Why a revealed religion?
Given the philosophical analysis in this book, then, it does seem reasonable for religions to exist in every culture, but more than that that the myths and legends of religion have a core of fact and are not simply "responding to a need" in the people. That is, the need of itself doesn't establish that what you need is a fact. Men, for example, have a "need" for promiscuous sex, but it doesn't follow from this that their lives are a contradiction without it, because in fact promiscuous sex contradicts itself in various ways, as we have seen and will see more clearly in the section on marriage in the next part. But it does seem that the "needs" religion responds to are cases in which human life positively contradicts itself unless there is at least the possibility of their fulfillment. That, coupled with what you could predict from God as this philosophical analysis knows him, makes a pretty good case that religion and redemption might well be true.
But honest people of some degree of sophistication would be bound to be skeptical, partly on the grounds that it seems too good to be true. What I have said so far in this section is only the positive side of the evidence in favor of religion. In addition to the quasi-redemptive regularity of the seasons, there are destructive acts like earthquakes, volcano eruptions, tornadoes, and so on (not to mention exploding stars in the heavens); and the "balance of nature" ecologists are fond of didn't help the dinosaurs much, did it? Things like this seem to have no redemptive aspect to them at all; which would hint at the fact that the hope of redemption for us is just wishful thinking. And though you can, by an analysis like mine in Chapter 10 of Section 5 of the first part 1.5.10, show that evil is not something absolute and therefore does not prove that an infinite God is impossible, still there is evil (even though it is relative to us, just as there is coldness), and you can wonder why a God who would redeem it would create in the first place a universe that needed to be redeemed.
It is no real argument, by the way, that he "couldn't" have created the universe in such a way that people in it would only make rational choices, because then they wouldn't be free. Unless you want to say that it is in principle impossible for a free being (one who can make a self-contradictory choice) to go through his life without at least once choosing to contradict his reality, then there is nothing impossible in God's creating those who are free and who can choose wrong but who in fact always exercise their freedom in rational ways. There's plenty of room to exercise your freedom without being stupid and at cross-purposes with yourself; freedom demands only the abstract possibility of immorality, not that it would ever occur.
If I have given the impression in this book that there's an answer to everything, I have given the wrong impression. There is no rational argument that I know of that makes a convincing case why evil should exist. Even if every tear of mine will be wiped away, I would far rather not have shed the tears in the first place--even if my state in the future turns out to be better than it would have been if what caused the tears had been avoided. That is, I don't repine at not having a hundred million dollars, though it is possible that I could have acted differently and acquired it, because I am not really worse off from lacking some benefit I could have but didn't work for. So a future good does not really compensate for a past evil. This is the truth that Ivan Karamazov enunciates in the "Grand Inquisitor" section of The Brothers Karamazov.
Further, while I might be able to accept the damage I have done and the damage that has been done to me if it is redeemed and I know that had it not happened, my life and the lives of others would have been worse, this is no reason why I should rejoice in the fact that my life was less bad than it might otherwise have been. Because that, in the last analysis, is what you are saying when you say that God brings a "greater good" out of evil.
No, those gnostics who "know the secret" and who have "plumbed the depths" of God's mind and understand why things are the way they are, and especially how they couldn't be otherwise, know what they know because they have closed their eyes to the other side of the argument. Like the sophisticates who explain away religion as wishful thinking with no basis in the "real world," these people explain away what is against their own position as "illusion."
That, I think, is not what I have done in this book; at least, it is not what I tried to do. What I have done with positions contrary to mine is show that the argument they give is flawed, and that the arguments do not prove what those who propose them think they prove. But all that this shows, really, is that these arguments are not certainly correct, not that their conclusion might not be correct. The analysis I gave of the problem of evil, for instance, shows that you can't use it to prove that there can't be the kind of God I argued to, not that it isn't strongly suggestive that there isn't that kind of God.
The really thoughtful person, then, is up against a mystery wherever he turns. The very fact that there are finite beings, whose reality is less than its own intelligibility, is a mystery. True, you can treat it as an effect and argue to a God who is equal to "what it means to exist"; but why such a being would bother to create these all-but-completely-contradictory beings is still left as much in the dark as ever. So if I can prove there is a God, I can by that conclusion rescue the world from being complete nonsense; but I can't make it make sense by doing so. If I were God, perfectly happy by myself and incapable of being affected by anything I would create, I would stay by myself; and I can't picture myself creating a world in which there is agony and despair.
Denying that there's a God, of course, doesn't make more sense. There's nothing we can construct that makes sense out of the universe if we honestly observe it as it is; it is just that you can't prove that it makes nonsense; and for a rational person it is more reasonable to accept a view of the universe that doesn't make positive nonsense (even if it doesn't really make complete sense) rather than one where you have to accept unresolvable contradictions. But the fact that it's more reasonable by no means proves it's true. Perhaps we are the products of chance and our brains are just built to reject contradictions, while the world "out there" is irrational and absurd. It doesn't make sense to hold this position, and in fact it makes a lot less sense to hold it than to hold that the world really isn't contradictory; but that doesn't prove that it couldn't be true.
