Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Bible as Historical Artifact

This post has been bouncing around in my head for a while, and I think it's about time I finally wrote it. I mention this in case this post should seem to be speaking to any particular situation, to make it clear that it isn't. It's just something I've been thinking about. What I've been thinking about is what I believe about the Bible.

Every now and then, one hears somebody proclaim that the Bible was written by men, or otherwise allude to its status as a historical artifact. Sometimes this is done in a manner that indicates the hearer should be surprised or shocked by the assertion. I suppose it probably is shocking to some (more's the pity), but to me, treating the Bible like a historical artifact is where Christianity should start.

For one thing, whatever else the Bible may be (and of course, to the religious mindset - any religious mindset - the question is not whether it was written by men, which it obviously was, but whether it was also written by God), it is manifestly a historical artifact, and it can only be proper to treat it as what it is. Yes, it may be other things, but everybody can agree that it's a historical artifact, which makes an analysis of it as a historical artifact a more reasonable place to start than most.

This may all sound terribly secular, but I think religion deserves no special exemption from plain old intellectual honesty. It does not fly in my world to hold religious beliefs simply because. "Faith" is not an answer here; one is entitled to know why one has faith in a particular thing just as much as one is entitled to know why one trusts a particular person (trust and faith being, at least in Christian usage, synonymous). Of course, one may trust someone or have faith in a particular proposition for no good reason, and one is certainly entitled to mentally behave in that manner, but I find that immensely unsatisfying. I want to have a foundation for my religious beliefs that is outside my own head for the same reason I want to have that sort of foundation for my historical beliefs. It would be all well and good for me to believe that this country was founded on Christian principles, for instance, and I might derive much utility from that belief - but honesty would compel me to ask (and, I think, entitles others to ask) why I thought that was true. And if the weight of the historical evidence was against that proposition (which, not that it matters, I think it is), what good would it do me to bleat, "But that's what I believe?"

This is the way I want to treat my religion. One often hears people discuss what Jesus was like, or not like, or hears people saying that Jesus would do this, or believe that, and so on. The obvious question to ask in those sorts of situations - one that gets asked far too infrequently - is, "How do you know?"

"Jesus" is not some kind of cultural ideal to which one can ascribe whatever meaning one wishes. He was a man, like any other man, and we know about him like we know about any other man - through the historical sources that describe him. As it happens, pretty much every historical source of any worth still extant describing this particular man is in the Bible - but we needn't be spooked by that; the Bible is, after all, just a historical artifact. Beliefs about Jesus have to start - and in my opinion, ought to end - with the evidence we have about him. I cannot say, "Jesus is in everybody's heart" any more than I can say, "Jesus' favorite food was salted olives." Both might be true, but the real question is whether the available evidence supports either assertion.

Looking at the available evidence, Jesus strikes me, for the most part, as an unremarkable historical figure. People often say that they admire Jesus. To be perfectly honest, I kind of don't. What records we have of his moral teaching are fairly bland, in my opinion - the sort of thing that more or less anybody could get behind, except for the parts that I find repugnant. Be honest: which do you find the manlier creed, to love one's friends and love one's enemies, or to love one's friends and hate one's enemies? I'll take the second, thank you very much - I distinguish between my enemies and my friends for a reason, after all. When it comes to fights, I really don't like the advice Jesus has to offer. I'll tell you how I think fights should be approached: "It's making up your mind going in that you're not just gonna try to defend yourself. It's deciding right now, ahead of time, that you're gonna kill the motherfucker if that's what it takes" (Honor Among Enemies 291, ch. 22). In my opinion, that's how all fights should be approached, literal and metaphorical both. Especially metaphorical. Fight for what's right. Beat your circumstances. What's reasonable, what's workable, what's realistic - none of that should matter compared to what's good. Honestly, when does Jesus ever preach that?

