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A reflection on the New Testament and Christianity: a layman affirming his position.

The main intention of this post is to serve as a personal reflective writing for my own use. This just sets out my own thoughts with honesty. If you happen to read this, don't take offence. 

Christianity essentially comes from the New Testament that is garnished with symbolic mythology and dramatic legend. As a realist, let me dive straight in by saying that the gospels were anonymous until the second century, we don't know who wrote them! The gospel of John is attribute to an unnamed witness and dates for its origin are set around 80-100 CE. Mark is believed to be the oldest at 65-75 CE with Matthew and Luke respectively compiled around 80-110 CE. These documents were not novelistic historical memoirs as we might expect. E. P Sanders explained that first century preachers of the Jesus movement had numerous snippets or pericopes of scripture which increased in number over time. Post crucifixion, the apostles went underground producing no fine body of literature at all. Just imagine, we could have seen a book called "The Mission of Christ" or something, but insufficient literacy prevented such publications. I believe differing facts within the NT inspired new and diverse denominations. Calvanist's, for example, believe that people are chosen to be saved in a predetermined plan. Catholics on the other hand, believe that people need faith and baptism to be saved, and Unitarians don't all recognise Jesus as the actual son of God. Our various representations of Christ manifest in historical, cultural and political forms too, such as the British imperial Jesus, the Anglo Saxon and Nordic warrior Jesus, as well as the radical white bible belt American Jesus, black African Jesus etcetera. We should move on from the Jesusverse, it's a possible topic for another time. 

Why I think interpretation of Orthodox Christian scripture has shaped religious practice and belief differently across the world. 

Admittedly, pseudobiographical scripture is a personal bone of contention; it shouldn't be, but I often see it as deliberate deception. You might understand, for example; Isiah is believed to have been written by at least three authors, it's called the Trito Isiah by scholars. I've asked myself how is multi-authorship not dishonest? It's not necessarily a dodgy practice though. The book of Daniel was compiled hundreds of years later than it reads because in ancient Israel, recording the percieved truth prioritised the enscription of contextual information, chronology and author based details. The conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar doesn't escape political spin either; the authentic contextual propaganda has value. Caesar dictated, his personal scribe scribed wisely, decorating Caesars accolades to keep in favour. I'll compare this to Paul of Tarsus. I watched a video by Dr. John Dominic Crossan and he explained that certain Paulian pseudobiograchical letters contradict the confirmed authentic ones, which, strangely enough, directly challenge much of what Paul represented. I can appreciate how a scribe of a powerful leader is constrained by expectations whereas the Church, on the other hand, has been editing scripture for centuries. The living Paul himself had his own limitations with what he could say or write. Historically, the man never met the earthly Jesus and in light of Judaism being a strict monotheist religion, honouring the idea that only God can be worshipped; the recently crucified Nazarene was not a prime candidate for God-status. However, he learned that to revere a pious being solely reliant on, and subservient to God was more acceptable. On top of this, Paul was a rival of Jesus's brother, James, and his circle of friends who held the monopoly on the early Christian church in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, for Paul, many of them claimed Jesus was not divine, but a man who was somehow touched by God. Pauline scripture eventually won, shaping the New Testament. For me, Paul's "Exalted" Jesus was a phantasm born from the mind of an interloper, I might easily be wrong on the details, it can be difficult to reach such conclusions without scholarly input. 

Modern speculation has a knack of supposing biblical characters wrote biblical tales, but also, in the mid nineteenth century scholars uncovered over one hundred and forty biblical contradictions. This means for every contradiction, one is either an erroneous or an intentional mistruth. This isn't looking good for taking the bible literaly; there's also the hundreds of textual variants made over the years of copying, translation and editing the women out! If you go to any atheism vs theism debate online there is a good chance that someone might post something like:

The Bible on Seeing God:

"...I have seen God face to face, and, my life is preserved." Genesis 32:30

"No man hath seen God at any time..." John 1:18

There is much more. There is no archaeological proof for a real Joshua existing, same goes for King David, Samuel and the biblical Judges. There are no shortage of academics who suggest that the the bible contains symbolic parables and mythical archetypal characters. As well as this, we face the synoptic problem. The gospels are historically inaccurate; we cannot determine who was influencing or copying who! John's gospel has somewhat antisemitic tones despite the apostles and their Lord likely having Jewish ancestry. Then there's the Q source which I don't like. This pre-existing gospel combined with Mark is thought to have possibly made up portions of the remaining gospels. I don't know if this is to forcing wrong pieces into the puzzle? 

