Monday, 29 July 2013

Did Jesus Exist and Does it Matter? (2)

Last week I spoke about the evidence for the existence of Jesus – evidence from the New Testament, from the Christian Church, and from non-Christian sources – and I concluded by saying that this evidence, far from being compelling, and far from establishing Jesus’ existence unequivocally, was, in fact, rather thin and, when looked at dispassionately, pointed to Jesus being a fictional, rather than a historical, character.

            Today I’d like to discuss the implications of this. Does it matter? Is the credibility of Christianity dependent upon its being inspired by the life, death, and teaching of one person who can be located in history with a fair degree of precision? For many people, the question is breathtakingly audacious, even impertinent. For them, Christianity is Jesus. Many times I’ve heard, and I’m sure you have, too, that Christianity is not about a body of doctrines, it is about a person. We have all heard people talk of having a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, which implies not only that Jesus lived but that he is still alive and can be consulted, spoken to, listened to in prayer. (I would have more sympathy with this point of view if, in the course of such consultations, Jesus gave his devotees consistent advice, but he seems to say one thing to a Catholic and something else to a Protestant. This hardly inspires confidence in the supposed relationship.) For many people – probably the same people – the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is central to their religion. ‘If Christ be not risen,’ says St. Paul, ‘your faith is in vain’. Without the resurrection there is no Christianity because, on this understanding, Christianity is about life after death, avoiding hell and gaining heaven, and the resurrection is a guarantee of the reality of this. Furthermore, it is a demonstration of the status of Jesus; because God raised him from the dead, we can be sure that he has God’s approval, and so we can believe confidently in his message. A historical Jesus is indeed the cornerstone of such a religious outlook; take him away and the whole structure would come tumbling down.

            But this is not the only way of viewing Christianity, nor, I venture to suggest is it necessarily the oldest way. If we look at the Gospel of Thomas, which, in all probability, is as old as the Gospels which found their way into the New Testament, Jesus appears not so much as a historical character with a mission to effect vicarious atonement for those who believe in him, but ‘as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding; when the disciple attains enlightenment, Jesus no longer serves as his spiritual master; the two have become equal, even identical’ (Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels),

To some early Christians, the historical Jesus was of little consequence; he served as a symbol of what we might call the Christ principle, the principle of interior illumination, of enlightenment, which all may access and then embody by embarking on the arduous path of spiritual transformation. This is a feature of what is called Gnosticism, and it had an enormous influence in the early Christian centuries; so great an influence, in fact, that the first defenders of what was to become Christian orthodoxy went to enormous lengths to combat it. It has customarily been supposed that this kind of thinking was a wild, heretical shift from a historical understanding of the Jesus figure, but it is equally plausible that the historical understanding came later and was constructed by people who wanted to impose structure on a pretty diverse and almost anarchic set of approaches to God (which Gnosticism was), and who felt that they could do this best by insisting upon, and demanding belief in, certain historical elements. Some minds are very uneasy in the presence of poetry or of disorder.

            But this desire to control and bring order to the loose Gnostic understanding of Jesus has had the opposite effect to the one desired. Far from establishing a consistent orthodoxy, to which all may reasonably give assent, it has generated an almost unbelievable array of possibilities, each one claiming scriptural authority. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the area of Christology, that part of theology which deals with the person and work of Christ. Far from unifying Christians, it has divided them, to the great puzzlement of other religious systems, like the Buddhist, the Jewish, and the Hindu, which are less concerned with the nature and status of the religious messenger, and more concerned with living out the message.

            William Blake, who stands very firmly in the Gnostic tradition (which has never been eliminated from Christianity, despite persecution, excommunication, and ridicule), encapsulated these divisions over Jesus in The Everlasting Gospel:

The vision of Christ that thou dost see

Is my vision’s greatest enemy:

Thine has a great hook nose like thine

Mine has a snub nose like to mine;

Thine is the friend of all mankind

Mine speaks in parables to the blind.

Thine loves the same world that mine hates,

Thy heaven doors are my hell gates.


Both read the Bible day and night,

But thou readst black where I read white.


None of this would have any importance at all, of course, if it were simply the preserve and concern of scholarly pedants; it would be about as relevant to us as the debate between the Big Endians and the Little Endians in Gulliver’s Travels, the two groups which interminably and violently argue over whether one should slice off the top of a boiled egg at the big end or the little end. But the debate about Jesus (which, of course, is one of the things that Swift is satirising) has left its bloody mark on human history in a way that few others have. When it was decided at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. that Jesus was ‘very God of very God’, intellectual and theological credibility was lent to an already prevalent anti-Semitism; if Jesus is God, then, so the thinking goes, the Jews are guilty of the most heinous crime imaginable – deicide, the killing of God. The consequences of this for the Jewish people, and for the human race, have been, and still are, unbelievably tragic, and the belated apology that the pope made recently to the Jews merely serves to highlight the absurd and inhuman character of this kind of thinking.

            And when it became an article of faith that Jesus walked the earth, then the supposed sites of his earthly sojourn became ‘holy’ places, giving rise to still more tragedies and follies. Fighting over places in the name of religion seems to be about as pointless an act as it is possible to imagine. We may smile today at the antics of the Jews, Muslims, and Christians squabbling over supposed holy sites in Palestine, many of which owe more to shrewd marketing than to reality, but the squabbles have not always been so amusing. The Crusades, whose ostensible purpose was to wrest control of the so-called Christian holy places from the Muslims, witnessed some of mankind’s most savage acts. At the siege of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in 1097, between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews and Muslims were killed in two days. A Christian knight, Count Raymond of Aguilers, wrote:


Wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men cut off the heads of our enemies, others shot them with arrows so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city.

