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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Did they or didn't they?

Are Adam, Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and Jesus Christ historical figures? In short, did these individuals ever really exist as people? "Of course, they did!" many of my Fundamentalist friends will quickly answer. However, in recent years, several scholars have suggested that the answer to these questions is NO! (see Gavin Rumney's latest post entitled "No Mo?" at Otagosh and The New Zealand Herald article on which it is based by Andrew Brown entitled "Moses - more a myth than a man?" at http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11366715; see also the Salon/AlterNet article by Valerie Tarico entitled "5 reasons to suspect that Jesus never existed" at http://www.salon.com/2014/09/01/5_reasons_to_suspect_that_jesus_never_existed/)

According to the Gospel of John, when Christ was on trial before Pilate, the Roman governor asked the rhetorical question "What is truth?" (John 18:38) It seems to me that this might be a good question for all of us to ask ourselves in attempting to answer the question posed by this post.

We humans have a tendency to oversimplify most issues (it helps us to cope and attempt to understand things). For instance, we like to classify our literature as fiction or non-fiction. In this regard, most of us would classify historical or scientific works as being non-fiction (even though such works can, and often do, contain factual errors). Likewise, we tend to relegate novels like Moby Dick, The Grapes of Wrath and Centennial to the fiction section of our libraries.

We say that Ishmael, Captain Ahab and Moby Dick are fictional characters that never existed despite the fact that Herman Melville spent a considerable amount of time aboard two whaling ships and based his novel on the true story of the Essex (a ship that was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820 - see http://www.biography.com/people/herman-melville-9405239#moby-dick). Hence, we would do well to consider how much of both these characters and their stories are based on real people and actual events. Moreover, it is obvious that one of Melville's central themes in this novel is an examination of man's struggle with nature. Thus, we could also ask ourselves: How much truth is there in his musings on that topic?

We can make similar observations about the other two novels mentioned above. We could dismiss the Joad family and their hardships as fictitious; but we would do well to ask ourselves the question: How many American families experienced the same kinds of trials and tribulations during the actual events of the Dust Bowl years? Also, is it possible that Steinbeck captures some profound truths about man's inhumanity to man, the value of family and the way that our actions can impact others in this work of fiction? Likewise, although Michener's Centennial, Colorado was a fictional place, many of the events depicted in the book by the same name reflect actual historical events related to the territories of the Western United States. We also know that there were many people like Pasquinel, McKeag and Clay Basket in the real-life stories about the settlement of these areas. Is it possible that James Michener captured some of the truth about the interconnectedness of the human story and our shared history in the pages of his novel?

While it is easy for most of us to acknowledge that these works of "fiction" can contain profound truths, many of us seem unable or unwilling to do the same for the Bible. Think about it. How does it detract from our appreciation of the Bible to acknowledge that the characters of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob may be based on different aspects of a single individual or the unrelated progenitors of different tribes of people? Does it negate the Bible to acknowledge that the "person" of Moses is most likely an amalgamation of several different actual people? Do we dismiss the story of the Exodus from Egypt because it is probably based on the memory of a time when the hill country of the Levant was dominated by the Egyptians? Is the folk memory of that time as a period of slavery truly inaccurate? Is it possible that an Egyptian (maybe even someone named Moses) played some role in leading the people who became Israel through the period of turmoil and transition after the Egyptians withdrew from the Levant? And doesn't Christ's repeated references to Moses offer some validation to the Jewish conception of the man? (And I'm not necessarily saying that Christ endorsed the historical existence of a single individual named Moses in making this point.)

I have also discussed the importance of perspective before on this blog. How does this relate to the "truth" of the Bible? Please allow me to use an episode from my own family's story as an illustration. My grandmother and her siblings viewed her father as an adulterous, self-centered man who abandoned his family (he did have an extra-marital affair and my great grandmother did divorce him and move the family away from their former home because of it). However, the children from her father's second marriage viewed that marriage as the product of two people who loved each other very much fighting against extraordinary odds to be together (my great grandmother could be a difficult person to live with, and my great grandfather's second wife was trapped in an abusive marriage to a much older man at the time of her affair with him). Which version of our family's story is true? I would say that both stories have the ring of truth about them - depending on the perspective of the person telling the story. In short, what we see as false or unimportant is often regarded as vital truth by another.

Nevertheless, it does seem to me that the question of Christ's existence demands a stricter standard for Christians than some of the other elements of the Biblical narrative. He is, after all, purported to be the founder and standard of the religion that bears his name.

However, when I consider the "reasons to suspect" that he never existed, this writer is thoroughly unimpressed by this line of scholarship. For instance, it does not seem conclusive to me that there is little corroborative evidence of Christ's existence from contemporary First Century historical accounts. If we take the New Testament narrative about Jesus at face value, we would have to conclude that he was regarded by the Roman and Jewish elite of that day as an obscure, unimportant, heretical Jew who espoused dangerous ideas that could have led to serious unrest within the province. In fact, the setting of the Jesus narrative does seem to confirm much of what we know of the religious, political and cultural situation of the time from those contemporary sources available to us.

It is also not surprising that the details of Christ's life would be largely unfamiliar to his followers (they weren't in the habit of publishing too many biographies or autobiographies at that time). Likewise, under all of these conditions, it is easy for me to understand that the events of his life would not have been recorded until after he had gained some fame and a wider following (which the Gospel accounts make clear that he did not enjoy during his lifetime). The desire for these details would have been natural, and it would also have been very natural for the leading men in the community to gather the stories that had been handed down orally by their predecessors to satisfy that interest. Moreover, the documentary evidence suggests that the gospel accounts were probably based on earlier writings (which many scholars concede may have been penned by eye witnesses).

Although the Gospel accounts display a remarkable degree of harmony, it is foolish to deny that there are some glaring contradictions present within them. For me, however, the presence of these contradictions suggest real memories and different perspectives of actual events and people.

Finally, the fact that modern scholars portray the "real" Jesus as "wildly different persons" is not surprising. Important figures of more recent times have been portrayed in very different ways (e.g. Jefferson, Lincoln, Patton, Roosevelt, Nixon) by a variety of scholars. Indeed, all of the prominent figures of history have evoked a great deal of debate over their motives, feelings and "true" natures. Hence, it is not surprising to me that the founder of one of the world's great religions would be portrayed in a variety of ways.

Nevertheless, for Christians, the historical existence of a person named Jesus or Moses can never occupy the central place in our belief systems. In the end, religious beliefs are a matter of faith - the acceptance of things that cannot be felt, seen, heard, tasted or smelled. I believe in Jesus Christ because I have found forgiveness and comfort in his religion, and because many of my prayers in his name have been answered to my satisfaction. I understand that this does not constitute historical proof of his existence, but it is enough for me. Moreover, I do not find the central arguments of those who would dismiss him as myth very plausible or convincing. What do you think?

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