Depressing

In a world which cares passionately about descent, he would have been born illegitimate, had his disgraced mother not been rescued by marriage to another man. His associates are at best unimpressive. He is often found in the company of collaborators and prostitutes, the diseased and the insane. He joins an exciting new movement; shortly thereafter its leader is beheaded. He takes it over, only to be repudiated and betrayed by his own followers. In time, he too is executed.

Most myth and fable is too good to be true, but the gospel narrative is too unutterably depressing to be false. Except of course the beginning and end, of which presumably the reverse is the case. To believe otherwise would be an act of will.

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4 comments on “Depressing

  1. Richard says:

    I’ve seen this argument before (you may have even posted it before yourself), but I think it fundamentally misunderstands the position of early Christianity. The core of Pauline theology was Christ as a suffering servant who died as a redemptive sacrifice. Any story about the Christ’s life on earth had to match that, regardless of whether it came from history or imagination. “Unimpressive” associates might have offended elites, but they weren’t the audience. Poor fishermen, fallen women, etc., were the audience, the class of people most often converting to this religion of the suffering servant. Seeing themselves in the story made it more appealing, not less. So there was no reason for Mark to find any of this depressing (or to use the word more common among scholars, ’embarrassing’). And once Mark set the basics of the story, later writers had to deal with it.

    The part about his birth is backwards. The nativity stories portray him as the divine child of God. Describing this as illegitimacy is constructing a rationalization around a myth, on the *assumption* that it reflects an underlying truth. There is no extant earlier version of the story than the exalted one. (That said, there is an element of embarrassment around Jesus’s ancestry, because Mark has Jesus dismiss the requirement of Davidic descent for the messiah, which Matthew and Luke claim he had using obviously made-up genealogies. So if there is a real Jesus in the stories, he most likely had no such ancestry.)

    The part that seems most likely to be grounded in history is Jesus as a follower of John the Baptist, which has to end with John’s execution since that was a historical fact (as known from non-gospel sources). Jesus as a follower of John was clearly embarrassing to later gospel writers, because they immediately started backing away from it. They didn’t back away from Jesus associating with the declasse, or from his suffering and sacrifice. Those were the entire point of the narrative!

    That doesn’t mean other elements of the story aren’t true, just that the sort of argument you are offering doesn’t provide much support for believing that they are.

  2. skholiast says:

    Aside from thinking that belief (and disbelief) is not an act of will (though avowal or disavowal may be), my only comment is: Yup.

    It’s hard not to think, sometimes, that the next 2,000 years don’t do much to mitigate the “depressing,” either.

  3. poseidonian says:

    Rather than engage directly with the Wellsian proposals broached above, I think I will embrace the spirit of the season by a broad gesture of harmony and inclusiveness, and offer this instead, which, as humor often does, contain snippets of wisdom too:

  4. Pliny the Elder says:

    Anne Rice’s re-writing of the gospels wrestles with some of this rather nicely, if not convincingly. (Of course, I am not a Rice fan. If one already enjoys her writing perhaps one would have a different reaction.)

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