March 26, 2005
Confusion over Christ: Meacham and NewsweekBy James Arlandson
Jon Meacham writes from a privileged platform. He is the religion editor for Newsweek, and he appears on television talk shows with some regularity. He uses his perch, however, to espouse the theology of the religious left.
That is, he cast doubts on the historical reliability and the veracity of the New Testament and the authority of the First Century apostolic tradition. This leads him to cast doubt on the very earliest Christian belief that Jesus was the Messiah and Savior according to Jesus' own words.
Meacham's recent article on Jesus during Easter weekend is no different. He seeks an answer to the question of how a simple Jewish prophet became the Christ and the Savior of the world. His title and lengthy subtitle say it all: 'From Jesus to Christ: How did a Jewish prophet come to be seen as the Christian savior? The epic story of the empty tomb, the early battles, and the making of a great faith.'
His article commits three fundamental errors. First, he simply assumes that Jesus goes from a mere Jewish prophet to the Christ of faith. Second, his sense of history is confused, for he lines up a dizzying array of figures in Greco—Roman antiquity. Third, he assumes that all Christian traditions in the Greco—Roman world have equal authority.
1. Meacham assumes that his assumption about Jesus and the Christ is presumably true—but his assumption is circular.
This first point has been expressed in a deliberately confusing way, because his article is seriously confused.
Meacham begs the question, which means that he asks us his audience to accept premises that are as controversial as the conclusion that he is arguing for, and on the same controversial grounds. Worse, he argues from his controversial conclusion—Jesus goes from a simple Jewish prophet to the Christ of faith—without providing any premises in the first place. He does not give us the courtesy of providing at least this unsound argument:
(1) All Messiahs start out as simple prophets and are elevated to Messiahs.
With logic like this, Meacham and the religious left cannot lose. He provides no evidence for his highly controversial claims. His refusal to substantiate his assumption implies that we are fools if we do not believe it—you don't believe the earth is round? You're a fool!
According to Meacham, Jesus was a simple prophet whom later Christians elevated to the worldwide Savior. Why did they do this? First, Christians had to make sense of the death of Jesus, whom they took as the Jewish Messiah, but First Century Jewish tradition says that the Messiah would militarily rescue Israel from its foes. Jesus dies an ignominious death on a cross as a criminal—not the stuff of which Messiahs are born. Meacham is not entirely wrong about this. The earliest disciples in fact appear dazed and confused about the crucifixion, and early Jewish belief said that the Messiah would rescue Israel from its foe.
But is the despair of the disciples sufficient to fabricate a myth about Jesus going from an executed criminal to the Savior of the world? Meacham implies that it is, but this is suspect, for the earliest disciples touched with their own hands and saw with their own eyes the resurrected Jesus. The earliest disciples remembered that Jesus himself said that he was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Hence, Jesus from the very first is the Christ; he did not become the Christ in the heated imagination of later church figures in an 'epic battle' (as Meacham's subtitle says).
But how do we know that the earliest disciples are right? That question brings us back to the reliability of the New Testament and its authorship and to the character of the disciples. The religious left cuts the apostles loose from the authorship of the New Testament. But average church—going, Bible—believing Christians must know that plenty of evidence demonstrates that Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew, and Mark wrote the Gospel that bears his name (written under Peter), and the same goes for Luke, John, and the authors of the Epistles. The readers should go to a bookstore, find the religion section, and then locate the New International Version (NIV) Study Bible. They should examine the Introductions to each New Testament book (and Old Testament books), which are written up by a team of reputable international scholars. The readers will find a brief discussion of the authorship of each document, and at the end of each discussion, the evidence suggests that the apostolic authorship is sound.
What about the character of the earliest disciples? Would they knowingly make wild and unsubstantiated assertions that Jesus saw himself as merely a prophet and not the Messiah and the Savior of the world? Even the skeptic Meacham, who presents himself as an objective journalist, admits that the disciples may have gotten things right. How did they go from despair to clarity and conviction about the empty tomb and its significance—that through his death and resurrection 'Jesus would redeem humankind'? Meacham's answer:
'Perhaps recollections of the words of Jesus himself . . . It is possible that Jesus may have spoken of these things during his lifetime—words that came flooding back once the shock of his resurrection had sunk in' (p. 3).
His essential point is accurate, but why does Meacham say 'perhaps' and 'may have spoken' and 'it is possible'? Again, he doubts the reliability and veracity of the New Testament, but we have already answered that. His many qualifiers reveal, though, his bias, not his objectivity. But we should at least give him credit for momentarily arguing for Christ's actual resurrection.
To sum up this first point, it seems, then, that contrary to Meacham's shaky assumption the earliest disciples saw in Jesus's own words that he was the Messiah—even though they could not at first grasp this claim in its fullest meaning. But failing to grasp complexity is far from fabricating a fiction—Jesus did not go from a human prophet to the Messiah and Savior in their imagination; rather, they simply recalled what he had said and wrote it down, and he said that he was the apocalyptic Son of Man, the Messiah, and the Ransom—Redeemer of the sins of the world. No fictional elevation from simple prophet to majestic Messiah is needed on their part.
2. Meacham's assumption about Jesus later becoming the Christ leads to a confused history.
Meacham assumes that Jesus is elevated to his Messiah status by the early church, 'from Golgotha to Constantine' (p. 1). Perhaps he assumes this because he knows that the New Testament everywhere affirms the deity of Christ; that is, the earliest source documents substantiate the earliest belief that never left the church after the Day of Pentecost—after the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. Christ the Son of God came down from heaven to redeem the world from its sins.
