“The New Testament”: a confection of transparent lies 6

Today we post on our Pages (find the category in our margin) Jillian Becker’s review of The New Testament.

Here is part of it:

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The New Testament is a work of fiction, based on the life, death, and oral teaching of a Jewish hasid (pious man) who, according to its chronicles, lived between the reigns of the Emperors Augustus and Tiberius.

Almost all its contents were originally composed in a demotic Greek known as koine, but it has been translated into most other languages. (Quotations in this review are taken from the King James authorized version.)

A compilation of writings by many authors, only one of whom is identifiable with any certainty, and all of whom were long dead when the anthology was first published in the late 2nd. century C.E., it is a tendentious production, its chief purpose being to support the contention of the Catholic Church that the pious man it names “Jesus”, was “God” incarnated as a human being.

Although the collection is purported to be a factual record, the documents were not selected for their quality of research, accuracy of reportage, or their credibility, but to serve this purpose. So the book is full of contradictions, and transparent distortions of known history. The strain this puts on a critical reader’s credulity is such that he must soon realize how impossible it is to distinguish any facts it might contain from the mass of obvious fabrications, though some of the contradictions give hints of truths covered up, and plausible guesses have been made by historians as to what might actually have been done and said by the characters whose existence is recorded. Some historians have used this useful formula: if a passage goes against the manifest purpose of the authors and compilers, its retention in the narrative might be because it was too well known to be omitted, and so has a higher probability of being an authentic quotation or recollection.

It would be a tedious task (and would take volumes, as it has) to point out all the contradictions, inconsistencies, and multitudinous implausibilities in the assembled documents; but some are so egregious that they may easily be spotted by an attentive reader, and few could escape a skeptic’s cold eye.  … [A few examples are given.]

The Catholic Church made and published the book when it did because one of its many rival Christian Churches – led by Marcion, a rich ship-owner with a following possibly equal in size to its own – had gathered documents written in the late first and early second centuries – ten “letters of Paul” and most of the gospel of Luke – and published them in or about 140 C.E. as a testament of the faith. The Catholic Church regarded the Church of Marcion as heretical, but understood how powerful the existence of such a testament could be, and so produced its own orthodox version: the same “letters of Paul” and all four gospels at first, and a little later, around 200 C.E., more of the letters written by Paul or attributed to him, and the Acts of the Apostles, and an “Apocalypse of Peter”. It wasn’t until 367 C.E. that the twenty-seven “books” of The New Testament were recorded by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, as being as they are now, in the same order – which is not the order in which they were produced.

Marcion was a devotee of Paul, the originating author of Christianity, and like the antinomian Paul he wanted the Jewish scriptures – containing the Law which the coming of the Christ, in their conviction, had superseded – to be consigned to oblivion, and any connection between Christianity and Judaism to be buried. But the fathers of the Catholic Church came to realize that their religion could not do without that much older compilation of fictions, the Jewish bible; could not do without the moral law that it contained, which they separated from its ritualistic observances; and as Jesus was their “Christ” – that word being the Greek translation of the Hebrew “Messiah” – they needed the prophecies of the Messiah’s coming.

But Jesus, they believed, was much more than the Jewish idea of the Messiah. He was what Paul had said he was: the immortal “Son of God” born as a man “to save mankind from sin and death”. That was and is Christian doctrine. The Jews believed their Messiah would be a mortal man of great power, an anointed king who would free them from foreign subjugation and restore them, “the Children of Israel”, to independence and glory as in the days of David and Solomon. Jesus was obviously not their Messiah since he had come and gone without their being freed from Roman rule; and far from being restored to independence and glory, they lost their country, were scattered over the known world, and forever thereafter cruelly persecuted by all and sundry – especially the Christians.

