Posted tagged ‘Don’t Crucify Me Bro!’

Don’t Crucify Me, Bro! part 4

April 25, 2010

Part Four, The Mythology of Sacrifice

The Christian Passion is not the first sacrifice to have been portrayed as the means to salvation. Many cultures since before history have used sacrifice, human, animal, and agricultural, as offerings to the powers that be. These, less theological, but just as mystical acts of devotion are often seen as representative of hubris, an anthropomorphism of societies ills.

The sacrificial death of Jesus is important because Christ is a guiltless figure, without sin. How is this conceptually different than, say, sacrificing a virgin to a hungry volcano? Human sacrifices in ancient cultures were often done to promote the growth of crops, the body of the victim being strewn out upon the fields. In Christian ceremonies it’s for the nourishment of the soul instead of the nourishment of the soil. It is the body of the savior that is consumed as food.

“but with precious blood, as of a lamb without spot, even the blood of Christ: who was foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world, but was manifested at the end of times for your sake” (I Peter 1:19-20)

This motif of the sacrifice of a life without flaw, a perfect specimen, can be seen in religious movements around the world, from the small sacrifice of a carefully selected animal without any blemish or flaw right on up to the ultimate sacrifice of a human being. A child would be a large sacrifice, but not as large as a grown human that had managed to mature without sinning. (The actual age of “person hood”, in which an individual is no longer viewed as property but is rather seen as a mature human being differs from culture to culture, but there is usually an initiation rite of some sort: a bar mitzvah, sweet sixteen party, etc).

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying,

And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the first-born that openeth the womb among the children of Israel; and the Levites shall be mine:

for all the first-born are mine; on the day that I smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto me all the first-born in Israel, both man and beast; mine they shall be: I am Jehovah.

-Numbers 3:11-13”

Sacrifice, the taking of an innocent life for the benefit of a society as a whole, was/is believed to transfer certain properties from the guiltless sacrificed party to the people, either the performers of the sacrifice, or the community at large. In the Book of Judges, Jephthah sacrifices his daughter after making a promise to Yahweh that he would sacrifice the first thing that walked through the door if he defeated the Ammonites. In the Iliad, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to win the favor of the goddess Artemis. In Genesis, the sacrifice of Isaac may have been thought of as an atoning act, though there is little indication that Isaac was a willing participant in the act. In the Jesus Passion, there is question as to Jesus’ ultimate knowledge of his own death; Mark’s version shows Jesus to be silent, and perhaps unwilling, Luke’s version portrays a much more involved martyr.

Substitution

In the all too familiar Isaac story, Abraham, who is not shown putting up much of a fuss when asked to slit his son’s throat, a practical joker of a God magically conjures up a sheep as a substitute for the boy in the nick of time (Just kidding there, big boy. You were going to do it, too!). The Greeks too had a variant of the myth in which it is Hercules that puts a stop to a human sacrifice, substituting a sheep instead. In a variant of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter, it was a deer that was substituted by the goddess at the last moment.

“On the Day of Atonement, which was the tenth day of the seventh month, the Jewish high-priest laid both his hands on the head of a live goat, confessed over it all the iniquities of the Children of Israel, and, having thereby transferred the sins of the people to the beast, sent it away into the wilderness.”

(Frazer, chapter 57, section 3)

In the ancient Greek culture, a human scapegoat, known as a pharmako, was chosen, usually a criminal. Records of the event differ, some claiming that the pharmako was sacrificed, with others taking it to be a mock ritual. Either way, the spirit of the event focused on a death that, through an unknown method, made up for the sins of the people.

And this sacrificial death motif seemed to have taken the world of the 1st century by storm. Not only did Christianity arise at this time and place, but a slew of Mystery Religions worshiping the divine deaths of Mithras, Dionysus, Isis, Osiris, etc, swept across The Mediterranean region. This mystical replacement of the once all too common real world sacrifice could have been seen as a step in the right direction. Played out with responsibility it could have told the world that the slaughter of people or animals was no longer needed; that the ritual itself could unite the community. In all too many sects of Christianity, though, the death is fixated upon, made into a gruesome fetish that frees the believers from personal responsibility.