What more can I tell? Not one of them was allowed to live. They did not spare the women and children. The horses waded in blood up to their knees, nay up to the bridle. It was a just and wonderful judgment of God.  (Ludovic Kennedy, All in the Mind, page 113)


All this and more because the unique God-man, Jesus, had rendered these places holy by his presence. Now, of course, most orthodox Christians would deplore such things as much as you or I, but there have been less overt examples of this insistence on the uniqueness of Jesus which have caused, and are still causing, conflict among the religions. Those Christians, and I suppose it would be the majority, who insist that Jesus is the only way to God – ‘no one comes to the Father except by me’ – automatically and necessarily hold that every other religious expression is inferior to their own. This makes conversion of others a duty, and one can readily see the logic behind the idea that making people Christian by force is actually doing them a favour. This particular doctrine, which has caused so much misery down the years, is a great stumbling block to genuine inter-religious dialogue; some Christians will never rest until the whole world is Christian.

            But by far the most important negative effect of this insistence on Jesus as a unique historical figure has been its power to distract us from concentrating on the system of spiritual transformation which bears his name. To our great detriment, we have, as the Buddhists say, mistaken the finger pointing at the moon, for the moon itself. We have given our attention to the messenger and neglected the message; we have constructed a religion about Jesus, sentimentalising him sometimes, being terrified of him at others, rather than embarking upon the spiritual path which the Gospels delineate for us; we have developed a non-demanding religion of cowering obedience to external authorities, rather that one of arduous interior exploration; and we have failed to see that the Christian system of spiritual transformation, when shorn of its external trappings, is the same in essence as that found in other cultures and in other nations, indicating that these things describe the perennial human search for the divine and are a source of unity with our fellow human beings and not of isolation from them.

            Even liberals like ourselves, with our own historical hang-ups, have spent our time examining the Gospels to see which bits are authentic and credible and which are mere mythological accretions, and this process has reached its natural and crazy conclusion in the California based Jesus Seminar, which has, using a variety of strange criteria, reduced what it considers to be material genuinely emanating from Jesus to about half a dozen incidents or sayings which would hardly cover a postcard. In short, we have made a mess of things, at times an extremely costly mess, so much so that I am tempted to suggest that, even if Jesus did exist, it’s perhaps time that we started acting and thinking as if he didn’t. Then, maybe, we’ll be able to read the stories about him as they were originally intended to be read.

My book The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus is available for a mere £6.89 from



Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Leo (1): Who am I?

Leo, by Dan Hodgkin
Leo, the Fixed Fire sign, is the sign of the sunshine, and is the only sign said by the ancient astrologers to be ‘ruled’ by the sun. Charles Carter calls it ‘the sign of divine splendour’. Its symbol is the lion, ‘the king of the beasts’ and it is associated with royalty, glory, creativity. Its principal star is Regulus, ‘the little king’, one of the four ‘royal’ stars of the ancient world. The second star in Leo is Al Giebha, said to mean ‘the exalted, the exaltation’ and Zosma, in the Lion’s tail means ‘the shining forth, the epiphany’. Its decans are Corvus, (the Raven), Crater (the Cup), and Hydra (the Fleeing Serpent). The Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6th, when the sun is in Leo.

 Mark 8:27-38

Jesus and his disciples went into the villages of Caesarea Philippi and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do men say that the son of man is?’ They said to him, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others Elijah; others, one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ!’ And he ordered them to tell no one about him. He started to teach them that the son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, and the chief priests and the legal experts, and be killed but after three days rise again. And he was telling them plainly. Peter drew him aside and started to take him to task, but Jesus turned, looked at his disciples, and reprimanded Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘Your thoughts are men’s thoughts, not God’s thoughts!’

        He called the crowd and his disciples together and said to them, ‘If anyone wants to come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his soul will lose it; but whoever loses his soul for my sake and the sake of the good news will save it. What benefit is it for a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? What would a man give in exchange for his soul? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the son of man will be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his father with the holy angels.’

 Mark 9:1-8

He said to them, ‘I’m telling you the truth: there are some people standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come in its power.

        After six day Jesus took Peter, James and John by themselves up into a high mountain, where he was transfigured before them. His clothing shone with intense whiteness, a whiteness which no bleaching agent on earth could possibly match. Elijah and Moses appeared to them, and were talking with Jesus. Peter, dreadfully frightened like the others and not knowing what to say, responded with, ‘Rabbi, it is wonderful for us to be here. Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ Then a voice issued from an overshadowing cloud, ‘This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him!’ Suddenly, looking round, they saw no one with them, only Jesus.

Story: An Eagle among the Chickens

A farmer found an eagle’s egg and put it in the nest of one of his hens. When the egg hatched, the little eagle found himself among dozens of chickens. He thought of them as his brothers and sisters, and as he grew up with them he became like them. He never learned to fly. Sometimes he would flap his wings a little, just as he saw the hens doing, but, like them, he never really got off the ground. Sometimes, in his dreams, he would seem to be a great bird, carrying off small animals in a strong beak to his nest way up at the top of a high mountain, but when he awoke he would content himself with scraps from the farmer’s table, and grubs from the ground.

