I just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, which is a history of Western monotheism, and it has got me thinking about Christianity more than is usual. So now I find myself in the mood to write on the subject, or to be more specific on the subject of Jesus of Nazareth, a project I have been considering for a few years now. Back in the days when I was in Bellingham and was still delivering Dharma talks to Americans I actually gave a talk on this very topic, which resulted in the only Christian in the audience becoming a little riled up. Just a little, though.
Before discussing Jesus I will point out that never in my life have I been a Christian. My father considered himself to be a Buddhist, although actually he was more of a Pagan spiritualist; and my mother, although raised as a Christian, did not have a religious bone in her body. So I was not exposed to much Christianity as a kid, and it didn’t make much sense to me. By the time I became an adult I had entered a church a total of twice, as far as I can remember. When I was an adolescent two Jehovah’s Witnesses came to our house, and when one of them asked me which denomination I belonged to, my answer was like, “Uh…Protestant?” No doubt the guy immediately identified me as a Heathen Philistine.
As I got older and began doing a little investigation of Christianity, the more I understood it the less I could believe it. I have never been able to believe, for example, in a personal God who answers prayers or gives a damn about us, or that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, who created the universe in his capacity as the divine Logos, and who died for my sins, to redeem me and everyone else from the original sin of Adam and Eve when they ate the forbidden fruit. I haven’t believed it in this life anyway. I have considered that it would be easier for me to accept Islam, which is much simpler, with no Trinity, no Incarnation, etc. To be a Muslim pretty much all that is necessary to accept is that God is one God and Muhammad is his prophet. But of course I’m neither a Muslim nor a Christian. If I weren’t a Buddhist I might be a Vedantist Hindu, or maybe something like a Unitarian. I once semi-considered becoming a Carthusian monk, with the idea that the vow of silence would protect me from having to confess that I wasn’t really a Christian. I admit it was a dumb idea.
But although I am not a Christian, I do have a strange interest in Christianity. I find it vaguely intriguing. I feel a subtle, deep, almost subconscious resonation with it. If there is such a phenomenon as rebirth, as Buddhism accepts, then it is probable that I have been a Western Christian in past lives. (In fact I have been told that in the life immediately before this one I was a Baptist minister who was ostracized from the clergy for holding unorthodox views—and I was told this before I ever became a Theravada Buddhist monk holding unorthodox views. I don’t remember it though. That’s just what I was told.) And regardless of rebirth, the fact remains that Christianity has left a very deep impression on the Western mind, even on those of us who have never been believing, practicing Christians. Western cultural conditioning is itself profoundly conditioned by Christianity: for example, we English-speaking people harbor Protestant values, generally without realizing their origin. Even Western Buddhists tend to think more like Protestant Christians than like Buddhists. So it is good to have some understanding of the situation, in order better to understand the world we live in, and ourselves.
I have read the Christian Bible in its entirety, from Genesis through Revelation, twice (both times after becoming a Buddhist monk—before, when my attention span was shorter, I always bogged down around Exodus, although I had read the entire New Testament); and I have read some parts several times. And included among my relatively few possessions there is a Bible, a really good one in fact, containing the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonicals, maps, a glossary, alternate renderings, and explanatory notes which include information concerning differences between the standard Bible and the earliest biblical manuscripts. So although I am not a Christian, still I do not intend to bash Jesus or Christianity here. Mainly I’m just trying to understand. Some of what may seem like bashing actually comes from Christian sources such as a scandalous Anglican Bible commentary I read in Burma many years ago. It was written by an Anglican clergyman back around 1970 and was given the stamp of approval by the Church of England, yet nevertheless, in addition to pointing out parts of the Bible that are probably forgeries, or otherwise false, it categorically denies that Jesus or anyone else ever performed a miracle. It seems that the C. of E. sold out to Scientism quite a while ago. I think I might actually have a higher opinion of Jesus than that Anglican commentator did. Anyway, it may be that my attempts at understanding can help you to understand something more clearly, or maybe not. There’s only one way to find out, though…
Let us assume for the sake of argument that a historical approach to understanding reality, at least worldly reality, is valid. That will be taken as granted, if only for the sake of convenience.
