January 31st, 2010 What Does It Mean to Be a PaleoChristian?
The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins, by Burton Mack – A Review
What does it mean to be a PaleoChristian?
To begin to answer this question, maybe it’s best to start with another: What does it mean to be a Christian? After all, a PaleoChristian is just another sort of Christian, right?
In trying to understand anything, it’s often helpful to read up on the history of it: an exploration of the past can give us a context in which to place the object of study, and therefore understand it better. Christianity is no exception to this general rule – in fact when it comes to Christianity, an exploration of its historical roots is probably of the most critical importance, since its adherents in the Church stake their claims to eternity on events that purportedly happened in history: the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Descent of the Holy Spirit.
Where do these notions come from? For a modern Christian they are found, and enshrined in, the New Testament. So that’s an immediate focus for historical enquiry, and a book which might be found useful in articulating the history of the earliest strands of the New Testament is Burton Mack’s “The Lost Gospel” (1993). Mack’s book could be particularly helpful because it attempts to go further back in textual history than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – hitherto the normal starting-point for historical enquiry into Jesus and the origins of the Church.
But first a digression.
Aleksey Khomyakov, a Russian Orthodox philosopher and ecclesiologist of the 1840s, saw no real difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants. For him, Catholics were crypto-Protestants, and Protestants were crypto-Catholics. Khomyakov had an axe to grind of course – he was bolstering the pretensions of the Orthodox Church to a special kind of legitimacy – but nevertheless his statement that there is no real major distinction between any of the denominations on the western side of the East-West Schism is highly suggestive.
A lot of the problem has to do with emotion, rather than tight theology and a cold and clear analysis of the facts. The Reformation was characterised by high emotions, and a cynical use of these emotions by State structures. The English Reformation is a particular case in point: who championed the Reformation in England? Henry VIII, of course, was awarded the title “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X as a reward for Henry’s book “Defence of the Seven Sacraments” – which argued, amongst other things, for the supremacy of the Pope. But it wasn’t long before Henry had rejected that idea to increase his own autonomy (or, more realistically, his tyranny), and to inject a bit more cash into his treasury through the dissolution of English monasteries. The theological ideas of the Reformers simply matched his own ambitions.
Because that’s what it’s really all about. Both Church and State are thinly disguised narcissistic families. Sometimes that narcissistic quality is overt, as when Church and State forces crushed the Cathars, and sometimes it’s more subtle and covert, as when Church and State ignore the real needs of people, and vector the public’s discussion of religion and politics into the sands as a form of damage control. For both Church and State, the objective is to make sure that people are as infantilised as possible, and fearful of losing the protection offered by the State (for the safety of the body) and by the Church (for the safety of the soul after death). It’s also important in this model for people to have few realistic options ahead of them. People long for a community or polity which guarantees them some level of security. This is a prime reason for someone today to become a Christian: it puts you in with the in-crowd.
And once you’re locked into that mindset, it’s next to impossible to get out of it. Rejection of the Church’s teachings leaves you with nothing – no sense of security, and no sense of superiority over the unbelievers. In a narcissistic family, one’s daily experience might be stone-cold miserable, or characterised by disorienting highs and lows – but as a child you wouldn’t have knowledge of the context needed to evaluate how bad the parent system was. You would experience the dead-end misery of it all, but wouldn’t actually know how bad it was. The reason for this apparent discrepancy between experience and knowledge is lack of context: as a child you can’t step outside the magic circle of your family and look at it from the outside. The only escape from this man-trap is an expansion of context, and an honest examination of the facts – something which Mack is able to provide.
Bertrand Russell wrote: “Morally, a philosopher who uses his professional competence for anything except a disinterested search for truth is guilty of a kind of treachery.” It’s probably not going too far to suggest that there’s been an enormous amount of such treachery in Church thinking. One of the problems has to do with not being able to relate theology to other disciplines. A disinterested search for truth would evidence itself in an interest in those untidy dangling threads which hang from the gorgeous finished tapestry of theological speculation. For example, why were certain books included in the Canon of the New Testament, while others were left outside, or destroyed as heretical? Can we relate principles of perception management (i.e. propaganda) to the formation and government of the early Church? Is it really paranoid to conceive of conspiracies at work in the early Church – and even in the formation of distinct texts within the New Testament? Why, to be frank, is the New Testament such a confusing mess?