            One day, when he was old, an eagle flew over the farm. ‘What’s that magnificent bird?’ he asked his friend.

            ‘That’s an eagle, the king of the birds. It can fly as high as the sun, and the whole world is its playground. No other bird can match it for power and beauty, and grace.’

            The eagle who thought he was a chicken looked longingly at the eagle in the sky. ‘How I wish I could be like that eagle! How wonderful it would be to be free like him! But I’m just a chicken, and I’ll have to live my life here on the ground, and never soar into the sky!’

            So, the eagle who hatched among the chickens lived his whole life like a chicken, because that’s what he’d been told he was, and that’s what he thought he was.


Sermon given in Dublin Unitarian Church, 5th August, 2007 

‘Who do men say that I am?’

Jesus said: ‘One who knows everything else, but who does not   know himself, knows nothing.’ 

(Gospel of Thomas, saying 67).

If you were to be asked the question, ‘Who are you?’ how would you answer? No doubt you have been asked the question many times, and you have probably responded by giving your name. ‘I’m Bill Darlison,’ I’ve said on numerous such occasions. When pressed I could easily extend my answer by describing my physical features, giving my age, my address, mentioning the various roles I play in life – husband, brother, uncle, minister, etc., and then maybe talking a little bit about my interests and predilections. Does this do it? Do these few sentences give an adequate account of my identity?

            Some people would say that they do. I am the sum total of the roles I play and the relationships I form. I have no identity beyond these things. There is no ‘Self’ which stands outside, no intrinsic, internal ‘I’. I am my physical actions and my brain patterns, a pretty sophisticated mechanism, no doubt, - ‘thinking meat’ in the words of our second reading today - but a mechanism nevertheless.

            Even those aspects of myself which I consider might tell against such a point of view – the sense that there is an interior ‘I’ which is in control, or the feeling that my mind transcends my physical self in some way – these, say certain philosophers and scientists, are just fictions. Your mind is simply a by-product of your brain chemistry, your sense of self an illusion. In fact, in the words of the scientist Dean Hamer, ‘we follow the basic law of nature, which is that we’re a bunch of chemical reactions running around in a bag’ (Time Magazine, 29th November, 2004). Or, as some other anonymous writer put it, even more succinctly, ‘We are just hairy bags of chemicals.’

            I have quite a collection of these scientific and philosophical assessments of the human being. I began to collect them when I spotted something written by Marcus Chown in the Guardian about a decade ago: ‘A total eclipse confronts us with a truth we would rather not face. The truth is that we live on a tiny clod of cold clay in an insignificant corner of an infinite cosmos. In the great scheme of things, our lives are of no importance whatsoever.’ Chown’s sentiments were echoed a few years later, by Jim Herrick, editor of the New Humanist magazine, who spoke of, ‘The puniness of the self in the face of the vastness of the universe.’ And George Monbiot, who writes on ecology in the Guardian, is no less stark in his assessment: ‘Darwinian evolution,’ he writes, ‘tells us that we are incipient compost: assemblages of complex molecules that – for no greater purpose than to secure sources of energy against competing claims – have developed the ability to speculate. After a few score years, the molecules disaggregate and return whence they came. Period. As a gardener and ecologist I find this oddly comforting’ (Guardian, 16th August, 2005).

                I was going to say that these viewpoints are almost exclusively male, but then, yesterday, curious as to whether Saturday’s Guardian would supply me with some material for Sunday’s sermon (as it has regularly done in the past!), I came across this little piece on the penultimate page of the Review. In a review of a new book edited by John Brockman, in which 100 eminent thinkers are asked, ‘What’s Your Dangerous Idea?’ the psychologist Susan Blackmore is quoted as saying that her dangerous idea is that even her contribution to the book is merely the result of ‘memes competing in the pointless universe’. Her idea is even considered ‘chilling’ by the book’s reviewer, P.D. Smith (Guardian Review, page 16, 4th August 2007).

            Hairy bags of chemicals. Incipient compost. Speculating complex molecules. Competing memes. Insignificant. Puny. This is who – what - you are according to these thinkers. You are a cosmic accident, a carrier of a selfish gene, which simply wants to reproduce itself. Once your reproductive life is over, you are cast aside by Nature. You have outlived your usefulness. This is the new philosophical ‘chic’. It’s tough, but, as Richard Dawkins says, ‘It’s true. So deal with it.’

            I don’t know whether, as a species, we are dealing with it adequately. Perhaps we can never deal with it. What price morality when, ultimately, a human being is worthless? I’m not saying that people who hold such a point of view cannot behave ethically; this would be a terrible slur on numerous such people of high moral calibre, but I sometimes wonder whether they adhere to their high principles in spite of rather than because of their philosophical convictions, and whether people like Trotsky, who declared that we must ‘rid ourselves once and for all of the Quaker-Papist babble about the sanctity of human life’, or Stalin who said, ‘One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths just a statistic,’ were not being more faithful to the contemporary scientific and philosophical ethos.

            How different such points of view from the one they are seeking to replace! The one we find in the world’s spiritual traditions, which teach us that, far from being expendable accidental products of blind natural forces, we are infinitely precious beings, ‘made in the image of God’, intrinsic parts of the whole economy of the universe. The Psalmist puts it like this:

For you created my inmost being;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place;

When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,

Your eyes saw my unformed body.