The Book of Job is perhaps the most honest examination of this difficulty that there is; more honest, even, than Camus, who chose to accept absurdity and rebel. Job had senseless horrors befall him, and his friends gave all the rational arguments for why this happened, and Job showed that none of them were valid. Job even says in the middle of the book that he knows that there's no rational justification for the things that happened to him, and that he is aware that if he were to argue with God Himself, God would be able to out-talk him, but he would still be right. And at the end, God does answer him, but does not explain why all this happened to Job; he simply out-talks him by saying, in effect, "Can you do the marvelous things I can do? Then don't question why I did all this to you." Job is redeemed at the end; but there is in the book no sensible answer to why he went through what he went through. (The conversation between God and Satan, using Job as a test case, is obviously a dramatic gimmick; because it certainly makes no sense for an omnipotent God to pick out somebody he knows is going to pass the test just to see if his "prediction" will be verified.) Essentially, Job says that we can't expect to know what's going on in this world and to make sense of it so that our minds are satisfied; but this is no reason to "curse God and die"; it is more reasonable to hang on and bow before the mystery than to repudiate it like Camus and accept absurdity as the truth.
Therefore, it is certainly reasonable to say that the honest searcher after the truth in what is most important in his life is in a quandary. There is reason to hope; but there is also reason, if probably not as much, to despair. And oddly, because the hope is so strong, and we know that it is so easy to blind ourselves when our desires make us want something desperately, the very fact that we need to have what religion offers us is a very strong argument that it is a delusion. It's too good to be true; that somehow all of this can make sense, and ultimately we will know about it fully and accept it as making sense. One of my own strongest doubts comes from this very fact; if my philosophical and Theological position is correct, then my world, which I at present find bearable only by putting from my mind huge chunks of it, is absolutely beautiful; and the fact that tears come to my eyes as I write this warns me that I shouldn't trust my reasoning. "It's too good to be true," the other half of my mind says. "You know how the world really is."
So the evidence is inconclusive; and it is really, I suppose, a matter of temperament which way you go, as James indicated in The Will to Believe. Those whose life has been basically favorable to them and their goals will find no particular need to face the mystery of their existence, because on balance life is definitely worth living; those whose life has been worse than death will tend to react like Hamlet, and might very well seek solace in religion. It was not for nothing that Jesus said, "It is good for people to be poor, to suffer, to be oppressed," and so on, "because they are ruled from heaven."
But given this, given that the most sincere will realize that the evidence is inconclusive and resist the truth about God and his promise of redemption because it is so alluring, then the very people for whom the hints at redemption were to give hope to are cut off from its consolation by the very fact that the hope makes them wish so strongly that it be true.
And this, I think, is the reason for revealed religion. The evidence for natural religion is there, but it is too ambiguous, and so too easy to dismiss and to misinterpret; mankind can rightly ask of God, "Show me." It makes sense for God to do just that--not that he would have to, because the indications he gave in nature are enough to indicate the fall and the hope; but it still makes sense, given what we are.
To Abraham and his descendants, to whom God revealed himself as a "core group" from which to spread his good news, it must have been easy to believe, because they saw for themselves the wonderful things that God did for them, things that had no explanation except the fact that he in fact was the one in power over everything; but for us, and even for the generations that followed them, it was by no means easy to see what was factual and what was legend just like any other religion. In fact, the Hebrews kept thinking of YHWH as a god, and perhaps the greatest of all the gods; but they hedged their bets and didn't want to run the risk of getting Baal and Astarte mad at them by repudiating them utterly.
Interestingly, the Hebrew people themselves died and came back to life, several times: in the bondage in Egypt and then the exodus to the Promised Land; but more importantly in the exile into Babylon, where they ceased to be a people, and then in the return to Jerusalem and the rediscovery of the Law.
It seems that this last return to life cured them of polytheism; but now the Law itself became a fetish, and the Hebrew religion was in danger of the perversion that is common to all religions: that of bargaining with God and trying to manipulate God. They had, after all, made a treaty with God, and they had seen what had happened to them when they violated it; and they had found again the terms of the treaty which had been given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and they were determined to live up to it, meaning that God would have to live up to his part of the bargain. But treaties with God don't work that way.
In any case, this kind of relationship of a partner making a deal with someone else is not the kind of relationship that the potter would, one would think, want with his clay. He created human beings free; and his promise of hope and redemption by means of his treaty with his chosen people was calculated to produce slavish obedience to the Law, and scrupulous concern about tithes of mint and anise and cumin--while expressions of human love and generosity, since the Law covers only the minimum necessary and leaves us free, would be ignored.
This sounds very much, I realize, as if I am second-guessing God, as if what I were trying to do was to show why God would "have" to pick out a people to reveal himself to, and how, having done that, he would "have" to go beyond that into Christianity. This is not really what I am after. What I am indicating by what I have so far said is that if you start from the premise that what the Gospels say about Jesus actually happened, then it would not be unreasonable that it be so.
But isn't that quite a leap? Granted, if the events of Jesus' life were as they are reported, the original followers would have had no trouble in believing that he was God, still, we in our present age are as much in the dark as ever. So much, so very much, of what is reported in the Old Testament seems clearly to be legend (the end of the Torah, supposedly written by Moses, tells of his death) or fiction with a moral (such as Job) that it makes it all but indistinguishable from myth; and if there were miraculous events in Egypt, it's hard to say what they were. And the same goes for the New Testament. How can we, two thousand years after the fact, separate out the fact from the legend? And if it's not factual, then Judaism and Christianity are just like any other religion; myths that reveal the basic underlying core of any religion, and hold out to us the hope of redemption--just like any other religion.
