Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Messiah Myth

I am enjoying a book by Thomas Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David. Learn more about his book by reading his essay, Creating Biblical Figures.

I have just finished the first chapter, "Historicizing the figure of Jesus, the Messiah."

He traces the history of higher criticism of the Jesus tradition and provides a critique of the Jesus Seminar. But it is more than that. He takes on the whole quest of the historical Jesus.

The purpose of this book is not historical reconstruction. Nor is it centered in the problems of the historical Jesus. It is about the influence of the ancient Near Eastern figure of the king in biblical literature, and this has much to do with how figures of Jesus are created. (p. 16, emphasis mine)
As I understand Thompson, Jesus was never intended for the gospel writers to be a person. He is a literary type that carries a tradition. All of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus occur in literature centuries before the Gospels were written. Trying to distinguish what might have been from the lips of the historical Jesus from what was placed on his lips misses the point of what the gospel writers were doing. In essence, there is no one home.

It would be like separating what proverbs would belong to the historical Solomon or what psalms belong to the historical David or even what words or deeds belong to the historical Moses. In each of these cases, Solomon, David, and Moses are literary figures that carry the tradition. These figures may not have even existed. They function as characters in a parable. Imagine trying to separate the historical words and deeds of Adam from the Adam of Genesis or of King Arthur from the legends about him. I am looking forward to finding out what Thompson says the Gospel writers were doing when they created Jesus the way they did.

I am going to get philosophical here. I have been excited about the historical Jesus and the quest. I have enjoyed the different portraits offered by Crossan, Borg, and others.

I have much appreciated the work of Westar bringing higher criticism to the public like Prometheus bringing fire from the gods for us lowly mortals.

But, I have been thinking about this for some time, and in the end, I am more persuaded by the literary critics than the historical critics. It appears that the Jesus of the canonical gospels is no different in type than that of the non-canonical gospels; in all of them, he is a character in their respective fictions.

A question that wants asking is what this means for my faith, or perhaps for the Christian faith. For some time I have accepted that Old Testament characters were fictions including YHWH. But, Jesus, you know. I liked the guy. I liked the new "historical" guy. The guy who championed the poor, told cool parables, ate with the outcasts, and challenged the religious authorities of his day is my kind of fella. I suppose he is a myth as well. He is my myth, though, dammit.

I am less and less convinced that there is an historical person behind the gospels. If there is, there appears to be little that we can know about him. But his story, in its various incarnations, still fascinates me. It has a life of its own. Perhaps without intending it (or maybe some of them did), the historical Jesus scholars found their own mythologies. Perhaps that is the essence, if there can be an essence, of literature and of story-making in general. Through retelling them we find our story.

I know that some have made the decision to leave church and religion altogether because they became convinced that Jesus is more of a literary figure than an historical one. I don't think a person must make that choice, though I respect those who do. I like the fact that the authors created Jesus from the stories available to them and in turn created their own story of faith and meaning. I wonder if that may be our task today.