Thursday, August 17, 2006

74. Does faith need history?

I remember as a child watching a show called "Name That Tune." To my recollection, contestants, after given a clue, would bid each other down until a person had the challenge of "naming that tune" in just a couple of notes. I guess the show had several stints on television, but that version is all I recall. I watched in amazement as players could name a song tune in only one or two notes. I was never musically inclined, and to me each note sounded like the doorbell.

I do enjoy history, and I have created a version of this game here, this time the challenge is to recall the name of a person, living or deceased, historic or fictional. Here goes:

"This figure was born to a mortal virgin (celebrated on December 25), witnessed by shepherds and Magi bearing gifts. He or she performed miracles, such as raising the dead and healing the sick, and carried the keys to heaven. Before dying, this figure had a Last Supper with twelve disciples. Each year, this figure's triumph and ascension to heaven was celebrated during the spring equinox."

If your answer to the clues above is the ancient god "Mithra"- congratulations, and well done!

Actually, in review of ancient gods and heroes, we find that many of these mythical figures share the same story. In 1936, Lord Raglan, in the book, "The Hero," classified these parallel-life commonalities into a scale of 22 heroic attributes. I will not go through all 22, but included here are the first ten:

1. The hero's mother is a royal virgin
2. His father is a king and
3. often a near relative of the mother, but
4. the circumstances of his conception are unusual, and
5. he is also reputed to be the son of a god
6. at birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or maternal grandfather, to kill him, but
7. He is spirited away, and
8. Reared by foster-parents in a far country
9. We are told nothing of his childhood, but
10. On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom.

Of the 22 familiar characteristics, the top scorers were Oedipus (21), Theseus (20), Moses (20), Dionysus (19), and Jesus (19). It is interesting that the story of Jesus is similar to other mythical figures in history. Some have suggested that an actual historical figure would not score more than six.

The conversation surrounding a historic Jesus is a complicated one, as scholars have debated this question for centuries. Unfortunately Jesus did not write anything himself, and no credible historical author of the time period, such as Seneca, Arrian, or Damis, wrote of him. The Gospels, of course, came several decades after Jesus' death, and none of them actually lived while Jesus was said to be alive.

Even though, a majority of the world would agree with me that either Jesus did not exist as a historical figure, or if he did, he was not the son of God; this is an uncomfortable dialogue to have here in America. Each Sunday morning I listen to preachers quote Jesus or eloquently describe in detail his actions and intentions. While the message might be a valuable one; unfortunately, there is little evidence that, if Jesus did exist, what he said or did has been accurately recorded.

I am not going to say that Jesus did or did not exist as a historical person; honestly, I do not think we will ever know for sure. Deciding if he did and what he meant to history and Christianity is a personal discovery. Unfortunately, historians are human and write with the same prejudicial and bias viewpoints that we each share individually. In that manner, many religious scholars and historians write with the assumption that Jesus did exist, just as many of us believed that he existed simply because we grew up being told so. Conversely, many secular scholars feel that there is sufficient evidence to believe that Jesus did exist.

To some people, whether he existed or not has little bearing on their faith, while others, like those that protested "The DaVinci Code," may feel even presenting any evidence that may conflict with their religious teaching is sinful. On the other hand, for others, a historical representation of Jesus is a central theme of their lives and, similar to the premise suggested in the movie, any deviation from the religious teachings may be reason to question their faith.

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