Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Messiah on Messiah Combat!

Most Christians are totally ignorant that the 1st century CE was an era of tremendous messiah activity beyond Jesus. (Indeed, generally, the lack of cultural knowledge that most Christians have about that time period that wasn't directly tied to the Gospels I've found consistently shocking. I've met a dozen Christians who know everything about the events in the Bible, but can't hold a conversation about Tiberius, the Emperor at the time of Jesus' death. And, like Mel Gibson, most Christians think that Romans in the area spoke Latin . . . even tho' in the Book of Acts the Gentile party is referred to as the Greeks and the New Testament being an almost entirely Greek document originally.) Jesus had serious competitors in a variety of ways and the Christian victory was sure from assured.

The first place we can see the struggle between messiahs is the struggle between Jesus and John the Baptist. Most Christians accept without thinking about it that John the Baptist was, consciously, waiting for a messiah and that messiah happened to be Jesus, but there was an obvious struggle between early Christians and followers of John the Baptist.

You can see some of this in the Bible, itself. In Matthew 9:14 the disciples of John the Baptist criticize Jesus' disciples for their lax fasting habits. (Jesus answers them that his disciples might as well enjoy the good times while Jesus is still alive, likening himself to a bridegroom, because soon he'll be gone and misery will await them.) In Matthew 11:2-3, a couple of John's disciples question whether Jesus is the Messiah. (Jesus sends them away with no answer, but orders them to go tell John the Baptist of his works and deeds.) (I will also presume that anyone who reads this can find Bible quotations without me linking them. A trifle lazy, perhaps, but I don't use the Internet for my Bible and I don't have links for all this stuff laying around.)

By the time Luke was written – some twenty or more years after Matthew and Mark – there is even more signs of struggle. A fair bit of Luke is designed to demonstrate that John the Baptist is clearly Jesus' inferior, and that John the Baptist recognized it. So, in the Gospel of Luke, there is an extremely self-serving account of John the Baptist's birth where Luke time and against makes it clear that John the Baptist is the inferior of Jesus and knew it. Luke chapter 1 is just full of Elizabeth and Mary going on about how how Mary's child is so much greater than Elizabeth's, specifically the Magnificat and Ave Maria. Otherwise, Luke follows Matthew in the disciples of John the Baptist questioning of Jesus.

By the time that the Gospel of John was written, the overt struggle between Christians and the followers of John the Baptist had largely come to an end. John the Evangelist was very confident in the Baptist's inferiority. In John 1:20, the Baptist clearly says he's not “the Christ”. In John 1:21-23 he says he's not even a prophet, really, but just “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” to “make straight the way of the Lord.” And in John 1:32, the Baptist sees the Holy Spirit descending into Jesus and in John 1:34, the Baptist said, “And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.” Nevertheless, later on the questioning of Jesus that occurs in Matthew and Luke resurfaces in John, too.

Still, this is all pretty veiled. Most Christians don't even realize there's an ancient religion that continues to exist to this very day where John the Baptist is considered the Messiah and Jesus a traitor to John – the Mandeans. These are a non-Jewish, non-Muslim, non-Christian group of people who acknowledge Adam, Noah and John the Baptist as prophets but not Abraham, Moses, Jesus or Mohammad. They also seem to have been influenced by Chaldean and Babylonian religions, as well as Zoroastrianism. I am not claiming expertise. Indeed, it is hard for anyone to claim expertise because the Mandeans have as one of their religious creeds near absolute secrecy.

Unlike Baha'i (who also refer John the Baptist), the Mandeans are an ancient religion. Because of their intense secrecy, small numbers and the vicious persecution that has occasionally befallen them, there is no clear connection between Mandeans and the disciples of John the Baptist who questioned Jesus. It does, however, demonstrate that religions that followed John the Baptist existed in antiquity and that John the Baptist was, and is, the messiah in some people's eyes. This lends considerable credence, I think, to the notion that the treatment of John the Baptist in the Bible is due to the competition between the followers of the Baptist and the followers of Jesus.

However, by the time of the Gospels of Luke and John, Christianity had grown considerably towards Rome and amongst the Gentiles. If we take the Mandeans as evidence of the direction that the followers of John the Baptist went, they went into Persia – which could explain the high-handed way Luke and John treat the Baptist. Christians and primitive Mandeans didn't intersect very much, with Christians spreading to the West towards Rome and the Mandeans going east into Persia. However, it is indisputable that people in antiquity took John the Baptist very seriously as a messiah.

This is bolstered by Josephus in The Antiquities of the Jews where in Book 18, chapter 5, Josephus talks about John the Baptist as a good Jew and a holy man but does not refer to Jesus at all in connection with John the Baptist. So, by the 70s CE, when Josephus wrote The Antiquities, John the Baptist wasn't linked to Christianity much less as an inferior to Jesus.

