Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: The Canonical Gospels

Early last year, I got into a longish conversation with an evangelist. This is unusual, as I generally would regard this as a waste of time. What made him different from most was that he was able to talk about things other than Christianity, and showed some actual curiosity.

I was periodically walking back and forth in the food court to stretch, and every time I passed him he noticed my "Secular Values Voter" button. So eventually he stopped me to ask what this meant, and that led into a discussion about Christianity and various more or less related topics. Nonetheless, he did eventually zero in, before taking his leave, of how he really thought I should read the Gospel, and was sure that if I did so I would be convinced. I'd always figured I'd get around to this sooner or later, in view of the books' historical and cultural significance, but never had. So I told him I would, and within a couple months did so. I took a bunch of notes with a view to writing a review here before sending it to the evangelist, but recently decided to write him off the top of my head before he forgot our encounter (or changed his email address). What I wrote him is below (fittingly in red, since he used the sender name "jesus christ" -- no kidding).

Dear Pete,

After getting caught up on already planned books, I followed your suggestion and read the four canonical Gospels (KJV). That was over a year ago, and I meant to write a thorough review for my blog, but haven't managed to get around to it yet. Rather than delay any further, I decided to just go ahead and write you about my experience.

To aid me in understanding the material, I concurrently read the corresponding chapters of Asimov's Guide to the New Testament. (Since he discusses the books in their traditional order, that's how I read them, even though I knew that Mark is generally regarded as the most "primitive" Gospel and was probably written first.) But even if I hadn't, I think I'm sharp enough that I would have made many of the same observations on my own.

My most striking impression when I was finished was that there was "no there there." It was really anticlimactic. My whole life I'd been hearing that Jesus had this incredible message that I had to read the Gospel to get, yet I could find hardly any message at all. Most of his preachings seem to have taken the form of parables, and most of these were sort of meta-allegories about the importance of the message, without actually telling you what the message is. About the only substantive message I could find was the Golden Rule, and even that -- as I also had already known -- was not original with Jesus. For instance, his older contemporary the Rabbi Hillel had said something quite similar, not to mention sages in other parts of the world.

Although I'd heard previously that there are inconsistencies between the Gospels, I had no first-hand experience with these until I read them at your prompting. The biggest ones are between John and the other, so-called Synoptic Gospels. One concerns where Jesus recruits his first disciples: John puts this by the River Jordan, whereas the earlier books place it in Galilee. Another is his relation to John the Baptist. The Synoptic Gospels have him and Jesus competing for followers, while John says he told his followers to leave him for Jesus.

Most importantly, Asimov illustrates how the discrepancies between the Gospels aren't random, but actually reflect pretty well the theological evolution of Christianity from a Jewish sect -- one whose leader initially denied being divine -- to a Gentile religion holding this same figure to have known he was God from the outset.

I thank you for motivating me to read these books after so many years of procrastination. While doing so hasn't changed my fundamental view of Christianity as a product of human imagination, it certainly has deepened my understanding of it.


P.S. What prompted me to finally write you was having looked at a web site making the case for Jesus' not having been a historical figure at all. It argues that Christianity was the product of a gradual syncretistic fusion of Judaism, Greek Cynicism and Platonism, and other traditions, which became institutionalized before deciding on a unifying theology, including the idea of an incarnate God. While this is an intriguing idea, I haven't studied sufficiently to have an informed opinion, so for the time being I'll remain agnostic on this question.

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