Thursday, June 11, 2015

Bias Toward Assuming That Jesus Existed

Clearly, in our culture the topic of Jesus is not handled the way that other topics are. In a culture which has been built around Jesus for 1600 years (ca AD 400 being the time in which public expressions of non-Christian worldview started to be severely curtailed), it should come as no surprise that the discussion of the historical Jesus does not resemble that of the historical Achilles or Arthur.

So, while I'm not telling you anything new when I say that Jesus has a unique place in our culture, I think it might be helpful to try to constantly keep this uniqueness in mind when we're talking about Jesus' historicity or lack of it. Habits of thought and speech which have accumulated over the course of thousands of years, and reinforced by deviations from acceptable expression being punished by torture and death, are not going to be shed so easily. Indeed, I doubt that it's yet possible even to be conscious of the extent of those habits.

And in addition to the effect that Christianity has had on our entire civilization, there is the added fact that for most of the past 1600 years, the Christian clergy held a a very tight monopoly on our educational institutions. For a large portion of the Middles Ages in Western Europe it was rather rare that someone who wasn't a member of the clergy could read. See how many Medieval works of history or science or philosophy you can find, let alone theology proper, which don't begin with a mention of Jesus. Investigate the relationships between the leaders of universities and the Catholic Inquisitions and Protestant witch hunts. This tight hold has relaxed somewhat, but we still don't find it odd -- if and when we pause to think about it at all, that is -- that very many of our leading universities in the US are run by churches, or how often private grammar and high schools run by religious institutions are still thought of as the best ones. In the Middle Ages Christian theology was called the Queen of the sciences, and theologians were the heads of the universities. Today theologians are only sometimes the presidents and chancellors of universities. But the line between Biblical scholars and theologians is still either very blurry or non-existent at most American universities.

What I'm saying is: OF COURSE there remains a great bias in favor of the assumption that Jesus existed and against any examination of that assumption. Of course the study of Jesus is dominated by a last-ditch defense of powers and authorities which used to come close to those of monarchs in many cases, and which exceeded those of monarchs in many others, besides those instances in which the local Prince and the local Bishop were one and the same. Of course many alliances between secular political power and Christian power and academic power remain, some plain to see and others decently shielded from the light of day. And of course tradition will be much more powerful in faculties of theology and Biblical studies than in some other faculties.

Where I came in was: the topic of Jesus is discussed differently than other topics. It receives many times more attention than the topic of whether Odysseus really existed. Or Paris and Helen. No one bats an eyes if you ask whether there really was a Helen. It's not a traumatic subject to anyone these days, with the possible exception of a few dozen especially-passionate Classical scholars. People react completely differently to the topic of Jesus. Of course they do. They very often lose their composure and, temporarily, a bit of their minds, whether in a pro- or anti-Christian way.

And I do think that there's a sort of traditionalist last stand going on in the very places which should be in charge of doing away with it: the places where academics specialize in the study of the New Testament and Early Christianity and Jesus. I'd be lying if I told you that the reaction of the experts to doubts about Jesus' existence didn't seem different to me, not only from contemporary academia in general, but also the reactions of the very same Biblical scholars when the topic is anything else. Anything else at all: Abraham's existence, Moses' existence, David's existence, John the Baptist's existence, Jesus' actual words, his actual deeds -- every single imaginable topic except for the topic of Jesus' actual existence. Bring that up, and a lot of them go kind of nuts. And almost all the rest go completely nuts.

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