And it was for this reason more than anything else that I undertook to translate the New Testament and put the documents in the order in which they were written--as far as I could discover it--to see if the documents as we have them are explainable in terms of legend, or whether the only sensible interpretation that they were basically factual reporting of what actually happened.
For a couple of centuries, at least, Biblical scholars have been infected with the "comparative religion" school of thought, and have interpreted the writings as legendary accretions on a religious innovator, the "Jesus of history." As his wise sayings became known and accepted, the saying goes, the "Christ of faith" grew up around him, and the fantastic stories about the resurrection (a theme common to all religions), the miraculous cures (also something very common) and so on began to be believed and taken to be fact. His doctrine, the believing element in this trend said, expressed the profound truth of our union with God and our redemption and so on; but the events of his life that illustrated it came from the teachings and the doctrine as illustrations of what he was saying, rather than being something that actually happened.
This is an extremely plausible scenario, one which, absent very cogent evidence to the contrary, is the one which should be accepted. But of course, it makes Christianity a religion just like all the others (which of course is also plausible on the face of it), and Jesus is no more to be listened to or "believed in" than Moses or Gautama or Muhammad or Confucius--or George Blair. All are gropers after the meaning of life, and some did some more convincing groping than others.
Having had some experience with what classics scholars can do with Greek texts because of my work on Aristotle for my Doctoral dissertation, however, I was not intimidated by the fact that eminent Theologians were saying that if Jesus' grave were found with his corpse in it, it would make no difference to them; because the "Christ of faith" would still be there in what Jesus stood for and what he represents, even if the "Jesus of history" didn't do the things he was supposed to have done.
I realized that if Jesus hadn't done basically what he was reported to have done, he was a fool, and his teachings were nonsense, not profound wisdom. If someone slaps you, turn the other cheek for him to slap; if someone steals your coat, give him your shirt; make yourself a eunuch for my sake; go sell what you have and give the money to the poor; when people oppress you, be glad of it; if you don't take up your cross and reject yourself, you can't be a student of mine; if your eye is an obstacle to you, pluck it out and throw it away. If he isn't God but someone like me who is telling the world the right way to live, then Voltaire and Nietzsche were right: don't try to "interpret" this stuff in such a way that it is consistent with what we know is right, crush the infamous thing!
The Theologians could play with his being a wise guru, because of the difference between philosophers and Theologians: Philosophers think they believe, and Theologians believe they think. I know better than to accept uncritically what he said, if he's a human being; if I submit Aristotle and Kant to the microscope, the carpenter from Nazareth is going to be put on a slide too. And in fact, Jesus was no Socrates; as a philosopher, he is lousy. Far better follow Confucius or the Buddha; and far better still, follow your own reason, and make the bet as you see it.
Not to mention the fact that these Theologians were after the Pope to "change his position" on things that I knew he couldn't change his position on and be honest with the facts; and one of the things that gave me a hint that they might not know what they were talking about Biblically was that the Church's position on moral issues was very unpopular and not "with it," and very close to what I knew it had to be if it was locked into the facts, as it claimed to be. If there is any church that is the right one, it is almost bound to be the Catholic Church, if the reasoning I have given, especially in the last two sections, is at all on the right track.
So I decided to see for myself. What is the context in which these texts were written, when were they written, and what do they say? I found rather to my surprise that the letters of Paul were the earliest documents in the New Testament, which even those who think the whole thing is legend admit date from the time he was on his second missionary journey; and so at least most of them were written between the year 50 or so and Paul's death somewhere around 67. Now this was in the early days of the Roman Empire. Augustus, the first emperor to be called a god, died in 14, to be succeeded by the god-emperors Tiberius (d. 37), Caligula (d. 42), Claudius (d. 54), and Nero (d. 68). Cicero had held Rome spellbound by his oratory a hundred years previously; the poets Virgil and Horace died about fifty years before, Lucretius wrote his Epicurean De Rerum Natura in 60 B. C., Plutarch born as Paul started his work. In short, the Augustan age was upon the world, full of art, literature, learning--and emperors who claimed to be gods, to knit the empire together using religion as a tool for emotional solidarity.
Secondly, what would you predict if the stories about Jesus were legend, and the historical Jesus was the wise Galilean who made such an impression with his sayings that he was divinized by his hearers? You would predict that what would first be preached would be the teachings of this great sage; and then after the doctrine had spread beyond the bounds of Judea and the non-Christians began to be converts, you would find the divinizing tendency begun in Augustus gradually rub off on Jesus, until eventually, when the complex documents got to be written down, there would be no way to separate out the fact from the legend, they would be so interwoven. And, in fact, the Theologians postulated a manuscript that they called "Q," for Quelle, or "source," to account for the similarities in Mark and Luke and Mark and Matthew and Luke and Matthew; the idea being that there was a document that contained the sayings of Jesus, probably written down by those who heard him; and the people who were the sources of the Gospels began preaching, they used this collection as a kind of guide that gradually got embellished--until years later, when the documents were written down by those who had heard second-, third-, or fourth-hand from Luke in the "Lukan community," or Mark in the "Markan community," the legendary accretions got written down too, and this gave us the Gospels as we now know them.
That's the hypothesis, basically.
Now what do we find when we look at the text itself? The very first document ever written was the First Letter to the Thessalonians, almost certainly written in 50 while Paul was in Corinth. And what does it say? Not Word One about the sayings of Jesus the Guru. "[You told the people] how you turned to God from worshiping idols, how you became slaves of the real God who is alive, and how you are waiting for his son Jesus to come from heaven and raise the dead and save us from the punishment that is coming." "We believe that Jesus died and came back to life; and God will do the same for those who have fallen asleep with Jesus; he will bring them back with him."
