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Easter Stretches Minds as well as Spirits… Approached with or without “Faith”

March 27, 2018

I’m re-posting what I put up just before Easter last year. It has a couple links to articles that are still live and the articles pertinent.

I didn’t comment on the photo attached last year, but will now, given its fascination for me and interest more broadly, I imagine.  It is one I took in fall of 2016 in Ulm, Germany, the Danube just out of frame.  It was shot, among many others, well up the high spire of the “Ulm Minster”, the highest church in the world (technically not a cathedral – originally under Catholic construction, but Lutheran since the Reformation).

Its height is 530 feet.  I climbed the narrow spiral staircase to the observation deck, 469 feet up, and highly recommend the adventure (unless you have heart trouble… there is a defibrillator about 2/3 of the way up).

The other addition to the original post, below, is that since then, the ground-breaking historian of religion and anthropologist enthusiastically referenced there, Jonathan Z. Smith, has died.  The article of last year:


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 GuardianAnother, 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.


7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2018 1:15 pm

    Hello Howard. I thought this was a very good read and post. The two links you provided for Dr. Gathercole and Dr. Tarico and their articles were also very enlightening, well-informed, and stimulating for any Seeker of Probable Truth, as I like to describe it. 😉

    Personally, I do not question the existence of an apocalypticist Teacher/Rabbi named Yeshua/Jesus. As Dr. Gathercole correctly puts it:

    These abundant historical references leave us with little reasonable doubt that Jesus lived and died. The more interesting question – which goes beyond history and objective fact – is whether Jesus died and lived.

    I feel that anyone who has the skills of critical-thinking when studying ALL sources of ancient history in the Levant during the occupation of the Roman Empire, including the INVALUABLE source of the Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls, and super-impose this non-Christological historical template over the 4th-century CE canonical New Testament… and the picture becomes much less convoluted. What I have found in my years of study is just how HEAVY the Hellenistic Apotheosis ideals influence Paul/Saul as well as the later Church Fathers up thru at least Theodosius I and beyond. Afterall, most all the original, outlying sectarian Jewish-Messianic groups were eliminated by Masada and the Roman-Jewish War (70 CE).

    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.

    That is a good point Howard. I have been in a recent debate about that very topic: intellectual bias. What I was arguing was though it is very hard to suspend or eliminate our personal biases, we can improve our neutrality mode by comparing and contrasting as many supportive as well as opposing sources/viewpoints of a subject. The more the better. If we don’t try that (and repeatedly try fairly for an extended period), then we will forever stay in our little bubbles and comfort zones.

    Great post. Thank you Sir.

    • March 27, 2018 1:50 pm

      And thank YOU for your kind words and for the good additions.

      You know, it’s kind of ironic: the very topics we often avoid in “polite company”, religion and politics, probably suffer the most from intellectual/emotional bias. Corresponding to (because of?) this, we tend to avoid getting as many as possible of alternative perspectives and potentially disconfirming information.

      Just curious… I make a point in my ebook, “Spiritual Growth: Live the Questions, Love the Journey”, that one should avoid entangling religious commitments until around age 30 (even later for some). This is “heresy” to most Christians and maybe silly to others.

      But I base it on developmental progress and the time it takes to give a fair hearing or sampling of at least a few of the leading groups around one that one might join. (Or know why one DOESN’T, as “faith communities” do have many positives, regardless of potential negatives in their dogmas.) As a broad explorer, do you agree with a lengthy period of exploring before committing to anything where reversal might be very difficult?

      • March 27, 2018 2:16 pm

        More fantastic points Howard! 🙂

        As a broad explorer, do you agree with a lengthy period of exploring before committing to anything where reversal might be very difficult?

        I was raised by my Agnostic parents, primarily my well-educated Dad — mechanical engineer from Univ. of Texas, Austin. In my youth and adolescence he was always good-to-great about providing or helping me find many sources to an issue/conflict before drawing a final conclusion, IF that was sufficiently available in the end. We were perfectly fine with leaving a debate “TBD” (to be determined).

        Correlating with that was our appreciation (vs. fear) of the world, others, and pros or cons found in anything and everyone. In other words, I/we didn’t get these preconceived notions of a terrible, baby-eating, evil Satanic monster just waiting around every corner to pounce.

        Hence, to answer your question, yes! At least be taught and understand that an immediate (uninformed?) demand doesn’t always exist all the time. Sometimes allowing things to play-out teaches us the better path, the better choice. A good analogy is the marketing that goes on behind consumer impulse buying — it can turn into an addiction!

        • March 28, 2018 11:17 am

          Thanks again, for more personal experience info and backing my contention. Btw, do you mind sharing at least your first name? (If you want to stick with just “Professor” that’s fine, too.)

          Your experience is a good illustration of the kind of intellectual as well as emotional upbringing that I see as intertwined with the ability to be spiritually balanced and “whole” as well… in an easier trajectory than those from rigid or highly skeptical/cynical backgrounds; or from seriously dysfunctional families or religious institutions. (Btw, I had elements of that, both family and church, in my own case, though not real extremes as so many suffer. And my own “seek balance” tendencies… maybe related to being Libra, maybe not… made me more-than-typically prone to avoid most extremes; or to move toward center once realized.)

        • March 29, 2018 8:06 am

          I do prefer Professor, or PT, or versions of those two. Why? Just briefly because of the scope of my blog-contents and topics, making public my real name on social-media (not that WordPress is identical to Facebook or Instagram) while living and working in an “At-Will” labor laws state is quite risky. Why risky? I would say riskier due to divorce, child-support, and visitation rights or threats of limitating, etc., as well as companies/employers do indeed do “social-media” checks and/or monitoring on employees during interviewing-hiring or for performance reviews when in an At-Will state.

          I hope that makes sense and you can appreciate some of the benefits of anonymity. Thank you. 😉

        • March 29, 2018 11:45 am

          Thanks. That does make good sense. My state is “at will” employment also. Sad the reality is as it is.

        • March 29, 2018 12:15 pm

          It’s quite ironic or paradoxical to me Howard that in the U.S. (that has a SYMBOL of Liberty on Liberty Island, NY) specific special interest groups and now corporations with heavy Puritan-Conservative ideologies influence federal and state legislation and on political officials their theocracy(?) allowing such discriminating laws/policies such as At-Will labor laws (and those implied controls on individual citizens/employees)! Are those allowances reflective of true democracy, of true liberties, of a people FREE to pursue life, liberty, and happiness WITHOUT religious oppression on the non-religious!?

          Things that make you go “Hmmmmmmmmm.” 😖

          P.S. Did you know that businesses here in Texas can now refuse service to anyone THEY feel threatens their religious rights? The LGBTQ communities, Muslims, or Swinger Club owners (two of which I know personally) here are now being refused not just common respect, but refused service or business because of who they are PRIVATELY! 😮 The insanity of it and the gross lack of historical knowledge and full Constitutional law here utterly baffles me Howard! 😦

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