Sunday, December 21, 2008
The True Meanings of Christmas, Part I
Christmas used to mean something different to me than it does now.
You see, I once believed devoutly that for human beings to avoid eternal torment (just by virtue of having been born), we had to torture and murder God/God's son, and then in commemoration, had to symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood. Christmas was the day we celebrated the birth of our victim.
Of course, I didn't use this language. Like other believers, I employed a wide variety of self-deception techniques (like euphemisms) to shield my conscious mind from the grotesque, and I might say, truly profane, nature of the story I had based my life on. But at its core, the story is just as I have written it above.
Anyway, I now believe something different. It goes like this.
"Jesus Christ" is the anglicized version of the words "Iesous christos", Greek for "Joshua the Anointed" (the New Testament was written in Greek). "Joshua the Anointed"'s real name (in Aramaic, his first language) was Yeshua Bar-Yosef - Joshua Josephson, in plain English.
Josh Josephson grew up in the Galilee area, and was one of many Israelite reformers of his time. Like them, he performed miracles, attracted disciples, developed a set of teachings, and was viewed with suspicion by Roman authorities and Jewish elders.
Unlike his depiction by most modern (Protestant) Christian artists, who like to paint him as tall, blazingly handsome, with Nordic features, longish, golden hair, and disposed to gleaming, sparkling white robes, Josephson looked pretty much like his disciples - dark-skinned, short-ish, short-haired, and dressed in the same rough clothing (the painting included on this entry is an educated guess about what he would have looked like). At least, this is what the Bible (as opposed to our imaginations) indicates. After all, why else would Judas Iscariot have to identify his leader to the Roman authorities with a kiss, if he didn't look like everyone else? If he had long hair - which would have been extremely unusual anyway for that time and place - why would Paul [who claimed to have seen Josephson in person, and who knew many people who had known him in person] say in I Cor. 11 that long hair on a man was a disgrace? The modern Christian image not only has no warrant, but is actually contradicted by the text of the Bible, and by everything we know about the customs of the time.
Josephson's miracles? Devout Christians seem to forget that, historically speaking, miracles - or maybe better, "miracles" - are a dime a dozen. There are thousands of accounts from all over the world, from all different religious traditions, of people flying, or turning into wolves, or sprouting wings, or coming back from the dead, or seeing the future, or fighting devils, or talking to angels and fairies and ghosts, of healing and being healed, of visiting the underworld, of turning into different people for awhile...just last night I re-read the account of Athena turning into Menthes so as to infiltrate the dinner party at Odysseus's house in The Odyssey (Book One). Such accounts are not unusual; they are the way that our ancestors, living in a pre-scientific age, interpreted the world.
After all, they had no other explanation available to them, did they? When a man suddenly drops to the ground, wets himself, starts shaking violently and foaming at the mouth in an era when no even knows that the brain controls such things, let alone has ever conceived of such a thing as epilepsy, then "possession by evil spirits" makes a sort of sense, doesn't it? Especially when you already believe in spirits. At least it's something. And when the seizure stops, you want an explanation for that, too. And on it goes.
Besides this, the propensity to "improve" stories in the re-telling, especially when they involve a person we are precommitted to believing has extraordinary powers, is too widely acknowledged, even now, to warrant me defending. Everyone knows it. I myself have been the fortunate object of just such "improvement". When I was in Argentina years ago, I learned a number of phrases in the aboriginal language of Toba. Everytime I visited a settlement of Toba natives, I'd trot them out: "how are you?", "It's a nice day, isn't it?", etc.
A year after I returned home, I called back down to my old apartment to talk to the missionaries about how my old friends were doing. Upon hearing my name, the missionaries fairly freaked: "you - you're - you're THE Elder Bachman?! I - I - wow. We've - heard TONS OF STORIES ABOUT YOU, MAN! I mean, like, wow! Yeah, the aborigines down here have told us ALL ABOUT HOW YOU TOTALLY LEARNED THEIR LANGUAGE, and you were, like, RAPPIN' WITH THEM ALL THE TIME, just like you were a native Toba! Total gift of tongues, dude! It's an honour to speak with you!", etc.
So...that was exactly one year after I left the area. Miracle-making, or at least one form of it, is sort of like planting a seed: do a little something out of the ordinary amongst certain people who like you and who are prone to superstition (cut up some bread and fish, perhaps), and with time, your little something grows, and grows, and grows in the fertile soil of human imagination, until it becomes some fantastic, even supernatural, feat that only someone with "something extra special" could ever have done. So, in my case, a few phrases in Toba multiplied by a year and the power of human imagination equalled a genuine miracle. Think of how the story would have (or has) grown over five years? Ten years? Fifteen? Twenty?
WELL - the stories recorded in the four gospels were passed on orally for at least four decades before being written down - and it is likely it was more like five and six decades. How drastically might they have been "improved"? AND, except in the case of John - who wrote, it must be said, almost a century after Josephson's birth (supposing that the book's author really is who he says he is) - there is no reason to believe that the writers of the other three gospels (whoever they actually were) could even pretend to have been eyewitnesses to the events. No wonder there are so many troubling discrepancies and contradictions.
Moreover, even just taking the gospels seriously as the founding documents of Christianity (since they purport to be biographies of its supposed founder) gives us another problem: there is simply no indication in the four gospels of Joshua Josephson wanting to start a brand new religion. He says over and over that he is devoted to the law of Moses. He never mentions changing the Sabbath. He never mentions the mass invitation of Gentiles into the tribal religion he wished to reform. He never mentions abolishing Jewish dietary laws. He wants to reform - not start a brand new religion apart from Yahwehism. It is just not there. It is Peter and Paul, according to the Bible itself, who essentially invent a brand new religion or cult based on the worship of their deceased leader. But where Paul and Peter are recorded as contradicting the plain teachings of their leader...who should Christians follow? If they follow Josephson, they would be simply be a certain sort of practicing Jew. If they follow his disciples, then they are following what the Bible itself suggests is a religion at odds with the whole mission of Josephson as recorded in the gospels.
Much more could be said, but just one more thing. Even if we can make ourselves believe that some loving God would create us at the same time he doomed us to eternal torment unless we tortured, murdered, and symbolically ate him (or his Son), or that the Israelite religion was somehow God's "one, chosen religion", how in the world can we imagine that this sacred murder could have rightly been performed not by the properly designated Israelite priests according to the prescribed mode of ritual slaughter, but by Roman pagans nailing the sacrifice on to wooden planks? True Yahwehism would not have viewed the Roman crucifixion of a wee little lamb as an efficacious Israelite atonement sacrifice. Why, then, the crucifixion of Joshua Josephson, who, after all, is supposed to be, as the human "lamb", the ultimate atonement sacrifice? It makes no sense.
At least, it makes no sense, unless we assume that the cosmology built over the past two millenia, and helped along in many instances by government lackeys masquerading as "priests", is the product of primal human needs and desires, human creativity, and political convenience, rather than - well, rather than something true.