Sunday, 1 March 2015

The New Testament

With an estimated 2.2 billion followers, Christianity is the biggest religion in the world. It is also one of the more confusing.

We call its dominant figure Jesus, but his real name was Yeshua – translated from Hebrew (Yeshua) to Greek (Iēsous) to English (Jesus) [1]. Our Gregorian calendar assumes he was born in 1 CE [2], when the scholarly estimate tends to 6–4 BCE. Jesus’ mother is widely venerated as a perpetual virgin, except that she gave birth to several other non-divine sons and daughters. Two of the gospels claim Jesus was born in Bethlehem, when it was well-known he was from Nazareth. One of the most important dates in the Christian calendar, Christmas, is in my culture a commercialised and unreligious festival of turkey dinners, giftwrapped presents, mince pies, tinsel, and a fairytale about a very unbiblical old man popularised by Coca Cola; the date, 25 December, is widely understood to be a rebranding of the pagan winter solstice, adopted by Christianity purely for convenience as late as the fourth century, but believers celebrate it as Jesus’ birthday anyway. Christianity’s holy book, the New Testament, begins by telling Jesus’s life story in four different versions that contradict one another. His execution is traditionally blamed on the Jews, but only the Romans could authorise executions. After he dies, Jesus comes back to life, but instead of achieving something dramatic, like liberating the Holy Land, he just visits a few of his followers then disappears into heaven, leaving everyone to argue about what it could all mean. (Twenty centuries later, they still can’t agree.)

The New Testament, too, is a strange affair. In some places it tells Christians to respect the Mosaic law of the Hebrew Bible; in others, it tells them not to. It is widely assumed by Christians and lay people alike that the four Gospels were written by disciples of those names who knew Jesus personally, whereas scholars know they date from at least forty years after he died, and were not written by eye-witnesses. In fact, as the scholar of religion Reza Aslan puts it, “practically every word ever written about Jesus of Nazareth… was written by people who… never actually knew Jesus when he was alive.” [3] The writers of the first Christian texts probably depended upon sayings preserved and circulated via the oral tradition, a notoriously unreliable system.

The New Testament is only the beginning of Christian doctrine. Lots of fundamental Christian ideas and symbols don’t appear in it, sometimes dating to hundreds of years after the canon was sealed. One can argue for example that the Holy Trinity is theologically implied in the New Testament, but it is never mentioned. Peter’s founding of the Church in Rome, and his upside-down crucifixion, are only traditions. Surprisingly, there is very little discussion of the afterlife. Christians generally assume that after a person dies, their spirit survives in a heavenly paradise (or hell for the ungodly), but the immortality of the ‘soul’ and its survival after death in another, ‘higher’ realm comes from the philosophy of the heathen Plato. There are many Christian traditions very popular in art, such as the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian [4], that post-date the New Testament.

One of the challenges of early Christianity was to try and form a consistent body of belief from a diverse range of ideologies. Early Christian groups were nothing like modern church congregations. It took hundreds of years for the Western and Eastern Churches to each develop a relative consensus on exactly who or what Jesus was, and how Christianity should function, only for this to be shredded in the Renaissance by the rising bourgeoisie – the Reformation launched a new phase of argument and division. What we have is a tension between 1) the historical Jesus, 2) the texts of the New Testament – and other texts that after a long process were officially excluded from it – and 3) two thousand years of subsequent traditions, disputes and innovations. Works of art weave in-between the turbulent landscape of these forces.

Christians regard the New Testament as scripture (holy writing): for them, to varying extents, it is the sacred word of God. For Marxists, the New Testament is not scripture – it is a fascinating and contradictory product of human culture. Marxists won’t accept the supernatural without evidence, which has never been forthcoming; we don’t approach the New Testament looking for divine truth. However, we must also try not to blunder in as atheists determined to reject everything in it as preposterous ‘opium’.[5] It was not intended to be a science manual, or for every verse to be taken literally, and in the philosophy of Jesus we see an ancient-world prefiguring of some of the ideas of socialism.

Whatever your standpoint on religion, the New Testament is one of the most important and most influential works of literature ever written. Over the last 2000 years Christianity has perhaps exerted more influence on art (and not only in the West) than any other ideology. The next few articles will examine some questions touching on this phenomenon, and try to understand how a little Jewish sect became such a force in world culture.

[1] ‘Jesus’ and ‘Joshua’ are the same Hebrew name, except the latter is translated from Hebrew to English rather than from Greek to English. 
[2] The calendar’s creator, Dionysius Exiguus, never stated precisely when he thought Jesus was born, or how he made his calculation. For example, Jesus might have been conceived in 1 BCE but born in 1 CE. 
[3] Reza Aslan, Zealot (2013). 
[4] The very concept of a ‘saint’ post-dates the New Testament. According to legend, Sebastian was killed on the orders of Emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century CE. Although he is traditionally depicted pierced by arrows, he survived that ordeal – his death actually came later from a beating. 
[5] Although I think religious faith is superstitious nonsense, it lies outside the bounds of historical study, and I won’t be wasting any time trying to debunk religion as such. 

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