So, just as our culture conditions our beliefs and attitudes (for example it conditions in us the belief that a historical approach is a valid one) in order to understand Jesus it can be helpful to understand the culture in which he arose, and that culture was predominantly Jewish. Jesus, in all probability, was a Jew of Hebrew ethnicity—which is rather ironic, considering the anti-Semitism of so many Christians over the centuries. Jesus remained a Jew, and his first apostles and early disciples remained Jews, much as the followers of John the Baptist remained Jews. Many scholars have endorsed the idea that the first actual Christian was Paul of Tarsus.
The more or less mythological Abraham, or maybe his grandson Jacob (alias Israel), could possibly be called the first Hebrew, but, if the Bible is anywhere near to being a reliable authority, the first actual Jew could be said to be Moses.
As most of us already know, Moses was a Hebrew born in Egypt, round about the 13th century BCE. The Hebrews living in Egypt may already have regarded the God of Abraham as their patron deity, but he was not yet called Yahweh (alias Jehovah), and he was nowhere near to being the only God they considered real: the Hebrews at this early stage were far from being monotheists. They might have stayed in Egypt and eventually become absorbed into the Egyptian population without leaving a trace if a strange event hadn’t occurred, which I would like to discuss in a lengthy and possibly ill-advised digression, partly just to demonstrate how arbitrary some of the biggest events in history can be. So it looks like I’ll be giving my take on Moses also.
Historians tell us that the First World War was triggered by a Serbian college student shooting the archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria during a parade. The Germans, and to a lesser degree the Austrians themselves, may have been planning a largish war in order to stir things up and to gain some territory, but WWI was largely unexpected and caught most of the world by surprise. One little bullet quickly escalated into a war involving most of the world, which in turn led to the collapse of three empires, the birth of the USSR, the rise of the Third Reich, WWII as a continuation of WWI, the Holocaust, the A-bomb, the nuclear arms race, the Cold War, and much else besides. One little bullet started that whole humungous ball rolling. It may be that the First World War would have started sooner or later anyway, but that is uncertain. Anyway, a somewhat larger but even more arbitrary event estimated by my Bible at 1290 BCE apparently resulted in the birth of Judaism, and eventually in Christianity, Islam, and Western monotheistic religion in general, and much else besides; and I hypothesize that that event was a volcanic eruption.
The book of Exodus in the Bible is essentially mythology. But most myths contain an element of fact, and the story of Moses and the Exodus is probably no exception. The early part about Moses being set adrift in a basket on the river, and so on, may be considered irrelevant to my point, and may be pure invention anyway, being a common theme in ancient myths; but when Moses leaves Egypt the first time and moves to Midian things start to get interesting. For starters, it is noteworthy that Moses left Egypt, according to the Bible’s own testimony, for no better reason than that he was a murderer fleeing from the law! He went to Midian, which was an area in northwestern Arabia south of the Dead Sea and immediately south of the land of Edom. While there he married a daughter of Jethro, a priest; and there is a good chance that his father-in-law was a priest of a war god called Yahweh. In fact the earliest mention of Yahweh, though somewhat controversial, is claimed to be in an Egyptian inscription dating to the 14th century BCE, referring to a place in Midian or Edom. The Song of Deborah in the book of Judges, which the notorious Anglican commentary declared to be possibly the oldest part of the Bible, hints that Yahweh came from Edom. This also would help to explain the odd legends of Jacob, the first Israelite, obtaining the birthright of Esau, the first Edomite, by trading a bowl of stew for it, and also of him tricking their father Isaac into giving him, Jacob, the blessing intended for Esau. Before the time of Moses the Hebrews, most of whom never went to Egypt and were still in Canaan, mainly worshipped the Canaanite king of gods, El (which is actually found in the name Isra-el), who had the fertility goddess Asherah as his wife. So, symbolically and mythologically at least, Moses, influenced by his father-in-law, began worshipping Yahweh and maybe identifying him with the El the Hebrews were already worshipping. It was with Moses that the Hebrews began calling their god Yahweh.