Another biblical reservation of mine is the scientific errors: when day and night existed before we even had a sun! Undeniable evidence argues it as fact that humans evolved over millions of years, but, the certain denominations say seven days is the correct time span of creation. In defence of ancient christian scripture, Samuel Noah Kramer's work on Sumerian-Babylonian civilisation shows strong evidence. It shows historical links to Jewish-Babylonian culture. Babylonian mythologies played a part in Jewish identity and we can see the common ground in both of their versions of Genesis, The Flood and The Tower Of Babel.  

That being said, Trey the Explainer the YouTuber did a very well revised video about how the Bible changed over time. He explained that Jesus's prayer about forgiving his enemies during his crucifixion in Luke 23:24 is missing in older versions. That is to say, Papyrus 75, written in 200 AD did not feature this dialogue. In fact, It appears in a 300 AD work called the Codex Sinaiticus. At the same time, we should never forget other scientific and copying errors, the contradictions and the alterations. In 200 AD The "Cast the First Stone" narrative concerning the adulterous woman wasn't in Papyrus 66 or 75 (bear in mind that Jesus, Paul of Tarsus, James the Just, Cephas and every apostle had died in the first century). The story doesn't appear in Codices Vaticanus or Sanaiticus but it is in the Codex Bezae compiled 400 AD. It can be argued that the ending of Mark was a later addition because the earliest copy ends with the three women in the tomb of Christ talking to a white robed messanger. The popular conclusion of Mark 9:20 appears in writing in a documented dated to 400 AD.

During antiquity civilisation was predominantly superstitious and, in Israel, talk of the resurected dead and faith healings were common. Consider how later medieval minds spoke of goblins and fairies. Cultures across Europe had their fair share of superstitious belief in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries alone! There may well be a link with mental illness. The British Time For Change mental health campaign 20072021 stated that 1 in 4 Brits will experience mental illness. This statistic refered to a well developed successful peace-time country with better life chances and life expectancy than first century Israel. The oppressed first century Israel lacked free mental and physical health care and policing. Going on the Bible, the happiness index rating wouldn't have been good, leading me to suppose that per capita, Israel had more mental illness than todays U.K. I don't know how many New Testament characters of interest were symptomatic of an actual mental condition, how could we tell? Bipolar highs can be a very spiritual and subjective experience, it's easy to picture the magickal thinking of a schizotypal personality and the ritual behaviours of a highly religious OCD sufferer in that period. Julius Caesar's epileptic seizures were taken with a pinch of divinity. If we took a team of psychiatrists back through time would they diagnose Jesus with a mental condition? In Mark 3:31-5 Jesus disowned his mother and brothers calling his religious followers his family instead; social services might take interest in this sort of situation but, on the same token; was Jesus merely cultivating what scholars have portrayed as his religio-political community of non-violent resistance to Rome and Herod Antipas? None of this is straight forward, but it should be.

What warrants our ongoing daily Christendom? These dominant world religious orders are based on unsound scripture, and for me, it's all hypocracy, considering their unjust persecution of others. Recall Jesus' teaching about giving everything to the poor: a National Post article in 2013 claimed the Catholic Church was incalculably wealthya camel finally got through the eye of someone's needle!

