Will the real Jesus please stand up? (Alpha week 1)

Turned up far too early last night. Not only did I allow for rush hour traffic which wasn’t quite there, but the 6.15 for helpers turned out to be 6.15 for 6.30 hoping to get something done by 6.45. Ah well – made myself useful.

I had an initial worry that “helpers” were going to seriously outnumber “guests” looking around approaching 7.30, which was the start time for the delivery of messages – organisation first, then a couple of songs, then the talk. However, plenty of people were there by the time things actually got started, probably slightly better than 1:1 guests to helpers. After the talk, “Who is Jesus”, we split into two groups to talk about it.

It transpired during introductions that none of the guests in my group were non-Christian, nor, indeed, had they any particular misgivings about the talk. I would have liked to take over and work through everything step by step, but didn’t want to monopolise discussion. Ho hum. For anyone wanting to refer to the talk outlines as I blog, by the way, there’s a set of these at http://www.alphausa.org/Groups/1000047416/Talk_Outlines.aspx. This is session 1.

I don’t quibble with Jesus existing as an historical figure, as it happens, though there are quite a few writers who put up a tolerable argument for complete nonexistence. I don’t, however, accept the argument that the New Testament dates from 40-100. OK, none of Paul’s authentic writings can date from much after 60, but I’m only reasonably sure that four of his epistles are actually his, some of the remainder definitely having the feel of mid-to-late second century to me – and Paul is no source at all for anything about the historical Jesus anyhow. For that, you need the gospels.

These are presented as contemporaneous eye-witness accounts. Oh dear! Now, Luke is avowedly not an eyewitness but a collector of stories. Papias, Bishop of Hieraconpolis (as quoted by Eusebius) says that Mark was Peter’s scribe. My own reading of the Fourth Gospel is that the actual writer purported to be taking dictation from the “beloved disciple”, whom the Church fathers decided had to be John.  Neither was therefore themselves an eyewitness. Somewhat more serious, however, is what Papias actually said about the gospels of Mark and Matthew; to paraphrase, Mark wrote down Peter’s sermons in no particular order while Matthew was a collection of sayings in a Hebrew dialect. Now, Papias was writing not earlier than 95, and probably as late as 110 (and as he lived until around then, might have been expected to recall anything he’d written which could mislead as to what the gospels actually looked like). Neither of those descriptions fits what we now see; both are narrative gospels, which does not fit a collection of sermons and absolutely does not fit a collection of sayings, and Matthew shows little signs of being in translation from Aramaic. As a bishop of a reasonably well-connected city, I cannot believe that Papias would not know of a narrative Mark or Matthew if such existed. I cannot therefore date either of these before about 110 at the earliest, i.e. 80 years after the events described. Luke is generally accepted as being derivative of one or both of Mark and Matthew, so is even later.

Most textual critics agree that all the gospels show evidence of multiple layers of redaction, though, so this does not surprise me.  Dating John is more difficult – the earliest fragment dates to about 130, which isn’t proof that the whole thing existed by then, but is indicative. The consensus seems to be that John postdates the three synoptic gospels, but as the synoptics definitely weren’t in their final form in c.110, this may not be correct. It does seem to evidence better knowledge of Palestinian geography, which might argue for earlier.

I do think there must have been earlier writings, now lost (although we might hope for another Nag Hammadi!), but in no way can I say that what we now see is original, eyewitness testimony. It might include some…

I didn’t feel I could advance this whole argument, so relied more on the Jesus Seminar’s conclusions that significant portions of all the gospels were either not Jesus or unlikely to be Jesus. The group leadership attempted to tell me that they were a group of three very liberal scholars, and I corrected the number. Not as much as I should have, for on checking, there were originally 150. I did say that as I recalled, almost none of John was considered even “sounds like Jesus”, let alone “is Jesus”.

I suppose at that point the next bit of the argument, using C.S. Lewis’ celebrated ” would not be a great moral teacher, he would either be insane or he would be the Devil of Hell” trichotomy was going to float by, as I wasn’t confident he said these things (all the important ones being from John). I don’t like the trichotomy anyhow. Leaving out the options of “misreported”, “honestly mistaken” and “speaking as from…”, I don’t actually believe that even in John he is represented as claiming to “be God”. The passages used are 10:30-33, which merely says “from God”, 20:26-29, which is another’s comment and the most famous, 8:58, “Before Abraham was, I am”. That last, to my eyes, almost certainly involves “I AM” being used in the Jewish manner as a reference to God, rather than as a claim of Jesus’ own preexistence; it should therefore read “before Abraham was, God” – and in context, Jesus is shown as claiming that he has knowledge from God, not that he is God. “Son of God” isn’t as much of a claim as might appear, as Hosea 1:10, for instance, applies this term to all of Israel; “messiah” (or “christos”) is probably the strongest, but then, Sabbati Zevi and Menachem Mendel Schneerson are more recent examples that indicate it isn’t unique.

We didn’t get as far as evidence for the resurrection. Ah well, maybe another time.

With this group, I don’t think I need to worry, as I usually do, that quoting facts which can readily be called into question and using arguments which are just plain wrong can give a basis for belief which can too easily be demolished, or can put someone off exploring Christianity where, without the need for a shaky intellectual understanding, they could find spiritual profundity. I do wonder if there’s therefore a point in my continuing. However, the organiser is extremely keen that I keep turning up after hearing some of what I can say, so onward to week 2.