But that's the "Christ of faith," not the "Jesus of history." The only moral teaching Paul gives is not really something you find in the Gospels; none of the enigmas like turning the other cheek; it is basic natural-law morality: "You know what the orders were that we gave you from Master Jesus. This is God's will for you, and your holiness: for you to keep away from sexual wrongs, for each of you to know how to keep possession of his organism in holiness and honor, and not let desire rule him as the pagans and those who do not know God do, and to know how not to be in competition with or take advantage of his brother or sister in what he does; the Master will make you pay for all of this, as we told you before and made very clear." Aristotle could have written that, except for the last sentence, and Moses could have written all of it.
So in fact, it is clear that what Paul had been preaching was that Jesus (a) was the son of YHWH, who is not like the pagan gods, (b) that he died and came back to life, and (c) that this was proof that we were saved from our sins.
We learn from his third letter, written to the people of Galatia between then and the year 57, that Paul was a Jew and a Pharisee of the most fanatical sort, going far beyond his fellow Pharisees in commitment to God as the Jews understood him and to observance of the Law. So Paul knew very very well the difference between YHWH, the Absolute, Almighty, Creator of Everything, invisible, unimaginable, and the pagan gods with their all-too-human foibles.
And yet here he is, preaching to the people of what is now northern Greece and central Turkey, pagans who have listened to him, that Jesus is the son of God, that he died and came back to life, and that this means that those who believe that he is the Prince who was prophesied and are "bathed in him" put on his livery and live with his life and become parts of him; and so when we die, we will come back to bodily life again; and this new life and union with the Prince who inherited Abraham's promise set us free from the Jewish Law.
True, a pagan wouldn't find all this so unusual: the death of the god and his restoration; the god having a human son; the union of the true believer with the god. But how could the preacher himself, a Jew, swallow all of that? How could any Jew? They had resisted just this sort of thing for hundreds of years; and he himself had tried to destroy this very belief. And yet it was the Jews who were the first believers.
I have a Theologian friend who told me once that the way he looked on the early Christians was that they were like little children, fond of stories and ready to believe anything you told them. Yet the stories aren't there in Paul's letters; he was giving them things that Theologians still wrestle with today; there's a lot of the meat and potatoes of dogma and morals in Paul, but very little dessert. And he had from the very beginning antagonized the Jews, and even a good many of the early Jewish Christians; he tells in this third letter how he even "stood up to [Peter] to his face and told him he should be ashamed of himself." (Incidentally, note that Peter from this early time was regarded as at least one of the most influential in the community, if not as the most important.)
Nor were the pagans any more eager to lap up everything that Paul said. The first letter to the Thessalonians was written from Corinth just after Paul had left Athens, where, if Luke is to be believed in Acts, he had quite an audience, until he started talking about bodily resurrection. "We'll talk about this some other time," they said.
And in that same year 57, in which he wrote the letter to Galatia, Paul was in Ephesus, writing back to Corinth, to the pagan converts. And what does he say? First of all, that there were all kinds of factions forming of disciples of various preachers arguing with one another; secondly, "precisely because the Judeans want proof of the Prince's authenticity and the Greeks are looking for scientific evidence, our proclamation deals with the Prince hanging on a cross, which is shocking to the Judeans and stupidity to the Greeks."
After all, the one who was claiming to be a god didn't set himself up as a sage like Gamaliel (who was Paul's teacher, by the way); he claimed to be the Prince who was prophesied; the successor to David who was to take over the throne and conquer the world. And he was killed for it as an impostor, and in the most disgraceful way a person could be killed: hanging naked, spread-eagled for everyone to see and jeer at.
Now these people were not fools; they knew that Tiberius and Claudius weren't really gods. Why should they pick this crook to worship? Nor was this something that the pagans outside the Christian community felt. Paul says in Chapter 15, "But if the proclamation says that the Prince came back from being dead, how is it that some of you claim that corpses don't come back to life?" That is, evidently, these early Christians were modern Theologians: the resurrection was symbolic, and shouldn't be taken literally.
And what Paul says here, in the year 57, some 25 years or so after Jesus died, is very instructive:
"If corpses don't come back to life, then the Prince didn't come back to life; and if the Prince didn't come back to life, then what you believe is a waste of time, and we turn out to be perjurers before God, because we have given testimony sworn before God that he brought the Prince back to life, which he didn't do if there is no bringing dead people to life again; and if the Prince didn't come back to life, your belief is useless; you still have your sins. Not to mention that those who have fallen asleep in the Prince no longer exist. If we are people who have hope in the Prince only in this life, we are the sorriest human beings there are. But the fact is that the Prince did come back to life, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep."
You have to stand on your head to interpret this as anything but an answer to the sophisticated, who see the "meaning" in all the legendary tales and view the whole thing as an allegory. Paul is clearly saying that this is precisely what it isn't. In fact, shortly before this passage, he says this, as a summary of what he preached:
"In the first place, I reported to you what I had reported to me: that the Prince died because of our sins, as Scripture predicted; that he was buried, that he came back to life on the third day after his death, and that he was seen by Cephas [Peter] and afterwards by the Twelve. Later, he was seen by more than five hundred brothers at the same time, a great many of whom are still alive, though some have died; and after that he was seen by James, and then by all the Prince's Emissaries--and last of all, as if I had been born at the wrong time, he was seen by me."
