Thoughts on Christianity — part 1, the Resurrection of Jesus
This is part of an ongoing conversation between David Knott and myself about Christianity, which has now turned to the topic of the resurrection of Jesus. (Much has preceded, but it isn’t necessary to have read it to understand what follows. If interested, however, see footnote 1.) Having read at least one of my earlier articles on that theme, he has replied here, and what follows is my response. I’ll pick out his main points and questions, so it is not essential to have read that before continuing.
I’m going to focus on three issues, which I’ll do in separate articles:
- His main question, which he finds hard to understand, is how I can call myself (some form of) Christian while not (necessarily) believing in the resurrection, which is “the most important evidence upon which the Christian faith either stands or falls”.
- He says that he is “satisfied that there is a rational and reasonable basis for trusting in the authenticity of the Bible”, and trusts it to be the word of God.
- On the same theme, he says that “there is a coherence to the Bible that is astonishing”. This statement follows his reading and study of it for over 40 years, so that “it rings true”.
The latter two are familiar statements made by Christians. As something of a plot spoiler, I’ll say that I find it impossible to agree with them, but will outline some of my principal reasons for saying that in following articles. Here I’ll stay with the question of the resurrection. This has something of a feeling of déjà vu, since I had virtually the same conversation earlier this year with Gerald R. Baron. If nothing else, this will be an opportunity to recycle some of my previous articles.
This question can be compared to a trial in court. In order to be found guilty of a crime, the prosecution has to prove the case to the jury beyond all reasonable doubt. Since it is such an extraordinary claim, as both Knott and I agree, that someone apparently clinically dead can be miraculously brought back to life, especially 2,000 years ago before modern developments in medicine, this question can also be asked about the resurrection of Jesus; are there enough reasons to doubt it to at least make it an open question?
Before moving on to that, as an aside, I’ll briefly discuss a related topic. The truth or otherwise of the virgin birth may not be as important as the resurrection, when considering whether Christianity stands or falls. It does, however, equally defy the known laws of biology. Both this and the resurrection are part of the story, presumably because the authors want to suggest that Jesus’s true nature is divine, beyond the known laws of nature. I would therefore like David Knott to let us know whether or not he believes in the virgin birth.
If he does, then he runs into the problem of coherence and consistency of the Bible, which he claims he finds. The virgin birth can be found only in Matthew and Luke. John’s gospel is the one which most openly declares the divinity of Jesus. The majority of scholars believe that it was the last written of the four, in which case it would be reasonable to assume that its author was familiar with the gospels of Matthew and Luke, yet chose not to include that story in his own. Why not? Perhaps because he did not believe in it?
That is an interesting question, although obviously only a speculation, even before we consider the lack of coherence in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels themselves. The authors go to great lengths to trace the descent of Jesus from King David, obviously to establish his claim to the throne, to be the Jewish Messiah. Yet the authors, as various scholars have pointed out, immediately contradict themselves by saying that Joseph was not Jesus’s father after all; it was actually the Holy Spirit. So how can he have been descended from David?
We also have Paul saying that Christ was “descended from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1.3), either because he wanted to insist upon Jesus’s messiahship, or perhaps because he disagreed with stories that might have been circulating about a virgin birth. Whether or not he was aware of that story, he certainly appears to be saying that there was nothing divine about Jesus’s conception.
So how can David Knott claim that the Bible is coherent? (I’ve discussed the virgin birth story in detail in this earlier article.)
The reason for discussing this before the resurrection, is to suggest that the two authors were quite happy to include a mythological element, found frequently in paganism, in the story of Jesus. (By ‘mythological’ I mean symbolical or allegorical.) Perhaps the same might be true of the resurrection?
We do not know who wrote the gospels, therefore we cannot know what their beliefs were, what their agenda was. It is therefore possible that they were members of esoteric groups, steeped in ancient Mystery traditions. It is well known that such groups told stories veiled in allegory, so that only initiates would understand the true meaning, which would be concealed from outsiders. There is plenty of evidence in the gospels that Jesus was a teacher from some such group, for there are frequent references to him teaching in parables so that ordinary people would not understand, while he revealed the hidden mysterious meaning to his apostles.