Alpha – beta test

A little while ago, I wrote a question for consideration by a trio of pastor authors, namely “Can a charismatic, evangelical. mission-based church find a home for a post-modernist theologian/mystic?” which Henry picked up (see http://energion.net/2013/01/transforming-mainline-congregations/) . I obviously had myself in mind. Now, there is an Anglican church which fits that description in a city a mere 15 miles from here, and I’ve in the past gone by invitation of a friend to a few evening talks/discussions there. At the last of these, I was somewhat taken aback to be invited extremely warmly to take part in their next Alpha course, on the basis of being, effectively, devil’s advocate.

I’ve been to one-and-a-bit Alpha courses in the past, about 10 years ago. I was encouraged not to finish the second of these, but to go on to a follow-up group and eventually join for a while a cell group at the church which did this particular Alpha. A few months later, I was asked not to attend further cell group meetings, on the basis of an incident where in one I attended I failed to conceal my unease about the pastor talking of the need for what was essentially doctrinal lock-step. The pastor noted this and asked why. I said I’d prefer not to go into that, but he pushed and pushed, and I therefore gave my reasons, first briefly and then with justification. Now, it seems that one young member of that group heard my reasons, and was severely shaken in his faith; the pastor did not want that happening again. Actually, neither did I. That is a large part of the reason why I was so reluctant to speak openly and at length. I don’t want something like that to happen again.

I did deliver several fairly strong “health warnings” to the organiser of this year’s Alpha. Not in the slightest deterred by this, I got a formal invitation last week, and to my surprise, was invited as either guest or “helper”. After some soul-searching, I went along to their training session for helpers and leaders on Wednesday.

I didn’t find this quite so alienating an experience as I’d expected. Yes, a few songs were sung, none of which I knew. There are fairly few pieces of devotional music written after about, say, 1930 which I actually like. There was a short session of extempore prayer. No one went on at too great length, however, nor were they too loud, nor expressing wishes I would have found jarring, so nothing got in the way of my own “being quiet with God”. There was a “name game” introduction, in which I dubbed myself “Cantankerous Chris” (which almost everyone could remember!). There was instruction about the way in which exchanges after the talk should be moderated, which was not exactly new territory but sound, and a few role plays of how not to do it, which were great fun. As I said to the organiser, I will need to guard against one of my tendencies, which is to be the guy who takes over the discussion. The temptation to go into cross-examination mode is definitely still there!

I did get a few minutes to leaf through the new glossy course manual, which is new in format, but appeared largely unchanged from the one I have on my bookshelf. I can probably manage to disagree with every fact and argument presented, so should have no difficulty in presenting counter-opinions. The style is not supposed to be a real discussion, however, more a round up of views and reactions. I wonder in the circumstance how much use I am actually going to be.

If you read my previous post, “Childish Thoughts”, you will appreciate that my own position is based entirely on transformative personal experience; without that I would probably still be an atheist, though I might have mellowed into not being an evangelical one. I went to my first Alpha course knowing that the objective was to produce personal transformative experiences for those attending. My own base experience, and those which have followed it, are not reliably replicable. I have never been able to say to someone “Do these things, and you will have an experience like mine”. I have been able to say that if you have had a first experience like mine, doing some things is likely to improve massively your chances of having another like it, but not that this will produce a first experience. Alpha does produce first experiences, not with complete reliability but with sufficient regularity to convince me that it does work, at least for those with a reasonably suitable psychology and background.

My own experience was, to use a phrase I probably over-use, “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll”, and I would be delighted if everyone could have one like it. Granted, Alpha produces experiences which are interpreted differently from mine – how can that be avoided, as what that interpretation should be is a very major content of the course. However, I know of significant numbers of people who have arrived at faith via something like Alpha and, through sufficient study and praxis, then come to the conclusion that something far closer to my own interpretations has to be the way for them. I cite Marcus Borg as one easily readable example.

In an ideal world, maybe I could pick up one or two people who would otherwise drop out of Alpha without any transformative experience and persuade them that there is value in this even though the theoretical framework on which it is based is flawed.

(In fact, I think the Alpha interpretation is largely downright wrong; even if you were to accept that all the gospels are reliable near-contemporaneous eyewitness accounts instead of products of a faith community largely from later generations and that Paul and those writing as Paul were not doing ad-hoc theologising but were inspired to the extent of writing nothing inaccurate, the interpretations of scripture used to produce the Alpha theoretical framework leave a lot to be desired, and some of them took over one and a half millenia to be extracted from the base scripture).

In this ideal world, maybe they could stick with the course to the end and have their own transformative experience as a result, with or without Alpha’s stock interpretations. At this point, I’m not sure how this could be achieved, even if the constraints of the course allowed me to try.

What I do not want is to suggest to anyone that my interpretations are in any way the only right way to give yourself an interpretational structure into which to fit such experience. I had to do a lot of intellectual “heavy lifting” to get where I am, and anticipate there may be plenty more to be done. Heavy lifting is not for everyone, and if I were to give the impression that it is necessary to do this in order to “be right”, or worse, in order to have transformative experience, this would be at best non-constructive and at worst damaging. Equivalent, if you like, to a suggestion that you need to understand quantized free electron theory and lattice dynamics in order to use a computer rather than call it “George” and regard it as an odd kind of human. If you then gave up using a computer, it would be a bad thing. What I do think is that for someone with a basically scientific-materialist mindset and a critical, analytical approach, the Alpha interpretations are very unlikely to work, but something like mine might.

We will see. Unless I am disinvited, I will be going along on Wednesday evenings for the next few weeks. I think it will be good discipline for me to blog about it in the process.