Hand in hand with this is a certain naivete. Many theologians seem unable to grasp the possibility that the Church’s official history of its origins before 325 CE might have been written to buttress the form it presented at that date. They seem unable to glimpse the possibility that official history might serve a particular purpose: to channel any debate within artificially narrow borders, and to define the terms of discussion for political ends.
Mack is not averse to such speculation, but the important thing here is that he backs it up with excellent reasoning and mature consideration of possibilities. To be sure, a good deal of what he writes is circumstantial – but how could it be otherwise? His work, though, comes out of extensive networking within the Jesus Seminar (a body of around 150 New Testament scholars who tried to establish precisely what Jesus taught), and in that sense is a collaborative work. The conclusions he draws in the final part of his book are thoroughly his own, but they seem to stand the test insofar as they work to establish a balance of probabilities as far as understanding what really happened to make the Church what it is. “The Lost Gospel” does not use the word “conspiracy”, but it is nonetheless a work of conspiracy theory. No established authority would react well to such speculation. After all, conspiracy theory – of any sort – is forbidden or ridiculed in official circles because it destroys the imagined security provided by State and Church.
In one of the most important chapters of his book, “Bishops and the Bible”, Mack lifts the lid a little on what had been going on in the first centuries of Church formation. Already by the middle of the 2nd century, episcopal oversight of Christians was being stressed, heavily and remorselessly. Mack quotes from Apostolic Fathers such as Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, for whom the office of bishop is the touchstone of security in Christ. This emphasis on the transfer of authority from apostles to the first bishops of the Church is particularly marked here: “The apostles received the gospel for us from the lord Jesus Christ, Jesus the Christ was sent from God. The Christ therefore is from God and the apostles from the Christ.” (1 Clement 42). This “apostolic succession”, as it is called, is then one of the hallmarks of real Christianity as far as bishops are concerned.
Mack notes that this idea of apostolic succession finds a basis quite naturally in the ancient Greek notion of a succession of teachers in philosophical schools. The idea was at least familiar to early Christians, which is why people like Clement or Ignatius could get away with it. A corresponding idea is that of hierarchy: where a pyramid or cone of power is established with certain people at the top. (To narrow it down further, of course, these are always men.) Such an idea was fully consistent with the social structure of the Roman Empire, a dictatorial system established at the end of the 1st century BCE. In this system you simply had to do as you were told – there was no place for networking and free discussion, let alone dissent, in the imperium.
A rather sinister example of this is found in the letters of Pliny the Younger, an otherwise enlightened and urbane civil servant, who died round about 112 CE. As governor of a province in Asia Minor, and after consultation with the similarly enlightened and urbane emperor Trajan, Pliny outlawed all societies, clubs and organisations in his area of jurisdiction – even the fire brigades – on the premise that networking by ordinary people could lead to the exchange and development of religious, philosophical and political ideas. Ordinary people had their place, and it was at the bottom of a hierarchy. Networking and the free exchange of ideas amongst commoners was held (by those at the top) to be especially dangerous to the politico-religious system – with any dissent meriting a swift death-sentence.
This extended even into the area of what you were allowed to read. Mack quotes from the Stoic philosopher Seneca (who died in 65 CE), who was approached by a friend for a copy of a certain collection of philosophical sayings. Although Seneca replied in a letter that he would indeed forward this sayings-collection to his friend, he nevertheless counselled against reading it. This was because intimate contact (in Latin, “conversatio”) with the sayings of a philosopher would have the effect of reproducing that philosopher’s character in the reader. The reason this was expected to happen lay in the classical system of education. Students were expected to internalise what they read through a process called in Greek “mimesis”, or in Latin “imitatio”. In this way, once internalised, the student could then take on the character (in Greek, “ethos”) of the author. This internalisation was done with the intention of becoming, in some sense, the author under study, and of being able to speak in his words – or even to invent new turns of phrase and whole speeches which mirrored and drew on the spirit of the original author.