“Among the Semites of Western Asia the king, in a time of national danger, sometimes gave his own son to die as a sacrifice for the people. Thus Philo of Byblus, in his work on the Jews, says: “It was an ancient custom in a crisis of great danger that the ruler of a city or nation should give his beloved son to die for the whole people, as a ransom offered to the avenging demons; and the children thus offered were slain with mystic rites.” (Frazer, chapter 26, Sacrifice of the King’s Son)

The death of Jesus is compared to the death of the passover lamb in the gospel narrative, the lamb that was killed and who’s blood was painted on the doors of the Hebrews so that the angel of Death would pass over those houses, sparing the lives of their children inside (God, apparently, did not know your heart in those days, and needed a visual indicator on who to kill on who not to kill). In the Jesus variation of this Jewish myth, accepting the blood of Jesus protects us from divine judgment after death. This is why it is a matter of necessity to place the crucifixion during the passover festival. The Christian movement had split off from the Jews, no longer wanting to be slaves to Temple sacrifice of the priests, they accepted one of their own; a sacrifice that no longer needed to be tied to a physical location.

When theology becomes nothing more than rationalization of mythology, it provides a disservice to both the philosophy that leads to it, for any philosophy no matter how sound is worthless when based upon a false premise, as well as the mythology, which, when crammed into a pseudo-historical setting, loses whatever edifying nature it may have once had. Crucifixion saves no one. There is no single saving event, only the struggles we face each day.

Don’t Crucify Me, Bro! part 3

April 18, 2010

Part 3, The Evolution of the Crucifixion

The earliest Christian documents that we have portray the death of Jesus as a mystical experience, not tying it to any historical place or time. It was only once someone made the effort to turn the belief into a narrative with the Gospel According to Mark, 50 years to 100 years after the supposed event, that the death trial of Jesus was extrapolated into the passion play that we know today. And it was then portrayed differently in each of the following attempts to re-tell the tale to different audiences. In the earliest gospel, Mark, Jesus is lead silently to his death. He is mocked along the way and, as he dies, he cries out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” At the turn of the first century, this portrayal of a truly gruesome death would have been the story converts of Christianity would have had preached to them. Evidently, a kindler gentler death was soon needed, for the popular re-write by Luke has Jesus going to his death practically cheerful, preaching to the women along the route and picking up a new Christian convert on the cross next to him before he cries Mission Accomplished.

The earliest copies of Mark that we have end when the women go to the tomb and find it empty. The women flee in terror and tell no one. Mathew added an earthly re-appearance by Jesus (the re-animation of the saints in Mathew 27: 51-53 shows us that an earthy re-birth from the tomb was an important element to his movement).

Luke adds an ascension to heaven, mostly like intended to be a reference to the ascension of Ilijah, an earlier savior figure in the Old Testament.

And it came to pass, when they were gone over, that Elijah said unto Elisha, Ask what I shall do for thee, before I am taken from thee. And Elisha said, I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me.

And he said, Thou hast asked a hard thing: nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so.

And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, which parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.

And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof! And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.

-2 Kings 2: 9-12

The story of the crucifixion began simply, plain, and deeply mythological by a charismatic offshoot of Judaism in the first century CE.. The story grew over that years, and that is what we continue to see today. Theologians look for a spiritual message of divine acceptance and love in what began as little more an idea. Modern Christians, only familiar with fleshed out movie dramatizations of the narrative cannot imagine how the story could have been “invented” or “made up” so they demand evidence that it didn’t happen. Well, the evidence is usually sitting on a book shelf, gathering dust; it’s all in a book they love so much they dare not read it critically.

Don’t Crucify Me, Bro! part 2

April 11, 2010

Part Two, How Does Crucifixion Save Anyone?

How, exactly does the death of Christ “pay for our sins”? The answer is not quite as easy as midi-chlorians in the blood, but it may be just as disappointing. Theologians hungry to defend their beliefs have come up with a few mechanisms to attempt explain exactly how the crucifixion of Jesus works as a vehicle for redemption. Problematically, many of them are no more theologically advanced than the means of death itself:

  1. Blood atonement – The idea that “spilled blood” can wipe away sins. This concept is not new to Christianity, the sacrifice of animals and humans was common place in ancient Mediterranean religions. To hold this belief, one would have to accept that blood itself either holds “sin” or some kind of cleansing agent. In the religion of Mithras, a faith that ran concurrent with early Christianity, a convert would receive a literal baptism of blood by having a bull’s throat cut above them, allowing the blood to pour over their body.
  2. Penal substitution – Christ has paid for your sins so you don’t have to. If this were true, God would be nothing more than a debt collector, with no care as to who paid the bill. This view is not reconcilable with justice simply because the guilty party does not pay the price for their own crimes; nor does it show forgiveness, since an innocent man does. In variations of this belief, this price is paid to Satan rather than to God. But, a universe in which God must pay Satan to get all of humanity out of hock is definitely not Christianity as any modern church sees it.
  3. Satisfaction – When asking for “satisfaction” we are more inclined to think of pistols at twenty paces than we are an almighty being. In feudal societies, though, the practice of hanging exaggerated penalties onto the smallest of crimes was common to keep the rest of the peasants in line. Once the hoi polloi see their buddy hung by the thumbs for stealing scraps of bread from the royal kitchen’s dust bin, all thoughts of infringing on the king’s belonging’s is off the table. This view would, of course, turn God into a stone cold tyrant with no more appeal than Joseph Stalin.
  4. Trans-formative experience – This concept is new in the world of theology. Paul Tillich favored it, and it certainly seems less barbaric, though it certainly does strain vague explanations. Christ’s death is a demonstration of God’s love for us, though I have always felt that a hug, rather than a whipping, is a much better act of love.