This is no allegory, in other words. People you can talk to actually saw this, and are swearing before God that they actually saw it. Paul isn't stressing the wisdom of Jesus the sage; his preaching doesn't really have anything to do with that. What Jesus said, and what he "stood for" in the sense of the values that he preached, is almost irrelevant; it's what happened to him and the implications of that for our lives (that our sins are removed, and that we will come back to life some day) that is what is being hammered at again and again, with the clear recognition that what actually happened is shocking if you're a Jew, and ridiculous if you're a pagan. But it's a fact nonetheless, is what Paul says, and needs no persuasive rhetoric to dress it up.
People talk today as I write this about Elvis Presley still being alive; but no one dares to say he got up from his grave. It's almost thirty years since John Kennedy was shot, and there's a kind of aura that's arisen around him; in fact, during the 1992 election, I think it was, when Vice President Quayle mentioned that he wasn't any younger than Kennedy, Lloyd Benson, his opponent in the debate, looked at him and said, "I knew John Kennedy, Mr. Quayle; and let me tell you, you are no John Kennedy," and all but wrecked Quayle's career for daring to compare himself with John Kennedy.
But even with that, it's inconceivable that anyone would start a rumor that Kennedy got up out of the grave and started walking around again. Too many of us were there and saw what happened; anyone who tried this would find himself escorted to a padded cell. If we think that this is ridiculous, were the Romans that much more naive? Judging by what Paul wrote in the letter to Corinth, they precisely weren't. It was as hard to believe then as it would be today. And the man they're talking about was no John Kennedy; he was (a) a nobody, the son of a carpenter, (b) from a little part of the world of no fame except as a hotbed of fanaticism, and (c) a crook, hanged in the most degrading, disgraceful way the Roman Empire possessed. The only thing it had going for it was the conviction of the people who were saying, "Look, I saw this happen; I'm just reporting what I saw."
Maybe after seventy or a hundred years, people might begin to take legend as fact; but not within the lifetimes of the people who actually saw what was happening. And anyway, if Paul is any indication, he certainly isn't confusing the two. He is well aware of the allegorical sense in which these things can be taken, and is fighting it every step of the way--against those in his own community who insist on applying it.
And, in fact, in that same year he wrote the letter to Corinth, he went there to preach again, and was bitterly attacked as a fraud, and as one who didn't know what he was talking about, and was only doing this for his own aggrandizement. He left Corinth in disgrace and shot back a letter from Asia Minor (which I think has come down to us as the last part of the second letter to Corinth, beginning with Chapter 10) defending himself against the charge, in which he says several things that are instructive for our purposes. First of all, he says this: "Then what is wrong with me? That I degraded myself--to dignify you--when I delivered the report of God's good news to you without charging you for it?" So he wasn't doing it for financial gain. He was a tent-maker and in the earlier days supported himself with this work.
Well then, was it for prestige?
"Are they [his accusers] the Prince's servants? This is the crazy man talking; I am more of one. I work a lot harder than they do, I've been in prison a lot more, I've been whipped many more times, and many times faced death. I got the "forty lashes minus one" from the Judeans five times, I've been beaten with rods [from the Roman lictors] three times, I was stoned once, I've been shipwrecked three times, and once spent a whole day and night in the water; most of the time, I'm traveling from one place to another, in danger from fording rivers, in danger from robbers, in danger from my own people, in danger from foreigners, facing the dangers you find in the city, the dangers you find in the country, the dangers in the ocean, the dangers from pseudo-brothers; most of the time I'm working hard, worn out and don't have enough sleep; I'm hungry and thirsty, and I've often gone without eating at all; and I've been cold and not had enough to wear; and besides these external troubles, there is the responsibility I carry every day, and my concern for all the communities."
There were, however, people that were making quite a good thing of "delivering the report." Shortly before the passage I quoted, he says,
"I'm going to say crazy things and lay out my claims like a braggart. There are a lot of people who brag a lot in this world; well, I can brag too. Anyway, you should have no trouble listening to a crazy man, since you are in your right minds. You put up with people who are enslaving you, eating you out of house and home, catching you in traps, putting themselves on a higher plane than you are, and slapping you in the face. But to my shame, I have to admit that we have been weak."
Later on, he says this:
"All right, maybe I haven't imposed on you financially myself; but from the beginning I've been a faker who swindled you out of your money. Did I manage this swindle by someone I sent as my representative? I sent Titus and the other brother; was it Titus who swindled you? Don't we behave with the same spirit? Don't we walk on the same path?
"Do you think I'm saying all this because I need to defend my conduct? I'm speaking in the presence of God and the Prince; and everything I say, friends, is supposed to be constructive for you."
In the early part of the Second Letter, which definitely was written after he had word from Titus that they were sorry for what they had done to him, he says:
"Of course, we have never "interpreted" God's word to fit our own ideas; we have said what we said in the Prince out of sincere hearts, as if it came from God and was said in God's presence. What, are we going to start all over again defending our conduct? Of course not."
Later, he says again,
"This is why we aren't really discouraged, because we have this service [of delivering the Report], which is, so to speak, our comfort; and so we have given up hiding things as if we were ashamed of them, and don't engage in devious behavior or "interpret" God's word to fit our own ideas. No, we stand right up in the light of the truth and let any person see everything before God."
