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Alternative Christs

May 22, 2010

I’m reading a really interesting volume right now called Alternative Christs, edited by Olav Hammer. It’s a collection of short essays on a wide variety of reinventions of Jesus outside mainstream Christianity (i.e., figures like Augustine are ignored while there is a whole chapter on the Manicheans). It’s well-written and informative, but it’s the introduction that’s been incredible so far. I love the opening sentences:

Few if any individuals have had such a profound influence on Western culture as Jesus. Or rather, few if any cultural icons have had a comparable importance.

This is a subtle difference, but an important one: we don’t know if Jesus has had an influence on the western world, because we don’t even know what he said, but we do know that the iconic figure of Jesus has been important. An icon can be important without the figure actually having been influential. I doubt Jesus’ mother has had any real influence on western world, but it’s clear that her icon has been important!

What’s important for the editor of this volume is not so much Jesus himself as the “more general process of religious innovation.” He thinks of culture as:

a profuse repertoire of discourses and practices, that is, what other authors have called a “tool kit” …. The repertoire metaphor is helpful both in describing synchronic variation and change over time. Synchronic variation … is part of any complex society that encompasses people with different levels of expertise, different received traditions, local variations, various social strata and various pragmatic interests. In the specific domain of religion, agents with different competences and interests can pick and choose different elements from the repertoire.

Diachronic change arises because religions, like “cultures” more broadly, have no essential components that are inherently stable over time: old doctrines are replaced by new ones, existing rituals die out in favor of ritual innovations, and organizational structures are transformed. Innovations arise when the selection of religious elements from the repertoire changes, when existing elements are discarded or new elements are introduced.

The figure of Jesus is just one element of the Christian “tool kit,” and is subject to both synchronic and diachronic variation in just the way Hammer describes.

I’m looking forward to his conclusion.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2010 11:40 am

    Gee I’d love to talk about this with you because I don’t agree but this is a blog and I can’t support my thesis with the evidence and argument in a short blog comment conversation, damn. When I first enrolled in world religions in my second undergrad arts degree nearly fifteen years ago (my first was in music and ed) I thought it quite probable Jesus never existed. And studying Judaism, the various portraits of Jesus never seemed to fit and it all seems very unrealistic. It was only gradually with wider research, languages, primary and secondary sources, that I became convinced there was even a historical figure at all. And now I think we can be fairly certain (with argument and evidence) of some things he did probably say and do and others he wouldn’t have said or done. (See Maurice Casey’s forthcoming volume Jesus of Nazareth An Independent Historians View of His Life and Teachings T&T Clark at the end of the year. But regardless of that, the ‘fact’ that he did exist and influence those him around him enough to inspire traditions about him which became the focus of different communities and evolved and were passed on through the centuries evolving more along the way, and the various attempts to reconstruct history over the last couple of centuries demonstrates that he did influence different cultures. Whether or not they are affected by who he really was or figures later traditions created, is irrelevant. If he hadn’t existed in the first place and influenced people, traditions about him would never had arisen. The later Mary traditions I don’t think were so influential and are really only clung onto by the catholics. I tend to forget about her until silly dutch film directors write books saying she was raped or I catch a glimpse of my Virgin decorated with 50p charity shop real rosary beads, standing next to my African angel Garbriel between Shakti and Ganeesh surrounded by all my other gods on my shrine…

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 22, 2010 12:08 pm

    I imagine we probably don’t disagree that much, except perhaps with respect to the semantics of “influence.” I agree that Jesus existed and we can know with some degree of certainty the sorts of things he is likely to have said—I’m a Schweitzerian: Jesus was probably an apocalyptic prophet who thought the world was about to end.

    But did Jesus “influence” Paul? Are Paul’s teaching based off of Jesus’ teachings? My guess is no—he shared Jesus’ apocalypticism, but probably because both were influenced by Jewish apocalypticism. Are the teachings of contemporary American evangelicalism based off of the teachings of Jesus? When I read Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps I see more Sheldon than I see a Palestinian Jewish apocalyptic figure from the 1st century. Sure, Sheldon would probably not have written the book if Jesus had never existed and made a splash, but that doesn’t mean that Sheldon’s ideology is influenced by Jesus’ teachings.

    With this clarification, how far apart are our views?

  3. May 22, 2010 12:18 pm

    I thought it might be a question of semantics ;-) And yes, the Aramaic speaking Jewish prophet Jesus who fits well into that culture, believed in the coming judgement, hell in all it’s real horror and also in resurrection or vindication as those martyrs were supposedly in Macabbean literature. Jesus was wrong – more apparent in Mark of course. He also thought Jacob and John would die with him (remember the metaphor drink from the same cup) but was wrong about that too. And metanoia would have come from tuv which means ‘return’… Jesus called Jews to ‘return’ to God – to return to the ways of Torah…. it was Paul who developed the Greek concept of repentence to appeal to a wider audience. Paul wasn’t influenced by Jesus, but by the traditions about him after his death and the visions interpreted as ‘resurrection’. I think the fundies have got the real Jesus more accurately than the American Jesus seminar. He was nothing like a Jewish but not very Jewish, cynic like philosopher. He was apocalyptic and believed in hell. The fundies dwell on that alot. I’d actually secretly rather we didn’t find out the real Jesus. He doesn’t really fit well for a peaceful and progressive future.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 22, 2010 12:30 pm

    Ha, I wish we COULD find the real Jesus, if he’s an apocalyptic prophet, so he could be rejected as irrelevant. I think the world would be a better place if we abandoned appeals to Jesus’ authority!

  5. May 22, 2010 1:09 pm

    I recommend then Maurice’s book. It’s the results of a process over a long career from a secular scholar who has expertise in Aramaic and Judaism etc etc. I have read every draft, and we’ve discussed it all the way through, over the past three years and I think you might find it interesting…

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