Posted by: The Amoeba | July 26, 2009

Christianity’s Type Specimen

I dreamed I stood upon a hill, and lo!
The godly multitudes walked to and fro
Beneath, in Sabbath garments fitly clad,
With pious mien, appropriately sad,
While all the church bells made a solemn din –
A fire-alarm to those who lived in sin.
Then saw I gazing thoughtfully below,
With tranquil face, upon that holy show,
A tall, spare figure in a robe of white,
Whose eyes diffused a melancholy light.
“God keep you, stranger”, I exclaimed. “You are
No doubt (your habit shows it) from afar;
And yet I entertain the hope that you,
Like these good people, are a Christian too.”
He raised his eyes, and with a look so stern
It made me with a thousand blushes burn,
Replied – his manner with disdain was spiced:
“What! I a Christian? No, indeed! I’m Christ.”

Ambrose Bierce (writing as “Gassalasca Jape S.J.“) penned this near-perfect indictment of Christian incomprehension sometime around the turn of the 20th century; it was included in his 1911 Devil’s Dictionary under the heading CHRISTIAN. Every time I read it, I think back to when I first began to question what people were telling me about this Jesus person.

I was nine. Third grade, in the American public school system. More importantly, the “confirmation year” for our church, at the end of which each of us kids received our first Bibles. Ours was the last year that the confirmation class graduates received unannotated copies of the King James Version. I spent the next fifteen years trying to figure out who the hell the prophet Esaias was. But I digress.

I suppose most of my classmates took their gifts home, planted them on a bookshelf somewhere and promptly forgot about them. Me, I couldn’t wait to get mine. I read anything I could get my hands on anyway, mainly ’cause reading helped me forget that I was beneath useless at “gym” and “recess” (I was the odd one out every time the ball sides were chosen, and I stopped noticing that this was happening when there was an even number of kids in the pool). I especially wished to read all about this wonderful, kindly, Sunday school “Prince of Peace”.

I read some, and was perplexed. More, and grew dismayed. Still more, and I became positively alarmed. I wasn’t getting no Prince of Peace out of the pages of that KJV New Testament. What I was seeing was a razor-tongued SOB who was violent (Mark 11: 15-17), vindictive (Mark 11: 12-14, 20-21), petty (Mark 6: 4-5), and bigoted (Mark 7: 25-27; for “children”, read “Judeans” – in case you missed the memo, Jesus was a Judean). His own people were terrified of him (Mark 9: 32), and no wonder, for he was a master of the put-down (Mark 8: 17-18). No public school in today’s America would let this self-esteem killer anywhere near the children.

I can understand Jesus yelling at dense bureaucrats, and especially at demons. Sometimes you just have to speak in the language that your audience has a chance of understanding. But, your own people? And what did that poor leper do …?

Then a leper comes up to him, pleads with him, falls down on his knees, and says to him, “If you want to, you can make me clean.”

Although Jesus was indignant, [in first-century CE Judaism, the leper was about the filthiest sin-fouled skunk this side of a Samaritan or a Roman – for a righteous Judean literally untouchable] he stretched out his hand, touched him, and says to him, “Okay – you’re clean!” And right away the leprosy disappeared, and he was made clean.

And Jesus snapped at him, and dismissed him curtly with the warning, “See that you don’t tell anyone anything, but go, have a priest examine your skin.” – Mark 1: 40-44 (Scholar’s Version)

Prince of Peace? Hell. This Jesus of Nazareth character sounds more like your boss. Except dirtier (Mark 7: 1-5) and without the stock options. Not that those stock options have been doing your boss any good lately.

In taxonomy, the branch of science that takes on the task of putting names on living things, the name of a species is based on a physical object, the “type specimen”. In the case of a dispute over whether organism X belongs to species A or not, the judge and jury in the case is the type specimen of species A. Oftentimes, a scientist who is putting names on organisms and does not know, or has misunderstood, the type specimen of species A, will put species name A on organisms that actually belong to species B or C. Only later, when those specimens of B or C are reexamined together with A’s type, is the mistake discovered, and corrected. This happens, a lot. Crede expertum.