While in Midian Moses led his flock of sheep and goats to a mountain called Sinai in the Bible, although it may not have been the modern Sinai on the Sinai Peninsula. The Mount Sinai of the Bible may have been a volcanic mountain in Midian, in northwestern Arabia. It was here that a burning bush instructed Moses to go back to Egypt and free his people there. A burning bush on a mountain is a tiny hint that something volcanic was going on, but the hints get much bigger. What apparently happened, according to my hypothetical interpretation, is that Moses had no idea of what volcanoes are, and when he saw the powerful phenomena going on on the mountain, he interpreted it as a sign of God, that is, of his new god Yahweh. These inexplicable (to him) phenomena inspired Moses to bring at least some of the Hebrews out of Egypt. So he went back to Egypt with a mission.
After this, as signs of the power of Yahweh, came the Ten Plagues—most or even all of which could be interpreted as the results of a volcanic eruption, with accompanying seismic activity. First the Nile River turned to “blood,” or anyhow turned dark and toxic, which could be from volcanic ash in the water which poisoned the fish, or from mudslides upstream causing lots of reddish mud to choke the water, with the same fish-poisoning effect. After this, plagues of frogs and gnats afflicted the people, which could be explained as the frogs and gnats moving away from the toxic, polluted water. The following plague of flies could be explained similarly, or as the result of all the rotting fish and passive, stoic frogs, etc., poisoned by the water. The next plague was the death of the livestock, which could be explained as the result of drinking the same water, or of all the flies and disease eventually resulting from it. Next came boils and open sores on the people, with a similar possible explanation. Next came hail and lightning, or, in some translations, a rain of fire, or something like fire. I suppose it could be some of the same volcanic ash which plausibly poisoned the water, or it could be storms seeded by all the particulate matter and other volcanic emissions filling the sky. The eighth plague, of locusts, is the least easily accounted for by the volcano hypothesis, although they might have moved just to get away from the upheaval. Number nine was darkness in midday, which is a common side-effect of volcanic eruptions; it is said that after Mount Tambora blew up in the early 1800’s, a large area was in total darkness for about two days afterward. The final plague, the death of the first-born Egyptian children, could be a mythological adaptation of a situation in which, more simply stated, lots of Egyptian children died. Fewer Hebrew children succumbed, ex hypothesi, because the Hebrews were living in poorer areas away from the Nile and were required to drink well water or water from cisterns, which would be much healthier than drinking water from the river.
As the smallish band of Hebrews (there couldn’t have been nearly as many as described in the Bible, considering that no uncontroversial archeological evidence for the Exodus has ever been found, assuming that the Exodus occurred at all) marched toward the volcanic “Mount Sinai” in Arabia they were guided by a pillar of cloud, or rather smoke, by day, and a pillar of fire by night, which would be easily explained by the idea that they were marching toward an erupting volcano in the distance. And of course when they get there, the whole mountain was covered with smoke and fire, inspiring some real awe and a lasting impression on these new Chosen People. Even Moses parting the Red Sea could be explained as an associated seismic phenomenon: it could be that they went along a coastal area, and a tsunami caused the water to recede, letting them pass, and then hit the beach, taking out the pursuing Egyptian soldiers. On the other hand, a common theory nowadays is just that they passed through the swampy “Sea of Reeds” located where the Suez Canal is now, which Hebrews on foot could manage but which caused Egyptian chariots to get stuck in the mud.
Thus it appears that an ignorance of what volcanoes are could have been the origin of the Jewish religion, and thereby of Western monotheism. Either Moses was fully convinced that the volcano was Yahweh descended upon the mountain, or he was a brilliant opportunist slyly exploiting the situation in order to get the Hebrews in Egypt to follow him. (Whether geological evidence supports this hypothesis of a volcanic eruption in NW Arabia circa 1300 BCE, I don’t know. Some authorities support the volcano hypothesis, but I haven’t seen any geologist come forward with evidence for an Arabian eruption at that time.) It is politically correct to consider Moses to be a great spiritual leader, but I have to admit that it disgruntles me sometimes to hear him placed in the same category as Jesus and the Buddha. As I already pointed out, the man was considered to be a murderer, and that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It is supremely ironic that the Jewish people, who have much to say about the evils of genocide, had as a founder of their religion a man who declared genocide upon the people of Canaan. Moses insisted that all Canaanites, men, women, and children, were to be entirely exterminated, with very few exceptions. But we may as well not dwell on that.