Meacham's assumption, however, leads him to line up a dizzying array of figures and documents in the first three or four centuries of the Christian era, as follows from his first page to his sixth: Mary Magdalene, Mark, Luke, Constantine, many sects in first—century Judaism, the Nicene Creed, the community at Qumran, the Apostle Paul, Josephus, the Stoics, the Epicureans, Celsus, Aeschylus, John the Apostle, the Gnostics, Nero, Tacitus, Emperor Julian, Athanasius, and Augustine. Apparently, all of them participate in an 'epic battle' over the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.
Though this list seems impressive on the surface, it is confused at bottom. Most of these figures are not authoritative to any branch of the Christian church (Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant), but for Meacham their voices all chime in on Jesus Christ, in a cacophony of sounds that are intended to drown out the simple truth.
To repeat, the source documents in the New Testament everywhere affirm that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, from the very beginning. True, the disciples did not grasp that at first, and the Gospels depict them as dazed and confused, but the Gospels still affirm his divinity. True, the word 'prophet' is used of Jesus a few times in the Gospels, but it is found in various contexts that reflect, for example, popular beliefs, like 'no prophet is accepted in his hometown' (Luke 4:24). But everywhere when the truth of Jesus's deeper identity is about to be revealed, he is shown as the apocalyptic Son of Man (coming back on clouds of glory), the Messiah, and the Son of God. Hence, it is impossible to accurately reach back to a mere Jewish prophet in one or two passages without the divinity attached in numerous passages.
Why does Meacham come up with this disunified list of names?
3. Meacham believes that many Christian traditions in the first four centuries have the same authority.
If the New Testament is unreliable, then other traditions have the same authority. This is why Meacham produces a dizzying number of names in the Roman Empire. And on this basis the religious left opens the door to a wide range of equally (un)authoritative voices. His hidden logic is exposed in this syllogism:
(4) All Christian traditions have equal authority.
This confused syllogism does not come out of thin air. Meacham says:
'There were many different Christian groups at first, including Gnostic believers, some of whom, contrary to other apostolic traditions, thought Jesus was more divine than human' (p. 5).
The word 'other' (in bold print) implies that the Gnostics were on the same level as unspecified apostolic traditions. This cuts loose any anchor in our interpretation of early Christianity. Now Meacham and scholars are allowed to weigh and count each opinion on an equal footing.
But this equality of authority is seriously flawed for a simple reason. Let us say that I start a new religion and call disciples to follow me closely. Three years later I die. These early eyewitness disciples are inspired to write down my words from their own memory or from the memory of a core of eyewitness disciples. One essential doctrine that I constantly talked about and actually did in their presence is this: I told them I really like dark chocolate, and I demonstrated my love for it by eating it constantly; however, I told them constantly that I do not care for white chocolate. In contrast, many years later, even hundreds of years later, a later group (or groups) who believes in me, but who are not eyewitnesses, write in their own documents that I like white chocolate, but not dark chocolate. Why would not later scholars take the documents of the core, eyewitness disciples over these later followers?
In the same way, reasonable scholars must take the earliest accounts of the life of Christ as authoritative (e.g. the Four Gospels), whereas they should take later documents (the Gnostic Gospels) with a grain of salt. They should indeed study these later documents, but why would they put them on an equal footing with the New Testament?
It is true that later Christians like Athanasius and Augustine develop essential doctrines like the deity of Christ, but they did not get their ideas out of thin air or even primarily from later theology. Rather, they first went back to the New Testament, observed it affirming the deity of Christ, and explained it in their own terms—in complex and even beautifully written theology. If they inserted post—New Testament ideas into their theological treatises, then so much the better for them; however, the New Testament was their primary source. In the same way, for most Christian traditions today, the New Testament comes first, even for Catholics who regard Church Councils as authoritative.
Where do Meacham and liberal scholars get their doubts and excessive skepticism? This is a good question, but a complex one, requiring a long answer. Suffice it to say here, though, that the Enlightenment has ground the Bible under its millstone. Very bright philosophers like Descartes, Hume, Voltaire, Kant, and a host of lesser known names, shook the foundation of Western Civilization.
For example, Kant says that my mind shapes and constitutes reality outside of me. If that is true, then can I know a thing apart from my own mind shaping and constituting it—as a thing in itself? Kantians debate this, but he seems to say no. So is everything merely a matter of my interpretation? What about authority? What about reaching a clear understanding of a written text? Over the two centuries after Kant (and Descartes before him), this hyper—skepticism and constant doubt has morphed into post—modernism, which doubts whether anyone can even interpret a written text. Our words fall to the ground.
If everything is equally elusive, then this includes the New Testament. If the New Testament is elusive, then so is its authority. If its authority is elusive, then other voices from the first centuries are equally elusive and hence (un)authoritative. Thus, everything becomes blurred, and we cannot grasp the truth, ultimately.
Personally, however, I live by a simple motto: follow clear and plain facts, which are not really so elusive, and these facts will guide me.
Therefore, plain and simple facts (I can read the New Testament, which is factually reliable) say that Jesus himself claims that he is the Savior of the world. If later theologies develop that idea further, then my understanding is enriched.
However, if a later religion reporter ignores some facts and spins his words around like a stew in a cauldron, or finds himself caught in a web of confusion and in a constant state of hyper—skepticism, then I will follow simple, clear and plain facts, knowing where hyper—skepticism comes from—from the hyper—skepticism of the Enlightenment.
Therefore, according to the very earliest sources, Jesus was always the eternal Son of God. He was never turned into the Messiah or the Savior by the sincere acts of the wills of the Christians living in the first four centuries of the Roman Empire.
Jim Arlandson (PhD) teaches world religions and introductory philosophy at a college in southern California. He has written a book, Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity (Hendrickson, 1997)