The Apostle Paul spoke in the same terms, especially in 1 Corinthians, of an inner circle and outer circle of believers. Those in the inner circle are described as ‘spiritual’ (pneumatikoi) and the outer circle is variously translated as ‘unspiritual’, ‘carnal’, ‘of the flesh’. It is clear that Paul considers the Corinthians he is addressing to be from the second group: “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh”.
It is clear therefore that Jesus and Paul, as they appear in the New Testament, were both teachers from such esoteric groups, presumably the same one.
On a similar theme, it’s worth mentioning the possible existence of a Secret Gospel of Mark, based on a letter supposedly written by the early church father, Clement of Alexandria. This says that Mark came to Alexandria, bringing both his own notes and those of Peter, that Mark “transferred to his former book (i.e. the canonical version) the things suitable to whatever makes for progress toward knowledge”, and that he left what is today known as the Secret Gospel of Mark, “to the church in Alexandria, where it even yet is most carefully guarded, being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries”.
This letter, if genuine, was discovered in 1958 by Morton Smith, a professor of ancient history at Columbia University, who went on to publish his study of the text in 1973. As you might expect, there is much controversy around this document and its authenticity (see, for example, the wikipedia article). Since it fits in with everything I’ve just described, however, the existence of such a document would make sense.
My suggestion is therefore that the story of Jesus as found in the gospels could well be an esoteric allegory (solid food), and not intended to be understood literally as history (milk), especially in relation to the events surrounding the death and resurrection. I say that because the motif of death-rebirth-ascension is something that all aspirants have to undergo on their personal spiritual journey. (I have discussed this idea at length in this previous article. My previous two paragraphs here were quotes from there.)
This seems to be even clearer in the gospel of John; I’m now going to embark on a somewhat unorthodox interpretation of it. There, right at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus criticises and ridicules the Pharisee Nicodemus for being completely ignorant about the esoteric understanding of rebirth — thus what rebirth (resurrection) in the spiritual sense really means. Is this therefore a clue that the message of this gospel is the true meaning of rebirth, i.e. something that every human being has to undergo on their search for God? (Jesus is clearly not referring to himself in his conversation with Nicodemus.)
This idea gains more credence when, if you read between the lines, you find hidden (or not so hidden) clues in John’s narrative that Jesus may not actually have died on the cross. I’ve discussed that in this earlier article in response to Gerald Baron — and in more detail here.
So, is the true intention of John to tell a story which outsiders will understand literally, but the true allegorical meaning of which will only be understood by those in the know?
I appreciate that such an argument is not watertight, and that conventional Christians will obviously think it unpersuasive, and find arguments to dismiss it. For me, however, and to return to my starting point, my analysis contains enough to have reasonable doubts about the literal truth of the resurrection story, that it has not been proved conclusively, even if that is what the gospels on the surface appear to say. In a court of law therefore, it would be difficult to have a unanimous verdict from the jury, having considered all the evidence.
I’ll return now to David Knott’s question: how can I call myself a Christian if I do not believe in the literal truth of the resurrection? It’s because I think that Jesus was a highly important spiritual teacher, perhaps the greatest of all time. I therefore consider him to be something of a guru. Even if he never existed, which many modern commentators believe, I would still find it possible to be a Christian, because Jesus’s reported words are full of great psychological and spiritual insights, still highly relevant today. Especially relevant is the esoteric, allegorical Christian teaching of death and resurrection.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
- I first published an article on the relationship between quantum physics and spirituality, which was a transcript of a talk I had given. David Knott replied, primarily wondering why I focussed so much on Eastern spirituality rather than the Bible. My answer, as outlined in this article, was that this is what the physicists themselves did, although I did find interesting parallels in Genesis 1. Some more correspondence followed, which turned towards the subject of the resurrection of Jesus. He asked for my thoughts about this so I referred him to this response of mine to an article by Gerald R. Baron, who holds similar Christian views to Knott.