This doesn't help me build any faith in the main religious organisations. The daily news informs us of new crimes and great threats scarier than what any apostle ever saw. From my perspective, following on from a literal view of the NT Jesus becomes a failed messiah. Matthew 15:21-28 shows that Christs personal mission was specifically for the "lost sheep of Israel". I've read scholarly accounts of how the twelve apostles were symbolic representations of the lost tribes of Israel. Fair enough, this is most likely interpolation but penned by the hand of a Jewish scribes hand, considering that it refers to the Tanakh. Though, it seems, the names of the apostles aren't consistent in the NT. Out of Jesus' flock of sympathisers, followers, patrons and supporters, rigidly sticking to the rule of a symbolic dozen seems like a questionable endeavour. His crucifixion as an act of martyrdom became legendary and sadly, most of Israels people still suffered tragedy regardless. Christ's Kingdom of God spanned across his loved holy land, the poor and disenfranchised had messianic expectations of him which many felt were not met, there was no Davidic kingdom. The Romans remained and Emperor Vespasian slaughtered countless zealots (some of whom may have have been Christian) in the first Jewish-Roman war decades after the crucifixion. This is why I feel this type of Jesus failed. It's unfair to blame a nation for it "not being saved" realistically; there's immorality to be had if any nations faith faces persecution for abstaining from religious conversion. Sadly, the orthodox Jesus lost his life, a diaspora followed. Jewish Christianity became increasingly gentile and anti-semitic.

The pursuit for the historical Jesus.

When the supernatural and religiously defined Christ are put aside, we see the academic perspective of an out of focus figure of a man, silhouetted and inaudibly speaking to his congregation who sit huddled in the dark. Scholars and experts from various backgrounds continue to strive for clarity.

Historical Jesus seminars often agree that:

1) Jesus was a real man

2) Jesus was baptised

3) Jesus preached

4) Jesus was crucified

After the crucifixion, Jesus's brother, James the just became head of the Church of Jerusalemthe Ebionites adored him. The earliest Ebionites were a sect of Christians centred in Jerusalem and originally part of Jesus' wide circle. In the second century, educated hellenised writers, known as Church or Founding Fathers, they branded these people heretics. This was mostly because their belief in Christ as a human being, as well as their adoptionist Christology centred around Jesus's legendary baptism given by John the Baptist. J. D Crossan and E. P Sanders have both said that titles such as "Son of God" were not necessarily blasphemous within context. You see, Israel and Rome had their own title son of God. Augustus Caesar was known as such because Julius Caesar (the man he saw as a father) was seen as a god. However, any resistance leader called the "Son of God" showed defiance of Roman authority just as use of the name the "King of the Jews" challenged Herod Antipas. This shows rebellion in Jesus. 

The significance of ancient baptism is insightful. There seems to be more going on than what, laymen like me, might fully understand. For starters, John the Baptist belonged to a gnostic religion called Mandaeism which differs to Judaism and some scholars believe it has roots in old mesopotamia. It's a dualist theology (a spirit world and an inferior physical domain). Those who teach use parable and metaphor (which Jesus famously did). Mandaeism holds that the creation of our cosmos was undertaken by an archetype spiritual man, which I find reminiscent of a heavenly father, sky god worship existed in older Middle Eastern belief system across Mesopotamia, along with older stories about Adam and Eve and the great flood/deluge. 
In fact, the Aramaic meaning of "Manda" is knowledge, but also, the same meaning sits with the Greek word "Gnosis". Mandaeism is an official gnostic religion. The priestly class are called Nasoraeans, also expressing another meaning for knowledge. Nasoraean is a crossover word with Nazarene, Notzri and Notzrim; anglecanised hebrew words for Christians. These correlations seem to hold some promise. Today Mandaeism still exists but it's dwindling and it certainly doesn't revere Jesus. John the Baptist, Adam, Seth and Noah are central figures. In the first century on grounds of persecution, they left Jerusalem according to Encyclopedia Iranica (2022)
other sources blame Christians. Accounts of Jesus giving his secret teachings to his chosen handful brings to mind the same practices of Nasoraeans within Mandaean gatherings, not to mention the same practices in Nag Hammadi gnostic gospels. I imagine Jesus and many of his peers were involved in Mandaean life at some point, but now I'm starting to sound like a "heretic" myself! E. P Sanders wrote that Jesus possibly modified his Johannian eschatological approach after John was beheaded around 30 AD.

Mandaeans don't convert outsiders to their faith; this strongly indicates family connection to the faith. After Johns death some of his followers joined Jesus and moved on. Third and fourth century gentile christians had a different religious outlook to those communities who saw life as having some form of cosmological dualism, sadly, this validated their persecution by the developing hellenistic church, it was mostly gentile or meaning non-jewish. All the same, "gnosticism" is a modern term and early Christians of this kind didn't use it to describe themselves. It's a scholarly word which marked theologies if they met the critia. 