Let me stop here and make something clear. My point is not that I don't care what Jesus said. As you know, I do care. I care so much that I believe in loving my enemies even though I think it's a stupid basis for a morality. The question I'm driving at is why.

Me, I don't find Jesus' teaching to be that striking. Nor do I find his life particularly exceptional. It's not as if his teaching led to any particularly great success. A fair number of people were attracted to him, to be sure, but so what? Plenty of people in history have been more popular than Jesus was. Now of course, perhaps somebody else would find Jesus' teaching to be especially resonant, or find something especially inspiring in the life of a self-proclaimed rabbi and miracle worker who got caught up in Jewish-Roman politics and was executed because his teaching was twisted and he either couldn't or didn't care to set the record straight. But that's not me, and I wonder how many of the people who say they admire Jesus would say that if he were somebody they'd never heard of and met for the first time when some professor assigned a bunch of extant letters and pamphlet-length "books" as required reading.

But here's the thing - said extant letters and pamphlets aren't much concerned with Jesus' character or his teaching, at least not to my eye. The historical record doesn't present Jesus as presenting himself as a great teacher or moral exemplar. Sure, he appropriated the title of rabbi (which is actually more than a little dodgy - the cultural equivalent of declaring oneself a PhD without having been awarded the title by a properly accredited university upon the acclamation of other PhDs), but he didn't present himself as a particularly exceptional one. He never claimed to be a better rabbi than all the other rabbis (or if he did, we have no record of it). He never claimed to be a better person than other people, or that people should follow his example. And his contemporaries do not seem to have gone on and on about his teaching, or what a great and blameless man he was. What they went on and on about - and what Jesus himself couldn't seem to shut up about, at least so far as our records allow us to know - was his identity as the Son of God, and his death and resurrection. That is what the primary sources are obsessed with.

Now of course, one needn't be obsessed with what one's sources are obsessed with. When it comes to historical artifacts, any and all angles are fair game. It simply happens to be that in this particular case I find Jesus' life, character, and teachings to be uninteresting in themselves. But I do find it interesting that the sources themselves are comparatively uninterested in these things, and quite obsessed with something else. And I start to find Jesus' life, character, and teachings to be quite interesting if the claims about his identity and the death and resurrection are true. It is at that point, and that point only, that I start to care what Jesus thought - at that point, and that point only, that I feel I have reason to choose what Jesus thought when it conflicts with what I thought. If Jesus is not the only begotten son of the Father, I really don't care what he thought or what he was like or even what he did. I'll take Alanna the Lioness, Keladry of Mindelan, Cimorene, and Honor Harrington over Jesus the Mere Historical Figure any day of the week, thank you kindly. Heck, I'll take Xenophon over Jesus the Mere Historical Figure. I'll take Athena the Steel-Eyed Goddess over Jesus the Mere Historical Figure. The list goes on.

So I come to the question of whether I think the sources' claims about Jesus are true. How am I to decide? I could decide that there is no way to know, except that I really don't think that's true. I could wave the "faith" flag and say that I just believe it, and ask people not to judge my beliefs, because I'm entitled to believe whatever I want, and my beliefs are just as valid as anybody else's. But that would feel like an act of huge intellectual dishonesty. I could turn to the scientific method, except that I wouldn't, because I happen to know the first thing about the scientific method and I would no more choose science to answer this question than I would choose science to answer the question of where I was born. I could choose philosophy, which feels like a less ridiculous approach than the previous two, except that I am not well trained in philosophy (and - perhaps because of my lack of education in the subject - philosophy does not really feel like the best tool in this case). History, though, is a discipline I do feel reasonably expert at (and - perhaps because of my education in the subject - this feels like an essentially historical question). And historically speaking, I feel like it is at least more likely than not that what the sources are so obsessed about really happened. From there, I start to care about what Jesus said, did, and believed. From there, my entire religion is constructed.

So ... yes, I think that the Bible is a historical artifact, written by men. I probably wouldn't care about it if I thought otherwise.