All the days ordained for me

were written in your book

before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139)

And the writer of Psalm 8, as perplexed by the vastness of the universe as Marcus Chown or Jim Herrick, comes to the opposite conclusion:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,

The moon and the stars which you have set in place,

What is man that you are mindful of him,

The son of man that you care for him?

And yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings,

And crowned him with glory and honour.’ (Psalm 8)

Shakespeare (in Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2) has Hamlet declare, ‘What a piece of work is Man! How noble in reason! How infinite in Faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action How like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!’ (Although, he also says that we are a ‘quintessence of dust’)

            Ralph Waldo Emerson, poet, philosopher, and one-time Unitarian minister, sums up this alternative point of view in one sentence: ‘Man is a god in ruins’, he declares.

            So, you take your choice. Maybe we have to say that the conclusion we come to depends on when we ask the question – at some times we feel like gods, at others like the universe’s flotsam and jetsam. Maybe we can be intellectually convinced by the scientists, and emotionally convinced by the religionists. However we answer the question, we can’t escape it, and this time of the year is a particularly good time to ask it because the zodiacal sign Leo, which the sun entered on 22nd July, is the sign which, to the ancient astrologers, symbolised the intrinsic identity of the human being. It’s not too difficult to see why this is appropriate: the sun, the ‘heart’ of the universe, symbolic of consciousness, is at its most powerful at this time of the year (in the northern hemisphere, of course, where this kind of thinking developed), and people born around this time do seem to display a strong sense of their own individuality and worth regardless of their philosophical convictions. Leo is the ‘aristocrat’ of the zodiac, and those in whom the principle operates most strongly like to be ‘king’ and ‘queen’ of their own circle, no matter how restricted. There is often a strong need for self-display, for being ‘centre stage’, which can manifest as superiority and bossiness. The lion, ‘king of the jungle’ has been associated with this time of the year for millennia.

            But that sense of pride and pre-eminence are just the psychological expressions of the essence of the sign. To the ancient astrologers Leo, whose principal star is called Regulus, the little king,  was ‘the sign of divine splendour’, the sign of the sun’s greatest power, its all-consuming fire and all-illuminating light reflecting the very energy, power, and might of God. All the zodiac signs were said to be ‘ruled’ by one of the planets, some planets ruling two signs each. But only one sign is ruled by the sun: Leo.

            How appropriate, then, that the Leo section of the Gospel of Mark – the section which, I am sure, the earliest Christians would have read at this time of the year – should deal with this question of identity. ‘Who do men say that the son of man is?’ asks Jesus of his apostles at Caesarea Philippi. I don’t want to go into the vexed and complicated question about Jesus’ role as Messiah. (I deal with the issue in the Leo chapter of my book.) What I want to say this morning is that the term ‘son of man’, which we have learned to interpret as some kind of messianic title, really just means ‘human being’. Idiomatically, in Hebrew, ‘son of’ means ‘one who has the qualities of’, so ‘son of righteousness’ means ‘a righteous person’, and ‘son of perdition’ means ‘a rotter’. So ‘son of man’ means ‘human being’! We heard it earlier in Psalm 8: ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you keep him in mind?’ ‘Man’ and ‘son of man’ are synonyms. So Jesus’ question, ‘Who do men say that the son of man is?’ is really ‘What does it mean to be a human being?’

            And what is Peter’s answer? ‘You are the Christ, the son of the living God!’ The story of Jesus is not, as I keep repeating, the history of one man; it is the journey of the human soul on its way to enlightenment, and I venture to suggest that in the Christian mysteries which preceded the institutional church, this section of the Gospel was explained to initiates as meaning, ‘You, a human being, are God’s anointed one. You are God’s specially chosen one. You are a son or daughter of God’. Matthew Fox, one time Dominican priest, but now a priest of the Episcopal (Anglican) Church in America, says about this passage:

The name ‘Christ’ means ‘the anointed one’. All of us are anointed ones. We are all royal persons, creative, godly, divine, persons of beauty and of grace.  We are all Cosmic Christs, ‘other Christs’. But what good is this if we do not know it? Everyone is a sun of God as well as a son or daughter of God, but very few believe it or know it. The ones who do Meister Eckhart calls ‘the enlightened ones.’ (Original Blessing, page 137).

Put these things in modern dress. ‘What, according to contemporary thinkers, is a human being?’ Some say, ‘a cosmic accident’; others ‘a hairy bag of chemicals’; others, ‘incipient compost’. But what do you say a human being is? This is the mystic’s answer: ‘A human being is an infinitely precious child of God, an irreplaceable spark of the divine, with a glorious and eternal destiny.’ You may appear to be a nobody, but in reality you are a royal personage. You have been told that you are a lowly chicken, but in essence you are a superb eagle. And so is everyone else. Now this, I suggest, is the basis for a genuine morality.

The Transfiguration, by Raphael
The next scene of the Gospel ratifies Peter’s answer as Jesus is transfigured before them, his clothes gleaming whiter than any bleaching agent on earth could render them, or, as Matthew’s Gospel says, ‘his face shining like the sun’ (Matthew 17: 2). This is the real nature of the human being. When we see beyond the outward appearances, beyond the status and the clothing, beyond the flesh, blood, and bone, we see a vision of an eternally precious and infinitely beautiful being, the very offspring of God. This is the deepest, most consoling spiritual truth of all. It has power to transform our lives and our attitudes like no other. The English mystic Edward Carpenter writes: ‘Once you really appropriate this truth (i.e. your identity with God), and assimilate it in the depths of your mind, a vast change (you can easily imagine) will take place within you. The whole world will be transformed, and every thought and act of which you are capable will take on a different colour and complexion’, (The Origin of Pagan and Christian Beliefs, page 303).