What to us today looks like remarkable presumption was actually very much the point of the formal classical study of philosophical writings: students were not looking for the truth, but instead were cultivating the art of rhetoric. At this time, success at rhetoric was held to be the pinnacle of achievement in the public world. Which in itself tells us a lot about the importance attached to the epistles in the New Testament. Never mind that many of the arguments contained there are half-baked, inconsistent and even sometimes completely incomprehensible – they reflect the importance attached to rhetoric, and the perception management achieved through bamboozling an audience or readership. It’s very telling that the muddle-headed thinking revealed in the epistles is seldom challenged head-on in modern theological scholarship – the edifice is allowed to stand, even though common sense shows that it clearly has the nature of a con. This is something Mack addresses forcefully in a later book, “Who Wrote the New Testament?” (1996).
The early bishops put together a canon of writings which became their New Testament. Naturally there were many 1st and early 2nd century Christian writings which didn’t get included in this canon. Some of this material has been preserved – doubtless an enormous amount has now been lost. In its chain of reasoning, the Church’s weakest link is the canon – which early Christian works it included in the New Testament, and which it rejected. Its reasoning for inclusion and exclusion lies in the concept of apostolicity: if a book or epistle was written by an apostle (or, in the case of the Gospels of Mark and Luke, written by an amanuensis or secretary intimately linked to an apostle – in these two cases, Peter and Paul respectively) then it would necessarily be included in the canon. However, as Mack notes, this is a simplified, and actually distorted, version of what really happened. Many of the New Testament books were actually written by completely different individuals, and not by apostles at all. Much of Mack’s reasoning is covered in “Who Wrote the New Testament?” because his attention is focused much more intently in “The Lost Gospel” on an underlying text beneath Matthew and Luke: the document known to New Testament scholars as Q (from the German, “Quelle”, meaning “source”).
Before moving on to Q, however, and the world-shaking implications of its rediscovery, we ought to return to the ancient Greek and Roman understanding of authorship. Mack points out that the value we place on originality in written work today was often largely absent in classical times. Back then, an author might celebrate the importance of an historical figure by imagining himself into that figure’s shoes, and writing as though he himself were that historical figure. This was especially true in the area of philosophy, and the technique – actually a rhetorical technique – was commonly held to show proper respect for the figure who was now long dead. Such an attitude astonishes many today, not least modern-day evangelical Christians, who cannot bring themselves to accept what they would normally consider to be out-and-out fraud.
Of course, the possibilities of fraud are strong. Ancient thinking on the benefit of mimesis as a celebration of earlier philosophers and political figures masks the very real chance that a completely different slant could be given on what these earlier figures were really all about. Early Christians writing as if they were Peter or Paul were actually quite free to say, as they did in the pastoral epistles of “Paul” (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), and in 2 Peter (dated to 150 CE), that the apostles and bishops were the foundation of Church discipline (2 Peter 2:1, 3:2). Or, for that matter, in the Acts of the Apostles (another 2nd century text), where a fictional narrative has been invented more or less out of whole cloth. In this crucial text, the story is told of how the focus of the Church moved from the Judaic centre at Jerusalem to the capital of the imperium at Rome, all the while stressing the office of apostle, and by extension the bishop’s role as arbiter of what to do, what to think, what to believe. Not that the focus did actually move from Jerusalem to Rome – that too was fiction. But through multi-layered fiction of this sort, Christianity as we understand it today was invented. It was the means by which the clamp-down on the followers of Jesus was effected. It stifled debate by vectoring it between narrow limits, the limits imposed by the New Testament texts and the judgements of bishops.
Christians themelves had originally been different. Mack is actually quite contemptuous of the search for a specific origin for Christianity – a search which preoccupied many in the 19th century search for the historical Jesus, and which might even affect a number of scholars within the Jesus Seminar. The brainwashing within the Church is thorough-going, and theories of origins, together with the search for such origins, play a large part in this brainwashing. The theory goes that if we want to understand what Christianity is really all about, we ought to get back to the original source, the original words and intentions of Jesus himself.
