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A philosophical critique of Easter celebration (2)

By Douglas Anele

But even if we restrict ourselves to the stories in the Gospels, there are still two formidable problems to be confronted. The first one is the largely arbitrary manner the books that constitute the Holy Bible were selected in the first place, coupled with the general problem of inaccurate translations, mistranslations and deliberate distortion of the original texts by scribes who put together the scriptures by translating manuscripts originally written in Koiné or “common” Greek into Latin.

The second relates to obvious contradictions in the Gospels’ accounts of the purported arrest, crucifixion, resurrection and eventual ascension of Jesus. Beginning with the first problem, it is generally agreed by biblical scholars that the decision as to which books should be included in the Holy Bible and which ones to be occluded was a very controversial and difficult one, oftentimes reached by the casting of lots during the ecumenical council meetings, beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325. This explains differences in the versions of the Christian bible accepted as authoritative by major denominations of Christianity. Concerning the issue of language, the manuscripts from which the Holy Bible evolved were originally documented in Koiné or “common” Greek. And Koiné is written in what is known as scriptio continua, which means no spaces between words and no punctuation marks.

Accordingly, weshouldgoandeatdad can be interpreted as “We should go and eat, Dad” or “We should go and eat Dad.” Sentences can have different meanings depending on where spaces between words are placed. So, Jesusisnowhere can be “Jesus is nowhere” or “Jesus is now here.” The implication of this for assessing the veracity of biblical narratives, including stories about Jesus’ Passion, is obvious and consequential as well. For instance, it opens up the possibility that most of what Christians believe about Easter and on which their religion is founded might be the product of mistranslations arising from the nature of Koiné script.

Kurt Eichenwald has brilliantly discussed all this, including the extremely tendentious manner biblical passages were deliberately inserted in the scriptures,  in an article published in the 09-01-2015 edition of Newsweek. Since his essay entitled “The Bible: So Misunderstood it’s a Sin” does not focus exclusively on Easter, there is no need analysing it in-depth here. Nonetheless, the key point made by Eichenwald is that one should be careful in interpreting biblical passages literally because they contain numerous translation mistakes and deliberate interpolations by compilers who had a predetermined theological agenda.

READ ALSO: Always give thanks to God

On the vexed issue of historical inaccuracies and conflicting accounts of the trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus in the Gospels, an attentive open-minded study of what several scholars have written about it tends to raise doubts about veracity of those very narratives or, at worst, suggests that perhaps the outlandish events they describe never really happened.  For instance, Matthew, Mark and Luke claim that Jesus was taken directly to Caiaphas the high priest after his arrest (Mat 26:57, Mark 14:53, Luke 22:54). John says that he was taken first to Annas, father-in-law of the high priest who, after a while sent Jesus to the high priest.

The same Matthew 26:57 affirms that on the night Jesus was arrested the priests and scribes met before Jesus was brought to the high priest. Mark 14:53 says that they met on the night of Jesus’ arrest after he was brought to the high priest, whereas Luke 22:66 reports that the priests and scribes assembled the day after Jesus was arrested. The gospel of John mentions the high priest only: no other priests or scribes played a role in interrogating Jesus. According to Luke, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod who questioned him for a while and returned Jesus to Pilate once more (Luke 23:7-11). In Matthew, Mark and John, Herod was not involved at all. The biblical account of Pilate’s custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover and his offer to free Jesus while the Jews preferred Barabbas is historically inaccurate because the only authority granted by Rome to a Roman governor in such situation was postponement of the execution after the religious festival.

Those who wrote the gospels included it in order to exonerate Pilate from Jesus’ execution and put the blame on the Jews. Moreover, the story that Pilate consented to the demand by the mob is at odds with what is known about Pilate’s habitual savage and highhanded methods of crowd control. According to historians, Pilate was recalled to Rome because of his brutality. How could a man with such notoriety be interested in what a Jewish mob wanted, let alone consenting to it? Matthew 27:38 and Mark 15:27 say that Jesus was crucified between two robbers. But the Romans did not crucify robbers. Crucifixion was reserved specifically for rebellious slaves and insurrectionists. Did Jesus speak to his mother and to Peter from the cross during his crucifixion? The gospels affirm that he did.

That is extremely unlikely given that during crucifixions Roman soldiers guarded the execution ground, and nobody was allowed to come close, least of all relatives and friends who would actually want to help the person to be executed. Matthew 27: 51-53 confirms that at the moment Jesus died there was an earthquake that opened the tombs and an unspecified number of righteous people were raised from the dead who later went to Jerusalem and appeared to many people. However, none of the historians of the period documented that fascinating event, and it was not even recorded in the other gospels. Some New Testament scholars think that the author of this narrative must be an ardent believer in the resurrection power of Jesus and included the story to vindicate that belief.

After the resurrection, who were the first to discover the empty tomb? Matthew claims that it was Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary.” Mark 16:1 gives it to Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and Salome. Luke adds Joanna to the list of women, while according to John 20:1-4 Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone, saw the stone blocking its entrance removed, ran to Peter and returned to the tomb with another disciple.

Now, who did these followers of Jesus find at the tomb? Matthew 28:2-4 intimates that an angel of the Lord who appeared like lightening sat on the stone that had been rolled away. Also present in the vicinity were guards dispatched to guard the burial chamber. Returning from the tomb the women met Jesus (Matthew 28:9). Mark tells us that a young man in a white robe was sitting inside the tomb. Luke talks about two men in dazzling apparel, but it is unclear whether they were inside or outside the tomb.

In John, we read that that Mary, Peter and the other disciple initially found an empty tomb. Pater and the other disciple entered the tomb and saw the wrappings used to cover Jesus’ corpse. Mary looked into the tomb and saw two angels dressed in white. After a brief conversation with them, Mary turns around and saw Jesus. Other example can be brought forward, but the ones presented already are sufficient to make the case that that the events around which the Gospels’ narratives were woven either did not take place or were so garbled that it is impossible to separate fiction from fact.

The first alternative will rankle Christians apologists, but it is not as far-fetched as it seems. Consider one of the best-known stories in the New Testament, precisely in the gospel of John chapter 7, about a group of Pharisees and others who brought to Jesus a woman allegedly committing adultery, and how Jesus escaped the trap set by her accusers by cleverly turning the table against them. Yet the incident reported never happened. It was not even written by John to whom it is attributed. Rather, according to Prof. Bart Ehrman, a biblical scholar at the University of North Carolina, it was fabricated by scribes sometime in the Middle Ages. The story does not appear in any of the three other gospels nor in any of the earlier Greek versions of John.

Some researchers believe that the story of Jesus in the New Testament is an accretion of legends popular in Mediterranean communities in the dying years of the Roman Empire. For example, the noted historian, Prof. Arnold Toynbee, explained in his illuminating book, Mankind and Mother Earth, that in the Levant after Alexander the Great overthrew the Persian Empire, and throughout the whole perimeter of the Mediterranean after its political unification by the Roman Empire, there was fierce competition among rival religions for the chance of becoming the universal religion of the region as a whole.

Christianity eventually triumphed by a process adumbrated already in Pharaonic Egyptian theology. According to the Egyptians, when a Pharaoh dies his detachable soul ascends into heaven and there devours other gods whom the newcomer encounters. By eliminating rival deities, the Pharaoh appropriated their powers. Now, Christianity appropriated the powers of its competitors by emulating an ascending Pharaoh’s mythical performance. According to Toynbee, in the story of Jesus the religion absorbed Egyptian, Syrian, Anatolian and Hellenic gods and goddesses and thereby ascribed their powers to the risen messiah.

To be continued…

VANGUARD

 

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