          This is the real meaning of these strange stories, and I’m sure the earliest Christians did approach them in this way. One clue that this is so lies in the celebration of the Feast of the Transfiguration. Do you know when it is? Tomorrow. August 6th, when the sun is in the very centre of Leo. Tomorrow Catholics will be proclaiming the undoubted truth that Jesus was a manifestation of God; but the higher truth is that we all are. 

My book The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus is available for a mere £6.89 from

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Did Jesus Exist? (And Does it Matter?): Part 1

This sermon was given in Dublin in 1999
Ten years ago I would have considered the questions that concern us today to be quite idle and not worth asking. Despite the fact that there was then continuing controversy over the historical context of the gospel record, there were few people who doubted that there was history in there somewhere. Even critics who were hostile to Christianity would rarely go so far as to claim that the whole thing was a fabrication, and that Jesus never existed at all. Such ideas had been entertained at the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, and have surfaced since, but have never been treated seriously by Christian scholars, and the prevailing view has always been that the testimony of the Gospels, the testimony of the Christian church itself, and the testimony derived from references to Jesus in contemporary Jewish and Roman records, establishes his existence as firmly as that of Caesar or Napoleon. As to the second question – does it matter? – I would, ten years ago, have answered: ‘Of course it does; without Jesus, Christianity lacks all credibility, and to modify a statement by St. Paul, without Jesus our faith is in vain’.
          But about ten years ago doubts began to form in my mind as I undertook a systematic study of Christian origins, and I realised that the traditional ways of arguing that Jesus was a real historical figure looked increasingly tendentious and bogus. I came to the conclusion that the Jesus story as presented in the Gospels has its origin as a solar myth, and that the death and resurrection story owes more to pagan mythological motifs than it does to genuine historical reminiscence.
          This is not an easy position to hold – particularly not for someone who considers himself to be a Christian – and it is not easy to hold this (or any other opinion for that matter) in isolation. I was very pleased, therefore, to come across the book Pagan Christs by J.M. Robertson, which confirmed many of my own suspicions. But Robertson’s book was originally published about 100 years ago, and its uncomfortable conclusion – that the Jesus story was originally a script for a kind of morality play – had been ignored and perhaps even scorned by 20th century critics. But such ideas are not moribund, and three books published within the last twelve months take up the same or similar themes, and reading them has given me enough confidence in my own views to enable me to share them with you this morning. The books are: The Bible in History, How Writers Create a Past, by Thomas L. Thompson; Jesus One Hundred Years Before Christ, by Professor Alvar Ellegard; and The Jesus Mysteries, by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. A fourth book, Did Jesus Exist, by G.A. Wells, was published in 1975 and anticipates the conclusions of the others.
          It would be impossible in a short sermon to give even an outline of the case that is presented in these volumes; all I can do is whet your appetite by saying that they tackle head on the arguments normally advanced to prove that Jesus was a real historical figure, by showing that the inconsistencies and anomalies of the New Testament strongly suggest that the historical Jesus was an invention of the early church; that we can explain the existence and growth of Christianity without a flesh and blood Jesus; and that the Gospels show such a direct relationship with the mythological material of the Mystery religions that it seems likely that Christianity grew out of a Gnostic and esoteric version of Judaism, possibly that of the Therapeutae in Alexandria, rather than from the mainstream Judaism of Jerusalem as is generally assumed.
          All these authors make much of the fact that the very earliest documents of the New Testament make no assumption that Jesus lived in the first century A.D. These early documents are the great letters of St. Paul, not the Gospels which, although printed first, were not written until Paul was long dead. Paul never mentions any of the details about Jesus’ life with which we are familiar – not the birth from a virgin, the miracles, the Sermon on the Mount, or the crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. Orthodox scholars, who have long been aware of this, have argued that he doesn’t mention them because they weren’t relevant to the specific problems he was addressing in his letters. But at times, the teaching of Jesus was crucially relevant to Paul’s concerns. In the Letter to the Galatians, for example, he deals with the relationship between Jews and Gentiles – a raging controversy in the middle of the first Christian century – but he never quotes one of Jesus’ pronouncements on the subject, which, presumably, would have settled the argument. It is likely that he didn’t quote them because he didn’t know them, so seriously challenging the view that the gospel material was circulating in oral form before it was eventually written down.
          If Jesus did not exist, what about the zeal of the early Christians and their willingness to suffer and die for their faith? Would they have been prepared to die for a fiction? What is really interesting about this question is that we continue to take it seriously. For a start, the only account we have of early Christian activity is the Acts of the Apostles, written towards the end of the first century, and hardly an objective account of anything. But religious movements whose origin and growth we can monitor have demonstrated that zeal has little or nothing to do with genuine conviction following a dispassionate appraisal of the evidence. The Mormons, for example, number at present over fourteen million – a spectacular performance after only 160 years, far more spectacular than the growth of Christianity - and yet no one here would be prepared to suggest that this is evidence for the truth of Joseph Smith’s claims. Zeal is no guarantee of anything; it simply describes the mind-set of any individual or a group, a mind-set whose origin could be due to any number of factors. Religious zeal is often impervious to reason, as recent mass suicides in the cause of bizarre ideas have shown.
          What about the non-biblical references to Jesus that can be found in Jewish and Roman writers? Surely these prove the existence of Jesus, since they were hardly written by people with a point to prove? But references that we find in Pliny, Suetonius, and Tacitus, demonstrate very little more than that people calling themselves Christian were proving troublesome here and there in the Roman Empire. Tacitus does mention Jesus and his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, but he was not writing until the beginning of the 2nd century, and so was almost certainly quoting later Christian claims rather than established historical fact. The Jewish historian Josephus, a contemporary of Jesus, has a famous passage about Jesus in which he eulogises him as a wise man (‘if indeed one might call him a man’), a miracle worker, and a prophet. He mentions his death under Pontius Pilate and his resurrection from the dead after three days in the tomb. Here, surely, is the evidence we need! Sadly, no. There is not a single reputable scholar who believes that this passage is genuine. The style is not that of Josephus, and if it is removed from the text it does not disturb the flow of ideas. What is more, the great Christian scholar of the 3rd century, Origen, tells us that there is no mention of Jesus in Josephus. It is not until the time of the 4th century historian Eusebius that mention is made of this passage. We can easily form our own conclusions as to what happened.
          This desire of the early Christians to establish the existence of a historical Jesus began very early indeed because – and this might come as a surprise to many people who think that we can only explain Christianity on the assumption that Jesus did exist – in the early church there were numerous groups for whom a human Jesus did not matter one jot. One of the most influential works of early Christian writers is Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, written towards the end of the second century. It is a most peculiar book, in places almost unreadable, because he spends his time attacking and parodying various heretical groups like the Valentinians and the Carpocrations, who were making what, to him, were absurd claims about Jesus and the symbolic nature of the stories that were circulating about him. For example, Irenaeus spends page after page trying to show that the ministry of Jesus lasted at least three years, and not just one year as the Valentinians were claiming. Indeed, Irenaeus would have us believe that Jesus was over fifty when he died, a fact which, he says, is well known to all, and which has been passed down through the generations from those who had originally known him. So much for tradition!
          Now why would Irenaeus want to refute the claim that the Jesus story as told in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke covers only one year? Because the so-called heretics were saying that the story is symbolic, that it is patterned on the yearly cycle of the sun, and that the figure of Jesus is not a historical character but a solar hero like Samson, Osiris, Mithras, and that the stories are not to be understood as the remembered history of one man, but as descriptions of the universal spiritual journey, symbolised by the sun’s annual journey through the heavens. In short, that they should be interpreted psychologically, not historically. (My own book, pictured above, and available for 6.99 explains how the Jesus story is patterned on the sun's cycle)
          If there were Christians in the early church for whom the historical Jesus was not an issue, why does he need to be an issue for us today? These groups were ruthlessly eliminated by a much more powerful wing, which considered that they were perverters of the simple truths of the gospel. Fortunately, they don’t have the power to do this today, and we are free to explore the possibility that Christianity began as a Mystery religion, with a symbolic, fictional hero, and that this was historicized by those who find such ideas uncomfortable or unintelligible. In fact, the real heretics were those who won the battle, and whose system, which we have inherited, has had some quite extraordinary, and not always positive, consequences for religious thought and activity.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