What are basic gnostic beliefs?

Generally ancient Christians enjoyed the canonical scripture including various themes identified as gnostic today. Typically we find ideas of an inferior material world, crafted by an imperfect Aeon (appears like God to humans). This creator emerged from a younger Aeon (Sophia) who fell from grace but was later forgiven. His name could be sometimes Saklas, Yaldabaoth or Samael, sometimes Abraxas. He shaped this world as an artisan would create by working with the provision at hand. Unaware and ignorant of the heavenly pleroma/nirvana, oblivious of the self created one, the loving source of all things. Possibly panentheist in nature but, the cosmology has a lot in common with Platonism philosophically speaking. Fair enough, these are alternative view, different theological ideas concerning the same faith and expected in religious communities. However, historically victorious, gentile Christianity founded by the educated, ironically banned and burnt books which they deemed heretical. It reminds me of the seventeenth century European witch hunts. Be that as it is, these cosmologies say that we come from the demiurge, who in turn, after countless aeonic ancestral events, has causal origins from the self created. This means life on earth is touched by the divine spark of the source, and we potentially can develop this. Such emergence is metaphorically comparable to how freshwater rivers all lead back to the salty oceans—it's water, nevertheless. 


Jesus Christ and traditional biblical scripture was also reverered by many "so called" gnostic communities. The developing hellenised church founders appear self rightious to me, as well as audacious—anything they considered ugly had to be cut off. Redemption for the gnostic, however, sat with the eternal soul, with the mind and with teachings (often involving secret knowledge). Experiencial learning called gnosis played a big part in understanding the mysteries. This was not well recieved by the illumni of powerful church fathers and bishops. In the third century came persecution, and given our human nature, the antisemitism would have been present all along while our mainstream Christianity grew. You know the saying, "we get the governments we deserve," but, I say, we can also apply this to religion, considering we choose to invest ourselves into them. I find it sad how books were burnt and churches were closed, I can't imagine Tibetan Buddhist Monks ransacking Zen. None of this Christianity showed spiritual grace or enlightenment, even for that era in wake of Jesus Christ himself! This behaviour was more akin to nineteen thirties Germany than first century Galilee. Gnosticism disappeared but strange enough, the themes were always present in the New Testament: explore Mark, Paul and John for example. It's hypocritical how people ended up seared as heretics, it begs the question: on whose authority did these founding fathers follow? I say it's own authority, given how they knew correct behaviour in scripture. Perhaps gnostics did not keep their secret teachings secret enough? Elaine Pagels said that even the church founder Tertullian was tarred with the same brush for reading the apocolypse of John from the NT! What was happening? 


There were more than enough depictions of Jesus in scripture during the first three centuries alone! As a result, today, your Jesus will always be the proverbial elephant in someones elses room and so on and so forth. It's understandable how these scriptures can direct us into adopting new beliefs, for example: The Gospel of Thomas, Acts of Thomas and the Book of Thomas the Contender all help paint another picture—Jesus having a twin, Judas Didymos Thomas. The Ebionites excluded the nativity and genealogies from their only gospel, Matthew. I suspect—if there is any truth to this twin claim—early years stories might've been excluded from their Matthew gospel because of how untrue they may have found; erasing any Lords twin from history isn't great. The NT features two disciples called Judas and also one Thomas. B
oth Thomas and Didymos mean "twin" in Greek and Aramaica double translation. The Gospel of Thomas begins by saying: These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down. Non-canonical gospels, especially Nag Hammadi collection describes Thomas as being called Jesus's Twin. In real life, this man could also have been a stunning look-a-like who acquired this nickname. A natural doppelganger could explain Paul's risen Christ. Crossan disagreed that there was a blinding light in the Damascus experience. Regardless, hundreds of witnesses could have seen the "twin" mistaking him for the risen Jesus (I Cor. 15:6). Indeed, we could accuse it of being a lie, but the same would apply to canonical accounts too. Beliefs are easily reinforced. 