How does The New Testament characterize God Incarnate as a teacher and preacher? Its portrait of Jesus places him on the sentimental side of rabbinic tradition. He is given nothing to say that was new except a mystical statement that bread is his body and wine his blood (a harking back to paganism that occurred to St. Paul as a revelation). He tells, as was the rabbinic way, fables with moral messages. Some of the messages are unintelligible (Matthew 20:16,, “So the last shall be first and the first last.”; Matthew 13:12, “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath”. ) He utters no profundities – nothing comparable to numerous utterances of the Stoics, for instance – and falls far short of the intellectual stature of such rabbinic thinkers as his near contemporary Hillel and the second century Akiba. (Hillel was the gentle carpenter rabbi who turned the idealistic Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would they should do unto you”, into the far more practical rule not to do anything to any one else that you would not want done to you. That, he said, was the whole essence of the Law. Akiba’s insistence on free will – that you are always free to choose between good and evil – is a direct contradiction of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin.) But Jesus’s lack of profundity is not surprising. His authors were not men with great gifts of the mind, and they could not endow him with a genius that they themselves did not possess.

To the extent that Jesus is made to vary traditional Jewish moral teaching it is to shift its stress. Where the most important value in Judaism was justice (or “righteousness”), in Christianity it is love. The mission of mankind was changed from the necessary moral task of trying to be just to all equally, to the impossibly idealistic one to love all equally. The change softened and sentimentalized the theistic idea. This was a God who suffered; a God in the form, for a time, of a dependent infant; a God who forgave without limit. Most of the authors wanted to present him as a preacher of peace, though this aim is undermined by his saying (Matthew 10:34) “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” – one of the statements that may be genuine precisely because it does not accord with the intentions of the Church. And one of the great inconsistencies of the new doctrine is that this forgiving, pacific, loving, merciful God, contrasting himself to the vengeful God of the Jews, will yet be the ultimate judge of everyman, and condemn sinners to the eternal anguish of a Hell more terrible than anything Judaism had envisaged.

All in all, there is little to recommend this book in itself: it testifies to absurdities; much of it (especially the Epistles and The Acts) is pedantic and tedious; it prescribes behavior contrary to human nature and yet declares failure punishable by an eternity of agony; and it provides no important insights. It lacks, or has very little good poetry (just one chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, is a fine poem, and certainly not written by the pedantic St. Paul to whom it is ascribed!), the quantity and excellence of which is the redeeming feature of the so-called Old Testament. Its most impressive part, if judged as a work of literature, is Revelation, which seems to have been inspired directly by the vivid fantasies of the Old Testament’s book of Daniel.

But – mirabile dictu – it has had, and continues to have, an immense effect in the real world. Millions still believe its narratives to be true and its teaching to be superlatively good. Untold numbers have died in the last nineteen hundred years defending interpretations of its messages. It has contributed importantly to the culture of the West, and not only the West. Whether its contribution has been more enriching than detrimental remains a matter of controversy, but either way it cannot be ignored, and should be read by all who would count themselves educated.

But then again, you hardly need to read it if you live in the Western world. You cannot easily escape it. It is with us whether we like it or not.

Posted under Christianity by Jillian Becker on Sunday, August 21, 2016

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The father of all heresy 0

Here is another in our occasional series on obscure and lost religions.

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Simon Magus was the founder of a 1st century religion, hugely popular in his own day and of considerable importance in the history of religions. The Catholic Church, though it has taken pains to diminish him personally, recognizes him as the innovating first in a long line of Gnostic teachers who established similar and diverse cults, some of which seriously rivaled Christianity throughout its early centuries.

Even according to the Acts of the Apostles (viii.10), a document which might be expected to and does belittle him and his teachings, Simon’s following consisted of the entire population of Samaria, ‘from the least to the greatest’. He persuaded them that he was ‘the power of God which was great’. But Philip, Peter, and John succeeded in converting the same Samarians to Christianity – and then Simon submitted himself for baptism. However, according to other sources, he soon reverted to his old claim that he himself was God.

The testimony we have to Simon’s life and teaching is for the most part from Christian sources. Irenaeus, the Church Father, called Simon ‘the father of all heresy’. For how much of what his Christian denouncers ascribe to Simon they simply dipped into the bran-tub labeled Abominable Gnostic Beliefs and Practices, it’s impossible to say. And despite the Church Father’s conviction that he was an originator of the creed he taught, it is also impossible to say to what extent he was really innovative. He was certainly eclectic, inspired by a variety of theological fragments wherever he found them. Some of his claims were obviously picked up from the Christians, but others that are Christian-like may have pre-dated Christianity. Elements of truth probably adhere to the Christians’ tales, and if stray fragments from other old barrels are added, and guesswork applied to them all with common sense and humdrum regard to known historical fact, a fairly coherent account of Simon and his doctrine can be stitched together.

