This cartoon is inspired by a book I just read.
Richard C. Miller’s new book came out, Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (Routledge Studies in Religion). I was excited and ordered it just in time to take on vacation with me to read on the beach. Personally, I love experiencing that delicious contrast of the ease of vacation with no responsibilities while reading a very heady book.
I wasn’t disappointed. It is an important work. Unfortunately, it’s expensive… after shipping I paid over $130! It is very textbookish. There are many languages in it, some of them translated and some of them not. In other words, it’s rather inaccessible. I’ve suggested to him that such an important work needs to be affordable and approachable for a wider audience. He agrees that should be the next step. I hope so. Soon, please!
I like Miller’s suggestion that this was done with the story of the so-called Jesus for a few reasons.
One is that it was typical. This is the way stories were told about exceptional people. Miller claims that the early Christian would have heard these stories and understood them fictively. He demonstrates, through a vast collection of selected readings, that the depictions of Jesus in the gospels, indeed in the whole New Testament, are typical of the mythic storytelling style of that period. Everything from miracles, missing bodies, mountain top speeches, ascensions, taken away in a cloud, dubious alternative accounts, immortal/heavenly body, bright and shining appearance, resurrection appearances, meeting on the road… the list goes on… are all frequently and popularly employed methods to convey a hero’s story. They would have read it fictively.
Secondly, it concerns influence… that there was a movement to make the story of Jesus the prominent and dominant one so that it would gain supremacy over the cultural movement of that time. The story of Jesus fits into the whole “mythologized cultural-political imagery and propaganda” of that era. “The liberal, near-whimsical variance between the early Christian foundation tales, not to mention their myriad of conventional fictive signals, indicated for the ancient reader a mythopoeic modality, however nuanced to form a distinctive ‘early Christian’ brand”. The story of Jesus was effectively embraced and promoted by clusters of early Christians that rapidly spread this new way of understanding history and being a community. Miller says, “The New Testament works were often subversive, but never seditious, in their endeavor to transcend the political structures of their day.”
Also, it is about power. It was useful to the church to canonize its selected mythic stories of Jesus in order to secure its authority to determine who was orthodox and who was heretical. I can’t say it better than Miller:
“The diversity of these texts (all early Christian narratives), rather, reflects the variety of (often competing) social contexts, literary functions, and measures of prolific creative freedom characterizing the Christianities of this nascent religion. From the most primitive periods of religion, one observes tremendous diversity and corresponding literary imagination, despite the later myth of unity created by centralized Roman ecclesiastical power and resultant endeavored reduction and control of a single Christian narrative of origins.”
”What was once viewed as an exciting, free-spirited array of movements and corresponding mythopoeic narrations came to be viewed as a cacophony of heresy and intolerable diversity. The ‘orthodox’ movement signified and held as sacred only those texts useful to the legitimization of that single trajectory of Roman ecclesiastical power; the remaining early Christian texts were to be marginalized, denigrated, or altogether banned. Over the course of three centuries (50-350 C.E.), by increasing degrees, diversity came to be labelled as deviance. The ‘orthodox’ bishops certified their own sacred texts as credible, while denigrating the sacred texts of other groups as heretical. The same socio-political process came to define not only ‘heretical’ literature, but ‘heretical’ doctrine, ‘heretical’ teachers, and ‘heretical’ communities.”
Miller provides some implications of his studies in his conclusion. His claim that he has “revealed the pronounced use of a stock cultural convention of divine translation, a distinct type of sacred legend commonly embellishing the biographic conclusions of the most celebrated, iconified figures of classical antiquity”… and that he has “demonstrated that this same linguistic convention, thinly wrapped with hybridic cultural adaptation, principally governed the New Testament postmortem accounts of Jesus”… will be disturbing for many.
He doesn’t feel it is wise or helpful to take the two popular, polarized extremes about Jesus’ story that it is literally true or that it is a hoax.
”Having shown the error of both extreme positions, that is, that the resurrection of Jesus was neither proposed as an historical reality nor peddled as an early Christian hoax, this study has found the authentic synthesis…: the early Christians exalted the founder of their movement through the standard literary protocols of their day, namely, through the fictive, narrative embellishment of divine translation. Acceptance of this understanding substantially reconciles the polarity of the discourse, yielding significant implications for these two until now disparate, mutually hostile groups.”
He feels there are two implications: religious and humanistic.
The religious implication is that “truth is the prize of the daring”. He offers that if the early Christians didn’t read the gospel narratives as historical fact, then why should we? Why should we hold these stories as factually credible when they didn’t? Miller claims that the “framing embellishments of the Gospels, contrary to most present-day biblical theologies, served to exalt the content being framed, namely, the philosophy embodied in the iconic portrayal of the founder, Jesus.” How can the philosophy suggested in those texts compete in today’s world? That’s the question and the religious implication.
The humanistic implication is that these Gospel stories are not the “sacrosanct possession of a major religious tradition”, but of all humankind. It belongs in the annals of our story. “To know human nature most deeply, one must become a student of the sacred.” Do these early texts, and does Christianity as a religion, contain an appreciation for humankind’s highest virtues and most noble ideals?
It was a wonderful experience plodding through this book and taking notes. It helped clarify and put words to my latent suspicions. In the spring of 2009 I had a dream that launched me on the contemplation and articulation of what I called “The Z-Theory”, where I have suggested some ideas about Jesus and the early Christian portrayal of him as they fit in an attempt at a unified theory of reality as it applies to religion.
Miller and I have conversed, and we agree he needs to follow up with a popular version. But save up and get this book. Order Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (Routledge Studies in Religion). It’s worth it because it contains all the references necessary to get a grasp of overwhelming evidence that supports his argument. I also feel this book is infinitely helpful for all of us, no matter where we stand philosophically, theologically or religiously, to approach a more agreeable understanding of Jesus and Christianity.
If you are deconstructing your beliefs, this book will help you do it perhaps more rationally. For me, this book came at just the right time.
This is the kind of stuff we sometimes talk about at The Lasting Supper… a place where you are free to express yourself and ask questions.