Philosophically, we are drawn to question what is most commonly around us: natural occurance over supernatural phenomenon. We know resurrection isn't possible today, and that faith healing doesn't work it. On these grounds these sort of Jesus substitution theories can be readily adopted diluting the historicy even more. The real Jesus, Yehsua bar Yosef is lost to time, his spoken words continues to be mixed with other people's words. The literalist worldview is the hardest for me to grasp; why didn't angels literally stop the Nazi's or halt the historical castration of choir boys? The "problem of evil argument" says that if a loving God allows evil acts, then that God is not loving. As previously mentioned, this problem is resolved with demiurgal Christian beliefs because the lesser God/Aeon is the one at fault and is responsible for failings in the direct lordship. Though, comparatively this demiurge mirrors how humanity designs it's own world. When community leaders lose ethics communities falter. Unhealthy cultures develop.  

In addition to gnosticism, I will always refer to the rich anecdotal evidence of Dr. Penny Sartori and Dr. Peter Fenwick with regards to Near Death Experiences, I continue to be pulled in by the field, because volumes of cases have attracted scientific involvement. Dr. Sartori was studying NDEs in hospital as part of her Phd and through our correspondence she told me about her findings and thoughts. One in five of those who were resuscitated after death on her ward experienced leaving their bodies. Bain in 1999 wrote a paper showing the significant parallels between gnosticism and NDEs. This corralates with Elizabeth and Peter Fenwicks book; the art of dying including all other findings of this phenomenon. In fact, NDEs are a global cross cultural gem in which science is taking more of an interest. Bain highlights common experiences NDErs share and there are parallels in other religious books such as the tibetan book of the dead and the upanishad, all of which contain gnostic themes. A divine light, a spirit leaving the body and joining loved ones, feeling safe and being in the presence of an all knowing sentience.  

I can imagine a successful Jesus as someone poised to save his people from the toxic politics and religiosity. This Christ, the enlightened leader who empowers the soul to transend our physical bonds to connect with something greater, differs to a patriotic Rabbi undermining the Roman occupation. But that's it, which Christ do we pick? They can all have appeal.

Furthermore, in this gnostic light, (in which I am admittedly somewhat biased) Yeshua's Christhood or Messianic position stands prominently on his significant baptism. Suggestive that he could also have held the Mandaean title of Nasorean. Regardless, the word messiah literally means annointed one. After eating communal bread next to the Jordan River, Yeshua ben Yosef was most likely first anointed on his forehead with sesame seed oil by John the Baptist before the famous baptism in the river, Yamauchi, Edwin M (2004). Perhaps our idolatry and our Christologies weren't meant to be as important as his actual contemporary words were. The sowing of these seeds was the top goal—how could you spread the word properly without words? Though much of what he said may be lost to time, other words lost their context with inscription, but, the ethos of his message could reside far and wide across other countries and cultures, as seen with Bains aforementioned themes of gnosticism. These themes are not exclusive to culture, gender, class or race and akin to perennial philosophy. Usually, sound facts such as numerical ones for instance, are universal. In contrast, our patched up holy books and strict dogmas aren't universal truths. At the end of the day; my agnostism remains, because truthfully, I can't prove any one version of Christianity to be one hundred percent true or false, but still, I enjoy the fruits of NDE research and enjoying human belief systems. 

Sources:

Freke, T. (2008) The Hermetica:The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs

Kramer, S N, (1971) The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. Phoenix Books

John Dominic Crossan, (1992) The Historical Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco

Fenwick, E, & Fenwick, E (2008) The Art of Dying. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. 

Bain, B, (1999) Near Death Experiences and Gnostic Christianity: Parallels in Antiquity: Journal of near death studies. 

Theissen, G & Merz, A. (1999) The Historical Jesus. SCM Press

E. P Sanders. (1996) The Historical Figure of Jesus. Penguin Putman.

Meyer, M, W. (2009) The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Harper Collins

Yamauchi, Edwin M. (2004)Gnostic Ethics and Mandaean Origins. Georgia Press

Morrison, K. (2013) Wealth of Roman Catholic Church impossible to calculate. The National Post.


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