But is this actually possible? Mack feels that a search of this sort is actually on a hiding to nothing. Part of the reason for this has to do with what Christianity is. Christianity is basically Church-thinking and Church-activity. An origin for that would be found, not in Jesus exactly, but in what the Church terms the paleo-Christian period: the period running from the Descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost to the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325. This definition of paleo-Christian (i.e. “early Christian”) is not the only one possible, but it’s one with a fairly common currency in ecclesiology. Of course, since Acts (our one and only provenance for the myth of the Descent of the Spirit) is fiction, then the Descent is fiction too. The same is true of the Ecumenical Council, in the sense that it wasn’t really ecumenical at all. All those other Christians not represented at the Council – the ones who didn’t have a share in the official merger of Empire with Church Christianity under Constantine – were simply relegated to obscurity by Imperial fiat.
Even if we go back to the Resurrection (according to Mack, a fiction) or the Passion of the Christ (also a fiction), the Last Supper (again a fiction), or even to the formation of the congregation of Israel at Mount Sinai (more fiction), we find the roots of Christianity disappearing on closer inspection like a mirage. These hypothetical “roots” of Christianity turn out to be not even wrong, because the presuppositions themselves are mistaken. The only possible roots are therefore Jesus’s teachings, and – perhaps – his Ascension.
It might seem inconsistent to mention the Ascension. This event, shrouded in mystery, seems at first glance simply a way of dealing with the absence of Jesus after his resurrection. Also, presumably, a fiction. And yet … could this impossible event underlie much of the mystique of Jesus, as it did with some alchemists? Impossible of explanation, perhaps the Ascension had to be padded out with ideas taken from the Noble Death trope (exemplified in the death of Socrates), from the Divine Justification of the Innocent trope (as found in the book of Daniel, for example), and from ideas connected with Greek mystery rites. Mack explores something of these tropes in “The Lost Gospel”, as he had done in greater depth in his earlier work on the formation of the Gospel of Mark, “A Myth of Innocence” (1988).
The Ascension is largely an embarrassment for the Church. Pilgrims flock to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, to Nazareth, to the Cenacle, and to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – but hardly any trudge up to the tiny octagonal Edicule of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. Compared to the rich myths of Incarnation, Last Supper, Passion and Resurrection, the Ascension has in the New Testament the feel of a non-event, scarcely rooted in the real world at all. But perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps this wasn’t a once-only event, but something that was actually characteristic of Jesus’s later life and ministry.
Jesus has been cast as many things: as a Jewish reformer, as a social revolutionary, as a messiah, as a suffering servant, as the King of the World. Mack rejects all of these, and does it by a careful reconstruction of the lost gospel, the original good news presented in the document known today as Q. Q had been known about for decades, but until the work of John Kloppenborg in the 1980s, no real attempt had been made to establish the form of the text. Mack traces the reasons for this strange missed opportunity, and then sets out a best guess as to Q’s original form (Q1), followed by two successive revisions (Q2 and Q3). The result is astonishing. No doubt there are errors in this reconstruction – how could it be otherwise? But nitpicking of this sort cannot detract from the extraordinary force of the teachings presented in this way, shorn of later special pleading as the result of disappointment met with in dialogue with the Pharisaic party in Galilee (Q2), and of attempts to cast Jesus’s teachings in an apocalyptic mold (Q3).
