Life, Death, and Canon
by Ben Stone
In western culture, if one believes in a Supreme Being, then by default one likely bases that belief on the Judeo-Christian Bible and its surrounding traditions. That being the case, if one is to examine the Bible and its history, one should discover a somewhat consistent theology defined by that Bible and supported by a documented journey from the writers down to today. We should have no problem understanding why the biblical canon (The selected texts agreed upon as the Bible.) contains the books it contains. But that is the exact opposite of the actual facts at hand.
Additionally, in western culture, if one thinks about Jesus, then by default one likely thinks about the religion that has been painted by Christian clergy over the last two thousand years, rather than thinking of the individual man and the simple concepts he actually taught. I don’t know how many times “atheists” have confronted me (They confronted me, I do not seek to convert anyone!) with arguments against God or Jesus that are actually arguments against Christian dogma, not against something Jesus actually taught. That statement applies equally to Christians that push one denomination over another. They almost never actually touch on the actual teachings of Jesus. The reason for this confusion is clearly stated by my friend Paul Rosenberg, “Christianity has been a religion about Jesus, not of Jesus.”
To keep this writing to a readable length, I will set aside the Old Testament and examine only portions of the New Testament. Also I will touch on the “Christian” concepts of an afterlife involving Heaven or Hell, as opposed to the Mediterranean pagan belief in Hades, a holding place for all dead souls.
To start with I’ll cover some basic historical facts and give an overview of the time of the birth of Christianity. Any commentary or opinion will be clearly stated as such. Also I’ll refer to the body of Jewish people at the time, living largely in that region, as “Judea” regardless of political boundaries.
Timeline: 330 BCE to 400 CE
Roughly 330 BCE Alexander III of Macedon swept through the middle east spraying Greek culture and religion throughout the region. He mostly went around the area of Judea, but discussions of an afterlife gained popularity in Judea by the influence of Greek culture. Alexander was essentially a rock star and Greek culture was all the rage in those days. Most of the religions around that area, including in Babylon where many Israelites were enslaved for some time, believed in a Hades-like underworld where all the dead went, but the Judean priestly class at that time didn’t believe in an afterlife.
In 200 BCE King Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria invaded Judea and disrupted the relative peace of the time. Along with mass murder, he desecrated the temple in Jerusalem and forced the priests to publicly violate the Torah. Many lost faith in the priests and Judea became split into sects. However the bulk of Judea at the time didn’t belong to any particular sect. Rebellion and war continued for about 150 years, until the Romans enforced peace on the region.
The Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes
The Sadducees were the most powerful sect of Jews during the time of Jesus, but that would suddenly change in a few years. They existed from about 530 BCE to a little after 70 CE, the time of the destruction of the temple, followed by their virtual extermination by the Romans in the years that followed. They were the priests, guards, and caretakers of the temple, along with other responsibilities. The Roman court historian Josephus said that they were the upper social and economic echelon of Judean society and as a whole the sect fulfilled various political, social, and religious roles. It is eluded to in many texts of the day, that the Sadducees were politically corruptible and by the time of Jesus, were mostly supportive of the Roman occupation of Judea.
The Sadducees didn’t believe in an afterlife because it is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah. If the account of Jesus going to the temple at the age of twelve, where he had a discourse with “doctors of the law”, is to be believed, then it must be assumed that Jesus was speaking to the leading Sadducees of the day. There is no indication that the Sadducees had any negative inclinations toward Jesus until some twenty years later, the day he disrupted their money changing operations at the temple, and beat the Sadducee merchants with a whip. According to the Gospels, Jesus was arrested that night and executed the next day.
The Pharisees were the second most powerful sect of Jews during the time of Jesus. They existed from about 200 BCE to sometime before 200 CE, with the transition from Pharisaic to Rabbinic Judaism. The Pharisees may have only numbered less than 10,000 at their peak, but Josephus claimed that they received the full support and goodwill of the common people. Oddly enough, Josephus also claimed that the Pharisees came before the Roman emperor around 65-66 CE, and begged him to invade Jerusalem. When the legions arrived, it was the Pharisees that opened the city gates. Also it was the Pharisees that entered the temple and murdered the Sadducees, before the Romans came in and sacked and destroyed the temple. Josephus infers that the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple were orchestrated by the Pharisees to unseat the Sadducees and take control of Judaism, and it largely worked.
