it, and gave it to the disciples, and said Take, eat, this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, Drink ye all of it, for this is my blood of the new testament which is shed for many for the remissions of sins."

Mark: And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them saying: eat, this is my body. And he took the cup and when he had given thank he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them: This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.

Luke: And he took bread, and gave thank and brake it, and gave unto them saying this my body which is give for you, this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup, after supper, saying "This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you."

The highlighted section "this do in remembrance of me", which Fraser thinks is the real deal, only appears in one version of the story: Luke's Gospel. If Fraser is correct that this is the important bit, then Matthew and Mark totally missed the point of what was going on. And, in fairness, Luke says, more or less in so many words, that he doesn't like the other Gospels and is offering his as an improvement on them. 

So: stripped of the Pauline additions you are left with something like: 


And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them saying: This do in remembrance of me. And he took the cup and when he had given thanks he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. 

That's what "really happened".

Except...except...except...

The oldest account of the Last Supper doesn't come from the Gospels. It comes from Paul. (Luke was a mate of Paul's — at any rate he wants us to think he was.) And what does Paul say that Jesus said?  

For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread: And when he had given thanks he break it, and said, Take: eat, this is my body, which is broken for you. This do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when had supped, saying This cup is the new testament in my blood, this do ye, as oft as ye drink it in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup ye do shew the Lords death til he comes

How does Paul know about the Last Supper? He wasn't there. He did meet some of the disciples who were there, but he doesn't say that they mentioned it. He says he knows about the Supper because God told him. It's very hard for us to get our heads round the fact that for Paul the fact that he didn't hear about Jesus from eye-witnesses but from the resurrected Jesus makes things more reliable, not less. But he does. God told Paul that Jesus said that his death was a sacrifice and the wine and bread were in some way his blood and body. And God also told Paul that Jesus said "do this in remembrance of me". Presumably, Paul told his mate Luke and Luke put it in his Gospel. Very possibly the other writers knew Paul's version of the story as well. On what basis should we treat one part of Paul's version as simply what happened; and another part as something which Paul made up?

Fraser talks as if you can strip away layers of Christian theology about Mass and Sacrifice and symbolically eating Jesus’ body; and get to the Original Last Supper, which was just Jesus sharing Passover with his friends. But you can’t. If you scratch the surface of Matthew, Mark and Luke what you get to is Paul. If Paul was wrong about Jesus being the Saviour then everyone is wrong about everything and always has been. 

And then, further down, Fraser lays the cards which he has been palming very firmly on the table: 

For it remains the central task of the church to channel a story of massive emotional power, a story in which the freedom meal of Passover inspires an extraordinary act of non-violent resistance against the brutality of Roman occupation.


I think that the reason that Matthew, Mark and Luke place the Last Supper specifically at Passover is to underline the theological point that Jesus was the Lamb of God. Fraser thinks that it was historically factually a Passover meal. It may have been that as well. I'm more inclined to think that John is the one who sticks to the original historical sequence of events. He, Fraser, then invents off the top of his head something which isn't remotely hinted at in the Gospels or Paul or any Christian source: the idea that this meal “inspired an act of resistance against the Roman empire”? 

What happens in the story is that Jesus is arrested; tried for blasphemy by the religious authorities; and his death warrant is reluctantly rubber stamped by the secular governor. Yes, the story says that the religious authorities say “oh, didn’t we mention, he’s calling himself a King, sounds pretty anti-Roman to me” and that Pilate snarlingly hangs a sign saying “Jewish King” on the gallows, but the story says that Pilate didn’t know who Jesus was, didn’t think that he’d done anything wrong and wanted to let him off.

In what way can Jesus be said to have engaged in "non-violent resistance"? What revolution is the Last Supper meant to have inspired? How did it mitigate Roman brutality? Please don't tell me that Fraser believes in that old conspiracy theory about Jesus arranging his own crucifixion with the idea that the sight of a crucified messiah would cause all the Jews to rise up in rebellion against the Romans, but that the whole thing backfired horribly and the survivors had to come up with a story to make a macabre cock-up look like a great victory. Bigger men than him have made asses of themselves over that one.

Into this story is folded a dramatic re-imagining of God not as some alien force hovering above us, but as a human being fully alive, yet prepared to give of his life in the battle against inhumanity and darkness.


The Creed says For us men and our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man. I agree we could lose the “men” part; and apparently biologists still get confused by the “down” part; but I think most of us understand what this is saying whether we believe it or not. Is "God is re-imagined as a human being" a Guardian-friendly way of saying the same thing, or does it mean something different? 

Fraser’s words could be understood to mean that he does not believe in the incarnation as a thing which happened (God became a man) but thinks of it in terms of a change in the way people decided to think about God. But if what happened was that humans said “Let’s stop using the word God to refer to the unseen force that made the universe and use it instead to refer to exceptionally good human beings, such as, you know, that chap who tried to start a revolution and got crucified, what was his name?” then I struggle to see why we are even bothering to talk about Jesus. 

Again. It is possible that "prepared to give his life in the battle against inhumanity and darkness" is just a less vivid and less dramatic way of saying that there was none other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in. But I very much fear that the "inhumanity and darkness" that Jesus gave his life for are merely the “inhumanity and darkness” of the nasty Roman empire — and by extension, whatever nasty political entity Fraser is worried about this week --  the City of London, fracking, the Internet etc etc etc. 

That would be my guess. I would guess that he believes that Jesus was a radical political thinker; that the Last Supper was in some sense a revolutionary call to arms; that the Crucifixion was in some obscure way an act of defiance against the political evil of the Roman empire; and that when Christians call Jesus "God" they are not saying that he is "God" — that would be ridiculous. They are merely saying something like "a radical lefty being tortured by a fascist state is in some sense the most admirable and praise-worthy thing it is possible to imagine."

Many years ago I attended a lecture by Don Cupitt at the University of York. Cupitt said nothing very interesting. When he had finished saying it, a friend of mine named Matt, who would have been leader of the Student Anarchist Society if the Student Anarchist Society believed in having leaders, raised his hand and said the following words. 

"I agree with nearly everything you have said this evening, but I do not understand why you put in terms of all this reactionary Christian bullshit."


I agree that you should respect and revere prisoners of conscience and people being killed for their beliefs. Many people think that in Mandela or MLK we find the best of the human race. Looking back at a story about how your community escaped from tyrants in the past is a very good way of inspiring them to escape from tyrants in the future. And I suppose it is just possible that letting a tyrant kill you in the most horrible way possible is a powerful way of winning the moral argument. (Me, I'm with Salman Rushdie on this one. I don't think letting the authorities torture you is the best form of revolution. I do think that that may be just what the authorities would like revolutionaries to believe.)

But all of that could be said in plain English. In a very real sense, what  do people like Fraser think is gained by putting it in terms of all that reactionary Christian bullshit?

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