A Jesus Mystery in Daily Life


A Jesus Mystery in Daily Life


by Bridget Belgrave


The summer of 2008 I made a deep choice - to put my work on hold and travel to Canada for two months, accepting the invitation of two wonderful friends to stay in a yurt on their land in the mountains and write. The previous year I had taken a long sabbatical with the intention of writing, but unexpectedly I found I had to sort out many, many things in my life. I spent months ‘sorting’ so my writing only extended to two articles and some training documents. So the 2008 writing retreat was incredibly precious to me.

During the final weeks before leaving for Canada I worked hard to clear my desk and put my business and my house in order, so others could care for them in my absence.

The night before my flight I still had a huge amount to do. I persisted and persisted only lying down for twenty minutes all night. By 2pm on my day of departure, when the taxi came to take me to the airport bus, I was in a daze. How relieved I was to see the airport bus. Now I could relax. Nothing more could be done. I was on my way.

The driver was unusually friendly and we joked as I got on. I sat three rows from the front, too tired to make my way further back. I had planned to sleep for the hour of the bus ride, but to my surprise I didn’t feel sleepy. I had not yet eaten lunch, so I began to eat my picnic.

While munching I noticed that in the row in front of me, across the aisle, a man was reading a book. I could see the heading on the page, ‘The Gospel and the Zodiac’. This interested me. As a long-term student of astrology, any books on astrology are of interest to me. As one of the books I was writing was based on the Lord’s Prayer, I was thinking about Christianity and my unclear relationship to it. So seeing a book linking astrology and Christianity really attracted my attention. And seeing a man in his sixties reading this book also intrigued me. An unusual man, I guessed.

I watched him as he turned the pages. He read some of the text, looked at the illustrations, read the back cover, and gazed at the front cover for some time. By squinting across I could just see the name of the author – Bill Darlison. I hadn’t heard of this author, even though I know many astrological writers, so I became even more intrigued. After a while he put the book down on the empty seat beside him, and I realised I was going to asked him about it. It was a different interior experience than deciding to ask him. It was more like the decision was made elsewhere, and I became aware of it with slight surprise.