The Pharisees were heavily influenced by the Greeks, and were avid debaters. They believed truth could be derived through debate. This explains why, according to the Gospels, they regularly confronted Jesus and offered him loaded questions and other debate tricks to try to embarrass him. It was also very likely Pharisees who arranged the murder of John The Baptist, the son of a temple Sadducee priest.
Since the Pharisees based their beliefs partly on the results of debate rather than strictly the Torah, and since they were largely a product of the Hellenistic period, they held a variety of beliefs regarding the afterlife and trusted in several other texts, in addition to the Torah. Much like the Greeks, some believed in a physical resurrection, some a spiritual resurrection, and some believed in various versions of reincarnation. Also like the Greeks, some Pharisees believed in punishment after death and some did not.
The so called “Apostle Paul” was a Pharisee, along with the lesser known Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and Gamaliel. They were also likely the richest and most influential people of the early church as it spread outside of the Jerusalem area into the greater Greek culture. And just to be clear, Judaism was already gaining popularity all over the Greek speaking world, so these Greek Jews were prime targets for Paul.
The Essenes, the likely keepers of the library at the Dead Sea, were communists. They tended to live communally, in poverty, sharing any wealth and sharing all work. They existed from about 200 BCE to some time around 100 CE, when they may have vanished due to attrition or the Romans may have murdered them. They believed strongly in a ritual bath for all new believers. The Essenes likely either influenced, or may have even been the origin of John the Baptist and his younger cousin, Jesus.
Much like the Sadducees, the Essenes didn’t believe in an afterlife because it is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah. If the New Testament of the Bible didn’t exist, I would argue, Jesus would historically be associated with either the Essenes or he would be considered a rebel Sadducee.
The origins of the New Testament
Oddly, we have detailed eye witness documentation of the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and we have detailed documentation of the bath tub of Herod I, from about 20 BCE, but no physical documentation of any of the four biblical Gospels until well after 300 CE when the Roman government adopted the Christian faith and suddenly possessed all of the acceptable Christian documentation. One has to wonder why that would be the case. But let’s look a little closer.
It is generally believed that either the book of Matthew or Mark is the oldest of the Gospels, one coping the other, and both first appearing around 80 CE, roughly 50 years after the death of Jesus. Some scholars believe they are both based on a lost document referred to as “Q”. Luke seems likely to be a copy of both Matthew and Mark with some added material that supports an early split in Christianity, introducing the idea of an eternal punishment for sinners. The book of John seems to be an entirely separate work from a later time, however it’s believed that it went through several versions before the finished product appeared. Again, there is no actual documentation of these events, only verbal stories along with people referencing the books a hundred years or more later, sometimes quoting them, but often quoting things in them that do not appear in modern versions.
Many people believe that Matthew, Mark, and John, may have been mostly written by the historical Matthew, Mark, and John, even with no documentation to prove it. However “Luke” was almost certainly not written by the companion of Paul, Luke the physician. By the verbiage used and the style of writing, “Luke” was likely written by a Greek speaking Egyptian woman after 100 CE. Attaching the name “Luke” to the writing gave it an air of Pauline authority. However the fragments of texts that survive are at least third-generation copies from the 3rd century CE, with no two identical. The book of “Luke” seems to me to be included in Christian canon simply because it supports the Greek/Pharisee faction that split from the Jewish Christians between 50 and 100 CE.
By tradition, the book of The Acts of the Apostles was also attributed to Luke, however this is problematic. The style of writing is very different from the book of “Luke”, and factually contradictive of the later Pauline letters of the New Testament, also accredited to Luke. Christian apologists jump through hoops to explain these problems, but I find their gymnastics weak at best. It appears to me, again, they were included in canon because they so clearly fit the Roman government storyline widely adopted in the 3rd and 4th century when Christianity merged with the State by order of the Roman emperor Constantine.