And later on, he adds, "Stay on our side. We haven't wronged anyone or ruined anyone, or taken advantage of anyone."
What makes Paul's letters so convincing is that they aren't "composed" at all (except for the first two), but dictated just as fast as he could speak (shorthand had been invented by a former slave of Cicero's in 63 B. C., which must have been a blessing for Paul's scribe), obviously just pouring out his whole heart and soul, without trying in the least to "make an impression."
But for our purposes, the point is that he had absolutely nothing to gain from what he was doing: no money, no fame, nothing that would induce a person to lie. Not even any of it, obviously, from the communities he founded, except possibly those in Macedonia. In fact, in the very last letter he wrote, the second letter to Timothy, where he was in prison awaiting his death, he says, "The first time I appeared in court, no one helped in my defense; they all deserted me; but I hope that this won't be held against them." Two short paragraphs later, he is silent forever, facing certain execution on a cross, than which nothing is more horrible to contemplate. His own Master was said to have sweated blood over it.
So (a) there is no reason to think that Paul was doing anything but telling what he thought were the facts. Further, (b) he knew full well what the attitudes of the Jews and the pagans both were to the message he was giving them, and that it wasn't what they wanted to hear. Again, (c) he had seen Jesus himself, though "at the wrong time," and had talked at length to those who had been present at the events he was talking about, and he was no dupe. He precisely went to see them, "in case the path I was following led nowhere."
Where are we, then? If you're going to hold that Christianity with its fantastic stories about Jesus was legend, then how do you get around Paul's letters? There's no hope in placing the most telling of them anywhere but at the time I mentioned; there's too much testimony about them, not only from writers in the very earliest part of the second century, but from other documents in the Bible itself, like Peter's second letter. There's no way they could have been written by someone later and "backdated" so that they would sound as if they came from Paul.
And he gives ample testimony that what was "controversial" about Christianity wasn't what Jesus taught, but the idea that he was actually killed and actually came back to life; and that everyone knew that this was the issue, right from the beginning. Nobody was imprisoned or beaten for taking part in the Eleusinian "mysteries," which essentially said something like this, or for believing that Orpheus or Odysseus or Horus or whoever went into the underworld and came out again; nor was anyone in pagan Rome condemned for calling someone a god--it was as innocent a thing as our calling someone a superstar. But these people were claiming that it was a fact! They were claiming that what they meant by this was totally and utterly different from anything these other religions were claiming; they said it actually happened, that they saw it happen, and you had better listen to them. And they died for it.
And this wasn't just Paul. Peter's second letter says explicitly,
"You see, we were not retelling "meaningful" legends when we informed you about the power and presence of our Master Prince Jesus; we saw his magnificence with out own eyes. When, for instance, he had taken on himself from God the Father honor and glory, and the voice reverberated down to him from the glory of the Grandiloquent, "this is my Son, the one I love, in whom I am pleased," we heard this voice resound out of the sky while we were there with him on the holy mountain."
If Peter actually wrote that letter, it had to have been before he was killed in 67, during Nero's persecution. Many have put it late, on grounds that I find utterly unconvincing, but which I am not going to go into here, except to say that one of the main reasons is precisely this passage above. It would have to be late, the critics think, because the Transfiguration was one of those things that couldn't really have happened; and if he wrote it (a) he would know that he was lying, and (b) there wouldn't have been time for the legend to have become that entrenched. Precisely.
But if a later author wrote it, then he's a liar. This isn't like the Letter of James, which could have been written "as from" James, in the sense that it says things that James could have (and possibly did) say, and so was "in the spirit" of James. But since this passage of Peter's letter claims precisely that he is not recounting a legend but something that he saw with his own eyes and heard with his own ears, then any later author who wrote this is perpetrating fraud.
Well, I don't want to go through a whole exegesis of the New Testament; but let me make just a couple more points.
First of all, the Reports of the Good News, beginning with Mark and then Luke and then Matthew, seem to date from about this time (1) (65-70. John's Report apparently was not circulating until toward the end of the century). But there are other manuscripts extant, some which may have originated this early, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and so on (called the "Gnostic Gospels") but which were always regarded by the official community as spurious.
You would expect such things. Thirty to forty years after Jesus died, especially since from the beginning fantastic things were said about him, it would be inevitable that the facts would get embellished with legends, because those who had been hearing the Good News wouldn't be content with the bare essentials; they would be burning with curiosity about what Jesus did during his life and what he said. So the "legendary accretion" hypothesis isn't by any means far-fetched.
But it's not as simple as that. Supposing there actually to have been fantastic events in Jesus' life, and that these were crucial to people's belief in what Jesus' life meant to them, there would be a counter-tendency to want to weed out what was imaginative embellishment from what actually happened. And so, just as was the case with Muhammad, there would be strong pressure to get what actually happened written down while the original eye-witnesses were still alive. And given that once Nero got into the act, these witnesses were dying like flies, it would have to be done fast.
Furthermore, you would expect a kind of committee to arise, whose function precisely would be to make sure that distortions, however nobly motivated, didn't creep into the original facts. We see this natural tendency as early as Paul's letters to Timothy:
"And if anyone teaches something else and doesn't follow God-fearing teaching and a healthy way of thinking--the way of thinking of our Master Jesus--then he is a pompous fool who doesn't know anything; he is sick for puzzles and riddles that only lead to jealousy, bickering, sarcastic remarks, suspicions, and arguments. This is what happens to people who have destroyed their minds and turned away from the truth; they think religion ought to be 'useful.'"