It is not very usual in England to open a conversation on a bus with someone in the row in front and across the aisle, so I gathered my inner focus to overcome that cultural habit, put my picnic away, leaned across and said, “I’m interested in the topic of your book. May I have a look?”

“Of course.” He hesitated slightly, “I wrote it.”

Oh! He passed the book over to me, and I looked at it with awe. It was a hardback - crisp, new, and barely opened. It had a beautiful, spiritual design on the dust jacket. I opened it randomly and the paragraphs I read struck me as deep, fresh thinking. The contents page looked interesting. I saw on the back inside cover that Bill Darlison, the author, sitting across from me, was the senior minister of the Unitarian Church in Dublin. I wondered what the Unitarian Church was. I looked at his photo and wondered about his choice of topic. In my experience Christian ministers do not usually feel comfortable with astrology.

The bus driver announced we were nearing my airport terminal so I leaned over to hand the book back. Bill asked me if I was interested in astrology and we had a short chat about how we began our passions for this subject in rather similar ways, thirty years ago. He told me the book had just been published, this was the American edition, and he had just received it.

Now I understood the especially tender way he had looked at each aspect of the book: the text, the illustrations, the back and front covers. I had been witnessing an author as he first looked at his completed and published work, after the long, long process of writing. I had witnessed this at the exact beginning - the ‘birth moment’ - of my own writing journey. This struck me deeply as a message about the circle – the cycle - of wholeness. From birth to completion. It felt so encouraging, and so startling at the same time. Who could have planned such an exact ‘beginning’ moment! I wondered what lay between this moment and the completion of my as yet unwritten book.

The bus was arriving at my terminal. Bill commented, “Nothing happens by chance, not even on a bus,” and said he would like to give me the book. I was amazed. He asked me my name and in the front of the book wrote, “For Bridget - there are no accidental meetings! Bill Darlison.” I asked him to add the date – which he did: “24 June 2008”, commenting, “Oh it’s St John’s day”.

St John the Baptist is ‘the one who comes before’ Jesus. His day is closely linked with the summer solstice, a turning point in the cycle of the year. I sensed layers of mystery beyond what I could grasp in that rushed moment. I hurriedly and gratefully received the book and got off the bus, stunned by this opening chapter of my writing journey.

However I didn’t know where to put the book as my luggage was maximum weight and tightly packed. Then as I entered the airport I read that the carry-on luggage allowance had recently changed, and I could take two bags onto the plane (instead of just one, as I was expecting), so that problem was solved with as much ease as it had been created. I carefully put the book in one of my carry-on bags.


*  *  *  *  *


About sixteen hours later I arrived in Seattle. My friend picked me up and after an evening meal I went to rest in her guest bedroom. I took out the book with some awe – because it was so lovely to look at, because of the sacredness of the topic, and because of how I had received it. I ran my hand over it and felt a small lump between the dust jacket and the hard cover of the book, near the centre. I removed the jacket to find out what is was, and saw – a grain of wheat.

Wow. A grain of wheat! Somehow perfect in its wholeness. Under the jacket of the book. How did it get there? I thought about the picnic I'd been carrying – rice cakes, lettuce, goat’s cheese - no wheat products. I wondered whether I’d recently had anything in that bag which could have dropped off an entire grain of wheat. Perhaps a loaf of wholewheat bread? I didn’t think so. The wholewheat bread I sometimes bought did not have whole grains of wheat like this. It was fine milled without any surface texture at all. Also, I had shaken the bag out before I left home. Had the wheat appeared by itself, as a message of some kind? If it had been in the bag, tucked away in a corner, how had it gotten under the book’s dust jacket? And lodged itself so firmly there, right in the centre? Even if that could be explained, it felt very, very odd.

As I fell asleep I wondered what the meaning of this grain of wheat might be. No convincing insight came to me, but I was sure I would find out.


*  *  *  *  *


The next day I travelled to Santa Rosa in Northern California to join some friends at a Nonviolent Communication (NVC) Family Camp. The setting was an old ranch in the hills. About forty adults and forty children had gathered for a week of learning what it means to live together non-violently. I was joining them in the middle of the week as a guest.

Soon after arriving I sat with my friends on the wooden verandah eating dinner. As we were finishing our meal, my friend struck up a conversation with a man at the next table. It emerged that he was a Catholic. They talked about various aspects of religion, Christianity, theology and NVC. I listened vaguely, partially interested, partially letting my mind wander, as I was tired from my travels and jet-lagged.

He began talking about a group of theologians from around the world who had been convening to assess which writings in the Bible were really the words of Jesus. He mentioned that they voted on the passages using coloured beads. Coloured beads! Wow! Theologians voting with coloured beads! This woke me up. Colour means so much to me, and the oddness of these theologians marking their opinions in this way struck me strongly.

Then he referred to a Unitarian theologian, so seizing the chance to understand more about the author of my mysterious book, I asked him to tell me about the Unitarian church. He explained that it is a very open-minded church, often praying without using the name of God or Jesus, and actively embracing and respecting all religions.

Knowing how bad my memory is for names, before we parted I asked him to say again the name of the group that was trying to discern the real words of Jesus. He said, “It is called the Jesus Seminar.”