Simon was born in Gitta, Samaria, about the time of Jesus of Nazareth. He must have left Samaria early in his life or he could hardly have made his fellow-countrymen swallow the story of his celestial origin that he was to bring back with him from abroad. He first became known as a Magus in the large, rich and sophisticated port-city of Alexandria in Egypt, the next most important Greek city after Athens, then under the imperial rule of Rome. To make a reputation there was an achievement to be proud of. Whatever Simon did to entertain his public, he must have done it well. A common repertoire of magical performances was attributed to him: the concoction of philtres and potions; the weaving of spells by incantations; the exhorting of idols and images; levitation; changing water into wine; opening locked doors from a distance; the inducement of demon-borne dreams.

The self-governing city of Alexandria was named after its founder, Alexander the Great, who was buried there. Under the (Greek) Ptolomies who succeeded Alexander as rulers of Egypt, a museum was established which evolved under their patronage into a kind of university; and a library was built which became the greatest in the ancient world, a proof and continuing cause of Alexandria’s intellectual supremacy. The library remained as a pool and fountain of learning for hundreds of years. However, much of its treasure consisted of pagan and Jewish works that were not to the taste of the strengthening Church. Several times Christians partially destroyed it. Eventually Muslims succeeded in burning it to the ground with all that it contained in or around 640 C.E. It was one of the most deplorable acts of vandalism in history. It is because so much was lost in Alexandria that we have huge gaps in our knowledge of the history of ideas, including perhaps the pre-history of Gnosticism. We attribute originality to this or that philosopher because his work survived and so is known to us, but we cannot know everything about his sources, or who his influences and modifiers may have been.

It is likely that wisdom rubbed off on almost everyone who lingered in Alexandria for any length of time. Simon of Gitta apparently acquired some Greek philosophy, perhaps from reading it in the library, or from listening to other people who read it, for he seems to have put it to work when he reinvented himself as a divine incarnation.

His magic art may have been acquired at home. According to some researchers he did not need to travel abroad to acquire it, but was trained by indigenous Samarian magicians and mystics.

The established religion of the Samarians – or ‘Samaritans’ as they are called in the New Testament – was a form of Judaism. Their bible was the five books of Moses. They had their own temple at Gezarim (despised by the Jews for whom the only Temple was the one that stood in Jerusalem until it was destroyed in 70 C.E.); and they worshipped in their own way one God, the God of the Jews, Jehovah.

At some unknown date, Simon, returning from Egypt, erupted into their midst with his art to entertain them and a strange new doctrine to excite them. They would throng about him to watch his performances, and he would preach astonishing things to them.

Jehovah, he proclaimed, was not the supreme God of the universe. He was only a lesser god, though indeed the Creator of this world. But what sort of world was this that he had made? A place of suffering, sin and despair. Now he, Simon, had come down to this earth, appearing as a man, from a realm far above the lowly heaven where Jehovah dwelt. Jehovah was not even aware that anything existed above himself, blindly believing he was the only god, but the truth was that way beyond all imagining, up at an inconceivable height, there was an unknown Primal Father, and He was all good.

Simon warned that he had come to disclose this because the end of the world was near at hand when all would be consumed by fire. The Samarians were doomed unless they followed him, Simon, who alone could save them. The Samarians were impressed. Wanting to be saved, uncountable thousands embraced the new faith.

An inner circle of (reputedly 30) disciples, both men and women, gathered about Simon. To them he revealed the origin of the universe. He taught that the Godhead was a Trinity. There was the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They were not three different persons, but three equal aspects of the same Being.

He, Simon, who had come among them as a man to teach them these things had made himself known as the Father to the Jews, as the Son to the Christians, and as the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles. As the Son, he had seemed to suffer death and affliction. He prophesied that in his present incarnation as an apparent man named Simon, he would again seem to die in his mortal form, but after three days would rise living in the flesh, and be taken up to the highest heaven.