Anyway, the Jewish people settled in the Holy Land and combined El with Yahweh, editing their legends retroactively so that it appeared that the two had always been one, and that He never had a wife, and gradually they made their God into not only the patron deity of their race but the creator and LORD of everything. They still weren’t completely sold on monotheism, though. (Even good King David apparently was an idolater, considering the passage at I Samuel 19:11-17 in which his wife put their household idol into David’s bed to make it look like David was sleeping there.) They developed a kingdom, which before long split into two, and which were eventually wiped out by the Assyrians and Babylonians. It was after this, during the Babylonian Captivity, that the Jews finally were convinced that Yahweh/El was the only God. By this time prophets had become major influences in the Jewish religious tradition; and although many of them had prophesied the destruction of the Hebrew kingdoms, they began declaring that after the Jews had returned to the Holy Land their God would bless and protect them, they would rebuild the Temple, and that no foreign enemy would ever again invade Israel. Furthermore, a messiah, an anointed great leader, would arise who would lead Israel to be foremost of all the nations. He was to be a descendant of King David, born in David’s home town of Bethlehem, and he would be more of a political leader than a spiritual one.
At first it seemed that these latter prophecies were coming true. The king of Persia allowed the Jews to go back to Jerusalem and to rebuild their Temple. (There are even a few hints in the Old Testament that the governor of Judea at that time, a Jewish man named Zerubbabel, was the promised messiah, although the belief didn’t catch on, and faded out.) Alexander’s Greco-Macedonians conquered the Persians, which resulted in some uproar in Judea, especially later when the Greek king Antiochus IV “Epiphanes” tried forcibly converting the Jews to Greek polytheism; but things started really looking good for the Jews and their prophecies when the Maccabees revolted against Antiochus Epiphanes and founded a more or less independent Jewish nation, with the help of the “friendly” Roman Republic.
The Jewish Hasmonean Dynasty lasted for a century…and then everything went kasplooey when the formerly friendly Romans invaded and conquered Judea. This threw the Jewish nation into a severe crisis, as God’s promise to them had obviously been broken—foreign invaders had conquered the Holy Land again. Even before this, at least as far back as the time of the aforementioned King Antiochus, the Jews were developing a new genre of literature—that is, apocalyptic literature. Also, the Messiah was seen more and more as a spiritual figure, and not primarily as an earthly king. The best example of this trend in the Jewish Bible is the book of Daniel, the second half of which is clearly apocalyptic. I have learned that it is much easier to understand the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel if one reads the first book of Maccabees also, as the two were written at approximately the same time (the book of Daniel dating to around 165 BCE, being a kind of sacred forgery claiming to be much older), and discuss the same events, though in different ways. Thus the “little horn” and the “hard-faced king” who serves as the prototype for the later Antichrist is none other than our old friend Antiochus Epiphanes, and the original “abomination of desolation,” later reinterpreted by the early Christians, and possibly by Jesus himself, refers to the statue/idol of Olympian Zeus which Antiochus had placed in the Temple, thereby defiling it (the Temple, not the statue). Although the prophecy was later reinterpreted, it is apparent that Daniel predicts that the entire world will come to an end before 160 BCE (see Daniel 12:11), which, as far as I can tell, didn’t happen. I suspect that this new apocalyptic trend was a bitter response to the fact that God’s Chosen People were not doing very well. They were not prospering like the favorite people of God, by all rights, ought to do. So with a kind of hysterical denial combined with righteous vengeance they began predicting, and even hoping, that the world would be destroyed.
This was the world that Jesus was born into: a devoutly Jewish world in which people bitterly resented their Roman overlords, yearned and prayed for a Messiah, and expected the end of the world to come at any time. Which, of course, leads to the subject of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
First off, it is very likely that the mother of Jesus, although for all I know a very respectable woman, lost her virginity at least nine months before Jesus was born. In fact the whole idea that Mary was still a virgin at that time comes from a misunderstanding of a mistranslation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, combined with some arguably dishonest propaganda. Judea and Galilee had been part of the Hellenistic world for more than three centuries by the time of Jesus, and many of the early Christians, though Jewish, spoke and wrote in Greek better than in Hebrew. So, they relied upon a Greek translation of the Bible called the Septuagint. So: in the book of Isaiah, there is a passage concerning the “sign of Immanuel,” which states,
A young woman who is pregnant will have a son and will name him Immanuel (which means “God is with us”). By the time he is old enough to make his own decisions, people will be drinking milk and eating honey. Even before that time comes, the lands of those two kings who terrify you will be deserted (Isaiah 7:14-16).
