Did you ever wonder why it’s “news” that the Pope celebrated Mass on Easter Sunday? Or that Christians all over the world were commemorating Jesus’ Resurrection? Oh, well… understanding that one is out of my field of studies, I presume.
My headline points out that, as seasonal creatures, we naturally tend to cycle what’s on our minds in parallel with our cultural and/or religious celebrations. Whether you’re religious, spiritual-but-not-religious or non-religious and non-spiritual in your interests, you may encounter extra articles, radio or TV pieces and such that deal with Jesus around now. I hope you take time to read some of them. Fascinating stuff.
Fascinating on more than one level. Some of them deal with the question of the existence of an actual historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus Christ. This makes it fascinating in terms of a puzzle of history. And a revelation of the difficulties of finding any “objective” history from ancient times or even perhaps today.
One good article by a solid biblical scholar is in The Guardian. Another, which I’ve commented on under the article, interacting with other commenters, is by psychologist and former Evangelical Christian, Valerie Tarico, found here. They come from differing perspectives and both cite relevant modern experts and ancient documents, or the interesting lack of them. Neither is technical nor hard to read so I recommend them both for a broad audience.
Another level of fascination brought out by informed discussions on Jesus and very early Christianity is “watching” the formation of the world’s largest religion (though we are missing much more of the story than the parts we do have). There are so, so many lessons applicable to today’s situation both in the Middle East, here in America, and everywhere else. Issues of cultural and ethnic tensions and how they sometimes are transcended, sometimes remain tense for incredibly long periods. Issues of how the seemingly necessary “myths” of life’s meaning, spiritual “reality”, our destiny and such things are developed and sometimes changed rapidly.
I’ll expand briefly on just the matter about myth-making. This comes up quickly and often emotionally in discussions of what is historical or not, from Jesus’ very existence, to what he said and did, to how Christianity was actually founded and by whom. It’s right that it should come up. Believers (all types of Christians, not just “born again” or literalist types) need to much better understand the reality and process of myth-making in general and in the founding of their faith in particular. And non-believers or doubters with nagging questions often need to be much better informed on myth-making as well, and on what does stand on solid historical ground regarding Jesus and his early followers, even when much of it cannot be pinned down with specificity.
My own fascination may exist because of an early and quite long education in the Bible and Christian faith followed by a long widely-searching period and then much more study in both formal and self-guided modes in particularly New Testament and related texts and the subject of “Christian origins”. This last phase has included exploration of the process of myth-making and its relation to cultural and/or nationalistic issues. I will say categorically,
It is impossible to very deeply understand even one’s own culture–its values, memes, sense of place in the world–overall what drives it, without some examination of the mythology behind it. This is particularly true for “Christian America”.
The scholar I’ve encountered who has developed the most (in my exposure in English language work) on myth-making within Christianity is Burton Mack (“Who Wrote the New Testament”, “The Christian Myth”, etc.) He has developed “Social Interest Theory” along with anthropologist Jonathan Z Smith in a lot of detail. It has strong explanatory power… a key test of the validity and usefulness of any systematic theory. Some of his work is fairly technical, some of it not. So I recommend some exploration of him to readers all along the scale of education on religion or Christianity and its formation.
But there are a whole lot of other authors who have made important contributions to this area. Too many to begin naming them here. But I do encourage you to look into any author’s credentials and try to identify his or her perspective (religious commitment and in what setting, an anti-religious sentiment, etc.). This almost inevitably coincides, to varying degrees, with intellectual bias and with reasons a person researches and writes on a given topic.