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In search of the historical Jesus


Fri, Jun 2nd, 2006
Posted in Commentary

In his commentary, “‘The Da Vinci Code’ and the Deity of Christ,” Mike Hopper attempts to prove that Jesus was divine, contrary to what Dan Brown implies in his book. However, Mr. Hopper fails to make his case.First of all, Mr. Hopper is assuming to be true what he is attempting to prove. To make matters worse, he quotes passages from a flawed source to support his pre-conceived notion that Jesus is divine. This source, the Bible, although it serves well as inspiration for many, is unreliable from a historical perspective and is filled with inaccuracies and contradictions.Bart Ehrman, head of the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina and author of “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why,” has as his premise that ancient scribes changed the Bible and distorted Jesus. The truth, he says, is that we don’t have the original words. We don’t have the original texts of the New Testament, nor do we even have copies of the copies of the original. What makes the New Testament so unreliable is that ancient scribes often changed the words in their copies or translations on purpose to reflect their own beliefs or prejudices. That’s why, says Ehrman, the Bible is a human product and should be treated as such. One of the many examples Ehrman gives is that the only verse in the New Testament that explicitly states the doctrine of the trinity is 1 John 5:7-8 in the King James version. But, he says, those verses aren’t found in any of the Greek manuscripts down to the 14th century. Therefore, there is no way of knowing whether the verses in the New Testament that Mr. Hopper quotes to support Jesus’ divinity are accurate translations or simply perversions of the original by scribes who preferred a supernatural Jesus.But there is another problem with Mr. Hopper’s premise. As a Jew, Jesus most likely would have found the supernatural traits attributed to him after his death by the still developing, emerging church as repulsive. Much of the Mediterranean world of Jesus’ time adhered to the popular pagan mystery cults, all with their dying and resurrecting gods, god-men coming to earth via magical virgin births, and cults who believed eating the flesh and drinking the blood of their gods would confer immortality upon them.In order to compete with those cults, early Christianity would have had to describe Jesus in terms that matched or surpassed the local myths, stories, and legends. The authors of the gospels likely would have adopted some of the pagan beliefs and practices and attached them to Jesus to make him more credible to a largely Greek/pagan world. It is only by peeling back this foreign material and stripping away these accretions that we can get closer to the authentic, historical Jesus.Mr. Hopper’s characterization of the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. is also inaccurate. He would have you believe that this Council was little more than a rubber stamp for what had already been established – the divinity of Jesus. But the truth of what happened at Nicaea and the years before and after the Council is far more complex and much messier. The Orthodox view and vote in favor of Jesus’ divinity was not accepted by many people at the time who called themselves Christian. The battle between the various Christian factions, mainly the Arians and the Gnostics, who held different beliefs regarding Jesus’ nature continued to rage as strongly after Nicaea as before. And those who are familiar with “The Da Vinci Code” know that the issue still hasn’t been solved for many nearly 1700 years later. As far as the margin of victory for the Orthodox view, no one really knows for sure. But that is really beside the point. Establishing a religious “truth” by ballot hardly authenticates it.Finally the accuracy or the quality of “The Da Vinci Code” is not the issue here. What’s positive is that it has gotten people to think critically about their religious beliefs, and in the process many have come to the conclusion that the church has been less than forthright about its history and how the Bible was assembled. Expect the church, especially its fundamentalist members, to intensely resist this as strongly as it opposed Galileo when in the sixteenth century he proposed that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe. But many people already find the historical Jesus to be more authentic and easier to embrace than a Jesus artificially embellished in the clothing of supernaturalism. To them the way Jesus lived his life, a life that expressed the highest level of love, compassion, and tolerance, serves as the greatest of all human paradigms, and he more than anyone else in history showed us what it means to be fully human.

Herb Panko lives in Chatfield.

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