This is a prophecy by Isaiah to King Ahaz, indicating that he has nothing to worry about from two other kings who were menacing him; within several years that whole situation will have blown over (mainly because an even worse danger, the King of Assyria, is coming). It has to do with Isaiah’s own time. Furthermore, even my deluxe Catholic Bible has this to say in a footnote with regard to the term “young woman”:
The Hebrew word here translated “young woman” is not the specific term for “virgin,” but refers to any young woman of marriageable age. The use of “virgin” in Mt 1.23 reflects a Greek translation of the Old Testament, made some 500 years after Isaiah.
So the early Christian Jews who came up with the idea that Mary was a virgin misunderstood the passage to be a prophecy of the coming Messiah; and so, believing that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, they asserted that Jesus had been born of one, since they were eager for others to accept Jesus’s messianic status. And remember, I learn this stuff from Christian books, even from a Catholic Bible.
(Incidentally, I used to wonder why Mary has been so consistently called the Virgin Mary, considering that, according to the Bible, Jesus had several siblings, and I very much doubted that they were all immaculately conceived. So she must have eventually lost her virginity, even if it wasn’t before Jesus was born. I eventually learned that the Catholics developed the theory that Mary did indeed remain a virgin her whole life, but that Joseph had a second wife not mentioned in the Bible, so that Jesus’s brothers and sisters were half-siblings. The Greek Orthodox church went one step further, declaring Joseph also to have remained chaste, with the so-called brothers and sisters being just cousins.)
Jesus allegedly being born in Bethlehem is a similar case. According to Micah, one of the minor Old Testament prophets, the Messiah was destined to be born in Bethlehem, the native city of King David, being one of his descendants. So, in their efforts to promote Jesus as the Jewish messiah, the authors of Matthew and Luke came up with two very different stories to account for this, it being common knowledge that the man came from Nazareth in Galilee, not Bethlehem.
According to Matthew's account, Joseph and Mary apparently lived in Bethlehem originally and had Jesus in their own house, there being no mention of a manger and no room at the inn. Then, out of fear of King Herod they fled to Egypt for awhile, until after Herod had died. Then they came back; but, still fearing Herod’s son, the new king, they moved to Galilee.
Luke explains things differently. In this version, Joseph and Mary were apparently already residents of Nazareth and had to go to Bethlehem so Joseph could register for a Roman census decreed by Augustus. It is in this version that the manger is prominent; although there is no mention at all of any trip to Egypt. Presumably after the census they simply went back to their home in Galilee. Also, both Matthew and Luke provide genealogies of the ancestors of Jesus, to demonstrate that he was a descendant of King David, as the Messiah must be. However, the names on the two lists are very different with regard to the lineage between David and Joseph, with one of the few names in common being Zerubbabel (who had already been calculated as a descendant of David so that he could be the Messiah); and even the number of generations differs between the two accounts.
So again, the details of Jesus’s life were doctored to make him look more like the official Jewish Messiah. This sort of propagandism runs rampant in early Christianity. However, this by no means diminishes Jesus’s stature as a spiritual teacher. Rather, it counts more as a strike against the honesty of some of his early followers. As far as I am concerned, it doesn’t matter where he was born, or whether or not his mother was a virgin, or who his real father was. As I mentioned earlier, I couldn’t really believe that he was the only begotten Son of God anyway. That sort of thing is largely irrelevant; what really matters most is the value of what the man was trying to teach. That has been radically doctored too, however. But then again, the same sort of thing has happened in almost all spiritual systems, including Buddhism. Buddhism may have even more of that than Christianity does. But I may or may not mention this next time. After all, I’m talking about Jesus here, not the Buddha.