This blog is having an
existential crisis

While I tinker with a new design, I’m also pondering how, what, and why I write here. I don’t know how long that will take, but you’re welcome to email me and see how things are progressing.

Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


series
Was Jesus a guru? (Part 3)

What if his message got lost in transmission?

← continued from part 2, on the meaning of “kingdom of God”

We’ve seen that the words Jesus is recorded as saying can’t be interpreted mystically. But…what if his disciples wrote them down wrong in the first place?

Jesus didn’t write down his teachings in the way I write here; his disciples recorded them some time after the fact. So couldn’t the reason that he seems very monotheistic and messianic be that his disciples put this gloss on his originally mystical words? Couldn’t they have bungled his teachings, or put their own spin on them, or only included the stuff they agreed with?

Let’s consider those scenarios.

The disciples bungled Jesus’ teachings

The basic idea here is that Jesus was trying to explain mystical truths, but the disciples interpreted them according to their Jewish way of thinking. So when Jesus talked about “God”, he meant to refer to something like our inner divinity; but his disciples, because of their pre-existing belief in an external divinity, thought he was talking about a being called Yahweh.

When you think about it, this is wildly, insultingly implausible—and I seriously mean laugh-out-loud comically ridiculous, like you have to be infortuitously credulous or have a serious ax to grind in order to pretend this is a genuine possibility—for at least two reasons:

  1. Jesus had the linguistic terms available to explain mystical ideas without confusion. If he had intended to convey mystical truths rather than monotheistic and messianic ones, he could have easily done so without trying to reuse Jewish concepts and terminology. He could have chosen from three languages to most accurately convey his ideas—Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek! (In case you aren’t aware, just about every conceivable kind of religious and philosophical idea came out of Greece at one point or another, and was recorded in their language.) Yet Jesus did not use this linguistic versatility to convey mystical concepts; he used it to convey monotheistic, messianic ones.
  2. Jesus’ disciples weren’t staggeringly stupid. What I mean is, they understood what words meant. They were competent communicators—as witnessed by the fact that they wrote gospels. It is inconceivable that they lived with Jesus for three years without catching on that he was teaching something, shall we say, quite unlike orthodox Judaism. It would be like a Christian living with a Buddhist for three years and not figuring out that when Buddhists talk about cosmic consciousness, they do not intend to speak about Yahweh.

    To think that twelve normally-functioning, bi- or tri-ilingual adults, educated in the Hebrew scriptures since childhood, could not have picked up on the vast discrepancies between the alleged mystical teachings of Jesus and the straight-up monotheistic Jewish ideas they record him teaching in the gospels, is so far-fetched that I shan’t dignify it with further comment.

The disciples put their own spin on Jesus’ teachings

Let’s imagine the disciples knew Jesus was a mystic, but they stuck with him anyway. Why would they do that?

The only obvious reason—given that they gave up jobs and family to do it, and even endured persecution—was that they believed his mystical teachings. Which is surely the same reason they wrote the gospels.

But then why did they decide to fabricate teachings they knew were false and put them in his mouth? Why present him as a monotheistic Jew who believed he was the devar Yahweh and the Messiah?! It would be like a Buddhist trying to convince Hindus that Christianity is true! The idea is absurd. They didn’t just dress up mystical teachings in a messianic garb, to make them more palatable to Jews. They completely obscured the (alleged) mystical truths, and replaced them with what is now called Christianity.

Most importantly, why, when they were threatened with death for preaching these beliefs, did they not recant and explain the actual truth? The Jews wanted them dead because they were teaching that Jesus was God—which was blasphemy. The Romans wanted them dead because they refused to acknowledge that Caesar was a god—which was against the law. They could have solved both those problems, and gained a heap more popularity, just by realizing that this whole messianic gig wasn’t working out, and coming clean about what Jesus had actually taught. The Jews would have kicked them out as pagans (but that’s better than being stoned to death, and they were a minority anyway); and the Romans and Greeks would have been eager to hear more, since mystical ideas would have lined up well with the most popular philosophy among their elite, Stoicism.

Mystical teachings got lost in the editing process

This scenario takes two broad forms:

  1. Perhaps Jesus taught things the disciples thought were wrong, and they omitted those from the gospels
  2. Perhaps the disciples who wrote the canonical gospels were actually in competition with other disciples who wrote, for instance, the Gospel of Thomas

Option #1: the disciples omitted stuff they didn’t like

The obvious problem with this scenario is that even if Jesus taught mystical ideas as well as messianic monotheism…that doesn’t undo the messianic monotheism! But once you concede this element of his teachings, your claim that he was a mystic loses all its force, because mystics don’t teach messianic monotheism.

In fact, if Jesus taught both, he was deeply confused. How could someone genuinely enlightened teach messianic monotheism in one breath, and then mystical gnosticism in the next, when the two are mutually contradictory? Even the people advancing the mystic/guru theory can spot that monotheism is incompatible with what they believe. Are they smarter or more enlightened than the guru Jesus? (And presumably his disciples?)

Option #2: the disciples “won” against competing interpretations of Jesus’ teachings

Proponents of the guru theory say there were many theological traditions that arose from Jesus’ teachings. Some were accurate, like the Gospel of Thomas, and some were not, like the Gospel of Matthew, but they all competed for followers in the first century. It wasn’t until much later that “orthodoxy” began to weed out the mystical teachings in favor of the Christian ones. “Guru theorists” point to events like the Council of Nicea, or Athanasius’ listing of the canon of the New Testament, as examples of how this process took place.

Still requires the disciples to be stupid/dishonest

The first difficulty with this theory is that it simply brings us back to the same issues we’ve covered. Either the disciples who wrote the canonical gospels were deliberately and irrationally dishonest, or they were staggeringly stupid. Both are extremely implausible options.

No historical evidence

The second difficulty is that documents like the Gospel of Thomas are known forgeries. They were not circulating alongside the canonical gospels, as if there were a broad range of doctrinal positions accepted from the very beginning. Rather, they are late forgeries probably derived from the canonical gospels. The Gospel According to Thomas can be accurately dated to no earlier than 140-180 AD; the canonical gospels, by contrast, can be dated to somewhere around 60 AD. Why should we think that “sayings” of Jesus written down a century after the eyewitness reports are in any way reliable or historical? That would be like someone today writing a book of Lenin quotes in which he denounces communism. No one would take that seriously; they would call it an obvious forgery.

In fact, there is no evidence for any kind of “diversity of doctrine” accepted among early Christians. That is not to say there was no diversity; rather, that from the earliest times we have clear evidence that certain doctrines (like that Jesus was the Messiah and the incarnation of Yahweh) were universally accepted—basic requirements of being a follower of Christ. Mystical doctrines like those propounded by the gnostics were late inventions, drawing from Greek mystery religions, and were always regarded as false.

TL;DR

If Jesus was a guru, the historical evidence for it has not only been lost, but replaced with evidence to the contrary. Moreover, the disciples were either staggeringly stupid or deliberately dishonest, when they had every psychological motivation not to be.

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