Friday, December 31, 2004


(The first week in January, I will probably post something about George Howard's work on the Shem Tob Matthew. This is a Hebrew version of Matthew from the 14th century, but probably much older.)

12/22 -- Time Machine - Would you want to travel back in time to meet the historical Jesus, if it were possible?

12/10 -- What We Don't Know About Jesus

Wednesday, December 22, 2004


Being this close to Christmas and New Year's, it seems as good a time as any to think about time travel. If a time machine were invented (or a window into the past whereby we could see what happened without interfering with anything), would you want to travel back to see the historical Jesus? I think the majority of churches would be vehemently opposed to doing any such thing. The fear of seeing what the real Jesus looked liked, how he behaved, how he sounded, what he actually said and did, etc., is immense.

I vaguely recall that, a few years ago, for a British documentary about Jesus, a forensic scientist reconstructed the face of a skull of a 1st century Jew. The filmmakers suggested that Jesus might have looked something like this. I remember some religious officials were outraged. Someone said that Jesus could not possibly have looked anything like that.

This problem -- the fear of recovering real history -- is not unique to Christianity. I think it infects all religions. Can you imagine getting to meet the real Moses or Mohammed or Buddha? Suppose Moses was born an Egyptian prince and later adopted Judaism as his culture. It would be a fantastically interesting story, but I don't suppose that orthodox Jews would be thrilled to discover it.

We set up these icons, these myths, and we're sure that real history could never be as good -- as inspiring -- as the myth. In fact, I don't think the problem is unique to religion. It is pervasive in secular culture as well. How many people would want to see George Washington or Abraham Lincoln as they really were? With all their warts and faults. Nobody is morally perfect. But that morally imperfect people can accomplish great things is an inspiring story. It's a shame very few people think so.

I once read about some tourists who went to visit the home of Marcel Proust in France. They were very disturbed to see that his home did not look anything like the one they had imagined from his writings. It was too small for one thing. And I heard a musician describe how disappointed he was when he went to visit Elvis Presley's home, Graceland. He was expecting perhaps a palace, or a mansion at the very least. Instead, he saw an average middle class home. I think he used the word "bourgeois" to describe it.

We have these heros, religious or secular, and we fear that historical truth could only diminish them. We build up myths that convince us that reality could only harm them along with our hopes and dreams.

I raise this issue because I think that a genuine person of faith should be thrilled by anything that is true -- anything that can be historically or scientifically established. A person of real faith should love the world exactly as God made it. If that means that Jesus looked and sounded like this and said this not that, etc., etc., then that must be the really inspiring thing, and not certain false ideas we have been taught. If Moses was an Egyptian prince who converted to a new culture, then we ought to be happy to learn this.

Whatever is real and true and verifiable is the real substance of faith. But I know that a lot of people do not feel this way and will argue that mankind needs myths and lies. Myths and lies are a healthy thing and will make us better people. Truth can only confuse us and bring us down. I disagree, but I know that some people are very sincere in believing this.

I would not divide the world between conservatives and liberals, or between something like the red and blue states in American elections. I would divide the world between those who believe that truth is a good thing to pursue (insofar as we are capable of understanding our world to varying degrees of probability) and those who think that truth is harmful and must always be hidden from view. Thinking about a time machine is a good way to test how faithful you are to loving the truth. If the possibility of a time machine and what it could reveal bothers you, then you still have a long way to go in your faith.

Friday, December 10, 2004


Many people think we know, if not everything about Jesus, at least all the essentials. I somehow doubt that. There have to be missing pieces. If his disciples knew him for only six months, there had to be some things he said that were left out. That is not six months worth of sayings we have in the Gospels, let alone a year's worth.

Imagine if any one Gospel were missing -- say, the Gospel of Luke -- how much poorer we'd be in knowledge. And we know there were other Gospels that have been lost. I am thinking primarily of any Gospels in Aramaic or Hebrew which the early Church Fathers reported seeing. They could have given us a sense of the word games that Jesus played in his own language. Because we lost that, we are missing some of the points he made.

"I don't know" are three of the most important words in any discipline. If you do not learn to say them when they are appropriate, you cannot be a good scholar or scientist.

We know next to nothing about Jesus' upbringing, his education. Jews had a rich oral tradition, only some of which is preserved in rabbinic literature. We will probably never know all the stories Jesus heard since he was a child. Stories about Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Hillel, Honi the Circle Drawer, and many more. If you do not know all the stories that formed the education of a person, you are missing a big chunk of their life.

And from whom did Jesus hear these stories? (And songs, riddles, jokes.) His mother? His father? The elders of his village? Pharisaic teachers? All of them? What was a typical evening like in his home when Jesus was growing up? Did they sing songs? Tell jokes? Would we understand the jokes? Did he get into fights when he was a kid? It is possible to go on and on with questions like these.

Most Jews at that time did not officially belong to any one group. Even if they sympathized with the Pharisees, there was probably a lot of floating around going on, trying out different groups, as Josephus did and undoubtedly Paul too. How much floating, if any, did Jesus do? We don't know.

Most of his teachings (parables and ethics) are clearly Pharisaic, so it is a safe bet that he spent a lot of time with Pharisaic teachers. But his end-of-time beliefs may have come from a group other than the Pharisees. Essenes? Possibly, but there could also have been some other obscure group we have never heard about.

When it comes to Jesus' parables, it would be a mistake to think that he told each one only once. He must have told most of them many times over, probably with slight variations. So what do we get in the Gospels? A record of one telling or a composite of several tellings? Some of his versions may have gone in slightly different directions, as rabbinic literature gives us some possibilities for, but we may never know the various spins that Jesus used.

Just think of all the questions you might ask Jesus if you could meet him in his own time. What's your favorite Psalm? Joke? (I don't think we should assume that Jesus had no sense of humor, but since humor often does not translate well from culture to culture, we may never know what his humor was like.) Who is your favorite Jewish figure of the past? What is your favorite part of Torah? Who was your best friend as a child? What did you do together? What is your favorite meal? Did you ever fall in love and want to have children? What do the words prophet and Messiah mean to you?

You could think up questions like this forever. Do we really have all the essentials of a life in the Gospels, or do they just give us the tip of the iceberg?

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