Redemption Songs

I was listening to some Bob Marley the other day and was struck by a line in his song ‘Get Up Stand Up’: ‘Almighty God is a living man’. He was not of course referring to Jesus but to Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia who was still alive when ‘Get Up Stand Up’ was recorded in 1973. Rastafarians like Marley believed the Emperor would redeem African-descended Jamaicans and restore them to Africa from where their ancestors had been taken.

Rastafarians saw and still see themselves as modern day Israelites, like those in the Bible stories of Egyptian slavery and Babylonian captivity. Their perspective is reflected in songs like ‘Exodus’, by Marley, ‘The Israelites’ (Desmond Dekker) and ‘Rivers Of Babylon’ (The Melodians). Selassie himself denied being divine (‘why do you call me good, when only God is good?’) but that didn’t stop those who believed in him from making a saviour god of him. When, inevitably, he died (in 1975), some Rastas left the movement while others reinterpreted his role:

Some Rastas believed that Selassie did not really die and that claims to the contrary were Western misinformation… Another perspective within Rastafari acknowledged that Haile Selassie’s body had perished, but claimed that his inner essence survived as a spiritual force. A third response within the Rastafari community was that Selassie’s death was inconsequential as he had only been a “personification” of Jah rather than Jah himself.

It all sounds rather familiar doesn’t it? The saviour didn’t really die/his inner essence survived/his death was inconsequential. Where have we heard all that before?

This put me in mind of a cult that for a long time rivalled that of Christianity. Indeed, in the early days of Jesus belief, it boasted more members, all of them men. Unlike Christianity and Rastafari, this cult believed in a saviour whom adherents knew had never existed as a human on Earth. Mithras was a celestial being whose salvific work, which involved the symbolic slaughter of a bull, was carried out in the heavenly realm:

Mithras is the guide of souls which he leads from the earthly life into which they had fallen back up to the light from which they issued… It was not only from the religions and the wisdom of Orientals and Egyptians, even less from Christianity, that the notion that life on earth was merely a transition to a higher life was derived by the Romans. Their own anguish and the awareness of senescence made it plain enough that earthly existence was all hardship and bitterness. Mithras-worship became one, and perhaps the most significant, of the religions of redemption in declining paganism. (Jacob Burckhkart)

Eventually, in the fourth century, Christians suppressed Mithraism to the extent that its adherents, along with its ritualistic texts, were wiped from history. Only its deserted, underground temples remained.

What both examples tell us – and their are hundreds more – is that people have always been willing and eager to make gods of revered figures, both real and imagined. They are ready to believe them capable of impossible feats and to trust in them for whatever form of redemption they feel in need of. There can be no doubt Jesus belief sprang from this same sort of wishful thinking; Jesus being cast as a divine figure with the power to lead believers into the light and/or the promised land of eternal life. It hardly matters whether he existed or not. Like Mithras, an imaginary/imagined figure could just as easily fulfil the role as a real person, like Selassie, who had others’ unrealistic expectations thrust upon him.

 

Making it all up

While the Old Testament is made up of myth and legend and the New created from the visions and dreams of a few disturbed individuals, we are expected to believe that the gospel accounts nevertheless shine out as beacons of truth.

We know, however, that much of what is contained in the four canonical gospels is fiction. I’m not referring here merely to how contradictory they are (though there is that), I’m talking about the parts that are clearly made up, invented for theological and literary purposes. These include:

The nativity stories: These are myth, created so that the Godman has an origin similar to those of other Godmen: There is no historical evidence for a wand’rin’ star, a census that involved the mass movement of populations or the Massacre of the Innocents.

The virgin birth: relies on a misreading of ‘young woman’ in Isaiah 7.14

The flight to Egypt: a misapplication of Hosea 11.1.

Genealogies: invented. Matthew’s and Luke’s are completely different and don’t, in any case, include sufficient generations to reach back to ‘the first man’.

The Magnificat: Written as a Greek poem. It is not an outpouring of a young peasant woman.

The temptation in the wilderness: Jesus did not have a conversation with the devil. He was not attended to by squadrons of angels; we know such beings do not exist. In any case, which eye-witness was present to record these fanciful encounters?

Angels: 12 appearances across the gospels. Demons and other evil spirits: at least 20 mentions. Myth, pure and simple.

The miracles: all of them make a theological point. This is their purpose. They are literary.

Jesus’s teaching: designed to encourage members of the cult, a cult that could only exist after the events the gospels purport to relay. Everything he’s made to say comes from different sects, Paul’s teaching, Old Testament wisdom literature and even pagan sources.

The sermon on the mount: created and written in sophisticated Greek, not delivered by a semi-literate itinerant preacher.

John’s self-obsessed Jesus: nothing like the character in the synoptic gospels. Either he’s made up or they are. Or both.

The Transfiguration: Elijah and Moses do not return from the dead to have a chat with Jesus. This is completely made up.

The Eucharist: first appears in Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 11.23-27. It is distinctly pagan but is accommodated in the gospels because Paul insisted he got it directly from his (imagined) Christ.

Judas’ betrayal: suggested by Zechariah 11.12-13 (which in context is not a prophecy).

The custom of freeing a prisoner (Barabbas): no such custom existed. The event is symbolic.

Resurrected corpses emerge from their graves: Matthew made this up. No-one else seems to know of it and Luke makes a point of cutting the episode out of his version of events.

The Crucifixion: based on Isaiah 53 and various Psalms.

The Resurrection: based on the visions of Cephas, Paul and others with added, invented detail, incompatible across the four accounts.

The Ascension: Jesus levitates into the stratosphere, in front of witnesses no less. Or perhaps not; Luke invented this impossibility.

There is much more in the gospels that is evidently and demonstrably made up. We can, as Christians do, believe it all really happened. We can insist that the stories are not based on other sources but that these sources are prophecies of real events that took place in history. From this perspective, Paul’s and others’ visions are then the result of these same events.

But which is more likely? –
The Old Testament is packed with prophecies about Jesus’ life and death, and that what Paul and others saw in their heads was because Jesus really existed and spoke to them once he’d returned to Heaven…

Or: The Jesus story is fictional, a patchwork of Old Testament snippets, mystical visions, invented symbolic events and pagan ideas of resurrecting Godmen.

And If the gospels are fiction – and they evidently are – then why not Jesus himself? If there was no real history to be written about him, just this mish-mash of other sources, that can only be because there was no Jesus who walked the Earth 2000 years ago.

Jesus is the same as his near contemporaries Osiris, Dionysus and Mithras. Like them, he is entirely mythological.