Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Man Who Became the Messiah

Professor Elaine Pagels is one of the world's foremost experts on early Christianity -- The Gnostic Gospels won a National Book Award in 1980. Her work seeks to find a balance between appreciation for our religious traditions and a critical distance that allows us to understand the ways in which they have selectively shaped the story of their own origins. What we have come to know as Christianity -- the religion that, in various forms, is adhered to by a majority of Americans -- was shaped not by Jesus but, rather, by Paul, and later by a series of meetings of early Church leaders held long after Jesus' death.

Elaine Pagels is interviewed in the current issue of Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine. Here are a few excerpts.

[T]he idea of the messiah went through many transformations. The Hebrew word mashiah means "annointed one." The term could refer to priests, who were annointed with oil when they were consecrated. But in the Hebrew Bible, mashiah most often refers to the King of Israel. And that's what it meant in New Testament times. That's the sense in which Jesus would have been seen as the messiah; the King of Israel, the king of the Jewish people. He was, in this regard, one among many candidates. Obviously, over time, Christians came to view the idea of the messiah in a very different way.

There is also the question of whether Jesus himself actually said he was the messiah. In the fourteenth chapter of Mark, Jesus is asked, and he accepts the term, but other accounts of the same event say that he didn't. Whatever the case, the question would have referred to whether he was the King of Israel. No New Testament scholar -- or rather, none I know -- thinks Jesus ever said he was the Savior of the world, or anything like it.

How did a rabbi from Nazareth, a man with an obscure and humble background, come to be seen as the Savior of the world? It's astonishing.

Certainly, the teachings of Paul were crucial. Paul called Jesus the Savior of the world, and he translated his convictions about Jesus into terms that Gentiles could understand. Paul portrayed Jesus' crucifixion as a sacrificial death that atoned for all sin and claimed that those who believed in Jesus could find a place in salvation. My colleague at Princeton John Gager has written several books based on this view, which is shared by others, that Paul saw Jesus' life and teaching as a divine revelation that would extend the salvation previously enjoyed only by Israel to all the nations, thereby fulfilling prophecies in Isaiah and also God's promise to Abraham that "In you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed." That's John Gager's conviction, and it's a very interesting perspective.

After Jesus was crucified, his disciples were left with a terrible feeling of disappointment. The Gospel of Luke has them say, You know, we heard these things about Jesus of Nazareth. We thought he was going to be the one to redeem Israel. But we were wrong. The idea that Jesus would fulfill the role of the King of Israel -- well, it didn't happen. So they needed a different way to understand who and what he was. They needed to make sense out of this devastating event. So they changed the definition of "messiah" and created a different narrative about his role.


When I began work on my book on the Gospel of Thomas, Beyond Belief, I was struggling with the question of what I loved about the Christian tradition and what I could not love. Writing the book helped clarify for me that what I could not love was the rigid dogma and the idea that Christianity was the only path to God. And what I loved was the power of the tradition to move us, and even transform us, spiritually. But I don't think that this is true only of Christianity. A religious tradition contains forms and teachings that can lead people into the spiritual dimension of life. In today's world, that capacity and that experience need to be affirmed.

Among some progressives, Christianity is becoming an enemy -- a worldview that seems to stand in direct opposition to our notions of human evolution and human liberties. However, Christianity need not be relegated to an antiquated period of human history that we have since outgrown. The term Christianity implies a unique divinity for Jesus that, by definition, denies the rest of us an equal spiritual footing. Yes, Jesus was an aspect of God, and as he taught, so are we all.

If one sheds the mythology and the dogma of traditional Christian theology, the teachings of Jesus are among the most profound spiritual teachings in human history. Many of the Gnostic Gospels reveal a Jesus who shared a worldview with Buddha. The Gospel of Thomas offers some of the most authentic teachings of Jesus, many of them holding ideas similar to Buddhism:

Jesus said, "Whoever knows everything, but is lacking within, lacks everything." (Thomas 67)

Jesus said, "If two make peace with each other in a single house, they will say to the mountain, 'Move from here!' and it will move." (Thomas 48)

"For this reason I say, whoever is [undivided] will be full of light, but whoever is divided will be full of darkness." (Thomas 61)

-- From Beyond Belief, Elaine Pagels, copyright 2003

If Christians could return to the actual teachings of Jesus and move away from all the dogma that has accrued over the last 2000 years, the spirit of Jesus might carry more weight in contemporary culture.

Jesus never taught that gays should be denied their rights and dignities. Jesus never taught that science should be rejected in favor of myth. Jesus would decry the money being made through television ministries and the fleecing of believers. Jesus would reject the use of warfare to settle differences. Jesus sought to protect the poor against the cruelties of the rich.

Where is this Jesus in American life?
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