About 32 years ago, I read a little book that changed my life. I can’t recall its title or its author. It was probably self-published. I’ve tried to google it every which way, but I can’t begin to identify or find that little book.
It was the first time that I read about the gnostic gospels. According to Wikipedia: “Gnosticism (from Ancient Greek: gnostikós ‘having knowledge’) is a collection of religious ideas and systems which coalesced in the late 1st century AD among Jewish and early Christian sects. These various groups emphasized personal spiritual knowledge (gnosis) above the orthodox teachings, traditions, and authority of religious institutions.
“Gnostic writings flourished among certain Christian groups in the Mediterranean world until about the second century, when the Fathers of the early Church denounced them as heresy. Efforts to destroy these texts proved largely successful, resulting in the survival of very little writing by Gnostic theologians.”
Constantine I, aka Constantine the Great, was emperor of Rome from 306-337. According to Wikipedia, he “was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. He convoked the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which produced the statement of Christian belief known as the Nicene Creed.”
According to Daily History.org: “Choosing the actual texts that now make up the New Testament was not a short or simple process. The deliberation spanned across several decades beginning with the council of Nicaea in 325, C.E. and ending with the Council of Carthage in 419 C.E., where a full list of the Old and New Testament canon was ratified.”
That little book I read claimed the early Roman Catholic Church prejudicially selected books for the New Testament. They rejected the gospels which depicted a more human Jesus, and they included gospels that portrayed a powerful, miraculous and godlike Jesus — because the Romans wanted a powerful religion with which they could conquer and rule.
According to Wikipedia: “The bishop Eusebius of Caesaria, a historian, states that Constantine was marching with his army...when he looked up to the sun and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words ‘(éν) τούτw νίκα’ (In this, conquer), a phrase often rendered into Latin as in hoc signo vinces (‘in this sign, you will conquer’).
“At first, Constantine did not know the meaning of the apparition, but on the following night, he had a dream in which Christ explained to him that he should use the sign of the cross against his enemies.”
The supernatural elements in the New Testament were largely unoriginal. For example, Jesus was a demigod — his father was a god (or God), and his mother was a mortal. The golden age of Greece had passed, but Greek culture and Greek mythos had been co-opted by the Romans who ruled the Mediterranean region, including Judea.
There were at least 50 Greek demigods. Heracles, known as Hercules by the Romans, is probably the most famous. He was the son of Zeus, the father of the gods, and Alcmene, a married mortal woman. (Mary was engaged to Joseph when she conceived with God through the Holy Spirit.)
Achilles was another famous demigod. He was the son of the sea nymph Thetis (daughter of sea god Nereus), and Peleus, king of the Myrmidons. The demigod Dionysus, known as Bacchus to the Romans, was the son of the supreme god Zeus and Semele, the daughter of a king.
The idea of resurrection wasn’t new or novel, either. According to Wikipedia: “A dying-and-rising, death-rebirth, or resurrection deity is a religious motif in which a god or goddess dies and is resurrected. Examples of gods who die and later return to life are most often cited from the religions of the ancient Near East, and traditions influenced by them include Biblical and Greco-Roman mythology and by extension Christianity.
“In Greek mythology, Dionysus, the son of Zeus, was a horned child who was torn to pieces by Titans who lured him with toys, then boiled and ate him. Zeus then destroyed the Titans by thunderbolt as a result of their action against Dionysus and from the ashes humans were formed. However, Dionysus’ grandmother Rhea managed to put some of his pieces back together (principally from his heart that was spared) and brought him back to life.
“The oldest known example of the ‘dying god rising myth’ is the Sumerian myth of Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld. The Sumerian goddess Inanna travels to the Underworld to see her sister Ereshkigal. While there, she is ‘struck down’ and turns into a corpse. For three days and three nights, Inanna is dead, until she is resurrected....”
The Apostles’ Creed is used liturgically by Catholics and numerous Protestant faiths. It states: “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, descended into hell, rose again from the dead on the third day....”
Joe Glaser, a (retired) professor emeritus of English at Western Kentucky University, confirmed my suspicion that virtually every miracle story in the New Testament was “borrowed” from another source, such as the Greeks or Sumerians.
So, I wondered what the synoptic gospels (of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) would look like without miracles and the supernatural. I copied & pasted the Gospel of Matthew to a Word file with the intention of deleting the miracles and the supernatural.
But before I could begin that task, I discovered Thomas Jefferson had rather beaten me to it.
According to Wikipedia: “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, commonly referred to as the Jefferson Bible, is one of two religious works constructed by Thomas Jefferson...[It] was completed in 1820 by cutting and pasting with a razor and glue numerous sections from the New Testament as extractions of the doctrine of Jesus. Jefferson’s condensed composition excludes all miracles by Jesus and most mentions of the supernatural, including sections of the four gospels that contain the Resurrection and most other miracles, and passages that portray Jesus as divine.”
Jefferson wrote in a letter to John Adams: “In extracting the pure principles which he [Jesus] taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to them. We must dismiss the Platonists & Plotinists, the Stagyrites & Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics & Scholastics, Logos & Demi-urgos, Aeons & Daemons male & female, with a long train of Etc. Etc. Etc. or, shall I say at once, of Nonsense. We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus....”
I don’t believe in the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed. Like Jefferson, I believe in the “very words only” of a very human Jesus. I believe in loving one’s enemies as well as one’s neighbors. I believe in Jesus’ teachings of love, compassion, charity, and forgiveness.
Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at amazon.com/author/markheinzbooks.