The story is simple. The facts fall into place like a well rehearsed production. In a stable in Bethlehem, Jesus of Nazareth was born to a Virgin. Tipped off by three Magi from the East, King Herod ordered the murder of all new-born infants, thinking one was to grow to challenge his kingship.
Warned, Mary and Joseph fled with their infant Jesus, and he survived. In His teenage years He is shown as a questioning boy, frustrated, asking things of the priests.
Growing to adulthood as a carpenter, at the age of thirty He went into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, where He purges Himself, witnessing demons and has His spiritual enlightenment.
He is then baptised in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. Collecting around Him Twelve Disciples, He spent three years preaching and healing the sick, passing on His message of love and the coming of the Kingdom of God, before entering Jerusalem.
Riding into the city on a donkey, along a carpet of palms, the attention of the authorities was placed on Him by his preaching and overturning of the stalls of the Temple. Wanted for sedition and blasphemy, a conspiracy is had, betrayed by His disciple, Judas, following a Passover feast where He gave bread and wine as symbolic of the body and blood of His person.
Refusing to deny He was the Son of God, He was crucified, yet three days later, He was Resurrected. Sacrificing Himself to take away the sins of man, He finally ascended to heaven after appearing before His disciples.
DID IT HAPPEN?
The story contains it all. The frustrated youth. The mental torment in the wilderness. The spiritual experience. The charismatic rising from His insecurities. The eccentricity of his three year mission. The scandal of his assault on the temple. The conspiracy of his betrayal. The fantastic death. The on-going Resurrection. And the later embellishments?
Rationally, we can doubt much of the story. His healings could be of psychosomatic illnesses, His raising of the dead Lazarus can be explained as sleeping sickness, people regularly being thought dead throughout history and suddenly coming round.
Jesus walked over water, or did He somehow hypnotically suggest that He had? The feeding of the Five Thousand could equally be a miracle of human sharing. Some researchers, such as Australian Dr Barbara Thiering, note the ‘pesher’.
Here a sentence can have two meanings - one for the public, another for the initiated. Thus, Jesus’ turning of water into wine becomes a miracle for the public, but to the initiated, it records the time when the Gentiles were granted the right to take communion wine.
Thiering is one of many researchers who feel that Jesus was an Essene, a member of a four thousand strong cult that occupied Qumran. All male, celibate, pacifist and ascetic, many of their idiosyncracies were reflected in Jesus himself.
It was the Essenes who are believed to have written the Dead Sea Scrolls, found by bedouins in caves close to Qumran in 1947.
However, even if we accept the above interpretations of the miracles - if we deny the Virgin Birth, the temptations by the Devil, the Resurrection - we are still left with a questioning, frustrated child approaching a form of insanity, saved by a spiritual experience, and becoming the charismatic on the road to social change, eventually dying a young, tragic death.
In Jesus we have the classic icon – and also the classic guru, much of this life pattern identical to them all. And we can also discover His life as an embodiment of His society and the requirement for change.
GOD AND JUDAISM
Jesus was a Jew, one of the Chosen People of Abraham, who had made a Covenant with the One God. Previous gods had been pagan and did nothing but reflect the idiosyncracies of the people who created them. But the One God was different.
Without personality, he intervened directly in human history in freeing the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery through his agent, Moses. Further, he placed upon the people the Ten Commandments, demanding obedience to a moral code.
For the first time in history, a God had intervened in human affairs directly and demanded a system of morality intrinsically linked with every event in a person’s life.
This made God invincible, but in the 6th century BC, the Babylonians destroyed the empire built by David and Solomon, thus proving their gods were more powerful than the One God and exiling the Jewish people.
The Jews returned to their Promised Land, but were never again to be a nation until 1948, and the creation of Israel. But if they were the Chosen People of the most powerful God, why had God punished them in this way?
TOWARDS THE MESSIAH
Coming in line with the birth of a tradition to analyse and redefine God’s words, the Jews came to two incredible conclusions. First, they had been chosen by God to suffer. Second, when the time for suffering was at an end, a Messiah would come to bring Paradise.
This was the intellectual tradition into which Jesus came. And we can see in Christ’s suffering a Messiah who embodied the suffering of the Jewish people. He was their society in one man. However, the Jews rejected Jesus as the Son of God.
But some Jews thought different. Principle among these was the future St Paul, the man who went on to define the Jesus Christ we know of. Fundamental to this process is the fact that Jesus actually said nothing new. The uniqueness of Jesus laid, not in His words, but in the fact that He lived the life He preached. And we can imagine Paul feeling that if a real Messiah could exist, this man would be it.
Although a Jew, Paul had had a Hellenic upbringing - a world where gods ruled in the old, pagan way. And we can see only a small step from thinking of Jesus living a Godly life to becoming an actual superbeing Himself.
Thus, Jesus is raised from humanity to the supernatural. He becomes a mythological Hero. And, as previously argued by many scholars, Paul’s inheritance had a model in the character of Herakles, or Hercules.
Like Jesus, Hercules had a divine father and human mother. An enemy sent snakes to kill him as an infant, but he survived. In life he became the ultimate expression of humanity to his culture, in that he acted as if superhuman.
He carried out the Twelve Labours of Hercules, the last three involving miraculous abilities, including descending to the underworld (death) to redeem the dead before returning to life. And finally, as his body burned on a funeral pyre, a cloud appeared amid a display of thunder and lightning. He was then taken up to heaven, granted godly status and became immortal.
The culture of Hercules may be different from that of Jesus, but the elements of the two lives are identical. And with Christ’s Resurrection, His Godly status guaranteed His Church would grow, thus transforming society.
However, by the 4th century another interpretation was placed on Christ with the Trinity, in which He became the Father (God), the Son (human) and the Holy Ghost (spirit) in equal measure. This idea was vital for his continuance to transform society. If Jesus had been a man and not God then His divinity is in doubt.
Further, to have said He was God but not really man would have made His suffering on the Cross irrelevant, for He would not experience pain like a man. And finally, if He was not spirit, then He was not presently with us and not relevant to contemporary life. So in absolute intellectual brilliance, a man becomes an icon – becomes three in one.
Is the above the true reality of Christ? I don’t know. It is simply how I rationally see it. Whether a Jesus existed or not becomes irrelevant to the ‘ideal’ which became The Christ – arguably a cultural and lasting iconic image.
Based within the mythological tradition of the Hero such as Hercules, He went on to embody everything a society stood for, thus becoming as one with the society. And finally, to guarantee His continued existence, the Trinity allows Him to be in society, but also above it, and forever with us.
I must add that it is not my intention, here, to question anyone’s peacefully held beliefs. This is simply my take on the subject – a subject that truly is the Greatest Story Ever Told.
© Anthony North, March 2008
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