While, in the end, the cult of Jesus would clearly grow far beyond the cult of John, for a while it was clearly touch and go. But there was a bigger Messiah that Jesus had to face. Growing into the Roman Empire it became inevitable that Christianity would have to deal with, in some fashion, Rome's most powerful religions: Mithraism and Magna Mater.

Mithraism, like all mystery cults, is a hard nut to crack because secrecy was part and parcel of the religion. However, it was very popular amongst the Roman army and was the official cult of several of the Legions. It . . . had certain issues that limited it's popularity, such as being open only to men and having a complex and uncomfortable initiatory rite. As a soldier's religion, it worked because soldiers have all that macho bravado going for them, but amongst the general population the rites were fairly extreme. The cult of Magna Mater, on the other hand, or the worship of the Great Mother, was nigh universal. In the ancient world, over time, the mother goddesses tended to get rolled up into a single character – the Magna Mater – with similar rites from modern Afghanistan to Portugal. Between Mithraism and Magna Mater, virtually every Roman shared in some of their rites.

The struggle against these religions is subsumed under the Christian struggle against “paganism” and even Christians acknowledge that it was a bitter struggle. What they don't seem to grasp is that virtually all the great holy days of the Christian calendar, such as Christmas and Easter, come from either Mithraism or the Magna Mater cult. Indeed, things like the resurrection can easily be traced back to myths about Attis, Osiris, Dionysus and Tammuz, all of whom informed both the rites of Mithraism and Magna Mater and would go on to influence Christianity through those religions.

Christianity overcame this obstacle through a multi-faceted strategy and some luck. If Christianity had stayed a Jewish religion, I suspect it would have died out. But by conversions of Romans, Christianity both spread through the Empire as well as started to adopt more and more characteristics of the big Roman religions at the time which helped to distinguish it from Judiasm. This was particularly assisted by the various destructions of the Jews at Roman hands, both in 70 CE and again in 135 CE. After the second rebellion lead by Simon bar Kochba, there wasn't many Jews left in Judea or Galilee as the Romans destroyed over 900 Jewish towns and villages, destroyed Jerusalem itself and forbid Jews to enter the city after replacing the Jewish Temple with one to Jupiter. The diaspora of the Jews was complete – there was no “home” to return to for 1800 years. This allowed the Gentile sect of Christians to gain total dominance over the religion, with a decidedly Roman character. So, Roman festivals and holidays were brought wholesale into Christianity, making it easier for Romans to convert to Christianity – it was like Mithraism or Magna Mater without a lot of the attending hassles of belonging to those religions.

The second big break came when Constantine I opted for Christianity to receive special Imperial sanction in the Edict of Milan. Effectively, Christianity had become the state cult of the Empire. This allowed Christians to spread without fear of retaliation through the Empire, often engaging in massacres and land theft to bolster their own religion. Most people believe that Constantine, himself, wasn't particularly a Christian and used Christianity to unify the Empire under a single religion for political reasons. I accept this as true. He is a Christian saint in virtually all Christian religions that allow that sort of thing, however.

However, the expansion of Christianity wasn't certain, and Christianity had a lot to overcome towards becoming the world's largest religion.

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5 Comments:

Gummby said...

Your conflict theory has some holes in it. One of the biggest is your discussion of Jesus & John the Baptist

Here's one: This passage from Matthew 11, which you reference in part, and the parallel passage in Luke 7. I don't think Luke takes any dimmer view of John than Matthew does. They present him pretty much the same. I might also point out that Jesus calls John "the greatest born among women," a reference to John's position as being filled with the Holy Spirit even from the womb (cf. Luke 1:15). That hardly sounds like a big negative, unless you think John was actually vying for the job of Messiah.

So let's examine that for a minute. You said In Matthew 11:2-3, a couple of John's disciples question whether Jesus is the Messiah. (Jesus sends them away with no answer, but orders them to go tell John the Baptist of his works and deeds.)

But note, it's actually John who is asking the question--he sends his disciples. Now why would John ask that if he's trying to get the job himself? He wouldn't. The only conceivable reason for asking is to know whether he should, um, keep looking.

Jesus' answer is not the non-answer you think it is, either. What Jesus does is to give his messianic credentials by pointing out how he was fulfilling prophecy. His answer is from the book of Isaiah: 29:18 and 35:5.

Oh, and the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, with a bit of Aramaic thrown in. It was translated into Greek later on.

Cheers.

March 16, 2007 9:55 PM  
Chris Bradley said...

I meant to say the New Testament was written in Greek. I think context will bear that out. ;)

And, yeah, I think that John the Baptist was actively seeking the Messiah job! Indeed, he got it. As I said, there are living religions today that regard the Baptist as the Messiah.