Almost exactly the same thing can be said for the 5 books credited to John. From the writing style and the verbiage used, they are almost certainly from at least three different authors. Christian apologists can’t even agree which historical John they want to give credit to for the 5 books. Also John alone provides us with the powerful vision of a burning lake of fire where nonbelievers will be cast for eternity, however that book wasn’t agreed upon as genuine as late as the middle of the third century. But this lake of fire provides the single foundation of Christianity that places the clergy in a position of power never before seen in any religion. When you believe you face such an eternity unless a priest drops a wafer in your mouth and says some magic words, you tend to obey that priest. A thing quite handy in a crumbling empire, desperate for some glue to hold it together.
Keeping in mind, no complete copies of any of the books of the New Testament are older than the 4th century CE, with only contradictory fragments remaining from the 3rd century CE, and nothing but simple references to their titles or short misquotes prior to that. A list of the titles of which books should be included as canon first appeared in 367 CE, but wasn’t affirmed as such until 382 CE, and that by what was essentially a committee of Roman bureaucrats.
This could have all been cleared up if Jesus had just told one of his followers to take notes. And to be fair, I do agree with some scholars who tackle this question by saying that many of the witnesses to Jesus’ ministry assumed he would return within their life time, so why bother documenting it. However, that argument means either Jesus didn’t get his point across very well, or his listeners simply weren’t paying that close attention, which according to the Gospels Jesus actually accused them of at the time. A second argument could be based on human nature. Very few people document their life as they live it. It’s only when they grow old that they start to reflect on their life and then, on rare occasion, they write down their stories.
Thinking about that split that happened within the first generation of believers, there were actually many splits. Most documentation of these splits is written entirely from the point of view of the victors, not the vanquished. One split is blamed on the argument of circumcision, claiming that the Jewish Christians wanted all Christians to be circumcised, where as the Pharisee Paul, who never met Jesus, took the side of the Greeks, rejecting the practice. Eventually, we are told, somehow Peter, who was opposed to Paul in this argument, changed his mind and founded the church in Rome, of all places. (That’s a massive summing up of the issue.)
My opinion is that much of the circumcision argument is purely a Red Herring. It’s a thing that has often be used as a tool to condemn Jews or drive Christians and Jews apart. My opinion is that the true split in the first generation believers is based squarely on the argument of afterlife, and specifically on the idea of eternal punishment. I would argue that the Christian Jews would have rejected the concept of a burning eternal punishment that I believe was pushed by the Pauline Pharisees, however the Greek Jews would have already mostly believed it before their conversion to Christianity. Keep in mind that the scriptures tell us that there was “a great company of the priests” that were a part of this early group of believers. Those would be Sadducee priests. They wouldn’t just lay down their roots and embrace the concept of a burning Hell, especially since Jesus never taught such a thing. No, I smell propaganda in the circumcision argument.
Let’s do a little thought experiment. Think of the last two and a half centuries in our time. What if the founding documents of the United States weren’t written down until both Jefferson and Madison were on their death beds in the early 1800s. Then what if we found ourselves today in a situation where the current administration suddenly proclaimed that it possessed the best copies of those documents from Jefferson and Madison, and any unauthorized copies were outlawed. Could we assume the government was being honest with us about our “rights” as stated in those authorized copies? Add another 100 years to that story and it begins to look like what likely happened to the story of Jesus, substituting Rome for Washington DC. Also consider that in Rome, Constantine became emperor by killing his opponents. Of course then he converted to Christianity and changed the law so Christians were protected. So in our world, considering our thought experiment, what would the government’s authorized history look like? Would we have any hint of free speech? Would we be allowed to arm ourselves? Would we even have a right to a trial?