He taught them how evil had come into existence from the Primary Source, which was entirely good so that nothing evil could come directly from Him. All things began with a Thought of the Godhead. This First Thought of God was named Ennoia, a female principle who was the Mother of all creation, for she brought forth the angels who carried out the work. They were jealous of her powers, and held her captive in the world they made. For thousands of years she was reincarnated to suffer again and again the pains of earthly existence. In one of her lives she had been Helen of Troy. Her latest incarnation was as a Phoenician woman whom he introduced to his followers by the name of Helen, because, he explained, that had been her most famous name in the past. He had come to seek and find her, and would now rescue her from the clutches of the demon-angels who held her captive, free her from the cycle of birth and death, and restore her to her rightful place in the highest heaven.

It is not known what became of Simon. Some said that he died in or near Rome. Two different stories of his end were rumored in mockery. One was that he was giving a performance of one of his magic arts, flying from a tower, when Peter, who was present, prayed that he should drop to the ground, which he did, to his death. In the other he let himself be buried alive for three days, after which, he predicted, he would emerge alive; but when the grave was opened he was found dead.

Christian accounts depict Simon as an immoral poseur who tried to buy the secret of miraculous healing from Peter and John. (Hence the ecclesiastical crime of ‘simony’.) They say that Helen, his consort, was a prostitute from Tyre, and the Samarians, to a man and woman, including the most learned and perceptive, had been taken in by a cheap trickster. He presided, they said, over ritual acts of sexual intercourse in holy orgies. St Epiphanius wrote of him that he made use of semen and menstrual blood in his magic.

Simon predicted that he would be ‘execrated’ because what he preached was strange and hard to believe. His doctrines contradicted the conventional beliefs of the classical world, denounced the God and the Law and the morality of the Jews, and constituted a threatening challenge to Christianity. In other words, he urged total revolt. His was not merely a rival faith, it was a protest against all order, all authority, of men and their gods. It was a revolt against the world. He would open the minds of men, wrest their souls from the chains of guilt and set them free. In his antinomianism, in his spiritual aspirations, in his revolutionary fire, in certain of his beliefs, he seems to some historians of religion to resemble St Paul, a notion that appalls others and has elicited scholarly works stressing the differences between the two men and their teachings, some demonstrating so profound a chasm between them as to render such comparison absurd.

Yet Simon of Gitta must have been an extraordinary man, eloquent and persuasive, whose claim to divinity was not unique in that era. And his doctrine did not die with him. It flowed into a swelling river of Gnosticism. His ideas – original to him or not – were developed by a series of Gnostic teachers, some of them founding sects that lasted for centuries and flourished side by side with the Pauline Church, until Christianity became an orthodoxy with the power to suppress and punish heterodox faiths. Then, along with other heretical cults, the sects that had evolved from the vision of Simon Magus were silenced, their scriptures burnt, and their obstinate believers put to death. We might wonder whether, dangerous nonsense though the beliefs might have been, they were much more dangerous, or much more nonsensical, than others that have been held in the highest esteem and continue to have currency in our time.

 

Jillian Becker  February 21, 2010

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When Simon disappointed the expectations of his Samarian followers by failing to rise from the grave, they became Christians in large numbers, according to Church accounts. No help to keep the sect alive came from Simon’s disciple and successor, Menander, who – although he endorsed much of what his master had taught – made some significant changes of detail.

Menander revealed that Simon was not really the divine saviour; he, Menander himself, was.

Rather than try to persuade the once-bitten Samarians to believe in him as they had believed in Simon, he repaired to Antioch and there gathered a following of his own.

His theogony was a variation of Simon’s. Certainly a First Power emanated a First Thought who in turn emanated the Archons, and those lesser powers created the world.  But contrary to Simon’s assertions, they did have knowledge of the First Power, and rebelled against Him. As a result, death came into the world. However, after many ages, here was Menander descended in human form to save humanity. He offered a baptism ‘into him’ which he guaranteed would provide immediate immunity from decrepitude and death.

These promises were not fulfilled. His baptized flock aged and died, and so his cult disappeared.

 

Jillian Becker   March 8, 2013