Keep in mind, that all of these explanation require an archaic belief that “sin” is an actual state of being that can be acquired and, in some instances, passed down through family lines.

“I Jehovah thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation of them that hate me” (Exodus 20:5)

Sin is a word we have all had so severely beaten into us that, even if we choose to abandon it, we find ourselves looking for a secular substitution, and there simply is not one. Every act harmful to other human beings is not a sin, and every sin is not a harmful act. What did the ancients believe sin to be? Well, the treatment of the handicapped in the Bible certainly shows that an uninformed pre-scientific view of the world led to many misunderstandings about the nature of physical differences.

“Whosoever … hath any blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach” (Leviticus 21:17-18)

Are we to adopt such discriminatory practices simply because they are mentioned in ancient Hebrew literature? No.

Don’t Crucify Me, Bro! part 1

April 4, 2010

Part One, Forget the Liberty, Give Us Death

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” -John 3:16

Atheists are often criticized for focusing on trivial aspects of religion and not tackling the deeper, more advanced modern theology of Christianity. Christianity does have some deep thinkers in their numbers. But, as in any branch of philosophy, no matter how intricate any argument may be, it is philosophically unsound if it is based upon a false premise. And no matter how glorious or beautiful the concept of an “atoning death” of Jesus is made out to be, it is still nothing more than the glorification of a bloody human sacrifice. It is a relic of primitive pagan idolatry, and no amount of apologetics can change that.

The core tenet of Christianity is, of course, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Liberal theologians and modern historical scholars may attempt to paint the newly discovered “historical Jesus” as a wise wandering sage, a stoic philosopher, or an apocalyptic prophet. But, there have been thousands of such figures throughout the last two thousand years and none of them are worthy of building up a world religion around.

It is, after all, not the Stoic philosophy that Jesus is shown rattling off during the sermon on the mount that saves anyone; accepting that the meek will get the lion’s share of the world is not the ticket to heaven. Most Christians don’t even seem to be concerned with studying the sayings of Jesus; I have found Buddhists and secular humanists to be much more familiar with any of these sayings than the average Christian. No, the saving grace of Christianity is the death of Jesus. It is this death that the early apostles seemed so attracted to. In fact, there is no trace of any of the teachings of Jesus in the early Pauline Epistles. This has lead some historians to wonder if Paul was even aware of any of these teachings. No, it is the worship of a death, a crude metaphor, perhaps, that has survived into the 21st century simply because, at some point in Roman Empire, the emperor of the most powerful nation on earth adopted the religion. His successor made all other faiths illegal, and a purging of non-Christian temples soon wiped out all competitors.

Complex philosophies and theoretical puzzles can be based around any premise. Just ask any serious Star Trek fan. They can analyze the deeper symbolism of any plot line and describe the physics of non-existent star ships to no end. However, this ability to extrapolate on possible scenarios, does not make any belief system true. Christianity has used any number of theological beliefs based events that are unlikely to have even happened. This is why Christianity survives. Its has the ability to dazzle the listener with fancy rhetoric that often heads off in circles, but never answers any questions. Just ask any preacher to describe the doctrine of the Trinity and they will most likely head of into “modalism” (the ice, water, steam comparison that was declared a heresy as soon as the concept of the trinity was established) or escape by the back door by calling it a “mystery”.

But the Passion story, the drawn out depiction of the savage beating and gruesome death of Jesus of Nazareth, has a power no theological meandering has: it has emotional appeal. And, as anyone that’s seen The Passion of the Christ can attest to, the pain of the narrative is often played for all the tears it can muster in an attempt to win converts.

In the world of myth, the passion story may make sense. Myth can make emotional appeals to the senses without having to worry about any being literal. In any literal sense, the crucifixion death of an immortal god is beyond preposterous. Or are we to believe that the killing of Christ was all pomp and circumstance? A pageant play for our amusement in which the creator of the universe masqueraded as a man, and went through the motions of getting killed? It is not theology, it is mythology.


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