You're right that John (who was in prison) send the disciples. Why was he asking those questions . . . uh, they don't say. My interpretation is that the Baptist is trying to get Jesus to say something out of line (much like Caiaphas later on did so; saying your were a king could easily be enough to get someone executed). But there's no evidence. I find Jesus' answer mincing. It was a straightforward question.

It is always interesting to me that people point to the Old Testament prophesies to intrepret New Testament events! First, of course, is that there are clearly alternate interpretations of those passages (such as they, say, Jewish interpretation). Second, it is easily possibly for a person consciously seek to enact messiah prophesies to support their claim to messiahdom or that writers after the fact consciously sought to connect fictional acts to prophesies can't be automatically discarded. Indeed, the idea that either a so-called messiah intentionally attempted to do things to fulfill messiah prophesies or a writer created fictional accounts bolster a religious claim are far, far more likely.

Also, of course, all your arguments are biblical. Alas, not all the information we have about John the Baptist is biblical, and that evidence, I think, suggests . . . no, I think it demonstrates that John the Baptist didn't regard himself as a footnote to the story of Jesus. But you'll just overlook that evidence to focus on just a part of my argument.

As I have noted, and I'm sure I'll note again, Christians frequenty have virtually no knowledge whatsoever of what was happening in 1st century CE beyond the Bible.

March 16, 2007 11:19 PM  
Gummby said...

I meant to say the New Testament was written in Greek. I think context will bear that out. ;)

Have no beef with that. I have a couple copies of of the Greek NT here at the house.

...like Mel Gibson, most Christians think that Romans in the area spoke Latin . . . Do you have any proof for this statement? Otherwise, it lacks any basis, other than your own experience (or possibly just your own perception). I would suggest that you quit lumping Protestants and Catholics together (there is a wide disparity between the two on a lot of substantive issues), and further that you quit looking to Mr. Gibson as a benchmark for anything that "most Christians believe." His beliefs are even a minority among Catholics, since he rejects the Vatican II reforms.

And, yeah, I think that John the Baptist was actively seeking the Messiah job! Indeed, he got it. As I said, there are living religions today that regard the Baptist as the Messiah.

And you're proof of this is...what? That some misguided people worship John the Baptist? So if people today worship Elvis, Justin Timberlake, and a turnip, does that mean that they were trying to be the Messiah, too? Or just that some people are fools?

Also, of course, all your arguments are biblical. Alas, not all the information we have about John the Baptist is biblical, and that evidence, I think, suggests . . . no, I think it demonstrates that John the Baptist didn't regard himself as a footnote to the story of Jesus. But you'll just overlook that evidence to focus on just a part of my argument.

Sorry, I wasn't trying to ignore any of your argument (such as it was). I told you that my reply was just to show the biggest hole. So tell me, again, what "evidence" did I ignore in my reply? From what I read, you mentioned the Mandeans, with no information other than you think they worship John, and infer from that all the support you need to float this theory of yours. I'd love to interact with any evidence you have--it just seems a little scant.

You're right that John (who was in prison) send the disciples. Why was he asking those questions . . . uh, they don't say. My interpretation is that the Baptist is trying to get Jesus to say something out of line (much like Caiaphas later on did so; saying your were a king could easily be enough to get someone executed). But there's no evidence. I find Jesus' answer mincing. It was a straightforward question.

Just because you don't understand Jesus' answer or think it is convincing doesn't mean it wouldn't be for someone in John's position.

As far as why John was asking--he's in prison, awaiting punishment (including possibly execution), and he has a crisis of faith. He wants to make sure that Christ really is the Messiah. Christ's answer was to refer back to Scripture, which held greater weight than even his own words would. They are the words of God, after all.

It is always interesting to me that people point to the Old Testament prophesies to intrepret New Testament events! First, of course, is that there are clearly alternate interpretations of those passages (such as they, say, Jewish interpretation).

Um, just to be clear here, it was Jesus who quoted from the OT; I just pointed it out in case you (or your readers) were unaware of it. The Jews themselves consider the OT to be prophetic as well, and they are still looking for the Messiah. And, like in the first century AD (or as you prefer CE), they are looking for a political savior. But at Jesus first appearance (since he will be coming back again), he came to be a spiritual savior.

Second, it is easily possibly for a person consciously seek to enact messiah prophesies to support their claim to messiahdom or that writers after the fact consciously sought to connect fictional acts to prophesies can't be automatically discarded. Indeed, the idea that either a so-called messiah intentionally attempted to do things to fulfill messiah prophesies or a writer created fictional accounts bolster a religious claim are far, far more likely.