The bulk of “The Lost Gospel” focuses on a careful teasing out of these successive strands, and the reasoning underlying Mack’s reconstruction of Q. To be sure, some of this material is rather dry – but without it, no Christian could accept such a reconstruction, so thoroughly are we all immersed in Church understandings of what the Gospels are, and what they mean. This is a particularly important point, which Mack drives home in a shattering Epilogue: whether the reader is a church-goer or not, or even if the reader has consciously rejected Church teachings, immersion in a Christian culture places the mind in an invisible prison. Whether in Europe, Africa, Latin America or the USA, wherever the Church has left its mark on the culture, the chances of escaping the storyline set for our lives by the Church are slim. The Church celebrates that which is sensational:
“Christians seldom assess their world by making a direct comparison with the gospel story. Instead, as with all cultures and their myths, coded formulations reduce the mythic mode to attitudes, gestures, and cliches for negotiating the everyday world. A partial list of adjectives that express Christian mentality can illustrate the point. Christians grant privilege to personal performances and events that are unique, dramatic, original, charismatic, miraculous, radical, transformational, and apocalyptic. All else is considered banal by comparison. The daily round, repetitious labor, customary chitchat, negotiations, compromises, folk wisdom, and ordinary humor all fail to create sensations. What counts as significant are crises, breakthroughs, victories, and transformations. With the gospels in place, one might note, the symbols for solving critical problems are a vicarious crucifixion at the beginning and an apocalyptic destruction at the end. Both coalesce in a meditation on destructive violence and creative transformation. The Jesus of Q hardly stands a chance of being recognized within this symbolic world.” (pp. 250-251)
This is the death-trap prepared for us, and a key to the way in which Christianity and War have gone hand-in-hand. There is no escape, for the New Testament model pervades everything around us, including the storylines of movies, the way in which the news is presented, and the way in which our political life is structured. Non-Christians are not immune – they are simply crypto-Christians, doubly deceived. The way we view the course of our own lives is framed by the New Testament model – and if one’s life does not match the expectations engendered by the Gospel storyline, then so much the worse for us: Hello, Depression – or empty Escapism. The psychologist Erich Fromm pointed out how skewed the values of our society have always been, how impoverished our inner landscape: “The problem with our culture is not that there is too much selfishness, but too little genuine self-love.”
Such genuine self-love is impossible when people are forced to anticipate a glorious and happy ending, a victory over the forces of evil. That sets us up for disaster and disappointment, because that is not necessarily how the Universe does things. Where is the principle of free will in all this? Instead, the Church supplies us with a culture of judgement, where anything that threatens to conflict with our own gratification is condemned by us to the Lake of Fire. This is black-and-white thinking, a result of the Church’s infantilisation of society, its infantilisation of each of us as individuals.
Fromm recognised that a return to the Bible was needed to expunge such ideas. He reflected on the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and showed that there was an inherent problem here: on the one hand, we value the ability to distinguish between good and evil, and yet on the other hand, the Church has taught that Adam and Eve sinned by eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Fromm recommended that individuals take independent action, and use reason to find the right course of action, rather than adhering to a rigid set of authoritarian moral dictates. In other words, though the Church might want to keep us at the stage of infants under the control of a fatherly God, as symbolic of an equally paternalistic Church and State hierarchy, our job is actually to do the opposite: we have to grow up. Essentially, there are no easy answers in life – only exploration. There are no heroics. This, then, is “genuine self-love”, undertaken in the service of others, and in a spirit of good humour and fun.
And this is where Q comes in. Mack says that the synoptic Gospels as they currently stand are a travesty of what Jesus was all about. The narrative is entirely bogus, masking the real intent of the original document Q. This is why the Church consistently understates the teachings of Jesus, instead focusing on the events of his “saving ministry”. Mack suggests that Jesus was not really Jewish at all, so any attempt to cast him as the primary figure in the sweep of epic “history” from Adam and Eve through Abraham, to the failure of the Jewish theocratic city-state, and thence to a substitution sacrifice, and embodiment of his Believers into his cosmic Body – well, all this is just grandiosity and exhibitionism, the narcissistic reaction of a thwarted infant’s mind. The key to seeing how preposterous all this is lies in the fact that it takes itself so seriously: all good humour is tellingly absent, a point borne out particularly well by Revelation, which Mack considers a fitting finale to the New Testament because it’s just plain nuts.
In the light of this, Mack suggests that we take a fresh look at Q. One of the hallmarks of Q is its humour. Jesus is full of fun – the closest thing today would probably be a stand-up comic. In the mixed-up Hellenistic world where Galilee is most exactly to be located (it wasn’t Jewish, and it wasn’t part of Judaea), Jesus more or less exactly fits the profile of a philosopher of the Cynic school. Members of the ancient Cynic school (not to be confused with the modern use of the term) were unlikely to give a clear idea of how to organise your life. Black-and-white thinking held no place in how they worked. Instead, they worked to instil a sense of delight in what life might hold in store (the parables of the mustard seed, and the leaven in the lump, come to mind), and delighted in puncturing pomposity and pretension. They worked to destabilise society (as it was currently constituted) and rigid thinking of any sort.
