Heretic’s Foundation VII: Jesus, the World’s Most Popular Literary Character
Friday, July 10, 2009
By John Hudson
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report
The Heretic’s Foundation is now ready to address one of our most pressing literary and cultural problems: the figure of Jesus. Atheists are getting more attention nowadays, with an atheist campaign in London to put ads on the sides of buses, while in the U.S., according to the New York Times, atheists are linking up and “liken their strategy to that of the gay-rights movement, which lifted off when closeted members of a scorned minority decided to go public.” It has been a long time in coming.
For the last 2,000 years, expressing disbelief in Jesus has been a heresy that led directly to the torture chamber or the bonfire. Yet, the view that the Gospels are literary texts, and Jesus no more than a literary character, goes back to the philosopher Porphyry in the 3rd century, whose works were suppressed and burnt by the church. In Elizabethan London, the most prominent nonbeliever in Jesus was Christopher Marlowe, one of the most expert literary figures of his age, a man who certainly knew how to distinguish a work of clever, imaginative, Menippean literature from a historical, factual account. Marlowe knew the difference between fact and fiction.
He claimed, for example, that the sacred Gospels were “all of one man’s making”; that, as Thomas Beard recorded, the figure of Jesus was merely a “deceiver” in “vain and idle stories.” Marlowe makes Barabas in The Jew of Malta state that “swine-eating Christians…were never thought upon” until after Titus and Vespasian conquered Jerusalem — in other words, that Christianity itself did not exist before. It is becoming clear in my research that Marlowe was right: the Gospels are not accounts of the life of a historical, Jewish Jesus compiled by his followers 60 years after his death, but Roman literary creations. As one of the most radical strands of New Testament scholarship is showing, the Gospels were devised as war propaganda to trick Messianic Jews into worshipping the Roman Flavian emperors “in disguise.” They were written by the Romans as literary satires of the battles in the Roman-Jewish war (66-73 C.E.) in which the Jews were defeated.
The evidence shows that most of the key events in the “life” of Jesus were satirical; many are elegant literary satires of a military battle in which the Jewish armies had been defeated by the Romans. The Jewish War, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E., devastated the Mediterranean economy and the Romans were anxious to prevent another outbreak of messianiac fervor. To make any economic and civil reconstruction lasting, the Romans needed to offer the Jews alternative stories to distract them from the messianic messages inherent in the Torah, and to persuade them to accept Roman values and worship Caesar.
The Romans’ solution was to create a special kind of postwar propaganda. They called it, in Greek, evangelion, a technical term meaning “good news of military victory,” which is translated into English as “gospel.” The word is, in fact, ironic humor: the Romans were amusing themselves with the notion of making the Jews accept, as the actions of the messiah Jesus, what were literary echoes of the very battles in which they had defeated Jewish armies. A further joke was buried in unmistakable parallels between the life of Jesus and that of Titus: In worshiping Jesus, those Jews who adopted Christianity, as it came to be called, were in proxy hailing the emperor of their conquerors as god, the key strategic Roman objective.
To replace the Torah, this view maintains that the Romans created a literary parody in the Gospel of Matthew and shortly thereafter rewrote it as the versions known as Luke and Mark, modeled respectively on the Aeneid and on Homer. The central literary character of the Gospels, called Jesus (or Joshua), inhabits a plot with various peculiar features. He begins his efforts by the Lake of Galilee. He sends a legion of devils out of a demon-possessed man and into pigs. He offers his flesh to be eaten. He mentions signs of the destruction of Jerusalem. In Gethsemane, a naked man escapes. Jesus is captured at Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. Simon denies knowing him. He is crucified with two other men and only he survives. He is taken down from the cross by a man called Joseph of Arimathea. His disciple, John, survives, but his disciple Simon is sent off to die in Rome. After his death, his disciple Judas dies by eviscerating himself.
Each of these peculiar events has a parallel in the writings of Josephus, our sole record of the military encounters between the Jews and their Roman conquerors — even to the unusual crucifixion in which three men are crucified and a man named Joseph takes one, who survives, down.
There are a dozen such examples which appear in both sets of texts — in the same order — providing statistical evidence that both works were created together as a single literary endeavor in the 80s C.E., thus demonstrating the anti-historicity of the Gospel accounts. Individual parallels have also been detected by half a dozen well known New Testament scholars, but the entire set of them, with all their implications, is summarized in Atwill’s book Caesar’s Messiah, long out of print but now available inexpensively online.
The evidence shows that Marlowe was right: the Gospels are, indeed, vain and idle stories; the figure of Jesus is, indeed, a “deceiver” because the stories in the Gospels are not historical accounts of events that happened in the 30s C.E. On the contrary, they are literary satires of battles and other events fought by Titus and Vespasian in the aforementioned Roman-Jewish war. And so, Jesus was not a historical figure but simply, as Harold Bloom suggested, the world’s best known literary character – a sort of allegorical disguise for Titus, the man who destroyed Jerusalem and became the second Flavian Caesar. Anyone who succumbed and worshipped Jesus would merely be worshipping Caesar in disguise.
Because Marlowe alludes to all this in the allegories in his plays, this was almost certainly the knowledge in the lecture on atheism he gave to the School of the Night, and which provided “more sound reasons” for his non belief than any clergyman had for divinity. Presumably this was also the specific knowledge that got Marlowe killed, and led the author of the Shakespearean plays to conceal aspects of the same knowledge as the deepest allegorical level of the plays, such as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the comic, scathing parodies of the Virgin Mary.
Today, thankfully, this knowledge can be posted to the Internet and even on the sides of buses. Perhaps one day it will even stimulate a new interest in understanding the deepest allegorical meanings of Elizabethan plays.