I’m old and my mind is going. Too much drugs, too much useless information clouds my brain. Which is why a lot of common knowledge straight up misses me.
As you are aware, I’m a nerd for New Testament/Early Christian history. Am I a Christian or a religious person? Not really, but I don’t understand the question enough to give a definitive answer (remember, my mind is going). I simply obsess over 1st Century Christianity because, as Bart Ehrman asserts, it might just be the most important era in Western History (I disagree. I think it’s the second most).
Unfortunately, there’s just not enough concrete information to definitely say what happened during Jesus’s real life ministry. Of course, speculating is part of the fun, but it’s also a curse. Because there’s so many gaps in the timeline, this invites a multitude of con artists and conspiracy mongers to perpetuate fabricated stories.
Which brings me to the “Secret Gospel of Mark”.
The actual Gospel of Mark, the one we have in the New Testament, is quietly the most important text in Western thought. I say this because the Gospels are certainly more widely read than something like Plato’s Republic, and Mark is the Gospel that Matthew and Luke based much of their texts on (the other source they both used, the hypothetical Q source, I would argue the author of Mark was familiar with as there are too many similarities…which would make Q the most important text. But Q remains hypothetical). Mark is therefore the oldest surviving account of Jesus’s life (the oldest surviving Christian writings, however, are the seven verified Epistles of Paul, with 1st Thessalonians being the oldest).
Now, there are A LOT of questions for Mark. Too many to recount here. It is the barest of the four canonical Gospels with plenty of peculiarities.
But what if someone credentialed allegedly came across evidence to fill in these gaps?
Enter Morton Smith, a Ph.D from Hebrew University and Th.D from Harvard Divinity, and professor of ancient history at Columbia University. Pretty impressive right?
I was made aware of this story when reading Ehrman’s Lost Christianities. I’ve never heard it before and I was shocked at my ignorance. Now Ehrman is probably the leading academic in the field of Early Christianity, and even he doesn’t quite know what to make of this story.
Briefly, Smith claimed to have found a lost letter from Clement of Alexandria, an early Christian theologian, which describes a variant of the Gospel of Mark and even provides a couple of passages. And boy oh boy! What passages they were!
The problem is that, allegedly, this lost letter was transcribed in the 18th Century, and Smith couldn’t provide the copy because it was property of a monastery in Jerusalem. He DID, however, provide photographs of the letter and scholars have determined that these writings were indeed in the style of Clement and Mark (and the handwriting was also of 18th Century style).
Additionally, Ehrman recalls a story of hearing another academic claiming to have seen the letter himself, despite the library still refusing to permit research into it. So, it’s safe to say that this letter genuinely existed.
Whether or not it was written in the 18th Century is a different story.
You see, because if there was one person on this planet that could have forged that document…well enough to fool many academics…Morton Smith was that man. And, apparently, he had a motive to do so (see Ehrman’s Lost Christianities).
For the record, I think the letter is a total, unambiguous forgery. Too good to be true+motive+means=bullshit. But I gotta tip my hat to Smith.
Every bullshit artist knows that eventually they’ll get caught in the lie. But the trick is to leave a shred of doubt. And Morton Smith either made the discovery of the millennium, or the greatest forgery of all time.
The Last Temptation of Christ unsurprisingly stuck with me. Usually when I complete a novel, I think “hmm, that was nice” and I move on to the next thing. But Kazantzakis’s interpretation of “the Greatest Story Ever Told” is rewarding and leaves a lot to think about, especially if you’re obsessed with early Christian history.
I mean, obviously it’s not historically accurate. That’s not the point. The point is that the book brings these familiar characters to life. Jesus begins the book as a sickly carpenter before transforming into the messianic figure we’ve come to know and love. However, his humanity is emphasized. At times, Jesus comes across as a jerk with megalomaniac fantasies. This helps contextualize Jesus the man and the era he lived in.
This is best demonstrated by his relationship with Judas Iscariot. Judas is a true revolutionary with a hatred for the Romans and is often frustrated by Jesus and his message of love. Jesus feels that Judas’s revolutionary ideals don’t go far enough: the concerns for the body are temporary, Jesus wants to bring salvation to the world…Jew and gentile alike.
The various characters are often puzzled by this. This universalism is too lofty, too radical to ever be realized.
And this sort of remains true today. I’ve expressed my admiration for John Dominic Crossan views: Jesus was responding to the imperial authority of the Romans. Jesus and his followers might not thought of it in that way, but that was effectively what he was doing. I don’t think enough scholars, both Christian and secular, stop to appreciate this. Not even Bart Ehrman.
I think this is best demonstrated by the cross as the official symbol of Christianity. Jesus unquestionably died by crucifixion, perhaps the most ruthless form of punishment by the Romans. And none of the early Christian apologists deny that it happened. Stop and think about that: their very leader got “owned” by the Romans. In fact, it HAD to have happened so that he could be resurrected. So Christians took this event and chalked it up as a win for their beliefs, and a loss for the ruthless rule of the Romans.
Scholars often wonder how Paul was able to convince so many pagans to convert to Christianity (or, to be more historically accurate, his form of Christian Judaism, as Paul still thought of himself as a Jew), well maybe here’s an answer: Roman rule under the Pax Romana pissed off enough people that when they heard of a man who was resurrected after a crucifixion, conversion was a way to subtly stick it to the Romans. This could be why Paul put so much emphasis on death and resurrection in his theology.