Considering the fantasy that American school children are taught about the War of 1812, the entirely false history of the “Pilgrims”, and the out-right lies about the “Liberty Bell”, I imagine a government authorized “Church” in Rome, four hundred years after a Roman dignitary had Jesus murdered, is not a reliable source of documentation. Like the American history sold to the American public, it likely had elements of truth, washed in an ocean of lies.
An Ocean of Lies
As a Quaker, this phrase takes me straight to George Fox. “I saw, also, that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that also I saw the infinite love of God, and I had great openings.”
The simple monarch butterfly has the instinct to leave the warm trees of central Mexico and brave the journey to Canada, simply to mate and lay eggs on milkweed plants. Then those offspring instinctively fly south to the very tree their parents vacated earlier that year. Geese and ducks defy the elements and know from birth that they must make the long hard trek to propagate their species. As do penguins, under the harshest conditions on the surface of our planet.
Are you not made of better clay than insects and birds?
I would posit that humans contain within their being a (possibly) genetic memory. It tells them who they are and why they exist. It drives them to reproduce and it drives them to seek answers to questions. It drives them to rebel to authority while at the same time it drives them to conform to the community. And we are born with a basic understanding of property rights, as can be witnessed by simply trying to take something from a baby’s grasp. So then, what of the Gospels can be believed and what should be rejected? I think, much like George Fox taught, the answers are within us. We just have to sit quietly and listen for them.
The Greek storyteller Homer, gave us great stories about the Trojan war and the trek of Odysseus afterwards. The majority of his stories were religious and political propaganda of the day, but fragments of truth have been shown to be buried in Homers account. The religious and political powers of the day used Homer’s stories to maintain power and authority, and likely changed Homer’s stories as they needed over the years. I suspect the same goes for the Gospels. I think there likely was a person named Jesus, who taught the basic message of peace and respect of our fellow humans. That we should strive to love one another and treat each other as we would like to be treated. That we shouldn’t fear death but should embrace our lives and treat our neighbors as ourselves, even if it means self sacrifice.
I believe these principles are hard wired into our being, but I believe the noises of life tend to deafen us to that pure sound. Things like greed, also a human tendency that was necessary for survival at points in our history, are contrary to Jesus’ basic message. The human tendency towards anger and the desire for revenge can fog our minds, if we allow them. The desire to follow a great leader, once very important, now works against us. The need to fear a foreign enemy was once a survival instinct, but now it’s simply a tool of the greedy, the angry, the followers of leaders, and the fearful who depend on government as their god.
I believe, if not now then at some future time, we will be able to shift away from the unnecessary human tendencies that hold us as slaves to government and to religious leaders, and we will adopt the pure principles of peace and fellowship that Jesus taught. Going back to George Fox, if we can just swim towards the light and reject the darkness of greed, hate, lies, and fear, we can enter an unending ocean of fellowship. I don’t need a book to tell me these things. That said, I have read the Iliad and the Odyssey several times and will likely read them again. I have also read the Bible from cover to cover several times, and will likely read it as well. They all contain jewels of wisdom and a glimpse into ages past. But I simply cannot believe that an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful, caring God would telegraph the most important secrets of life by way of a long contradictory text message spread over thousands of years, that has been lost and found, modified and added to, over and over. And then, if you didn’t understand that text message, that same God would condemn you to burn in Hell for eternity.
I hope and believe in a loving, caring God, because at our roots humans are loving and caring creatures. I hope and believe we are purposeful beings. I hope and believe that we live beyond our mortal path. I hope and believe these things because it makes my life more fulfilling, it gives me hope, and it causes me to be more tolerant to the ignorant human scum that occasionally block my path. By believing these things I can step around the flaws in people and recognize that I too have flaws, and I too am sometimes the ignorant human scum, blocking someone’s path. But I cannot prove as a fact, that life goes on after death. And I certainly can’t accept a 4th century Roman bureaucrat’s word for it. All I can say is that it seems to me that such noble creatures as humans ought to have a better destiny than to simply rot into the mud after they die. However the Bible says that from clay we came and to dust we will return. So I could be wrong.
For a more information on this topic, HERE is a link to a great book that covers this much better than I have on this page.