Immediately after eating I went to my room to rest, and lying on my bed began to read the introduction to the book I'd been given on the bus the day before. I considered the subtitle, ‘The Secret Truth about Jesus’. Hm…interesting…

Page 3 began with a subheading, ‘Jefferson’s Bible’. It was an account of how Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd president of the United States, edited the Bible in a remarkable way. “In 1820, at the age of 77, he took a pair of scissors and snipped out a scripture for himself. The task was easy, he said. The difference (between essential and non-essential, authentic and spurious) ‘is obvious to the eye and the understanding . . . and I will venture to affirm that he who, as I have done, will undertake to winnow this grain from this chaff, will find it not to require a moment’s consideration. The parts fall asunder of themselves, as would those of an image of metal and clay.’ (Jefferson, page 30).”

I sat up, suddenly alert. Here, immediately after the dinner conversation about the Jesus Seminar, was another example of someone sifting through the Bible to extract the parts he considered authentic, and he described the process as ‘winnowing grain from chaff’. And I had found a grain under the book's jacket. My mind was spinning! How could these two very strange and recent coincidences combine in this one moment!

Deeply curious now, I read on. On page 4 I discovered that Jefferson and others who before and after him undertook this attempt ‘to sort grain from chaff’ in the New Testament, took most of their material from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. They avoided the Gospel of Mark, as its strange narrative style did not appeal to their rationalistic approach. Augustine (354-430CE) had a similar preference.

On page 5 I read, so too did the recent Californian-based group, the Jesus Seminar, “which for two decades has been attempting to sift what it considers to be the original, authentic words of Jesus from the ‘myth’ and ‘fiction’ that have grown up around them.”

The Jesus Seminar! My alertness increased even more! Only minutes ago I had heard about the Jesus Seminar for the first time, and made a particular effort to lodge the name in my mind. Now here I found it named on page 5 of this mysterious book. A book I’d been given the day before in unusual circumstances.

I read on, unable to gauge just how astonished to be. In the final paragraph on page 5, concluding his introduction, Bill Darlison explained that - from his perspective - the narrative, mythical mode of writing holds more truth than the factual, scientifically stripped-down version. And the Gospel of Mark has this mythical quality. And when viewed through the eyes of an astrologer, it is possible to see that “Mark’s Gospel is a textbook of the spiritual journey written in an astrological code which, when unravelled, completely transforms our understanding of the Gospel’s original nature and purpose. What, to Jefferson, was ‘chaff’ is really the purest wheat.”

The grain of wheat that appeared so mysteriously under the jacket of the book turned out to be the exact metaphor used by the author to describe, in one phrase, the radical message of his book! This book, that was intended to reveal “the purest wheat”, had somehow acquired an actual grain of wheat in the centre of its front cover!


*  *  *  *  *


When I discovered the grain of wheat in Seattle the day before, I put it carefully on the table. I wanted to keep it, so when packing in a hurry the next morning I popped it into one of the small plastic zip-shut bags I had with me.

When I arrived later that day at the NVC Family Camp in Santa Rosa I forgot about the wheat being in one of those bags, and I put things in and out of several of them as I settled into my room. Later, when I remembered and tried to find the wheat, I could not find it anywhere. So I decided to keep an eye out for it each time I opened one of those small bags. I was pretty sure I would come across it sooner or later.

The wheat did not show up in Santa Rosa, nor (as I continued my pre-Canada visits) at my next stop in Oakland, nor during my stay in Santa Fe. I let go of expecting to find it, and decided it was not really important to have the actual grain of wheat. It had already made its impression.

When I was getting ready to leave Santa Fe I packed, zipped up my suitcase, and sat back on my heels on the floor with a few minutes to spare. I gazed out the window at a vast view of the mountains of New Mexico. The view inspired me to contemplate my experiences since I had left home, and how I would be moving on now to Canada, where my writing retreat would begin. I experienced a momentary shift of consciousness, a deep state.

Re-focusing after this silent, still moment I looked down, and there was the grain of wheat, directly in front of me, all on its own in the middle of the floor. It was the same colour and texture as the beige carpet. If it had not been right in front of me, I would not have seen it.

Again I was confronted with this grain of wheat. I had first found it in such surprising circumstances, then lost it, and now found it again. Actually it seemed more like it had found me. Twice.

As Groucho Marx said, “This can only mean one thing, and I don’t know what it is!”. But ‘The Gospel and the Zodiac' – the book that had so starkly brought the wheat grain to my attention – refers to the grain of wheat as representing the essential core of Jesus’s teaching. Was Life trying to get me to focus on Jesus’s real teaching, and to free myself from the roughage that surrounds it?

To be sure not to lose the wheat again I found a more distinctive home for it, by emptying out a box of matches that was in the room. I have it in that matchbox still, many years later. The brand is Diamond. Recently I noticed that printed on the back of the box is this phrase: “Diamond – the Original Light!”.



 © Bridget Belgrave 2013,

My book The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus is available for a mere £6.89 from

Bridget's lovely book 'Zak' is also available on Amazon:

At the end of an amazing summer holiday Zak, age 11, decides to write his life story, because he wants people to understand his unusual experiences. He describes looking out from inside his mothers tummy, being born flying, learning to talk with animals, his inner not nowhere world, and the adventurous and mysterious summer he spends on River Island. There he encounters the wondrous zing that develops where nature is undisturbed by humans, and meets Leah, age 8, who to his surprise also talks with the animals, and becomes his best friend. Loved by boys and girls, 7 to 12 years old, ZAK is a book which parents and teachers are delighted to discover. It addresses the roots of present day dilemmas -- how to preserve our climate and planet, and how human beings can create peace.