Cynics deliberately stood apart from the mainstream of Classical society. They were its jesters – even troubadours, because there was a poetry inherent in the way they spoke. Very often they kept themselves apart from city life. This is in sharp contrast to official culture, whether of State or Church. That found its highest expression in the city – in particular in the city of Rome. Of course, we can look back at the Roman Empire and find a culture hopelessly smug, conservative and self-regarding – and, despite its awesome military power, stagnant. By 325, the Church was to find a ready niche in this zombie culture – but then, it had been zombified itself centuries before.
The parallels between the Christianised Empire and the United States are strong, and Mack pulls no punches here. In fact, he can be quite acid – which, to be sure, is balm to the soul. Mack points out that the origins of Q can be found in people outside this urbane world. The first Jesus people (Mack is careful never to call them Christians) were thoroughly ordinary people, trading ideas as they went about their everyday business trading pottery or olives. There was no empty urbanity – just straightforward networking in a spirit of truth-seeking and sincerity. Jesus had offered the idea of a world without boundaries, where everybody was brother and sister – if they wanted to be. And that idea was something they had to explore together now that Jesus was no longer with them.
It was a countrified way of doing things. The Latin term for this is “paganus”, meaning “country-dweller” or “rustic”, and from this term we get our English word “pagan”. Originally “pagan” referred to anything unpolished or unsophisticated. For the early bishops, the word came to be applied to all those outside the cultural control of the cities, where the old religions might continue unchecked. Of course, any “original” Christianity (if it’s ever appropriate to use such a word) came from an environment which wasn’t polished, or controlled by a religious hierarchy. It came instead from Galilee, a byword in rusticity and unselfconscious independence.
Did it originate with Jesus? Yes, it seems reasonable to say at least that much – according to Q, he was the figure who spoke the sayings. And yet, if the connection to Judaism seems now so insubstantial, where did Jesus get his ideas, his wisdom? The Old Testament seems now largely to be ruled out – indeed it might be suggested with some fairness that Jesus called his god Beelzebul (“Lord of the Heights”) rather than Yahweh – though maybe that was another of his jokes. Does God have a name? Is God an object distinct from ourselves? Q offers no complete answer to questions like these, only seeming to counsel against being too sure of oneself.
The Cynic school was certainly much older than Jesus, and this seems a natural avenue to explore. But there is only so much material about the Cynics ready at hand today. Much is anecdotal only – there are no sustained arguments such as we are used to in the Platonic dialogues, for example. But then, that seems partly to be the way in which the Cynics themselves worked. “Pithy” seems a word invented to describe Cynics – and if Q is indeed Cynic, then it bears this out pretty well. Nothing, after all, is more pithy than many of the sayings in Q.
Beyond that, it’s difficult to say where it all came from. It was noted earlier that the term “Paleo-Christianity” is commonly used to refer to the period of the early Church before 325. By this stage the creeds were institutionalised, making it very difficult to voice any disagreement. Unlike any other religion, of course (as Mack points out), Christianity alone demands that its adherents say they believe in their myth.
But the term “PaleoChristianity” could be made to bear another meaning: Paleolithic Christianity. It’s probably fair to say that Stone Age spirituality found its highest expression in Shamanism, and it might not be too much of a stretch to suggest that Jesus was shamanic in the way he did things. It’s hard to be sure, but the Ascension might bear this out: if Jesus was able to move between densities of existence (and even, to a limited extent, through time) then for sure it might be difficult to (a) pin him down, and (b) really understand completely what he had to say. Indeed, he could speak about a lot of things that were pretty familiar to him, and not really be understood even by his nearest and dearest followers. Hence the fervent and excited discussion of his ideas after his final “Ascension” (if that is indeed the right word to use). A PaleoChristian, then, might be described as a follower of Jesus who is alive to Christianity’s pagan, shamanic and Stone Age roots, and willing to explore this in defiance of the vectoring of thought set up by the Church.
Of course, Mack does not delve this far. It was enough for him to suggest that Jesus was a Cynic philosopher, and to expose Church Christianity for the fraud it undoubtedly always has been. But “The Lost Gospel” suggests many other interesting things, and it seems fair to take the baton handed to us by Mack and run with it. And then – without any anticipation of the results – see where we might end up.