Yes, I know there are plenty of problems with this theory, chief among these is how little the Romans are criticized in the New Testament. In fact, the Gospels explicitly blame the Jews for Jesus’s death and not the Romans, even though the Romans certainly DID execute Jesus. My response to this is that you don’t have to spend more than two minutes following populist/leftist politics before realizing that they hate each other more than they hate their opposition. It is my opinion (maybe more on that at another time) that this is fundamentally rooted in these kinds of movements. Even though the Romans were THE existential threat to life in the Mediterranean world, it would have been mainstream Judaism that were the primary theological/ideological opponents of early Christianity…even if the Jews were as much under the thumb of Roman rule as they were. This is heresy in the world of radical movements, what leftists might call “class traitors” today, and it wouldn’t take much for Christian writers to switch out Romans for the Jews in regards to who was guilty for Jesus’s death.
It is this narcissism of small differences that plague radical movements, religious and political alike, and I doubt early Christianity was any different. (See Monty Python’s Life of Brian)
It is difficult to tell if the real Jesus actually preached this message of universalism, or a peaceful coexistence of all people under one God. Crossan might, but it’s more likely this was extracted by later thinkers and is now considered the ethical message of Christianity IF people could move past their short-sightedness (maybe not under “one god”, but you get the idea).
Anyways, I’ve spent too much time on this post, forgot where I was going. The end.
The YouTube algorithm sucks sometimes. When you search certain people, you can’t rid their videos from your recommendations.
Bart D Ehrman, the distinguished James Gray professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is one such person. Not that I hate Ehrman, quite the contrary. The man knows the Bible better than anyone. But I don’t find the subject of “God’s existence” to be particularly interesting.
Nevertheless, I watched him debate this with a professional snake oil salesman named Kyle Butt. The subject they were specifically debating was “God and suffering”. Ehrman’s fans swear up and down that he won the debate, but no one “wins” a debate. Everyone loses (and, sorry to say Christians, but agnostics/atheists have the much easier argument).
But I’m always intrigued by how the “problem of morality” gets tossed around like a hot potato in a debate. Maybe I’ve spent too much time of Twitter and Reddit forums, but it feels that in our political climate that all sides wish to enter into a “post moral” phase where one can gain points by accusing their opponent of “moralizing”. However, I have never once found this to be convincing.
Mostly because it makes no fucking sense. Even if we move past “good and evil”, new social mores become established which sets up a whole other paradigm of morality.
When viewed in this political climate, the Ehrman/Butt debate seems outdated (it took place in 2014). Butt believed that there are objective platonic forms of morality established by God of the Bible, while Ehrman simply took a sublime, “know right/wrong when I see it” approach. Naturally, I agreed with Ehrman (even though I didn’t find it philosophically consistent).
But I think what Ehrman was trying (or should have) focused on was the power of empathy in understanding the conditions of our fellow humans. From my understanding, empathy is a real scientifically falsifiable phenomenon that everyone (except psychopaths) feels. HOWEVER, the power of ideology does everything it can to undermine this.
Ideology can take many forms, from personal, to political, to religious.
In my view, individualist ideology, propagated by consumer culture, is the most prevalent. In fact, it even lays the foundation for current political/religious ideologies. When viewed in this light, it makes sense why online atheists and the Christian Right are suddenly bedfellows: Christians can rest easy knowing that God is invested in their individual lives, and the fate and suffering of everyone else is in His hands. And atheists become unburdened in believing that there’s a moralistic force binding the universe together, and can instead focus on their own truths.
Either way, they don’t have to show concern over the suffering of their fellow humans.
I guess that’s another reason why everyone wants to jump on the “post moral” train.
He’s an excellent biblical scholar, but a little too conservative for my tastes as a historian. This occurred to me while I was watching him get ambushed by both Christians and atheists during a Zoom call.
If I’m correct in my understanding…and remember I’m a dumbass…then Ehrman’s argument regarding our access to the original intentions of the New Testament texts are completely lost. We cannot know what “Mark”, for example, originally wrote. Not only would this be true for all biblical texts, but virtually ALL ancient texts as well.
In my view, this is an extreme form of skepticism which throws our understanding of history out the window. The entire historical record would be in jeopardy, a point which Ehrman himself seemingly concedes (unless, of course, the record can be confirmed by other sources i.e. archeological, DNA, etc.)
I guess this sounds extreme-having to take the accuracy of ancient historical accounts basically on faith (especially when they sound plausible, but lack supporting evidence)-but what other option do we have until the facts prove otherwise?
I suppose this line of reasoning is how Ehrman can reconcile his certainty that Jesus existed with his extreme skepticism of the historical accuracy of the Gospels.
I was watching Bart Ehrman debate some dude, forgot who, and he mentioned the non-canonical early Christian text, Apocalypse of Peter (never read it). The text describes heaven and hell, with descriptions of hell being far more creative than those of heaven. Point being, as Ehrman explains (paraphrasing): “there are only so many ways to describe eternal bliss”, while the imagination on eternal damnation knows no bounds.
It’s not really a revolutionary observation, I know, but that’s true in all our storytelling: “heaven” is a place of temporary stability before “hell” comes along and propels the plot forward. Therefore much of the creative energy behind a story lies in the “hell” of it all.
In other words, story is conflict.
But I think Ehrman’s statement is also a reflection on the nature of language. I’ve always found that imaginative descriptions of dread, anger, depression, anxiety, etc. to be far more creative and rewarding than depictions of bliss. Heaven, beauty, bliss, etc lie in the realm of the sublime, and therefore transcend the possibilities of language.
However, that might just be a reflection of my own deranged mind.