"And now, in the presence of God and jesus the Prince, who is going to judge the living and the dead, I command you by his appearing and his kingship, deliver the proclamation; harp on it, at the right time and at the wrong times; answer objections, correct errors, and lead people with perfect patience and guidance. There will be a time when they won't listen to healthy teaching, and will turn away to what they like to hear and look for teachers that tickle their ears; they'll plug up their ears to the truth and listen to stories instead."
So the psychological necessities involved in the passage of the years, if Jesus in fact came back to life, predicts that (a) authentic accounts from the eye-witnesses would be written down; (b) spurious accounts would begin to be written also, passing themselves off as authentic; and (c) a definite structure would arise preserving what was authentic from what was spurious. And this is just what we find evidence of.
But if Jesus was really the Galilean Guru, what you would find first would be the sayings (and, by the way, though there are manuscripts of the rejected Gnostic Gospels, there is not the smallest scintilla of manuscript evidence for the famous "Q"). Then, as the legends began to form, you would find numbers of these legends appearing; but on this hypothesis there would be no grounds for distinguishing different sets of legends and rejecting some as "inauthentic." The legends about other figures, such as the heavenly portents around Augustus's birth and so on, weren't categorized into "authentic" and "spurious"; how could they be?
But in this connection, the beginning of Luke's Report is extremely interesting. Luke was a companion of Paul in his travels, and also of Peter, but apparently had not himself been a witness of what happened to Jesus. This is what he says:
"Although, my noble Theophilus ["God-lover"--a name, but possibly also a literary device], there have been many attempts to give a description of the events that have taken place among us--apparently based on what we have been told from the original eye-witnesses who dedicated themselves to the service of what they were affirming--I still thought it would be useful to research the whole matter from the beginning and write you the results of a careful study, so that you would know what would be safe to consider factual in what you have been told."
That is, "It is my purpose to do research to weed out the authentic from the spurious in the reports that are circulating" and presumably consulting those who were still around and ought to know. As a companion of Peter, he had access to at least one witness who had seen a lot of what happened with his own eyes; and there is no reason why he wouldn't have been acquainted with many others. Judging by the closings of Paul's letters, these people intermingled rather freely.
This intermingling, by the way, is a very good argument against the hypothesis that there were "Lukan communities" and "Matthean communities" and so on, following one person and relatively insulated from the rest. Paul himself shows that in Corinth, there were the followers not only of himself, but of Apollos and Peter; and when he wrote to Rome, he gave his regards to all sorts of people there, in spite of the fact that he had never up to that time visited the city. And Paul's letters were causing all kinds of trouble as time went on, throughout the whole Christian world. No, there was mixing all over the place.
Furthermore, the notion that these reports were orally circulated and only written down years after the originators of the reports had died supposes that these people stayed in more or less the same place--against which there's good evidence--and more importantly, flies in the face of the psychological exigency that there be written documents to preserve the ipsissima verba. Can you imagine the people not demanding that Matthew, say, write down what he had been telling them? Especially the people who were circulating Paul's letters all through the communities, to such an extent that the letter found in Ephesus (Ephesians, of course), was obviously not written to his friends there, since it was directed at strangers, and was evidently the one he refers to in Colossians that he was sending to Laodicea. The best manuscripts, in fact, have a blank where the name of the addressee is.
Finally, let me say a couple of things about John's very different report of the Good News. It was written toward the end of the century; there's quite good evidence for this; and the whole purport of it is to make it crystal clear (a) that Jesus is God, and not just "a son of God"; (b) that he is completely human and flesh and blood; and (c) that we become "one thing" with him by believing. He also says at the end, "it is an eye-witness who is reporting this, one who knows of his own knowledge the facts he is relating. It's purpose is for you to believe it."
Some have said that this is evidence that John didn't write this, because he "wouldn't have needed" to claim that he was an eye-witness. This is grasping at straws. First of all, the author never says that he is John (which has led some, since he claims to be "the student Jesus loved," to say that the Gospel was written by Lazarus, for God's sake, because it says there that "Jesus was fond of Lazarus"! That shows you what you have to wade through if you want to study this field).
That aside, why write this book so late? People by this time (we have independent evidence) were beginning to claim that Jesus didn't have a real body, but was just an apparition, and others (of course) that he wasn't divine. What would you expect from one of the very last survivors but the very thing that we have? In fact, it's also the burden of his first letter.
Incidentally, if the documents were written late "as from" earlier people (a practice I admit was not uncommon in those days), then why didn't these later authors do what the author of the Book of Wisdom did when he claimed to be Solomon? Why didn't they say that the books were written by James, or Andrew, or one of the Twelve? Only two of them even claim to be by these Representatives: Matthew, who was pretty much a nobody among the Twelve, except that he had been a tax collector, and, years and years later, John, who doesn't identify himself in the text. That's a pretty silly way of associating yourself with somebody famous. And who are Mark and Luke? They were barely mentioned in Paul's letters, and not always terribly favorably. It's the Gnostic Gospels, rejected as inauthentic, which have the famous names attached to them. Then why were these four documents thought to have been written by these four people? Because they wrote them.