Yeah, I hear that a lot. It sounds good, if you ignore fulfilled prophecy and the historical reliability of the Bible itself, as well as the fact that it was based on eyewitness accounts. In the past, those making an argument with your line of reasoning also haven't accepted anything supernatural, and so any mention of it must be made up, which of course discredits the whole thing. You may or may not believe this way, but that's what I have encountered in the past.

It may be "far more likely" (in your mind) that a writer fabricated accounts, but the problem with this theory is that these events were written about while there were still living witnesses. People could come forward to contradict things that were false. The other problem that plagues this theory is that the Bible is very reliable on historical details. It would be unusual (though not impossible) for frauds to be so concerned about historical detail while at the same time making up events wholesale.

As I have noted, and I'm sure I'll note again, Christians frequenty have virtually no knowledge whatsoever of what was happening in 1st century CE beyond the Bible.

This isn't an argument, just a logical fallacy.
A) "Christians frequenty have virtually no knowledge whatsoever of what was happening in 1st century CE beyond the Bible"
B) "You are a Christian"
C) "You have no knowledge of the first Century outside the Bible"

If you have an actual argument, or even any evidence, feel free to present it.

March 17, 2007 9:19 AM  
Chris Bradley said...

Gummby,

Ah, now it comes out. The reactionary stuff. ;)

I said that it was my experience that most Christians believe that Latin was the language of the Eastern Empire. I said that, already. So, yes, it is my experience.

I don't just have the statements of a few "misguided souls" who worshipped John the Baptist. There is also the evidence of Josephus and Philo, both of who mention the Baptist and his followers in a non-Christian context. This is in addition to the Mandeans. Said that, too. The link I gave to the Mandeans can explain it more than I have inclination to do so, now, and there are other sources on the Internet, not to mention the library. Which was generally my point. If you'd known something about the period, other than stuff directly relating to the Bible, this wouldn't be unknown to you.

It was not Jesus who quoted anything. It was the authors of the Gospels, or of the Q document, or whatever. We have nothing from Jesus himself. Nothing. We have books written decades after his death that purport to quote him, of uncertain authorship, for religious purposes, based off of books that aren't extant, without independent verification. This isn't good historical proof that Jesus said anything at all.

I will concede -- and have been clear about it -- that proof from the time about Biblical events is scant. Definitely. But this is as true for Jesus as John the Baptist. However, to the extent that evidence does exist, we know more about John.

The Bible isn't particularly historically reliable, especially the New Testament. The OT has some use as history, sure, but is often wrong. The Gospels, tho'? Like that stupid census in Luke? Or even something like the dates of Jesus' birth and death? The history of specifically the Gospels reads as hagiography. (The Paulline epistles are pretty historical, except that they prove nothing about Jesus. Paul is easily the most historical person in the NT.)

John was in prison because he was calling the tetrach's wife a slut. And when you do that, you're eventually gonna get it. It wasn't a crisis of faith, but sense. Tho' messiahs are, as a group, self-destructive.

It may be "far more likely" (in your mind) that a writer fabricated accounts, but the problem with this theory is that these events were written about while there were still living witnesses. People could come forward to contradict things that were false. The other problem that plagues this theory is that the Bible is very reliable on historical details. It would be unusual (though not impossible) for frauds to be so concerned about historical detail while at the same time making up events wholesale.

This is amusing enough to quote.

It is actually quite common for religious frauds to go to elaborate lengths to demonstrate their worthiness. So, L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics and a bunch of other books, and Joe Smith wrote the Book of Mormon to demonstrate his "holiness".

David Koresh also used Bible prophesies to demonstrate his messiahdom (I mean, c'mon, the guy's named after not one, but TWO messiahs) in a way not that different from Jesus. To me, this is the most interesting case. Because, like Jesus, David Koresh didn't write things down -- like Jesus, he was quite happy to let his congregation assume things from inferences to Biblical prophesy.

Looking at the Seventh Day Adventists, out of which the Branch Davidians sprung, shows a similar trend. You have a list of leaders that spent considerable effort to link their prophesies to the Bible (such as Ellen White, but also pretty much all the Rodens, Benjamin, Lois, George).

So it is simply factually wrong when you say it's unusual for religious messiahs to link themselves to Bible prophesy. They do it quite elaborately.

And, er, the more I talk with you the more you seem to be exactly the sort of Christians that is broadly ignorant of non-Bible information. I wasn't making a logical argument, but an observation (there is a difference), but you're confirming my observation.

March 17, 2007 10:29 AM  
Gummby said...

I read that link to the Mandeans that you gave, but I wasn't able to find the reference and I couldn't find anywhere that it talked about John the Baptist as being worshipped as a Messiah. Could you point me in the right direction?

Signed,
Broadly Ingorant

March 18, 2007 11:06 AM  

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