Biblical Myths, Metaphors and Fairy Stories – Part 2

Since I became old enough to understand the differences, I have observed several distinct ways of reading the bible and interpreting the stories contained within it. This is the follow-up to part 1 : http://wp.me/p1TXXQ-5Y

I’m going to skip the rest of the Old Testament (OT) and go straight to the New Testament (NT) for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I have much more personal knowledge of it than the later books of the OT, I also think I have more relevant points to make.

New Testament 

Given that both of these posts have been about the stories in the bible rather than the laws, I will concern this post with only the first 5 books, the 4 Gospels and Acts.

Just as with the OT, there are differing ways of reading the NT.

The near universal interpretation of these books among Christians of all denominations is that not only was the biblical Jesus a historical figure but that all the miraculous stories surrounding his birth, life & death are also historical facts. Some may dispute the accuracy of the calendar (no census in the life of Herod) or the meaning or interpretation of some teachings but to call oneself a Christian means accepting as true certain aspects about Jesus’ divinity. There are minor disputes over the resurrection, (was it spiritual of physical? Was it the actual body of Jesus or just his spirit?) but if you truly believe that the Jesus represented in the early books of the NT was truly divine, all the stories attributed to him become easily believable. Despite these differences, neither fundamentalist or moderate Christians repudiate the historical authenticity of the Jesus story.

There is a modern school of thought (with which I have flirted) that disputes the existence of the historical Jesus, citing the lack of contemporary evidence available. Certainly there is little written of Jesus’ life while he was still living but this is also true of many people of the day. Few citizens had anything at all written about them, it was only wealthy patrons and military or civic leaders who had people writing about them. Poets, teachers and philosophers wrote about themselves but the lives of the vast majority of people are forever lost to history. Literacy within the Roman Empire, despite being very low by modern standards, was much higher than in later times. It would not have been hard to write important records down but given the expense of paper-like materials, the probability of those materials deteriorating without proper care and the fear of persecution for religious authorities, it is not surprising that a small religious sect would have no written records at its outset.

The length of time between the events and their recording, despite being so much less than those in the OT, was still sufficient for the writers to embellish (if they so wished) the life of Jesus to not only fit some of the early prophecies but also appear truly divine to the growing number of gentiles who were beginning to join the early Christian movement while it was still only a sect of Judaism. The factual accuracy of his birth, miracles and death should not affect the validity of his teachings but if a person is seen as an earthly incarnation of god, people are much more likely to  listen to what he has to say.

Given the importance placed in ritual cleansing running throughout Jewish laws, the idea that an earthly divinity would be saved from the physical impurity of conception by coitus is not really surprising. That he should be a child prodigy, learned before his years in the laws of his people is to be expected. As for miracles such as turning water into wine, this can easily be seen as a metaphor for his turning the inner life of a person from mundane to celebratory. Feeding the five thousand is a way of showing his ability to nourish so many people spiritually despite his humble origins. When we come to the resurrection, I believe the reason so many disciples at first despaired, doubted or didn’t even recognise before believing is because there was not true resurrection in the sense of a dead body getting up and walking around. The apostles discovered that even after the death of their teacher, his words and teachings were with them still. In this way he was made ‘immortal’ and it became their purpose to ‘spread the word’. To me, the historical Jesus was man, a teacher who had a lot to say about how people should live in relation to other people rather tha in relationship to worshipping god as had been the case with previous prophets. While these theories may seem blasphemous to many modern Christians, I see them as an inevitable consequence of reverence and a desire to spread the teachings he espoused.

Part 3  to follow soon.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

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5 Responses to Biblical Myths, Metaphors and Fairy Stories – Part 2

  1. Nono, he was definitely a zombie! 😄

    • His insistence on ritual cannibalism combined with rising from the dead would certainly make it a possibility!

  2. Pingback: What I’ve Been Reading March 28: the Blog edition | amandatheatheist

  3. aynway says:

    In my ethics classes I teach Jesus as a philosopher–a man with ideas worth considering–rather than a deity whose ideas must be believed as a prerequisite to cosmic bliss. It’s about the same way I talk about the Buddha.

    • I’d have to go along with that, I think the divinity came with later writings but its amazing how much opposition you get when expressing a disbelief in that side while still agreeing with much of the teaching.

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