The Demystification of Belief Systems

By Nethe, Richard H. | The Humanist, July 2001 | Go to article overview

The Demystification of Belief Systems


Nethe, Richard H., The Humanist


The Enlightenment era never came to an end, it was merely put on hold. At least this is a view held by many of the researchers who are trying to reconstruct a believable historical Jesus. Worldwide, approximately 200 scholars (mostly liberal theologians) are associated with a group that calls itself the Jesus Seminar.

But it's not limited to just those who are associated with this group, which is mostly Protestant. Catholic New Testament scholars are also making major contributions. Father Gerome Murphy-O'Connor, a noted and respected scholar, who lives in Jerusalem and teaches New Testament studies at the Ecole Biblique, is a good example. All these researchers' efforts--apart from traditional scholarly Bible studies --attempt to demystify Christian beliefs in order that the antiquated and tradition-bound dogma will no longer confuse the modern believer. In Germany, this effort is referred to as Entmystifikation or demystification. Much of this research started with the eminent New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1975), a professor of theology at the University of Marburg, Germany.

Not surprisingly, all this is happening at a time when:

* scientists, while treating brain disorders with neurochemical drugs, discover that a patient's behavior and perception ("soul") is being drastically altered;

* body and soul can no longer be seen as independent entities;

* few individuals can still believe such strange notions as "immaculate conception";

* human cloning is becoming a distinct possibility.

Therefore one should think that among modern societies a demystification of popular belief systems should be welcomed by all but the most rigid fundamentalists.

So far, the Jesus who emerges from these studies takes on many forms. It turns out that the scholars cannot agree as to how he lived, whether he was married, if he had brothers and sisters, the exact date of his birth or death, and where he lived between the years 20 and 30 of the Common Era. Not surprisingly no proof of any of these aspects of his life exists, although one can take existing historical data on Galilee, the Jewish area where he spent most of his youth, and assume that he followed the ways of his countrypeople.

Using this approach, a group of scholars is trying to find from what had been reported via the Gospels (that is, the various reports of his deeds from the documents attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) if they agree with other historical records and among one another. These scholars have become convinced that at least the Matthew and Luke authors used for their writings the same Greek text, which has been termed Q (for quelle--German for "the source"). After years of research, the international team of scholars that is trying to reconstruct this hypothetical text is still a long way from getting all the theologians to agree. In 1995 the Belgian firm Peeters published the first installment of this reconstructed text under the name Documenta Q. The publication of those thousands of pages is expected to take fifteen years. So one could expect this massive effort to be completed by 2010.

The founder of the international Q project, James M. Robinson, and his fellow researchers believe that Q holds the key to the understanding of Jesus--an understanding that is essentially non-Christian. The reason: the authors of Q didn't regard Jesus as the messiah. This myth of Christ (Greek, for the anointed one) evolved later after his death. Instead, the Jesus scholars saw him as a possessionless wandering sage. (See Charlotte Allen's "The Search for a No-Frills Jesus" in the December 1996 Atlantic Monthly.) Burton L. Mack, another Q scholar, pictures Jesus more as a roving secular philosopher, very similar to the Greek Cynics (Cynicism was a philosophical movement that questioned authority; Diogenes was its best known exponent). It is interesting to note that such acetic preachers and beggar monks had been roaming the countryside in India, China, Central Asia, and Indonesia after the third century BCE--ever since Buddhism got its start in India with Prince Siddharta Gautama, called the Buddha, who lived from around 560-480 BCE. …

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