Now then, given that all the original Emissaries got into all kinds of trouble for saying what they said, and were killed in horrible ways for sticking to their statement that they were just telling the facts that they themselves saw, then the only way you can say that the documents don't report the facts is to claim (a) that the people who were supposed to have written them didn't write them, and the writing came much later--which, as I said, there's a great deal of evidence against, and for which the evidence is very feeble except on the a priori supposition that they couldn't have been written by the people who were supposed to have written them, because then they'd be true--or (b) the original observers were deluded.
But against this last point, there's the statement in John about what happened in the empty tomb. "The other student, the one who had arrived first, then went in also, and saw for himself what was there, and then began to believe what had happened. Up to this point, they had not understood what the Scripture meant when it foretold that he was to come back to life." And of course, John relates the case of Thomas, who won't believe what the others tell him until Jesus asks him to put his hand into the hole in his chest. (Did he actually do it?)
There is also ample evidence in Luke and the other evangelists that the students were not expecting him to come back to life, even though he had foretold it; they apparently thought he was using another analogy in referring to his return on the third day.
But what I find most interesting is how John undercuts his own case in the episode of the catch of fish on the banks of the Lake of Galilee. They were in the boat fishing, and saw Jesus on the bank, and John only recognized who it was by the fact that, following the man's advice, they had suddenly found their nets full. But then when they got back to the bank and approached him, John says, "None of the students dared ask him who he was, since they knew that it was the Master." Here they are, looking straight at him, and "none of them dared ask him who he was." Obviously, he must have looked very different from the Jesus they knew before.
Now why did John write that? He was trying to prove that Jesus got up out of the grave, and actually walked around again; and they saw him and can testify to what they saw. And yet, at this point, they didn't recognize him by sight. The only sensible reason I can find for this is that John was trying to be scrupulously honest. It was evidently perfectly clear to him then and later that he was looking at Jesus; but he didn't look the same, somehow. But rather than mask this to strengthen the case, he put it in, so that centuries later, we still wonder at it.
Duplicity is, I think, the last thing you could accuse the writers of these documents of. Nor are they the naive little peasants we think of when we speak of "fishermen" in that demeaning tone. Peter and John both owned fishing businesses, with hired hands, and so must have been fairly prosperous. After all, Peter went back to his fishing after three years, and apparently the boat was still there. And John was well enough known to the high priest that he could get into his courtyard on that fatal night, no questions asked. Because Jesus said it was a good thing to be poor, it doesn't follow that he recruited from among the poor; in fact, in at least one case, we know he didn't: Matthew was a tax-collector, and they were anything but poor.
Then where are we? I think that if you read the documents in order, there is only one rational explanation for why Christianity caught on, and why these documents exist today: the authors were reporting facts, facts that the people of that sophisticated age couldn't get around and explain away. That's why I'm a Christian. Of course, I believe that the free gift of God has allowed me to approach the documents with an open mind, and not be convinced that, because the events sound like things told in many other religions, and because they couldn't have happened, they didn't really happen.
As to why I am a Catholic, three things: First, Catholics are the most "fundamentalist" of the fundamentalists. I don't know any Protestant, still less fundamentalist, who doesn't try to explain away the "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my community" by saying, something like "You are Peter," pointing to him, "and on this rock" (pointing to himself) "I will build my community." There is absolutely no textual justification for this. Granted, petros is masculine, and petra feminine, and the masculine petros means the kind of rock you can pick up and throw, while petra means "bedrock." But the difference in gender is just as easily explained by saying that you don't go around calling a man something feminine; and anyway, the Aramaic Cephas, which is certainly what Jesus used (Paul also uses the term), doesn't admit this neat little distinction. Nor are there many other Christians who take, "This is my body" literally; though it makes it hard to see what the sense is in Paul's statements to the Corinthians or John's reporting of the so-called "bread of life" speech if it isn't literal. Many students left Jesus after trying to get him to explain himself; but Jesus only became more and more literal the more they pressed him.
The second reason I am a Catholic is that this is the community which can trace its origins back to the original representatives, and which has dedicated itself to keeping the original teaching intact. I know that the Orthodox also have a good claim on this; but you have the problem of "You are Peter" once again.
And the third reason is what I said earlier: The Catholic Church in the modern world is almost the only one that has remained steadfast in the face of intellectual fads, particularly that of relativism and individualism. It has said, "Sorry, but facts are facts, and no matter how beneficial it might be to declare them non-facts, we simply can't do it." If Jesus is God, and if he wanted people to know of it, then the logic of this would demand a preservation of the facts so that even today they could still be known as facts.
I don't know how convincing I have been; but these are my reasons why I think that Christianity is unique, and that the Catholic version of it is the most complete understanding of it. And that why I think my faith is reasonable.
As to what my faith entails, I won't bore you with it. I wrote what I think it implies for people's lives in a book called Preface to the Lay Life, which is another of those books that no one has yet read and which no one will probably read until I die if I'm right, and which will never be read if I'm mistaken.
Let us now leave religion, then, and get back to philosophy, where we'll discuss the ways people relate to each other.Next
1. This is the point of the subsequent book I wrote, The Synoptic Gospels Compared, which showed (I think conclusively) that the "Jesus of history/Christ of faith" dichotomy was inconsistent with the very Gospel texts (of Mark, Luke, and Matthew) that it was supposed to be illuminating; that these were not things that were written down many decades after the event, but by the people whose names are attached to the writings, at least two of whom were Jesus's Emissaries (Apostles).