Bierce’s point, and mine, is that religions bearing the name “Christianity” have been named in the absence of the type specimen – Jesus of Nazareth, who had the misfortune to die before the institutions that bear his title, “the Christ”, had a chance to become established. Should it indeed come to pass that the type, Jesus, return to the third rock from Sol and make himself available for examination, we think that it will prove necessary to assign another name to “Christian” churches, on the basis of nonconformity of the name “Christian” with the type. We would expect, in this assessment, the vehement assent of Jesus himself.

And, just as the choicest rebukes in Mark’s gospel were reserved for the people in Jesus’s own retinue who weren’t “getting it”, so, I think, a returned Jesus would speak most sharply to those modern-day people who are the most conspicuously certain that they are following him.

NOTE: The quotations in this post are drawn exclusively from Mark’s gospel for several reasons.

1. Most scholars think that Mark is the earliest gospel, the first drafts of which were penned a mere twenty years or so after Jesus’s death (ca. 50-60 CE).

2. The gospels of Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, grafting other materials onto Mark’s narrative structure and, in the process, providing semi-independent corroboration for nearly all of Mark. The only major story in Mark that is missing from Matthew and Luke is that of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:25-27). Neither “Matthew” nor “Luke” wished to remind their readers that Jesus was a mainstream, partisan Jew – “Matthew”, because his community had split from Judaism, “Luke” because he wished to “sell” the Christian movement to Gentiles.

3. Nearly all of the words of “Jesus” in the gospel of John are likely, instead, to be those of “John” – who was trying to unify his proto-Christian community under his leadership in the face of severe persecutions from both mainstream Judaism and Rome, some 70 years or so after Jesus’s death.

I therefore have assumed that, of the four canonical gospels, Mark comes closest to offering a picture of the “real Jesus”. Though it probably still isn’t very close.

  – O Ceallaigh
Copyright Ā© 2009 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.

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Responses

  1. I always wondered why the disciples hung with Jesus, since he talked to them like they were idiots. I also always wondered how the disciples could really be that dense. I always figured the writing was to make certain we, the readers, got the point, rather than a verbatim (20 years after the fact!) account of the conversation.

  2. I never read anything by Bierce.
    Sounds like an interesting fellow.

    As for the Rest.
    I don’t know. So many people wrote, copied, rewrote things, twisted it to their own needs and greed.

    I’m just conspicuous of the whole thing.

    Have you ever heard of a book called “The Magus of Strovolos”?
    They have a picture of the healer Jesus that I think more appropriate and close to the truth. Maybe he had a short temper. But then, many people with ideas the world isn’t yet (when is it ever) ready for have been short tempered, no?

    I think I’m heading off topic here and better stop,…., I need another coffee šŸ˜‰

  3. Quilly, lots of folk have wondered how the Dr. Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame could have been as dense as he appeared and still have become a physician. The answer, of course, is that Watson’s dullness serves to make Holmes’s achievements appear the more remarkable, through contrast with a (sub)standard. I suggest that the technique was known to the author of Mark, he used it to great effect, and he was copied by the other two synoptic gospels. This leaves the actual personality traits of both Jesus and his disciples in considerable doubt.

    All the gospel writers were “selling” a particular image of Jesus. They were indeed creating a “point” for us to get, and very likely sacrificing facts to make that point. Just as the Chronicler sacrificed some (presumed) facts to transform the human David of 2 Samuel into the perfect King of Chronicles. Just as his adherents are sacrificing facts to transform the human reggae musician Bob Marley into a Rastafarian God.

    Nicole, Ambrose Bierce makes for a fascinating study. In both a positive and a negative sense. Both Quilly and I follow Doug Pascover’s Waking Ambrose site, which provides a daily quotation from Bierce’s work (along with his modern update) and links to further information on Bierce.

    I had not heard of The Magus of Strovolos before. Sounds fascinating. The author of the book, I read, is a faculty member of the University of Maine – and had lost favor with the Magus before the latter passed away.

  4. Thanks for the link – added to my feed reader šŸ™‚
    Interesting that he writes partly in German šŸ™‚

    I only started the book at a Physicians place, borrowed but didn’t finish it in time when I had to give it back.
    When I wanted to buy it, it wasn’t available on the market.
    Now you can get it again, but I’m not sure it’s the same version. I will get it one day. It was truly fascinating.

    I didn’t know the part about the author though.

  5. We don’t know when “Q,” the assumed source for the additions to Luke and Matthew was written but Q could be qredible. I enjoyed your thinking.


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